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Too many credit cards? Protect your credit scores while closing accounts

If you have more credit cards than you want, don't close the extra accounts all at once because that could deal a blow to your credit scores.
If you have more credit cards than you want, don’t close the extra accounts all at once because that could deal a blow to your credit scores.
(Elise Amendola / Associated Press)

Dear Liz: Over the years, my husband and I have accumulated a number of credit cards. All have had a zero balance for years. I want to start canceling these cards, but I’m concerned that will hurt our great credit scores. How should I go about this, or should I?

Answer: As you probably know, closing credit accounts won’t help your scores and may hurt them. That doesn’t mean you can never close a credit card, but you shouldn’t close a bunch of them at once or close any if you’ll be in the market for a major loan, such as a mortgage or auto loan.

If you’re not planning to borrow money in the near future, then you can start closing accounts one at a time. You’ll probably want to keep the cards with the highest credit limits, and perhaps your oldest card as well. Monitor your scores to see how long they take to recover from each closure. You may need to wait a few months before shutting the next account.

Be sure to use your remaining cards occasionally by charging small amounts and paying the balance in full. That will keep the cards active and help prevent the issuer from canceling them.

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Don’t rush to collect Social Security

Dear Liz: I would like you to explain to us retirees why we should delay taking Social Security.

I have two tax preparers — and other people — who say delaying is a terrible idea. I’m in my 20th year of collecting Social Security, and I can assure you that people who delay are making a dreadful mistake. Please check this out!

Answer: Your tax preparers may have had a point 20 years ago, but a lot has changed since then, including life expectancies and prevailing interest rates. It’s unfortunate if your advisors haven’t kept up with copious research showing that delaying Social Security makes sense for most recipients.

One issue of particular interest to tax pros is the “tax torpedo.” That’s a sharp rise and then fall in the marginal tax rate caused by taxation of Social Security benefits. Researchers found the tax torpedo could nearly double the marginal tax rate for many middle-income families. People in the 22% federal tax bracket, for example, could see their marginal tax rate jump to 40% on a portion of their income.

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Two decades ago, this would have been an issue for fewer taxpayers because most did not owe income tax on their Social Security benefits. Now more than half pay taxes on their benefits because Congress hasn’t updated certain income limits to reflect inflation.

The researchers found that delaying the start of benefits until age 70 and tapping retirement funds instead could reduce the tax torpedo’s effect. This approach not only maximizes Social Security benefits but also reduces the minimum amounts that must be distributed starting at age 70½. For more details, you can point your tax advisors to the July 2018 issue of the Journal of Financial Planning.

The National Bureau of Economic Research also has numerous papers on Social Security-claiming strategies, including “Recent Changes in the Gains from Delaying Social Security,” “Leaving Big Money on the Table: Arbitrage Opportunities in Delaying Social Security,” “The Power of Working Longer” and “The Decision to Delay Social Security Benefits: Theory and Evidence.”

This generous gift has no tax effects

Dear Liz: If I give $15,000 to my grandson, do I report it on my tax return? Is it deductible? Does my grandson report the gift on his tax return and does he owe tax on it? What if three sets of grandparents (parents and stepparents of his parents) do the same?

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Answer: No, no, no, no and it doesn’t matter for tax purposes (although obviously your grandson should be delighted he has such generous grandparents).

Gifts to individuals aren’t tax deductible, but neither are they taxable to the recipient.

People can give a certain amount each year to as many recipients as they like without having to report the gifts via a gift tax return. In 2019 and 2020, the limit is $15,000. Each grandparent could give up to that amount to your grandson; he wouldn’t have to report the income on his tax returns, and it wouldn’t cause any of you to have to file gift tax returns.

There’s no limit to the number of people who can give $15,000 to your grandson this way.

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You wouldn’t owe gift taxes until the amount you’d given away above the annual exemption limit exceeded $11.4 million.

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.


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