Reader Mailbag: The Nascent Musician

My two year old daughter is showing a tremendous nascent interest in making music. She sings constantly. She uses her hands as percussion all the time on her knees, on the table, and anywhere else she can use them. She climbs up to our keyboard and attempts to play songs.

Right now, I’m trying to figure out some ways to encourage it in ways that might actually build into a lifelong love of creating music. (Yes, I’m the type of parent who would be thrilled to hear their child choosing a musical career.) However, I’m finding it difficult to reach out to her at this stage, so I’m mostly just encouraging her strongly whenever she completes a song or something similar.

Anyway, on to the questions.

I’m 23 and my husband is 24, therefore we are “newbies” in the credit card scene, making our credit limits pretty low (mine is 4000 and his is 2000). Is the ratio computed based on balances carried over month to month, or is it at any point in time? We pay off our credit cards each month, therefore never carrying over our balance. However, at some points in the month, our credit card balance is over 50% (easy to do with a 2000 credit limit). So if we charge over 1000, are we being adversely affected, or are we fine as we pay off our balances?
– Jena

I’m assuming you’re referring to your debt-to-credit ratio.

A big problem with how credit scores are calculated is that they’re effectively calculated in secrecy. FICO, the most commonly used credit score, is a secret formula held by the Fair Isaac Corporation, and they’re not talking. We can only believe tham (and rest on observations of scores and credit reports) when they tell us that the debt-to-credit ratio is important.

Based on my own observations, it appears to me that the amount that credit card companies report to the credit bureaus – and thus the amount that appears on your credit report – is your balance that is carried forward from the previous month. So, for example, if you pay off your entire bill each month, a $0 balance is reported. If you carry a balance of $2,000 forward from the previous month, $2,000 is reported.

I’ve looked far and wide for information on this and have even contacted my credit card company for writeups about it in the past and have never received a truly straight answer about this issue. However, this seems to be the case based on my repeated checks of my credit report and my own credit card statements.

My wife and I currently owe $119,000 on our 5/1 ARM. This is our ONLY debt. We are looking to refinance as our five year fixed period is up March 2011. We currently have $140,000 in savings and $100,000 in retirement assets. We are both 33 years old.

In addition, we are looking to transition from 2 incomes to 1 when we have our first child in Oct. We currently live fairly frugally, but my income alone is not enough to make ends meet without dipping into our savings. If we eliminate our mortgage, we would be able to live on one income comfortably.

Is it better to eliminate the mortgage in one fell-swoop or should we refinance and then use our savings each month to pay the mortgage? Or refinance the mortgage and put some of the savings down to lower the loan amount.
– Greg

The best move you can possibly make as you prepare for a stay-at-home period is to minimize your monthly expenses, and paying off your mortgage would certainly do that.

If you completely eliminate your debt, you’ll be left with $21,000 in savings and six months of work time in which to build that up some more without the burden of a mortgage payment. Given that you’ll own the home free and clear at that point and could, ptentially, use it as equity in the future if you absolutely needed to, plus you have the retirement savings as well, my choice would be to pay off the entire mortgage and get it over with.

I don’t think there is a major advantage in keeping your mortgage and retaining a lot of money in savings at this point. If you were continuing to work or were perhaps saving for a different major goal (such as starting a business), the answer might be different, but you’re heading into an income reduction.

I was not lucky enough to find “the one” early and am now in my forties with no one and feel like it’s over. I am frugal as hell but have no one to share my life with and for some reason, maybe it’s an age related thing, find myself pining for marriage. What do you do when you’re not lucky enough to find the one early in your life and hanging out bars, church or synagogue(where there are mostly married men in your age group or single people but in their twenties)or other social groups does not seem appealing nor worthwhile? In DC there are lots of attractive women and very few single men and moving is not really an option for various reasons.
– Renee

I don’t think you’re doing anything wrong, necessarily.

If I were you, I would focus on finding and attending social events that really reflect your values and what you enjoy doing with your life. I don’t know what that might be. For some people, it might be the bar scene. For others, it might be their church. For others, it might be political activism or volunteer work or book clubs or countless other things.

