Amplify Cash Flow by Maximizing Credit Card Rewards – Playing the Rewards Game

With a bit of planning and discipline, credit cards can provide users with real benefits.

These steps can help you maximize the available rewards:

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1. Reward types: Before you begin your search, determine the type of reward you are looking for: cash back, travel, gift cards, etc. Once you know what you are looking for, begin your search for the best card for each type of reward.

2. Strategy: After you review available cards and select one or more for the rewards you want, develop a strategy to use your cards to get the most out of their reward terms. You may find that some cards offer different rewards for different types of purchases. For example, a card my offer 6% back for food purchases, another may offer 3% for gas, while another may offer 2% back on all purchases. Develop your “credit card portfolio” based on what is being offered. Understand the cards’ rules and be prepared to play by them.

3. Fees: You want to avoid paying any late fees, which average $34, because these fees quickly undermine any rewards you may earn. On the other hand, annual fees may be worth paying depending on the rewards being offered. For example, if you earn 6% back on purchases, then a $75 annual fee may make sense. You can always call the company and try to have the fee waived. If you signing up just for the sign-up bonus, then you will probably want to cancel the card before the fee is incurred.

4. Apply: Once you have narrowed down the cards with the best offers for you, apply for the credit cards within a two day period to minimize the number of inquiries recorded on your credit report. Multiple inquiries may damage your score.

5. Tracking: Develop a method to ensure you are using the right card for the right purchases. This can be anything from notes, to an Excel workbook to using QuickBooks.

6. Card balances: Keep your credit usage to 20% to 30% of your available credit because your credit score is affected by the amount of credit you use.

7. Payments: Pay off your balance every month. If you allow yourself to carry a balance, the interest rates you incur will diminish or wipe out any rewards you earned.

If you try any of these ideas, let me know how they worked for you!

Data and Document Security; Protect Your Stuff!

There are now more tools available than ever to help you organize, access and protect your sensitive data and documents.
man-1187170_1280Well that’s a scary image …

Mobile Devices
The amount of information we store on our mobile devices is staggering: emails, personal contacts, client contacts, banking information, music, and pictures represent only a fraction. You can easily protect this data by enabling the password service, or, in the case of the newer iPhones and iPads, by enabling the fingerprint recognition software.

We have become heavily dependent on these devices that, if we lose them or they malfunction, we could spend days trying restore or replace the data on the device. To protect against this potential headache, you should back up the device regularly. You can also shift more application content to cloud services such as iCloud or G Cloud.

Computer Safety
If you know the sickening feeling of losing an important file that you saved on our computer, then you know you do not want to risk losing all the data on your laptop. That’s why we recommend backing up your important files to an external hard drive, remote server, cloud storage or online back-up program. Some of you may want to make the backup occur automatically, so that all files are stored on a regular basis. Others may prefer to do so manually. If so, be sure to set a reminder that works for you so that you frequently safeguard as much of your important data as possible.

In addition to backing up your files regularly to an external location, we recommend you install anti-virus and malware software. When you buy a computer, an anti-virus program is often included. Make sure the virus definitions are updated constantly. Also, you can add more projection for free, such as Malwarebytes.

Original Documents
There are certain documents that deserve an extra level of security, like original copies of your estate plan (link to planning) for the inevitable. For these documents that hold significant legal and personal importance, place them in Ziplock bags to prevent water damage and store them in either a fireproof safe or a safety deposit box.

Conclusion
Taking these small steps each of you can take now to protect your tax and financial information will prove invaluable if the unexpected occurs.

Make customer service calls work for you – Get them on your side

Years ago, I read a compelling account of success in handling customer service issues and was transformed from the angry guy making threats to the customer rep’s new friend. My new attitude brought great results, like the time Verizon Wireless effectively paid me (via a new phone, billing refund and free headsets) to replace a malfunctioning cell phone.

Your goal on these calls is to convert the customer service rep to your side so that their goal is to make you happy. Most people in customer service are there because they want to please others; you want tap into that bent.

Here is how:

  1. Be Respectful: Make them feel important and validated. Ask them their name, if they did not give it, and use that in the conversation.
  2. Show Gratitude: thank them.
  3. Recruit Them: Use terms like “we” and clearly state your objective so you turn the call into a mission, with the representative committed to helping you accomplish it.
  4. Remain Calm: Avoid trigger words, anger and any swearing. Otherwise you risk losing the bond you created. Maintain the position of being empowered to get what you, as the customer, deserve.
  5. Communicate Your Determination: Be clear that you are not going anywhere until your mission is accomplished. Be clear that you are not taking any brush off.
  6. Escalate: If you are not making progress, then escalate: ask to speak to a manager. Many representatives are judged by the number of calls referred to managers or supervisors, so asking may prompt them to be more helpful.

This approach may take practice (and patience). However, it is quite effective.  Good luck and I hope you experience good results!

Robo-Advisors may be just what we need!

Should you really fear Robo-Advisors?

Reading financial news, you see many posts warning of robo-advisors, telling you how you really need a human advisor, how you can robo-proof your investment business, or how robo-advisors are merely a fad and will die off when everyone realizes how evil they are.

All these posts have it backwards. They are apologists for entrenched firms attempting to protect their turf when individuals need help.

Shift from pensions to 401(k) plans hurt individuals

Last century, many large employers provided pensions as a benefit. These were large portfolios that could hire good advisors and thus performed well. However, by the end of last century, retirement funds had shifted to 401(k) and similar plans, where individuals managed their own portfolios.

