Save Money by Focusing on Problem Areas

office pictures may 2012 002Probably the most important step toward saving money is making the decision to focus on your spending habits.  We frequently over spend when we are in a hurry and don’t have time to plan.  If you are serious about saving money slow down, get organized and devote some time to making a plan.   You can save a tremendous amount of money if you think about what you really need, make a list, compare prices and avoid impulse purchases. 

Start by reviewing your spending habits over the last year.  Calculate what you have been spending in relation to your income.  You may discover a gap in what you thought you were spending and the amount of money left at the end of the month.  It may be helpful to keep a spending diary for about a month to see where all that money is going.  Review your spending over the past year for obvious problem areas.  It is common for many people over spend on eating out, clothing, electronic toys and tools.

You may be very good at setting a budget and tracking your expenses. However, if this approach is too time consuming for your busy lifestyle, consider what we call creative budgeting.  Focus on one or two problem areas and develop creative ways to reduce spending in these areas.  For example, if you have a tendency to over spend on eating out, think of some creative ways to reduce spending in this area.   Some creative ideas may include preparing breakfast and lunch at home the night before and taking it to work with you.  When you are preparing a meal, make extra to freeze or eat for lunch the next day.  If you enjoy going out with friends, consider eating something before you leave and then eat something small like a side salad or cup of soup when you meet your friends.  Instead of going to expensive restaurants, organize a potluck dinner or start a gourmet club and rotate going to one another’s home.   Restaurants generally provide very large portions.  Consider taking half of your meal home, to be eaten later, or share a meal with a friend.  You can also save money by meeting at someone’s home for appetizers, desert or drinks before or after dinner.  There are many ways to reduce money on eating out that may result in more enjoyment, better food and less calories.

 Continue working on fun and creative ways to reduce spending in your initial target area.  The key is to substitute what you are giving up with something equally or more satisfying and less expensive.  Once you feel comfortable with your level of spending in this area, identify another place where your spending could be reduced.  After going through this process a few times you should become more focused on where you are spending money and your spending should be better aligned with your goal

First Financial Steps for Widows

 

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

If you have recently lost a spouse you may not have the energy or the interest to address the financial issues that need to be dealt with.  Experiencing such a tragic loss is emotionally exhausting.   It’s hard to focus on financial issues, but you have a nagging fear that important issues aren’t being addressed.  This can cause tremendous stress.  Find ways to simplify, organize, and prioritize activities that must be addressed immediately and postpone those that can wait.  Be easy on yourself, it is normal to feel like you are in a fog.  This will begin to clear in about a year, but you may still be fuzzy for about three years.  Take things one day at a time and move at your own pace.  Don’t let anyone pressure you into making decisions before your head is clear and you are ready to move forward.

Your first step should be to get organized.   You may not be quite ready to tackle the urgent paperwork, but you want to be sure that nothing is lost.  Create three in-boxes to separate all incoming correspondence by bills and urgent paperwork, personal correspondence, and non-urgent paperwork.  You should also start pulling together important documents including  wills and trusts, investment and bank statements, insurance policies, deeds and titles, tax returns, loan documents, your marriage certificate, and  20 copies of the death certificate. 

Your next step is to be sure you have the funds to cover immediate cash flow needs.  Review your current bills, credit card statements, and checking account to determine what your monthly expenses have been.  Compare this to your current cash position and income sources to be sure you have enough money to cover expenses over the next six months.  At this time your focus should be on short term spending requirements.   Be sure to pay current bills, but use caution with bills that seem suspicious or that may have been paid already.

Once your short term cash flow needs are covered, do a full inventory of assets, liabilities and benefits available to you.  This will be needed to settle the estate and to provide you with information on your long term financial situation.   Apply for life insurance, Social Security, and pension benefits that you may be entitled to.  You should also contact insurance providers to be sure you are adequately covered.

Hire an attorney to help you settle the estate.  An attorney can help you with your appointment as the personal representative and walk you through the activities required to settle the estate. 

Avoid making any major decisions for at least two years, and do not let anyone pressure you into making decisions before you are ready.  Most opportunities will still be there when you are ready to make a decision.   Beware!  There are a lot of wolves in sheep’s clothing out there preying on recent widows.

The Importance of Planning for Widowhood

 

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

According to the Administration on Aging, in 2010 there were four times as many widows as widowers. Over half of all women over 75 live alone, and one third of all women who become widows are under the age of 65.   About one third of all women who reach 65 are likely to live to 90.  Twenty seven percent of unmarried women, between ages 65 and 69, are poor compared to only 7% for all married women.  Women frequently have erratic work experience, due to family obligations, resulting in lower pensions than men.   Only about one third of all women will receive a pension in comparison to about two thirds of all men.  

These are just a few statistics indicating why it is crucial for women to plan ahead for the uncomfortable, but very real possibility of becoming a widow.  Many couples spend years planning for retirement together, but avoid planning for the possibility of living alone.  Couples need to develop a plan that addresses issues that must be dealt with upon the death of a spouse, as well as a plan for long term financial security for the surviving spouse. 

Start by working with an Estate Planning Attorney, whom you both feel comfortable with, to draft your wills and powers of attorney.  Part of this process should include reviewing the beneficiary designations on all of your retirement accounts and insurance policies to be sure they are consistent with your estate planning goals.  This is also a good time to discuss end of life preferences with one another.

