Dear Liz: I have a friend who owes $30,000 in credit card debt. I suggested he see a financial advisor who can help him to get out of this situation, but he never finds the time to do it. He pays all his bills on time, but only the minimum required, and there's nothing left for him to save for his old age. He has a good-paying job but still struggles financially. How can we help him?
Answer: If your friend can pay only the minimum on his debt and can't save for retirement, he's in a deeper hole than he probably realizes. Many people in his situation wind up filing for bankruptcy, often after years of throwing money at impossible-to-pay debt.
Your friend should make two appointments: one with a legitimate credit counselor (referrals from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling at www.nfcc.org) and another with an experienced bankruptcy attorney (referrals from the National Assn. of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys at www.nacba.org).
The credit counselor will review his financial situation and see whether he qualifies for a low-interest repayment program that would allow him to pay off his debt within five years. The bankruptcy attorney will let him know whether bankruptcy might be the better option.
As a friend, you can pass these suggestions along to him, and even offer to go with him to one or both appointments if he's comfortable with that idea. But you can't force him to face reality or take any action until he's ready to do so. One thing you definitely shouldn't do is lend him money. He's not managing the debt he has, and you don't want your loan winding up with the rest of his bills in Bankruptcy Court.
Delay collecting Social Security to boost spousal benefit
Dear Liz: I am 63 and not nearly ready to collect Social Security. In fact I probably won't be ready for quite a few years. My husband, who is 64, wants to collect on my Social Security as it is higher than his. Is there a way for him to do this that would not hurt me? I have called the Social Security office five times and have received five different answers. My husband went into the local office and they told him to have me apply for benefits and then after a short time send them a letter rescinding my application. That would allow him to collect on my work record and wouldn't hurt my eventual benefit. I am not comfortable doing this. What do you suggest?
Answer: At your current age, you must start your own benefits for your husband to get a check based on your work record. The so-called spousal benefit is basically half your retirement benefit, and it will be somewhat reduced because your husband hasn't achieved "full retirement age" (which is 66 for both of you). When he applies for spousal benefits, the Social Security Administration will compare that benefit with the one based on his own record and give him the larger of the two.
Starting benefits now, however, would lock you into a lower payment for the rest of your life. Your checks could be further reduced based on your earnings, if you continue to work.
If you can wait three years, you have another option called "file and suspend" that would allow your husband to collect a spousal benefit without reducing your eventual checks. Once you reach your full retirement age of 66, you can go to your local office to file for your benefit and then immediately suspend your application. That would allow your husband to collect a spousal benefit while your own uncollected benefit could continue to grow.
Another advantage for your hubby if you wait: He will have achieved his full retirement age when he starts receiving spousal benefits, so he would be allowed to switch to his own benefit later, if it's larger. If he starts receiving spousal benefits before his full retirement age, he loses the option to switch.
You can learn more about the file-and-suspend strategy on the Social Security site at www.ssa.gov/retire2/yourspouse.htm. You may want to bring a printout of that page with you to the Social Security office. File and suspend is not an obscure strategy, but it doesn't appear that your local office is quite aware of all the details.
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