Is a money manager worth the cost?

Dear Liz: My husband and I are nearing 60. The company where we both have worked for over 30 years recently merged with another firm. The money in our retirement accounts, which totals several hundred thousand dollars, will be distributed to us, and we need to figure out how to manage it.

We took your advice to interview several fee-only financial planners, and all of them are pushing for wealth management. They would manage the money in exchange for a percentage of the assets. How do we find an unbiased opinion of whether it is worth it to spend over $10,000 a year for this service rather than putting that money toward our retirement?

I find it doubtful that any of the planners can earn a return that would be worth at least $10,000 a year. We’re with Vanguard’s Target Fund 2020, which we currently use for retirement funds we have gathered outside of work.

Answer: You’re right that a financial planner — or any money manager, for that matter — is unlikely to offer returns substantially above what you would get in passive investments that seek to match the market, rather than beat it. Study after study shows that few investors, professional or amateur, can consistently outperform the stock market averages.

What wealth management should provide is a suite of services to help you in all areas of your financial life. You should get a comprehensive financial plan as well as assistance with your taxes, insurance needs and estate planning.

Your investments should be targeted to your specific needs, time horizon and risk tolerance. Your planner should advise you about sustainable withdrawal rates once you retire, so that you minimize the risk of running out of money.

Your planner should be willing to act as your fiduciary, meaning your needs come first, so you don’t have to worry about the conflicts of interest that may arise when an advisor is recommending products that pay him or her commissions. The best wealth managers, in short, provide a one-stop shop that alleviates the need for you to try to coordinate all these services yourself.

If you don’t feel you need this level of service, however, seek out a fee-only planner who works by the hour. You can find referrals to this type of fee-only planner from the Garrett Planning Network at http://www.garrettplanningnetwork.com.

Credit scores not perfect? Don’t sweat it

Dear Liz: I just bought a home and my FICO credit scores are excellent: 842, 813 and 809. I requested copies of my files from all three credit bureaus, and one of them — which showed me with the lowest score — said the reason my score wasn’t higher is that I had “too many inquiries in the last two months” (I had two, one of which was for my mortgage) and an “insufficient length of credit history” (my first credit account was opened in 1980). I called the bureau, but the representative wouldn’t give me any more information and just wanted to sell me my credit score for $7.95. The person I talked to was in India, which upset me even more. If companies want to outsource to foreign lands, that’s up to them, but they are making money of off every American’s personal history. We should have a right to keep our personal information here in the U.S. I have emailed my lawmakers about this, but what more can I do?

Answer: One of the things you can do is stop worrying about why your credit scores aren’t higher. Once you get above 760 or so on the 300-to-850 FICO scale, you’ll get the best rates and terms from virtually any lender. The software that provides the scores is set up to spit out “reason codes” for why your numbers are the way they are, but the higher your scores, the less relevant those reasons may be. The software has to tell you something, even if “fixing” the “problem” wouldn’t really affect your numbers.

You also need to stop turning to the credit bureaus for information about your scores. Although they sell FICO scores to lenders, the bureaus use a proprietary formula purchased from another company (also called FICO). The bureaus can’t really tell you much more about how the formula works than you could find out for yourself at MyFico.com, which is a site FICO co-founded. Plus, the credit scores the bureaus want to sell to you typically aren’t the FICO scores used by most lenders.

As for your right to decide where your credit information is kept, in effect you have none. The credit reporting system was set up to benefit lenders, not consumers. If you want to change that, continue contacting your lawmakers.

How to find the right rewards card

Dear Liz: Should we get a rewards card? We have excellent credit scores. I’m a stay-at-home mom and my husband has a good, steady job. We spend about $6,000 a month with our debit card or automatic drafts from our checking account. I think our family should have a rewards card. My husband disagrees and says that for the amount we spend each month, we wouldn’t rack up any points. Is he right? If we should get a card, how do we pick the right one?

Answer: If you’re positive you’ll pay your credit card bill in full every month, you would be great candidates for a rewards card.

Right now, you’re passing up at least $720 in rewards annually. That assumes you’d be getting a card that rebates 1% of your purchases. With excellent credit scores, you could qualify for even richer rewards cards, since those are reserved for people with the best credit.

The simplest rewards cards are the cash-back cards, which rebate a portion of the purchases you make. Card comparison site NerdWallet recently named the Chase Freedom card as the best cash-back card with no annual fee. The card gives you a $200 sign-up bonus if you spend $500 in the first three months. All your purchases earn 1%, and you can earn a 5% rebate on certain categories of spending that change every three months.

NerdWallet also recommends American Express Blue Cash Preferred, which offers a $100 bonus if you spend $500 in the first two months. Supermarket purchases earn 6% cash back, and spending at gas stations and department stores earn 3%. Everything else earns 1%. “There is an annual fee of $75,” NerdWallet.com notes, “but your rewards easily offset the cost. In fact, $25 in groceries every week is enough to make up the difference.”

There are other types of rewards cards that earn points or miles for travel, or discounts on gas. You can learn more about these cards and shop for offers at NerdWallet or one of the other card comparison sites, including CardRatings.com, CreditCards.com and LowCards.com.

