Does Age Affect Credit Score?

Question: My credit score is 658. I have no credit cards, mortgage, or other loans — although I’ve had all of those in the past. I work full-time for $30 per hour, get Social Security retirement, and have about $10,000 in a 401(k). I like to travel and expect to live another 20 years. I see all these credit cards with rewards travel points, but I never seem to qualify for any of them. Am I too old to tweak my credit score so that I can qualify? – Janet in California

Laura Adams, author, and host of Money Girl podcast responds…

Thanks for your question, Janet. The short answer is no, you’re never too old to improve your credit! There are no downsides to building better credit — only many upsides.

Even if you weren’t interested in qualifying for a credit card, having better credit could improve your financial life in many ways, including:

  • Lower auto insurance rates. Insurance is regulated by states, so the rating rules vary depending on where you live. While no state allows credit to be the only factor in setting auto rates, most use it as a factor in determining how much you pay.
  • Lower home insurance rates. Just like with auto insurance, insurers use credit when setting rates for home, condo, and renters’ policies. Again, no state allows credit to be the sole factor in setting home insurance rates.
  • Approval to rent a home. Most landlords, property managers, and leasing companies check credit as part of the application process to make sure you’re likely to pay rent on time. If you have poor credit you may get turned down to lease or have to pay a larger security deposit.
  • Less expensive utilities and cell phone contracts. Having poor credit means you might have to pay a hefty security deposit for utilities, such as water, gas, power, and cable. Cell phone companies also check credit when you apply for a new contract to make sure you’ll pay their bill. If you don’t have good credit you may be charged higher rates or not qualify for top-tier wireless plan offers.

 This isn’t a complete list of all the ways credit affects your finances. The main point to remember is that when you build credit, not only do you become eligible for credit accounts, but you also save money and improve your financial life in other ways.

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Common misconceptions about credit scores

A common misconception about credit is that if you have no debt, you must have good credit. That’s completely false. In order to have good credit, you must have active credit accounts and use them responsibly.

Unfortunately, having no credit is the same as having bad credit. A “thin” credit history means you don’t have enough data in your file to generate a credit score. Without a credit score, lenders and merchants have no way of evaluating how likely you are to repay your bills and are likely to deny you credit.

It can seem like a catch 22. You can’t build a credit history without a loan or credit card, but you can’t get one without having a good credit history! Fortunately, using a secured credit card the right way is an easy way to build credit. There are also credit builder loans that are specifically designed to help people with bad credit build their way to a better score.

What is a secured credit card?

A secured credit card is similar to a regular, unsecured credit card in many ways:

  • They look the same.
  • They can be used to make purchases at the same stores.
  • They require a minimum monthly payment.
  • They charge interest if you don’t pay off your balance in full by the statement due date.
  • They may charge an annual fee.
  • They may offer a variety of benefits, such as fraud coverage, price protection, extended warranty, or travel accident insurance.

The main difference between a regular and a secured card is that you must pay an upfront deposit because it reduces the issuer’s loss if you don’t pay your bill. The minimum required security deposit varies depending on the card you choose. Some issuers may only require $50, but others may ask for several hundred.

If you deposit $300 on a secured card, your total charges can never exceed that amount. However, if the card has an annual fee, it may be taken out of your deposit.

For instance, if you put up $300 and have a $50 fee, your credit limit becomes $250 for the first year, $200 for the second year, and so on.

How a secured credit card helps you build credit

The major benefit of a secured card is that some, but not all, cards report your payment data to one or more of the three nationwide credit bureaus: Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion.

But don’t spin your wheels with a secured card that doesn’t report your payment history to at least one of the bureaus. A history of making on-time payments — even if they’re just the minimum payments — helps you build credit quickly. After you use a secured card responsibly, the issuer may offer you a regular card.

Remember that you never need to carry credit card debt to improve your credit. It’s true that you must have credit accounts and use them to build credit. However, you can pay them off in full each month. That’s the best strategy to avoid paying credit card interest and build credit at the same time.

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What is a credit building loan?

A credit building loan is another useful tool for building credit. It’s basically a self-loan that you make online through a company like Self Lender. It helps you build credit and gives you a useful way to increase your savings at the same time. You take out a loan and the funds are used to open a Certificate of Deposit (CD) that grows with interest over time.

Then, you make payments to pay the self-loan back. Companies like Self Lender report to the credit bureaus just like a traditional lender. So, you build positive credit history and receive your money back with interest added once the CD matures.

