Color of Money Live: Readers share tips on keeping financial information safe

Sep 20, 2018

Send in your questions to Washington Post nationally syndicated personal finance columnist Michelle Singletary.

“Knowledge isn’t power. The right knowledge is power.”

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So glad you could join me today. 

Foot update: As folks who were here last week know, I fell and fractured my right ankle in two places. Getting better but still some pain. Thanks for all the well wishing.

Anyway, let's get started.  

We have a low interest mortgage under 4%. We owe less than $15,000. Should we pay it off? We have a life happens fund and an emergency fund. I am entertaining the mortgage payoff idea but we need to do some major maintenance/renovation to the house. We can keep paying our mortgage and it will be over and done in a year. Asking for your advice. Thanks!!!

Since you'll need the money you've saved, and you'll paying mostly principal on the loan now, I would just wait it out. Keep making payments. It'll be over soon!

I started a Letter of Instruction and have continued to fill it in & update it over the past year or so. It was something I knew I needed, but didn't have a name for. How do my heirs connect the dots to my various accounts? But along with that comes another nagging thought... Aren't I creating a roadmap for an identity theif too? How do you protect it, yet make the letter available in case something goes wrong?

Good question. 

Estate planning experts suggest you leave a letter with instructions to the person you've designed to handle your estate when you die. It's a guide to who they should talk to, where your account are held etc.

As for connecting the dots, you connect them for them. I would suggest having a sit down and talking about what you're putting in the letter. And you aren't going to share this with everyone, just the people who will be handling things. And even then you don't have to include dollar amounts, etc. Just something like, "Here is where I keep my household accounts, retirement money, etc.

You don't have to include the account numbers in the electronic file. Print things out the old fashioned pay (account statements, etc.) and include the paper with the printed out letter. 

 

I monitor my finances every day. I feel like a vigilante, trying to keep myself from being ripped off. My cable bill mysteriously doubles and no one can tell me why. My Starwood points vanished when Marriott merged the awards program. A cashier leaned on the scale at the supermarket last week, adding weight to produce, and $10 to my overall bill. (I had her re-weigh everything and remove the higher prices.) It never seems to end. I don't remember having to be so on top of things before. Do you think we rely too much on technology? Is it getting worse?

Yes & Yes.

I'm so with you on this. When I'm at the register at the grocery store, I'm like a financial hawk. Often I find the store hasn't updated prices. Or they price on the floor says one thing but in the system another. I argue that they should give me the price I found on the shelf because it is what I used to pick up an item.

So, yup, we all need to be watchful. All. The. Time. 

Hi Michelle - We're looking to set up an online checking account separate from our personal accounts to pay mortgage and other home expenses. Do you have any recommendations of where to look to compare online banks? There seem to be so many non-traditional online days nowadays and it's hard to figure out the pros and cons of using a strictly online bank vs one that has physical locations.

Bankrate.com is a good place to look to compare online banks, rates, etc. 

It's my go-to. 

Not a question, just giving feedback. I wasn't able to get this book from the library in time for the chat you had for it, but reading it now. So far, I feel like it is not very relatable to many people, unless you live on the coasts. I understand this is where the author lives and she is writing about what she knows. I feel like what I am reading is so different than the common sense you usually preach, and what we have done with our millennial children: don't get caught up in keeping up with the Joneses, spend less than you earn, state colleges, majors that you can get jobs in, etc. We live in a mid size city in the Midwest, and our millennials are doing just fine. We are proud of them. I feel this book so far is not up to the usual standard of the books you recommend, so far it is coming off to me as the stereotypical whining of the entitled generation. Long time reader here.

From Michelle's live chat a few weeks ago here.

Read Michelle's column:
 Why the future of America’s middle class is so financially fragile

I hear you but if you can, keep an open mind. 

Yes, lots of folks make bad decisions but I also found that the book made some great points about how life can take a turn and put you on a different path. 

It address the high cost of childcare. How many of us are just a job away from financial ruin. 

I didn't see it as whining but a look at how fragile so many in the middle-class are. 

Read the author's answers to your concerns in the chat I did with her. 

see above

Thanks for asking. It's okay. But a struggle. As soon as it feels a little better, I try to move more and than BAM!, I'm back in pain. And I hate being forced to be so still and rely on folks. 

Think I'm going to write about this because it goes the question of how do you accept caregiving and how do you give it. 

Plus I've been using a wheelchair because my foot and legs get so tired -- and I have to keep my foot elevated.

I have such an appreciation know for how difficult it is to get around when you can't walk. Why oh why are bathroom doors so heavy? HATE cobblestone now. 

It's been a window into a time when  may not be able to care for myself in my senior years. So many places in my home are not friendly to immobility. 

