Q&A: Debt obligations and voluntary surrender

Dear Liz: My husband returned a car to the dealer when he lost his job. Now the company says he owes it more than $7,000 (the difference between what he owed to the dealer and the price for which the car was sold). He refuses to pay any amount, but recently he received a letter from a law office demanding payment or they will take him to court. Is he obliged to pay this money? What options does he have to get rid of this debt?

Answer: A debt doesn’t disappear simply because someone decides not to pay it.
Your husband signed loan paperwork to buy the car, and this paperwork obligated him to repay a certain amount. Voluntarily surrendering the car didn’t change his obligation. Also, the surrender probably is being reported to the credit bureaus as a repossession, which is a big negative mark on his credit reports. Some people mistakenly believe that a voluntary surrender avoids credit damage. Typically, it does not.

Your husband could make matters worse if he continues his stubbornness. The law firm can take the collection to court, where it’s likely to win. That will add a judgment to your husband’s credit files and cause further damage to his scores. His wages could be garnished to pay the debt.

Your husband may be able to settle this debt for less than he owes, especially if he can offer a substantial lump sum, but negotiations with a collector can be tricky. He may want to consult an attorney for help or at least arm himself with more knowledge about what to do from sites such as DebtCollectionAnswers.com.

If this is just one of a number of unpaid bills, though, you both may benefit from talking to a bankruptcy attorney about your options.
In the future, keep this experience in mind when you go to buy another car. Making at least a 20% down payment and limiting the loan term to four years or less will help ensure that you’re never “upside down” like this again.

Q&A: Roth IRA

Dear Liz: I have a 401(k) that has a required annual distribution because I am over 71 1/2 years old. Can I use this distribution as qualified income to invest in a Roth IRA? I have no W-2 earnings, although I do have other income sources that are reported on 1099 forms.

Answer: To contribute to a Roth or other individual retirement account, you must have taxable compensation, which the IRS defines as wages, salaries, commissions, tips, bonuses or net income from self-employment. The IRS also includes taxable alimony and separate maintenance payments as compensation for IRA purposes.

So if the money reported on one of those 1099 forms is from self-employment income, then you can contribute to a Roth IRA. If the form is reporting interest and dividends or other income that doesn’t meet the IRS definition of taxable compensation, then you’re out of luck.
If you don’t have income that meets the IRS definition of taxable compensation, but your spouse does, you may still qualify for IRA contributions, provided you file a joint return that meets the required income thresholds.

Q&A: Social Security spousal benefits

Dear Liz: I am 13 years older than my wife. Is it possible for me to receive Social Security spousal benefits based on her earnings when I reach full retirement at age 66? I’d like to shift to my benefit when it reaches its maximum at age 70. If I can do this, what impact, if any, would there be on the benefits she ultimately receives?

Answer: Spousal benefits wouldn’t reduce her checks, but she has to be old enough to qualify for Social Security for you to get these benefits. Given your age gap, waiting for that day probably isn’t an optimal solution.

On the other hand, she could file for spousal benefits when she reaches her own full retirement age (which will be somewhere between 66 and 67, as the full retirement age is pushed back). That would give her own benefit a chance to grow, and she could switch to that amount if it’s larger at age 70. If she starts benefits before full retirement age, she would lose the option to switch.

AARP’s free Social Security calculator can help you figure out the claiming strategy that makes the most sense for your situation.

Q&A: Graduation gifts and financial aid

Dear Liz: Our grandson’s stellar high school performance and his family financial situation were such that he was admitted to his state university with grants sufficient to pay all school fees, including room and board, with no loans or work-study. His grandmother and I have a 529 account in his name that has enough money to pay about twice his estimated books and living expenses, given this level of financial aid.

His other grandparents gave him a high school graduation present of a check for four times the annual estimated books and living expenses. Does he need to amend this year’s financial aid form to reflect this generous gift? Should I suggest he put part of the gift aside for future years to diminish the effect on future financial aid?

Because of his unexpected gift, we plan to not use the funds in the 529 account until needed for his undergraduate or possible graduate school expenses. If he doesn’t need the money, we plan to transfer the balance to his younger sister’s 529 account.