It’s important, once you get the card, to keep track of your spending so you never accumulate a balance you can’t pay in full. Always pay your account on time, since a single skipped payment can knock up to 110 points off those excellent scores.

Windfall in your 50s? Don’t blow it

Dear Liz: I am 56 and will be receiving $175,000 from the sale of a home I inherited. I do not know what to do with this money. I have been underemployed or unemployed for six years, have no retirement savings and am terrified this money will get chipped away for day-to-day expenses so that I’ll have nothing to show for it. Should I invest? If so, what is relatively safe? Should I try to buy another house as an investment?

Answer: You’re right to worry about wasting this windfall, because that’s what often happens. A few thousand dollars here, a few thousand dollars there, and suddenly what once seemed like a vast amount of money is gone.

First, you need to talk to a tax pro to make sure there won’t be a tax bill from your home sale. Then you need to use a small portion of your inheritance to hire a fee-only financial planner who can review your situation and suggest some options. You can get referrals for fee-only planners who charge by the hour from the Garrett Planning Network at http://www.garrettplanningnetwork.com.

You’re closing in quickly on retirement age, and you should know that typically Social Security doesn’t pay much. The average check is around $1,000 a month. This windfall can’t make up for all the years you didn’t save, but it could help you live a little better in retirement if properly invested.

You should read a good book on investing, such as Kathy Kristof’s “Investing 101,” so you can better understand the relationship between risk and reward. It’s understandable that you want to keep your money safe, but investments that promise no loss of principal don’t yield very much. In other words, keeping your money safe means it won’t be able to grow, which in turn means your buying power will be eroded over time.

Could son’s unpaid bills harm parents’ credit? Maybe

Dear Liz: Our 24-year-old son lives with us. He failed out of college, has been fired from two restaurant jobs and is working part time at a grocery warehouse. He has neglected to pay his credit card for several months. He also waits until his cellphone carrier threatens to turn off his phone before he pays half of that bill. We are concerned that his poor payment history may start to reflect on our good credit histories. We are retired and may want to build a new house. His bills are sent to our address, and creditors call our home phone number looking for him.

Answer: His debts shouldn’t affect your credit reports and scores unless you cosigned loans or other credit accounts or added him as a joint user to your credit cards.

Note the word “shouldn’t.” It’s possible that an unethical collection agency would try to get you to pay these bills by posting the overdue accounts on your credit reports. That could negatively affect your scores. Check your credit reports at least once a year at http://www.annualcreditreport.com. You also may want to consider ongoing credit monitoring, which can alert you if any collections or other suspicious activity shows up on your reports.

Speaking of unethical actions, you need to consider the possibility that your son could steal your financial identity. He probably has access to the information he would need to open new accounts in your name, including your Social Security numbers. His failure to pay his bills, even though it appears he can, indicates some moral shortcomings. He may not be low enough to rip off his parents, but if you have any suspicions about his trustworthiness, consider putting a credit freeze (also known as a security freeze) on your credit reports. This freeze should prevent anyone from opening credit accounts in your name.

Finally, you can write letters to creditors telling them to stop contacting you. You run the risk that such a letter could lead a creditor to sue your son. But his creditors may sue him anyway if he doesn’t respond to their requests for payment.

Stepdaughter wants “everything”: what does she deserve?

Dear Liz: Your column from the person who wanted “heirlooms” from her stepfather is applicable to my situation. My husband’s daughter wants literally everything in my house, even though he and I commingled our assets 23 years ago and have been married more than 10 years. How do I access public records to see if her mother did have a will?

Answer: It’s interesting that your husband can’t clear up this mystery. Presumably he would know whether his late wife had a will and what it said.

You can check with probate court of the county where she died to determine if a will was filed. If she had a living trust, that would be private and probably not filed with the court, but your husband should know what it said.

If she had no will or living trust, then your husband was supposed to follow state law in dividing up her possessions. In community property states, without a will or trust he typically would inherit stuff acquired during their marriage, plus a share of any separately held assets — possessions she brought to the marriage, said Burton Mitchell, an estate planning attorney with Jeffer Mangels Butler & Mitchell in Los Angeles. In other states, your husband might inherit half of her assets, with the other half divided among her children, Burton said.

State laws vary widely and there are all kinds of exceptions to the general rules, so you may need a lawyer’s help in sorting out what belongs to whom.

In any case, you’d be smart to hire an estate-planning attorney at this point. Your stepdaughter may not be able to pursue a legal case after all this time, but she could cause trouble when you or your husband dies. Any time a relative creates a real fuss about an estate division, it’s good to get a qualified attorney’s advice as you craft your own wills or living trusts that spell out who gets what.

As you make your plans, try to be guided by kindness and compassion. Your stepdaughter may not have a legal right to lay claim to every item in your home, but letting her have items of strong sentimental value may be the right thing to do. Just think how you would feel if your father’s second wife gave your mother’s special jewelry or your grandmother’s treasured antiques to your step-siblings. Lifelong rifts and family feuds have started over less.

Then again, all parties need to remember that stuff is just stuff. What’s a precious heirloom to one generation may wind up in the next generation’s garage sale. Resolving to put relationships first, instead of possessions, can really help all sides avoid painful battles.