I've walked -- wheeled - in the shoes of a lot of people and the road is very hard! 

This is so important for everyone--even young folks. Do you have a small retirement account from an old job? Do you have life insurance through a job, even if it's just a little bit? Do you have an old savings account in your hometown that still has $47 in it that you left there just in case you need it when you're back visiting? Write these down, and for anything work-related, name a HR person or work friend who could serve as a point of contact for your survivor in navigating your benefits.

Great advice. Thank you!

My husband and I are about to change our personal representative so I'm going to have to do this with the new person. 

It's tedious work but it will be incredibly helpful for your representative, trustee, etc. 

 

Michelle, thanks as always for these chats. My husband has been out of work for almost a year and he just started his new job today - so proud of him! We were fortunate to have emergency funds built up (after listening to you, of course) and we've been able to stay afloat. His new job pays substantially less so we won't be building them us as quickly and have other big ticket items to deal with now that we have money again (fridge replacement, car repair). Any words of advice on how to divvying up about $1200 a month towards building savings again, investing for retirement, and big ticket items?

Congrats on the new job. I can only imagine how relieved you both are.

For now, I would take it slow. You don't have to do it all at once. Start with the savings. Then if you have major repairs you have to do put the money toward that.

You could also, wait just a bit before diving back into retirement savings just until you have a decent cushion built back up. Doesn't have to be the three to six months of living expenses but enough to handle an emergency. Then once you've got your footing get right back to saving for retirement. 

I certainly don't put anything specific like bank account information in the LoI. What worries me most is that it leaves a trail of breadcrumbs on how to get into my online accounts. Nothing is specifically there, but it tells how to get into my master password file. Currently one of those steps involves getting into my safety deposit box (to get the password). But since that can even take a lot of time for legitimate heirs, I've been thinking about changing that. And if I do, that makes illegetimate access all the easier. So I'm struggling with making the info available when/if it's needed without making my accounts vulnerable.

I totally understand. But you've got to write it down otherwise people can't/won't know. 

Just take as many precautions as you can. Make sure your computer is protect with virus software and you update for security patches. 

Again, you could type things up, print it out on paper and then delete the file. Or just write it all down on paper and keep that in a locked file in your home. 

Just don't like the worry of being hacked keep you from passing along important information. 

I bought a brand new 2019 Honda SUV on 8/31 for invoice. I realized that I could have purchased a 2018 model for about $2,000 cheaper. But the 2019 had significant additional safety features that the 2018 did not. I was able to get the vehicle in black with black interior. It is what I have always wanted. I was able to do this because my old Honda is 15 years old and I haven't had a car payment in 11 plus years. Instead I have been paying myself, aggressively paying down my mortgage, investing the max in my 401k, fully funding my IRA, putting a lot away in my child's 529, and giving to charity. And I plan on keeping this one for at least 15 years.

By bought if you meant paid cash -- good for you!

I would never second guess you're buying new because you had the money and you had so many other things covered. 

My husband is in the market to replace his 12-year-old Account (want to give it to our son in college). Even though we have the cash for a new car, he/we had needed to buy used. But that's us. 

It's all about choice. We are okay buying a later model car even if we miss out on some new features. The point is we can do either -- buy new or old. 

Enjoy our new vehicle! 

The best advice I got was not to think of my recovery on a day-by-day basis, but on a week-by-week basis. Is it, on the whole, feeling better this week than last? Since, yeah, those little setbacks are otherwise really frustrating.

Good advice. Thank you. I definitely did to much yesterday and paying for it today.

But you are right. I've got to think long term. Don't do to much as soon as it feels better. Give myself time to heal. 

Hi Michelle, I know wills have been a hot topic in your columns. Correct me if I am wrong but I believe your stance has always been no one is entitled to an heritance...a person is freely able to give as they see fit. While, I agree with you...I also believe people use it to have the final word. My step-mother, of 35 years, died and she had the most hateful and controlling will I have ever read. Her final will was indicative of how she lived her life on this earth. The point I want to make today is...loving people want to look out for loved ones.

Read Michelle's column: What happens if you die without a will? You might leave a hot mess behind.

You are right. Loving people do loving things. That is the ideal.

But since we know people can be hateful, spiteful, etc. we have to learn that all that stuff is about them -- not you. And if we learn this either through self discovery or therapy then you don't return that hate with hurt.

So what your parents didn't leave you anything, you'll still good and valuable. It was their money to do with what they want. Were you as good a person, child you could be while they were alive? If so, that's what matters. 

If we measure our worth by what people give us in their will or even alive, that's not good. It gives them control. 