How a credit builder loan helps you build credit

Just like secured credit cards, credit builder loans are designed for people who need to build credit. So, you can qualify even if you have a bad credit score or no credit score because you’ve been living without debt.

As long as you make all the payments on the credit builder loan on time, you build a positive credit history. You also improve the mix of credit that you have if you have a secured credit card and a credit builder loan at the same time.

Learn more about what makes up your credit score »

How Do Taxes on Retirement Income Work?

Question: Can my cashed out retirement be taxed more than once? Christopher G. in California

Mandi Woodruff, executive editor at MagnifyMoney, responds…

Without much detail on the type of retirement account you’re concerned with or your reasons for cashing out, it’s hard to know exactly how to answer your question. So let’s start by covering the tax basics for some of the most popular retirement accounts: Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) and 401(k)s.

Taxes on Roth retirement accounts

When you make contributions to a Roth IRA or Roth 401(k), contributions are made with after-tax dollars. In other words, pay taxes upfront but withdrawals are tax-free in retirement. Roth accounts can be a great way for people who believe they’ll face higher tax rates in the future to create a tax-free income stream in retirement.

The trouble with Roth IRAs is that not everyone can use them. For 2019, if you are single and have income over $137,000 (or married filing jointly with income of $203,000 or more) you cannot contribute to a Roth IRA. There’s no income limit for Roth 401(k) contributions, but you’ll only be able to contribute to this type of account if your employer offers a Roth option in their 401(k) plan.

Taxes on traditional retirement accounts

If you’d rather get the tax break now, you can contribute to a Traditional IRA or 401(k). With these accounts, contributions are made with pre-tax dollars — you receive a tax break in the year you make the contributions, but when you take the money out in retirement, the distributions are considered taxable income. For 2019, you can contribute up to $6,000 to an IRA and up to $19,000 in a 401(k). People aged 50 or older can also take advantage of “catch-up” contributions which allow them to contribute an extra $1,000 to an IRA and $6,000 to a 401(k).

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Two ways you could end up paying taxes twice on retirement funds

1. The trouble with traditional IRAs is, if you’re covered by a retirement plan at work, you might not get to deduct your contributions. For 2019, a single taxpayer with a modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) of $64,000 or less can take a full deduction for their contributions to a traditional IRA. If your MAGI is more than $64,000 but less than $74,000, you’ll receive a partial deduction, and if your MAGI is $74,000 or more, you’ll receive no deduction. For a married couple filing jointly, you need to make less than $103,000 to get the full deduction and get no deduction at all if your income is $123,000 or more.

Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll lose out on your tax break now and have to pay taxes on withdrawals in retirement. Any contributions to a traditional IRA for which you don’t receive a deduction in the year it was made are considered “basis” in your IRA. When “basis” is withdrawn, that portion of your withdrawal is not taxable.

It’s up to you — not the IRS and not the bank or brokerage that holds your IRA — to keep track of your basis. When you make a non-deductible contribution to your IRA, you are required to file Form 8606 with your tax return to report the non-deductible contribution. You should hold on to a copy of that Form 8606 — and any more 8606s you might file in the future for additional non-deductible contributions — basically forever. Don’t shred them along with your other tax documents a few years later, or you’ll lose your only record of your basis.

That’s one way in which you actually might have to pay taxes twice on your retirement. Without proof of basis, you get no deduction for the money going into the account and have to include it in your taxable income when you withdraw the money later.

2. There’s another scenario in which it might appear that you’re being taxed twice on your cashed out retirement. In this case, we’re talking about early withdrawals from an IRA or 401(k). Generally, if you withdraw money from an IRA or 401(k) before age 59½ (or the normal retirement age as defined by your 401(k) plan), the money you withdraw is taxable income and you may have to pay a 10 percent additional tax penalty.

There are a few exceptions to the 10 percent penalty. For example, you can withdraw money from an IRA to cover college education expenses or health insurance premiums while you are unemployed. The IRS has a complete list of exceptions to the penalty on early distributions.

If at all possible, try not to withdraw your retirement savings until you’re at least 59½. Unless you qualify for an exception, the taxes and penalties can eat up a big portion of the money you cash out.

Can I Deduct Funeral Expenses From My Income Taxes?

