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!

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.

Summer of 2011 to do list: investing, estate plan, refinance, taxes and planning matters

For this summer, we have suggested financial matters for you to review:

1. Asset allocation and investments – taking all IRAs, 401(k)s and taxable accounts as a single portfolio, reviewing the allocation and checking to see if it is time to rebalance;
2. Interest rates, investing and inflation – rates are likely to stay low, inflation is likely to stay low as well (there is no wage component, in fact wages may be deflationary now, there is only commodity inflation), so that leaves looking at any investment that equals or beats the 10 year Treasury bond at a 3% yield: good municipal bonds, dividend paying stocks, or packaged stocks like Berkshire Hathaway or the Permanent Portfolio mutual fund;
3. Refinancing – rates are back down some, so that you can bring a 30 year loan down to a 4.5% 25 year loan, or 4.25% 20 year, or 3.75% 15 year fixed;
4. Home Equity Line of Credit – rates are still under 3% and no closing costs, so be sure to set one up so you have a fall back source of funds to cover the unexpected
5. Estate plan – reviewing your wills and trusts, and any letters to fiduciaries, to be certain that you account for such matters as the portable credit, which requires an election at the first death;
6. Tax planning – reviewing your information for 2011 against 2010 and checking your options to be you minimize your 2011 and 2012 taxes (e.g., max out 401(k), 402(b), ESPP plans, convert to Roth IRAs in low income years, etc.); and
7. In fact, you could do a Finance Health Day (you own financial planning focus) – please check out Finance health day….

Let me know if you have questions or comments, or if anyone you know wants to ask about any of this material. Also check out Time Saving Tips…

Coming soon…. credit card benefits with real value

Time saving ideas that pay off in tax planning, investments, technology and daily routines

Ben Franklin taught us that “time is money”. In addition, we all know that we have limited time, so every instant is important to us. In fact, each minute involves a choice about how you spend that time.
However, the best use is often hard to sort out. Moreover, tracking time minute by minutes can cloud the real issue, which is what the best use of your time may be.

Tracking your time: However, as a starting point, Laura Vanderkam suggests keeping a journal of how you spend each day. This can show you how much time you spend, say, checking your e-mail every 15 minutes. If you can evaluate your habits with some clear-headed objectivity, you may find ways to spend your time better.

What is your time worth? Here is a financial perspective on the use of your time. Ms. Vanderkam “what is your Minimum Wage” as way to have you test your use of time financially. Her example is the difference between buying and making your own tortillas. When she factored in the time spent against any cost savings, she arrived at a wage of $1.40 per hour. So, was that a good decision for the use of your time? Maybe if your tortillas taste so much better… but often, tortillas are tortillas.

Here are two more taken from my experience: driving an extra 25 miles to save ten cents per gallon on gas probably nets out to the same total expenditure, after factoring in the gas used to get there, let alone the time. Replacing the brakes or McPherson struts on your car may seem to save money. However, when you factor in six hours or more spent, and the clean up, you have a fairly low minimum wage calculation. It is often better hire an expert and spend time with family.

Dangers of Technology: Another author suggests three time wasters from new technology: texting, remote access and last minute preparation. Geoffrey James finds that each of these appears to save time, but embodies significant risks. For texting, the response is immediate and you have a full record of the communication. That may not be to your advantage in business or personal relationships. Remote access may mean you are never really on vacation, never really relax and recharge, so return in less than par shape. Easy access to information makes last minute work tempting. So much can be reviewed easily. However, this process is usually rushed, and rarely forms permanent memories like long-term studies. Therefore, technology in general can be good, but there are some technologies, or at least the ways in which we use them, that do not save you time and make you more productive.

Now, some ideas that payoff
One time saving idea that pays is gathering your tax information as it comes, saving you from hunting for it last minute. Also, saving each year’s information in an organized manner will save time if ever questions arise or, worse, you have an audit to counter. Finally, if you let your tax preparer know about any changes during the year, you have a chance to react and adjust your tax planning, rather than being told what you should have done when it is too.

The same holds true for evaluating any other financial change. Address it at the time, and save the documentation. For example, when you get a new document, you can now scan and save files on your computer (but be sure to have backups). This way, your information is more easily retrieved and searchable, so you can find the correct item quickly.

Investing: This is an area where too much attention is not the best use of your time but also risks making investment errors. Please see our comments at Faults of the individual investor…. Too much attention can lead you to override your long-term plan so spend the time on other matters. Your portfolio will be better off.

If you create or update your estate plan, be sure to change your beneficiary designations right away. You may even choose to fund trusts you have created, saving time for your executor (or the attorney she hires). See Estate planning overview…

If you have suggestions, or questions, let us know.

AMT rescue for 2010 and 2011

First, a quick reminder of what the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) is:

This is the tax that Congress imposed over four decades ago, when very rich people with clever advisors were able to pay $0 taxes. Unfortunately, it was never indexed for inflation and has, especially over the last decade, grabbed more and more taxpayers. This has led to several patches, including the law just passed by Congress.

Today, the tax has a 28% rate and removes many deductions, such state income taxes, most exemptions and then adds in other items, or “preferences”, like the spread on incentive stock options purchased but not yet sold.

For the new law, middle class taxpayers are rescued from the AMT – at least for 2010 and 2011.

That is, the compromise tax package from Congress boosts the exemption levels for the AMT to cover over 20 million middle-income taxpayers.

Someday, perhaps an inflation adjustment will be added…..