Welcome to Ask the Bills, where every two weeks Helaine Olen answers readers’ questions about their most nagging personal-finance and financial-etiquette dilemmas. Seeking advice on a money issue? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The last few years have been rocky to say the least. I’ve been laid off three times since 2013 as the oil and gas industry fizzled. My wife and I were in pretty good financial shape before the first layoff, but as work slowed and stopped several times, our savings drained, and we put a lot of expenses on the credit card, hoping things would turn around. They didn’t. We decided to sell our home a year ago and moved in with family. Luckily, we made a small profit on the home, enough to pay off most of the credit card debt and give us some breathing room.
We’ve been living with family for about a year, and it’s time to move out. I’ve started a small firm and taken some contract work on the side, but my income isn’t reliable at this point. But we need to get our family into a new place. A home in our area that fits our needs goes for between $150,000 and $200,000. We have about $35,000 in retirement accounts (after taxes and penalties) that we could tap for a payment on a new home. Renting is more expensive than buying, so it’s hard to justify the former at this point. Assuming we can get into a house, is this a reasonable way to move forward?
The urge to own your own home can be a powerful one. In our society, acquiring mortgage papers marks one as a full-fledged adult. And living with family probably means you’re not feeling very grown-up at the moment. Moreover, rents are indeed on the rise. According to a report issued earlier this year by New York University’s Furman Center, the renter population grew faster than the supply of available units between 2006 and 2014 in the United States’ largest metropolitan areas, putting enormous pressure on many people’s budgets. No wonder you’re aching to own again.
I totally understand why you want a roof of your own over your family’s head. So do it. But make it a leased one until your family’s personal financial situation has settled more. You’ve lost three jobs in as many years. Consulting and contract work can bring enormous freedom but, as you’re discovering, also unpredictability. What happens if you buy a home and lose a client? Will you really be able to meet mortgage payments without dipping into retirement savings? Or what about a major repair? Or will you need to sell the home again and start the process over? Or what if you decide that living in an area where the economy is so dependent on the gas and oil industry isn’t a good long-term financial strategy, and you and your family decide to relocate?
And if you can’t resist the urge to become a homeowner, know this: The bank will almost certainly agree with me. Since you’re self-employed, you’ll need to show at least two years of steady income—that, or your spouse would need to qualify in her own right in order for a financial institution to make your family a loan, says Don Frommeyer, former president and current chief executive officer of the National Association of Mortgage Brokers. If the two of you can’t do one of those two things, it won’t happen, no matter how much you might wish it.
Since my father died, I assumed (at his request) responsibility for my mother’s affairs. I have her power of attorney, medical proxy, and so on. At the advice of our attorney, I am to be named a joint checking account holder. My mom lives in Florida, but I do not. She uses a big national bank whose name rhymes with Bells Margo, but there are no branches in my area. The bank says it is a federal law that I must be physically present in the branch with my mom to be added as an account holder. I find this hard to believe and I suspect for higher-net-worth clients they find solutions to these pesky problems of location. Any ideas on how to solve this problem that don’t involve me flying to Florida at a cost of more than $300?
I contacted the bank in question and, like you, found it to be less than helpful. A spokesman told me he couldn’t comment without seeing your specific power of attorney document and suggested you work with “a banker in your state.” So what to do? You could, according to Sheryl Garrett, a certified financial planner who is the head of the Garrett Planning Network, ask your attorney to write a letter saying that if the bank doesn’t honor your power of attorney, it will be sued. But that’s bound to cost you a few hundred dollars, money that could be spent on a trip to Florida. I’ve got a better idea: Visit your mom! There are lots of reasons to be angry at our nation’s banks, but this isn’t one of them. The local bank branch—whether right or wrong—is simply attempting to protect an elderly account holder, and with good reason. Financial abuse of senior citizens is a serious problem, as I wrote last year. Whether the bank is legally in the right here, the nuisance pales in comparison to the real issue—protecting your mom from financial predators. It’s best that employees at the local bank branch know you. Besides, you really should see your mother.
I’m 49. A few years ago, I switched jobs and ended up consolidating a lot of my retirement savings at a popular brokerage. With the current federal discussion about fiduciary responsibility, I’m starting to think I’ve got my money in the wrong place. Someone at my church suggested my broker, and he’s a nice-enough guy who is very good at making things smooth and easy. He makes suggestions to buy specific stocks a few times a year, but I turn them down. They might be good stocks, but how can I tell when he has an interest in selling them? Also, if my workplace plan is better than the plans a brokerage offers, under these new rules will it have a responsibility to tell me that? Besides, I’m just interested in matching the market, not taking chances and trying to beat it. I paid an upfront commission, so is it worth putting the money in a different vehicle? My current employer—the federal government—will accept rollover money. But its savings plan isn’t aggressive! When I reached out to my broker, he told me the funds are running at 0.5- to 2-percent in annual internal operating expenses. That’s a lot more than the expenses in my work account! What would you suggest?
There’s a lot going on here. First, for the readers: The fiduciary standard our letter writer referred to means a financial adviser is legally bound to act in the best interests of clients. Most financial advisers work to a lower standard—and it seems almost certain that the broker in question is among that crew. (Yes, the Obama administration is changing the rules on this, at least as far as retirement accounts go. Unfortunately, the new rules aren’t in effect yet.)
But enough lessons! You want to know about your situation. I would first suggest not using a financial adviser simply because someone at your church suggested it. Just because someone seems like a “nice-enough guy” doesn’t mean he is any good. And in this case, I have my concerns. Specific stocks? Really? The vast majority of investors would be better off in index funds that seek to match various market measurements, as I’ve written many times in the past. Moreover, I’m not sure where you got the idea that the Thrift Savings Plan, the defined contribution plan available to federal workers, isn’t aggressive enough, especially if you say you are seeking to invest in index funds whose performance matches various stock market measurements. The TSP is widely considered by retirement experts—I mean, those retirement experts who don’t have a financial stake in the way you invest—the best such plan out there. Why? It offers the low-cost index funds (not to mention life cycle funds) you are seeking at the extraordinarily low cost of $2.90 for every $10,000 invested. The investments at your brokerage, on the other hand, appear to be costing you many, many multiples of that number. That’s money you won’t have one day when you need it in retirement.
When I reached out to Garrett, our expert from the last letter, she suggested you roll your retirement money over to the TSP, as the federal plan is known—if you can, that is. What could prevent that? If you’ve mingled pretax and after-tax retirement savings in your brokerage accounts, it’s likely to be all but impossible to unravel. Since the law only permits you to roll over pretax retirement savings into a workplace defined contribution account, if you did intermingle the funds, Garrett recommends a provider of low-cost funds like the Vanguard Group or iShares.
And, yes, your adviser should tell you the TSP is better than anything he can offer. But will he? That’s a different question. When the Government Accountability Office conducted a study on the topic in 2013, it discovered that many representatives at the call centers of 401(k) administrators encouraged people to move money out of their defined contribution plans and into individual retirement accounts. Since workplace retirement plans—even when they aren’t the federal TSP—usually offer investors lower-cost investment options than they can receive as individuals, this isn’t good advice. Finally, don’t let the fact that you paid a commission up front several years ago stop you from taking action. That money is gone, and nothing is going to bring it back. You can only control your investment decisions going forward.