Category Archives: Finance

Ask Yourself Before You Invest

As a financial planner and fiduciary investment advisor, I work with people with varying goals and vastly different levels of education, income, assets and comfort with technology. I’m often worried by similarities I see among investors of all stripes.

Many people simply have no plan when they start investing. Others follow the latest hot investment tips from a stranger online, on TV or in a magazine. I’m surprised by how many investors think they’ve done well, but don’t know how to measure their true rate of return for the risk they have taken. Few investors even know how much risk is in their portfolios.
These issues arise because investors generally don’t use a consistent methodology — a repeatable, rule-based process — to build or monitor their portfolios. That often leads to portfolios that aren’t well-diversified, don’t have the appropriate amount of risk for the investor and aren’t tax-efficient. What’s more, many investors don’t review their portfolios and haven’t thought much about how their investments fit into a bigger overall plan.

 

Are you ready to invest?
What can you do to make sure you aren’t in this camp? First, determine whether you’re really ready to invest on your own. Based on my experience, there are a number of essential tasks to complete and issues to understand before you start investing.
Completing the following investing assessment can help you determine how prepared you are and whether you’d be better served by obtaining professional assistance from an objective, fee-only advisor.
1. I have a written list of my short-, intermediate- and long-term financial goals and know how much I need to save and the required rate of return to fund each of those goals.

Yes
No
2. I have completed a trusted risk assessment questionnaire tool (such as this one from FinaMetrica) and understand how my risk tolerance fits in with the required rate of return to fund my goals.

Yes
No
3. I have a written investment plan (investment policy statement) that spells out the asset allocation to be used in my portfolio along with the expected range of returns.

Do You Thing That Renting Is Better than Buying

Have you ever felt pressured to buy a house? Maybe from your friends, your family, your co-workers, or even yourself? Like you haven’t actually made it as an adult until you own your home?

 

It’s a common feeling, but the truth is that buying a house ISN’T always the right decision. In some cases renting is a smarter move, both for your wallet and your lifestyle. Here are four reasons why.

 

1. Flexibility

 

Life changes fast. That great new job you just started might turn into an exciting opportunity in a different city. That big family you planned on having might turn into a smaller one.

 

Renting gives you the ability to quickly change your living situation to best match the new realities of your life. That flexibility can be the difference between seizing an opportunity and having to pass on it.

 

2. Cost

 

Proponents of buying like to say that when you’re renting, you’re essentially paying off someone else’s mortgage. So why not buy and make sure that money is going towards yourself?

 

There is some truth to that, if you stay in one place for an extended period of time (typically 5-7 years or longer), then buying often results in the lower long-term cost.

 

In the meantime buying can be really expensive. There’s the upfront cost of the down payment. There’s the cost of handling the fixes and improvements that come with any new purchase. There’s the cost of new furniture. There are the ongoing costs of insurance, taxes, and maintenance.

 

Renting has costs too, but they’re often much smaller and more predictable, at least in those first few years. And in many markets where housing prices are high, renting can actually be a better long-term financial decision.

 

You can use this calculator from The New York Times to figure out just how long you would have to live in one place before buying became cheaper than renting.

 

3. Adjustment

 

Renting is often a great idea any time you move to a new place.

 

It gives you the opportunity to figure out which neighborhoods you like and which you don’t so that you can eventually make a buying decision you’ll be happy with for the long-term. There’s no sense in being stuck somewhere you don’t like simply because you felt rushed into buying a house.

Best financial advisors for your finance management

On my blog, one of the topics I like to cover is explaining how the personal financial advice industry works. Most people get financial advice from someone who is a salesman of insurance, annuities, mutual funds, and other products. You can also get help from someone whose main profession is something related like a CPA or lawyer who offer advice as a side business. The best way to get advice however, is from someone who functions as a consultant.

There are financial advisors out there that charge by the hour for financial advice. They often call themselves financial planners to distinguish themselves from financial advisors. You can find these financial planners through industry associations like the Garrett Planning Network and NAPFA.org.

