Ignore Most Financial Planning Rules

General rules of thumb for financial planning rarely work. Here are some with my critiques:

“Stocks minus your age should equal 100” – Bad rule – your investment allocation depends on your risk tolerance, the rate of return required to achieve your goals, when you add to investments from annual savings or stock option exercises and when you remove investments to fund lifestyle needs.

“Life insurance must equal six times compensation” – Bad rule – your spouse or partner would use all of your resources, including insurance, to fund lifestyle needs after you die. If you review this and determine a short-fall, that is the amount to be funded by insurance. It could be more or less than the six-fold multiple but ensures that your survivors have adequate resources to be protected.

“Save 10% of income annually” – Decent rule – however, some may need to save even more and others may have no savings need. As with life insurance, the question is whether the return from assets plus annual savings over your life expectancy will fund your lifestyle.  

“You only need 70% of income in retirement” – Bad rule – in fact, many people spend more in the first years of retirement as they travel more while spending far less in their 70’s and 80’s as their needs become fewer. This can be further complicated by estate planning goals of gifting to children or charities.

“Hold six months after-tax income for a rainy day” – Decent rule – however, this depends on liquidity, borrowing ability (e.g., home equity line) and cash flow. If annual income permits substantial savings, such that you could pay for a new roof without affecting lifestyle, your “rainy day” reserve can be much less.

“Monthly payments on debt should not exceed 20% of income” – Decent rule – in fact, the rule is somewhat irrelevant in that most lenders apply rules to limit mortgage payments plus home insurance and property taxes to a percentage of income. As with the savings rule, your level of debt may be more or less depending on assets available, risk tolerance and lifestyle costs.

“Do not refinance until rates drop 2%”– Bad rule – the test is simple: how soon will the cost of refinancing be recouped by lower payments? With no points/no closing cost loans, this can a year or less. Buying down a rate by paying points will make sense if the pay-off is in 12 to 24 months and if you plan to stay in the residence for seven years or more.

“Delete collision coverage on a car more than 7 years old” – Decent rule – as with the “rainy day” reserve, this depends on cash flow and other resources. It also depends on whether the car is your “antique.”

“Do not spend more than 7% of income on long-term care insurance”– Uncertain rule – some people may have sufficient assets to self-insure. Some people will not risk nursing care due to bad family health history; they will want to pay for full insurance.  

Are you going to break the rules?

While breaking rules may or may not work for you, creating and sticking to a financial plan will!

Budgets? “We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Budget”

Budgets rarely work. It takes tremendous effort to accurately record all transactions so that you have a valid budget. Then, frequently, after all this effort, you rarely come back to the budget. That means that the work had no payoff. Furthermore, people often claim that they had nonrecurring expenses. Doing so, they artificially understate their expenses, not realizing each year has some nonrecurring event.

A much easier way to test savings is to take a twelve-month period, look at cash and credit card balances at the beginning and end, check for any inflows from gifts or other non-salary items, and then measure the change. Did the cash accounts go up or did the credit cards go up? That is your savings/dis-savings for that year.

Rather than doing a budget to adjust behavior, force a change. You can do that by removing money from your discretionary spending by contributing the maximum to a 401(k) plan, by an auto debit that put funds into an investment account, and other auto payments. If your credit card balances go up, then you have to make a decision to alter behavior, such as cutting entertainment, or decide to delay goals (retire later, no new car now, etc.)

How does cash flow relate to debts? Managing your debt means getting the lowest after-tax interest rate so that you pay as much principle with each payment to pay off the loan as quickly as possible. You can deduct the interest paid on a mortgage and an equity line of credit debt. You can deduct up to $2,500 of student loan debt. But you cannot deduct the interest on most other debt, unless used for your business (watch for a post on side hussles).

Web-Based Financial Planning Tools for College Students and others

In advising a senior going to study abroad, I learned that he did not know how to obtain his own credit card, how to set up banking before and during his trip and how to manage the entire process. This was a surprise, as some many web sites seem loaded with information.

However, the bank sites tell you some but not all of what you need to do. Similarly, college sites may mention ATMs without connecting to Handbooks may suggest Parents may have no clear understanding of

No single place gives you a complete road map, let alone telling you how to connect all the resources to get your answer, so you have to turn the web into your own tools.

The first step is contacting the overseas college for local banks, currency exchanges and connecting to close by ATMs and banks. The next step is getting your own credit card or a additional cars on your parent’s account. Then you get to finding a US bank into which your parents can deposit or from which they can wire so you have funds in you bank at college.

The key is to link all the information that is on the web to create a plan for your study abroad, using the web sites to answer and obtain all you need

Cash Management and Financial Planning – use your credit card for more than just purchasing

(This is a summary of a recent post by Kiplinger’s)

You may have selected a card for points or for cash back. However, there are many other benefits to keep in mind, from on-line purchase protection to vacation and travel insurance.

