Budgeting for the Holidays?

 

 

Christmas with the Kranks, playing at any given time on a number of cable channels during the month of December, has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 5%. You read that right: 5%. A movie has to be mightily bad to receive such an abysmal score.

And yet, when I watch it, I see beyond the scathing critic reviews to the sound fiscal policy that lies central to the plot of this Christmas dud: a middle-aged couple, newly established as empty nesters, decide that the holidays have become a testament to excess.

They vow to skip Christmas this year, opting instead to spend their usual holiday expense on a Caribbean cruise for two.

Now, aside from the shenanigans that you would expect to ensue from such a premise, in a movie starring Tim Allen, there are some gleaming nuggets of wisdom we can take with us from those Scrooge-like Kranks.

And maybe, just maybe, the actions deemed horrific by their friends and neighbors can serve as lessons to help you keep some jingle in your pocket this holiday season.

Lesson #1: If you’re not budgeting for the holidays, you’re doing it wrong

Luther Krank is a numbers guy. He really crunched previous annual spending, down to ornament repair costs, to truly put a price tag on their customary Christmas expenditures.

As Grinch-y as this practice may sound, Luther Krank has the right idea. He will not be spending beyond his means because he’s accounted for every penny. He’s created a budget. And so should you.

If you don’t like the “B” word, let’s call it a spending plan. Either way, if you don’t know your financial limits, you’re setting yourself up for overspending.

In the madness of weekend sales, 24-hour specials, and last-minute markdowns, it’s easy to keep piling up those purchases that are such a “deal.”

And what does that get you? “Blue Monday,” which falls on January 19 next month. That’s the saddest day of the year, due in part to our excessive holiday spending finally catching up with us once those credit card statements come rolling in.

Don’t be a Blue Monday victim. Make a game plan:

  • How much can you afford to spend?
  • Who are you buying for?
  • What are your other holiday expenses? (parties, dining out, charity, décor, movies, concerts, etc.)

Once all expenses are accounted for, divvy up your budgeted dollars accordingly and enjoy the holidays guilt free! And my next tip might help with keeping your budget in line, too.

Lesson #2: Invest in experiences, not things

You’ve likely heard this one before, but kids outgrow toys, clothes go out of style, and physical objects rarely stand the test of time. But you know what lasts? Memories.

When Luther and Nora Krank decide to take a Christmas cruise, they decide to invest in quality time with each other. They even begin to connect more during the weeks leading up to their cruise, as preparing for the trip (and dodging holiday commitments) gives them something to look forward to together.

I’m not saying you have to skip Christmas altogether, or that you have to make a gesture as grand as a cruise.

But think about the little traditions unique to the holiday season that create priceless memories: putting up decorations, seeing distant relatives, baking cookies, looking at holiday lights, volunteering or otherwise giving to charity, and more.

These things cost little to nothing at all but can create a lifetime of cherished memories.

Don’t just take my word for it. This teacher’s post went viral for sharing that it’s the experiences her students talk about long after Christmas, not the expensive toys. 

Lesson #3: Sometimes, Just Sometimes, Giving Freely is the Way to Go

Without giving away any spoilers, I’ll just say that by the end of the movie, Luther Krank ended up spending double what he normally would on Christmas, being forced to pry open his checkbook and unclench his fist from around his tightly guarded wallet.

And he was perfectly fine with that.

I don’t mean to negate everything I just said, but despite all our best planning, sometimes the opportunities to embody the holiday spirit, or to help someone in need, or to create wonderful experiences will present themselves when we least expect them.

And far be it for me to tell you to deny yourself the ability to take advantage of these opportunities. After all, these are the things that make the season bright.

Indeed, the reason I saved this lesson for last is that, if you have followed lessons #1 and #2, you’ve probably made it a lot easier to put lesson #3 into action.

Staying within budget, and prioritizing quality experiences, means you may have extra cash, or time, or good old holiday cheer to be able to give freely, whether that’s with money, time, or hospitality – all of which carry value and can be worth their weight in gold to those on the receiving end.

From my family to yours, I wish all of you a wonderful holiday season and may the spirit of Luther Krank guide you throughout the new year.

 

The Basics of Benefits Enrollment Packages

Photo courtesy of Brennan Clark on Flickr

When you think about your compensation, do you immediately think of your salary?

Most people do. But your salary is only one part of your compensation — and if you fail to account for the other aspects of that, you might be missing out.