I say it’s best to work with a consultant style of advisor because the consultant works only for you. Ask yourself what someone’s motivation is. A financial advisor employed by an insurance company or investment company (like Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, Fidelity, Vanguard, etc.) has sales managers above them making sure they sell a certain number of contracts every month. You don’t want to be one of those sales targets. It may work out for you, and there are representatives who do look out for their clients, but ask yourself what their motivation is before signing anything.

By hiring a financial planner that charges fees only and no commissions, you are going to get an advisor who puts your best interest ahead of their own. Ask the advisor to sign the fiduciary oath. Advisors out to meet sales performance targets won’t put their fiduciary duty in writing. By going with a consultant style of advisor, not only will you get sound financial advice, you won’t wonder if the advisor recommended a product because his sales manager told him to.

The Fiduciary Standard for Investment Advice

What Does Pricing Carbon Have in Common with the New Fiduciary Standard for Investment Advisors?

The short answer: A lot.

The typical answer: These issues both seem very complicated to me, I’m already concerned where you are going with this, so let’s change the subject.

My answer: They both have the potential to alleviate human suffering, grow the economy, increase employment, and compel us to choose leaders willing to support policies that are not partisan in nature.

It is no secret that, as the use of fossil fuels has increased, carbon dioxide levels have been increasing at a rate of about 0.5% per year for the past several decades. The economic benefit of converting carbon locked up in fossil fuels for millions of years into instant energy, of course, has provided prosperity to many for the last century (e.g., inexpensive travel, food choices, home/office heating and cooling). Unfortunately, the last several generations have passed the true costs forward to the next many generations. Carbon dioxide traps heat energy in the atmosphere. The resulting disruptive impacts of excess atmospheric heat contributes to increasing human suffering (e.g., droughts, floods, wind damage). It is increasingly apparent that the true cost of burning fossil fuels has not been reflected in its price. Economists consider it a market failure when the true cost of a product or service is not reflected in its price.

If fossil fuels were now priced at their true cost, the fossil fuel age would be brought to a close and allow for a new era of sustainable energy to be established. Technology to make this happen is already in place. Improved policy making is needed to move us forward toward. A good example is the policy offered by the nonpartisan Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL). CCL’s carbon fee and dividend proposal was studied by an independent entity, Regional Economics Models, Inc. (REMI). The results of the analysis showed that a gradually increasing fee on fossil fuels at the source, where the collected fees are distributed as dividends to households, would transition society from an unsustainable dependence upon fossil fuels and grow the economy by generating 2,800,000 new jobs and avert 230,000 premature deaths over a 20-year period. Members of congress are aware of the CCL bipartisan proposal and are looking for signs of support from their constituents (surveys show 68% favorability of a fee and dividend approach to carbon pricing) in order to overcome the actions of the fossil fuel industry to delay the needed transition to clean energy.

Prior to 1980, most members of the middle class did not need an investment advisor – you paid off the mortgage, saved some extra cash and relied on a pension and your Social Security benefit to fund retirement. With the advent of 401k plans and the demise of pension plans, the financial services industry grew to a scale comparable to the fossil fuel industry in economic size. It took a relatively long time for policy makers to identify that excess investment management fees are a cause of significant avoidable financial loss to savers. For instance, a retired couple without pensions and a savings of $1,000,000 may expect to draw down $40,000 per year to supplement their Social Security benefits. If their investment advisor charges a fee of 1% or 2% per year over the true (i.e., competitive) cost of the service provided, the couple is getting by with $10,000 or $20,000 less per year –as little as half the amount they expected! Is this suffering? Let’s consider a single retiree who has $300,000 in savings and no pension. This retiree is sold an annuity with a 10% upfront commission ($30,000) and locked into an investment management contract he did not fully understand with an annual fee of greater than 2% per year for 10 years. Excessive, non-transparent, fees benefit few at the expense of many.

How to Estimated Tax Payments Online

Did you know it is possible to schedule your estimated tax payments online?  This is a very handy service for people who have to make Form 1040-ES estimated tax payments in April, June, September and January each year.  To make your payments, use the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System (EFTPS®).  The EFTPS® enables individuals and businesses to send their tax payments to the IRS by electronic transfer rather than writing a check and mailing it, or sending an expensive wire.