I chose to control my emotions. Nobody can make you feel anyway. You choose to feel hurt, left out, angry, etc. 

Where I think people go wrong is taking their hurt out on the people who did get the money, etc in the will. Or they carry this soul sucking pain for what they didn't get. 

Let it go. It wasn't your money anyway. 

If you have the money and good health, wait for at least FRA. If you don’t have the money and/or bad health, take at 62. Just a yardstick to go by. Most calculators estimate the break even age is 79/80. It is a gamble as we do not know date of death. So you never know if your decision is a good one until after die!

Read Michelle's column: Early or late: One senior says ignore the conventional wisdom of waiting to take Social Security. Take it at 62.

Your last line is the point: You don't know if the decision of when to take SS was right until after death.

This means telling everyone to wait until 70 isn't right. Neither is saying take it at 62 because you don't know if you'll live a long life.

My husband wants to take it early. I want to wait until 70. We both are right when we present our arguments -- assuming our underlying assumptions prove to be right.

So, look at your entire financial situation and then make the  best decision you can based on the information you have. 

So I recently discovered that prepaying on a mortgage doesn't necessarily make your monthly payments steadily go down! To me that's one of main reasons to do it. How common is this? Is it easy/common for lenders to automatically recalculate?

Yes, you are correct. What you want to do it make extra "principal" payments and that in turn shortens the loan and reduces the amount of interest you pay. 

That's what my husband and I are doing. Making extra principal payment thereby knocking off several years of our loan. So as we are paying the regular mortgage payments we get to year x -- which is much sooner than the loan term -- and we are done. 

I am power of attorney for my brother who is 59. A few days a fire destroyed his home. The home is ensured for about $110k with a similar amount for personal property. He is in the hospital and unable to assist me. I need to make a list of all his personal property but have no receipts, photos etc as everything was destroyed. I have been told to expect that the insurance company will work hard to keep down the amount the reimburse him. The personal property coverage is accelerated cash value. The home is a total loss with a small mortgage $12k. I expect they will offer a payout of less than the replacement cost. Any thoughts or advice on how to best protect his interests and advocate for what he is entitled to would be Much appreciated

I had the same thing happen when a fire destroyed my mothers home in Philly. But to my surprise the insurance company was great during the process. Even in the charred remains we found enough evidence that they gave us a very reasonable payout for her personal belongings.

On thing we did was walked through the house with the adjuster pointing out furniture, tvs, etc. Her policy called for replacement value and that's what we got. We were so relieved. 

I was the point person with the insurance company and we truly worked together. Even the payout for the damaged house was very fair and much more than we had thought. 

 

I appreciated your piece on multigenerational households. When I first moved to DC, I lived with an elderly widowed woman who rented rooms in her single family rowhome to young professionals in DC.I was able to save money for a downpayment for a home and the shared living arrangement definitely allowed me to save money in other ways (house cleaning; occasional group dinners; the relief that I was not a homeowner and didn’t have to pay for maintenance!). It was beneficial for her, too. She was always active around the home whereas she could have wallowed in grief after her husband’s passing. We had wonderful housemates from all walks of life. Everyone also had their own privacy and was able to live their life. Looking back, it was a fantastic arrangement and I was able to save quite a bit of money, and learned quite a bit about personal finances from her. She gave me insight on early planning for retirement (as a retiree) and my early career as a federal employee (she is a retired fed). What a godsend! Eventually, I was able to squirrel enough money and bought my own place. When she sold her place, she gave me quite a few stuff for my starter home and it was wonderful to have pieces of my first “home” in DC still around my current place.

Read Michelle's column: Who’s living under your roof? Why a multigenerational household can strengthen your family finances and bonds.

Just love your story and testimony!

I really do wish more people would consider this as a viable option. Not everyone can or should have their own place. 

Hi Michelle, I am happy to say that I sent in my final student loan payment last Friday! I am planning for a possible November or December trip to Japan (though keeping my beach destination options open) to celebrate. Thanks again for your encouragement!

I have through the ROOF happy for you! 

Thanks for keep me/us in the loop. You have got to send me a picture on Twitter! I want to see you on your trip. 

Safe travels and Congratulations! 

I am going to do this but am just going to print out the cover page from each account's monthly statement, so all the info is there including all the phone numbers and mailing addresses for the banks/credit card companies, etc. I think that's easier than an Excel sheet or having to copy everything down by hand.

Good idea. I'm stealing it. 

I read Squeezed after your chat a few weeks ago. I felt very fortunate that I wasn't able to relate. It also helped me wake up to the fact that although I think of myself as "middle class" in reality I'm probably "rich". I just don't think of myself that way because I'm surrounded by other people who are "rich" but would call themselves middle class. It wasn't an easy book to read, but I'm glad I read it...

