Last updateWed, 14 Apr 2021 11am

Ask the Experts



Gauche Gifts

For relatives like uncles and aunts, my siblings and I usually work together to buy gifts. We like to send something that is easy to send by mail--chocolates, centerpieces, stuff like that. But my aunt’s birthday is coming up, and we’re feeling a little weird this year because we know that she’s in a ton of financial distress. She has debts she can’t pay, her credit is shot, and the whole family is worried about her. My siblings and I feel silly sending chocolates so someone with a ton of credit card debt, so we were trying to think of ways we could tailor her gift to her financial situation. Any suggestions?

Financial problems are as difficult as they are common. American household debt hit an all-time high of $12.84 trillion in the summer of 2017, and while some of that debt may be healthy, it’s clear that we’re not all feeling very secure when we look at our bank balances. An unexpected $500 bill would lead 20 percent of us to put the charge on a credit card--setting ourselves up for more debt down the line. And when a member of your family is dealing with burdens like debt and bad credit, it’s hard to know how to react.

While it can be tempting to try to help directly, this isn’t necessarily a good idea. Gifts and loans of money can put a strain on family ties and friendships, and if root problems like spending habits and fast-mounting interest aren’t addressed, you may only be treating the symptoms, not the disease. This hasn’t stopped 97 percent of us from borrowing from friends or family at some point in our lives. Too bad only 50 percent of us ever paid back the full amount!

On top of this, a gift-giving occasion like your aunt’s birthday is probably not the right time to address her financial problems. Gifts are not necessarily about practicality, the experts at Gift Blooms say--flowers remain perennially (no pun intended) popular as gifts despite lacking in utilitarian features, and while gift cards are extremely useful, a mere 27 percent of Americans prefer to receive them over another type of gift.

If you really want to help your aunt, speak with a parent or other relative about how to best approach is. There are ways to repair poor credit, credit experts say, and there are legal paths to a stronger financial future for people living under the burden of debt. But financial troubles can be a very sensitive subject, and it’s best that you are careful in how you approach them. While it may seem silly to you, your aunt might be embarrassed to have a college student trying to help her financially. Be tactful about your aunt’s finances--and, on her birthday, pretend you don’t know anything about them at all.

“The greatest gift that you can give to others is the gift of unconditional love and acceptance.” -- Brian Tracy

John Regan is a former Director of Sales for equity research.

Distracted Driving

I have a friend with a car here at school. He’s great about driving everyone around from place to place, so he’s our go-to whenever we need to make a run to the grocery store or to a big box store. He’s even cool about being the designated driver sometimes, which is great! There’s only one problem: he loves to DJ for us as he drives, using his phone to set the music. I’ve tried to bring CDs, but his car doesn’t have a CD player (do new cars not have those??), and it wouldn’t matter anyway: he’s in charge, and he wants his music on. How can I help him see that his smartphone use is freaking out his passengers?

What your friend is doing is extremely dangerous. Distracted driving kills an average of 9 Americans every day, and cell phone use alone leads to 1.6 million crashes every year. That’s horrifying, but perhaps not surprising: after all, you can travel the length of a football field in a car in the time it takes to check a text. That’s a lot of room and time to have an accident, and it helps illustrate the kind of danger that your friend is putting himself, his friends, and strangers in every time that he takes his eyes off of the road in order to queue up the next song.

So what can be done? One solution that you have clearly already thought of is to put on an album or mix to play on its own during the ride. CD players are indeed largely a thing of the past, auto dealers tell us, but you can still get them on used cars, and new cars without them often include alternatives. An auxiliary input, for instance, will let you connect an mp3 players or a smartphone to the car’s stereo via the headphone jack. If your device is part of the revolution against headphone jacks that has taken over in recent smartphone models, don’t worry--modern cars are often bluetooth-enabled as well. Failing that, look for satellite radio broadcasts--or even traditional radio broadcasts, commercials and all. Anything is better than allowing your friend to put his passengers at risk.

This situation, however, is about more than just replacing your friend’s music supply. You point out that he needs to be in charge of his music, but that’s not a good reason to risk the lives of his own friends. Clearly, there needs to be a serious conversation had between your friend and the rest of the friend group. If he doesn’t wise up, be prepared to find other ways to get where you’re going--perhaps losing his audience will make your friend realize that his DJ-ing and his DD-ing belong in separate spheres.

