MONEY Ask the Expert

The Best Yard Tools for Your Money

140605_AskExpert_illo
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: We just moved out of the city and are gearing up for our first yard work. How do we decide what type of lawnmower, hedge-trimmer, leaf blower, and other machines to buy? Our options include gas, plug-in and battery-powered.

A: Welcome to suburbia! As you begin to enjoy the many benefits of lawns and foliage, you’ll also likely quickly discover yard work needs to be done weekly during much of the year, taking anywhere from an hour to a whole day depending on the chore at hand and the size of your property.

You might shell out $1,000 to $5,000 on the equipment you’ll need, but assuming you stay with your do-it-yourself plan for perhaps five years or more, that investment will more than pay for itself compared with hiring a pro to tackle the work. (If you’ve never before used mowers, string trimmers, leaf blowers and such, get a friend who owns them to give you a lesson before you buy.)

Gas-powered equipment is the gold standard. You get virtually unlimited run time (as long as you keep your gas can full), with plenty of power. There are downsides though: Gasoline engines need regular service (technically every year), and they’re bulky and loud. They may require a strong arm to start, especially as they age.

Plug-in machines, on the other hand, start with the flip of a switch and need no maintenance, other than sharpening blades perhaps once or twice a decade. They weigh less than a gas tool and cost less too. The price for a handheld machine, such as a leaf blower or hedge-trimmer, comes in at just $50 to $70, compared with $130 to $250 for gas. The problem is that plug-ins lack the power of gas, plus you have to drag long extension cords around to use them. That’s why Chris Bolton, of the giant Michigan equipment retailer Weingartz, doesn’t recommend plug-in tools for anything larger than a postage-stamp-size lot.

Battery-powered machines have long been the also-rans of the outdoor power equipment world. Thanks to new battery technology, though, they’ve leapfrogged plug-ins and now offer a middle ground between burning gas and dragging cords in terms of power, weight, and convenience. The downsides: They are pricey, with a high-quality handheld coming in at $400 to $500 (perhaps twice the price of an equivalent gas machine), and the batteries typically only last 4 to 5 years. Replacements run about $80 apiece.

As long as you’re able-bodied enough to handle their weight and power, go with gas for your mower and snow thrower (if you need one), which are jobs that demand maximum power, says Bolton. If you prefer batteries for other tools, go with the same top-of-the-line name brand for them all. That way you’ll get plenty of power and the batteries will be interchangeable. Buy two so that when you’re using one, the other can be charging. Also spring for the quick-charger upgrade so you never have to wait on a battery and can get back to enjoying your new yard as fast as possible.

MONEY Ask the Expert

The Best Way to Give Your Grandkid Cash for College

140605_AskExpert_illo
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: “My wife and I will soon be first-time grandparents and would like to make monthly investments for our grandson. What are the benefits and limitations of 529 plans? We live in N.Y., but our grandson will be born in Massachusetts.” —Joe Kostka, Fairport, N.Y.

A: If you want to help with your grandchild’s college costs, a 529 plan is the best route, says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Edvisors.com, a website that helps people plan and pay for college.

These state college savings plans have significant tax advantages. Your contributions grow tax-deferred, and withdrawals are tax free as long as the money goes toward qualified higher education expenses such as tuition or books. (If you spend it on something else, you will be hit by both income taxes and a 10% penalty.)

Since you’re funding an education account, you can contribute even more than the annual gift tax exclusion—$14,000 in 2014, or $28,000 as a couple—without running the risk of owing gift taxes. You can gift five times the annual exclusion in a single year, or $70,000 for a single person and $140,000 for a couple (but you then can’t give that child more for the next four years).

In more than half of states, if you use your state’s 529 plan you can deduct at least a portion of your 529 contribution on your state income tax return. New York offers a deduction of up to $5,000 per year ($10,000 for married couples filing jointly). Massachusetts has no deduction. To find out which states offer tax benefits, check out Edvisors’ full list.

For you to get a tax break in New York, you need to be the account holder of the 529 plan (naming your grandchild as beneficiary). But you might want to forgo the deduction and make the parents the account holder (or the child, though custodial 529 plans have other drawbacks, including no option to later change the beneficiary).

When grandparents own 529 plans, the account is not reported as an asset on the student’s FAFSA application for financial aid, but any plan distributions count as income. This can reduce your grandchild’s aid eligibility by as much as half of the distribution amount.

