Liz Weston

Liz Weston

Money Talk

How to improve credit scores

How to improve credit scores

April 20, 2014

Dear Liz: I am trying to help my retired parents refinance their home. Currently they are paying over 8% interest. (This loan should be illegal.) The problem is their credit score, which is around 536. They had a tax lien in 2004 (it has been paid off for over four years) and some minor credit card issues. The total card debt is less than $1,000. I see several bad footnotes on these cards. Some of the cards have a balance of less than $100. What is the best and fastest way to help them get the mortgage they deserve?

  • Things to consider before getting involved in relative's money mess

    April 13, 2014

    Dear Liz: I went with my brother to his credit union to refinance his house and found out his wife has about eight medical bills that went to collections and he owes a phone company more than $2,000. Their debt totals about $6,300. I could lend them the money or they could do a debt consolidation or talk to a credit counselor. What's your opinion on these options?

  • Nudging a millennial to save for retirement

    April 5, 2014

    Dear Liz: I am in a new relationship with a great woman. I've talked a little bit about money and retirement with her (she's 30). I am trying to let her know that it would be wise to contribute at least enough to her company's retirement program to get the full match. What are some books or articles that would show her the importance of saving for retirement? I like her, but this can be a deal breaker for me. What is the best way to introduce her to personal finances without scaring her?

  • Paying off old debts may not improve your credit scores

    March 30, 2014

    Dear Liz: How can I get a clear and complete picture of the debts that are hurting my credit score? I have my credit report already. I'm a bit lost and I need to get my credit cleared up to buy a home.

  • Gift tax return should be filed when parents give house to child

    March 23, 2014

    Dear Liz: In 2007, my parents signed over their house deed to my name. Does this trigger the gift tax? They never filled out a gift tax form. Is it too late? Dad has passed on but Mom is still with us. She has Alzheimer's disease, and I have her power of attorney. Are there no taxes due because of the lifetime exclusion?

  • How should couple with age gap tap Social Security spousal benefits?

    March 16, 2014

    Dear Liz: I am 55 and my wife is 65. She only worked a few part-time jobs as she spent most of her working years raising our nine beautiful children. My question is, since she does not have enough credits to collect Social Security on her own work record, can she claim spousal benefits on my work history? If so, at what age and how will it affect my benefits?

  • Worker is secretly reclassified as a contractor

    March 9, 2014

    Dear Liz: I just received my tax forms from my employer for last year. I was originally a W-2 employee, paid hourly, as a receptionist. But it seems that at some point during the year, my employer changed me to a 1099 employee without telling me or having me fill out paperwork. After researching the characteristics of a 1099 employee, I found I do not qualify at all. I am upset that I will have to pay taxes on this income, since I thought they were being withheld from my pay. Do I have any recourse?

  • Counting assets before paying for college

    March 2, 2014

    Dear Liz: We have a son who is a high school junior and who is planning on going to college. We met with a college financial planner who suggested we put money in a whole life insurance policy as a way to help get more financial aid. Is that a good idea?

  • Deceased dad's rock triggers bitter family fight

    February 23, 2014

    Dear Liz: We are settling my dad's estate. My dad found a rock, and it sat in my parents' frontyard for years. He worked in a gravel pit for decades, and that was the only rock he found interesting enough to bring home. When my mom died, we held an auction of their household goods. My dad told me to take the rock home. I said that to be fair, the rock should be sold at auction. A family member then stole the rock and has been hiding it for more than two years. This person says it's going to be placed on my dad's grave site. I'm an executor, and I feel that the decision wasn't the relative's to make. It's the only possession of Dad's that I really want as a remembrance of him. We were extremely close. Dad knew the rock was taken to spite me, and it really bothered him. What are your thoughts?

  • Keep credit cards active without slipping into debt

    February 16, 2014

    Dear Liz: Recently I've paid off almost $20,000 in credit card debt and am determined not to go down that path again. Because I haven't used these cards in a while, though, I'm starting to get notifications from the credit card companies that they're closing my accounts because of inactivity. I know having long-standing accounts on your credit report is a good thing, but I don't want to be tempted to use these cards just to keep the account open. Is it a bad thing if almost all of my credit card accounts get closed?

  • Widower may be out of inheritance

    February 9, 2014

    Dear Liz: My wife of 34 years died five years ago. Her father is 94. He has accumulated a large amount of wealth over the last 40 years. I always made a point of staying out of financial discussions between my father-in-law and his daughters. He told us for years that upon his death all his wealth is to be divided between us (my wife and me) and her sister. Recently, a gold digger reappeared on the scene. My father-in-law and his late wife took her in at a young age when her parents died. I don't know if she was ever formally adopted or not, or how that affects the situation. My question is, do I have any legal rights, upon my father-in-law's death, to any distribution of his estate if I am not listed in the actual trust or will?

