Dear Liz: I have a 24-year-old son who has been trying to get through college for nearly seven years. I have helped him with direct gifts and by co-signing loans, but I am pretty tapped out. He tells me he has one year left but has no way to pay for it. He is disorganized and not particularly motivated, although he does talk about things he’s learning and I think is at least somewhat committed to school (he maintains about a B to C average at the state school he attends). He has moved back home to save money and is working full time but had gone many months without a job in the last year. He accumulated credit card debt and generally is a financial disaster.
Do I take out a second mortgage or co-sign another loan, which would be a stretch for me, or do I watch him drop out of school, which seems a really harsh life lesson? I know he might be able to take a year off and then go back, but let’s be honest — if he takes a break, it becomes less likely that he’ll ever return.
Answer: You sound like you’re more than tapped out. You already may be overextended because those private education loans you co-signed are just as much your responsibility as his — and he doesn’t sound like a terrific credit risk, at least at this point. Doubling down by borrowing more money doesn’t seem like the wisest choice for either of you.
Taking a break from school could increase the chances he won’t get his degree, but it also could give him time to get his financial life in better shape and perhaps tackle some of the issues impeding his progress. His disorganization and slow pace through school could point to an underlying problem such as a learning disability or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). His college may have a counseling center that could connect him with resources to help, or you could ask your family physician for a referral.
Keeping pace with retirement saving
Dear Liz: My wife is distressed by your recent column about how many multiples of salary are needed to retire. She interpreted the column as saying you must have the sum total of those numbers. So if you need one times your salary saved at 30, three times by 40, six times at 50 and eight times at 60, she thinks you would need 18 times your salary in total by age 60, or $1.8 million if you earn $100,000. I interpreted it to mean that your target would be $800,000 at age 60. Am I wrong?
Answer: You are interpreting the guidelines correctly: You would need eight times your salary at 60, not 18 times. The numbers, by the way, come from Fidelity Investments and are meant as general guidelines for people hoping to retire at 67 (at which point, Fidelity says they should have 10 times their salaries saved). Your needs may vary; some people will need less, some will need more. People who have large traditional defined benefit pensions, for example, may not need to save as much, while those who want to retire early or indulge in expensive hobbies, such as traveling or supporting adult children, may need to save more.
Guidelines tend to be the most helpful when you’re many years away from retirement and only guessing about how much money you’ll need. Once you’re five to 10 years from your desired retirement age, you should have a better handle on your likely expenses and sources of income. Well before you actually retire, though, you should consider consulting with a fee-only, fiduciary financial planner for a second opinion on your retirement plans. (“Fee only” means the advisor is compensated only by fees paid by clients, rather than through commissions or other arrangements. “Fiduciary” means the advisor is required to put your interests first.)
Claiming an ex’s benefits
Dear Liz: You recently answered a question pertaining to divorced spousal Social Security benefits. Social Security told me years ago that I had to wait till my former husband died before receiving a part of his benefits. We divorced after a long-term marriage, and I remarried after age 60. Is this still true for remarried former spouses? My ex does collect Social Security, and I collect my small benefit (both of us started at full retirement age).
Answer: The information you received was correct. You can’t get spousal benefits from your ex’s work record if you’re married to someone else. You can, however, get survivor benefits if your ex dies, as long as you remarried after you turned 60.