If the parent or child owns the plan, the account is reported as a parental asset on the FAFSA and has a minimal impact on aid eligibility, says Kantrowitz (aid is reduced by no more than 5.64% of the value of the 529). And 529 distributions are not reported as income.

The savings from the state tax deduction are small compared to the harm it could cause to your grandchild’s financial aid, says Kantrowitz.

Other Ways to Stay In Control

To keep control of the account without jeopardizing future financial aid, you have a few options. You can retain ownership of the plan until right before your grandchild takes a distribution and then switch it to your children. While New York allows this kind of account change (not all states do), you risk having to pay back the your tax savings (talk to an accountant).

Another option to minimize the hit to financial aid while still getting the tax break: Wait to take out the money until the child’s senior year of college, after the last financial aid application has been filed. The only risk is that if their expenses don’t outweigh what’s in the account, you could be stuck with leftover funds.

Best Plan Options

While you can invest in any state’s 529 college savings plan, you should opt for a direct-sold 529 plan, which usually has much lower fees than adviser-sold 529 plans do.

“The best option is to focus on a 529 plan with low fees that has an age-based asset allocation that mixes an all-stock fund, such as a S&P 500 fund, with a fund that has no risk of loss to principal,” says Kantrowitz, who prefers plans run by Vanguard, Fidelity, or TIAA-CREF. New York’s plan is run by Vanguard, while the Massachusetts direct 529 is run by Fidelity.

To help you boost what’s in the 529, Kantrowitz also suggests joining a program like Upromise. You earn rebates on everyday purchases, which are automatically put into the 529 plan you specify. Kantrowitz says a family will typically earn between $1,000 to $2,000 in rebates over the lifetime of the account.

MONEY Ask the Expert

What That Kitchen Remodeling Bid Will Really Cost You

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Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: The bids for our kitchen renovation looked low—until we realized they left out cabinets, appliances and such, which apparently we buy separately. Is there a way to ballpark those costs, so we can judge whether the project fits our budget?

A: Are you sitting down? The bids you received probably account for only a quarter to a third of your project costs, according to kitchen designer John Petrie, who owns Mother Hubbard’s Custom Cabinetry in Harrisburg, Pa., and is president of the National Kitchen and Bath Association, a trade group.

Many general contractors separate out cabinets, countertops, appliances, plumbing, light fixtures, tiles, and paint from their bids because the costs for these decorative items vary exponentially depending on what you choose. A kitchen faucet, for example, can range from $20 to $3,000. Backsplash tiles might run from $7 to $90 per square foot. So unless the contractor is providing design services—as a kitchen remodeling company would—he may prefer to let you select and order your own decorative items, even though he’ll still install them, and help with delivery if necessary.

The NKBA provides guidance on what percentage of the total budget certain elements eat up in a typical kitchen project:

Cabinets: 30%

Appliances: 14%

Countertops: 10%

Lighting: 5%

Plumbing fixtures: 4%

Paint: 2% to 3%

Tiles: 1% to 2%

The rest, about one-third of your cost in this scenario, is largely the stuff your contractor likely included in his price—from demolition and disposal of the old kitchen to new floors, walls, and windows to the labor for installing everything.

“These are only ballpark figures,” says Petrie. “But they work remarkably well at different budget levels.” For example, he would expect the cabinets to cost about $15,000 on a $50,000 kitchen project, $30,000 on a $100,000 project, and $45,000 on a $150,000 project.

Your contractors’ proposals should detail exactly what’s included in their prices (scrap any that don’t), but they probably don’t highlight what is not. So use the above percentages as a starting point to help piece your initial budget numbers together. And don’t be afraid to ask contractors about any details that aren’t clear, such as whether the item listed as “tile backsplash” includes the tiles or just the labor. (It’s very likely the later.)

Make a note right on the bids with the responses so you can keep track of which contractor said what. Also when you finalize the deal ask the pro you hire to initial next to any promises he made for things that aren’t explicitly stated in the bid, to help avoid any disagreements once it is too late to turn back.

MONEY early retirement

How Much Money Do I Really Need to Retire at 55?

140605_AskExpert_illo
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I’m 40 and can’t imagine working till I am 65. If I want to retire in my mid-50s, how can I make sure I have enough money to live a comfortable lifestyle?