  • How to pay off multiple credit cards

    February 2, 2014

    Dear Liz: I'm confused about paying down credit card debt. Some say to pay the lowest-balance cards first and others say the highest balance or the one with the highest interest. I have almost $16,000 on credit cards ranging from a $4,930 balance on a card with an 8.24% interest rate to $660 on a card with an 18% rate.

  • New baby, new money worries

    January 26, 2014

    Dear Liz: My husband and I have decided that next year we want to have a baby. So we have at minimum a year and nine months to make sure we're financially prepared. I did some cursory Googling and I'm already a bit overwhelmed. I'm not sure where to start.

  • Does advice of saving 10% of income for retirement still apply?

    January 19, 2014

    Dear Liz: I often hear financial planners say you should save 10% of your income, but they don't go into exactly what that means. Is that 10% separate from retirement or including retirement? Does that include saving for your emergency fund? Is this just archaic advice now? I'm 46 with only $40,000 saved for retirement so I'm in the panic mode that I will never be able to save enough for retirement.

  • Calculating how much to put into a 401(k)

    January 12, 2014

    Dear Liz: Lately I have been reading a lot about how people aren't saving enough for retirement. Every article I read talks about the need to put enough into employers' 401(k) programs to get the maximum possible company match. What do you do when your employer doesn't match your contribution?

  • How a couple can reach agreement on retirement plans

    January 5, 2014

    Dear Liz: My husband and I are 56. We need to plan for retirement, but whenever the topic comes up, I find that either we have no idea or we disagree on what we will do during our retirement. Naturally, our activities during retirement will affect the funds we will need. We need help to figure out the things we agree on and where we might want to plan for different individual options. Do you have some resources to suggest?

  • Not contributing to retirement plan is usually expensive mistake

    December 29, 2013

    Dear Liz: I have about $16,000 in student loans at 6.8% interest. At the current monthly payment it would take me about 7.5 years to pay them off. I contribute 10% of my income to my company's Roth 401(k) plan (my employer matches the first 6% contributed). I also contribute 3% to the stock purchasing plan. I am thinking of cutting back my 401(k) contribution to 6% and not contributing to the stock purchasing plan. Applying the extra money to my loans would reduce the payback period to about 2.5 years. After that, I would increase the contribution amount and diversify with a Roth IRA as well and maybe even begin the stock purchase program again. What do you think?

  • Being cautious about spending money is fine

    December 22, 2013

    Dear Liz: I think I have a phobia about spending money. I'm a young professional who has devoted a lot of time to building up my savings account. I also contribute sizable amounts to my 401(k) and IRA each month. I pay off my credit cards each month, and I am making larger-than-necessary payments on my small student loans. Still, I feel as if every time I spend money on something — clothing, travel, furniture, etc. — I am undoing my hard work. It makes me scrutinize every decision until I either give up or make an impulse purchase. Is this normal? How do I know when it is OK to actually spend the money I have worked to save?

  • How much inheritance to leave?

    December 15, 2013

    Dear Liz: Both of our sons, ages 63 and 59, are currently unemployed. We are 93 and self-supporting with Social Security and my retirement benefits. We live in our own home and are able to handle all our expenses, even though my wife requires a companion for 12 hours each day.

  • Use inheritance to pay off credit card debt, not mortgage

    December 8, 2013

    Dear Liz: I will be inheriting around $300,000 over the next year. My instincts are to pay down debt with this money. I have two homes and for practical reasons need to keep them. One home has a $260,000 mortgage balance at 5%. The other has a $130,000 mortgage at 4%. We have $35,000 in credit card balances. Some are telling us to invest. I think we should pay off all the credit cards and then pay down the larger mortgage by $100,000 or more. Am I on the right track?

  • Paying off a loan tied to a failed business

    December 1, 2013

    Dear Liz: We took a home equity loan against our house to open a business in 2006. We also ran up credit card debt for the business. The business went under, and we're struggling to pay off the loan, which is $150,000 (a $1,150 payment every month), and the credit card debt, which we got down to about $20,000 from $37,000. Is there any way to get relief from the loan since it was a legitimate business (a franchise we bought from another franchisee)? We don't know what to do and have been taking money out of our savings to pay the debt.

  • How to pay down credit card debt

    November 24, 2013

    Dear Liz: I'm a single mom with three kids. My mortgage is $1,700. My other monthly bills include $355 for a car loan, $755 for school tuition, $350 for utilities, $790 for credit cards, $200 for gas, $208 for braces and $235 for a 401(k) contribution. This leaves no money for food. I get no child support. How can I pay down my credit card debt? I don't have any money for a baby sitter or I could get a second job.

  • How to begin owning stock

    November 17, 2013

    Dear Liz: I currently have a 401(k) and an IRA, but want something more. A longtime CPA, who is very close to our family, recommended that I buy some stocks, but I'm unsure how to go about this.

  • How to get Mom to prepare for retirement?