What would you want your life partner to be passionate about that parallels your own passions? That’s where you’ve got to start in this journey. You’re much more likely to find true happiness by meeting someone whose passions match your own – a person who is already out there chasing them.

People often mention the “bar scene” when they talk about meeting people. I always find that really strange unless the bar is a major source of happiness in your life. It’s fine, I suppose, if you’re merely seeking short-term flings, but my eyes would be elsewhere if I were looking for a long-term mate.

There’s too many mixed messages out there! Which do I do first?? Save for an Emergency Fund? Snowball debt repayments? Pay off our Mortgage? Save for retirement? The kids college? Save for a bigger house? What about travel?

We have over $80 000 in debt (credit cards & family loan), $230 000 mortgage left, no retirement savings, nothing for the kids, $500 in savings, and we have to visit overseas family every other year and just had another baby.

Suze Ormand says 8 months of savings? Dave Ramsey says snowball bigger balances first, David Bach says no lattes, Kiyosaki says buy your home outright – PF bloggers everywhere say a whole stew of things – the budget is sliced too thin already.
– Gina

I don’t think there necessarily is a perfect right-or-wrong answer here as long as you are spending less than you earn. That extra money can be used in a lot of productive ways, whether it’s paying off debts, saving for retirement, or saving for the kids’ college fund. None of these options are the best option for everyone.

The big difference in these choices really is your values. If you want to just follow someone’s plan, you’ve got to find someone who shares your values and who makes sense to you.

Dave Ramsey offers some strongly Christian values and emphasizes debt freedom. I value my family and discovering your passions and I usually advocate in favor of maximizing your day-to-day stability, which means building up an emergency fund first and foremost. Others speak from entrepreneurial values.

I don’t think any of these options are perfectly right or perfectly wrong. I think they click for different people because everyone thinks differently and is motivated differently. The important thing is that you’re motivated, too, and you’re making choices in line with what’s most important to you.

What is most important to you? Minimizing future risk for your family? Giving back to the community? Building a business? They all have different routes to financial successs. You have to figure out what you want first – otherwise, it’s like flailing around with a chainsaw.

Have you ever done a post on “How to host a game night” — I know from the blog that you do this from time to time, and lately my husband and I have become fans of playing board games as well. We like “Power Grid” and “Robo Rally” both really well. We’ve got a small group together that likes these games too – however getting everyone together at the same time / should we have food / will there be room for everyone when they come? (i.e. many games have a max of so many players). It seems like you play all sorts of games so where do you find the “right people” to play with and how do you bring them together. I mean the last time we hosted a game night, one of my friends walked out right in the middle of it – she didn’t say why – but I got the sense that this game was too much for her ( as you know some of the games have a lot of rules, and strategy involved.- which I enjoy, but some people don’t.) Ok – so what are your “keys to success” with this.
– Erin

First of all, Power Grid is one of our favorite games around here and RoboRally is on my wish list. We have a game group of about five people that meets about three times a month to play such board games and it’s a social highlight of the month.

I stick to three big things to avoid this type of scenario that you describe.

First, I make sure at least one person knows a game cold before we play it. Someone there should be able to always explain the game and answer questions throughout on your first play-through or two. It rarely ends well if everyone is new to playing a particular game. I often do this by playing a new game through a few times solo, meaning I lay out pieces for multiple people and play all the roles myself with the aid of the manual.

Second, if someone is new to such strategic games, I don’t throw them into the deep end of the pool. I simply wouldn’t sit down with my mom and play Agricola, not without having played a lot of other lighter strategic games first. I’d play Stone Age first so that the worker placement idea was familiar to her, for example. If someone has never played board games beyond Checkers or Monopoly when they were a kid, I’d play something like Ticket to Ride with them the first few times.

Third, if someone is really apprehensive, play one-on-one with them a few times first. If you’re a good friend and you know the game cold, invite just that one friend over and play the game just with them. Go through it nice and slow. Play with your cards/pieces revealed and explain why you’re making the moves you’re making.