Answer: Your grandson won’t have to amend this year’s financial aid forms but he will have to declare the gift on next year’s form. That could indeed reduce his financial aid package, since such gifts are considered to be the student’s income and thus will be counted heavily against him next year.

There’s not much that can be done about it now, but generous grandparents in this situation might think about holding off on their gifts until the student’s final year in college when financial aid is no longer a consideration. Paying that last year’s expenses, or paying down any student loan balances, would be a gift without repercussions.

Q&A: Prioritizing your financial goals

Dear Liz: How do you prioritize financial goals on a small salary? I am 24 and a college graduate with about $40,000 in student loan debt. Because I work full-time at a nonprofit educational organization, about half of my loans qualify for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, so I currently only pay the monthly payment on a private loan and two other small loans. I earn a small salary, but I have always been drawn to jobs in service-oriented, nonprofit fields, and I am perfectly fine with the fact that I’ll never have a career with a six-figure salary. My problem is that after rent, utilities, student loan payments, groceries and other such monthly bills, I have very little money left over to divide among my different financial goals. I make a small monthly contribution to my company-sponsored 403(b) plan, but I’m also trying to rebuild my savings after paying out of pocket for an expensive root canal. I occasionally earn some extra cash from baby-sitting, and I live a fairly simple lifestyle — I own my used car, I walk to work — yet I feel like I’ve barely been making a dent in any of my goals — saving for retirement, rebuilding savings and paying off student loans. How can I leverage what’s left over at the end of the month to reach my goals? Would it be better to focus on one goal rather than all three?

Answer: Many people in your situation focus on a single goal hoping to make faster progress. They don’t fully realize what their single-mindedness is costing them.

Prioritizing debt repayment over saving for retirement is particularly costly. Not only do you give up potential company matches, but the money you don’t contribute can’t earn future tax-deferred returns. At your young age, every $100 you contribute could grow to more than $2,000 by the time you hit retirement age, assuming 8% average annual returns, which is the historical long-term average for the stock market. In fact, the younger you are, the more you give up by not contributing to a retirement fund. Ask any of your older co-workers if it gets any easier to save for retirement. They’ll probably tell you that they wish they’d gotten serious about retirement savings when they were a lot younger.

Building up your emergency savings may seem prudent as well, but you don’t want to do so at the expense of your retirement fund or instead of paying down high rate debt.

So here’s your game plan. Instead of divvying up what you have left after paying bills, start by paying yourself first. Contribute at least 10% of your income to your company retirement plan. Then investigate the possibilities of consolidating your private student loan into a fixed-rate loan, since rates probably will rise in the future. If you can lock in a low rate, it would then make sense to start building up your emergency savings. If you can’t, you might want to divide your money between savings and debt repayment.

It will be tough to swing all this. You may be able to make it easier by finding a roommate or a cheaper place to rent, or looking for more outside gigs such as baby-sitting until your income rises enough to allow you to comfortably pursue all your goals.

Q&A: Saving loose change

Dear Liz: My husband recently told me that he has saved many coffee cans full of loose change over the years. When I suggested we might at least roll the change to make it easier to count should we ever need it, he was not interested! I understand he just wants it available in an emergency, but just the transportation of these things to a coin counter (that may or may not be available) makes me want to find a better way to honor his idea of saving change in a more realistic way. Perhaps roll while watching TV, then ask a bank to convert to dollar coins as a way to reduce the bulk?

Answer: It’s hard to imagine how your husband expects to deploy those coins in an emergency. Does he envision lugging them to the grocery store or gas station? Does he imagine any retailer would accept a coffee can of change as payment? Many retailers won’t even accept rolled coins, since they don’t know what’s inside those wrappers.

Converting the coins into bills, or better yet to savings in a bank, is a far more practical option. You can use commercial coin sorters, but they typically take a hefty cut. Coinstar, for example, charges a 10.9% service fee, although that is waived if you choose to be paid with a retailer’s gift card or voucher.

Another place to check is your bank. Some have coin sorters available to customers, although you may have to deposit the result rather than take it immediately in cash.