Thank you for your perspective!

how about putting half the information (where accounts are) and the vital half (logins and passwords but no other identifying info) and then when you put one page right next the other, they line up, and your family/executor can get in. One page is stored in one place and the other in a totally different location.

Good idea too. Thanks.

This discussion about keeping your identity safe is particularly timely for me. Just got an email from Experian telling a ton of my personal info (email, home address, phone numbers) is on the dark web. Great. So while it's mandatory to have good virus/malware protection on our devices, it does not help when your information is being stolen from all the online places it exists. One thing Experian suggested was to change all logins away from the compromised email address. Thankfully, we mix that up a bit, so it should not be a big job. But use password vaults, the iCloud keychain, anything to have more secure logins and passwords. And only post or supply information only if it is really, really, needed. And yes, our credit files are currently locked. But ugh ugh ugh. So little protection for the consumer while the big business do whatever they want.

I'm so sorry your information is out there in that dark place.

But your suggestions are very helpful. Thanks.

I've created "Just in case" documents for both my husband and my sister which point them to key documents/information if the occasion arises. I leave the envelope for my sister on my desk (she has a key to my house) when my husband and I are both traveling, and the one for my husband I put in an envelope on my desk just prior to going into surgery a couple years ago. I also made a point of going over all our finances and accounts and bills with him.

Hearing from so many people who are being very loving by taking these steps to help folks in case the worst happens. 

This is truly a gift. Help people not be confused and frustrated should anything happen to you. 

I know I'm super early but how do you organize your receipts for taxes? We've spent far more than needed to claim medical on taxes due to fertility treatments insurance doesn't cover. Right now everythings in a manila folder that's busting at the seams. I know I need to keep the physical receipts or a record but how and where? Last year we had a lot of receipts because I also work from home but this is far more than I ever expected.

Start now so it's not so overwhelming come tax time.

Make it chronological.  Or create an excel or simple Word doc and go through each receipt and record. Then organize. 

A friend lets his retirement pension checks accumulate in his checking account as he is a multi-millionaire with other sources of income. He's extremely clever and manages his own investments doing better than so-called professional money-managers. I guess some just like the security of looking at large account balances. I've suggested just transferring some of it to a MMA, like I do, but no. What would you say to him?

Put me in your will :)

I'd say, he's doing pretty well as is. Perhaps, he just wants to the safety of the cash. 

I just wanted to put a shout out as thanks to the advice that you've given. Last week I found out I'm being laid off in "2-4 months". In years past I would have lost it and broken down. Now, my philosophy is more like, "eh... so that happened. What's next?" The primary reason for that is that I've created a situation where I've got financial flexibility and freedom. Thank you!

I'm so sorry about the job loss but LOVE your attitude. 

Being prepared can help you get through times like this. Good for you!

Be grateful you actually GOT a letter from Experian--after getting black mail email (to be paid in bitcoin) and two letters denying me credit I never applied for, Experian has yet to provide any info--and when I called them they told me 'it might take time'. Well, almost 7 weeks in I feel like I am on my own and doing my best to deal--and then AMEX called to ask about fraud. New credit cards, new passwords--but don't feel like it is enough and is stressful.

I'm so very, very sorry. 

I hope at this point you have put a credit freeze on all your files. If not, do it ASAP. 

Hi Michelle, SO good to have you back with the Chat! Keep healing up smoothly. You said in a response to someone today that "If we measure our worth by what people give us in their will or even alive, that's not good. It gives them control." I totally agree -- but what about the stuff that other people give us? How do we deal with it as we downsize? Why do we pack it away in boxes because we don't use it, but feel so guilty thinking about getting ride of it? What advice can you give? I can donate stuff easily but my husband has a SUPER hard time with the stuff, especially sentimental stuff. I want to take a picture of it and donate. He thinks we should keep it because it was Dad's...or Grandpa's, but mostly they just had it in a box because someone else gave it to them and they thought it was valuable. Hmmm. It has no meaning to us, but it feels like someone else is controlling us with their STUFF. Please advise. Love your chats!

I've got to go but first, thanks.

Second, I think I'll answer in an upcoming column. Very good question!

To the hateful will person, I saw your note. And I understand. Wish people were better, well, people. Do the best that you can for your dad. And thanks for sharing.

To everyone, thank you all again for wishing me we all on a speedy recovery. 

Take care and see you back here next week. 

In This Chat
Michelle Singletary
Michelle Singletary writes the nationally syndicated personal finance column, "The Color of Money," which appears in The Post on Wednesday and Sunday and is carried in more than 120 newspapers.

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