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Savers should know the difference between investments and retirement accounts

Money Talk

Dear Liz: I am 22, single, work full time and have no outstanding debts. I have $18,000 in a savings account and am contributing 15% of my paycheck to a 401(k). How do I invest my savings to get a better return? I’ve been looking into certificates of deposit, money market accounts, IRAs and Roth IRAs, but don’t know enough to start.

Answer: Let’s first get clear on some terminology. CDs and money markets are types of investments, while IRAs and Roth IRAs are types of accounts — specifically, they’re retirement accounts. Think of IRAs and Roth IRAs as buckets into which you put investments, such as CDs, money markets, stocks, bonds or mutual funds.

The next thing you need to get clear about is your plan for your savings. If the money is meant to be an emergency fund, to tide you over in case of job loss or a large expense, then you probably shouldn’t put it in a retirement account, which could have penalties or restrictions on withdrawals.

You also shouldn’t put your emergency fund into investments that could lose value in the short term, such as stocks, bonds or most mutual funds. The best place for emergency money is usually a federally insured bank account. If your bank isn’t paying much interest, you can check with others, including online banks and credit unions, to see if you can get a slightly better return.

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If you don’t need the whole sum as an emergency stash, however, then you might want to think about taking more risk to get more return, and perhaps using an IRA or Roth IRA as your savings vehicle. To learn more, check out Kathy Kristof’s “Investing 101" or Eric Tyson’s “Investing for Dummies.”

Ways to cut the cost of prescription drugs

Dear Liz: My husband recently was placed on a pricey medication ($20 a day) that is not covered by insurance. Any suggestions to getting help with this added $7,000-a-year expense?

Answer: Doctors can be surprisingly ignorant of the cost of medications, so your first call should be to your pharmacist to see if there are more affordable options, such as a generic drug. If so, call the doctor back to see if your husband can switch.

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Either way, start shopping around. Medication costs vary enormously from pharmacy to pharmacy. You also should check to see if a mail-order pharmacy might save you some money.

Be sure to ask about discounts. Pharmacies may offer discounts for cash or with certain memberships, such as with AARP. Prescription discount cards are easy to find — just type “prescription discount card” into an Internet search engine — but steer clear of those that charge fees.

Also check NeedyMeds.org, which lists discounts and assistance programs specific to hundreds of medications. NeedyMeds also has a free prescription discount card.

Protecting yourself against identity theft

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Dear Liz: A copy of my wife’s Social Security card and driver’s license were stolen recently. I immediately contacted the credit bureaus. The first one tried to sell me a protection product. When I tried another number for that bureau, I got the automated runaround. The second bureau agreed to put a fraud alert on my account, then they too tried to sell me a product! Please tell everyone what will happen when they report issues like this, as you and so many others recommend. I still don’t know if I have done everything I can do.

Answer: If she hasn’t done so already, your wife should call the police to report the crime and get a copy of the report in case she needs it later to prove she’s a victim of identity theft.

Your wife is the one who needs to have fraud alerts placed on her credit reports at all three of the major credit bureaus: Equifax at (800) 525-6285, Experian at (888) 397-3742 and Trans Union at (800) 680-7289. These alerts are good for 90 days and can be renewed. It’s unfortunate the bureaus are using these help lines to pitch products, but you don’t need to buy anything to get a fraud alert placed on your files. In two or three months, she should use https://www.annualcreditreport.com to get a free look at her credit reports to make sure no one has opened accounts in her name.

Your wife also may want to consider a credit freeze, which locks up her credit reports to make it much harder for someone to apply for credit in her name. Get more information about these freezes, which typically involve fees, at https://www.financialprivacynow.org.

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In addition, she needs to call your state’s department of motor vehicles to report the stolen license. If she discovers later that someone is using it, she can request a number change.

For more on coping with stolen information and dealing with identity theft, visit the Identity Theft Resource Center at https://www.idtheftcenter.org.

Liz Weston is the author of “The 10 Commandments of Money: Survive and Thrive in the New Economy.” Questions for possible inclusion in her column may be sent to 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, CA 91604 or via asklizweston.com. Distributed by No More Red Inc.


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