Alternatively, your bank may supply you with wrappers — or it may not accept change at all. The only way to know is to call and ask.

If you do decide to roll the change, consider making a small investment in a coin sorter. You can spend $200 or more on a commercial version, but there are well-reviewed versions on Amazon that cost around $25.

Q&A: Widow’s Social Security benefits

Dear Liz: I’ve been reading your answers to Social Security questions, but they do not address my situation, which is extremely unconventional. I was a quasi-widow at 31 with three children under age 9. My husband was institutionalized because of an accident when he was 33. He died 23 years later, having outlived all his insurance. I never remarried. I was disabled at 61 and started receiving my deceased husband’s Social Security benefit at age 62, after the expiration of my disability benefits from work. I am now 73. Am I eligible to also begin receiving my own Social Security benefits as well as my late husband’s? I hope your answer is positive.

Answer: It’s not. Although the details may not be conventional, your situation doesn’t change the fact that widows (and widowers) are entitled to only one check. They can’t collect their own benefits plus survivor’s benefits. They can and should, however, choose the larger of the checks to which they’re entitled.

It is possible that you’ve earned a larger benefit on your own work record than the survivor’s benefit you’re currently receiving. You should call Social Security at (800) 772-1213 and ask.

Q&A: Forgiving credit card debt

Dear Liz: Recently you wrote about debt being forgiven after seven years, but in your book “Deal With Your Debt,” I’m sure you said after four years credit-card debt is usually not collectible. Could you clarify? When I tell debt collectors about this, they merely laugh.

Answer: That’s understandable, because there is no forgiveness for most debt. It’s legally owed until it’s paid, settled or wiped out in Bankruptcy Court.

Each state sets limits on how long a creditor has to sue a borrower over an unpaid debt. Those limits vary by state and the type of debt. In California, credit card debt has a four-year statute of limitations. Creditors may continue collection efforts after four years; they’re just not supposed to file lawsuits.

Seven years is how long most negative marks, such as unpaid debts, can remain on your credit reports. Technically, most unpaid debts are supposed to be removed seven years and 180 days after the account first went delinquent.

Q&A: Credit cards vs student debt. Which should be paid off first?

Dear Liz: I have $8,000 in savings. Should I use it to pay the accrued interest on federal student loans that go into repayment soon? Or should I pay credit card debts of $662 at 11.24%, $3,840 at 7.99% and $3,000 at 6.99%?

Answer: Pay off the credit card debt. The interest isn’t tax deductible, and balances you carry on credit cards just eat into your economic well-being.

Your student loans, by contrast, offer fixed rates, a wealth of consumer protections and tax-deductible interest. You needn’t be in any rush to pay them off, particularly if you’re not already saving adequately for retirement and for emergencies. Federal student loans offer the opportunity to reduce or suspend payment without damaging your credit scores should you face economic difficulty and the possibility of forgiveness. Those aren’t options offered by credit card issuers.

If your student loan payments exceed 10% of your income when you do go into repayment, you should investigate the federal government’s “Pay as You Earn” program, which offers more manageable payments for many people, especially those with large debts and small incomes.

Q&A: Will having no debt affect our FICO score?

Dear Liz: My wife and I have paid off our mortgage, we have no car loans, and we pay our credit card balances completely each month, which means that we basically pay no interest. We have four credit cards that are active and a couple more that are rarely used. My FICO score is currently just above 800. At some point we will need to replace our cars and will need car loans, so our FICO scores will be important. Since we currently have no mortgage, no car loans or any other loans, will our FICO score slowly drop, and will that affect our car loans?

Answer: Paid-off loans typically don’t disappear from your credit reports, at least not immediately. Many lenders continue to report these closed accounts for years, which contributes positively to your scores.

Even if none of these paid obligations show up on your reports, though, your responsible use of credit cards should support your high scores. Just continue to use your cards lightly but regularly and pay off all balances in full.

Since you have time before you plan to replace your cars, consider paying cash for them, or at least making a substantial down payment. It’s typically best to use loans only for assets that appreciate — and cars certainly don’t do that.