    November 10, 2013

    Dear Liz: My mother is 65 and refuses to plan for retirement. She has worked for the same organization for almost 20 years and, despite my begging her over the last decade, has not contributed a dime to her 403(b).

  • Despite promises, mother's will isn't binding if not signed

    November 1, 2013

    Dear Liz: If your in-laws promised you and their son their house, and have for over 20 years, and the whole family is aware that was the plan — your mother-in-law even had a will and a deed made up — do you think the executor of the estate has the right to do away with the will and take matters into her own hands? Do you think the daughter-in-law and the son have a right to stick up for what the parents wanted?

  • Fortunate to be able to take 'practice retirement'

    October 27, 2013

    Dear Liz: I'm in my late 60s and plan to retire in about two years. I have a pension that will pay close to my current take-home income. I also have about $500,000 in annuities and IRAs. These plus Social Security make retirement look good. But right now finances are tight. Should I continue to put $1,300 a month into my retirement plan or use that money for expenses and travel now — while we're still relatively young?

  • Credit cards provide more security against fraud than debit cards

    October 20, 2013

    Dear Liz: I'm in my early 30s and never carry cash. I charge everything on my debit card. This seems to be a topic of discussion in my office. My co-worker keeps getting his identity stolen and says that using debit cards to pay for everything wreaks havoc on your finances. He says I should use my credit card instead. I just finished paying off all the expenses that creep up when buying a house and really don't want to start using credit cards again. I don't think I'd be as good as keeping track of where my money goes when it's not coming automatically out of my account. But I don't want to end up losing it all now that identity theft is running rampant. What's the best solution here?

  • Determining goal for windfall will aid in deciding how to invest it

    October 13, 2013

    Dear Liz: Recently my mother passed away. My brother and I were fortunate enough to inherit a substantial amount of money from her life insurance. My brother and I do not want to spend this money and have placed the funds in brokerage accounts. My question is this: Because of the often-volatile market, is there a better way to invest this money? Should we take this money out of the market and save some of it in a bank?

  • Student loan vs. a home equity loan for college

    October 6, 2013

    Dear Liz: I am almost finished with my associate degree at my local community college and will be starting my undergraduate degree in January. I have been lucky enough to accrue no college debt so far but know I will when I start my bachelor's degree. I am considering taking out a home equity loan to cover this cost, borrowing around $10,000. I got a great deal on my house and it continues to grow in value even with this economy. Your thoughts on this?

  • Be smart about giving to charity

    September 27, 2013

    Dear Liz: What are your thoughts on charitable giving? I hear about tithing (giving 10% of income) but would have real problems trying to maintain that commitment. That said, I'd like to become a regular donor to a reputable charity.

  • Generous aid for relatives came at great personal cost

    September 20, 2013

    Dear Liz: I have $40,000 in credit card debt due to home healthcare I had to provide for my mom, who lived with me for six years before she passed away in 2011. I filed a Veterans Affairs claim on her behalf but just got a VA check for $344 with no explanation about whether this was all it was going to allow. If it is, I need to file for bankruptcy. I owe $18,000 on my mortgage and $32,000 on a home equity loan I took out in 2001 to help my son get on his feet after he finished graduate school and had his first child. I also had some credit card debt from helping my brother in 2009 when he had cancer and could not work and his wife left him so he had no income. I also have $20,000 in a money market account that I call my retirement fund. Is it protected if I were to file for bankruptcy? The economic downturn caused me to have to take a $700-a-month pay cut the first of this year that will reduce my annual salary to $55,000 if there are no more cuts or layoffs. If they were to close the business completely, my Social Security benefit will be $1,900 per month, compared with $3,400 that I take home now. I have always paid my bills, but Mom's medical expenses really have taken a toll on my finances.

  • 64 and with few salary prospects -- what to do?

    September 13, 2013

    Dear Liz: I'm 64 and lost my last full-time job a year ago. I have since exhausted my unemployment benefits and been on and off food stamps. (I'm waiting to get back on them right now because my temporary-to-permanent job didn't become permanent after all.) Fortunately I almost never need to go to a doctor, or if I do, I don't know that I do and can't afford to find out. I have about $3,000 in emergency savings, and my IRA is about $15,000. I was fortunate enough to sell a home in Hawaii 20 years ago, but I managed to run through all the money. My income when I was working full time was only $26,000 a year. I don't know what to do, and I don't know why I listen to all these financial programs that seem to target twentysomethings or people with retirement savings and comfortable incomes. They do not speak to my situation. My priority isn't saving for retirement. It's paying the bills.

  • Fees on prepaid card would erode son's allowance

    September 6, 2013

    Dear Liz: My son is 12 and receives a regular monthly allowance that I've been giving to him in cash. I think it might be time for a checking account. I would like to teach him about using a debit card and not overdrawing his account. All the banks that I have called will not open an account for a minor, even a joint account. I've heard about prepaid cards being used for allowances, but I'm concerned about the fees.

