Brace for the Holidays! Have a plan

As Halloween passes, we know that the season of over-buying and over-eating is approaching, so it’s time to prepare.  You want to enjoy being with friends and family without having the hangover of overspending, or worse, going into debt to finance all the fun. 

Make the gift giving fit with your cash management

Over-buying does not make you happier and usually makes the recipient uncomfortable.  Also, over-spending is likely to make achieving your long-term goals more difficult, which can add to the depression some feel at this time of year.

For gifts, “it’s the thought that counts” rings true.  Most recipients appreciate being remembered for who they are and what they do.  Think back to what you enjoyed most in past holidays and let that guide you.  This can help you stick to your values as you think through the entire process and devise your holiday shopping plan.  The time spent together may be far more important and rewarding than unnecessary giving.

Have a plan

Technology and social media can make shopping easier, but they also make it easier to overspend and end up with credit card debt from funding your gift giving.  

Part of the reason is that many such purchases are spontaneous.  People often regret these unplanned purchases.  Over 70% of people in one survey exceeded their budget and over half bought items not on their list.  This can make the new year bleak (More than 3 in 4 Americans are stressed about going into debt over the holidays — and technology’s not helping ) Counter this by creating a realistic budget, lookout for sales, review your budget to make sure you are on track. 

Budget – If you determine what you can reasonably spend and allocate that to people for whom you want to buy gifts, or give holiday tips, then you have a spending plan that should get you through.  When devising your plan, go back to your financial goals to remind yourself why staying on track is so important.  Include time for present wrapping to avoid time pressure that encourages splurge buying.  Also, you may want to have small gifts on hand for unexpected guests.  You can use budget apps, such as NerdWallet, to create a budget.  When you do, stick to it! 

If the people for whom you are shopping have wish lists, follow them for ideas.  And leave items in your shopping cart overnight to take a second look and avoid regretting a splurge purchase.  Ask “does the person really want or need this?,” especially if you are shopping for yourself!  (It may be wise to avoid, or at least substantially limit, any buying for yourself.) 

Be Wary of Black Friday, Cyber Monday and other retailer tricks

If you do your homework, you can determine if waiting in line or buying on line will be best.  As stated above, create a budget and stick to it.   

Be on the lookout for retailer other tricks like flash sales, loyalty cards, incentives to return for more purchases, misleading refund policies.  Similarly, procrastinating can lead to splurge buying ruled by emotions such as the need to please everyone and get the shopping done.

Avoid scams

With the pressure of the holidays to address all the gift giving, parties and thank yous, stay vigilant for scams.  These can come in the form of bogus IRS and social security calls, credit card offers, computer software deals and fake invoices.  There are many phishing sites you can use to check out whether the offers are legit

Review our Holiday Tipping Guide

As for tipping, see our post Guidelines for Holiday Tips and Gift.

Remember, if you’re unable to tip or give a gift, a thoughtful thank you note will acknowledge those people who are important to you.  You can even make a donation in their name. 

Brace for over-eating and possibly even depression

This blog is does not profess to have any expertise in psychology.  Nonetheless, we have all heard how holidays can be disappointing if not depressing from some.  The Hallmark gatherings promised on TV or social media rarely happen in real life. 

If the holidays are depressing, consider volunteering somewhere, such as a soup kitchen, or getting out for some serious exercise.  Both can lift your mood as well as either help others or improve your health.  Allow time to rest and recover!  And try a warm drink, tea not bourbon, or a warm bath. 

Take care of yourself – it’s hard to help anyone else if you are not in good shape yourself.  But if you are really experiencing holiday depression, speaking to people can help, be that family, friends or professionals.

We wish you all the best for financially sound, and fun, holidays!  And let us know if we can help you plan.

Holiday Planning Series with the Squash Brothers, part III, debt management

Watch our Holiday Planning Series, Part II, as Steven and the Squash Brothers discuss debt management so you do not overspend and end up with credit card debt you can’t pay off.

Thanks for watching our series!

“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.

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!

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…..