MONEY home improvement

The Cheap and Easy Way to Quiet Banging Pipes

For Sale sign illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: We just upgraded to a high-efficiency washer and dryer, and now the pipes are making a racket inside our walls. Every time the machine draws water, which seems like a dozen times per load, we hear a loud banging noise. What can we do?

A: Today’s washing machines use quick-acting valves that slam open and shut in a millisecond, and that sudden change in pressure can cause pipes to jerk. If they’re not fastened tightly to the house’s framing, they can slam against it. This is not just a nuisance; it can also potentially cause premature wear on old plumbing pipes and joints.

There are two potential solutions to so-called “water hammer,” and either one is fairly simple to do yourself if you don’t want to spend the money for (or take a day off to wait for) a plumber.

If you can find the spot where the pipes are banging against framing—meaning it’s not hidden away inside the walls or floors—you can add pipe straps to hold the pipes in place and eliminate the banging. Pipe straps are available for just a few dollars anywhere you can buy plumbing supplies; make sure to purchase straps that are sized for the diameter of your pipes.

If you can’t access the banging pipes, or don’t even want to attempt the hunt, you can also install water hammer arrestors. These are essentially shock absorbers designed to cushion the change in water pressure so the pipes don’t bang and don’t suffer wear and tear from the extreme pressure changes. You can pick them up for $15 to $25 each at any plumbing supply. You’ll want two, so you can install them on both the hot and cold pipes. Attach by disconnecting the washer hoses, threading the arrestors onto the wall spigots, and then connecting the washer hoses to them.

Place a strip of Teflon tape over the threads before screwing on the arrestors to ensure they’re easy to remove later, and keep an eye on the connections during the next couple of wash loads to make sure they’re not dripping.

MONEY Workplace

The Trouble With Being Friends With People Who Work For You

Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: Should a boss be friends with his or her employees?

A: Treating employees like pals didn’t always work out for Steve Carrell’s Michael Scott character on The Office, but you can be friends with people who work for you—if you set boundaries.

“When you’re working side-by-side, day after day with people, it’s perfectly natural for friendships to develop,” says Brian Fielkow, a CEO of a Houston logistics company and author of Driving to Perfection: Achieving Business Excellence By Creating A Vibrant Culture. “Some people believe work and your personal life should be separate. But most people don’t want to just punch a clock every day.”

Indeed, there’s lots of research that shows that having work friends is good for business. People with office buddies tend to be happier, more productive, and less likely to quit. Even workers who aren’t thrilled with the job itself are happier when they have friends at work because it gives them someone to vent to and reduces stress, according to Michael Sollitto, assistant professor of communication at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi and author of a recent study on workplace relationships.

But the rules are different when the relationship is between people on different rungs of the corporate ladder. “Friendships with subordinates can be dangerous for your career and for the workers who are your friends,” says Fielkow.

If you’re going out to lunch, grabbing drinks after work, or playing golf with people who report to you, perceptions of an uneven playing field can fester. “Employees who aren’t part of that clique may start to feel like your chummy pals have better access to you than the rest of the team and are more likely to receive special treatment,” says Fielkow. People may not respect you if you play favorites.

Your friendship with a subordinate can also color co-workers’ feelings toward that person. If your friend gets a promotion or a big raise, it might be chalked up to your relationship, not his or her merits.

Plus, workplace friendships can make it harder for you to do your job. “It may be difficult to be critical of a friend you manage,” says Fielkow. “What if you have to lay to lay them off?” And if the friendship goes sour, that worker could undermine you by sharing intimate details about your life.

None if this means you can’t develop close relationships at work. If a friendship with a colleague grows, agree on boundaries. Don’t talk about other workers or business issues when you’re outside the office. Don’t share company information before it becomes public knowledge.

And make sure that you’re equally accessible to all members of your team. Communicate regularly with people who report to you. Walk around the office. A simple “how was your weekend” at the water cooler can go a long way toward making you approachable. “Showing a personal interest in your employees’ lives can help you be a better manager and create an atmosphere where people get more out of work than work,” says Fielkow.

MONEY Ask the Expert

When Putting Most of Your Eggs in One Basket Can Make Sense

Investing illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: A recent Money issue recommends consolidating accounts at a single brokerage. I’d like to do that, but we worry about having all of our eggs in one basket. What if the company’s systems are hacked, my password gets compromised, or the company gets managed like Enron or the big banks in 2008? – Shirley in North Carolina

A: These are valid concerns, no doubt, but you are still better off consolidating your accounts to the extent you can, says Michael Garry, a certified financial planner and chief compliance officer at Yardley Wealth Management in Newtown, Penn.

