A quest to cash Social Security checks while living overseas

Q: I plan to move to Natal, Brazil, next year when I retire. Will Social Security be able to deposit my checks electronically in a bank in Brazil? If not, how can I avoid them being mailed - and possibly being stolen in the process?
O.L., via e-mail

A: Last month, the Social Security Administration made direct deposits for 271,000 recipients living overseas in about 40 countries, including Canada and most European nations. But Brazil, Mexico, and many other countries are not yet signed up with Uncle Sam to handle direct deposits.

Martha McNish, a spokeswoman with Social Security, suggests that you contact a bank in the United States and set up an account that can receive your checks. You then can tap that account, possibly for a direct transfer of funds to your Brazilian bank.

Social Security will mail checks just about anywhere. (Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam, and a few other places are off-limits.) But many rules come into play depending on whether you're a US citizen or foreign citizen eligible to receive Social Security. Its website addresses this topic at www.socialsecurity.gov/pubs/10137.html.

Whether you're in Natal or Nepal, Ms. McNish says, it's very important that you update the agency on your current address.

Q: I am a 22-year-old student expecting to finish my master's degree in 2004. I plan to head straight for my PhD. I have no credit-card debt, but I do have about $16,000 worth of unsubsidized undergraduate loans at 3.5 percent interest. I'd like to own a home or condo soon. Should I just be saving for a down payment, or should I try to make a dent in my loans?
Name withheld, via e-mail

A: Since your student loan is manageable, you should save money for a down payment on a new home, says Richard Rysiewski, a certified financial planner in the Detroit area.

But, he wonders, what's the rush to buy one? You may eventually land a job someplace other than where you're attending college. Unless you're sure you will not move after graduating, or you live in a part of the country where home values are rising quickly, you could find that selling a house after just a few years of ownership could chew up any hoped-for profits.

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