My husband and I are approaching retirement, and we are interested in volunteer vacations. Any guidance about some of the better or best organizations?
We have been fortunate, through the years, to hear from a number of retirees who enjoy “voluntourism,” which is a combination of travel and volunteer work. These vacations run the gamut, from day trips to excursions overseas. Among the recommendations:
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Biosphere Expeditions: The focus here is on wildlife conservation. Among the group’s current offerings: tracking the wolf population in northern Germany, studying elephants in the hills of Thailand and a diving expedition to Tioman Island Marine Park in Malaysia where divers will study the coral reefs.
Cross-Cultural Solutions: This New Rochelle, N.Y.-based group seeks to improve “health, education and economic opportunities” for women, children and the elderly. You can travel to, and volunteer in, Central and South America, Europe, Asia and Africa.
Earthwatch Institute: With an emphasis on environmental research, Earthwatch describes its volunteers as “citizen scientists.” Among the current expeditions: protecting whooping cranes and coastal habitats in Texas, and studying killer whales (and their prey) off the coast of Iceland.
Global Volunteers: A pioneer in volunteer travel. The group tackles “hunger, poverty and educational needs” around the world. Among other activities for participants: provide prenatal education, build and repair community buildings, teach English classes, tutor students in math and science, plant school and household gardens and assist with diabetes screening and eye exams. The organization is based in St. Paul, Minn.
Sierra Club: This venerable environmental group (founded in 1892) sponsors dozens of service trips each year, with more projects offered through local chapters. Among the offerings in 2017: restoring a Civil War battlefield in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley; helping preserve Monhegan Island, off the coast of Maine; building and repairing backcountry trails in Idaho; and exploring the Manta Ray population in the waters of Hawaii.
A final note: Tell us about any volunteer-travel groups that you think we should highlight. Your thoughts may be used in a future column.
I am currently taking a required distribution annually from my individual retirement account and 401(k). I believe I can make tax-free withdrawals for charitable contributions. Can I also make tax-free withdrawals from my IRA/401(k) plans to pay college expenses for my grandchildren?
Sorry, you can’t do this.
You can take a required minimum distribution and invest the money in a 529 college savings account for a grandchild. (A number of states offer residents—including grandparents—a tax deduction or credit for contributions to 529 plans. That is worth checking.) Or you could use an RMD to pay directly for a grandchild’s tuition—or you could simply “gift” the money to a grandchild. But in all these cases, you would still have to include the required distribution as income on your tax return.
I am 55 years old and recently my wife and I relocated for my job. My new mortgage is on a $335,000 home, and we owe $260,000 on a 30-year mortgage at 3.5%. I have $300,000 in a rollover IRA and $100,000 in a Roth. I have $375,000 in other savings. So should I liquidate an account and pay off the mortgage now or when I retire at 62?
If you’re determined to pay off your mortgage before retiring (and more about this in a moment) you should do so in the most tax-efficient way possible, says Mark Maisonneuve, a chartered financial analyst in Berkley, Mich. As such, you might want to pursue a third option: chipping away at this liability over, say, the next decade, rather than writing a very large check now or at age 62.
If you were to pay off the loan in one fell swoop, you could end up—depending on which account or accounts you tap for the funds—with a nasty tax bill. At the same time, you could lose your mortgage interest deduction, which could affect your ability to itemize deductions on your tax returns, Mr. Maisonneuve notes. By contrast, annual withdrawals from savings (again, over the course of 10 years or so) would give you better control over your income levels and taxes.
This is an instance where a good tax adviser and/or certified public accountant can be invaluable. You also can run scenarios yourself using tools like TurboTax’s TaxCaster Calculator and H&R Block’s Tax Calculator.
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The larger question, of course, is whether paying off a mortgage before retiring is the right decision. There is no single, correct answer. For instance, you note that your mortgage rate is 3.5%. Some financial advisers would urge you to invest your money rather than pay off debt with a low interest rate.
What we do know is that debt levels among older Americans are rising. And that can be tough on nest eggs, as well as your emotional health. Clearly, says Mr. Maisonneuve, there’s a “real psychic benefit to moving into retirement mortgage-free.”
I am receiving disability benefits via a private insurance policy. Does that preclude me from getting (and/or does it decrease the size of) disability benefits from Social Security?
Disability payments from private sources, such as private pensions or insurance benefits, don’t affect a person’s Social Security disability benefits, says Darren Lutz, a public-affairs specialist with the Social Security Administration.
That said, there are payments—such as workers’ compensation, or state government retirement benefits based on disability—that might affect one’s Social Security benefits. To learn more, visit socialsecurity.gov and search for: disability publications.
Mr. Ruffenach is a former reporter and editor for The Wall Street Journal. His column examines financial issues for those thinking about, planning and living their retirement. Send questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Appeared in the Apr. 24, 2017, print edition.