Q&A: This innocent oversight can torpedo your credit scores

Dear Liz: My wife just had a credit card closed due to late payments, and we need some advice. It was a mileage card that she stopped using, but in November she made a charge for $120. She forgot about the charge, and in December they added the annual $60 fee. We weren’t monitoring the card, as it wasn’t being used, so we missed paying the two charges for three months. They closed the account and refused to reopen it even after we paid the balance.

This was an account my wife had for 17 years, always making payments on time, with a $26,000 credit line. Is there a way to get the company to reopen the account? Would you suggest writing a goodwill letter asking the bank to remove the account from our credit record? This was a stupid oversight on our part, and now I fear it’s going to kill our credit score!

Answer: Let’s take the good news, bad news approach.

The good news is that there is no such thing as a joint credit score. If this account was in your wife’s name alone, then only her credit scores have been affected. If you were an authorized user on the card, then the late payments may be affecting your scores as well, but you have some recourse. You can call the issuer and ask to be removed as an authorized user from the closed account, or you can dispute the account with the credit bureaus and (hopefully) get it removed that way.

Now, the bad news. If your wife’s credit scores used to be high, they aren’t anymore. That first skipped payment probably knocked 100 points or more from her scores. The next two skipped payments just exacerbated the damage. The account’s closure didn’t help matters, but most of the damage happened when she missed the first payment.

She can try writing a letter asking the issuer for mercy, but she shouldn’t get her hopes up. The issuer no longer wants her business and has little incentive to accommodate her.

Fortunately, credit score damage isn’t permanent, but it may be a few years before her scores are back to where they were.

This is a good reminder to consider putting all credit accounts on automatic payment, so at least the minimum payments are made each month. It’s also smart to monitor at least one of your credit scores and get alerts if there’s a sudden drop. Many banks and credit cards offer free scores, as do financial websites.

Q&A: How IRS Free File works

Dear Liz: I wanted to alert you to the fact that online tax preparation companies are up to their old tricks again this year despite being called out last year for deceptively hiding their free tax filing from eligible filers. My son, who qualifies for free filing, was redirected to the paid “deluxe” version when it turned out he qualifies for a “Savers Tax Credit.” He makes modest tax-deferred contributions through an employer that matched contributions. (He’s a low-income student who works in retail.) He logged out of that website and instead successfully used a competitor provider for free.

Answer: The way to access the IRS’ Free File program is through the IRS website, which directs people to the private tax preparation companies that have agreed to offer this service. Unfortunately, many of those same companies spend a lot of money trying to obscure that fact that most Americans can file for free.

Independent news organization ProPublica reported last year that tax preparation companies were hiding their free file options from online search engines and steering people instead into paid tax preparation. A government report in February confirmed that more than 14 million taxpayers paid for tax preparation last year that they could have received free.

The companies have since been banned from hiding the free option and are supposed to include a link that returns people to the IRS Free File site if they don’t qualify for the company’s free offer. But ProPublica found that they continue to steer people away from free filing in various ways, including advertising that misuses the word “free.”

Also, many people like your son discover only late in the tax preparation process — often after they’ve added most of their information — that they don’t qualify for that company’s free option, although they would qualify elsewhere.

Here’s what people need to know about free filing:

People with adjusted gross incomes under $69,000 a year can qualify for free filing, but they should start their search at the IRS Free File webpage.

People in the military and their families can use MilTax, provided by the Department of Defense.

They can also get advice from a tax professional at (800) 342-9647.

In addition, people may qualify for the IRS’ Volunteer Income Tax Assistance if they make less than $56,000, live with a disability or speak limited English. Use the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance locator tool or call (800) 906-9887.

People who don’t qualify for the above services can still use free fillable forms. In addition, some tax preparation companies may have free options for people filing basic forms. The types of income and credits that allow someone to file for free should be prominently displayed on the company’s free file page.

