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Paying Extra on College Debt Has Wallop

One-third of 18-24 year olds in a new Allstate poll said the best use of their extra funds is getting their college or other debts off their backs. For those considering making larger payments, a loan amortization table demonstrates the impact.

Paying down debt is just another form of saving, and larger loan payments significantly shorten the time it takes to pay it off, while reducing the total interest paid. Start with the $5,000 loan example already loaded into a Bankrate.com student loan amortization calculator:

  • Paying $96.66 per month on a $5,000 student loan with 6 percent interest eliminates it in five years. An extra $50 every month – a couple of nights out – knocks two years off the payment time. This can be seen by entering $50 in the top box under the “Extra payments” heading in the calculator and clicking “Show/Calculate Amortization Table.” …

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Medicare Primer: Advantage or Medigap?

Traditional Medicare with a Medigap plan or Medicare Advantage? My Aunt Carol in Orlando wrestled with this decision for some five hours in sessions with her Medicare adviser, which she followed up with multiple phone calls – and a raft of additional questions.

“You have to ask these questions. You really have to think about it,” she said. “It’s confusing.”

Essentially every 65-year-old American enrolls in Medicare, and many get additional coverage. One form of additional coverage is through supplements to traditional Medicare, which include a Part D prescription drug plan and/or a Medigap private insurance plan to cover some or all of Medicare’s co-payments, deductibles, and other out-of-pocket costs. The other is through Medicare Advantage, a managed care option that typically provides prescription drug coverage and other services not included in the basic Medicare program.

So which to choose? Consumer choices have proliferated since private plans were added to Medicare 40 years ago. The typical beneficiary today has about 18 Medicare Advantage options, a multitude of Medigap plans for people who choose the traditional route, and 31 prescription drug programs, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

This primer is for new enrollees like my aunt. A future blog will provide suggestions from leading Medicare experts about ways to think about this important decision and the financial issues at stake.

The following compares the primary advantages and disadvantages of traditional Medicare and Medicare Advantage plans. But everyone is unique, and it’s impossible to simplify a process that requires each individual to research his or her best options, based on the severity of their health issues, their preferences and financial situation, and the policies available in their state’s insurance market. …Learn More

Tax Refunds Advanced to Low Earners

Shirley Floyd

Things are looking up for Shirley Floyd of Chicago.

Her daughter just earned a college scholarship, and Floyd has landed a better job. The new job requires the 37-year-old to stand on a concrete floor, sometimes 10 to 12 hours a day, inserting automobile gaskets into cardboard sleeves for shipping. But her earnings, including overtime, are much larger than her $216 biweekly paychecks in 2014, when she was a part-time home health aide.

When Floyd was unable to keep her head above water last year, she received a financial lifeline from a program run by the Center for Economic Progress in Chicago. Under the pilot program, which was supported and funded by the Chicago mayor’s office and housing authority, 343 low-income recipients of the federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) signed up for quarterly advances on their current year’s EITC payments, which they otherwise would have had to wait to receive the following year at tax time.

“It was an awesome program,” Floyd said about the advances, which always seemed to arrive at just the right time. “That pressure is relieved – for a little while. You’re able to do what you need to do.” She also believes quarterly payments are better than a large, one-time tax refund in February, because “the entire thing is gone” by March.

Under the Periodic Payment Pilot Program, low-wage workers with at least one child could get up to 50 percent of their estimated future EITC refunds as quarterly advances, up to a maximum of $2,000 per year. Floyd used her advances of nearly $400 per quarter to pay utility bills, rent, or her daughter’s tuition at a Catholic high school. …Learn More

Rainbow rope tied in a knot.

Financial Bonus of (Same-Sex) Marriage

Two important U.S. Supreme Court decisions in two years removed not only the obstacles to same-sex marriage but also most of the financial inequities couples faced.

The June decision upholding same-sex marriage opened up financial advantages of marriage that either had been completely unavailable to gay and lesbian couples or were complicated by marrying in a different state than the state in which they live. The decision came on the heels of the high court’s 2013 ruling against sections of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, a ruling that made Social Security benefits available to gay and lesbian couples in states that permitted them to marry.

In the wake of these decisions, “If marriage is an option and it makes sense emotionally for the couple, that’s also the best financial strategy,” said Sheryl Garrett, a certified financial planner in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.