Friends have been trying to convince us lately to switch our checking account from the bank where it’s been for over twenty years to a credit union. Ours isn’t a mega-bank, but it’s not local, either. However, the people AT the bank have been there through three changes in ownership in the last decade, and they know us. (Our son dated one of the tellers when they were both in high school… it’s a small town.)

OTOH, I’m not sure if that’s enough reason to stay there. I’ve also considered getting an ING checking account to match the (tiny) savings account we’ve got there. But I suspect we’ll still need a local account, just for an anchor, so that leaves the question: stay we’re known and pay eight dollars a month, or go to a credit union where we know no one. That, btw, involves opening both a checking AND savings account in order to get the free checking.

What do you think of the differences between banks and credit unions? Which do you recommend, and why?
– Kate

Whenever I hear that banks still charge a fee just to maintain a checking account there, I’m shocked. There are so many banks out there that now offer free checking that paying $8 a month just for the checking service seems akin to just throwing $96 a year – or $960 a decade – out the window.

Unless there’s a compelling reason that you’ve not mentioned here for continuing to use your local bank, I would probably switch banks. However, I wouldn’t necessarily switch to the credit union just yet. I’d spend some time looking at the various options available to you, including online-only banks like ING Direct and so on. Look at their features and look at the fees they charge, too.

If having a local “anchor” bank is important, open up a checking and savings account at the credit union (if it’s the best local option). However, you don’t necessarily have to use that as your primary bank – you could just maintain small balances locally for the convenience of cashing checks and other purposes and keep your main banking at an online-only bank.

I am a recent college graduate who just married a wonderful man with $20,000 worth of student loans and no degree (he was studying English). He dropped out after his dad stopped paying financial aid, but not before getting depressed and flunking a few last courses. Right now, he really hates his tech customer support job and is having trouble finding a better job, like everyone else. Also, I was just laid off and the unemployment checks have just started coming in. Should he go back and get a degree in the field he wants to work in (Computer Science)? He has about 5 years of work experience. I don’t feel like adding on $40,000 more loans, but at the same time, I feel like his career will have a slow start because of this hindrance.
– Frances

If he’s figured out what he’s passionate about, then he should go back to school and get his degree. It will be worth the expense and the economy will be in better shape by the time he graduates.

However, you need to be absolutely sure that he’s not just picking this career because he thinks it’s something that he likes (but doesn’t necessarily love) that can earn him a lot of money. That’s the very mistake that I made and it wound up putting me in a very hard spot about seven years down the road.

I’d suggest that if he’s not 100% sure that he loves computer science, he spends some time figuring out what he really loves and then following that. It’d not be a smart move to put $40,000 towards a degree that he’s not really passionate about and is just doing for the money.

I recently read a article by Christine Benz, of Morningstar, about opening a Roth IRA and using it as your emergency fund, when necessary. She would rather you had both, but for someone just starting out and short on cash, it seems as though it is a good idea. Do you have any thoughts on this?
– John

I wouldn’t do it.

The big disadvantage of using a Roth IRA as an emergency fund is that when you make withdrawals from it, you can’t put that money back into the account later. You have a $5,000 window each year for contributions, period. Once you take money out, there’s no putting it back other than through your normal contributions to the account.

The last thing you want to do is sacrifice your long-term retirement savings because of a short-term problem like a temporary job loss or a car breakdown. I’d build up at least a month’s worth of living expenses in a savings account before I started to worry about a Roth IRA at all.

Anyway, when we bought our house about six years ago, we also took out whole life insurance policies on each other for $250K each, as well as some larger term-life insurance policies. My thinking at the time was that the term life policies were in the nature of income replacement, while the whole life policies were bought with the specific purpose of ensuring the surviving spouse would have the ability to pay off the house. The cash value of the policies builds at a guaranteed minimum of 4.25% per year, and I view them as additional house payments, since our intention is to cash them in when the cash value is sufficient to pay off what’s left on the mortgage, and then pay off the mortgage. At the time we bought the house, I figured that would enable us to pay off our 30-year mortgage in about 18-20 years, and I still think we’re on track for that.

