Laura Serra
Laura Serra
Money

Jean Chatzky Answers 6 Of Your Biggest Money Questions

How to ease money fears during the current pandemic.

Here’s what I’ve learned in nearly 30 years of helping real women with their money: Nobody goes looking for advice just because.

One, we seek advice because we’ve got a problem … right now … and so we really need the help. And two, although all of our questions feel hugely individual (because, well, they’re ours), there are some I hear over and over again.

So, today I’m answering the six questions women have most often about money, drawn from Girlfriend readers who are having them right now.

Q: The financial turmoil around coronavirus is stressing me out. With my competing priorities — student loan debt, rent, etc. — and my 401(k) falling out of the sky, how do I keep my life on track. Be specific please.

A: I feel you — and I’ll get specific. But first, breathe. And keep breathing. This period of financial uncertainty is not going to be short-lived. I am a big believer that we control the things we can control and do our best to let go of the rest. So, with that in mind, here’s what I’d do.

1) Look at your money coming in and money going out. I hope that your salary/business revenues are holding up, but I know for many people they are at risk. Don’t delay in making the sort of changes that will help you stretch them over a longer period of time. The money going out is easier to control (at all times, but particularly times like this). Go line by line and look at where you are spending. Ask yourself what is necessary and what you can trim, then trim the latter ASAP.

2) Don’t meddle with your 401(k). You’ve likely already seen a big drop in your 401(k). You have decades to go until retirement — now is not the time to sell. What we saw in 2008 was that individuals who cashed out didn't know where and when to get back in. They are in far worse shape than you are because many spent a decade on the sidelines. Instead, try to think of money you put into your retirement accounts through auto contributions over the next few months as buying shares on sale.

3) Understand what’s happening with your student loans. President Trump announced that he would be waiving interest payments on your federal student loans for the time being. That does not mean you have to make your loan payments in full. You do ­­­— but money that would have ordinarily gone to interest will go to principal instead. If you can’t make your payments and you go into forbearance or deferment, interest will not accrue during this time. What’s unclear is whether interest will be added back at the end of this time period. Note: This is not for private loans, Family Federal Education Loans or Perkins Loans held by your school.

4) If you can’t make payments, don’t hide from your creditors — call them. We learned this in the Great Recession. They were willing to work with you then; I am optimistic the same will be true now.

For years my husband was the breadwinner. And I stayed home. He was laid off, and now I’m the breadwinner and his self-esteem has taken a big hit. What advice do you have for couples facing this kind of shift?

I’ve been in this situation (except for the staying-home part) where the earning shifted and it brought volatility into the relationship, so this comes from the been-there-done-that file. The most important thing you can do to boost your husband’s self-esteem is to make him feel like he’s still making an important contribution to your family. If you’ve stepped up at work, you may — or may not — have asked him to take on more of the responsibilities at home. But you should have a conversation about what can go on his plate that would make both of your lives easier, recognizing that saving your family money has value just like making it does. Then credit him with doing these things to make all of your lives run a little more smoothly and perhaps inexpensively.

Next, think about the issue of financial autonomy. I believe couples function best when both people feel they have some — but without a job, your husband may be feeling that he can’t spend on activities that are individual priorities anymore. Refer back to the years you stayed home. How did you make sure that you still felt free to spend (within reason) on things that were important to you? Would the same system work now?

And finally, once you work out the details between the two of you, close ranks. The issues he’s having with self-esteem may be exacerbated by people (in-laws, friends, former colleagues) judging from the outside. As long as the two of you are presenting a united front, that should be much less of a problem.

My son is 25, out of college, but still hasn’t found a decent job. He’s living at home. Is it time to start asking him to pay rent? When should parents cut their kid off financially?

The questions are why hasn’t he found a decent job and what is he doing in the interim? If your son is out hustling — approaching looking for a job as if it is a job, and doing part-time work in the meantime (or even full-time work that’s not in his field) — it paints a very different picture than someone who isn’t applying for jobs he believes don’t meet the perfect description, isn’t working part-time to earn some money, and — oh yeah — still expects you to cook, shop and do laundry.

In both cases, what I think you need is a plan that says, in six months we expect that you will be either living on your own or paying $X (pick an amount that would cover a local apartment with a roommate) rent here. But in the first case, I’d be nicer about it — offering to help him find some career coaching to figure out why his clear attempts to land a job aren’t gaining traction. I also think that you can and should be putting smaller expenses (and responsibilities) on his plate in the meantime. Start with the ones that don’t cost anything.