A: How much you need to put away depends on the kind of lifestyle you want in retirement. A general rule of thumb is that you’ll need to replace 70% to 80% of your pre-retirement income to have a similar standard of living when you retire. So if you earn $100,000 a year, you’ll need roughly $80,000 in annual income. Some of that will come from Social Security (once you reach retirement age) and a pension, if you get one, so perhaps your portfolio will need to produce $50,000 to $60,000 of that income.

You’ll probably need less than your pre-retirement income because you’re no longer socking away a big chunk of your salary for retirement—and if you are aiming to retire early, you should be maxing out all your savings options and more. Your income taxes will likely be lower and many of the costs associated with working, such as commuting and eating lunch out, will disappear.

But if you retire at 55, you’re looking at funding four decades of retirement. That means you’ll need a much bigger cash stash than someone with a standard 30-year time horizon, says Charles Farrell, CEO of Northstar Investment Advisors and author of Your Money Ratios: Eight Simple Tools for Financial Security.

If you work till the traditional retirement age of 65, you should have 12 times your annual household income saved, says Farrell. For someone earning $100,000 a year, that’s $1.2 million (his figures take Social Security benefits into account). But if you want to quit work at age 55 and replace 75% of your income, you’ll need 18 times your annual income or $1.8 million. That assumes a 4% annual withdrawal rate, adjusted for inflation. “Not only does your money have to last longer but as you draw down your nest egg, your savings has less time to grow,” says Farrell.

If you’re not on track, it’s not too late. As you hit your peak earning years and big expenses fall away, such as college tuition for your kids, you may be able to power save, putting away much bigger chunks of money. Or you can adjust your goal. “Maybe 60 or 62 is more realistic than 55 or you can get by on less than you think,” says Farrell.

If you push back retirement to age 62, you’ll need 16 times your annual salary saved. If you really want to quit work at 55 and you’re willing to live on 60% of your pre-retirement income, you’ll need 15 times your annual income. Or if you can get by on 50% of your household income—say you pay off your mortgage or you significantly downsize your home to cut your post-retirement expenses—a nest egg of 12 times your final income may be enough.

Early retirement requires a willingness to stick to a lifestyle that allows you to save diligently throughout your career, while avoiding money drains like high interest rate debt. If this is your dream, it’ll be well worth the effort.

MONEY Ask the Expert

Why It Pays to Spend Down Your College Savings Plan Quickly

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Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q. I have enough in my daughter’s 529 to pay her full tuition for freshman year. Should I? — Andrea B., Location withheld

A. Yes, it’s best to use the savings sooner rather than later, says Raymond Loewe, an adviser with United Planners Financial Services. Given that your time horizon is short and the stock market has had a good run, it’s best to realize those tax-free gains now. Plus, spending down the 529 early could improve your odds for financial aid in future years, albeit slightly. Every $100 used can be worth $6 in aid, says Loewe. One caveat: The IRS won’t let you snag an education tax credit and take the 529 tax break for the same expenses. So to get the full $2,500 American Opportunity credit, for example, you’ll want to pay at least $4,000 with other money, says Joe Hurley of Savingforcollege.com.

More on college savings:

MONEY Careers

How to Impress Your Boss When You’re Never Face-to-Face

Charlie's Angels
How do you kick butt at work when you never lay eyes on your boss? Columbia Pictures—Courtesy Everett Collection

Q: I work in a regional office and report to someone who works at headquarters. How do I maintain a good relationship with my boss if we never see each other?

A: Getting your job done and done well is the foundation of a good relationship with your manager. But if your boss doesn’t see you every day, you may be missing out on opportunities to advance, says Ellie Eckhoff, a vice president at ClearRock, a leadership development and executive coaching firm.

“When you’re out of sight, you’re not going to be top of top of mind when it comes to landing important assignments or even promotions,” she says. If you can’t stop by your manager’s office for an impromptu chat, you have to work harder to connect on a personal level and build up trust, and it’s up to you to find ways to foster that connection.

Check in with your boss regularly, and don’t do it all by email or instant message. Research into how we communicate finds that about half of comes from non-verbal cues; 38% is the tone of your voice. Set up a regular time to talk by phone to give updates on projects and plan out future assignments.

Obviously going to headquarters regularly helps. “Get as much face time with your boss as you can,” says Eckhoff. But you may have to be creative about coming up with excuses to show up, especially if your company’s travel budget is tight.

Attend important meetings in person, sign up for on-site training classes, or volunteer for a team project that requires you to visit the main office. Another tactic is to attend conferences that your boss is going to and catch up at the event’s social functions. If your travel budget is limited, make trips that will give you the most interaction with your boss the priority.