With the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System (EFTPS®), a free service of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, you schedule payments whenever you want, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You can enter payment instructions up to 365 days in advance.  This way when your tax preparer completes your taxes and calculates next year’s estimated payments, you can login online and schedule those payments.  Then you’re done.  The nuisance of mailing in those payments by check every few months has been removed.

Reasons to use the service include:

  • It’s fast. You can make a tax payment in minutes.
  • It’s accurate. You review your information before it is sent.
  • It’s convenient. You can make a payment from anywhere there’s an Internet or phone connection 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
  • It’s easy to use. A step-by-step process guides you through scheduling payments.
  • It’s secure. Online payments require three unique pieces of information for authentication: an employer identification number (EIN) or social security number (SSN); a personal identification number (PIN); and an Internet password. Phone payments require your PIN as well as your EIN/SSN.

One thing to be aware of is that you can’t wait until the due date to make your first payment!  Payments must be scheduled at least one calendar day before the tax due date by 8 p.m. ET to reach the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) on time.  On the date you select, the funds will be moved to Treasury from your banking account, and your records will be updated at the IRS.

There are a couple of other items to consider.  Obviously it is important you have the funds in the checking account you are transferring from.  The first time you use the system, you will have to enroll.  Also remember that the EFTPS® is a tax payment service.  You’ll need to already know the amount, tax form, and date when you schedule a payment.  This system doesn’t help you calculate your tax due.  If you want to cancel a payment, you must do so by 8 p.m. local time two business days before the scheduled date.

The Power of a Raise

Most personal finance advice misses a crucial point.

 

Lost amongst all the calls to cut coupons and skip your morning coffee is the fact that cutting costs isn’t the only way to get ahead.

 

In many cases, a raise can be far more powerful in helping you reach your biggest financial goals. And it may not be as hard to get as you think.

Let’s say you currently make $60,000 per year and you’re able to negotiate a 10% raise (more on how to do this below).

 

Assuming that 25% of that new income goes to taxes, that means you now have an extra $4,500 to save each year, which is almost enough to fully fund an IRA.

 

Looking at it another way, that extra $4,500 represents a 7.5% return on investment, which is right in the range of what experts expect from the stock market.

 

So by negotiating a raise, you’ve given yourself a stock market-like 7.5% return. And unlike the stock market, that 7.5% return will be consistent year after year.

 

And if you’re investing that $4,500 each year, you’ll earn additional returns on top of your contribution. Assuming a 7% annual return, that investment will grow to $197,393 after 20 years and $454,828 after 30 years.

 

Plus the increased salary sets a higher baseline for future raises and for your salary at future jobs, making it more likely that your income will increase even further over time.

 

And all of that comes with pretty much no risk. As long as you present your case respectfully, the worst that happens is you get a no. And even then you’ll have planted the seed, which may make it more likely that you’ll get a raise in the future.

 

How to Get a Raise

 

Of course, the trick here is knowing how to negotiate so that you actually get the raise you deserve.

 

This can be intimidating for a lot of people, myself included! But the good news is that there are some simple strategies you can follow to strengthen your position and even increase your value in the eyes of your employer through the negotiation process.

 

My favorite resource on this topic is Ramit Sethi’s Ultimate Guide to Getting a Raise & Boosting Your Salary. Yes, the title is a little hyperbolic, but the advice is practical and solid.

 

And remember, as long as you present your case well, the worst that happens is you get a no. There’s little risk in giving it a shot.

 

Side Hustle for Extra Income

 

Getting a raise isn’t the only way to increase your income. People are increasingly turning to side hustles as a way to make some extra money on top of their day job.

 

There are lots of ways to do this, from dog walking to freelance writing to website design. It doesn’t have to take a ton of time, and even a little extra income can go a long way.

 

J. Money at Budgets Are Sexy has chronicled over 60 different side hustles real people have used to earn extra money. You can also check out the websites Fizzle and Side Hustle Nation for ideas, inspiration, and practical advice on how to get started.

Merging Finances with Your Partner

I work with a lot of new couples who are in the midst of merging their financial lives for the very first time. In fact, my fiance and I are in the process of doing it ourselves too.

 

It’s not an easy thing to figure out. There are logistics to handle, habits to change, emotions to manage, and often it feels like there is never enough time in the day for any of it.