Question: My husband died in September 2018. We had borrowed from his 403(b) a few years ago. I used the money we still had in our bank account to pay for the funeral costs and the cost to pay his personal debts (like a car loan). Then I received a 1099R form for the amount that was rolled over into my account. I also received a 1099R for the amount that was outstanding on the loan from the 403b. How much of the money can I claim as being used for his death? I’m assuming that the funeral costs qualify. Can I also claim the amount that was used to pay off his personal debt as being used for his death?Casey in California

Jacob Dayan, Co-Founder of Community Tax, responds…

Sorry for your loss, Casey.

Generally, beneficiary spouses can roll over the eligible distribution attributable to the employee to any eligible retirement plan. This would most likely be your existing or a new IRA rollover account. You had previously taken a loan from the 403(b) that appears to be unpaid at his death, and the unpaid balance of the loan was treated as a taxable distribution. The amount of the unpaid loan will be reported on a 1099R form, with the taxable amount shown in Box 2A.  There should also be a code “L” reported in box 7, identifying the distribution as a loan.

Any other distributions you received will also be reported on a 1099R – even the amounts that you rolled over. There are two types of rollovers that can be reported on the 1099R.

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The first type is known as a “trustee to trustee” rollover. This happens when funds are sent directly to the rollover trustee without you having received the funds. Then, the second type of rollover involves your receipt of the funds. The rolled over funds must then be deposited into the new account within 60 days of receipt.

The amount rolled over will be reported on line 16A of your 2018 income tax return. Assuming the loan was the only other taxable distribution, the loan amount will be reported on line 16B as taxable income.

Now that funds have been rolled over, you need to be aware of the “Required Minimum Distribution” rules.  Basically, you must begin to take distributions from the rollover by April 1 after you have reached age 70½.  Your investment advisor will notify you of the minimum amount you must withdraw each year.

Unfortunately, funeral costs and car loans are not deductible.

You can deduct the final medical bills that you had to pay. This deduction is limited to the amount that exceeds 7.5 percent of your income and is grouped with other allowable itemized deductions: state and local taxes, real estate tax, mortgage interest, and charitable contributions. Don’t forget to add the value of any of his personal belongings that may have been donated to charity.

Should your itemized deductions fall short of the allowable standard deduction, you’re still entitled to a $24,000 to $26,600 standard deduction depending on your ages. I know this is a lot to digest, but if you struggle with it, contact a tax pro who can break it down for you. Debt.com can help you find one.

How to Save for Retirement

Retirement usually enters your life the first time you get a job. Each paycheck you get has money deducted from it that goes toward Social Security. That’s a government program that provides retirement benefits, as well as disability and survivor’s benefits to Americans. This may be automatic, but you still need to learn how to save for retirement on your own.

The idea of purposely saving for retirement likely won’t enter your life until you get a full-time job. It happens when your company offers something called a 401(k) plan. These are employer-sponsored retirement plans. Your employer takes money out of your paycheck and invests it for you via an outside company. Companies can also provide a financial incentive in the form of a match, which is when your employer matches your contribution and helps you save even more for retirement. A 401(k) is often the first time that people start actively saving for retirement.

Why do you need to save for retirement?

It's time to learn how to save for retirement

Individuals are living longer than ever, but the retirement age hasn’t changed much. The average retirement age for Americans is 62. However, many of us are living until almost 80, and a chunk of us make it to over 100, which means we will need some form of income for at least 15 years after our last paycheck.

Years ago, it was the protocol for companies to “provide” for your retirement through pensions, or defined benefit plans. But according to a recent Willis Towers Watson study, only 16 percent of “Fortune 500” companies offered a defined benefit plan, whether it was traditional or hybrid (with a 401(k)), to new hires. This is a drop from 20 years ago when 59 percent of the same employers offered jobs with pensions.

While Social Security can provide some financial help, individuals can no longer solely depend on the system to take care of all their financial needs. For those of us who aren’t living like Scrooge McDuck, we need some kind of backup plan. This is where saving for retirement comes in.

Retirement planning can help you figure out how much money you will need when you are no longer working. Recent research from the TransAmerica Center for Retirement Studies shows the average income for a retiree is $32,000. The number is higher for married retirees ($48,000) and much lower for those who are unmarried ($19,000). The majority of this comes from Social Security retirement benefits, but many say they still struggle with everyday expenses. Proper planning can help you avoid that struggle and allow you to live your retired life to the fullest.

When should I start saving for retirement?

