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Personal finance Q&A: Use at least 90% of a bonus to pay off debt

Money Talk
If you're having trouble living within your means, a fee-only planner could help you figure out a budget

Dear Liz: I'm expecting a bonus this year of about $10,000. Should I pay off $6,000 in back taxes on which I'm currently paying $428 per month on a never-ending installment agreement? Or would it be better to pay off one of our $5,000 credit cards accruing 19% to 22% interest?

Answer: You didn't mention some important factors: How much you owe on the credit cards, what the interest rate is on that installment agreement, or why you're planning to use only about half of your bonus to pay off debt instead of at least 90% of it.

What is clear, though, is that you're having some trouble living within your means. A fee-only planner who charges by the hour could help you figure out a budget. Online resources such as Mint.com or personal finance software such as Quicken or You Need a Budget also might be helpful. Another low-cost source of help would be a credit counselor affiliated with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (www.nfcc.org).

All things being equal, it's usually best to pay off your highest-rate debts first. If you owe so much on credit cards that you have no hope of paying them off within five years, however, you might be wise to spend some of your bonus consulting a bankruptcy attorney.

How best to max out retirement savings

Dear Liz: My husband and I are in our late 40s. We're in a good financial position and trying to max out our retirement savings. We have small traditional IRAs and are now above the income limit to deduct contributions to it. We have Roth IRAs that we converted from traditional IRAs several years ago (our income is borderline for being able to contribute directly to a Roth). We also recently got a Health Savings Account that we are maxing out and saving for retirement. But the bulk of our retirement savings is in our 401(k)s, which we max out every year. I hear I should have a mix of pre-tax and after-tax sources of income in retirement. Can I wait until the first year we retire and roll some of my 401(k) into a traditional IRA and then convert it to a Roth, at presumably a lower tax rate due to lower income? Or would it be better to contribute now to a Roth 401(k) at work instead of a regular 401(k), even knowing that our tax rate will probably be lower in retirement?

Answer: You already have a mix of pre- and after-tax sources of income in retirement. Withdrawals from your Roth IRAs will be tax free in retirement, as will your HSA withdrawals if they're used for medical expenses.

Roth conversions and contributions to Roth 401(k)s make the most sense when you expect to be in a higher tax bracket in retirement, rather than a lower one. Otherwise, you're giving up a tax break now (your deductible contributions) for what's likely to be a lesser tax benefit later. Conversions at retirement are particularly tricky, since you may not have decades of tax-free compounding ahead of you to make up for the fact that you accelerated the tax bill.

Talk to a tax pro, but it's likely that maxing out your regular 401(k)s is the best move.

Offering unsolicited advice is pointless

Dear Liz: Your answer to the financially savvy brother whose advice is lost on his sisters was a bit harsh and shortsighted, so my guess is that you may not know anyone who has siblings who will continue for the next few decades to need help. It is hard to deny a sibling help while enjoying the benefits of prudent saving. It is harder to watch a sibling suffer, even if they should have avoided it. Seems to me completely different from giving advice about child rearing, which I might add is sometimes simply a statement of the obvious and one that should not even have to be mentioned, like don't let your kids scream in public. This young man is almost certainly going to live with either guilt over not supporting his sisters when the mother dies or the frustration of having to give up hard-earned funds to avoid the guilt. You should have said he needs to write them a letter citing the guidance given and making it clear not to come to him when they get in trouble.

Answer: Thank you for providing a perfect example of why people find unsolicited advice so annoying.

The brother asked what he could say to his sisters to make them more financially responsible and to his mother to make her realize she should stop supporting them. The answer, of course, is nothing. There are no words that can make other people change unless they want to change. Since his family has made clear they're not interested in his advice, continuing to offer it would be pointless.

The brother didn't express concern that he would wind up supporting either his mother or his sisters. Even if he has such concerns, writing such a letter would be churlish, at best. If he's asked for help, he can make his position known then.

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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