Monday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Car buyers could save thousands with just an hour of research. Also in the news: Home affordability is boxing out Americans who dream of relocating, the 15 best and worst US cities for young families, and why you should plan now to deal with holiday credit card debt.

Car Buyers Could Save $2,000 (or More) With an Hour of Research
60 minutes could save you thousands.

Survey: Home Affordability Boxes Out Americans Who Dream of Relocating
Almost 25% of Americans would like to relocate.

The 15 best—and worst—US cities for young, growing families
Is the West Coast the best coast?

Make a plan now to deal with holiday credit card debt. Here are four tips to follow.
The holidays are right around the corner.

Q&A: Avoid this hidden risk to your retirement

Dear Liz: I have very low net worth and just inherited $500,000 from a cousin’s annuity. My net worth includes a $400,000 house with a $290,000 mortgage at 3.75%, IRA accounts of $65,000 and savings of $90,000. I also have a pension from which I receive $50,000 annually and from which our health insurance is paid. My husband is 72 and receives $6,000 annually from Social Security. I will turn 70 in a few months and will begin taking Social Security and tapping my IRAs. I have very little debt. What is the safest thing to do with this inheritance?

Answer: That depends on how you define “safe.”

Investments that don’t put your principal at risk typically offer returns that don’t beat inflation over time. That means your buying power is eroded. At 70, you may not think you need to worry much about inflation. But your life expectancy as a woman in the U.S. is 16.57 more years. About one-third of women your age will make it to age 90.

That doesn’t mean you have to take investment risk with this money by buying stocks, which are the one asset class that consistently outpaces inflation. But you’d be smart to have a fee-only financial planner take a look at your situation to make sure you’re investing appropriately, based on your goals.

And it’s your goal for this money that will help determine how to invest it. If you want the money to be readily available and safe from investment risk, then you could put it in an FDIC-insured, high-yield savings account paying 2% or so. Just make sure you don’t exceed FDIC limits, which typically cap insurance coverage at $250,000 per depositor, per bank. (You can stretch that coverage if you put the money in different “ownership categories,” such as individual, joint, retirement and trust accounts.) If you don’t expect to need the money for many years, investing at least some of it in bonds or stocks may be appropriate.

Also, a small reality check: Your net worth before the inheritance was $265,000, based on the figures you provided. That’s more than most people in your age bracket. Households headed by people ages 65 to 74 had a median net worth of about $224,000 in 2016, according to the Federal Reserve’s latest Survey of Consumer Finances. That’s not to say you’re rich, but you do have more than most of your peers — especially now.

Q&A: Avoiding Medicare sign-up penalties

Dear Liz: Someone recently asked you if signing up for Medicare is mandatory. Your answer implied no, one does not have to sign up at 65. However, it is my understanding that if a person does not enroll when first eligible, they will be hit with large penalties on their Medicare premiums if they sign up later. Am I missing something?

Answer: Not at all. That answer was too short and should have mentioned the potentially large, permanent penalties most people face if they fail to sign up for Medicare Part B and Part D on time.

To review: Medicare is the government-run healthcare system for people 65 and older. Part A, which covers hospital care, is free. Medicare Part B, which covers doctor’s visits, and Part D, which covers prescriptions, typically require people to pay premiums. Many people also buy Medigap policies to cover what Medicare doesn’t, or opt for Medicare Part C. Part C, also known as Medicare Advantage, is an all-in-one option that includes everything covered by Part A and Part B and may include other benefits.

There’s a seven-month initial enrollment period that includes the month you turn 65 as well as the three months before and three months after.

People who don’t sign up when they’re first eligible for Part B usually face a penalty that increases their monthly cost by 10% of the standard premium for each full 12-month period they delay. For Part D, the penalty is 1% of the “national base beneficiary premium” ($33.19 in 2019) times the number of full months the person was uncovered.

People who fail to enroll on time also could be stuck without insurance for several months because they may have to wait until the general enrollment period (Jan. 1 to March 31) to enroll.

People typically can avoid these penalties if they have qualifying healthcare coverage through a union or an employer (their own or a spouse’s). When that coverage ends, though, they must sign up within eight months or face the penalties. Also, they might not avoid the penalties if their employer-provided coverage becomes secondary to Medicare at 65, which can happen if the company employs fewer than 20 workers. Anyone counting on union or employer coverage to avoid penalties should check with the company’s human resources department and with Medicare to make sure they’re covered.

The original letter writer had no income to pay Medicare premiums, so the answer also should have included the information that Medicaid — the government healthcare program for the poor — might help pay the premiums. People in this situation should contact the Medicaid office in their state. (Medicaid is known as Medi-Cal in California.)

Friday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Decode your credit card’s fine print like a pro. Also in the news: How to turn your upside-down car loan right-side up, a handy trick to help you save more for your next vacation, and what to do if your credit score drops.

Decode Your Credit Card’s Fine Print Like a Pro
Understanding the small type.