Your manager shouldn’t be the only one you know at headquarters. Build relationships with colleagues who can help you navigate office politics and keep you informed about what’s going on behind the scenes. Recruit a mentor who works closely with your boss and can talk you up. Check in with these co-workers regularly and make lunch or drink plans ahead of your visits.

As for connecting on a more personal level, you don’t have to be a cyber-stalker to find out more about your boss’ life. “Simply reading his LinkedIn profile may help you find common ground if you know where he went to school and companies where he used to work,” says Eckhoff. Following him or her on Twitter may spark topic of conversations too.

You’ll have to go the extra mile to get to know your boss — and, more importantly, have him or her know you. For your career’s sake, do it.

Have a workplace etiquette question? Send it to careers@moneymail.com.

MONEY Ask the Expert

How to Know When Your Car is Really a Lemon

140605_AskExpert_illo
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q. My new car has been in the shop for a month. Will a “lemon law” be of help? — Mark Wisner, Morrisville, N.C.

A. Assuming your car is deemed a lemon, you’re entitled to—your choice—either a replacement car or a purchase price refund (see below). The definition of “lemon” varies by state; in your home of North Carolina, a car qualifies if it has been out of service for a total of 20 business days over 12 months or has been ­repaired for the same problem at least four times. The car must have fewer than 24,000 miles on it and be less than 24 months old.

Before submitting a claim, notify the manufacturer in writing of the problem (via certified mail) and give the company a reasonable chance to fix it, says Rosemary Shahan, president of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety. Check your state attorney general’s office for details, and carefully document your complaints and attempted repairs.

LEMON LAW

MONEY Ask the Expert

Help, My Spouse Is Afraid of Stocks. What Should I Do?

140605_AskExpert_illo
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I just got married, and my husband and I are both contributing to 401(k)s. But he is very conservative with his investments and keeps very little in stocks. We have more than three decades till retirement. How can we align our 401(k)s so we both feel comfortable?

A: It’s certainly not unusual for a couple to have different attitudes about how to manage their money. Spouses often aren’t on the same page when it comes to personal finances. But when you are investing for retirement, being too conservative can make it harder to reach your long-term goals.

“You need some of the risk that comes with investing in stocks, or you won’t have enough growth to fuel your portfolio for the long run,” says San Diego financial planner Marc Roland. And the younger you are, the more risk you can afford to take with your retirement money.

That’s because you have more time to ride out the anxiety-inducing downturns in the markets. Financial planners recommend using your age and subtracting it from 110 to get the percentage of your portfolio that you should keep in stocks. A 30-year-old, for example, should have roughly 80% of their holdings in equities.

So how do you mesh that guideline with an asset allocation that doesn’t panic your husband when the market drops?

First, understand that asset allocation isn’t the only important factor you should consider. How much you put away has more impact on your retirement savings success than how you invest your money. When you’re decades from retirement, it’s hard to know exactly how much you’ll need for a comfortable lifestyle at 65. But one rule of thumb is that you’ll need 70% of your pre-retirement salary to live comfortably. You can get a good ball park estimate with a calculator like this one from T. Rowe Price.

The more you are contributing to your 401(k)s, the less risk you have to take on, says Roland. If you’re both saving at least 10% of your income, and you boost that rate to 15% or more as you get older and earn more, a balanced portfolio of about 60% in stocks with the rest in bonds would work, says Roland. (That ratio of stocks to bonds is a bit conservative for investors in their 20s, who could reasonably stash as much as 80% in equities.)

To achieve that overall mix, the more aggressive spouse can invest 80% in stocks, while the risk-averse spouse can hold the line at 40%, assuming you are contributing similar amounts to your plans. “That blend will give them an appropriate asset allocation but each portfolio is tailored to each person’s risk tolerance,” says Roland.

Related links:

MONEY Health Care

Why Your Spouse Could Start Costing You More At Work

Wedding rings with health cross on them
Burazin—Getty Images

As health care costs climb, firms are rethinking how much they should spend on coverage for their workers’ husbands and wives.

Q. I hear my company will start charging even more for my spouse to sign up for my health insurance. Why is that?

A. This summer, companies are busy choosing health plans for 2015. And the discussions in the boardrooms are about as heated as the air outside the office, according to Randall Abbott, a senior consultant with Towers Watson. Abbott has been in nearly a dozen meetings in the past three weeks that have addressed one particularly fraught topic: how much companies shell out for health care for their workers’ spouses.