For starters, most brokerage firms offer protection should someone gain unauthorized access to your account. (If you share your password with your unscrupulous cousin or are otherwise negligent, it’s a different story.)

Check your firm’s brokerage account agreement to understand exactly who’s liable when and for what.

To make sure you’re covered in the event that your firm goes belly up, see if accounts are protected by the Securities Investor Protection Corporation (SIPC). This insurance, which is not unlike Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation protection offered at banks, covers up to $500,000 per account type at each firm. “Most big firms also have insurance on top of that,” notes Garry.

Those safeguards are important, but here’s the thing: The best way to protect your nest egg is to regularly check your account for suspicious activity and routinely change your passwords. “It’s a lot harder to be vigilant if you have six or seven different accounts,” says Garry.

More importantly, having too many accounts poses an even bigger risk than a security breach or bankruptcy – mismanaging your savings. “Remember that your asset allocation can account for 90% of your performance,” Garry adds. When your accounts are spread out, he says, it’s much harder to gauge how you’re invested, measure your performance and make necessary changes to your allocation.

Of course, if you are going to put most of your eggs in one basket, make sure it’s the right basket.

In addition to the right insurance and security measures, look for a firm that offers the right mix of investment products, tools and research. Fees should be a big part of your equation. Just keep in mind that the costs associated with long-term investing may be very different than those of, say, trading stock.

It may very well be that no single firm offers exactly everything you need. In that case, it may make sense to do business with more than one firm.

You may, for example, keep most of your assets with the brokerage that offers the best retirement-planning tools and broadest selection of no-transaction-fee mutual funds, but then designate a discount broker for buying and selling individual stocks. Under that scenario, a little distance doesn’t hurt.

MONEY Social Security

The Best Way to Claim Social Security After Losing a Spouse

Ask the Expert Retirement illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q. My husband recently passed away at age 65. I’ll be 62 in July, and I’m working full time. I went to the Social Security office and was told I could file for survivor benefits now, but would lose most of the income since my salary is about $37,000 a year. They told me to wait as long as possible to start collecting. My own Social Security benefits would be about $1,200 per month at 62, but since I’ll keep working, I will forfeit most of it. I don’t want to give up most of the benefits. But if there’s money I can collect until I turn 66, I’d like to get it. —Deanna

A. Please accept my condolences at the loss of your husband. I am so sorry. As for your Social Security situation, let me explain a few things that I hope will make your decision clearer.

First off, it’s true that the Earnings Test will reduce any benefits you receive before what’s called your Full Retirement Age (66 for you). However, these benefit reductions are only temporary—you do not forfeit this income. When you reach 66, any amounts lost by the Earnings Test will be restored to you in the form of higher benefit payments.

The real consequence of taking benefits “early”—before your FRA—is that the amount you receive will be reduced. There are different early reduction amounts for retirement benefits and widow’s benefits.

That said, you can file for a reduced retirement benefit at 62 and then switch to your widow’s benefit at 66, when it will reach its maximum value to you. This makes sense if you are sure that your widow’s benefit will always be larger than your own retirement benefit; more on that in moment.

One caveat: if you take your retirement benefits early, the restoration of Earnings Test reductions probably will be lost to you once you switch later to a widow’s benefit. But if the widow’s benefit is larger anyway, this should not bother you.

To find out more precisely what you’ll get in retirement benefits, set up an online account at Social Security—you’ll see the income you’ll receive at different claiming ages. To get the comparable values of your survivor’s benefit as a widow, however, you will need to get help from a Social Security representative.

Once you see those numbers, it could change your thinking. For example, what if your own retirement benefit is larger than your widow’s benefit? It could happen, especially if you defer claiming until age 70 and earn delayed retirement credits. In that scenario, you would do better to claim your widow’s benefit—and perhaps even take it early if you need the money. You can then switch to your retirement benefit at age 70.

These claiming choices can be very complicated. Economist Larry Kotlikoff, who is a friend and co-author of my new book on Social Security, developed a good software program, Maximize My Social Security ($40), which can take all your variables and plot your best claiming strategy. But I’m not trying to sell his software, believe me; there are other programs you can check out, which are mentioned here. Some are free, but paying a small fee for a comprehensive program may be worth it, when you consider the thousands of benefit dollars that are at stake.

Philip Moeller is an expert on retirement, aging, and health. His book, “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security,” will be published in February by Simon & Schuster. Reach him at moeller.philip@gmail.com or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.