“People tend to be overconfident in their abilities, and the most overconfident also tend to be the least competent” ― Steven Gacovino

Miriam Metzinger is a regular contributor and editor for the financial website, Seeking Alpha.

Hiding in Plain Sight

Universities are discovering asbestos was used in older buildings. What is the danger to students and faculty?

Parents and students are becoming increasingly concerned about the prevalence of asbestos in schools, especially those built before 1980. According to reports, around half of all schools in the U.S. were constructed from 1950 to 1969, when asbestos materials were widespread in building processes. They are right to be concerned, as asbestos can cause a whole range of diseases, as we are about to find out.

To understand why asbestos can be so dangerous to humans, we have to look into some science behind what it actually is. Asbestos is a naturally-occurring mineral silicate that forms in the earth. Years ago, it was mined like iron or lead, because its fibers are extremely resilient and do not break down or degrade over time. These fibers are also fire and chemical resistant and were added to a wide range of products to strengthen them. Manufacturers developed methods to break the fibers down into microscopic dust for use in various products.

When maintenance work on campus disturbs these materials, or they start to deteriorate over time, the dust from asbestos can enter the air and our lungs. Exposure to asbestos dust puts teachers and students at increased risk for mesothelioma, a deadly lung cancer, and other serious respiratory conditions. Inadvertent inhalation over time can cause asbestosis which is the scarring of the lung tissue. The duration of exposure will determine the severity of the impact on your body.

The figures are quite alarming. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, asbestos still resides in the majority of school and college buildings and premises, posing a risk to millions of teachers, students and staff. Asbestos has been described as a frightening substance. You cannot see it if it falls in front of you and once you inhale it, the fibers get caught in your lungs and there is no way to remove them. It can take several years before you get any signs of respiratory problems.

A list of high-exposure risk occupations generally includes construction workers, miners, and armed forces veterans. Teachers are more likely to be exposed than many other occupations that don’t involve asbestos directly. Some states are worse than others. Texas, for example, has a dismal safety record with construction involving asbestos. In 2014, parents and teachers in Huntington Beach, California were outraged to discover contractors had removed asbestos materials unsafely from a number of district schools earlier that year. Air tests at a local school revealed airborne asbestos levels that exceeded federal safety limits, and the school was closed.

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Computer Cramp

I get a lot of muscle pain from using computers. How can I avoid this?

Any prolonged computer use will result in discomfort of some kind. Students and office workers alike can be afflicted by what is commonly known as repetitive strain injury. It is caused by being in the same position for a long time and results in the pain you have described. Fortunately, there are some steps you can take to alleviate the problem.

The discomfort comes from repetitive movement and overuse of muscles which arises from studying and sitting at a desk for long periods. RSI is not a new affliction from computer use. It has been around since the days of manual labor and industrial work.

RSI is one of the leading workplace injuries, and it can result in more severe conditions called carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS). Avacare Medical explains that carpal tunnel is a compression or twisting of the nerves in your wrist. The symptoms can range from mild to severe and include muscle pain, stiffness, tingling or numbness, and joint cramps.

Prevention is definitely better than the cure in this instance, and there are a number of things you can do to prevent the onset of RSI and CTS. Your posture when you are studying plays a key part in how your body will react to being in the same position. You should always try to sit up straight, with straight wrists and shoulders back. Ergonomics is everything; your body should be positioned so that your wrists are not taking all of the strain when you are typing. A footrest is generally a good thing to have to ensure your thighs are horizontal and bent at right angles at the knees. Good posture is also maintained through a level keyboard and screen at eye level. You should always use a chair with a back support, and do not hunch over the screen.

If you have a lot of pain, you should invest in an ergonomic chair. There are plenty available online. Web design firms recommend ergonomic keyboards and mice which reduce the stress on your wrists. Taking a break from your work is important. You should get up and walk around every 45 minutes or so. In addition to RSI, you are likely to develop eye strain and get headaches from looking at a screen for hours without a break.

One method is to see how long you can type without feeling any discomfort, then subtract ten minutes from this and rest at these intervals. Taking shorter breaks more frequently is better than one long break after several hours. As with any muscle pain, relief comes with stretching, so it would be advisable to stretch your wrists, shoulders, back and neck several times a day. There are plenty of online resources for effective stretching techniques.