Those other aspects, of course, are your benefits. As open enrollment season approaches, it’s worth considering the basics of your benefits package. By optimizing the benefits you use, you may keep more money in your own pocket — which is money you can then save and invest.

Here’s what to keep in mind.

Get the Right Health Insurance

One of the biggest benefits of working with a company is the fact that you get access to group insurance policies, which are far cheaper to utilize than buying your own private insurance.

The obvious policy you want to get through your employer is health insurance — but what might not be so obvious is the right choice of all the policies you can choose from.

Many people opt for the plan that offers the lowest deductible possible (which can still feel pricey even when it’s the smallest amount available). That makes sense if you want to minimize what you could be on the hook for paying out-of-pocket.

But you might want to at least consider a high deductible health plan or an HDHP. Yes, the deductibles are high. Some run into the thousands of dollars for individuals and even more for families, which can feel like a bad idea to take on if you know you’ll have to pay so much for healthcare.

HDHPs, however, remain a good option for two main reasons. For one, your monthly premium payments will be lower. That keeps more money in your pocket — which you can then use to save into an account that an HDHP gives you access to a health savings account.

HSAs are the second reason why HDHPs make a lot of sense. They offer tremendous tax advantages.

You can deduct your contributions from your taxable income. You can invest the money you contribute so it can grow over time — and those earnings are tax-free, too. And finally, you can spend the money in the account, tax-free, if its used on qualified healthcare expenses.

No other account offers so many tax advantages, which makes HSAs well worth the HDHP required to use them. If you want to get even more value from them, max out your HSA — but don’t spend down the money in the account.

Instead, pay your medical bills out of pocket as long as you’re working and earning an income. Leave your HSA money invested until retirement. Then, you have a specific fund of money to spend on healthcare in your later years (when medical bills will likely be the highest expense in your retirement budget).

As for that high deductible? You can either build in a line item to your budget to set aside a little money each month in case of emergencies. Or you can plan to use your emergency fund should you need to cover a big medical bill before you hit that deductible.

Look at Other Policies, Too

In addition to health insurance, your benefits likely include disability and life insurance. Life insurance policies are usually small, and the benefit paid out to your beneficiaries may only be enough to cover the cost of a funeral.

Still, it’s better to opt into this coverage and relieve your surviving loved ones of being on the hook for such an expense. (It also means any assets you leave behind can go to those beneficiaries, instead of being used on any end-of-life costs).

If you have people in your life who depend on your income for their financial stability (like a spouse, even one who earns their own income, and certainly any minor children), you may also want to buy term life insurance to supplement the small policy you get through work.

Disability insurance is one of the best benefits your employer offers because it protects your biggest asset: your ability to earn an income.

Life insurance only covers you should your life actually end. But if you’re injured or ill and can’t work, disability will kick in to provide an income when you can’t earn one.

You need to look at both short-term and long-term disability. Both these policies cover different needs — and what you get through your employer may or may not be enough.

Look at what they offer and opt-in, as it will likely be cheaper than buying your own policy. Then, consider what gaps that coverage leaves and consider talking to a financial planner about strategies to cover those gaps as necessary.

Take Advantage of Your Retirement Accounts

Retirement plans that provide you with an employer match offer a great way to literally increase the amount of money going into your account. If your match is 3 percent, for example, your employer will match your contributions up to 3 percent.

Contributing at least enough to your retirement accounts to get the full match offered is like giving yourself an instant raise that goes straight to funding your future self. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Keep in mind that this could be an option for you even if you don’t have a 401(k). You might have a plan like a SEP or SIMPLE IRA, but these could also provide your match. If you’re not sure, ask your HR department and get information about what your plan includes.

What If You Already Max Out Your 401(k)?

That last point might not be helpful if you’re already on top of it and contribute not just enough to get your match, but enough to completely max out how much you can put into the account. (That’s $18,500 in 2018.)

If that’s the case, consider other ways to save. Do you have other benefits that allow you to take advantage of tax-advantaged accounts or even equity compensation?

Look into your benefits and see if you can take advantage of ESOPs, ESPPs, or nonqualified deferred compensation packages. These are a great way to build wealth in a different way than just topping off retirement accounts.

What Else to Look for — and What You Shouldn’t Use in Your Benefits Package

As you go through your benefits, you may want to take advantage of additional offers, like stipends or reimbursements for wardrobe or transportation. Some companies offer perks like free (or at least discounted) gym memberships, meal subscription services, tuition,  or childcare.

