Monday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How to make room for fun in your 2020 budget. Also in the news: You may have to give more personal data to get a personal loan, how to focus on monthly tasks to hit 2020 money goals, and how scammers can use your old credit card numbers.

How to Make Room for Fun in Your 2020 Budget
A budget doesn’t have to be torture.

You May Have to Give More Personal Data to Get a Personal Loan
Loan companies begin to look at alternative data.

Focus on Monthly Tasks to Hit 2020 Money Goals
Taking it one month at a time.

How Scammers Can Use Your Old Credit Card Numbers
This story could change the way you shop online.

Q&A: This retiree got a big surprise: taxes

Dear Liz: I’m 76 and retired. During the decades I worked, I contributed to my IRA yearly using my tax refund or having money deducted from my paycheck. No one told me I would have to pay taxes on this when I turned 70. For the past six years, I have been required to withdraw a certain percentage of this IRA money and pay taxes on it. Is there ever going to be an end to this? Do I have to keep paying taxes on the same money every year? And what about when I pass away, do my children have to keep paying?

Answer: Ever heard the expression, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch”?

You got tax deductions on the money you contributed to your IRA over the years, and the earnings were allowed to grow tax deferred. Those tax breaks are designed to encourage people to save, but eventually Uncle Sam wants his cut.

Also, you aren’t “paying taxes on the same money every year,” because the money you withdraw has never been taxed. Plus, you’re required to take out only a small portion of your IRA each year starting at 70½. The required minimum distribution starts at 3.65% and creeps up a bit every year, but even at age 100 it’s only 15.87% of the total. You can leave the bulk of your IRA alone so it can continue to grow and bequeath the balance to your children.

Your heirs won’t get the money tax free. They typically will be required to make withdrawals to empty the account within 10 years and pay income taxes on those withdrawals. Previously, they were allowed to spread required minimum distributions over their own lifetimes. Congress recently changed that to require faster payouts because the intent of IRA deductions was to encourage saving for retirement, not transfer large sums to heirs.

The Roth IRA is an exception to the above rules. There’s no tax deduction when you contribute the money, but the money can be withdrawn tax-free in retirement or left alone — there are no required minimum distributions. Your children would be required to start distributions, but wouldn’t owe taxes on those withdrawals.

Q&A: Credit scores measure Dad’s accounts, too

Dear Liz: I recently added myself onto my 95-year-old father’s two credit card accounts as an authorized user. I am his agent under a power of attorney and handle his finances. I noticed that after being added to those accounts, my credit scores increased. When he passes on, I plan to close those accounts. Will my credit score be negatively affected?

Answer: Possibly. Closing accounts doesn’t help your scores and may hurt them. Scoring formulas are sensitive to the amount of credit you have versus how much you’re using. Closing an account shrinks your available credit, and the formulas don’t like that.

If you have good scores and plenty of other open accounts, though, the damage from closing these accounts probably will be minor and short-lived.

Q&A: When to claim a survivor benefit

Dear Liz: As a widower who just turned 60, what are the pros and cons of starting my survivor benefit now? My wife passed away at 55, after 20 years of marriage. My lifetime earnings are higher than hers. I am in good health and have not remarried (though I’m open to doing so). Finances are not an issue. I’m debating how long to continue to work. It seems my best Social Security approach is to claim the survivor benefit now, then later (perhaps at age 67 or 70) claim my own benefit. Your thoughts, please?

Answer: If you start any Social Security benefit before your own full retirement age, you will be subject to the earnings test that reduces your checks by $1 for every $2 you earn over a certain limit ($18,240 in 2020). So if you continue to work, it’s often best to delay starting benefits.

Your full retirement age is 66 years and 10 months if you were born in 1959. (It’s 67 for people born in 1960 and later.) Once you reach full retirement age, the earnings test disappears. You could collect the survivor benefit and leave your own alone to grow. Once your benefit maxes out at age 70, you could switch.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: When leasing a car is the more frugal option. Also in the news: How to actually achieve your debt payoff resolution, 5 basic features you should expect from your bank, and holiday debt could take years to pay off.

When Leasing a Car Is the More Frugal Option
Car buying has changed enough over the years that leasing may no longer be the costliest choice.

How to Actually Achieve Your Debt Payoff Resolution
Start the new year on the right foot.

5 Basic Features You Should Expect From Your Bank
Services you should expect.

Holiday debt could take years to pay off
Here come the bills.