  • Separating couples should separate their credit as well

    September 1, 2013

    Dear Liz: How long must I be punished for my ex's poor payment history? In our divorce he agreed to pay the credit cards and other bills. He defaulted and has filed for a Chapter 13 bankruptcy. My credit scores plummeted, and recently one of the cards I obtained on my own to help rebuild my credit has dropped me, stating my credit scores as the reason. Do I have any recourse here?

  • Does paying off a no-interest loan early help credit scores?

    August 23, 2013

    Dear Liz: Two years ago, my husband was denied a revolving $12,000 line of credit. The credit reporting agency indicated that denial was based on "little revolving usage, insufficient or no bank lines, and insufficient open accounts with zero balances." Nine months ago, however, he was approved for a car loan and received a FICO Auto V2 Score of 808 from the same credit reporting agency. Another credit reporting agency gave him a FICO Auto 04 Score 836. We had wanted to pay cash for this car but thought it would be wise for my husband to improve his credit, so he got an interest-free loan. My husband was recently approved for and obtained a credit card with a $20,000 revolving credit limit. He previously had a card with a $2,000 limit. He will pay off the balances each month. Our question: How long should he wait to pay off the car loan so that the payoff helps his credit and doesn't hurt it? We don't like having outstanding debt and have no other loan obligations.

  • Striking the right balance in your investment portfolio

    August 16, 2013

    Dear Liz: If I plan to stay invested for more than 15 years and I can tolerate the ups and downs of the market, why would I want to put any of my 401(k) money into bonds instead of putting it all in various stock funds? The bond funds in my 401(k) have a five-year return of 5% to 6% whereas the other funds are 8% to 13%.

  • Son secretly took out huge student loans in parent's name

    August 9, 2013

    Dear Liz: Our son went to an expensive private school and ended up with more than $100,000 in federal and private loans by the time he graduated. My wife cosigned a private loan for $25,000 for the first year, and that was the last we heard of any loans until he graduated with a degree in social services. After he was out of school for six months, we started getting phone calls asking for payment. Turns out he electronically signed my wife's name to the next three years of his student loans.

  • Don't accelerate IRA distributions

    August 2, 2013

    Dear Liz: I am a CPA and fairly knowledgeable about investing, but I have a question about my IRAs. I am 58 and my husband is in his mid-80s. We both are retired with federal pensions and no debt other than a mortgage. My plan is to start taking money annually from my traditional IRA in two or three years. I want to reduce the required minimum distribution I will need to start taking at age 701/2 and lessen the tax impact at that time. Should I put these annual withdrawals in my regular investment account or should I put them in the Roth IRA? My goal is to lessen the tax impact on my only child when he ultimately inherits this money. Does my plan make sense?

  • How to figure income needs for retirement

    July 26, 2013

    Dear Liz: None of the Web-based tools I've seen really get at the heart of the problem of how much I really need in retirement. For example, if I am diligent and save 20% of my income (I earn over $150,000), why would I need to replace 95% or even 80% of my income to maintain my standard of living in retirement? If I subtract the 20% going to savings, another 10% for the costs of working (clothes, lunches, gas) and reduce my income tax 5%, shouldn't I be living the same lifestyle at 65% of my current income? Now, if I have a pension that will replace 10% of my pay, and if Social Security benefits for my spouse and me replace 30%, don't my investments have to produce only the remaining 25%? Or am I missing something?

  • Non-spouse inherits 401(k); What rules apply?

    July 19, 2013

    Dear Liz: My partner passed away a little more than a year ago. I inherited his 401(k) and life insurance. I opened an IRA in which to place the amount of the 401(k), but the company told me that after a year (which is now), I have to withdraw the money over five years. Is that really required? I'd like to be able to have it on hand in case of an emergency but at the same time save it for our 2-year-old son's college education.

  • Is switching to Roth IRA worth losing current tax break?

    July 12, 2013

    Dear Liz: Everyone talks about Roth IRAs and how beneficial they are. But I am self-employed, my husband contributes 16% toward his 401(k), our house is paid off, and we no longer have dependents to deduct on our 1040 tax return. My contribution to my traditional IRA is the only tax deduction we have left. Should I consider a Roth anyway? If so, why?

  • Bankruptcy may be only way to get collection efforts to stop

    July 5, 2013

    Dear Liz: I co-signed a credit card for someone and the person defaulted on payment. I started making payments but could not continue because I became unemployed. The debt started at $15,631.23 but has gone up to $17,088.08 because of interest and fees. I previously had to go to court because my bank account was frozen. I recently got a notice about this again. Should I file for bankruptcy or try contacting the attorneys who are seeking payment? I am working part-time and have a tight budget. I don't have anything saved and am living from paycheck to paycheck.