Prices
: many gold and platinum cards, and now the Citi premium card, will give you up $250 back if you find an item you purchased for a lower price within 60 days.
Warranties: several cards extend the manufacturer warranty for up to a year, ending the need to pay for an extended warranty that a sales clerk tries to get you to buy at check out or a company e-mails urging you to purchase after you buy on line. AMEX, Visa Signature, gold, and platinum MasterCards do this when used for purchases. Some add a 90-day protection for loss or breakage of a laptop or digital camera. Citi Premier and some replace the item.

Theft – Coverage on the road: If your laptop is stolen from your hotel room, MasterCard will reimburse you if you used a gold or platinum card to pay for the room. Likewise, if your luggage does not arrive when you do, MasterCard will reimburse you for the cost of replacing essential items. In addition, MasterCard will cover the cost to repair or replace damaged luggage. Use your Visa Signature card to buy your airline ticket and you can be reimbursed up to $3,000 for lost or stolen luggage.

Avoid checked-baggage fees. You can redeem points for an airline ticket with your U.S. Bank FlexPerks Travel Rewards Visa Signature card and receive a $25 credit toward the checked-bag fee. Gold Delta SkyMiles cards from American Express cover the cost of checked bags (up to $50 per person round-trip) for up to nine people on the same reservation. American Express’s platinum card offers a $200 annual credit for flight-change and baggage fees.

Free admissions: Bank of America and Merrill Lynch cardholders receive free admission to 150 museums in 85 cities on the first weekend of the month. Participating institutions include New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Chicago’s Art Institute, Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame and the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, in Oklahoma City.

Concierge services. The 24-hour service (available to Visa Signature and MasterCard World Elite cardholders) can help with restaurant reservations, party planning, travel arrangements and getting tickets to sold-out events. Visa cardholders can see what is available by visiting Visa’s Web site or by becoming a fan of Visa on Facebook.

Getting back home: Chase customers can call Global Lifeline (the number is on the back of their card) and get help with hotel and airline reservations and medical assistance. For example, Chase helped a cardholder stranded in the Dominican Republic get a flight back to New England this past winter after a massive snowstorm forced flight cancellations.

We added checking these benefits to the Finance Health Day page .

Let me know if you have questions or comments.

Financial impact of the budget plan and planning for tax reform

First, the on-going budget battle in Washington, or “the debt ceiling crisis,” should be kept in perspective. The battle is more a game of chicken, where one side will eventually blink and the ceiling increased. This political battle is not likely to have an impact on investments, as the markets have already accounted for the outcome, as usually happens well before the event. In fact, by way of example, this is much like 1989 when the municipal bonds of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts we downgraded to a rating just above that for Louisiana. Many investors panicked. However, the underlying economy had not changed. Therefore, the smart investment strategy at the time was to buy Massachusetts bonds. After Governor Weld came to office, the rating went back up and investors who held or bought the bonds had a nice profit. The equivalent today would be to buy treasuries.

Second, as it is shaping up, the deficit reduction package contains major tax reform provisions as well as huge spending cuts. This could ultimately be good for the economy and our markets, as it would bring corporate tax rates in line with other countries, falling in the 23 to 29% range. However, the base would be broadened, possibly including depreciation over longer periods, eliminating deductions for domestic production and trimming or dropping the R&D credit.
The tax overhaul raises substantial revenue, $1 trillion over 10 years. However, this less than half the amount that would have been raised by simply letting the Bush tax expire as scheduled.

New Tax Law: Many specifics will not be known until a new tax law is enacted, which is not likely to occur this year. What Kiplinger’s Tax Letter and others are predicting the following: Instead of six tax rates or brackets, with the highest at 35%, three are expected: one in the 8 to 12% range, the next in the 14 to 22% range, and the in the last in the 23 to 29% range. The Alternative Minimum Tax (“AMT”) would be repealed. The earned income credit and child credit would remain.

To do all this, there will be pain: itemized deductions would be significantly reformed, changing home interest and property tax deductions as well as charitable deductions. For example, deduction of interest might be limited to a mortgage of $500,000 used to purchase a home, but not any for a second home. In addition, the deduction of equity line of credit interest may be eliminated (no one knows what will be grandfathered, so better to have a line in place than to wait). Higher bracket taxpayers may see the deductions converted into a 12% credit.
Something of a surprise, given the push over the last ten years or more to increase personal savings, the deductions for retirement contributions may be cut back, lowering the ceiling and amount of the contributions that will be allowed for 401(k), IRA, Keogh, SEP-IRAs, profit-sharing plans and so on. Similarly, flex plan and health savings accounts may be curtailed or repealed.

We will continue to monitor the information on tax reform, and post updates when appropriate.

Any changes that are this sweeping will require serious tax planning, so that should be on your “to do” list for this fall!