Read next: What You Need to Know About Social Security Survivor’s Benefits

MONEY Ask the Expert

How to Secure Your Finances When Reality Doesn’t Bite

Investing illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I am a 22-year-old college grad with a six-figure income and minimal student debt. I have no car and live with my parents. Is there something I should do now to lead a secure and fiscally responsible life? My father gave me the name of his planner but he was of little help — Timothy

A: Given your age, healthy salary, low expenses, and minimal debt, you’re financial situation is pretty straight forward. “There is a time and a place to work with a financial planner, and now may not be one of them,” says Maggie Kirchhoff, a certified financial planner with Wisdom Wealth Strategies in Denver.

If you still want some guidance, you may have better luck getting referrals from friends or colleagues. “A planner who’s a good fit for your parents may not be a good match for you,” she adds.

In the meantime, there are plenty of things you can be doing to improve your financial security. The biggest one: “Save systematically,” says Kirchhoff. If you start saving $5,500 a year, even with a conservative 5% annual return, you’ll have nearly $600,000 when you turn 60. “That assumes you never increase contributions,” she says.

It sounds like you’re in a position to save several times that amount now that your expenses are still low. Make use of your current economic sweet spot by taking full advantage of tax-friendly retirement vehicles, such as an employer-sponsored 401(k) plan. You can sock away up to $18,000 a year in such a plan, and any contributions are exempt from federal and state taxes. If your employer offers matching benefits, contribute at least enough to get the most you can from that benefit.

Your 401(k) plan likely offers an allocation tool to help you figure out the best mix of stocks and bonds for your time horizon and risk tolerance. Based on that recommendation, you’ll want to choose a handful of low-cost mutual funds or index funds that invest in companies of different sizes, in the United States and abroad. “You can make it as complicated or simple as you like,” says Kirchhoff.

If you want to keep things simple, look at whether your plan offers any target-date funds, which allocate assets based on the year you expect to retire (a bit of a guess at this point) and automatically make changes to that mix as that date nears. Caveat: Don’t overpay to put your retirement plan on autopilot; ideally the expense ratio should be less than 1%.

Now, just as important as investing for retirement is making sure you protect that nest egg from its biggest threat: you. Build an emergency fund so you won’t be tempted to dip into your long-term savings — and owe taxes and penalties — if you lose your job or face unexpected expenses.

“A general rule is three to six months of expenses, but since his expense are already so low, he should aim to eventually save three to six months of his take-home pay,” says Kirchhoff, who recommends keeping your rainy-day fund in a money market account that isn’t tied directly to your checking account.

With the extreme ends of your financial situation covered, you’ll then want to think about what you have planned for the next five or 10 years.

Is graduate school in your future? What about buying or renting a place of your own? Once you get up to speed on your retirement savings and emergency fund, you can turn your attention to saving up for any near-term goals.

You might also consider eventually opening a Roth IRA. You’ll make after-tax contributions, but the money will grow sans tax, and you won’t owe taxes when you withdraw for retirement down the road. (Note: You can save up to $5,500 a year in a Roth, but contributions phase out once your modified gross adjusted income reaches $116,000 to $131,000.)

A Roth may not only save you more in taxes down the road, it also offers a little more flexibility that most retirement accounts. For example, you can withdraw up to $10,000 for a first-time home purchase, without tax or penalty, if you’ve had the account at least five years. Likewise, you can withdraw contributions at any point, for any purpose.

What about the student debt? Depending on the interest rate and whether you qualify for a tax deduction (in your case probably not), you could hang onto it and focus on other financial priorities.

That said, if you can make large contributions to your 401(k) plan, build your emergency fund and pay off your student debt at a quicker pace, says Kirchhoff, so much the better.

MONEY Social Security

How to Use Social Security’s ‘File and Suspend’ Option

Q: Do I have to be 66 (my full retirement age) before I can file for Social Security benefits and suspend, or can I file at age 62, when first eligible, for my wife to start collecting? Second, I know that her spousal benefit is based on my earnings record. I plan to work to age 70 or longer so my earnings base will increase every year. Will the spousal benefit recalculate every year and increase accordingly. or is the spousal earnings base frozen at the time of filing? —Peter

A: You cannot file and suspend before 66—your full retirement age, or FRA for short. If you file sooner, you will have no choice but to begin collecting your retirement benefits. And if your wife files for spousal benefits before her FRA, she will be deemed under Social Security rules to also be filing for her own retirement benefit. Social Security does not pay full benefit amounts to people it considers “dually” entitled. Instead, it pays an amount that is roughly equal to the greater of the two benefits.