  • Saving for retirement vs. paying down debt

    June 28, 2013

    Dear Liz: I am a 67-year-old college instructor who plans to teach full time for at least eight more years. Last year I began collecting spousal benefits based on my ex-husband's Social Security earnings record. Those benefits give me an extra $1,250 each month above my regular income. I have been using the money to pay down a home equity line of credit that I have on my condo. The credit line now has a balance of $29,000. I have about $200,000 in mutual funds and should have a small pension when I retire. (I went into teaching only a few years ago.) Would it be better for me to split the extra monthly $1,250 into investments as well as paying off my line of credit? The idea of having no loan on my condo appeals to me, but I wonder if I should try to invest in stocks and bonds instead.

  • Think you have enough saved for kids' college costs?

    June 21, 2013

    Dear Liz: My husband and I have three children, two in elementary school and one in middle school. Through saving and investing, we have amassed enough money to pay for each of them to go to a four-year college. In addition, we have invested 15% of our income every year toward retirement, have six months' worth of emergency funds and have no debt aside from our mortgage and one car loan that will be paid off in a year. Considering that we have all the money we will need for college, should we move this money out of an investment fund and into something very low risk or continue to invest it, since we still have five years to go until our oldest goes to college and we can potentially make more money off of it?

  • Keeping debts secret from spouse is ill advised

    June 14, 2013

    Dear Liz: I have three credit cards that are in my name only, plus a small loan at my credit union. My husband did not sign for any of these, nor does he know the extent of my debt, which is about $10,000. If I should die before I can get them paid off, will he be responsible for my debt?

  • Figuring out best plan to save for college

    June 7, 2013

    Dear Liz: My husband and I have been putting 5% and 6%, respectively, into our 401(k) accounts to get our full company matches. We're also maxing out our Roth IRAs.

  • How does tenure affect financial planning?

    May 31, 2013

    Dear Liz: My spouse has tenure at a university. Given that one of us will always be employed, should we change the way we look at the amount of money we keep in an emergency fund or our risk tolerance for investments?

  • Split accounts when you and spouse split up

    May 24, 2013

    Dear Liz: I just finished paying off my last credit card and checked my credit report as I am now separated from my wife. I found we had one joint account that she had not been paying. There are two stretches of five months each of no payment.

  • How much cash should you keep on hand for emergencies?

    May 17, 2013

    Dear Liz: A few years ago I finished paying off my debt and now am in the very low-risk credit category. I have savings equal to about three months' worth of bills and am working to get that to six months' worth. I'm wondering, though, about an emergency that may require me to pay in cash (such as a major power outage that disables debit or credit card systems, or the more likely event that I forget the ATM or credit card at home). How much cash should a person have on hand? Is there a magic number?

  • Waiting to take Social Security is usually the best bet

    May 10, 2013

    Dear Liz: When I was 62, I started Social Security and I'm currently saving half of my monthly benefit after taxes (about $750). My decision to take my benefits early was influenced by a financial columnist who suggested that if I started at 62 and invested half or more of it until I reached full retirement age, the lower early benefits would be matched by the investment returns by the time I'm 85. Is this advice still reasonable?

  • Monitor credit accounts to catch dings of all sizes

    May 4, 2013

    Dear Liz: My husband and I are in the process of refinancing our mortgage. I just received my credit report in the mail, and my score was 724. The report indicated that a delinquency resulted in my less-than-stellar score. When I went to the credit bureau site to see where the problem was, I saw that I had a $34 charge on a Visa last year. I rarely use that card, so I did not realize that I had a balance. As a result, I had a delinquent balance for five months last year. I am sick about this, as I always pay my bills on time. To think that my credit score was affected by something so insignificant is really bumming me out. Is there anything I can do to fix this?

  • Lifestyle is keeping budget goal out of reach

    April 26, 2013

    Dear Liz: My husband and I are recovering from a job loss four years ago. We used up all our savings and home equity. My husband is now employed, but we are struggling to keep ahead even with a salary of about $100,000. I was a stay-at-home mom for the first 10 years of our kids' lives and now I work two part-time jobs to help with our expenses. We are trying to follow the 50/30/20 budget plan you recommend, but can't seem to get our "must haves" — which are supposed to be no more than 50% of our after-tax income — down from 80% to 90%. Most of the rest goes for "wants," such as the kids' dance classes and soccer teams and for cellphones. We're not saving anything although we're trying to whittle down our credit card debt. I have tried several times to refinance our first and second mortgages and home equity line of credit but have found we don't qualify because too much is owed on our modest three-bedroom, one-bath house, which has gone down significantly in value. We also have two car loans that are worth more than the cars, and the insurance is killing us. Amazingly enough, we have never been late on a payment. We just can't get ahead. Did I mention that both kids need braces?

