SACRAMENTO, Calif. — When it comes to personal finances, Jean Chatzky is seemingly everywhere.
From TV to blogland, she dispenses advice as a financial editor on NBC’s “Today” show, her own website and as the author of eight books on money matters, including her newest, “Money Rules.”
Last month, she debuted as the new “financial ambassador” for AARP’s monthly magazine and its website. Following her inaugural column, Chatzky spoke by phone from New York. Here’s an excerpt:
Q: Even though we’re told the recession is officially over, it still doesn’t feel that way for many people. Is that why you call this a “scary economy?”
A: If anything, what we’ve learned coming out of the recession is that it’s not an event, it’s a process. Some of it is driven by the market’s volatility, even if you’re not an active (stock) trader. If you’ve got retirement accounts with (exchange-traded funds) or target-date funds, the volatility is scary.
Q: To feel in control, you recommend that consumers first create a “financial road map.” Can you elaborate?
A: The most important number people need to know is: How much do I need to be saving to get to my retirement goals? Half of all Americans have never run the numbers on what retirement will cost. You start there: Figure out what you’ve got, what you’ll expect from Social Security, your rate of return on investments and savings. Don’t assume you’ll earn the 12 percent a year that you could during the market’s heyday. Plan on a conservative 6 percent in a diversified stock portfolio over the long term.
Go to the “Ballpark E$timate” retirement calculator at ... www.choosetosave.org. It’s not the most elegant retirement calculator, but it’s easy to maneuver and asks the right questions.
Q: Paying down debt is one of your mantras. Where to start?
A: If you haven’t dropped every interest rate on your credit cards or refinanced your car loan or mortgage, do so. If you don’t have the credit score to qualify for lower interest rates, you have time to work on it. With credit cards: Stay current on monthly payments; pay down the debt so your utilization rate improves; don’t apply for new cards; don’t close old credit cards. They all play into the mix.
Q: You’ve got one teen in high school and one going off to college this fall. What are your money guidelines with your own kids?
A: My kids have debit cards and have been managing them online for a while. That’s how I transfer money to them: an electronic allowance, so to speak. With their cards, they don’t have overdraft protection. If they run out of money, the transaction is denied.
Q: Reverse mortgages are getting scrutiny by the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which is concerned that some seniors may not understand what they’re getting into. Any advice on reverse mortgages for those over 62?
A: I think they’re certainly not a panacea. They tend to be expensive. You’ve always got to ask if you’d be better off by trading down to a smaller house or moving to a city that’s less expensive. Take a look at your options. If your parent is considering a reverse mortgage, go with them (to the mandatory HUD-required counseling session). Reverse mortgages are complicated. Be sure everyone in the family understands.