There are disadvantages to marrying.  Filing joint tax returns can mean higher income taxes or less financial aid for college-bound offspring. Nevertheless, Garrett, co-author of “Money without Matrimony: The Unmarried Couple’s Guide to Financial Security,” said the court rulings together make a compelling argument for marrying.

She provided Squared Away with five financial benefits of same-sex marriage listed below. They’re the same advantages that were always available to heterosexual couples who could produce a marriage license. …Learn More

New Books of Note

Several new books are pertinent to topics frequently covered by this blog. Three worth noting are about low-income savers, older workers, and small employers with retirement plans that are overdue for an upgrade.

Here are brief descriptions:

  • A Fragile Balance: Emergency Savings and Liquid Resources for Low-Income Consumers:”:

a fragile balanceFor low-wage workers in fast food, retail, and similar jobs, just finding enough money for living expenses is like squeezing blood from a turnip. Research shows that many want to save, and the absence of this backstop only increases their financial fragility. The default is often to resort to high-cost debt, which further confounds their ability to pay the bills, much less weather the next emergency such as a car repair.

Finding effective savings interventions to help low-wage workers may be the toughest personal finance challenge there is. It’s also the mission of the Center for Financial Security at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and its director, Michael Collins. In this volume, edited by Collins, leading researchers review various interventions and policies – from mortgage reserve accounts and impulse saving to programs that encourage low-income workers to save their tax refunds. [Watch for future blogs about specific findings in this volume.] …

Grads With Student Loans: Rent or Buy?

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Some college graduates are so overburdened with student loan payments that they struggle just to stay afloat.  But for those who can make their payments and even save some money, the logical next question might be: when can I buy a house?

This is a weighty question for 20-somethings new to the labor force and carrying unprecedented levels of student debt, which puts them at greater financial risk than previous generations of graduates.  Squared Away asked two financial planners from the sensible Midwest – Danielle Schultz and Mark Zoril – to help young adults work through the difficult financial tradeoffs they’ll face as they juggle student loan and car payments, retirement saving, and homeownership.

Here’s their advice:

Danielle L. Schultz, a financial planner in suburban Chicago, believes buying a house should be a 20-something’s lowest priority.

The highest priorities are building up an emergency fund and contributing regularly to an employer’s retirement savings plan.  The minimum emergency fund for a young, healthy adult who earns, say, $36,000, is around $6,000 – $10,000 would be better. [The standard emergency fund equals at least three months of necessary living expenses, excluding splurges like vacations or restaurant meals with friends.]

Schultz feels strongly about the emergency fund, especially if buying property is the goal. When something goes wrong – a car accident, a job loss, a house fire – renters “can always move in with mom and dad or a friend, but when you’ve got a mortgage, it’s not easy to get out of,” she said.  Schultz also is not wild about real estate as an investment, since property values aren’t rising appreciably in many areas.

After the emergency fund is established, it’s wise to knock down the student debt first by paying off the loans with the highest interest rates, she said.  Many graduates have multiple loans, so don’t sweat the loans with interest rates at, say, 2 percent – that’s effectively “free money” when inflation is running at 2 percent. …Learn More

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Why I Dropped My Financial Adviser

My financial adviser is smart. She’s ethical. And her special IRS tax certification has come in handy at tax time.

So why did I drop her? Fees.

Every year, her firm extracted 1 percent of my modest retirement account balance. This is less than some advisers charge, but on top of that I pay between 0.8 percent and 1.2 percent in fees to various mutual fund firms for the mostly stock funds she selected for my investments. These aren’t exorbitant fees, either, for actively managed funds. But when you add this up, I was shelling out at least 2 percent of my account every year.

Thanks to fees and my penchant for some international stocks, which were sluggish or declined last year, my retirement portfolio did not grow at all in 2014, despite a booming U.S. stock market that gained nearly 14 percent, based on the Standard & Poor’s 500 index.

I used a simple fee calculator to estimate my savings in fees, and the resulting increase in my investment returns, from letting my adviser go. If I don’t tap my IRA funds until age 70, I would save nearly $40,000. This sum won’t radically improve my retirement. But it’s not chump change either. It would pay for a few really big trips my husband and I hope to take – or a large chunk of a year in a nursing home. …Learn More

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