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Which to pay off first: credit cards or student loans?

Money Talk
Which to pay off first: credit card debt or student loans?

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.

Does FICO score drop because of no debt?

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.

Which work years determine Social Security benefits?

Dear Liz: My wife and I are both 59. We expect to retire in two or three years. We would not take Social Security until probably 67 because we will not need it when we retire. But would our Social Security benefits be less because we do not work for those five years before applying to Social Security? Is Social Security affected at all by the last few years of income or simply by the total lifetime deposits into the system?

Answer: Your Social Security benefits are based on your 35 highest-earning years. So if you've worked more than 35 years, a few years at the end of your career in which you earn less or don't earn anything at all shouldn't affect your benefits.

While you're researching your options for claiming Social Security, check out the "claim now, claim more later" strategy that would allow one of you to claim spousal benefits while allowing his or her own benefit to grow. It's one of a number of strategies available to married couples that can significantly increase the amount of Social Security benefits over a lifetime. Another important factor to consider is that one of you is likely to survive the other, perhaps by many years, and will have to get by on a single check. You should make sure that check is as large as it can be to lessen the chances the survivor will face poverty in old age. You can find more information about Social Security claiming strategies at the AARP site (aarp.org).

Questions may be sent to Liz Weston, 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, CA 91604, or by using the "Contact" form at asklizweston.com. Distributed by No More Red Inc.

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