When leasing a car is the more frugal option

If you need a car, the most frugal option is to buy one that’s 2 to 3 years old, pay cash and drive it until the wheels fall off.

The least frugal option traditionally has been leasing, where you make monthly payments to drive a car but don’t own it. You’re paying for the vehicle during its most expensive period — cars lose more than half their value on average in the first three years — and you have nothing to show for your payments after the lease ends.

Few people opt for the frugal way, however, and car buying has changed enough that leasing may no longer be the costliest option. In my latest for the Associated Press, why, in some situations, leasing could be the most sensible option.

Q&A: How deposit insurance limits work

Dear Liz: My parents, who are in their 80s, just moved and are about to sell their former home. Their net gain from the sale will be approximately $400,000. I am advocating they put this money in a high-yield savings account as capital preservation is key. I know an individual account is insured by the FDIC for up to $250,000. But if we set it up so they are joint account holders, would the FDIC insurance limit on that one account rise to $500,000?

Answer: Yes. The FDIC insures up to $250,000 per depositor, per institution and per ownership category. Ownership categories include single accounts, joint accounts, certain retirement accounts such as IRAs, revocable trust accounts and irrevocable trust accounts, among others. Each depositor in a joint savings account is covered up to $250,000, so a couple would have $500,000 of coverage.

Q&A:Getting bum info from Social Security

Dear Liz: After taking Social Security early at 62, I have called, written and visited in person asking to have my benefit suspended so it can earn delayed retirement credits. Nothing has worked. Social Security representatives say I cannot change anything after the first 12 months.

I turn 66 this month and wanted to get this done.

Answer: The employees you’re talking to are confusing benefit suspension with application withdrawal.

As you know, Social Security benefits grow by 5% to 8% each year you delay between 62 and 70. Starting early can be an expensive mistake that permanently reduces the amount you receive over your lifetime.

There are two potential ways to fix the mistake. One is a withdrawal, where you rescind your application and pay back the money you’ve received. Withdrawals are a “do over” that resets the clock entirely on your benefit so that it’s as if you never applied. Withdrawals are only allowed in the first 12 months after your application.

A suspension, on the other hand, is when you ask Social Security to halt your benefit so that it can earn delayed retirement credits. You don’t have to pay any money back, but you also don’t get to reset the clock. Instead, the benefit you’re currently receiving is allowed to earn delayed retirement credits. You can only suspend your benefit once you’ve reached full retirement age. If you were born between 1943 and 1954, your full retirement age is 66.

Social Security explains how suspension works online in the retirement section. You might want to print that out and take it with you to the Social Security office. If someone again tries to tell you that suspension isn’t allowed, ask to speak to a manager. This is your right, and it could make a big difference in providing you a more comfortable retirement.

Q&A: Here’s why one donation of $1,000 beats 10 donations of $100

Dear Liz: I want to support about 10 charities and nonprofits but have a limited budget of $1,000. I’ve been dividing it among those charities, but would I have a bigger impact contributing the full amount to just one?

Answer: Absolutely, for a number of reasons.

Each charity spends a certain amount to process your donation. The smaller the donation, the more of it is eaten up by these costs. If it costs $5 to process a donation, for example, the costs represent 5% of each $100 donation. If $1,000 went to one charity, just one fee would be incurred and it would represent just 0.5% of the total.

Any donation you give can trigger more appeals from the charity, so you’re potentially incurring 10 times the junk mail.

Wise donors also research charities using services such as GuideStar or Charity Navigator to make sure the bulk of their contributions go to the cause, rather than to executive salaries, fundraising and overhead. Monitoring 10 charities is a lot more work than keeping track of one or two.

You might also consider making monthly contributions, rather than waiting until the end of the year, since that helps charities budget. A direct debit from your checking account is often the best way to set this up, because using a credit card incurs transaction fees that reduce your contribution.

How to create a retirement ‘paycheck’

Your expenses don’t end when your paychecks do, but creating a reliable income stream in retirement can be tricky. The right choices can result in sustainable income for the rest of your life. The wrong choices could leave you uncomfortably short of cash.

In fact, retirement includes so many important, potentially irreversible decisions that most people could benefit from a few sessions with a fee-only, fiduciary financial planner. (Fiduciary means the adviser is committed to putting your interests ahead of their own.) These ideally would start about 10 years before retirement. In my latest for the Associated Press, key concepts that could make those discussions easier — or keep you from making serious mistakes if you take a do-it-yourself approach.