Q&A: Worried about stocks? Why you shouldn’t try to time the market

Dear Liz: I’m a federal employee with a Thrift Savings Plan account. I’m 35 and have put about $125,000 into my TSP. However, I never changed it from the low-risk G fund so it’s not gaining as much interest as it should. Should I wait for the market to tank before moving it around or is it OK to move it now due to my age and amount of time I have before retirement? I’m worried I’ll move it and I’ll lose the value in a downturn, so maybe I should wait for a downturn to act.

Answer: You sent this question a few weeks ago, before the recent correction. Did you use the downturn as an excuse to hop into the market? Or did you stay on the sidelines, worried it might drop further?

Many people in your situation get cold feet. You’re better off in the long run just diving in and not trying to time the market.

Waiting for a downturn sounds good in theory, but in reality there’s no sure way to call the bottom of any stock market decline. And when the stock market recovers, it tends to do so in a hurry. If you delay too long, you risk missing much of the upside.

It won’t feel good if the market plunges a day, a week or a year after you invest your money, but remember that you’re investing for the long term. The day-to-day or even year-to-year gyrations of the stock market don’t matter. What matters is the trend over the next 30 years — and long term, stocks outperform every other asset class.

Q&A: When should retirees stop actively investing?

Dear Liz: I am retired. My income is from a small pension, Social Security and dividends and interest from investments. I’ve made some bad investments, but I’m still earning a satisfactory return. Is there some kind of formula that I can use to determine whether I should sell a stock, take the loss and seek another investment or keep the stock, enjoy the dividend and worry the stock might drop further?

Answer: One approach is to ask yourself if you’d buy the same stock today. If not, then it may be time to sell these shares. Be sure to consult with a tax pro first because you may be able to use losses on one investment to offset taxable gains on another.

You also might ask yourself if it’s time to transition away from active investing and individual stocks. Most people aren’t able to buy the stock of enough companies to be truly diversified. Then there’s the daunting task of staying up to date on the fortunes and prospects of each company and industry. That’s way more work than most people can handle. Even if you’re up for the task now, you might not be in the future.

Also, most people don’t do well with active investing. Trying to figure out when to buy and sell for maximum gain usually results in excess trading costs that lower your returns. It’s also too tempting to hang on to a losing stock rather than admit you made a mistake, or to chase “hot” stocks that have already had their biggest gains.

A better approach would be a portfolio of mutual funds or exchange traded funds that’s regularly rebalanced, either by a financial advisor or a computer algorithm. If you opt for funds that mimic a market benchmark, you’ll be assured of matching the market and getting a better return than most active investors can achieve.

Q&A: Culture and parental advice

Dear Liz: You recently answered a question from a parent who wanted to know how to fix a financial issue in an adult child’s marriage. Your advice was basically to butt out. I think that may depend on culture. What if your advice saved your child’s marriage? What if it prevented your child from going into bankruptcy? Would it be worth the uncomfortable conversation? In some cultures, the approach is to butt in and confront the issue; if it causes problems, well then you deal with that also.

Answer: There may well be a culture in which the interference of in-laws is gladly received, rather than merely tolerated. There may even be people who enjoy being the target of unsolicited advice. It’s hard for some of us to imagine, but it’s certainly possible.

It’s probably safer to assume that your counsel is unwelcome and annoying unless it’s been specifically requested — and often even then.

Q&A: Different approaches to marital finances

Dear Liz: Thank you for mentioning that many couples like to keep their finances entirely or mostly separate. Our solution was to create a joint bank account just for paying joint expenses, such as rent, food, entertainment together, vacations and so on. We each funded this account proportionately, based on our income (for example, the person earning 65% of the total income contributed 65% of the funds). Expenses, such as gifts to our separate children, entertainment on our own, car payments and all personal expenses were paid out of our own separate accounts. Each year at tax time, we’d revise the proportion of the joint account, if necessary, based on our separate tax return figures. It was so simple and tension-free. This was a second marriage for both of us, and we never had disagreements about money.

Answer: Congratulations for finding an approach that worked so well for both of you. As you demonstrate, there’s no one right way for couples to handle their money. Some prefer to have everything in joint accounts, others keep everything separate, and most are somewhere in between.