The earlier you start saving for retirement, the better. Investing early gives your money time to grow, meaning someone who starts putting small amounts of money away at age 25 will have a much larger retirement account than someone who started saving large amounts of money at age 45. Not sure which goals to set for which times? The general timeline below will help you plan out the coming years.

Retirement Savings Timeline:

  • By the end of your 20s, you should have:
    • A retirement savings account the size of your annual income.
  • By the end of your 30s, you should have:
    • Around 3 times your salary in your retirement fund.
  • By the end of your 40s, you should have:
    • A retirement savings account about 6 times your salary.
  • By the end of your 50s, you should have:
    • Approximately 8 times your annual pay in your retirement account.

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How much should I save for retirement?

Assessing the health of your 401K nest egg

Again, this all depends on the kind of lifestyle you would like to live in retirement. If you plan on living modestly in a house that will be paid off, you likely will not need as much in retirement savings as someone who wants to travel the world and spend money on their grandchildren. Certified Financial Planners can help you plot out your savings and investing plan

s so that when you are retiring, you won’t need to worry about potentially running out of money due to illness or unexpected expenses.

How can I save more for retirement?

The best way to save extra money for retirement is to limit your current spending. If you don’t already, come up with a monthly budget and stick to it. This allows you to put away whatever is leftover every month into your retirement account. For some everyday saving tips, check out our Money Tips section.

How do I start saving for retirement?

Before you use any of the methods below, you need to make sure you are prepared to save for retirement. The most important first step is to pay off all your debt. If you are in debt, it can be very difficult to save for retirement (or for anything at all). Read our guide to getting rid of debt here.

Next, you need to consider the kind of budget you want during your retirement years. Will you downsize or do you think you may end up spending more than before? How much do you think you will need per month to have the lifestyle you want? Planning out a potential budget gives you a better idea of how much you really need to save.

After getting rid of your debt and doing a little bit of budget planning, you’re ready to start one (or a combination) of the methods below.

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Method 1: 401(k)

The easiest way for many of us is to use a 401(k) through our company.

It will automatically deduct money from your paycheck and put it into an account. Then you invest the money in a mix of stocks, bonds, and cash. How the money gets invested depends on the company you are with. Some companies let you choose how you want to invest while others give you a suggestion based on your risk profile. Others will put your money in their own selection of investments based on the year you will likely retire. The older you get, the less risky your investments tend to become as you will be needing more of that money sooner.

TIP:

Even if you leave the company, the money in this 401(k) will continue to be invested until you decide what to do with it. You can roll it over into another account (where it will still be invested), you reach retirement age and start getting disbursements, or you cash it in.

Method 2: Traditional IRA

You can open an IRA by visiting a local financial services firm, or even finding one online, and creating an account.

Individual retirement accounts are like 401(k)s, except they are not provided by your employer. It is similar to a 401(k) in that your investments will be based on your risk profile and other retirement needs. Some companies provide you with an adviser to understand your needs and help you create a retirement plan. These retirement planners will look at all aspects of your life and ask you questions about how you anticipate your lifestyle to be once you’ve retired. From there they will formulate an amount you need to invest in order to achieve those goals when you reach full retirement age.

Unlike a 401(k), where the money is taken out of your paycheck, you will need to have money transferred from your checking or savings account on a regular basis to mimic a 401(k).

TIP:

With a traditional 401(k) or IRA, taxes will not be deducted until you start taking disbursements on the money. This means that the money you invest is actually tax deductible each year when you file your taxes. When you start taking disbursements, you will pay taxes on the amount then, whatever your tax rate might be.

Method 3: Roth IRA

A Roth IRA is a type of IRA that takes out taxes before you invest the money. This means that when you retire, you’ll get whatever money you are being disbursed, tax-free. However, there are certain limits to who can invest in a Roth and how much you can put in.

The main rule is that how

much you can contribute depends on your adjusted gross income. As you make more, the amount you can contribute decreases. At a certain income level, you are no longer able to contribute — at least in the traditional way.

Can contribute the maximum of $5,500 (or $6,500 if over 50)

Single/Head-of-household: $120,000 or less

Married Filing Jointly: $189,000 or less

Can contribute a reduced amount

Single/Head-of-household: $120,000 to $134,999

Married filing jointly: $189,000 to $198,999

Not eligible to contribute

Single/Head-of-household: $135,000 or more

Married filing jointly: $199,000 or more

There’s more to Roth IRAs, but these basics can help you decide if it’s a good choice for you.