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Can Do Attitude

Academically, girls outperform boys.  Why isn’t this publicized more?

According to research, girls outperform boys academically from elementary school and achieve better scores on standardized tests. Women have constituted over half of the college student population for the past four decades. However, people still talk of a gender gap. The statistics and scores are clear, but the reasons for the gender gap that still remains are not.

Research indicates that young women are taking more honors classes, are achieving higher grades and are getting better grade point averages than their male peers. A recent College Board report discovered that girls were performing much better in high school than boys. It showed that 60 percent of A+ students and 61 percent of A students were girls, and girls outperformed boys in all academic subjects.

Further down the grading scale, 63 percent of boys earned grade D and below. The average GPA in 2016 was 3.45 for girls and 3.30 for boys. Early on, girls excel in math and science, and it is not uncommon to find a boy seeking a girl as a math tutor.

For this reason, activists in academia have put more emphasis on girls over the years. This has the unfortunate effect of making boys feel that they no longer matter. With more Masters and Doctoral degrees being earned by girls, a gender gap is starting to form. Observers have suggested that a gender-biased education system has been structured to favor girls.

Girls do tend to be more organized, attentive, and perform better socially, and as we have read, academically. The shift to earlier learning and assessment has put boys at a disadvantage, because they do not develop at the same  as girls from a physical and psychological aspect.  This deficit continues through school and is evident by grade eight where 50 percent of girls attain more A and B grades compared to only 30 percent of boys.

According to the U.S. Department of Education boys account for 71 percent of all suspensions as they are statistically more likely to be suspended or expelled from school. The problems for girls come later in life when many experience a confidence and self-esteem crisis in early adolescence. A report by the Commonwealth Fund claims that only 40 percent of girls describe themselves as ‘overly confident.’

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International Itinerant

I want to intern this summer. Is an internship abroad a better option?

Studying abroad is becoming more popular among U.S. graduates, with one in ten now taking this option. There is no doubt that going abroad in today’s multinational and multicultural world is a good thing for students. The majority who venture overseas do so for short periods, such as one semester, and most of them go for studies only, not internships.

A large number of U.S. companies report lost business opportunities because they lack the expertise to conduct business overseas. However, foreign students still flock to U.S. colleges to learn and network. Some reciprocation is in order, and more U.S. students should be seeking study and internships abroad.

The Institute for International Education reports that study abroad programs have tripled in the past 20 years. Many students come from a STEM background, an area other countries seem to excel in. Pursuing an internship in a foreign country will benefit you in more ways than just through the qualifications you will receive. It is a life-changing decision that will give you experiences and knowledge to carry through life and build upon.

Living and working overseas looks great on your resume. It shows initiative, independence, adaptability and drive. You will have an advantage over other graduates that stay in the U.S. for their entire college degree. Traveling to a new country and culture will do wonders for your confidence, boost your professional talents and expand your network. It broadens the mind more than staying at home. You will also get an insight into foreign working environments and learn how to adapt to them, a vital skill in today’s international world. You quickly discover that learning Spanish is important for the U.S. domestic market, but it is not the language of business for Asia. Cultural awareness and the ability to communicate across language barriers is a major asset to show any potential employer.

One of life’s big lessons is independence, and there is no better way to gain it than living and working overseas. It is a daunting prospect, especially if you have never traveled before, but once you are out there, the sense of empowerment and increased confidence will stay with you forever.

Traveling abroad also makes you appreciate your American legal and banking systems. If you have a problem, you will be calling your U.S.-based bank or credit card, rather than trying to solve the problem locally. You will need to pay careful attention to your online credit card statement and understand what is a chargeback for incorrect or fraudulent charges.

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Mortgaging Your Future

I know I will have a lot of student debt after college, but is it possible to get a mortgage as well?

It is common knowledge that college will put you into debt. You may be reluctant to get even further into debt after you graduate, however, you may want to buy a home. Fortunately, the federal government can help with a number of programs designed to assist students and those getting onto the property ladder for the first time.

In recent months, moves have been made to facilitate refinancing of mortgages to pay off student loans. Some of the largest mortgage backers in the country have introduced new policies and guidelines which enable swapping student loan debt for mortgage debt. According to loan consultants at Credit Cube, this could enable substantial savings as student debts carry a higher interest rate than mortgages.

