How to shoot yourself in the foot

Dear Liz: I want to stop contributing to my 401(k). How do I cancel it and withdraw my funds?

Answer: You can stop contributing to most workplace retirement funds by contacting your human resources department. You typically won’t be able to withdraw the money, however, unless you can prove a hardship or you leave your job.

You should think long and hard before you discontinue your contributions, in any case. For many workers, contributing to a 401(k) is their best shot at a comfortable retirement. You may be unsettled by volatile investment markets now, but over time a diversified mixture of stocks and bonds should give you the returns you’ll need to overcome inflation and have a reasonable nest egg.

Not contributing to your 401(k) could mean giving up free money in the form of a company match and could trigger a larger tax bill, since your contributions usually are tax-deductible. Money saved within retirement accounts, including 401(k)s and IRAs, is also protected from creditors should you ever be sued or have to file for bankruptcy.

If you’re disgruntled with your plan because you think the fees are too high, ask your employer to look for a more reasonable-priced option. Now that 401(k) administrators must fully disclose their fees, many companies will be looking for better deals.

What I learned from our “almost free” vacation

Back in June I wrote a post about “How to get free summer travel.” I’d arranged a 5-day trip with my daughter to the Pacific Northwest using a variety of rewards programs. The trip, which we took over Labor Day weekend, was a heck of a lot of fun. Like most vacations, it wound up costing a bit more than planned but I also learned a few things.

Including:

Re-price your reservations before you go. I checked both hotel and car reservations a few days beforehand to see if prices had dropped. They hadn’t at the Doubletree in Portland, which was in fact sold out. But the rates at Enterprise car rental fell like a rock. Plus, Enterprise emailed me a last-minute 10% off coupon for being part of its frequent traveler program. My cost for the two-day car rental went from over $100 to just $37. I love that.

Don’t try to make a same-day connection on Amtrak. We took the sleeper car up from Los Angeles, and the train fell waaaaay behind schedule–five hours, in fact. That was good news for us, since we got to see some gorgeous scenery around the California-Oregon border that would normally pass by in the dark. Passengers who were trying to make a connection to the Empire Builder, the train that goes from Portland to Chicago, weren’t so happy. They had to get off in Klamath Falls and ride several hours on a bus to meet the other train. If I were to book an Amtrak trip that involved a connection, I’d try to arrange it so that we had an overnight stay in between.

Portland’s public transportation is awesome. There was a light-rail MAX station right outside our hotel, and it took us everywhere we wanted to go while we were in town, including the Saturday Market and the zoo. A day pass for an adult was just $5. Parking at the zoo alone would have been $4, and a hassle, since there are limited spaces. When it was time to leave, I took the red line out to the airport to pick up our rental car–easy peasy.

Check out the artist/farmers markets. Speaking of the Saturday Market: I was blown away by many of the vendors there. This weekend market along the river features some really skilled craftsman offering handmade stuff at reasonable prices. I stocked up for Christmas.

Splurge a little. My daughter’s a huge fan of the Great Wolf Resort and its indoor water park south of Olympia. The rates in the summer can be steep, but my sister and I decided to split the cost of a Kid Cabin room with bunk beds. That way, we got to spend more time together, our kids had a ball and we were each out of pocket $160 rather than $320.

Peach fritter with cream cheese? Might want to skip that. My friend Michelle Rafter suggested we meet at VooDoo Donuts for a treat. Yes, the long wait was worth it, but no, I don’t think I’d order the peach fritter again–it was almost as big as my head. Next time it’ll be the maple bacon donut, for sure.

Don’t expect surviving spouse to “do the right thing”

Dear Liz: My parents were married for 50 years. When my mother died, my father didn’t inherit a large monetary fortune, but he did get a houseful of family treasures (photos, knickknacks, mementos, documents) that had been cherished and saved for me and my children (I was an only child). Immediately after my mom died, my father found a lady friend and cut off all ties with me and his past. I tried but could not get through.

I know it would not have been my grandparents’ or my mother’s wishes that 150 years of family memories be lost, but unfortunately that is how it turned out. Please encourage aging parents to plan ahead for many potential outcomes so that their wishes and the wishes of past and future generations are honored. I shudder to think of what has happened to my great-grandmother’s journal that I read aloud as a child.

Answer: The German fairy tale about Hansel and Gretel resonates with many people in your situation. If you remember, in that tale a poor woodcutter acquiesces to his second wife’s demand that he abandon his children to die in the woods.

Of course, that tale ends happily. The children kill the evil witch who imprisons them. They steal her jewels and return to share the wealth with their once-again-widowed father. (Children can be remarkably forgiving.)

It’s sad that you’ve lost access to the heirlooms, but it’s much sadder that you’ve lost access to your father. If he’s still alive, though, so is the possibility of rapprochement. If you keep in touch, he may eventually thaw. If not, you’ll at least know you did all you could.