TIP:

This can be really useful if you expect to be in a higher tax br

acket when you retire. You cannot deduct Roth contributions from your yearly taxes.

Method 4: HSA/FSA

An HSA can be a secret retirement fund.

Health Savings Accounts are frequently a topic of conversation when starting a new job or getting a new insurance provider at work. Most people think of them as an alternative to a PPO or HMO.

An HSA is an alternative to a Health Maintenance Organization (HMO) or a Preferred Provider Organization (PPO), where you have a high-deductible health plan and no other health insurance. You can contribute money via your paycheck. This helps offset your taxable income, or via additional funds, which are tax deductible. Most people who have this account carry a small balance for use as its intended purpose, taking care of medical expenses, such as doctor and specialist visits.

But for many affluent Americans, they max out the contribution

Health Savings Account

amounts, which currently are $3,350 for individual health plans and $6,750 for a family plan. But they pay out of pocket for medical expenses, allowing their HSA money to grow throughout the years.

Many of you might be wondering what the difference between an HSA and an FSA. Well, an HSA can be used to pay for medical expenses but can also be used as a retirement investment. A health savings account can be used to pay for doctor’s visits, procedures and the like. But you can also let it sit, untouched, earning money for as long as you don’t use it. Your HSA carries over with you from job to job as well.

Once you put money into an HSA, it grows tax-free. You can use that money without penalty at any time on qualified medical expenses without facing any tax penalty. If you do decide to use it on something other than a medical expense before retirement age (65), you will face a 20% penalty. Once you reach 65, you are allowed to take as much as you want and use it for what you want, there are no required minimum distributions.

An FSA is a Flexible Spending Account. It’s also used for health care, including eye doctor’s visits. However, you can only contribute a maximum of $2,650 to it. Use these funds by the end of the year. Otherwise, you will lose them.

TIP:

The HSA is definitely a health plan, but it is often used as a third investment account next to 401(k)s and IRAs. While it is still best to use this for medical expenses, which have a tendency to jump as you age, it can be a nice addition to your retirement savings if you plan correctly. When planning your retirement, make sure think about how this money could be used for long-term care facilities, hospital stays and more.

Bonus Tips

  • 401(k) contributions can be withheld from your paycheck, so take advantage of that automatic savings option.
  • Don’t forget to contribute to an emergency savings account in addition to your retirement account.
  • Avoid early withdrawals from any retirement account. You will be charged.
  • If you are low- to middle-income, you could qualify for a saver’s credit.
  • Besides a regular IRA and a Roth IRA, there is also a less common option called a myRA that can help you save.
  • When you get to retirement age, use Social Security to your advantage.
  • After you retire, take steps to reduce the amount of taxes you owe.

 

Can I Retire With $60,000 On My Credit Cards? Or Am I Doomed?

Question: We are about $60,000 in credit card debt. I am 69 and need to retire. I will have retirement from my job and $35,000 in my 401(k), plus Supplemental Security Income. My husband is 57 and will keep working. How can I retire?

— Kathryn in Hawaii

Steve Rhode answers…

Retiring isn’t the problem here. This is: Making ends meet for up to the next 20 years.

Having some government benefit and $35,000 in a 401(k) isn’t going to make retirement comfortable for you — or even manageable. It will be tragically impossible to survive on these finances alone, unless your husband has some magic retirement account that will help to make ends meet when he is able to finally retire.

When you say you need to retire and you are on Supplemental Security Income, that indicates to me you have some evolving medical issue. SSI is what’s known as a “means-tested welfare program.” That’s the official way of saying the government will provide cash and Medicaid to low-income senior citizens and the disabled.

I’m assuming this means that continuing to work may just not be possible for you, given your potential medical limitations. Maybe that’s why you have to retire.

Given your possible medical situation, your limited upcoming income, and your debt, the most logical solution here would be to shed the debt quickly with a consumer Chapter 7 bankruptcy. This type of bankruptcy is the fastest way to eliminate debt legally, and in about 90 days your credit card debt will be discharged. That will lower your expenses that you can’t afford in retirement.

Your credit card debt is probably from expenses you paid for in trying to get by in the past. It’s all too common for those Americans struggling to pay their bills to “float” the gap between income and expenses on their credit cards. Sadly, that catches up to you rather quickly…

[If you don’t know if bankruptcy is right for you, read Should I File for Bankruptcy.]

