10 Popular Money Questions Answered

Photo (cc) by 401(K) 2012

Should you buy or rent a house? Buy or lease a car? Date the office cutie or avoid workplace romance? These are questions that come up in most lives at one time or another.

Jack Otter, Executive Editor of CBS MoneyWatch, tackles these issues in his book, Worth It… Not Worth It? In an easy-to-digest format, he sheds light on some of the most complicated personal finance decisions.

We recently caught up with Otter outside the New York Stock Exchange to get his advice about some of these common questions. Check out what he had to share with Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson, then read on for more.

Since the author answered 10 questions in less than a minute in the video, let’s take another look – this time with a bit more detail, as well as the Money Talks take.

1. Borrow for college or don’t go?

“As financially painful as college can be, not going to college is even worse,” Otter writes. So before you sign that loan, a better question might be: How much college can I afford? He suggests considering the earning potential in the student’s chosen field, and emphasizing quality of education over prestige. And if you do borrow, stick to subsidized loans.

Another important concept when it comes to college is paying as little as possible. In 5 Steps to Dramatically Reduce the Cost of College, we provide some tips.

2. Use a credit union or a bank?

“Credit unions can do just about everything a bank does, and in almost every instance, they will charge you less and pay you more,” says Otter. On average, credit unions charge lower fees on ATM withdrawals, lower rates on home equity loans and auto loans, and pay higher rates on savings accounts, CDs, and money markets.

We agree. In fact, Money Talks has been recommending credit unions for more than 15 years. See stories like 7 Reasons You Should Join a Credit Union This Week.

3. Date a co-worker or date just about anyone else?

Otter emphasizes that when you’re first starting out, you just shouldn’t go there. There’s too much at stake. But if you’re over 30, it’s a safer bet to at least consider. After all, he says, he met his wife at the office and adds, “a relationship built on common professional interests can be a marvelous thing.”

While Money Talks hasn’t specifically covered this topic, it’s a good question, and one without a definitive answer. So what do you think? Would you date someone from work? Tell us below or on our Facebook page.

4. Buy or rent a house?

If you’re ready to settle down, now’s a good time to buy. But if you’re not sure if you want to live in the same place long-term, renting may be a better option, according to Otter.

We wholeheartedly agree that now’s the time to buy, and said as much six months ago in Housing Has Bottomed – It’s Time to Buy.

5. Fixed rate or adjustable mortgage?

Go with a fixed rate mortgage. With rates this low, Otter says you should lock it in without looking back. With adjustable rate mortgages, you might be able to lock in a low rate for three, five, or seven years, but there’s the risk that rates can rise.

Again, we’re on the same page. Money Talks expert Stacy Johnson says, “While rates probably won’t rise immediately, we’ve probably seen the lows. Locking in with a fixed rate now could be one of the best financial decisions you ever make.”

And no matter what mortgage you end up with, pay it off as fast as possible. See 3 Ways to Pay Off Your Mortgage Faster.

6. Buy or lease a car?

Buy a car. Otter’s take on leasing: It’s “like always going to the more expensive restaurant, or making sure you never, ever, pick up an item at the sale prices.” He says you’re essentially paying for the vehicle to depreciate.

Bingo. In Should You Buy or Lease Your Next Car?, Stacy says, “To put it bluntly, most people who lease are paying lower monthly payments so they can drive a car they could otherwise not afford. And if they aren’t setting money aside, and insist on a new car every three years, they’re going to get stuck in a leasing cycle because their budget and lifestyle won’t allow them to ever afford to buy one.”

7. Hot mutual fund or a cheap fund?

“Here’s a secret that the financial industry really doesn’t want you to know: The cheaper the mutual fund, the better it is,” writes Otter. He says the lower a mutual fund’s fees are, the better your returns.

Stacy’s been saying the same thing on TV for years. See Wall Street Gobbles Up 1/3 of Your 401(k) Pie.

8. Cash-back or rewards credit cards?

Generally speaking, Otter says cash-back is the way to go – these cards usually pay back about 1 percent of your purchases. You’ll especially want to avoid rewards cards if you carry a balance. Rewards cards “charge higher interest rates, and you’ll pay far more in interest than you’ll ever get in rewards.”

We agree, with a caveat. In How to Pick the Perfect Credit Card, we do agree with Otter that you should forget rewards if you’re carrying a balance. But our in-house credit card expert Jason Steele says that depending on your lifestyle and spending patterns, sometimes reward cards can be rewarding. His advice? “Whether you’re considering a card that will earn cash back, points, or miles, you need to quickly determine the value returned per dollar spent. The best cash-back cards will return 2 cents in value per dollar spent, so if you choose to earn loyalty points or miles, make sure the value of the awards earned exceeds 2 percent of what you’re spending.”

9. Give kids allowance or pay for chores?

Should you give kids an allowance just for being your children, or have them earn the money through chores? Otter recommends giving a small allowance – between half and twice a child’s age in dollars. You can also consider dividing the allowance up into thirds: one for spending, one for saving, and one for charity. Then, pay for bigger chores – like weeding the garden.

While we like Otter’s answer, we believe what you do with an allowance varies depending on age, the lessons you’re trying to teach, the responsibility of the individual child, and other factors. But as we said in How to Teach Your Teens to Avoid Debt, “Be deliberate and explicit about doling out an allowance. Make sure your kids are doing something to earn it, and don’t give in when they blow it all and ask for more.”

10. Roth IRA or traditional IRA?

Otter recommends a Roth IRA. You’ll pay taxes on the money now, but when you withdraw your money and your gains during retirement, you won’t have to.

Stacy disagrees. Not because he thinks Otter is wrong, but because there’s no way to really know definitively.

In Ask Stacy: Roth or Regular IRA?, he says, “Whether a traditional or Roth IRA is best is a source of debate. That’s because it ultimately depends on factors you can’t know. For example, if you’re in a high tax bracket now but expect to be in a zero tax bracket when you retire, you’d obviously be better off deducting your contributions with a traditional IRA. If you’re going to be in the same tax bracket when you retire or a higher one, it would be best to use a Roth and pay no taxes when you take the money out.”

His suggestion? Do both.

Do you have any tough money questions you want answered? Sound off on our Facebook page.

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