Struggling to rein in health care spending and worried about having exceptionally rich benefits that trigger Obamacare’s so-called Cadillac tax in a few years, businesses are looking for ways to pare back insurance costs. And spousal coverage is often floated as a possible cutback, Abbott says. Many firms have figured out that they spend at least as much—and often more—on coverage for spouses than they do on the workers themselves, so they are rethinking the approach to coverage.

That could mean a higher health insurance premium next year. Just how much higher won’t be clear until this fall, when you sign up for next year’s plan.

“It is a very charged topic,” says Abbott. “Many organizations have prided themselves on being family friendly, and they talk about their employees and family as part of the corporate family, but actions like this are starting to restate the deal between employers, employees, and family members.”

Businesses are not required to offer coverage to spouses—though most large firms do.

Many companies have already been passing on higher costs, hoping spouses will think twice before jumping onto the employee’s plan. This year, half of firms with more than 1,000 workers had spouses pay more for their health premium than workers do, according to Towers Watson’s research.

One-quarter of large firms charge spouses more for coverage when they have access to employer-sponsored coverage at their own job but turn it down. Another 15% plan to go that route in 2015. How much more? On average, couples pay an extra $1,200 a year.

“We think the surcharge will grow not necessarily because all employers think it is a great idea, but it almost becomes a defensive measure to make sure your plan doesn’t become a dumping ground for spouses,” says Abbott.

Some employers require spouses with other coverage options to sign up for that employer plan. Ten percent of firms used that strategy this year, and 13% plan to add the rule next year.

Of course it isn’t always possible for a firm to know if a spouse has access to an employer-sponsored plan through his or her own job. “It is generally done on the honor system,” says Abbott. But if your spouse submits a claim, that may offer clues. For example, a work-related accident might reveal that he or she works at a large firm, where benefits are typically offered.

Only 2% of large companies have stopped paying any of the premium for spousal coverage.

While most of the attention so far has been on partners and spouses, employers are also eyeing what they spend on coverage for workers’ children. Previously most large firms had two rates: individual and family. Now the lineup at most companies includes an individual, couple, and family rate. A few even go as far as to base your premium on the number of children in your family. “This has become one more plan feature that is enormously important for employees and their spouses to understand,” Abbott says.

MONEY Careers

Why You Should Tell Your Boss About the Job You Really Want

Gear shift from Sales to Marketing
Shifting to a new department can be tricky. Sarina Finkelstein—Alamy

Q: I want to apply for an opening in another department at my company. Should I tell my boss?

A: In most cases, yes. Telling your manager you are going for another position may be awkward, but if she hears about it second-hand—and that’s a real possibility with an internal opening—that’ll be an even more uncomfortable conversation. Worse, the news could create a rift in your relationship that could make it tougher to do your job.

It’s not about asking for permission, says Heather Huhman, founder & president of Come Recommended, a job search, digital PR, and HR technology consultancy. It’s about maintaining a good relationship. “A good manager will respect your career goals and understand that few people want to be in the same job forever,” says Huhman.

Explain why you’re seeking the job. Maybe it’s an opportunity to take on more responsibility or earn a promotion. Or, if it’s a lateral move, the position will give you a chance to learn new skills or expand your areas of expertise so that you can move up the company ladder later. Whatever the reason, be clear that it’s not because you don’t like your boss or what you’re doing—even if that’s the case, there’s nothing to be gained from that kind of honesty.

Talking your boss also has a potential upside, especially if you’re a valued worker: If your manager learns more about your ambitions, she may create opportunities that will keep you. If not, well, then you’ll have a better sense of where you stand.

Ideally, your boss will be supportive and may even offer a recommendation that helps you land the job. At the least, you’ve ensured that your manager won’t get wind of it from someone else.

But if you think your manager will take the news personally or, more importantly, undermine your bid, don’t tell her in advance, says Huhman. When you interview, ask to keep the process confidential until you are further along.

If you do get the job, offer to help find and train a replacement. You’ll still be working at the same organization and maybe even collaborating on projects with your old team, so make the transition as easy as possible for your boss. If you stay on good terms, you’ll have a valuable contact in the organization, which can pay off. “You never want to burn any bridges,” says Huhman.

Have a workplace etiquette question? Send it to careers@moneymail.com.

 

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