“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…..

Tax planning and 2011 estate tax law

While we await more details, recent action by Congress has the Bush tax cuts continuing for two more years, making the 2010 to 2011 tax planning straight forward – much like past years.

The new law provides relief on the AMT, no reduction in deductions and other benefits, which we plan to review in greater detail.

Also, it appears that, rather than return to a $1 million unified credit for estate taxes, at least a $3.5 million, if not a $5 million, credit and perhaps as low as a 35% tax rate will be the law next year.

Until we have more, please consider this summary of Tax planning: 2010 tips and traps, and 2011 changes

For 2010, some old provisions return and some new changes require action now:

2010 conversion to a Roth IRA has no income limit and two years to pay the taxes (please see to convert or not to convert).

Certain advantages in 2009 are lost for 2010 (see tax planning 2009 tips and traps and 2010 changes):
• AMT patch falls back;
• Casualty and theft loss limits fall back;
• Educator and tuition and fees deductions against adjusted gross income are not available;
• Deduction of state and local sales taxes ends;
• Exclusion of $2,400 of unemployment income ends; and
• Exclusion of income from qualified distributions from IRAs to charities ends.

However, some still apply in 2010:
• New home buyer credit (through the extended date)
• Energy Credit for solar power, fuel cells and certain energy efficient improvements are Schedule A deductions. There are two types of credit depending on what improvements were made to your home and taking the deductions requires you to have documentation.
• A tax refund can be used to buy U.S. Series I bonds.
• Note that a dependent child’s income is taxed when it exceeds $1,900.
• Educator’s Expense

Note that not all states accept the IRS changes, so the information and outcome could be different.

As we said before, tax planning involves a multi-year view to optimize what you end up paying.

You should also review your mortgage when you review tax information.

Investment Planning: fear vs. greed

Doing well with investments over time means avoiding emotional input in your decisions – fear, greed, emotional attachment to or aversion to certain investments and so on

Right now, fear may seem the prominent emotion: “I can’t afford to be in stocks, look what happened in the last few years!” (The same person might have wanted to be 100% stocks 4 years ago ….)

However, if you listen to this fear, and buy only bonds, CDs, fixed annuities, REITS, etc., you risk the greed reaction down the line: “How come my returns are the same as my pal’s? Why didn’t you have me investing for growth?”

Obviously, stripping the emotions out of the decision making is critical. Doing so would allow for balanced allocation to stocks, bonds and other appropriate investments. This way, the volatility now is dampened some, yet the return in the future has the requisite growth for the risks taken.

Where are you on the fear/greed balance? Do you have stocks you refuse to sell (or will never buy)?

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

Steven