  • Fee-only planners can help keep investment costs low

    April 21, 2013

    Dear Liz: You always mention fee-only financial planners and I'm not sure about the true meaning. My husband and I have a financial planner who charges us $2,200 per year, but we got a summary of transaction fees in the amount of $6,200 for last year. Is this reasonable? We have $625,000 in IRAs and are adding $1,000 a month. In addition we have over $700,000 with current employers, adding the max allowed yearly. The planner gives advice on allocations for these employer funds as well. Are we paying too much for the financial planner? The IRAs seem to be doing well, but the market is doing well (today!).

  • Elderly couple's sons pressuring them to get a reverse mortgage

    April 12, 2013

    Dear Liz: I try to watch out for my neighbors, a married couple in their early 90s. Two of their three sons, who are both in their 60s, want them to get a reverse mortgage. The couple's house is paid off as well as their cars. They pay all their monthly bills with Social Security and his pension. They have a living trust as well. Neither I nor the couple see any reason or upside but the sons are pressuring. Any input?

  • Use windfall to save for retirement before paring student debt

    April 5, 2013

    Dear Liz: What would you suggest that someone do with $20,000 if the someone is closer to 40 than 30, single, with $100,000 of student loan debt and a $250,000 mortgage? My salary is around $100,000 a year. I have an emergency fund equal to six months of expenses and I make an annual IRA contribution since my employer doesn't offer a 401(k) plan. Should I accelerate my student loan payments, since the interest isn't tax deductible for me because my income is too high? Or should I invest instead? If I invest, should I put it all in a total market stock index fund or is that too risky?

  • Protecting an elderly mother's assets

    March 29, 2013

    Dear Liz: Could you advise us on how to protect our 93-year-old mother's assets if she should become ill or die? She does not have a living will or a trust regarding her two properties.

  • Sale of possessions may not generate much cash

    March 22, 2013

    Dear Liz: We are in our 60s and looking to downsize. We're living in an apartment now and don't like it, so we want to buy a small house. Also, our finances took some serious hits in the recent economy and we're trying to rebuild. But in trying to sell our possessions, we're learning that people want us to discount the item beyond belief or even expect to get it for free. People talk about using Craigslist and EBay to generate cash but it looks like a waste of time. Do you know of other options?

  • Couple gets taxed for tapping IRA; how to pay?

    March 15, 2013

    Dear Liz: Help! We've just received devastating news from our accountant that we owe around $11,000 to the IRS and the state for 2012 taxes. The reason for the huge bill is that we cleaned out my husband's IRA to pay for our son's college expenses. My husband is almost 65 and working part time after being laid off, and I'm 61 with a full-time job. What is the best way to pay this bill? Here are the options I can think of: 1) Cash out my three-month emergency certificate of deposit of $12,000 that I've saved to cover expenses in case I get laid off. 2) Take money out of my IRA. 3) Use a credit card check that will be at zero percent for the first 12 months and then will slide to 8.9%. 4) Arrange a payment loan with the IRS. 5) Sell our house in which we have 70% equity. Which is best?

  • Are student loans worth it?

    March 8, 2013

    Dear Liz: I am a junior in college, and I might have to take out a loan my senior year because of financial cuts in the state. Is it really a bad idea to take a loan for college?

  • Withdrawals from traditional IRAs can't be postponed

    March 1, 2013

    Dear Liz: I just turned 70. Must I draw now from my IRA? I still work full time. I heard from one investment company representative that since I work, there is an exemption that I may not have to start withdrawals. Is this true?

  • Redirecting money after a loan is paid off

    February 22, 2013

    Dear Liz: I'll be done paying off my car in a couple of months. What's a good strategy for redirecting that money once it's paid off? Should I use the whole amount each month to start saving for my next car, or would I be better off splitting it up and putting it into several savings "buckets" such as retirement, emergency and my next car? I'm 35, have an emergency fund equal to four months' living expenses and only one other debt, a very low-interest student loan.

  • Building an emergency fund can help you survive setbacks

    February 17, 2013

    Dear Liz: A lot of financial advice sites say you should have an emergency fund equal to three to six months of living expenses. What would be considered living expenses? Should you use three to six months of your net take-home pay or a smaller number? Is three to six months really enough?

  • Hazards of having an ex-wife as credit card joint owner

    February 10, 2013

    Dear Liz: My boyfriend is deployed. I have his power of attorney, and during his deployment I have paid off all of his credit card debt. The accounts now need to be closed because they are ones that were acquired with his former wife. I know you say that it will hurt his credit to close accounts, but I'd rather close them because they're tied to his ex.

  • Closing account won't help credit scores

    February 3, 2013

    Dear Liz: I'm 22 and a graduate student with only one year left before I enter the "real world." I have four credit cards — one store card, two Visa cards and one MasterCard — only one of which carries a balance. I want to make the best decisions regarding my financial health. Which would be better for my credit: closing the account that's the oldest (opened when I was 18) but that will no longer be used because of its small credit limit and high interest rate, or leaving the line open?

