Money Talk: Nov. 24, 2013

Dear Liz: I currently have a 401(k) and an IRA, but want something more. A longtime CPA, who is very close to our family, recommended that I buy some stocks, but I’m unsure how to go about this.

Answer: When you’re investing, it’s important to be diversified. That means you should spread your money among different types of investments so you don’t have all your eggs in one basket, so to speak.

You’d need hundreds of thousands of dollars to be properly diversified with individual stocks. When you’re just starting out, it’s a lot smarter to buy mutual funds or exchange-traded funds that invest in a wide variety of stocks. Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF, for example, invests in more than 3,600 companies and has an ultra-low expense ratio of just 0.05 percent.

The fees you pay for your investments are important, since high expenses can dramatically reduce your total returns. Funds that try to beat the market, rather than match it, often engage in a lot of trading that drives up costs. Funds sold through full-service brokerages can carry high expenses as well.

So look for a discount brokerage that allows you to invest with minimal fees and commissions. Or consider one of the new breed of online advisors, such as Betterment or Wealthfront, that offers a low-cost basket of investments that are selected, monitored and rebalanced using sophisticated technology.

Dear Liz: What is your opinion of debt reduction programs? I am constantly receiving mail from various companies, and I was wondering if they are legit. They claim they can reduce my debt, which sounds promising, but I am hesitant to get involved with them.

Answer: You’ve got good instincts.

Many of the companies sending out these solicitations say they can settle your debt for pennies on the dollar. What they often fail to mention is that the debt settlement process can result in your being sued by your creditors and having your credit trashed. That’s assuming they try to settle your debt at all, rather than just disappearing with any money you pay them in advance.

If you’re struggling with too much debt, you should make two appointments: one with a legitimate credit counselor (visit the National Foundation for Credit Counseling at http://www.nfcc.org for referrals) to see whether you qualify for a debt management program to repay your credit card debt, and another with a bankruptcy attorney (check the National Assn. of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys at http://www.nacba.org for referrals) to see whether a bankruptcy filing might be appropriate for your situation.

Dear Liz: I have heard that you should never close credit card accounts of your own volition because that can hurt your credit scores. Are there any exceptions? I received a credit card several years ago, when my credit scores were in the toilet because of a number of collection accounts and delinquencies. I had no other open credit cards, so when they offered me unsecured credit, I accepted it willingly. The interest rate was (and is) 23.99 percent, and I was charged a $72 annual fee. Now, six years later, my credit scores are greatly increased. But you would never know it by this issuer. They have refused my request to lower the interest rate, and the annual fee has now gone up to $99 a year. My credit limit is $2,100 and a credit line increase of $150 would cost me a $14.95 fee. Under these circumstances, would you still counsel not to close this account?

Answer: Closing credit accounts won’t help your credit scores and may hurt them. But that doesn’t mean you should never close an account.

If you have several other credit cards, your credit scores probably won’t suffer much of a hit from a single account closure and will recover quickly from any damage done. You don’t want to close accounts if you’re still trying to improve your scores or if you’re in the market for a major loan, such as a mortgage or auto loan. Otherwise, though, there’s no reason to continuing paying for a card you no longer need.

If this is still your only credit card, you should use your good scores to open one or two cards with better deals. Then you can say good riddance to this one.

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.