Spousal benefits are, indeed, automatically recomputed whenever your annual earnings are large enough to be included as one of the top 35 years of earnings during your life

I don’t know the age gap between you and your wife, or the difference in expected benefits based on each of your earnings records. But in the case of spouses of different ages, you should explore what happens if the younger spouse files for spousal benefits after the older spouse has reached FRA.

Under this strategy, the older spouse (I am going to assume here it is the husband) would file and suspend and let his benefits rise due to delayed retirement credits. As I noted earlier, the younger spouse will trigger her own retirement benefit if she files for a spousal benefit prior to FRA. Her benefits thus will be hit with early retirement reductions.

Still, getting these payments for several years may make sense to you. However, benefits will be greater if she can wait until her own FRA, at which point—because deeming ends at full retirement age—she then could file just for a spousal benefit and defer her own retirement benefit. It will be 76% higher at age 70 than age 62, and 32% higher at age 70 than age 66. If it winds up being larger than her spousal benefit, she can switch to it at age 70 (or even sooner if it makes sense given your income and spending needs).

Philip Moeller is an expert on retirement, aging, and health. His book, “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security,” will be published in February by Simon & Schuster. Reach him at moeller.philip@gmail.com or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.

More Social Security advice from Phil Moeller:
How Couples Can Boost Their Social Security Income
Here’s a Smart Strategy for Reducing Social Security Taxes
The Hidden Pitfalls of Collecting Social Security Benefits From Your Ex

Read next: The Best Moves to Make So a Nursing Home Doesn’t Bankrupt You

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MONEY long term care insurance

The Best Moves to Make So a Nursing Home Doesn’t Bankrupt You

Ask the Expert Retirement illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I am 62 and my wife is 58. We are considering buying long-term care insurance. However, we are also wondering if we have enough assets to self-insure. We have more than $2 million and no debt. We plan to retire to North Carolina, where long-term care costs are considerably less than in New Jersey. Would you be able to help us make this decision? – Bob Hyde, Flemington, N.J.

A: The decision is understandably difficult. A nursing home, assisted living facility, or home health care can cost tens of thousands of dollars a year, and no matter where you live, a lengthy illness could quickly deplete your savings. But long-term care insurance policies are expensive and restrictive, and insurers are hiking premiums as people live longer and require more care than insurers anticipated.

The high cost is one reason fewer than 8% of Americans have long-term care insurance. Many people mistakenly believe that Medicare will cover long-term care needs. The reality is that most people use their own resources to pay, and when those assets are exhausted, they turn to Medicaid.

There’s no easy answer to the best way to plan for long-term care needs, even as people grow increasingly worried about having enough money to cover the cost of a protracted illness.

A recent study has some good news and some bad news on this front. While previous research seemed to overstate the duration of care for people who need it, the risk of requiring care at all may be higher than previously thought.

According to the study, by senior economist Anthony Webb of the Center for Retirement Research, U.S. nursing home stays are relatively short: 11 months for the typical single man and 17 months for a single woman. But the risk that an older person may one day need some kind of nursing home care is considerable: 44% for men and 58% for women.

In your case, you have substantial savings for retirement and no debt, so that should make it possible to self-insure without jeopardizing your retirement lifestyle, says Tom Hebrank, a long-term care insurance specialist and financial planner in Atlanta.

But it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing decision, Hebrank says. You could, for example, buy more limited coverage and plan to pay the rest from savings. That would bring the cost of insurance way down.

A couple your age would pay about $7,700 a year for a policy that would cover three years’ worth of nursing care and provide a 5% compound annual increase in benefits to keep up with inflation. If you reduce the amount of inflation protection to 4%, your annual premium drops to $6,000; at 3% it falls to $3,500.

Another way to reduce the cost of a policy is to cut the daily benefit from, say, $150 to $100. Or you could limit the number of years benefits are paid. A policy that covers three years will be about one-third cheaper than one that provides unlimited benefits, according to the American Association of Long Term Care Insurance. How much you can afford depends on your retirement income. The National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) suggests that you spend no more than 7% of your income on premiums.

You can get free quotes from the American Association of Long Term Care Insurance to price out different options.

When deciding whether or not to buy long-term care insurance, you should also consider how liquid your assets are and whether you want to preserve money for your spouse or heirs. If the bulk of your wealth is tied up in your home, it won’t be easy to tap if you need quick access to the money for medical bills. Long-term care insurance is another way to preserve your assets and protect a surviving spouse who may also need care down the road, Hebrank says.