Don’t buy life insurance if you don’t need life insurance

Dear Liz: I recently inherited around $200,000. I’m on track for retirement, so my broker is encouraging me to consider buying a policy for long-term care. He recommends a flexible-premium universal life insurance policy that requires a one-time upfront payment and provides a death benefit as well as a long-term care benefit. It does appear to me to be a better option than buying a long-term care policy in which I pay a certain amount every month, which can of course increase greatly as time goes on, with no guarantee of ever needing or using the benefits and no hope of money paid in becoming part of my estate.

Answer: Long-term care policies can indeed be problematic, since the premiums can soar just when you’re most likely to need the coverage. So if you need life insurance for another purpose — to take care of financial dependents should you die or to pay taxes on your estate — then a life insurance policy with a long-term care rider may not be a bad idea, said Laura Tarbox, a fee-only Certified Financial Planner in Newport Beach who specializes in insurance.

But buying life insurance when you don’t need it just to get another benefit, such as long-term care coverage or tax-free income, is often a costly mistake.

“The golden rule is that you do not buy life insurance if you don’t need life insurance,” Tarbox said. “It would probably be better to invest the money and have it earmarked for long-term care.”

If you decide you want to buy this insurance, don’t grab the first policy you’re offered. Shop around, because premiums and benefits vary enormously. The financial strength of the insurer matters as well. You want the company to still be there, perhaps decades in the future, if you should need the coverage.

What you don’t want to do is take guidance solely from someone who is going to make a fat commission should you buy what he or she recommends.

“Get two or three proposals from different agents,” Tarbox said. “A fee-only financial planner can help you sort through them.”

Prepaid cards aren’t a great choice for travel

Dear Liz: I have been granted a Chapter 7 bankruptcy discharge of all my debts. I’m now debt free and plan to stay that way. I’ve been saving like crazy and have enough to afford a cross-country driving trip to attend my son’s wedding. I’d like your advice on using prepaid debit cards to cover expenses such as fuel, food and lodging. My plan is to load each of three cards with an amount of money to cover each category of expense, based on my best research estimates, as a means of controlling how much I spend. If you feel this is a good plan, which would be the best brand of card to use?

Answer: Your determination to stay out of debt is admirable, but prepaid cards are problematic. You don’t have the same federally mandated consumer protections you have with a debit or a credit card, so merchant disputes or a lost or stolen card can wind up costing you big time.

Furthermore, these cards can be expensive. You often pay to activate the card, to load it with cash and to access the cash in transactions. Card comparison site NerdWallet.com studied 40 popular prepaid debit cards and found that the average card cost nearly $300 annually in basic fees. Monthly fees of up to $14.95 took the biggest toll, but $1 to $2 fees per transaction and for ATM use could easily cost a typical user more than $20 a month.

If you’re convinced prepaid cards are the best money-management tool for your situation, though, you might want to choose the American Express Bluebird, which was dramatically less expensive than its competitors in the NerdWallet study. The Amex card charges no monthly or per-transaction fees and allows for direct deposit. ATM withdrawals cost $2 apiece and cash reloads are just a buck, compared with an average of $4.50 with other cards.

Eventually you may want to look into getting a secured credit card to help you rebuild your credit scores, since prepaid cards won’t help with that. A secured card is one in which you make a deposit at the issuing bank, usually between $200 and $1,000, and get a card with credit limit equal to your deposit. You don’t need to carry a balance on these cards, but you do need to have and use credit if you want to rehabilitate your battered credit. NerdWallet recommends the secured cards issued by Orchard Bank and Capital One.

Use windfall to pay down debt, boost savings

Dear Liz: I am closing a business deal that will net me just under $1 million. I have an interest-only loan on my home, two car loans and credit-card debt. My plan was to “clear the plate” and pay everything off, leaving me about $175,000. I am not worried about getting into further debt, as my wife and I are pretty grounded, but I wonder if I should be giving up the tax break of a mortgage. My wife and I make a fair income, so we will need advice on investment options as well.

Answer: You say you and your wife are “pretty grounded,” yet you carry a huge amount of debt, including a ticking time bomb of a mortgage.

Interest-only loans were quite fashionable in the boom years but make little sense for most people. That’s because the low initial payments ultimately reset much higher, as the interest-only period ends and the borrower must begin repaying principle.

Carrying credit-card debt is foolish as well, and a sign that you’re living beyond your apparently quite comfortable means.

Furthermore, you don’t say anything about your assets — whether you’re on track saving for retirement or if you have an adequate emergency fund. That would make a difference in how you should deploy this windfall. If your savings are inadequate, it would make sense to invest a good chunk of this money, even if it meant continuing to carry a mortgage. If you must have a home loan, though, it should be a traditional, fixed-rate version to avoid future payment shock.

The big danger is that you’ll pay off what you owe now, only to wind up deeper in debt in a few years because you haven’t changed your approach to money. Use some of your windfall to hire a fee-only (not fee-based) financial planner to review your situation. You can get referrals from the National Assn. of Personal Financial Advisors (www.napfa.org).