If you’re not sure, ask HR what kinds of perks might be available. The answer might be, “none,” but it’s worth making absolutely sure if you could opt in and use what the company offers rather than spending your own money on services you use anyway.

But you shouldn’t fall for the so-called “teasers” that may be included with your benefits. You don’t need things like accidental death insurance. You probably don’t need vision or dental insurance either.

A more effective use of money will likely be setting up a comprehensive financial plan that accounts for these kinds of things — and is less expensive than the fees and premiums you’d pay otherwise.

Good financial planning can also help you evaluate all the benefits available to you, and make sure that you take advantage of the ones that will help you add to your nest egg or help your dollars stretch just a little further.

Before You Kick Back to a Traditional Retirement, Read This

Photo courtesy of ulvi can @Flickr

 

Dreaming of the days you can sit on the beach, tropical drink in hand and not a thing on your to-do list? Ready to call it quits at your job and walk out to an endless vacation where you never have to check a single email or attend a meeting again?

It’s nice to daydream like this when you’re in the middle of your career, drowning in responsibility at work and home, and feeling like you’ll never catch up on all the sleep you missed in the last 10 years.

After all your hard work, you might look forward to the day when you can quit for good and kick back to a relaxing retirement free of any kind of obligation or responsibility.

But you may want to rethink that plan because more and more research shows that a “traditional” retirement — where work up until full retirement age only to quit and never work another day in your life — can be bad for your health.

The Potential Pitfalls of a Relaxing Retirement

When you simply stop going to work and have nothing on your to-do list, you can quickly run out of reasons to leave the house and interact with others during your everyday routine.

Many retirees become increasingly secluded and lonely without jobs to go to or people to see for a specific reason.

You can always plan trips to visit friends and family, of course. But it’s hard to beat the loneliness that can settle in when that’s not part of your day-to-day life.

A UK study found that loneliness, depression, and physical health issues are common among retirees who kick back to a traditional retirement with nothing on the daily agenda.

Initially, that relaxing retirement is restful and rejuvenating. But the longer it extends, the more prevalent health issues become as retirees increasingly retreat — consciously or subconsciously — from a more active life.

How to Have a Healthier Retirement

To avoid these pitfalls, plan your retirement around communities, relationships, and experiences. Researchers at Harvard found that you need to organize this new phase of life to include 4 fundamental factors for good mental and physical health:

  • A new social network outside of the job you leave behind.
  • Play, meaning hobbies you enjoy like camping or tennis.
  • Creativity, in whatever form that takes for you — taking up some sort of art, making something by hand, and so on.
  • Constantly seeking to learn new things and keep your mind engaged.

If you don’t have family nearby, consider how you can engage more in your local community, make new friends, and maintain existing relationships with neighbors or coworkers.

You could also consider a move as part of your retirement planning so you can be closer to those you want to have good relationships with as you age.

Play and creativity may be easier to weave into your retirement plan, as these are fun and rewarding activities. The key is to be intentional and make them part of your plan — don’t just assume you’ll naturally fall into something that satisfies these needs.

Retirement planning needs to cover the financial stuff. But you can plan for your actual retirement lifestyle, too. Make sure you give yourself a reason to get up, move around, and interact with other people every single day.  

You’ll Enjoy Financial Benefits When You Switch Your Retirement Mindset, Too

When you consider alternatives to the traditional retirement that include possibilities like working part-time, putting your expertise to work as a consultant, or even starting your own business, you also make retirement planning considerably easier.

For one, you’ll enjoy all the benefits outlined above. Your physical and mental wealth will likely be better than if you kicked back and did nothing at all.

That, in turn, benefits your financial health. Healthcare is the biggest expense for most people in retirement. If you can maintain your health for as long as possible, you’ll likely pay less in medical costs down the road.

Plus, creating some form of income stream beyond just your retirement savings nest egg means you alleviate some financial pressure. If you continue to work — even if it’s just part-time — you’ll earn some amount of income.

That means you don’t need to rely 100 percent on what you saved during your working years to last you through 20 or 30 years’ worth of retirement.

Are You Planning for an Active, Robust Retirement?

Of course, kicking back and relaxing should be part of retirement. But it shouldn’t be the only thing you do in your life after work.

“Retirement” today could simply mean the day you no longer need to depend on a full-time job that provides you with a specific number on your paycheck.

It’s the day when you’re free to explore your hobbies, pick up a part-time job doing something you really love, or volunteer with an organization you’re passionate about.