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…Retiring is the time to look forward and set yourself up for financial success. The ship has sailed to attempt to repair the past. Given what you’ve shared, you simply can’t afford to either pay the debt, now or in the future, and make ends meet on your new reduced income.

I would visit Benefits.gov and review if you are eligible for any additional supplemental income, medical, or food assistance for your household. You should absolutely meet with a local bankruptcy attorney who is licensed in your state and discuss your situation. And you should inform your husband he is going to have to be the primary breadwinner for the foreseeable future.

This won’t be a pleasant experience while you’re enduring it, but once you’re through it, life should improve. I’d also recommend consulting Debt.com’s Personal Finance section for advice on how to stay out of debt.

My fingers are crossed that your husband has a solid retirement account or pension that is going to help you survive when you are both unable to work.

Steve Rhode is known as the Get Out of Debt Guy and has appeared on FOX, CNN, ABC, NBC, and MSNBC giving money advice.

When Is It OK To Cash In My Retirement To Remodel My Home?

Question: Should we roll over our 401K to an IRA to use this asset to pay for remodeling our home?

— Gayle in Texas

Steve Rhode answers…

Gayle, it is amazing how such a simple question can have such big consequences. There are some basic issues worth considering before you launch into this obvious plan of action.

For example, your 401(k) is most likely protected from your creditors right now. But if you roll it into an IRA with commingled money, you can risk losing it all if you were unexpectedly sued.

And these suits are totally unpredictable. All it takes is a bad accident you could be blamed for — and poof, there potentially goes your retirement. I’d make sure you consult with an attorney who is licensed in your state to best understand how any rollover might expose you to a loss in this situation.

Then there’s this: If this is a company 401(k), you will lose the ability to access the funds at an earlier age without a tax penalty.

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What I am assuming from your question is you want to borrow against your IRA or use some money from this exchange to help fund your remodel. It’s your money, and you can do whatever you want with it, include lose as much as you want.

My primary issue with the access of retirement funds like a 401(k) or IRA is the loss of return. People get distracted and think they are borrowing their own money at a low-interest rate like 5 percent. But what most miss is that a 5 percent loan is really costing you 20 percent in good return years. And right now, we’re in a span of good return years.

During the time that the money you’ve borrowed is out of your retirement account, it is now growing with the rest of your funds and bringing down the entire value of what your retirement funds would have been.

So borrowed remodel funds can now wind up costing you a lot just when you need it most.  For example, using this online retirement fund loan calculator from Bankrate.

You can see that a $30,000 loan from your retirement funds — 401(k) or IRA — will cost you $78,091 in repayment and lost growth on the funds while they were borrowed. If something comes up and you can’t repay it in time, then the lost value can be as much as $1,138,148.

Yes, that’s more than $1 million.

I guess you could label me as a financial libertarian because I believe people need the facts and they are entitled to make their own wrong choices. Ultimately, the question is not if you can do this, but if you should do it. Only you can make that choice. Good luck.

Have a debt question?

Email your question to editor@debt.com and Howard Dvorkin will review it. Dvorkin is a CPA, chairman of Debt.com, and author of two personal finance books, Credit Hell: How to Dig Yourself Out of Debt and Power Up: Taking Charge of Your Financial Destiny.

How Do We Save For Retirement And Pay All Our Bills?

Question: My wife and I just turned 37. We have only $12,000 saved for retirement, which is in a 401(k) at the school where my wife works. I’m an independent auto mechanic, so I don’t have one of those.

Our son graduates from high school in a couple years, and we don’t have much saved for his college. Meanwhile, my wife’s dad died last year and her mother is living with us. (No mother-in-law jokes here, she’s a nice woman and a wicked cook.)

My wife still has around $18,000 in student loans to pay off, and we still have $11,800 on our credit cards (like, seven of them) from a bad patch I went through when I couldn’t find work.

So my question is simple but hard: What do we save for first?

Do we sock money away for our son’s college? Pay down those student loans? Pay off my credit cards? Or kick out my mother in law? Kidding about that last one. Seriously, my wife would kill me.

— Jon in Minnesota

Howard Dvorkin CPA answers…

Welcome, Jon, to the sandwich generation. That term describes middle-aged Americans who have to pay to raise their children and care for their parents. As you’re learning, it adds a lot of stress to a family’s budget.

