DEAR BRUCE: I lost my job due to a reduction in the workforce a year ago. I am wondering what I should do with my 401(k). I am 60 years old, and my husband will be 62 in December. He lost his job about two years ago. I was collecting unemployment, but since I am now receiving a small pension from my previous employer, this has stopped. I still owe $5,000 on my car loan and was wondering whether I should take money out of my 401(k) to pay this off. Right now I have just over $112,000, which is all invested in intermediate and short bonds.
We also have the usual bills, mortgage, etc., which is $1,000 a month in utilities, charge card bills and a loan. I also own some stock, which I have taken a huge loss on over the years. I have been applying for jobs but not having any luck. Any advice would be appreciated. — A.P., via email
DEAR A.P.: It is clear that age discrimination is alive and well, and folks your age will have a difficult time finding jobs at your previous income levels. You can, of course, withdraw money from your 401(k) without penalty; you’ll have to pay taxes. Given your job situation, it’s possible you won’t have to pay taxes. Your investments in bonds as of now likely produce a very modest return. You mentioned that you’ve taken a huge loss in your stock, but if you have invested in relatively secure companies (even though the market sunk considerably a few years ago), most of those stocks recovered nicely. I hope that is true in your case.
Regarding you car payment, it’s likely that the interest you are paying on that loan is substantially greater than the 401(k) is earning. If that is the case, consider taking the $5,000 and paying off that loan.
DEAR BRUCE: The company I work for offers a lump sum and an annuity as options for retirement payment. There is a rumor that the company is going to do away with the lump-sum option. How is the lump-sum option determined, and do they have to give notice if they change the way they offer pension payments? — A.B., via email
DEAR A.B.: The human resources department of your company is the place to start your investigation. Rumors are a nickel each. Because each situation is unique, I have no idea how the lump-sum option is determined and whether it is to your advantage. Further, they might have no obligation to tell you that the pensions are being changed, particularly if you make no contribution.
Your first stop is human resources. Ask the questions you’ve asked me. If they start to finesse, you may want to talk to some of your colleagues and collectively have an attorney make the inquiry.
DEAR BRUCE: I am 59 years old and recently divorced from my second husband. I plan to retire in five years. Will I be able to collect Social Security benefits equal to either one of my ex-husbands? Both of them made considerably more money than I did, and will be receiving a much larger monthly income from Social Security. My first husband will receive the largest income. I could not find this information on the Social Security website. — Molly from Florida
DEAR MOLLY: You didn’t indicate how long you were married to these guys, but if you were married to either one of them for 10 years or more, you are eligible to collect under their account. First, you must make a claim for your own, based upon the payments you made. The amount you collect will be raised proportionately. I understand the propensity for most folks to go to a website to find this information, but in this situation it will be well worth your time to stop by a Social Security office with all the specifics like Social Security numbers, etc. The office can research your individual circumstance completely and accurately. It is certainly worth the investment of your time.
Send your questions to: Smart Money, P.O. Box 2095, Elfers, FL 34680. E-mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org. Questions of general interest will be answered in future columns. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.