 

But successfully managing money together is key to creating a happy partnership, so here are four pieces of advice as you go through this process yourself.

 

1. Focus on Joint Goals, Not Joint Accounts

 

It’s tempting to get caught up in the logistics of joining your finances. How do you create joint accounts? Which accounts should you join? What if you want to keep some money for yourself? Does that mean your relationship is in trouble?

 

Ignore all of that. It doesn’t matter. At least not at the start.

 

What really matters are your joint goals. What are you working towards? What is your shared vision for the life you’re building together?

 

Start having conversations about what you each value and want out of life. Listen to each other so you can truly understand what’s important to the other person.

 

Find the goals you already have in common and make those the priorities. And start talking about how you can find middle ground on the others.

 

This communication is the real key to successfully merging your finances. All the rest is just logistics.

 

2. Establish Shared Expenses

 

Now, about those logistics…

 

One easy place to start is with your everyday expenses. Things like cable, internet, electricity, and groceries.

 

Decide which expenses you want to share and how you want to split them up. For example, if one person makes significantly more, maybe they’re responsible for a bigger share of certain expenses. That way each of you is left with some free money at the end of it.

 

3. Create a System

 

There are two main ways you can start sharing those expenses.

 

The first is to create a joint bank account where those bills are paid. Then you each are responsible for transferring money to that account on a regular schedule to cover the bills. This lets you practice managing a joint account without having to join everything.

 

Another option is to put each person in charge of certain bills. For example, one of you could handle the cable bill while the other handles the electricity bill. This kind of system may be easier to get up and running quickly.

 

Also, create a system for long term savings. I know someone who gave half their paycheck to their partner to invest for the long term. This might not be the right move for you, but start by discussing each of your current habits and how you might change those or improve on them as a couple.

 

4. Plan for Extra Money

 

Here’s something my fiance and I have done that’s helped us a lot.

 

In addition to our regular expenses and savings, we each have a number of “wants” that our extra money could go towards. For example, I’d like to get curtains and my fiance wants gardening supplies.

 

So we made a list of these things and put them in priority order. And now any time we have some extra money, we simply refer to this list and put it towards the top item.

 

This makes these decisions easy, limits the opportunity for arguments, and ensures that we’re both able to indulge a little bit.

Traditional Financial Advice

Let’s say that you’re 30 and you inherit $500,000. What should you do with the money?

 

Traditional financial planning advice might look something like this:

 

  1. Establish an emergency fund
  2. Pay off debt
  3. Get yourself on track for retirement

 

That’s all nice and prudent, but is prudent always the right move?

 

I say no. Sometimes it pays to buck the traditional advice and be a little daring.

 

What Do You WANT?

 

No one lies on their deathbed feeling fulfilled because they made all the “right” decisions. No one is ever truly satisfied by checking off all the boxes someone else laid out for them.

 

True happiness comes from doing the things that matter to YOU. The things that scare you a little bit, excite you a lot, and just feel downright important.

 

Going back to the example above, assuming you suddenly and unexpectedly had a large amount of money, what if you asked yourself the following questions before making any decisions about what to do with it:

 

  • When you’re 80, what will you regret not having done?
  • When are you happiest in your life right now?
  • Is there anything you’ve been wanting to try but felt like it was too big a financial risk?

 

Maybe you’ve been wanting to quit your job so you could go back to school. Or maybe you’d like to take some time off to volunteer in another country while you learn a new language.

 

Those things don’t fit into the traditional financial planning paradigm but they’re the things that make your life worth living

 

And isn’t that the entire point?

 

Finding a Balance

 

Of course, traditional financial planning advice exists for a reason. Building an emergency fund, paying off debt, and investing give you the security and the freedom to enjoy yourself both today and in the future.

 

They just shouldn’t be the only things you consider. You should absolutely make room for the things that excite you too, and you don’t need to receive a big inheritance to do it.

