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Money Talk: Aug. 25, 2013

Dear Liz: If I plan to stay invested for more than 15 years and I can tolerate the ups and downs of the market, why would I want to put any of my 401(k) money into bonds instead of putting it all in various stock funds? The bond funds in my 401(k) have a five-year return of 5 percent to 6 percent whereas the other funds are 8 percent to 13 percent.

Answer: If you look at the more recent performance of those bond funds, you’ll notice that their returns are considerably worse. Many have been losing money lately as interest rates have risen. That poor performance may worsen if the economy improves and rates continue to rise.

But you need to consider more than recent performance when allocating your portfolio. Bonds and cash can cushion your account against big downturns in the stock market. That can help keep you from panicking and selling at a bottom.

If you’re as risk tolerant as you think and decades away from retirement, you might be able to put as little as 10 percent of your portfolio into bonds and cash. If you’re 15 to 20 years from retirement, a 20 percent bond allocation may be more prudent. A fee-only financial planner can help advise you about sensible asset allocations, or you can check out the stock and bond mixes of target date funds offered by leading mutual fund companies (such as the Vanguard Target Retirement 2030 Fund, if you’ll be retiring around 2030).

Dear Liz: I had a 730 credit score and went shopping for a car. The inquiries on my credit report took my score down to 704. Now that I have the auto loan, does it help my score to make larger payments and reduce the principal faster? The payment is currently $375, but I could pay $500 a month if this is advantageous.

Answer: It’s unlikely the auto loan inquiries lowered your credit score by that much. An inquiry typically dings your scores by less than five points. Even if the dealership queried several lenders on your behalf, all the auto loan inquiries typically would be combined and counted as one. What’s far more likely is that other information on your credit report changed, affecting your score. A higher balance on a single credit card could have that effect.

By the way, you don’t have one credit score, you have many. Each credit bureau sells different versions of the FICO score to lenders, and auto lenders typically use a version of the FICO tweaked for their industry. It’s possible your lender used just one of these FICO scores to evaluate you, but others might use three — one from each bureau. Also, if you’re monitoring your score using a free service or one sold by a bureau, the number you’re seeing might not be a FICO at all, but some alternate credit score that lenders don’t typically use.

To answer your question: Reducing the balance on an installment loan, such as a car loan or mortgage, would help your scores, but not nearly as much as paying down revolving accounts, such as credit cards. If you have any credit card debt, you’d be far better off using your extra money to pay off those bills. Not only would doing so help your scores more, but it also would have a bigger effect on your finances, since credit card interest is typically far higher than that charged on an auto loan.

Dear Liz: I am 64. My grown children, ages 23 and 25, are the beneficiaries of my retirement accounts. I have a Roth IRA, a Simple IRA and a Rollover IRA. When I die, what will be the tax consequences for them? Will they have to pay any tax upon inheriting the accounts, and will they have to pay any tax when they withdraw the money over time?

Answer: If your estate is worth less than $5 million, it’s unlikely it will incur federal estate taxes. Some states have lower exemption limits and a few have inheritance taxes. New Jersey and Delaware have both. An online search for “state estate and inheritance taxes” should turn up the situation for your state.

Your children won’t have to pay income taxes on distributions from your Roth, but unlike you or a spouse they are required to take distributions once they inherit the account. They can either do so within five years of your death or they can opt to spread the distributions over their lifetimes (which is usually the better option).

Minimum distributions also will be required from your IRAs. Your heirs will have to pay income taxes on those distributions.

Advise your children to consult a tax pro after you die, since these accounts need to be properly handled and titled to get the most benefit.

Liz Weston is the author of The 10 Commandments of Money: Survive and Thrive in the New Economy . Questions for possible inclusion in her column may be sent to 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, Calif. 91604, or by email at liz@lizweston.com. Distributed by No More Red Inc.