This could be your chance to start a second act as a freelancer or consultant. You could start your own business — or even learn a completely new set of skills that allow you to start an encore career (with more flexibility and a lighter schedule than your previous job, of course).

Retirement shouldn’t mean you retreat from life. Find ways to stay active, engaged, and productive.

You’ll be happier as a result — and as a bonus, you could make it even easier to fund the retirement you want since you won’t be sitting around, twiddling your thumbs and hoping your savings alone will be enough to fund your retirement lifestyle.

Should You Rent or Buy a Home?

Photo courtesy of Simon Kellogg @ Flickr

Owning a home is a quintessential part of the American Dream. It’s what you do once you secure a stable career, get married, and settle down.

Right?

That might have been something that felt written in stone in the past. In our culture, homeownership became one of the boxes you felt obligated to check on the “should do” list.

You should go to college and earn your degree to get a better job. You should get married to the right person before settling down and having kids. And you should buy a home as soon as you can afford to quit renting.

The thing is, your life is unique. So are your goals, needs, challenges, and opportunities. What society says you should do is not always the best option for you (or your personal financial situation).

Today, more and more people are realizing that what society says they should do does not necessarily align with the life they want to live. The question is no longer about when you should buy.

It’s whether you need to buy a house at all.

“Rent or Buy” Is the First Question to Ask — But Not the Last

You may have grown up hearing that “it’s always better to buy than rent,” or, even better, “you’re throwing your money away if you rent.”

Neither of these statements is true in all cases. That’s where the question can become a debate that you need to have with yourself if you’re considering renting or buying.

There’s no one right answer to the question, “should you rent or buy?” It all depends on a number of factors — as well as your personal preferences and what your financial situation looks like.

So if you find yourself asking if you should rent or buy a home, here are the other questions to consider before you can come up with the right answer for you.

In Financial Terms, Which Option Is Objectively Better?

You can start by looking at the numbers and facts to see, from a completely objective standpoint, if renting or buying makes more sense for you.

The New York Times has an excellent calculator that you can use to determine which is best for you. It will provide you an answer based on your location, which is important. The best financial option largely depends on the market you live in.

Check out the calculator here and plug in your own numbers to see if renting or buying provides you with the better financial deal.

This will give you a baseline on which makes the most sense, financially speaking. But you don’t necessarily need to stick with what the numbers say.

(Of course, if the result is it’s much more financially sensible to rent, you may want to stick with that for a little longer and take all the money you’re saving by doing so and invest it to grow your wealth.)

After all, buying a home is rarely ever a logical decision. It’s an emotional one. Which is why what you want does matter in this decision.

What Do You Actually Want?

You likely have a preference for renting or buying. What do you truly want for your life?

If you prefer the ease of renting, want the ability to move when you want to, or need to outsource a large part of the responsibility of maintaining a property to your landlord, renting might be the best option for you.

In fact, it could be the financially responsible choice to make if you need to prioritize other saving and investing goals (like financial independence) or if your career is such that you either A. travel often and don’t spend much time at home anyway or B. might leave you in a position where you need to move to a different city or even state within the next 5 years.

There is nothing wrong with renting, especially if you prefer it and don’t feel ready to buy now. The worst thing you can do is feel pressured into a huge financial decision based on what you think you “should” do.

Determine If Renting or Buying Is Better for You

It’s better to rent for now if:

  • It’s cheaper than buying or your budget can’t handle a monthly mortgage payment
  • You’re not prepared to commit to staying in the same town, city, or state for at least the next 5 years
  • Your cash flow can’t handle the regular maintenance and repairs homes require
  • There are no homes on the market in your price range

On the other hand, if you want a place of your own, are willing to put in the work required, and feel you can handle the responsibility — both financial and otherwise — that comes with homeownership, it might be time to start saving for a down payment.

If you’re set on owning, it could make sense if:

  • The cost of owning a home would not jeopardize other financial priorities, like retirement savings
  • You don’t have to empty out your entire savings account to afford the down payment
  • Renting is genuinely more costly than getting a mortgage in your area
  • Your income is stable and you expect to stay in the same location for at least the next 5 years
  • You’re eager to own and willing to accept the responsibility inherent in maintaining a property

Again, buying a house (or choosing not to) can be a highly emotional decision. That makes it even more important to talk through this issue with an objective third-party who isn’t emotionally invested in the outcome.

A fee-only financial planner working as your fiduciary can help you lay out the options and evaluate them from every angle to determine the best path forward for you and your family. A planner can help you look at what you truly want and then map out action steps that will take you there.