Institutional portfolios hire great managers so many are able to beat their various market indices. In contrast, individual investors historically achieve less than half the returns of their related indices.

Poor performance by individuals managing their own retirement funds is a key factor in the current crisis facing Boomers who are under-funded for retirement. (Note to Millennials: don’t just speak to your parents, do your own planning so this doesn’t happen to you!)

Why do individuals invest poorly?

Individual investors are seen as a contrary indicator:

  • If they are buying, then the market is near its peak and it is time to sell; and
  • If they are selling, the market has reached its bottom and it is time to buy.

Here is a case in point:

We saw the regret and pride response in action beginning in March 2000, the largest purchase of mutual funds in the history of the stock market. Fast forward to 2008, just before the “Great Recession” market downturn, and stock prices were falling, but investors refused to sell at a loss. As the market continued to fall, investors held off until they simply couldn’t take it any longer. Many sold their stock near the bottom and missed the following upswing that began March 2009. Forbes – Why average investors returns are so low.

To summarize, individual investors perform poorly due to these factors:

  1. Lack of access to good investment advice; and
  2. Investment psychology. For more on the psychological factors to which individuals fall prey, see Seven deadly sins of investing to avoid.

There is a third factor: High expenses in form of commissions and other fees.

Robo-advisors address all three factors. 

  • First, automating advice permits good advisors to offer services to small investors. Betterment with automated rebalancing and tax-loss harvesting is a good example.
  • Second, automation lowers costs, so fees charged can be reduced. Combine that with use of ETFs and you have dramatically reduced expenses.
  • Last, robo-advisors are immune to greed and fear so their performance will not suffer the way performance of individuals may. No robo-advisor would wait until the market hit bottom to sell, as in the case of 2008 summarized above.  

Bring on the Robos!

What is my conclusion? Not only are robo-advisors here to stay, they may be just what individual investors need so they can retire well!

7 things to do when starting a business to avoid nasty surprises

The only thing that hurts more than paying an income tax is not having to pay an income tax. Thomas Dewar

When you decide to start a business, taxes may be the last thing you think about. However, not realizing that you owe the self-employment tax as well as income taxes can lead to a nasty surprise when you file your taxes. This post is aimed at avoiding that costly surprise.

But, before we discuss the self-employment tax, there are other important steps to take when you become self-employed. Here are the 7 things to do after you start your own business to avoid nasty surprises:

Avoid nasty surprises – set up bookkeeping, form your entity, get licensed, buy insurance, and pay taxes

Bookkeeping – set up bookkeeping using software like QuickBooks (either online or on your laptop). You don’t want to be scrambling to find receipts at tax time or not be able to tell somebody if you are making money or not.

You can save time by downloading from your bank and credit card companies. If you set up things well, all income and every expense will be properly categorized for your profit and loss statement, or P&L. The P&L and balance sheet help you monitor your business to see how well you are doing and are essential for preparing your tax returns. The balance sheet will also come in handy if you need to apply for financing.

For all these steps, you may want to hire an accountant or speak to an attorney.

Entity – for many small businesses, being a sole proprietor is appropriate. You avoid paying corporate excise taxes and filing annual reports. However, if you have partners, you may want to form a partnership, corporation or LLC (details on choosing are beyond the scope of this post).

If your business involves risks that could lead to law suits, form a corporation or LLC to shelter your personal assets from liabilities of the business that insurance may not cover. Make sure that any actions you take for the business are in your capacity as an officer or manager – i.e., never sign personally.

Remember, you may want to consult with an attorney.

Get licenses, file annual reports and pay local taxes – certain businesses require a license to operate. Most entities are required to file annual reports. And, your city may impose taxes on the personal property in your business. Be sure to find out so you don’t owe penalties for failing to file and pay.

Buy health and other insurance – in addition to liability insurance, you will want to obtain health insurance if you are no longer working for another employer. You may get favorable treatment for this expense on your income taxes. You can also purchase insurance to cover damage to equipment, loss of data, identity theft and so on.

File payroll taxes – if you hire people to work for you and pay them over $600 per quarter in any year, you need to report the compensation. If they are independent contractors, you file a form 1099 with the IRS. If they are employees, you file a W-2 with the Social Security Administration. You also provide these forms to your people for the income tax filings.

You may need to withhold and remit FICA and Medicare taxes. Also, your employees may request that you withhold and remit federal and state income taxes (unless you live in a state that does not impose income taxes). Failure to withhold and pay to the IRS and state can lead to serious penalties.

Pay your income tax – one big shock for many who start a business is how much they owe in taxes. When you received a paycheck, you probably did not focus much on the fact that your employer withholds federal and state income taxes and FICA and Medicare taxes. And, you never had a chance to spend what was withheld.

However, when you run your own business, you have full access to the pre-tax income, so you must diligently allocate funds ahead of time so that you don’t come up short at text time. To avoid owing interest on the taxes due, you make estimated tax payments each quarter to the IRS and state.

Pay the self-employment tax – when you were an employee, your employer withheld FICA and Medicare taxes from your paychecks. The employer also contributed FICA and Medicare taxes on your behalf

When you become self-employed, you are responsible for both the employee and employer amounts. This tax is based on your net self-employment income

A lot to remember, right?

Maybe, but knowing and planning is far better than trying to scrape together money in April to cover taxes you did not expect.

Good luck with your new business!

In future posts, we will examine partnering with others, assessing your profitability, rules on deducting expenses, and entry into the real estate market.