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How to evaluate consumer options and not get cheated

One spouse’s inheritance doesn’t belong to the other spouse, but precautions must be taken to keep t
A money manager can help with everyday financial decisions.
(Scott Eells / Bloomberg)

Dear Liz: Although I’m able to pay my bills, it’s the decisions regarding cable, telephone, Internet and various insurance options that drive me nuts! I’ve tried to seek out independent groups that discuss such issues, but none exists in my area; and these decisions are not covered by my financial planner, nor do I wish to pay a senior money manager for this advice. As an elder orphan, I’m finding these decisions and others regarding repairs, workmen, etc. very stressful. Friends don’t really want to help and be held “responsible” if their recommendations don’t work out. What do you suggest?

Answer: Sometimes it feels like a full-time job to evaluate your options as a consumer and not get snookered. This isn’t an issue that’s unique to older people. But as we age, our financial decision-making abilities tend to decline, and we become more vulnerable to fraud or bad decisions. So you’re smart to want a trustworthy helper to guide you.

A lot of Internet sites clamor to be that helper, but not all are as objective as they seem to be. They may be steering you toward the companies that pay them the most. Make sure you read a site’s disclosure statements so you understand what its conflicts of interest might be.

One outfit you can trust is Consumer Reports, which has a print magazine as well as an online subscription with objective advice on thousands of products and services. Consumer Reports doesn’t accept advertising and has been helping people make smarter decisions since 1936.

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Finding good people to work on your home is trickier. Sites such as Angie’s List and Yelp offer reviews from other consumers and can help lead you to reputable firms. You shouldn’t take the results as gospel, though, because both rely on advertising from the companies being reviewed.

If you don’t feel up to the task of researching and sorting your options, please reconsider your aversion to hiring a daily money manager. You typically can pay such a manager by the hour to help you make these decisions. You’ll also have a chance to “test drive” his or her services since you may well need help with paying bills and other financial tasks down the line.

Getting help with credit scores after identity theft

Dear Liz: Would you please help readers learn how to fix credit scores after identity theft? I have been a victim at least eight times in the past five years. I have filed three police reports regarding these matters and sent them along with other proof to the big three credit report agencies. Only one quickly answered and deleted the false entries.

Answer: You have a friend in the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

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In the past, complaints about credit bureaus went into a black hole. The Federal Trade Commission collected them but warned consumers that it couldn’t expect any action on their individual cases. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, by contrast, forwards consumer complaints directly to the financial company and works to get problems solved. The bureau says 97% of complaints get a timely response.

Before you make your complaints, though, you should check your credit reports again. One bureau may have been faster in responding, but the other two may have since deleted the bogus accounts.

Social Security calculators may overestimate your benefits

Dear Liz: All of the Social Security calculators that I have found assume that you will work until you start drawing Social Security benefits. However, I plan on retiring around 62 but not drawing my benefits until age 66 or later. Whenever I calculate my future benefits, the calculator assumes that I will continue to draw the same salary as I have today until I start benefits. I’m worried the calculators are overestimating my benefit.

Answer: As you probably know, Social Security uses your 35 highest-earning years to calculate your benefit. When you work longer than 35 years, you’re typically replacing your lower-earning years in your teens or 20s with higher earnings from your 50s and 60s.

Free Social Security calculators usually assume that pattern will continue. If you stop working or earn less, the calculators may overstate your benefits. To get a better estimate, you’ll need to shell out $40 to use MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com, which allows you to customize your future earnings assumptions.

Liz Weston, certified financial planner, is a personal finance columnist for NerdWallet. Questions may be sent to her at 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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