Is Your Car Loan Upside-Down? How to Steer Back to Safety
Don’t get pulled off the road.

Try this handy trick to help you save more for your next vacation
It’s all in the name.

What to Do if Your Credit Score Drops
Make sure there isn’t a security issue.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Moving to escape taxes? Make sure it’s a clean break. Also in the news: 4 smart ways to split bills with friends while traveling abroad, 5 auto-buying tips from a former undercover car salesman, and 7 tips for becoming an ethical shopper.

Moving to Escape Taxes? Make Sure It’s a Clean Break
You could face a residency audit.

4 Smart Ways to Split Bills With Friends While Traveling Abroad
Thinking outside the app box.

5 auto-buying tips from a former undercover car salesman
Don’t get taken for a ride.

7 tips for becoming an ethical shopper
Finding companies that align with your values.

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: What to do if you lose your credit card. Also in the news: Chime and Varo launch free programs to pay account overdrafts, half of student loan borrowers fear they’ll be in debt forever, and why you should never spend the money a bank accidentally deposits into your account.

What to Do If You Lose Your Credit Card
Don’t panic, but act quickly.

Chime, Varo Launch Free Programs to Pay Account Overdrafts
New programs from the mobile banks.

Half of student loan borrowers worry they’ll be in debt forever, study finds
Graduates have major financial regrets.

If the Bank Accidentally Deposits Money in Your Account, Don’t Spend It
Fight the temptation.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How to make living in a new place a reality. Also in the news: How one couple paid off $300k of debt in three years, what workers can learn from retirees’ regrets, and the average FICO score hits an all-time high.

Dreaming of Living in a New Place? Here’s How to Make It a Reality
One step at a time.

How I Ditched Debt: Small Wins Help Achieve a Big Dream
How one couple paid off over $300K in three years.

What Workers Can Learn From Retirees’ Regrets: Save More Now
The sooner, the better.

Average FICO score hits all-time high
The nation’s average score is now 706.

Moving to escape taxes? Make it a clean break

Breaking up can be hard to do if the other party doesn’t want to let you go. People who move out of high-tax states may learn this the hard way — through a residency audit.

States such as New York, California and Illinois use the audits to claim that your recent interstate move was just a tax dodge and that you still owe their state income taxes. Proving you’ve actually moved and plan to make the new place your permanent home — yes, the burden of proof is on you in a residency audit — often requires far more than flashing your new driver’s license or spending a certain number of days outside the old state. In my latest for the Associated Press, how to prepare for a residency audit.

Monday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: 6 types of conventional loans all home buyers should know. Also in the news: How your credit score can save you money, why you need to verify your Equifax settlement claim, and why you need to be careful when deciding to claim Social Security based on break-even calculations.

6 Types of Conventional Loans All Home Buyers Should Know
All the details.

SmartMoney podcast: ‘How Can My Credit Score Save Me Money?’
Answers to real-world money questions.

If You Asked for $125 from the Equifax Settlement, You Need to Verify Your Claim
Check your email.

Deciding when to claim Social Security based on break-even calculations? Be careful

Q&A: Avoid this big mistake when paying off debt

Dear Liz: I am 49, single, with no kids. Until about three years ago, I wasn’t even sure how much credit card debt I had. I had less than $200 in savings and I was just plugging along making minimum payments. It turns out I had over $14,000 in credit card debt and $12,000 in student loan debt. The credit card debt was accumulated not from extravagant purchases but rather from living in an expensive city and trying to pursue a dream career. (I worked only three days a week in my “day job” for about 12 years.)

My living expenses have always been modest, but I made a budget, lived even more frugally, and made large monthly payments. In the process I also cashed out my small 401(k), as I have done a couple of times previously. Fast-forward to now — my credit card debt is paid off, my student loan is paid off, I have about five months of living expenses in savings and a reasonable annual income of $60,000. I have no retirement savings, though. What is my next best step to get money accumulating for my old age?

Answer: You’re to be congratulated for taking charge of your financial life, but it’s unfortunate you sacrificed your 401(k) to do so. It rarely makes sense to cash out retirement funds to pay debt. The interest you saved is typically far outweighed by the taxes, penalties and lost future tax-deferred returns you incurred by tapping your 401(k) prematurely.

Fortunately, the budgeting skills you learned will come in handy now that you’re focused on saving for retirement. Continue to make large monthly payments, but direct the money into your 401(k) if you still have one or an IRA if you don’t. If you max out your tax-deductible options, you can continue to put money into a taxable brokerage account.

You should plan to continue working as long as possible and to delay starting Social Security, preferably until your benefit maxes out at age 70. Social Security is likely to be your largest source of income, so the bigger your check, the more comfortable your ultimate retirement will be.

Also, take steps to protect and enhance your biggest current asset — your ability to earn money. Many people are derailed financially in their 50s by unexpected layoffs and health problems. You can improve your chances of being able to earn well into your 60s by taking good care of yourself, investing in new skills and trying to be a top performer at work.