He should be doing his own laundry already, but can start contributing to the household in cooking, dog walking and other chores. Over the next few months, have him start paying for his own cell phone bills, perhaps his car insurance, and other small expenses. By the time you work up to rent, you’ll have proven to him that he not only can afford to live on his own, but also wants to. After all, the free ride will largely have been eliminated.

My friend’s husband was laid off and they are definitely not in good shape financially. She has sort of hinted that they are so desperate they’d be willing to take a loan from a friend. Is this ever a good idea … to lend money to a friend?

No. I thought about leaving it there, but there is a little more to say. If there is money you might be willing to give your friend, or even better that you would like to give your friend, then fine. Do that. Say there is no more where that came from. And agree never to speak of it again. But loans do not go well. You will not be able to go out to dinner without wondering why they ordered such an expensive entrée when they have not paid you back. They will stress every mention of the loan because it will be clear that you do not need the money. Help with information if you like and you can. Otherwise, empathize but do not go further.

I’ve become a part-time caregiver for my elderly mother. As a result, I’ve had to cut back on work and my savings are being depleted. Do you have any advice for managing your finances when you are caring for a relative?

Yes. First, you should know you have plenty of company. The typical caregiver is a 49- or 50-year-old woman, typically working, with children of her own, who also spends 20 to 25 hours a week caring for other (female) relatives. And the cost of this care is staggering. The average cost to an individual female family caregiver? Nearly $325,000 in lost wages, pensions and Social Security, according to MetLife — not counting the $7,000 that 7 out of 10 caregivers spend annually out of their own pockets to cover other costs. Here’s what you can do.

First, help your parents find benefits they’re eligible for. Benefitscheckup.org is a resource provided by the National Council on Aging. Run through it with your parents, and you may find everything from discounts on medications they’re taking to help paying for their Medicare premiums to transportation services. More than 2,500 national, state and local benefits are listed on the site. Once it figures out what your parents are eligible for, it routes you into the application process.

Second, figure out if you can get paid for helping your mom. If the parent you’re caring for (or his or her spouse) is a veteran who served at least 90 days, with at least one day during a period of war, they may be eligible for either the Aid and Attendance benefit or the Housebound benefit, which can pay up to $25,000 a year. Apply through the Department of Veterans Affairs. About a dozen states also have something called a Cash and Counseling program under Medicaid that can pay children as caregivers. However, the waiting lists are frustratingly long.

Finally, if your parents have money, they can also pay you out of their assets. Talk to an elder law attorney about drawing up a contract that lays out what services you’re going to provide, how many hours you’re going to be providing care, whether you are quitting your job to do this work, and other details. Just note: If this is part of your strategy to qualify them for Medicaid, be very, very careful. A lawyer is an absolute must.

I am a single 48-year-old woman and would like to know how my finances for my future are, but I really do not know whom I should talk to, what paperwork I should bring in to show this person, and if I am doing the right investment with my Roth IRA.

Finding someone to help you in this day when it seems everyone is trying to sell you is undoubtedly tough. And here’s the thing, the person you may ultimately find to help you may be selling something — if it is not financial products, it will be advice. Once you know what they’re selling, however, you can recognize the sales pitch.

Let’s start by establishing what you really need. 1) You need to know if you are saving enough to retire when and how you want to retire. 2) You need to know if that money is invested in a way that will get you where you want to go without taking unnecessary risk. And 3) You need to know that you are protected against an unexpected financial emergency — like a disability, a layoff, a hurricane.

I’d suggest talking to a financial adviser who doesn’t have a horse in the race — i.e. someone who isn’t trying to sell you anything (save advice). The term for this is fee-only financial adviser. You can find one through the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors or NAPFA.org. And you can find one who is willing to work by the hour at GarrettPlanningNetwork.com.

Either way, insist upon an initial (free) consultation, references, and a look at a plan they’ve done for someone else (names erased, of course). You also want to get a sense for what this relationship will cost you over the course of a year so that you can compare apples to apples.

AARP Financial Ambassador Jean Chatzky is the financial editor for NBC's TODAY show and the host of two podcasts, AARP's Closing the Savings Gap and HerMoney with Jean Chatzky.

Dealing with an unexpected expense? We can help. Get your free action plan from AARP Money Map.

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