“Simplify your finances? No; “Gain control, understand your finances?” Yes

After reading a recent article in Kiplinger’s Finance Magazine  on simplifying your finances, I wondered if your personal finances can really be made simple.  While many of us may hope so, I am not sure that “simple” is best.

However, gaining control of your finances and gaining a better understanding do make sense.

clutter-286975_1920 Okay, that does need to be simplified!

Here are some ways that help you gain control that may also “simplify” your life:

Cash management and Debt management

Set up automatic payments with vendors so they use your bank or credit card, or set up payments using your bank website.

  • If the payments are regular, and of similar amounts, you save time and can plan on the withdrawals.
  • However, if you change banks, sorting and resetting auto-pay at the new bank can be a major headache. Similarly, if you change credit cards, you need to update information with all vendors.

You can also automate tracking of your spending by using websites like Mint or Personalcapital.  Or, you can use Quicken or QuickBooks software from Intuit to track your bank and credit card accounts.  You can download from your bank and credit card websites into the program and then review to analyze your cash flow and spending.

Setting up direct deposit for payroll into your checking is great.  You can also split part so it goes to savings or even have some go to your investment accounts.  You will then need to follow up to invest the cash that accumulates, but having money set aside saves it from being spent, and adds to your investments

Investing

Kiplinger’s recommended consolidating retirement accounts to avoid low balance fees.  It also makes updating beneficiary designations easier.

While avoiding fees makes sense, am not sure that putting all investments into a single retirement account does.  You cannot do this if you have Roth and pre-tax accounts like a 401(k) plan, and you probably should not do it if you have contributory IRA and 401(k) accounts that are subject to different tax rules.

Kiplinger’s also recommended using one broker for your taxable accounts.  This makes more sense, in that you have a higher balance which should mean lower fees and more attention from the broker.  However, I prefer using exchange traded funds, or ETFs, and avoiding most broker fees, which means essentially no attention from a broker.

One article said that your investment plan should be to “sign up and forget it.”  While avoiding investment pitfalls like second-guessing yourself out of panic when a fund goes down is good, I do think you need to review and rebalance your investments once a year.

Another article recommended using an “all in one” fund for investing.  Now, this really troubles me.  If your sole goal is retirement, then an age-targeted fund could make sense.  But, if you are saving for goals with different time horizons, this is a bad idea.

If you use an age-targeted fund, do your homework on the funds.  For example, if the fund plans to suddenly shift to bonds when you retire, that will not serve you well because you are likely to have several decades for which you will need the growth from stocks.

Protecting your information

Having a master password for access to all your other passwords reminds me of the joke about the student who repeatedly distilled his notes down, first to an outline, then to note cards, and finally to one word.  How did he do on the day of the exam?  He forgot the word.

Nonetheless, having passwords is clearly important so having a way to manage them is as well.  Check out this recent review of apps for managing your passwords PC Magazine Best Password Managers for 2015.  You can manage the passwords yourself by creating a document that you save as a PDF and then encrypt.  But don’t forget the password you used for the PDF!

Store files in one place

We did a post on using cloud storage when you do not need originals.  Here is another site to check out:  Shoeboxed

Credit cards

In addition to downloading transactions as noted above, you can track your credit score and credit history by using sites like Credit Karma

Estate planning

For insurance purposes, and for your estate plan, having a record of possessions, you can list all your property using sites like Know your stuff home inventory.

Conclusion?

There are ways to gain better understanding of your finances that also make your finances simpler.  But setting simplification as your primary goal risks distorting your finances – too simple may be a bad result.

P.S. Our sister website, www.wokemoney.com, encourages you to gain a better understanding of your finances so you can handle your own planning.  Let me know what you think.

Okay then, what is a financial plan?

You may hear some argue that robo-planners will not replace individual, human planners. I call them the “There’s no app for that” group.

We do believe that “There is an app for that.”
workshop-1280264_1920

Well, that is not what I had in mind.

But exactly what is “a financial plan”? Finding a good, workable definition is a challenge.

Wikipedia says:

Textbooks used in colleges offering financial planning-related courses also generally do not define the term “financial plan.” For example, Sid Mittra, Anandi P. Sahu, and Robert A Crane, authors of Practicing Financial Planning for Professionals[8] do not define what a financial plan is, but merely defer to the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards’ definition of ‘financial planning’.