In fact, I’ve coined the term hamburger generation to describe your situation more precisely: You’re not only sandwiched between competing expenses, you’ve been ground up by debts of your own.

Here’s what I’d recommend…

1. Consolidate or even get rid of those student loans

You mention that your wife works at a school. She just might qualify for what’s called student loan forgiveness. This concept comes from the federal government, and like anything governmental, there are hoops to jump through.

Even if that doesn’t work, the government has other programs that can greatly reduce your wife’s monthly payments. They have cumbersome names like the income-contingent repayment program, but Debt.com can help you figure out which one will save you the most.

Bottom line: The federal government offers help with student loans, so take advantage of it.

2. Consolidate your credit card debt (maybe)

How would you like to reduce your total credit card payments by up to 30 or even 50 percent? If you’re paying late fees, how about getting them to stop? If that sounds to good to be true, it’s not. It’s called credit card debt consolidation. All your credit card balances are rolled into one, and through using a debt management program, you can save big.

How do you know if a DMP (as it’s called) is right for you? Through a painless and enlightening process called credit counseling. Essentially, a certified professional will review your income and expenses, study your debt situation, and make recommendations. Best of all, this consultation is free.

Bottom line: When you have five figures of credit card debt on more than five cards, you probably qualify for some amazing savings.

3. After you’ve paid down debt…

Because the interest rates you’re pay on your debts are most likely higher than the interest rates you’re earning in a retirement account, you want to take care of steps one and two first. Then you want to really pare down your expenses. Again, credit counseling can help you find some dollars you probably didn’t know you have.

As for your son’s college, I answered a similar question a few months ago: Do I NEED to Go To College? Not everyone does, and many successful people have attended community college and lived at home, saving money until they could transfer to a university.

Bottom line: You and your wife can make this work, Jon, and you don’t have to evict your mother-in-law!

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Ask The Expert: Is Saving For Retirement Over-Rated?

Question: My husband and I are lucky. Our son is living at home and just started trade school to become an HVAC technician, we both have jobs, our house is almost paid for, and we took your advice and cut up all but one of our credit cards. So what’s the problem, right?

Well, I want to start really saving for retirement. My husband says we get some money from our 401Ks at work, and that we’re only 39 and 42. He says there’s all this panic over retirement savings because the too-big-to-fail banks — run by both Republican and Democrat elites — want us to give them our money for 30 years. 

I’m not sure what to think. What do YOU think, Mr. Dvorkin?

— Karen in Arkansas

Howard Dvorkin CPA answers…

Howard Dvorkin on how to get out of debt fastI’m not going to argue with your husband about politics. While I have my own views, my job is to help everyone get out of debt — regardless of what they believe.

That said, trust me when I say: You need to save for retirement starting right now.

Yours isn’t the first or even fifth question I’ve fielded about retirement. This time last year, it was a husband insisting, “Why bother saving? We’re so far behind, we might as well enjoy our lives right now.” I told him, he was totally wrong.

Mostly, I answer basic questions like How do I save for retirement? and How much do I really need to save for retirement? In your husband’s case, it’s a completely different and even strange situation.

Unlike the others I’ve answered, you’re a couple who has the income and lacks the debt that prevent so many others from saving for their golden years. Yet your husband believes saving your money will somehow benefit others more than yourselves.

It’s true that when you invest even in a savings account, the bank earns money just as you do. Otherwise, why would they offer you any interest at all? However, your husband makes a sideways point worth stressing: You should always study any fees that take chunks out of your returns. In fact, the SEC has a PDF worth reading called How Fees and Expenses Affect Your Investment Portfolio. Trust me, it’s not as boring as it sounds, and the three minutes it takes to read it can save you a lot of money.

So the bottom line, Karen: It’s never too early to start saving for retirement.

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Have a debt question?

Email your question to editor@debt.com and Howard Dvorkin will review it. Dvorkin is a  CPA, chairman of Debt.com, and author of two personal finance books, Credit Hell: How to Dig Yourself Out of Debt and Power Up: Taking Charge of Your Financial Destiny.

Ask The Expert: Are Old People Like Beans?

Question: My husband and I are lucky enough to have city pensions because he’s been a police officer and I’ve been a secretary in the same department. So unlike most 50-somethings, we’re not worried about retirement.

But I AM worried about growing old and going into a nursing home. We have a grown son, but he’s  struggling to keep a job. My husband says our son will take care of us when we get old, because it won’t be that expensive to do so in a few years. But I think we need to do more. I just don’t know what “more” is. Can you help me?