The national student debt is a staggering $1.4 trillion, held by around 45 million Americans. This has a huge effect on the whole economy, since it prevents younger people borrowing to buy their first property. People are living at home longer and debts are getting deeper. The burden of student debts is finally being acknowledged by financial institutions, because the impact on society is far-reaching.

Reports indicate that homeownership is positively linked to college attendance and attainment. However, high student loan delinquency could damage credit scores of millions of young people and prevent them from buying their first homes. Moving from another state often makes little difference, and the debts will follow you.

Fortunately, there is some light at the end of the tunnel for around 8.5 million homeowners who still have student debt. The costs of refinancing and a ‘cash out’ have been reduced provided that funds taken out of the equity are used solely to pay off student debts. Students who have loans based on federal reduced payment plans will find that their debt to income (DTI) calculations have been adjusted in their favor. Monthly payments reported to credit bureaus now count towards your DTI ratio.

If your parents are paying non-mortgage debts, such as your student loans, they will not be included in the ratio provided that they have been paid on a regular basis for at least 12 months. This improves the debt ratio for young home buyers and it should be a little easier to secure a home loan with more favorable DTI calculations.

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Cycle Calamity

Bicycles have become a permanent part of campus life. Are colleges doing anything to make cycling safer?

Cycling is a practical and cheap way to get around campus and town. The rise in the popularity of cycling, however, has increased the likelihood of accidents. There are a number of things to be aware of regardless of which college you are attending. If you are riding on two wheels, there is a good chance you will fall off at some stage. Staying safe and being alert to your surroundings is a good start if you want to pedal your way around campus.

Statistically, the highest rate for injury on bicycles is in the 16- to 20-year-old age group. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, college-aged people face the greatest risk. Falling off a bicycle can be just as bad, or even worse, than a motorcycle accident in many cases. Cyclists in general do not wear helmets whereas the majority of motorcyclists do. The prospect of sustaining an injury is far greater for those without adequate protective clothing. However, many students do not take sufficient precautions. How many students carry around biking gear, pads, helmet, and gloves with them? Then again, the prospect of spending months in traction should make people think twice before heading off on two wheels without proper protection.

In addition to providing educational resources and programs for students, campuses should encourage safe cycling. Attending a cycling safety workshop as part college orientation would benefit both the bikers and pedestrians. Simple things such as using lights at night and wearing bright clothing can help to increase visibility for cyclists and other road users.

Being aware of cyclists and their routes is also the responsibility of pedestrians. Classes on cycle maintenance, road regulations and laws, equipment and road etiquette would help reduce bicycle and pedestrian accidents around campus. Bikes should also be readily available, possibly through a rental system similar to those that have been introduced in some traffic-clogged cities around the world.

Campuses should have a bicycle infrastructure, and colleges should have provisions for both cyclists and pedestrians to share the same spaces. According to the American Journal of Public Health, cycle lanes help reduce the risk of accident and injury by up to 50%. Universities that have implemented bike lanes, such as the University of California, have been successful in encouraging their students to cycle more with greater responsibility.

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Working for Uncle Sam

Now that I have a part-time job, how do I keep more of my salary? Is there any tax relief for students?

As soon as you start earning, you will need to learn about the IRS, or the Internal Revenue Service. People who work few hours a week at a deli as well as CEOs of major corporations cannot escape the taxman. It takes an expert to understand tax complexities thoroughly, and some of the regulations can be confusing. There are ways to lower your taxes, though, and as a student, this information is of paramount importance.

Even with a part-time job, your first paycheck is likely to be smaller than you were initially expecting. Just working a few hours a week can require deductions and withholding, as they are calculated as a percentage of your earnings. When you start work, you will need to complete a W-4 form which largely determines how much tax you will be paying.

There are three components to payroll taxes, and they vary depending on where you live. It will be a small miracle if you have a significant salary left after you have paid federal tax, state taxes, local taxes as well as social security and medicare. On your pay slip, you may see these all combined under the heading of FICA.

The IRS uses a formula to predict how much you will earn by the end of the year. From this your employer can calculate what you should be paying in taxes. Your actual earnings, previous earnings and information entered on the W-4 for are used in this formula. If you think you are paying too much tax, as most of us do, you can submit a new W-4 form.