Can’t we define “financial plan”?

Yes. Investopedia offers this broad definition:

While there is no specific template for a financial plan, most licensed professionals will include knowledge and considerations of the client’s future life goals, future wealth transfer plans and future expense levels. Extrapolated asset values will determine whether the client has sufficient funds to meet future needs.

And Wikipedia gives more detail:

In general usage, a financial plan is a comprehensive evaluation of an individual’s current pay and future financial state by using current known variables to predict future income, asset values and withdrawal plans. This often includes a budget which organizes an individual’s finances and sometimes includes a series of steps or specific goals for spending and saving in the future.

So you need to project where your assets can take you to be sure you meet your future in good shape. Makes sense

And what is my definition?

A to do list or “action plan” that tells you what you need to change now so you optimize the use of all your resources to achieve your major, long term goals in the future.         

So what does a financial plan look like?

If you paid to have a financial plan prepared, and have a complicated situation, you may get a glossy, bound book filled with projections, charts and graphs, plus text. While much of it may be boilerplate, it will tell you where you are going from now until you die, how your money will follow if you invest according to the plan, and what you need to change on taxes, insurance, and your estate plan.

At the other extreme, you can glean the essential steps and write them all on a PostIt note, which you then place in a spot you see often enough to remind you what to do:

  • Maximize my 401(k) contributions,
  • Set up and contribute to a Roth IRA,
  • Review my investment allocation, use ETFs,
  • Steer clear of any major credit card debt,
  • Review my beneficiary designations,
  • Sign an medical directive, and
  • Save enough for a fun (not too expensive) vacation next summer!

In the end, it doesn’t matter how many pages or what the plan looks like; what matters is that you learn from reviewing your finances and change how you manage your resources so that improve your finances.

So, yes, a simple to do list could be enough, if you follow it!

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.

Finance Health Day (you own financial planning focus)

Taking a financial health day (like a mental health day, but for your finances)

A recent New York Times article spoke of taking a day that used to be “a mental health day” to work on financial planning matters, or a “financial health day”

With work and other matters demanding attention, many financial matters get put off. One that the author singled out was estate planning – one I often see people put off.

The list he created, as paraphrased and augmented by me, included:

1. Cash back credit cards – switching to or using mileage on existing cards

2. Insurance riders – updating or adding new items for coverage, which may entail appraisals

3. Phone service review – seeing if you have the best phone set up at home (bundling phone, internet and cable to save for example or even dropping the phone for your cell phone)

4. Cell phone service review – seeing if you have the best plan for your usage

5. Nanny tax service setup – setting up payroll for any household employees. The services are inexpensive and save you time.

6. Establishing an estate plan – putting in place a will

7. Insurance benefits – applying for reimbursements

8. In case of emergencies lists – this list tells people were all crucial papers and other items are stored (I have a list on my computer as well as in my safe deposit box)

9. Auto pilot charitable giving – setting up an automatic deduction from a checking account (or doing United Way via payroll)

10. Shopping spree – using the balances on gift cards or, as noted above, using your mileage. The balances do not earn you interest so might as well buy something, as a reward for all the work done on the other items.

These are obviously all worthwhile endeavors. Some take more than one day, such as getting appraisals or executing and estate plan.

I would add to the list the following items:

11. Updating the estate plan you have for changes you want to make in selected fiduciaries or changes in tax laws

12. Checking asset ownership and beneficiary designations for your estate plan so that the plan works as you intend

13. Putting assets in your revocable trusts to avoid probate (this is more important in sates other than Massachusetts)

14. Making sure you have proper liability insurance and an umbrella policy and replacement cost on your home

15. Using your flex plan before year end

16. Tax planning – one we always check with our clients – so that changes during the year are covered by changes in estimates or AMT strategies

17. Cash planning to be sure you have funds for the big purchases….. like cars, with now being possibly a good time to buy

18. Education funding – using 529 plans and any available tax strategies

19. Homestead filing, to protect the equity in your home

20. Reviewing your disability insurance to see if you can add to it

As you know from our work, we can help with many of these items so let me know if you or any of your friends and associates want to improve your Financial Health ….

Let us know if you have questions or comments. Thanks,

Steven