I’m trying to accomplish two goals here – make sure the house is safe in case one of us dies (a concern that a term policy would resolve), but also find a way to keep from completely throwing money away, since we’re both relatively young and healthy, and thus the policies are unlikely to pay (which term insurance can’t address). This is why we decided to invest more money in a whole life policy instead of a term policy, vis-à-vis this specific need/concern.

The problem is that I keep hearing that whole life is a bad investment choice, I should instead pay for more term insurance and invest the difference, etc. Is (seemingly) the rest of the world right? Should I get out now, before I spend another dozen or so years continuing to pay for these policies? Or does my logic remain sound? I think the total difference in cost for the two whole life policies versus two term life policies with the same coverage would be something like $200/month – is that a worthwhile price to pay for what we’re doing?
– Mike

If you’re sitting at a crossroads and trying to decide whether to open up a whole life insurance policy or a term policy, I would go for the term policy. You can take the difference in cost between the two (since the whole policy will cost more) and invest it yourself into index funds or other such things.

However, once you’re into a policy for a number of years, the situation changes a bit. Quite often, the return you get in further contributions to a whole life policy versus the return you get on a term policy plus investments are similar once the first few years of payments are out of the way. Whole life policies tend to improve a bit in later years, returning better than they do early on (when the policies are covering the commissions of the salespeople).

You have to ignore the past when making these decisions. Don’t let what might have been influence you right now. Sit down and look at where you’re at with the policy. Right now, starting with your next contribution dollar, what puts you in better shape? Another dollar into the whole life policy, or starting over with a term policy and some investing with the additional money?

Without specific numbers, I can’t tell you that for sure. I can just tell you to ignore your contributions up to this point and look at what puts you in better shape starting right now.

My husband just started a post-doc position. There are two types of post-docs through the university. One gets paid officially by the university, taxes are taken out, and benefits are paid for. The other type of post-doc (the one my husband has) is paid for by a federal grant, so you get paid, but no taxes are taken out, it’s not reported to the IRS, etc. We will pay estimated taxes on it, of course, but a little wrinkle has come up that I wasn’t expecting.

While we have health insurance through the university and the university pays for a significant chunk (they pay about $800/mo for a $1100/mo family plan), they do so by paying him a “health insurance stipend” of about $800/mo and then take the entire $1100 out of his paycheck every month. I didn’t realize that and when I calculated our estimated taxes, I just did it based on the income put in his contract (about $37k) plus my PhD stipend (about $30k), also with no taxes taken out. He asked around at work and everyone pays taxes on the entire amount – which increases our income and taxes substantially. I realize we can recoup that partially by itemizing (we don’t own a home, so itemizing has never made sense for us before) since our medical expenses will be enormous. Is that our only option? We probably would have considered a different post-doc if we had realized what our tax burden would be.

It just doesn’t seem fair that we have what looks like a lot larger income in terms of taxes – most people do not pay any taxes on their employer benefits. Have you ever heard of this type of situation before? I suppose we could not report it but I don’t want to get in trouble with the IRS down the road.
– Amanda

IRS Publication 502 states that insurance premiums on health insurance are tax-deductible. In other words, when you go to file your taxes, the premiums you’ve paid in yourself can be deducted from your taxes, reducing the amount you need to pay in.

Most employers simply use pre-tax money to cover this insurance because it simplifies things for pretty much everyone. For some reason – probably related to the fact that they’re passing the tax management on to you – they’re not doing this in your case.

I would strongly encourage you to use a program like TurboTax when filing your taxes, as they help you greatly in discovering big deductions like this and applying them properly.

Got any questions? Email them to me or leave them in the comments and I’ll attempt to answer them in a future mailbag. However, I do receive hundreds of questions per week, so I may not necessarily be able to answer yours.

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