Dear Liz: My wife and I accrued $28,000 of credit card debt over the past eight years. In addition to a sizable student loan bill for law school, our home mortgage and the expenses associated with three young children, we are struggling to get ahead enough to knock our credit card debt down. While we make good income between the two of us, it would seem not enough to pay more than the minimum on our debts. We have curbed a number of our bad habits (we eat out less, take lunch to work, say no to relatives) but the savings are not translating to lowered debt. Our 401(k)s are holding steady and we continue to contribute and I don't want to touch those (I did when I was younger and regret it.). We've been considering taking out a home equity line of credit to pay off the cards and reduce the interest rate. Of course we have to be disciplined enough to not go out and create more debt, but I think my wife got the picture when I said no family vacations for the next few years. What are your thoughts?
Answer: You say, "Of course we have to be disciplined enough to not go out and create more debt," but that's exactly what many families do after they've used home equity borrowing to pay off their cards. They wind up deeper in the hole, plus they've put their home at risk to pay off debt that otherwise might be erased in Bankruptcy Court.
Bankruptcy probably isn't in the cards for you, of course, given your resources. But before you use home equity to refinance this debt, you need to fix the problems that caused you to live so far beyond your means.
You've plugged some of the obvious leaks — eating out and mooching relatives — but you may be able to reduce other expenses, including your grocery and utility bills. If those smaller fixes don't free up enough cash to start paying down the debt, the next places to look are at your big-ticket expenses: your home, your cars and your student loans. There may not be much you can do about the latter, although you should explore your options for consolidating and refinancing this debt. That leaves your home and your cars. If your payments on these two expenses are eating up more than about 35% of your income, then you should consider downsizing.
What you don't want to do is to tap your retirement funds or reduce your contributions below the level that gets the full company match. Retirement needs to remain your top financial priority.
Reducing your lifestyle may not be appealing, but it's better to sacrifice now while you're younger than to wind up old and broke.
Marriage won't reduce Social Security check
Dear Liz: Each year, I track my estimated Social Security benefit on the SSA.gov website. At full retirement age of 67, my estimated benefit is $1,504. Is it true that my actual benefit may be reduced by 50% since I am married?
Answer: Good heavens, no.
If you're married, your spouse may be entitled to a benefit that equals up to half of your check. But your check is not reduced to provide this spousal benefit. Instead, the Social Security Administration typically would calculate the benefit your spouse earned on his own, compare that to his spousal benefit, and then give him the larger of the two amounts.
If you have ex-spouses from marriages that lasted at least 10 years, they too could be entitled to spousal benefits. But those benefits wouldn't reduce your check or your husband's.
Rolling over a mutual fund capital gain
Dear Liz: Your tax expert's answer to a person who wanted to roll over a $30,000 capital gain on a mutual fund missed an important point. Since the couple were solidly in the 15% tax bracket with a taxable income under $72,000, they should qualify for the 0% federal capital gain tax rate. (They may, of course, owe state taxes.)
Answer: They may not have had a capital gain at all, as other tax pros have pointed out. When people own mutual funds, the earnings are often reinvested each year. If the couple paid taxes on those earnings, their basis in the mutual fund would increase each year. To know if the couple had any capital gain, we'd need to know that adjusted tax basis. In any case, the original answer — that you can't roll over the gain on a mutual fund into another investment to avoid capital gains taxes — still stands.