For some people, having long-term care insurance buys peace of mind, so it seems worth the price. “They don’t want to be a burden to their spouse or kids,” he says, “so even if it’s expensive, they feel better knowing they have coverage.”

Get more answers to your questions about long-term care insurance:
What should I look for in a long-term care policy?
How much will a long-term care policy cost?
What’s the best age to buy long-term care insurance?

Read next: 5 Ways to Tell If You’re Really Ready to Retire

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MONEY Ask the Expert

Free Fixes for Cracked Paint and Other Winter House Woes

For Sale sign illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: We paid a small fortune to have our great room painted last summer—and now that it’s winter, the paint has cracked at nearly every seam in the woodwork! Did we get a bad paint job? Can we demand free touchups?

A: This is an extremely common problem, especially with new woodwork and especially in climates where there’s a wide temperature swing from summer to winter. Your house was painted during the warm weather, when high ambient temperatures (and, depending on where you live, humidity too) make wood expand. Come winter, temperatures and humidity levels drop, wood shrinks, and each piece of trim separates a tiny bit from its neighbor, cracking the paint.

If the cracking is happening along all of the seams, your painter didn’t properly prepare the wood before painting, says Debbie Zimmer, of the Paint Quality Institute, a research arm of Dow Chemical. All of the seams between wood pieces should have been filled with paintable acrylic or siliconized acrylic caulk prior to the job. Unlike paint or other wood fillers, this rubbery material flexes with the wood, stretching and compressing as the boards shrink and swell and preventing the paint from cracking.

But even properly caulked projects will sometimes crack here and there. Most painters offer a two-year warranty on their work—and count on repeat business from good clients—so you should absolutely call your painter and ask him to come back and address the problem. It’s a quick fix for him, Zimmer, says and he should not charge you for the work if it’s within his warranty period. It’s quite possible some cracking will occur again in the second winter, and you can absolutely call him back again for another free touchup.

Don’t delay, because you could miss out on the warranty—and because those cracks will all but disappear when the weather warms up, making it harder to make your case and harder to identify every crack that needs caulk. Still, even if you miss out on the warranty, this job should cost only $200 or $300. Or, if you have experience with caulk and paint, you can fix it yourself: Fill all gaps with top-of-the-line paintable caulk, wipe away excess with a wet rag, allow it to cure for the time recommended on the tube, and then brush on paint. If you’re using leftover paint, first bring it to the paint shop or home center where it was purchased for a free shake to ensure that it’s well mixed.

And next time you hire a painter, make sure to confirm—and perhaps even note on the contract—that he will caulk all seams and joints as part of his prep process.

MONEY Ask the Expert

How to Tackle a Thorny Investment Tax Issue

Investing illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I have a taxable account at a discount brokerage, and I purchase stocks on margin. How do I write off the margin interest? – William, Northport, Fla.

A: You can deduct all kinds of expenses related to investing, and that includes margin interest. But, as you would probably expect, there are some caveats.

For one thing, before you can deduct margin interest you’ll need to first calculate your net investment income by subtracting any other related write offs. “If you made $1,000 in dividends and have spent $800 on deductible investment expenses, that means you can deduct no more than $200 in margin interest,” says Leon LaBrecque, a CPA and CFP, and managing partner of LJPR in Troy, Mich.

These expenses must be reasonable and necessary, and typically include such costs as investment advisory fees, safety-deposit box rentals, and subscriptions for research or investment-related publications. If you have investment losses or costs associated with real estate investments (but not rental property), those get factored in here too.

You’ll of course need to itemize your deductions, rather than taking the standard deduction. If your interest paid should happen to exceed your net investment come in any given year, you can carry it over to the next.

Keep in mind too that “you can only deduct what you’ve actually earned in taxable investment income,” LaBrecque says. Eligible investment income includes interest, stock dividends, capital gains and royalties. It doesn’t include tax-exempt securities, such as municipal bonds, or option straddles. Note: if you include long-term capital gains or qualified dividends in this equation, you give up the more favorable (15%) rate, “but in some circumstances it might make sense to do that,” LaBrecque adds.

Finally, you can only deduct margin interest if you used the proceeds to generate (or attempt to generate) taxable income. If you used a margin to buy tax-exempt bonds or sail around the world, none of that interest is deductible.

Of course, relative to investing with borrowed money, figuring out how to deduct the interest should be a cakewalk. Buying securities with margin is risky business. “There’s not just the chance that you’ll lose money, but that you’ll owe money,” says LaBrecque. “If a stock goes down enough you can really get wiped out.”

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