Your mother may not have been able to imagine your father cutting you off the way he has. But expecting a surviving spouse to “do the right thing” in distributing heirlooms may be expecting too much. Dementia could rob the survivor of good judgment, or he could be influenced by a subsequent relationship, as your father was.

So your point is well taken. Anyone who has heirlooms to pass along should make sure to do so — either in a will or, better yet, while still alive to enjoy the next generation’s appreciation.

Anyone who’s lost access to an heirloom should remember that while precious, it’s still a thing — and a thing that could have been lost in many other ways, from a house fire to negligence. Focusing on the loss won’t bring the thing back or restore a troubled relationship. It will just make you unhappy, and life’s too short for that.

Will your pension hurt your Social Security benefit?

Dear Liz: Could you please address the issue of Social Security for those with pensions? I understand that if you have a pension, you won’t get 100% of the standard monthly Social Security benefit. I believe that this happens even if you only have a defined contribution account. But I’ve never seen this discussed in news reports. Many people are surprised when I tell them this.

Answer: Perhaps they’re surprised because what you’re saying isn’t true.

Defined contribution plans, such as 401(k)s, don’t affect your Social Security benefit at all. Neither do most pensions. The time that a pension might affect your benefit is if you didn’t pay into Social Security while you were earning the pension.

Here’s how the Social Security website puts it: “A pension based on work that is not covered by Social Security (for example, federal civil service and some state or local government agencies, such as police officers and some teachers) may cause the amount of your Social Security benefit to be reduced.”

The reduction can come under one of two provisions. The first, called government pension offset, applies if you get a government pension not covered by Social Security and are eligible for Social Security benefits as a spouse or survivor. The spousal or survivor benefit may be reduced in that case. You can learn more at http://www.socialsecurity.gov/retire2/gpo.htm.

The second provision is the windfall elimination provision, which may reduce your Social Security or retirement benefit if you receive a pension from a job not covered by Social Security. You can learn more at http://www.socialsecurity.gov/retire2/wep.htm.

These provisions were put into place because some people with a pension from a job that didn’t pay into Social Security were getting more Social Security benefits than the system intended. If they worked mainly in the job with the pension, but also had jobs that paid Social Security taxes, their Social Security benefits were often calculated as if they were long-term, low-wage workers. Since Social Security is designed to replace a larger percentage of earnings for low-paid workers — and a smaller percentage for higher-paid workers — these folks wound up with a bigger benefit than their earnings actually justified.

Now available: My new book!

Do you have questions about money? Here’s a secret: we all do, and sometimes finding the right answers can be tough. My new book, “There Are No Dumb Questions About Money,” can make it easier for you to figure out your financial world.

I’ve taken your toughest questions about money and answered them in a clear, easy-to-read format. This book can help you manage your spending, improve your credit and find the best way to pay off debt. It can help you make the right choices when you’re investing, paying for your children’s education and prioritizing your financial goals. I’ve also tackled the difficult, emotional side of money: how to get on the same page with your partner, cope with spendthrift children (or parents!) and talk about end-of-life issues that can be so difficult to discuss. (And if you think your family is dysfunctional about money, read Chapter 5…you’ll either find answers to your problems, or be grateful that your situation isn’t as bad as some of the ones described there!)

Interested? You can buy this ebook on iTunes or on Amazon.

Cash-only lifestyle can complicate getting credit

Dear Liz: My brother is 63, living on Social Security only and needs to obtain a credit card. He is old school and pays cash for virtually everything, but realizes he needs a credit card for some basics (renting a car, for example). If he has only $17,000 income a year, would that be enough to qualify him for a basic credit card from any provider? If not, do you have any suggestions for emergencies where a credit card would normally be required?

Answer: Some people use debit cards or prepaid cards in situations where credit cards are typically accepted. But gas stations, hotels and some other merchants can put a “block” or hold on an account for more than the amount being charged. That can limit the user’s access to the rest of the money in their checking account or on their prepaid card for several hours or even days. Also, debit and prepaid cards have fewer consumer protections than credit cards.

The biggest problem your brother faces in getting a regular credit card is his habit of paying with cash. He may not have enough of a credit history to generate a credit score, and most card issuers rely heavily on scores in evaluating applications. He should consider visiting MyFico.com and see if he can buy one of his FICO scores for $20. If he doesn’t have FICOs, he may want to consider a secured credit card.

A secured card gives him a credit line equal to a deposit he makes at the issuing bank. NerdWallet, an online financial site that evaluates credit cards, recommends the U.S. Bank Secured Visa Card, which has a low $35 annual fee and security deposits ranging from $300 to a respectable $5,000. Another option is the Capital One Secured Card, which has a lower annual fee of $25 but a credit limit of just $200.

Using a secured card lightly but regularly, and paying off the balance in full every month, can help your brother build credit scores that eventually will be high enough to qualify for a regular card.

Zombie debt and the Supreme Court

This may be a first: I’ve been cited to the Supreme Court.