The next step is to organize your finances and ensure that you both know what you have, where you have it, and how it can be accessed.  Take an active role in managing your finances.  If you are uncomfortable or don’t understand your finances, do some reading, take some classes or ask your planner to help you better understand your financial situation.   If you decide to work with a financial planner, take the time to select someone with whom you have complete trust and confidence – someone you can rely on as a trusted resource, should you become a widow.

Ensure that you have adequate emergency reserves to cover funeral expenses and living expenses for several months while the estate is settled.   The loss of a spouse is extremely difficult and you don’t need money worries on top of the tremendous emotional hardship you will be experiencing.

Incorporate the possibility of losing a spouse in your long term financial planning.  Run retirement scenarios and develop a plan that meets your goals together and on your own.  Review and understand survivor benefits associated with Social Security and Employer Pension Plans.  If your projected cash flow falls below your expenses, consider purchasing term life insurance or developing contingency plans to reduce your expenses. 

Sure Fire Ways to Ruin Your Retirement Plan

 

 

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Managing your finances is a balancing act between spending for today and saving for the future.   It’s important to plan and save for retirement but the demands of everyday life frequently get in the way.  Here are some common pitfalls to avoid when planning for your retirement.

 

Living Beyond Your Means – Spending more than you earn, failing to save and going into debt can be huge threats to your financial security and retirement plans.  Develop a spending plan that allows for an emergency fund and annual savings of 10-15% of your gross income.  Make a conscious decision to spend less money, buy a less expensive house and buy less expensive cars to keep your expenses below your income.  This can help you save for the future with a buffer for financial emergencies.

 

Failure to Participate – Participate in tax advantaged retirement plans for which you may be eligible.  Contribute to your employers 401k or 403b to take advantage of any employer match and deduct the contributions from your current income.  Additionally, if you are eligible, consider contributing to a Roth IRA.  Generally, an after tax Roth IRA contribution can grow tax free, with no tax due upon distribution.

 

Failure to Diversify – Maximize the potential for growing your retirement nest egg by maintaining a well-diversified portfolio designed to meet your unique risk tolerance and investment timeframe.  A common pitfall is the failure to monitor and rebalance your portfolio on an annual basis.   A portfolio that is too conservative can be as detrimental to your retirement plan as an overly aggressive portfolio.  Upon retirement, investors frequently make the mistake of changing their portfolio allocation to be extremely conservative, when they may live for another 30 to 40 years.

 

Market Timing and Trading on Emotion – Moving in and out of the stock market based on short term market fluctuations generally results in lower long term returns.   There is a natural inclination to buy when the economy is booming and sell when the economy is in the doldrums.   This usually results in buying high and selling low, which can be very detrimental to your portfolio.  To maximize your retirement portfolio avoid the emotional temptation to react to short term events and fluctuations in the market.

 

Funding College and Living Expenses for Grown Children at the Expense of Retirement – Avoid the pitfall of sacrificing your retirement to fund college education for your children or to make significant contributions toward an adult child’s living expenses.  Students have many options to finance or minimize college expenses but you can’t take out a loan to finance your retirement.

Cashing Out or Taking an Early Withdrawal – When you change jobs, transfer the money from your employer’s plan to another tax deferred plan such as a Rollover IRA.  This allows you to avoid paying significant income tax and a 10% early distribution penalty, if you are under 59 ½.

How ETFs Differ from Mutual Funds

 

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

ETFs (Exchange-Traded Funds) and mutual funds are investment vehicles that enable investors to pool their money to buy a collection of stocks or bonds.   This makes it practical for the average investor to diversify their holdings across a large number of companies or entities.   Mutual funds can be actively or passively managed.   Generally, ETFs are passively managed and are designed to represent a specific index or category of securities, similar to an index mutual fund.   ETFs are especially useful in focusing on narrow sectors of the market that frequently aren’t offered by mutual funds.   ETFs can be especially useful to invest in a specific country or industry sector.

Mutual funds and ETFs differ in how they are traded.  Mutual funds are bought and sold through a mutual fund company.   ETFs are bought and sold on the market, between investors. Shares in a mutual fund are traded based on the price at the close of the day.   ETFs can be traded throughout the day, anytime the market is open.  This is similar to the manner in which individual stocks are traded.  

Generally, ETFs have lower fees than mutual funds because of lower overhead costs.  This is especially true when comparing ETFs to actively managed mutual funds.  However, when you purchase an ETF you must pay a brokerage fee every time a transaction is made.  Mutual funds may be more efficient if you are planning to dollar cost average, or buy shares over a period of time.

Due to structural differences, ETFs can provide greater tax efficiencies than mutual funds.  ETFs are traded on the market between investors, much like individual stocks.   When investors buy and sell shares of ETFs, shares are exchanged between one another; there is no taxable sale of stocks or bonds within the ETF.  On the other hand, mutual funds are traded within a mutual fund company.  If several investors decide to sell, the manager may be forced to sell stock or bonds within the fund to cover the redemption.  This is a taxable event that may result in capital gains that must be passed on to the shareholders.

Additionally, the structure of an ETF allows for the creation and redemption of shares with in-kind transactions.   Capital gains taxes are avoided because there is no taxable sale of stocks or bonds within the ETF when an in-kind redemption is done.

Finally, ETFs are generally tax efficient because they are passively managed, similar to an index fund.  Passively managed investments track to an index and don’t do a lot of trading.  With less trading, the investor should incur less capital gains while holding the ETF.   Mutual fund investors can also minimize their exposure to capital gains by purchasing index funds and tax efficient funds that do minimal trading.  Both Mutual Funds and ETFs that invest in bonds or dividend paying stocks must pass interest and dividend income on to shareholders.