Dear Liz: After many years of unemployment, I finally got a full-time position. It is a state job with a pension. How much do I need to save for retirement? Can I focus on paying off debt and saving for college, and trust I will be OK in retirement?
Answer: Your long stint of unemployment should have taught you that no job, and no plan for your life, is guaranteed.
You may have to work for the state for years to become "vested" in the plan, or eligible for a retirement check. In order to actually retire, you typically have to stay employed by the state for a decade or more. Even then, your check in retirement may not replace a big chunk of your salary. Traditional defined benefit pensions tend to offer the highest benefits to those who work for the system for decades.
A lot can happen while you're waiting for your pension to build. You could get fired or laid off or suffer a disability that limits your ability to work. The pension plan itself could change.
If your employer doesn't pay into the Social Security system, that adds another layer of uncertainty to your future. You could wind up without a pension, or only a small pension, and less Social Security than you might have had with a job that did pay Social Security taxes.
That's why it's essential to save for retirement even with the prospect of a good pension. You may be offered a tax-deferred workplace plan, or you can save on your own through IRAs or taxable accounts.
How to block access to your credit history
Dear Liz: Is there a way to lock my credit history and access to prevent the unscrupulous from opening accounts in my name? Maybe I'm rare, but I have enough existing credit cards, don't have a mortgage and essentially have no debt, and I want to keep it that way. I suspect businesses that make their living issuing credit reports will resist this ability, but I want to do all I can to make it tough for anyone to steal my identity.
Answer: You can lock up your credit reports with what's known as a credit freeze (also called a security freeze). The three major credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — have information about how to do this on their websites. You also can find general information about credit freezes on Consumer Reports' site.
Credit freezes can prevent new account identity theft — someone opening new credit accounts in your name. Lenders typically check credit reports when they get new credit applications. If they can't access your reports thanks to a credit freeze, they're unlikely to approve the application.
Of course, the freeze applies to you as well. If you change your mind and want to apply for a new account, you'll need to temporarily thaw the freeze.
Other entities also check credit reports, so you may need to lift the freeze if you apply for a job, insurance, new utilities or cellphone service. You typically have to pay fees (which range from $2 to $15, depending on your state) to each bureau to lock up your credit and another set of fees to thaw it.
Credit freezes won't interfere with your ability to use your credit cards or prevent your current lenders from accessing your reports.
Credit freezes also won't prevent other types of identity theft, including tax refund fraud, medical identity theft and criminal identity theft (which occurs when criminals give law enforcement your information when they get arrested, rather than their own).
Still, credit freezes are a good solution if your identity has already been stolen or you're at high risk because your Social Security number has been swiped or exposed in a data breach.
Credit bureaus may suggest you put a temporary fraud alert on your reports instead, or pay for credit monitoring or identity theft "protection" (which actually doesn't protect you against anything but simply offers an early warning if your reports are compromised). A credit freeze is a more secure solution, but you have to weigh the potential hassle and cost against the benefit.