  • Use care in renegotiating old debts

    January 27, 2013

    Dear Liz: I paid all of my old collection accounts except for two, which now are beyond the statute of limitations. I would like to find the best way to negotiate with the collection agencies without getting sued. Even though the original delinquency was over four years ago, the agencies are reporting these every month as current debt, which is really hurting my credit score. My intent is to offer a lump-sum settlement amount if they will remove the report from my credit file with the bureaus, or alternately in return for a "paid" notation on my report file. However, I cannot afford to pay the amount they say I owe.

  • Should a co-signer settle with collection agency?

    January 20, 2013

    Dear Liz: My daughter co-signed a student loan for a friend who failed to pay the debt. Now my daughter cannot refinance her home because this loan appears on her otherwise very good credit reports. She has been getting calls from a collection agency.

  • Equity-indexed annuity sales pitch is too good to be true

    January 13, 2013

    Dear Liz: Recently, someone from an insurance company proposed that I stop investing through my 401(k) at work and instead invest in his insurance company contract with after-tax dollars. He claims the funds would be guaranteed so that I would never lose principal, although there would be a cap on how much I could make in any given year. His claim is that it is better to forgo the tax deduction I would get from my 401(k) contributions so that I can take the money out of this contract tax-free in 20 or 30 years. I think I am too old for this program (I am 61 now) but I thought it might be appropriate for my daughter when she enters the workforce in a few years.

  • Don't let mortgage debt wreck retirement

    January 6, 2013

    Dear Liz: I have a first mortgage with a current balance of $32,000 at 5.625% interest. This will be paid off in about 24 months, based on regular payments plus $200 a month extra I am paying on principal. I have a home equity line of credit with a balance of $200,000 at 3% interest on which I am paying interest only ($490) monthly with an occasional principal payment when I can afford it. Between the two mortgages I am making payments of about $1,950 per month.

  • Right time to buy a home goes beyond money

    December 30, 2012

    Dear Liz: I am 28 and single with no children. I graduated from law school a few years ago and have a relatively stable job at a small law firm. I had previously thought I would wait to buy a house until I'm married, but now I don't think I should assume that will happen. Since a mortgage in my area would be roughly equivalent to monthly rental payments, renting seems like a waste of money. But the idea of being responsible for major house repairs is a bit daunting. Is this a legitimate concern? What should be the major factors to consider before buying property? How much should I have saved before I buy a house? And is a condo as bad an investment as I hear?

  • Lenders may forgive disabled borrowers' student loans

    December 23, 2012

    Dear Liz: We have a family member who recently was approved by Social Security for a complete disability claim. This person will never work again but has an outstanding student loan. The lender has a formal mechanism to apply for loan forgiveness, but is refusing to accept medical documentation of the disability. What appeal process is there and how can we force them to act? Do we need to retain legal counsel and incur additional expense to enforce a legal process and achieve loan forgiveness?

  • Don't impoverish yourself to pay kids' student loans

    December 16, 2012

    Dear Liz: I'm in my 50s. My kids have college loan debts that might total more than $200,000. I allowed them to take out loans because I expected to inherit $300,000 to help them pay off the debt. Now that inheritance will not happen.

  • Preparing for marriage to military man

    December 9, 2012

    Dear Liz: I'm about to marry an active-duty military man. We're in the process of marrying our finances, and I have several questions.

  • Gift tax rules allow for plenty of giving

    December 2, 2012

    Dear Liz: My husband and I have given our daughters gifts over the years, but we have never exceeded the $26,000 gift tax limit for a married couple. Do we need to file IRS Form 709 to split the gifts? If so, how to do we file for past years?

  • Can heir avoid capital gains taxes on sale of parents' home?

    November 25, 2012

    Dear Liz: My wife and her brother are selling their parents' home. The parents transferred the deed to their children's names years ago. My wife should receive about $85,000 from the sale. Our yearly income (one salary; she's a stay-at-home mom) is around $75,000. My wife is worried about capital gains taxes and wants to reinvest in another real estate property because she's heard that that will eliminate the capital gains tax. Is that correct? I would really rather invest that money in our current home (finish the basement into a family room, update some items) and pay off our car loan than worry about another property to take care of. What do you think?

  • Arrange car loan in advance to get a better interest rate

    November 18, 2012

    Dear Liz: I recently bought a new car, and the dealer, after running a credit check, told me my Experian score was 783. I have had only credit cards and no loans. This is my first auto loan. They gave me a 3.5% interest rate and I took it reluctantly. I do not like the rate and the need to pay huge interest over time, and am considering paying off the loan as soon as possible as there are no pre-payment penalties. If I am able to pay off my loan in a couple of months (instead of the original five-year loan term), will this improve or adversely affect my credit score? How will this look in the eyes of future lenders?