Q&A: To build credit, try this set-it-and-forget-it trick

Dear Liz: I have little credit history and my Experian credit score is about 620. My wife has no credit history. We are in the process of increasing our creditworthiness. I have an unsecured credit card from my credit union. She will be getting a secured credit card. We will use these lightly and regularly, paying them off each month. Does using my credit card to pay a utility bill each month work for building credit?

Answer: Absolutely. As long as your credit cards report to all three credit bureaus, your on-time payments will build your scores.

To make things easier, you could set up a recurring charge and automatic payment. Utilities typically allow customers to pay their bills automatically with credit cards, and credit cards usually offer the option of paying automatically each month. You’re normally given three options: paying only the minimum, paying in full or paying a set dollar amount.

Recurring charges ensure your card shows regular activity, while automatic payment should eliminate the risk of missing a payment. A single skipped payment could be a significant blow to your credit scores.

Another option to consider is a credit builder loan, which many credit unions and community banks offer. Typically, the amount you borrow is placed into a savings account or certificate of deposit while you make payments.

When you’ve paid the loan in full, usually after 12 months, you claim the cash. The payments help build your credit, and the cash could be the start of an emergency fund.

Q&A: Delaying Social Security benefits

Dear Liz: My wife is a retired schoolteacher who has a pension. Because she is subject to the government pension offset, she will not be eligible for my Social Security benefit when I pass. My plan was to wait until 70 to file to maximize my benefit. This usually has the advantage of also increasing the survivor benefit that a spouse would receive.

Considering the government pension offset would eliminate any benefit to her, is waiting until 70 still the best strategy? Do I view it as longevity insurance with the understanding that I, or my wife, may never receive a nickel from Social Security if I die before claiming?

Answer: As you know, it’s usually advisable for the higher earner in a couple to delay starting Social Security as long as possible, because that increases the survivor benefit one spouse will get after the other dies.

Waiting until 70, when your benefit maxes out, can still make sense. Most people will live past the “break even” age when the larger checks more than offset the forgone benefits. The average life expectancy for a 65-year-old male is another 18 years. If you’re well educated, higher income or have longevity in your family, your life expectancy is probably even longer.

Delaying Social Security also can help minimize the “tax torpedo.” This is a surge in marginal tax rates that affects middle-income households caused by the unique way Social Security benefits are taxed. Drawing from retirement accounts first and then starting Social Security at 70 can result in considerable tax savings.

Also, in today’s low-rate environment, there’s no other investment that promises a guaranteed 8% annual return, which is what you get by delaying Social Security after your full retirement age.

To see which claiming strategy makes sense, consider using a Social Security claiming calculator that can include government pension offset situations such as Maximize My Social Security or Social Security Solutions.

Q&A: An emergency kit document hack

Dear Liz: Thanks for answering my question about storing hard copies of financial services records for emergency preparedness. My wife and I finally reached a compromise: We printed out our account numbers, but we attached code names to them that only we would recognize. Now both of us are comfortable that even though someone might have our account numbers, they’ll never know which financial institution to contact.

Answer: That’s a terrific compromise that keeps your important financial information accessible to you but not to an identity thief.

Q&A: Handling money after marriage can be complicated. Mom and Dad should butt out

Dear Liz: My son just married. He and his wife are keeping totally separate finances, though he makes much more than she does. She is spending way more than she should on household items and services. Is this the new norm for relationships? What kind of professional do we contact that could help them with merging their finances?

Answer: You don’t contact any kind of professional. Your son and his wife can find help on their own. If your son starts complaining about his wife’s spending again, you might gently suggest that before changing the subject.

In answer to your first question, though, separate accounts aren’t the norm but they’re quite common. A 2018 Bank of America study found 28% of millennial couples kept their finances separate. Many prefer the sense of control and privacy that separate accounts offer.

But of course it’s still important for couples to work out budgets and joint goals together. That can take time, a lot of discussion and the willingness to compromise. It wouldn’t be fair for your son to dictate what they spend just because he makes more, just as it wouldn’t be fair for your daughter-in-law to purchase whatever she wants and assume he’ll chip in.

Again, however: It’s not your business, it’s theirs, and it will be better for all concerned if you keep out of it.