Specifically, a column I wrote back in 2006 about “zombie debt” was cited in a brief filed by AARP, the Consumer Federation of America, the National Association of Consumer Advocates and other good folks for a case known as Marx v. General Revenue Corp. The case is about whether someone who lost a lawsuit against a collector can be forced to pay damages if the lawsuit wasn’t filed “in bad faith and for purposes of harrassment.”

Olivea Marx sued debt collector General Revenue Corporation after it contacted her employer to find out about her employment status. Marx believed that General Revenue’s action violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. She lost, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit ruled she had to pay more than $4,500 to cover the collector’s legal costs.

The Federal Trade Commission, the Department of Justice and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau also have weighed in against the decision, saying it was inconsistent with the FDCPA, which says people who lose cases against collectors must pay defendants’ litigation costs only if the consumers sued in bad faith or for purposes of harassment.

Collectors complain about frivolous lawsuits. Consumer advocates counter that more lawsuits would be filed if people truly understood their rights. The AARP/CFA brief notes that there isn’t much regulatory enforcement of fair debt collection practices laws, which leaves private action in the form of lawsuits brought by consumers. Debt collection already tops the list of industries that draw FTC consumer complaints; imagine how much bolder collectors might be if they could win damages against anyone who sued them and lost.

 

Co-signed loan burdens parent with student debt

Dear Liz: I co-signed some private student loans for my youngest child. She graduated two years ago with about $80,000 in student debt, including federal and private loans. Like many other recent graduates, she has had a difficult time finding a job. She worked part time at a retail store until about a month ago and made around $7,000 annually. I have been helping her make reduced payments and she has gotten deferments and income-based repayment plans.

But I’m planning to retire in a few months and won’t be able to make the payments as I have been. I am heartsick about this whole situation, not just for my family, but also for thousands of young people who face this mountain of un-dischargeable debt. We desperately need some advice on how to deal with huge debt.

Answer: As you know, student loans typically can’t be shed in Bankruptcy Court. Even your Social Security benefits aren’t safe: In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the government’s ability to offset Social Security disability and retirement benefits when a borrower has defaulted on federal student loans.

Income-based repayment plans can provide some relief with the federal loans. This repayment option limits the required payment to 15% of your daughter’s discretionary income, and her balance can be forgiven after 25 years, according to Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of the FinAid.org financial aid site. If your daughter has no income, her required payment would fall to zero. Unlike deferment and forbearance plans, which have three-year limits, the income-based repayment allows zero payments indefinitely. She should investigate signing up for such plans for all her federal loans.

The private loans you cosigned have far fewer repayment options. Some have forbearance and deferment options, while others do not. You may be able to negotiate a lower payment temporarily, or you may not. Because private student loans’ rates and terms aren’t regulated the same way federal loans’ are, they’re considered much riskier. Using them is kind of like paying for college with credit cards, except unlike with credit cards, the debt can’t be discharged.

It’s too late to tell you that you shouldn’t have co-signed loans so close to retirement or any time you would be unable to take over the payments. If you have sufficient equity in your home, you may want to consider using it to pay off the private loans. A variable-rate home equity line of credit would allow you to pay only interest for 10 years, while a fixed-rate home equity loan would lock in today’s current low rates for the 20-year life of the loan. You will, of course, be putting your home at risk if you can’t make those payments.

Another possibility is to postpone your retirement until your daughter is gainfully employed. This may not be desirable or even possible, but at the moment you’re the only one with income to repay these loans.

Otherwise, your option is to try to negotiate an affordable repayment plan with the private lenders, which is no easy task. For more information, visit the Student Loan Borrower Assistance program at http://www.studentloanborrowerassistance.org.

Why high credit scores take longer to heal

Dear Liz: I am confused about your recent article about a person who did a short sale and questioned its effect on her credit. You said that if she started with a score of 680, it would take about three years for her FICO numbers to return to normal. You then said, “If your scores were high, say 780, it would take about seven years to restore them to their old peaks.” This doesn’t make sense to me. Why would it take longer to recover if you started with better credit?

Answer: Think of credit scores as a mountain that gets steeper the higher you climb. Not only does it take longer to achieve the lofty peaks, but if you tumble down the mountain, it will take you longer to return to those peaks than to achieve some intermediate stage.

The FICO formula is designed to reflect your likelihood of default. If you’ve recently missed a payment, had a bill go to collections or had a foreclosure or short sale, the formula assumes you’re much more likely to default on another bill than someone who doesn’t have those black marks on his or her record, and your scores fall to reflect that higher risk of default. As time passes and you handle credit responsibly, your scores will begin to slowly rise, but it will take more time to regain your peak scores if they were high.

Something else to understand is that the penalty for most negative credit events is greater for people with high scores than those with lower scores. Missing a single payment can knock up to 110 points off a 780 score but might deduct just 60 points from a 680 score. That’s because a higher risk of default is already “baked in” to the lower score. The higher score presumes you’re less likely to default. If you do miss a payment, the formula is set up to punish you more. In most cases, though, you won’t “fall down the mountain” as far as someone who started with a lower score. After the missed payment, the 780 score could be 670, while the 680 score could be 620.