If your boss does not file any taxes for you, it will be because they consider you a freelancer or self-employed. Nearly one third of American workers are now freelancing in some capacity. Popular choices for freelance student workers include catering, tutoring, online blogging and designing websites. As a freelancer, the taxes become your own responsibility, and the burdens could be higher. If you work as an employee, your boss should be paying half of your social security. As a self-employed worker, you will pay the whole amount. On the upside, there are more exemptions that can be claimed as a freelancer. Therefore, it is important to be aware of your precise employment status.

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Southern Secrets

My group of friends here at school is great, and one of the cool things about us is that we’re all from different places. So I had the idea that we could start getting together over breaks in each person’s home region--a weekend in New York City with one friend, a trip out West for a week with another, and so on. Brilliant idea, right? My friends thought so, too, and they rewarded me by deciding I was going to bat leadoff on this one. I’m from the Southeast (Northern Georgia) and I really was not thinking of my own hometown when I came up with this idea. To be honest, I really have no idea where to take them. Any tips from your experts on vacationing in the scenic American South?

You’re pretty tough on your home region, and your concerns don’t seem totally justified. In fact, the American Southeast is stacked with top tourism destinations! According to one study, your home state of Georgia is is actually among the top ten most popular states for travel. And bordering your state is #1 (Florida), #7 (South Carolina) and #11 (Tennessee).

In North Georgia, you’ll have an easy time getting to Atlanta, where tourism is up 24.2 percent relative to last year. More rural locations abound, too, of course, and tourism pros from Henry County were quick to mention to us that the areas around Atlanta would help you split the difference between city-slicking and Southern relaxation.

If a larger geographic range is in play, you could try heading out to Tennessee. Nashville drew an incredible 13.9 million tourists last yearmillion tourists last year, and has become a hotspot for bachelor and bachelorette parties--something to keep in mind if someone in your friend group is ever tying the knot.

If you wanted to make things easier on your friends from points north, you could opt for something closer to the mid-Atlantic. There are plenty of beach towns all along the Atlantic Coast, as well as plenty of history. Washington, DC is an obvious choice, but you’ll also find plenty of historic sites in the smaller cities and rural areas surrounding it. In fact, heritage tourism is booming all across the American South. Historic sites and battlegrounds abound in cities as large as Raleigh and as small as Vicksburg, Mississippi, which has a thriving tourist trade all its own.

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House of God

My grandmother has gotten very involved in a large church back home. My family has no problem with that--most of us are at least somewhat religious. But we’re worried about my grandmother’s finances, because she has started to give a ton of money to this church. She gives constantly, and my parents recently discovered that she took out a reverse mortgage on her house to cover the costs. My family and I don’t want to interfere with my grandmother’s religious life, but we’re concerned. What can we do?

It is not unusual for your Grandmother to be giving money to her church, of course. Churches have asked for donations for as long as they’ve existed, and churchgoing Americans of all stripes contribute. The trend is more notable with so-called “megachurches,” where donations can range between an average of $1,368 and $1,865 per person depending, some studies suggest, on the age of the church.

But such churches are supposed to be centers of inspiration and support, not money-making enterprises, church pastors we spoke to said, and even at the very largest institutions--which can attract congregations of 43,500 people--ought to value each individual member. Your grandmother should never feel pressured to give more than she can afford.

And it certainly does sound like she is currently giving more than she can afford. A reverse mortgage is a powerful financial tool, but it is not free money, the experts at Reverse Northwest told us. Reverse mortgages draw equity from your home, working, as the name suggests, in a way that is sort of the reverse of a regular mortgage. With a regular mortgage, an institution lends you money to buy a property and you slowly pay them back over time until you own the house free and clear. In a reverse mortgage, an institution pays you on a regular schedule, with the stipulation that when a certain time is up, they will be repaid with either cash or the leveraged property. A reverse mortgage is a good tool for folks who own their homes but are short on retirement savings, but putting her house up for the sake of a church rather than her own well-being suggests that your grandmother is not making the most careful decision she could.

It’s probably a good idea for your family to speak to your grandmother about her spending habits and her finances. It’s probably a conversation best held between your parents and your grandmother, but if your family decides you should have a role in it, you should make sure you express your support and concern in a loving way. Experts suggest legal means only as a last resort when it comes to reigning in an elderly relative’s spending. That’s because legal action can do serious harm to personal relationships.

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