Dear Liz: Would you advise taking money out of your 401(k) for your wedding if you’re getting a lump sum of money within the same year and can pay the full amount back?
Answer: How about postponing the wedding until you can pay for it in cash?
That would be so much better than starting your life together “betting on the come” — in gambling parlance, counting on cards that haven’t yet been dealt into your hand. There are so many ways that can go wrong and only a few where it can go right.
The most obvious risk in borrowing from your 401(k) is that you will lose your job and won’t be able to pay back the money before the balance is deemed a withdrawal, incurring taxes and penalties. Plus, you can’t put the money back, so you’ve lost all the future tax-deferred compounding those savings could have earned.
You’re also setting a seriously bad precedent for your marriage when you borrow money for a luxury, which is what a wedding is. (You also might want to read the Emory University study that found the duration of a marriage was inversely proportional to how much was spent on the engagement ring and wedding. The more spent, in other words, the shorter the marriage.)
It’s easy to get in the habit of borrowing rather than making hard choices or having hard discussions. But a good marriage, and sound finances, requires plenty of both. Give yourselves the gift of a wedding you can afford, when you can afford it.
Home sales and taxes
Dear Liz: In a few years, my husband and I will sell our large primary residence and move into a smaller home for our retirement. We are both over 55. We currently rent out the smaller home and pay a mortgage on it. We will realize a small capital gain on the large residence when it is sold. Rather than use our one-time exclusion for the sale of a primary residence, can we avoid capital gains by putting the small profit toward paying down the mortgage principal on the smaller home when it becomes our primary residence shortly after selling the large house?
Answer: The ability to defer capital gains taxes on home sales and the one-time exclusion for home sale profits were repealed in 1997. Before that, capital gains taxes were typically due on home sale profits unless the homeowners bought a house of equal or greater value within two years of the sale. The exception was for people 55 or older, who could exclude up to $125,000 of home sale profit from their incomes once in their lives.
Now, when you sell a home, regardless of your age, up to $250,000 in home sale profits can be excluded by an individual or $500,000 by a married couple. You can do this multiple times, as long as you live in each home at least two of the preceding five years.
There are some issues with converting a rental property into a primary residence, however, especially if you should want to sell it someday. You should discuss this with a tax professional.
Social Security spousal benefits
Dear Liz: My husband is 78 and receives a large Social Security check every month. I will be 66 in two years. Should I take my benefit then — we may need it — and then switch to his benefit if he dies before I do? His benefit will be much higher than mine. I see that some of your older posted responses mention a spousal benefit. I think this is no longer offered as of a few years ago — is that correct?
Answer: Spousal benefits, which can be up to 50% of the primary earner’s benefit, are still very much available. What was eliminated for people born on or after Jan. 2, 1954, was the option of filing a restricted application for spousal benefits only, and then switching to one’s own retirement benefit later.
When you apply for Social Security, your spousal benefit is compared to your own benefit and you’ll get the larger of the two. When one of you dies, the survivor will get only one check, which will be the larger of the two you received as a couple.