  • Federal student loans are investments — not handouts

    November 11, 2012

    Dear Liz: I am increasingly annoyed by the entitlement attitude of today's students. Why should the taxpayers (me) pay to educate somebody else's children? I remember when there was no such thing as a student loan. If I wanted to go to college and didn't have the money for tuition, I delayed starting college until I had worked for a year and saved up the money. Many of my friends did this, as did I. Now these kids stand around with their hands out looking for somebody to bring them their education on a silver platter. I wish you would say something about this in your column.

  • Public service workers may qualify for loan forgiveness

    November 4, 2012

    Dear Liz: I am the single mother of four daughters, including one who has a serious heart condition that causes $10,000 to $30,000 in out-of-pocket medical expenses each year. These medical bills have caused me to file bankruptcy twice, but the bankruptcies have not wiped out my student loans.

  • Enormous student loans paint parents into a corner

    October 28, 2012

    Dear Liz: My husband and I took out more than $200,000 in federal parent PLUS loans to pay for our two daughters' college educations. My husband earned over $300,000 when the loans were made. Since then, he lost his job and now makes $100,000. I went back to work and earn $35,000. We finally succeeded in getting a more affordable mortgage, but we are taking about $3,000 out of our savings each month to pay the bills.

  • Attending an elite college may not be worth the cost

    October 21, 2012

    Dear Liz: Please make me feel like I'm doing the right thing. My daughter happens to be very talented academically and athletically. She will graduate from one of the best prep schools in the country. She also plays ice hockey and is being recruited by some of the best schools. However, we are of middle-class means. We were given outstanding aid from her prep school, which made it very affordable. The net price calculators of the colleges recruiting her indicate we won't get nearly the same level of support.

  • Talk to credit counselor, attorney when debt is unmanageable

    October 14, 2012

    Dear Liz: I have a friend who owes $30,000 in credit card debt. I suggested he see a financial advisor who can help him to get out of this situation, but he never finds the time to do it. He pays all his bills on time, but only the minimum required, and there's nothing left for him to save for his old age. He has a good-paying job but still struggles financially. How can we help him?

  • Fee-only financial planner can help pare portfolio costs

    October 7, 2012

    Dear Liz: We have $130,000 invested in mutual funds, but the returns the last few years have been less than 4%. With the financial advisor taking 2% as a fee annually, we are not satisfied with the growth. A co-worker suggested buying blue-chip stocks with a strategy to hold and reinvest the dividends. If this is done in a self-directed plan to avoid the fees, we could be netting 4% plus. Is this a good plan or should we trust the advisor's optimism that our returns will improve soon?

  • Is it better to take a lump sum now or an annuity check later?

    September 30, 2012

    Dear Liz: My former employer is offering the one-time opportunity to receive the value of my pension benefit as a lump-sum payment. The other option is to leave the money where it is and get a guaranteed monthly check from a single life annuity when I reach retirement age. I am 40 and single, and I have been investing regularly in a 401(k) since graduating from college. I have minimal debt aside from a car payment. When does it make financial sense to take a lump sum now instead of an annuity check later?

  • Retirement savings, paying off toxic debt should be priorities

    September 23, 2012

    Dear Liz: I have read tons of books on finance and debt repayment, but I'm having trouble deciding what to do next. My husband and I are 52. He receives a monthly disability income, and I work two days a week. We still have about $105,000 left before our mortgage is paid off. We also owe about $7,000 in credit card debt and $5,500 in overdraft charges.

  • Handle debt and bad credit one step at a time

    April 18, 2010

    Dear Liz: I had good credit until I lost my home in foreclosure and then lost my job. I'm working again, but I went from a salary of $60,000 a year to a salary of $20,000. My credit is messed up and I can't pay my credit card bills. How do I get back on track?

  • Pitfall in this saving strategy

    April 20, 2008

    Dear Liz: I'm self-employed and have a Simplified Employee Pension account. Every year I borrow from an equity line to contribute the maximum to this account. My wife questions whether we are ahead by doing this. I say yes because we obviously save on the amount we pay in taxes and are paying only 5.25% on the equity line. We hope to pay off the loan in six months, plus we get to write off the interest. Is this a good plan?

  • Fighting an unethical debt collector

    April 6, 2008

    Dear Liz: I think I'm being pursued illegally for a debt I don't owe. I visited a hospital in June 2007. It took my health insurer about six months to process the claim. Shortly after I received my benefits statement from the insurer, I received a call from a collection agency saying I had to call back immediately and give my credit card number to pay this debt. Instead, I called the doctor's office the next day. The receptionist told me my account was still open and had not been turned over to collections. I gave them my address and they sent me a bill, which I paid. A month later, I got another call from the collection agency, once again telling me I had to pay that very same day and that I had to call back with my credit card information. My requests to be faxed a bill have been ignored. When I asked that a bill be mailed to my home, the woman I talked to said the address I gave her was false (it wasn't). I just received another call, and the caller threatened to put this debt on my credit report if I don't pay. What is going on here? Is this fraud? I get really nervous with these calls, and I'm not sure what's going on here.

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