 

Here are some thoughts on how you can balance the practical with the aspirational today, no matter what your financial situation looks like:

 

  1. Make a list of all the practical financial goals you know you should be working towards.
  2. Make a list of all the life goals you’d like to experience.
  3. Pick one from each list and put a dollar amount and timeline on each. How much will each cost and when would you like to achieve it?
  4. Divide the dollar amount for each by the number of months between now and your target completion date.
  5. Automate that monthly savings into separate accounts dedicated to those specific goals.
  6. If you can’t meet the full savings target now, save what you can and make it your mission to get to that full savings target over time.

The Psychology of Plastic Can Affect Buying Decisions

At some point in the midst of holiday shopping, most of us will dip into our wallets, take out a credit or debit card and make a purchase. Many times, we leave the mall or put down our tablets and phones having spent more money than we intended.
We’re moving into a world where we hold less cash and are increasingly comfortable using cards and electronic payment methods. Before diving into the possible effects this could have, I’d like to point to a famous quote by notorious gambler Julius Weintraub: “The guy who invented gambling was bright, but the guy who invented the chip was a genius.”

The psychology of symbolic money

When you go into a casino, you see people throwing chips around: $50 on red in roulette, raising $25 in poker, doubling down $100 in blackjack. Unfortunately, sometimes we can’t afford to lose the money we gamble away. The $100 lost on a double down in blackjack could have been several days of groceries for the family or overdue maintenance on the car. The $10,000 lost on a weekend binge could have been college tuition.
You may be able to relate to these examples personally or through family or friends. One aspect of the psychology of gambling is that people are parting with poker chips, rather than cash in their hand. The chip changes the form of your cash, not just physically but metaphorically, too. It can cause you to justify taking a risk. It can create an excuse so the $25 that was in your pocket is only a green chip on the blackjack table. The monetary value is the same, but your mind is more comfortable separating a poker chip from a bill in your pocket.

How it works with credit cards

The technological advances that have accelerated the use of credit and debit cards and other payment options can act in a similar way.
From 2006 to 2014, payment volume for Visa has increased from $2.13 billion to $4.76 billion. Other major credit card companies have shown similar increases. While this may or may not lead to carrying higher credit card balances, it most likely leads to less money in the bank account for the consumer.
In my opinion, we’re likely to spend more money with these cashless payment options. We pull out our cards or phones and make purchases without consciously contemplating the downstream impact as much as we would have if we’d paid in cash. We don’t physically hand the money over. Yes, we may hand a credit card over, but that’s the same motion whether we’re buying a pack of gum or a diamond ring. The rise of mobile payments creates even less friction for purchases, since buyers don’t have to sign anything.
Another consideration is the restriction that cash creates: If you don’t have enough cash to buy something, you can’t make the purchase.
For these reasons, people who use cards and mobile payments may be increasing their purchase frequency as well as the value of their purchases.

Know The Benefit When You Choose Social Security Survivors

Social Security Survivors benefits are paid to widows, children, parents and ex-spouses of covered workers.

The Social Security program actually consists of three benefit programs that make payments for various reasons. They are:

  1. Retirement benefits,
  2. Disability benefits,
  3. Survivors benefits.

This post covers number 3, Survivors benefits. These are not the same as the benefits commonly referred to as spousal benefits.

If a worker, who is covered by Social Security, dies and leaves family members behind, they are the “survivors” and are covered under the Survivors benefits program. Social Security will use the deceased worker’s record to calculate payments for his / her family.

There are four eligible parties that may receive payments after the worker’s death. They are the widow (or widower if the wife dies first), children, parent, and ex-spouse. Each has detailed rules for eligibility.

A widow(er) will get benefit payments if:

  • They are age 60+, or
  • Age 50+ and disabled, or
  • Any age and caring for a worker’s child under 16 or disabled and entitled to benefits on worker’s record.

A child will get benefit payments if:

  • They are under age 18, or
  • Between 18 and 19 and still in secondary school, or
  • Over age 18 and severely disabled before age 22.

A parent will get benefit payments if:

  • They are dependent on the deceased worker for greater than 50% of their support

An ex-spouse will get benefit payments if:

  • They fit one of the three requirements for widow(er) above and were married to covered worker for 10 or more years, and
  • They are not entitled to a larger benefit based on their own record, and
  • Not currently married unless marriage was after they turned 60 or 50 and are disabled.