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Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Four Traditional Money Rules to Break

AnnaMaria Andriotis

Never borrow against a 401(k). Avoid credit cards. Make a bigger down payment on your home or apartment to avoid paying extra mortgage interest. These are among the tried-and-true financial rules consumers have been told to live by for years. But now -- with interest rates still low and credit staging a comeback -- might be a good time to break them.

This solid financial advice isn't suddenly all wrong, but many of these axioms no longer result in higher savings or less debt. That's because the economic recovery has opened up more exceptions and loopholes to standard advice, says David Peterson, president of Peak Capital Investment Services, a financial planning firm. Advisers, for example, typically discouraged clients from taking a loan from their 401(k) -- but this is now the cheapest way to borrow money, with the average rate at 4.25%, lower than most personal loans, to pay back debt they racked up during the recession. But as some parts of the economy have improved -- equities are once again outperforming fixed income, banks are slowly returning to lending, and consumers are spending more -- the rules for making and saving money are changing, at least temporarily.

Here are four traditional money rules you can break -- at least for now.

401(k) Loans

Old school advice: Avoid taking one at all costs.
Now: The most affordable loan available.

For decades, borrowing from a 401(k) plan was synonymous to derailing retirement savings. But right now, the cheapest bank for many borrowers -- especially those who feel secure in their job -- is their own 401(k). Average interest rates on credit cards are 14% and on home equity lines of credit 5.22%. But a 401(k) loan charges a fixed average of prime (currently 3.25%) plus 1%, according to the Profit Sharing/401(k) Council of America. Approximately 90% of employers offering 401(k)s permit employees to borrow from them, according to the PSCA, and the loans can last for up to 15 years. These loans make most sense for consumers stuck with high-interest credit card debt. In a year, a borrower can save around $800 in interest with a loan that eliminates a $5,000 balance on a card with a 20% interest rate.

And the money the borrower pays back goes into their 401(k) -- not to a bank. Repaying can also be easier than it is with a regular loan, says Olivia Mitchell, professor at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School, who recently coauthored a study on 401(k) loans. About 60 million people contribute to a 401(k), according to the PSCA; once a loan is taken out, any contributions made via automatic payroll deductions first go toward paying down the loan. But, there are still some pitfalls: If you lose your job or leave it voluntarily and can't pay the loan back within 90 days you'll be hit with federal income tax on the outstanding amount, plus a 10% penalty if less than age 59 1/2. And you'll need to reallocate some of what remains into higher-yielding equities until the account is made whole, to avoid missing out on potential gains, says David Wray, president of the PSCA.

Roth IRAs

Old school advice: Convert a traditional IRA into a Roth to save on taxes.
Now: Stick with the IRA.

The Roth IRA's appeal has always been that contributions, rather than withdrawals, are taxed, shifting the tax burden to pre-retirement instead of years down the road when taxes could be higher. Roth IRAs became even more user-friendly last year when taxpayers were allowed to convert from a traditional IRA regardless of income (the limit for conversions had been $100,000 modified adjusted-growth income). But in many cases, staying put in a traditional IRA will lead to bigger savings -- especially for people five to 10 years away from when they plan to withdraw their money, says Peterson. Here's why: It can take years of tax-free growth to make up the taxes incurred during the conversion. For example, someone who converts $100,000 from a traditional to a Roth IRA and pays $30,000 in taxes will need at least five years to make that money back -- assuming a 7% rate of return. And that doesn't address the loss of compounding that would have occurred if that money didn't go toward paying taxes, says Sheryl Garrett, a fee-only certified financial planner.

There's also less time to pay taxes on this conversion now. Savers who converted from a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA last year were able to spread the income from that conversion over 2011 and 2012. But now, all of the income from a conversion made in 2011 (and after) is taxable at once. Also, this conversion comes with the risk of getting bumped to a higher tax bracket during that year because the money counts as income -- so converting might not make sense for someone whose budget is currently stretched thin. Instead, savers might now want to convert a smaller amount gradually once a year that won't put them into different bracket, says Garrett.

Mortgages

Old school advice: Choose the mortgage with the smallest interest payments.
Now: Go with more interest.

Paying the least interest on a mortgage requires two steps: a down payment of at least 20% and paying down the loan quickly. But both strategies can create a setback for a borrower -- especially in still-uncertain housing and employment markets, says Chip Cummings, president of Northwind Financial, a training and consulting company for mortgage firms. With interest rates still low, instead of throwing most of their money into the home -- where some of it could be lost if home values decline -- consumers might want to make a down payment of 10%. Keep the extra cash in an emergency fund in case of sudden job loss or unexpected renovations and take on the added cost of private mortgage insurance.

PMI varies, but on average is 60 basis points. On a $300,000 30-year mortgage, a borrower keeps an extra $30,000 in cash and pays $1,800 a year just in PMI until he or she hits the 22% equity threshold. What's more, a 30-year mortgage, rather than a 15-year one, is one good way to build a savings safety net, says Keith Gumbinger, vice president at HSH Associates, which tracks the mortgage market. On average, monthly payments are 20% to 30% smaller with a 30-year mortgage, he says. That extra money could be stashed in savings for a rainy day or to pay the mortgage if you lose your job.

Credit Cards

Old school advice: Refrain from using them.
Now: Swipe -- with caution.

Stashing credit cards in a bank safe deposit box or freezing them in a block of ice were commonplace for many consumers during the recession in an attempt to lower spending and take time to pay down cards. But now, it seems that in order to hold onto a good credit score and access to credit cards in case of an emergency, borrowers need to make more purchases using them. Prime borrowers who stop using their credit cards will find their credit lines slashed or closed -- largely because their accounts are unprofitable since there's no balance to charge interest on, says John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education for SmartCredit.com, a credit-monitoring web site.

The median FICO score of borrowers with no trigger event, like a missed payment, who've been affected, is 770, according to a 2010 study by Fair Isaac. The result is a higher amount of credit card debt compared to total credit limits available, a ratio that can contribute to about 30% of their credit score. Use your credit cards at least once every three months -- and pay the balance off in full each time -- to avoid this, says Ulzheimer.

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