— Lilly in Texas

Howard Dvorkin CPA answers…

Howard Dvorkin on how to get out of debt fast

Elsewhere in your letter, which I edited for brevity, you explained your husband’s fascinating theory…

“Since the entire country is growing older and there will be more senior citizens in a couple decades, it’ll become cheaper to get space in nursing homes — because more of them will open up, which will drive prices down. He thinks it’s like supermarkets that can sell food so cheap because they sell so much. The profit on each can of beans is only pennies, but if you sell billions of cans, you’ve made millions of dollars.”

I’m glad your husband is a police officer and not an economist. Needless to say, caring for the elderly is more complicated — and much more expensive — than selling cans of beans.

In fact, Care.com released a clever poll last month that asked Americans in their 40s and 50s how much they think a nursing home will cost when they need one.

More than a quarter said they “think it will cost $45,000 or less per year.” The actual number from trained economists? “It really costs $82,125 to $92,378 per year.”

Care.com did back up one part of your husband’s theory: There will indeed be a record number of elderly in this country. “By 2050, the amount of people over 65 is projected to be 83.7 million, nearly double the rate now,” the company said.

However, caring for more elderly won’t reduce the price because unlike grocery stores, there’s no economy of scale. More elderly requires more nurses and doctors, no matter how efficient they are.

So what can you do? You’re lucky, Lilly. It seems like your retirement savings are already going strong. You now need to save for your own senior care. Check out Care.com’s Senior Care Guide Index or call Debt.com at 800-810-0989 for a free debt analysis.

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Have a debt question?

Email your question to editor@debt.com and Howard Dvorkin will review it. Dvorkin is a CPA, chairman of Debt.com, and author of two personal finance books, Credit Hell: How to Dig Yourself Out of Debt and Power Up: Taking Charge of Your Financial Destiny.

Ask The Expert: Fighting Over Found Money

Question: Three years ago, we used Debt.com to help us settle our credit card problems. It took a couple years, but my husband and I are finally in the clear and even saving a few dollars a month.

Then last month, my step-mother died. It was traumatic but not a surprise, she was in her 90s. What I didn’t know is she had a significant amount of money that my father had left her when he died years earlier, and she never touched it. So I recently go a check for $29,000!

My husband and I are fighting over this, but not like you might expect. Neither of us want to blow it on a car or a vacation. The issue is: do we invest it in our retirement fund or create an emergency fund? We have neither of these things.

— Melanie in Kansas

Howard Dvorkin CPA answers…

Howard Dvorkin on how to get out of debt fast

I’m going to take the easy way out: Split the money and do both. However, don’t split the money evenly.

Before we get to the amounts, let’s talk about the basics…

Elsewhere in your letter, you said you and your husband are in your late 40s. If you have no significant retirement savings, you definitely need to start now. Your money will make the most interest there.

How much? I recommend you use the Traditional IRA Calculator built by my friends at Bankrate.com. You’ll notice the longer you invest, the higher the interest you’ll earn on your money.

Of course, saving for retirement won’t really help if you’re not prepared for an illness, accident, or natural disaster now. Sure, many retirement funds allow you to tap into them, or take out loans against them, for specific emergencies. Doing so takes time and paperwork, and during an emergency, you have little of the former and no patience for the latter.

That’s why I’d set aside $5,000 for an emergency fund. That’s not the standard “three to six months of living expenses” most financial experts recommend, but I’ve always had mixed emotions about that advice: Yes, that figure is the ideal, but for those who aren’t close to achieving it, such a high number can be discouraging. You might quit before trying.

After consulting with so many clients over the years, I’ve noticed $5,000 is seldom enough to cover the bills, but it at least buys you time to get your wits about you after an emergency hits. Then you can clearly figure out your next steps.

So with that said, I’d suggest putting $24,000 into a retirement account. There are so many kinds, with differing levels of risk, it’s difficult to advise you without further conversation and research. You and your husband should look into this together. Hopefully, it won’t result in another fight, but if it does, you know how to reach me!

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Have a debt question?

Email your question to editor@debt.com and Howard Dvorkin will review it. Dvorkin is a  CPA, chairman of Debt.com, and author of two personal finance books, Credit Hell: How to Dig Yourself Out of Debt and Power Up: Taking Charge of Your Financial Destiny.