Don’t Let Identity Theft Ruin the Holidays

As you gear up for the busiest shopping time of the year, managing your money involves more than just setting and sticking to a budget. 

Thieves, knowing that the holidays make us distracted shoppers, are just waiting for you to make the slightest slip-up that allows them to access your finances. That explains the 22 percent spike in holiday ID theft from 2016 to 2017.

Couple this with the fact that 53 percent of all holiday shopping now happens online (a hacker’s paradise!) and the odds are pretty good that even the wisest of us might make our wallets a little more vulnerable this time of year. 

So take a break from raking leaves, grab a turkey leg, or settle in with some pumpkin pie and let’s dig into steps we can take to spend safely this holiday season. 

Be Vigilant Online

An Experian survey of those who experienced holiday identity theft indicated that 43 percent of the theft occurred while online shopping. Specifically, 16 percent of that theft occurred on Cyber Monday. 

Clearly, this is the season for cybercrime. 

Most of us are probably familiar with basic online shopping tips, but being SUPER vigilant this time of year means taking it up a notch:

  • Type in the web address instead of clicking on a link 
  • Only make purchases on sites that are secure, like those that have “https” in the URL or that have an icon of a lock before the URL  
  • Don’t conduct business over public Wi-Fi, including signing in to any sites or apps
  • Be wary of inbox deals that seem too good to be true; they probably are, and they are probably phishing scams

These may seem like common sense tips, but our stressed-out, holiday-frazzled brains sometimes take shortcuts during this busy time of year. Stay alert and trust your gut. 

Maintain Your Personal Space and Info

If you brave an actual shopping trip out into the throngs of frenzied consumerism, beware of those that are keeping a close eye on your transactions. These people stand just a little too close, trying to see your PIN as you type it into the keypad. 

Or they are overly interested in whatever item is on display next to the area where you are applying for that new store credit card or club membership. They like to lurk around ATMs.

If you feel someone is standing too close, ask him or her for space. This will let them know you are aware of them and their actions, and they will move on to someone less suspecting. 

If you must use an ATM, keep your head on a swivel and shield the keypad. Ask a friend to keep watch, if you can. 

If you can avoid it, never say personal information aloud. If a cashier must have your info for a membership or marketing program, or you are signing up for new credit, try to use the text function on your phone to show the information and then quickly erase it. And of course, carefully guard the screen!

Use Those Credit Cards

For so many reasons, credit cards are the way to go when it comes to lessening the sting of identity theft. Credit cards offer better fraud protection, including reduced liability for you, generally limited to $50. You also avoid having your personal funds drained and the potential wait to get that money back (if you can).

 Of course, using a debit card also comes with that whole PIN entry dilemma we just covered. Both credit cards and debit cards are still exposed to the threat of skimmers, which are devices that thieves attach to card readers so they can copy and duplicate your card information, but credit cards offer more time to report a theft and you don’t have to worry about going weeks without funds and potential overdrafts to your account. 

Bottom line: leave the debit card at home, use credit, and check for skimmers. 

An Ounce of Prevention

The easiest way to combat identity theft is proactively taking steps to prevent it in the first place. 

Luckily, many banks and credit cards offer tools to monitor your accounts and alert you to any potentially fraudulent activities. Take advantage of these resources to provide an extra layer of security. 

Also, keep an eye on your monthly statements or log in to your online accounts weekly or daily (from a secured Wi-Fi connection, of course). Actively managing your accounts will help you catch identity theft as it happens, and may even help you keep on top of your holiday budget.

You can take prevention a step further by asking the credit bureaus to put a freeze on your credit. This blocks thieves from opening new accounts in your name, regardless of whatever personal information they may possess. 

If It Happens…

Your first steps should be to contact your creditors and the credit bureaus to alert them to the fraud and stop it from progressing. You will most likely need to freeze your credit and place a fraud alert on your accounts. 

The Federal Trade Commission offers a consumer-friendly site to walk you through a checklist of fraud recovery, including how to address specific types of fraud and identity theft. 

Finally, if you have a financial advisor or planner, talk to her or him about identity theft. They can help you put preventative measures in place, as well as create a plan of action in case it should ever happen to you.

Happy shopping!

What Women and Men Get Right about Investing

Yes, I know that with this loaded topic, the potential exists for this article to quite easily go off the rails. This could become yet another article about Mars vs Venus. Another opportunity to perpetuate stereotypes about bringing home the bacon vs buying yet another pair of shoes. One more piece that paints women as financially inept and men as financially savvy.

That’s why I’m going to take a different approach here. Instead of pitting men against women or making one group of investors out to be better than the other, I want to highlight what it is that both women and men do well when it comes to money. Specifically, when it comes to investing.   

Women Invest Wisely

First, it’s important to point out one significant fact that may or may not surprise you: women are better investors. It’s true. 

Several recent studies have shown that women who invest outperform men: 

  • A 2017 Fidelity study showed that women perform better than men by 0.4 percent. While this may seem negligible, the increase can compound over time to create a significant return.
  • A 2018 Warwick Business School study showed even better stats: women outperformed men by 1.8 percent. That’s a 0.6 percent increase over their 2016 study. 

And that’s not to mention that women are better savers, putting aside 9 percent of their paychecks while male counterparts are saving 8.6 percent of their paycheck. 

Yet, despite this positive performance in the market, women self-report a surprising lack of financial confidence. Only 47 percent of women rate their financial understanding as good or very good. Of those women who do invest, only 43 percent of them were confident about those investments. 

Nevertheless, trends among female investors show a number of factors that contribute to their increased performance: 

  1. Women are wary of risk. Almost half of women (48 percent) worry about taking on too much risk. The result is that women tend to seek balanced portfolios that minimize risk via asset allocation, producing more steady results over time. 
  2. Women are patient. When the stock market is volatile, women simply remain calm and focus on long-term returns. Think tortoise vs hare, with women adopting a slow and steady strategy to win the race. 
  3. Women seek guidance. Women are more likely to ask for help when they’re ready to invest. Seeking professional advice can help align long-term goals with well-informed investing strategies, rather than just making “hot picks.”

Men Invest Confidently

While women may be better at investing, men approach investing with less trepidation and more gusto. The result is more men taking greater advantage of the financial gains via investing. 

A litany of research exists to show just how prolific men are when it comes to investing: 

  • Men invest 60 percent more money than women do.
  • Men hold only 60 percent of their assets in cash while women hold 71 percent in cash.
  • Men overwhelmingly (53 percent) choose the most aggressive investment plan, compared to just 38 percent of women.
  • When asked what they would do with an extra $1,000, men were 35 percent more likely than women to put that money into investments.

So how do men come by this seemingly natural level of confidence? Well, there’s a lot we can say for how we socialize kids regarding money. A recent PNC survey among Millennials indicates that having the money talk with boys tends to focus on how to build wealth. 37 percent of males said their financial education included wealth-building while only  29 percent of females said the same. Girls were more likely to be told to focus on savings (67 percent of females vs 58 percent of males). 

It seems that men are getting the investment message loud and clear from the time they are young. No wonder they tend to embrace risk, manage their own investments, and engage in active trading. 

What Can We Learn From Each Other

Well, it’s pretty simple really: women should take a confidence cue from men, while men should mirror women’s more measured approach to investing. But how do we make progress in bringing these mindsets closer together?

First, we can start by educating both boys AND girls about wealth-building. It’s outdated to think that personal finance for women revolves around household management, or that men are solely responsible for being the breadwinner. Let’s have balanced discussions that stress the importance of holistic money management with all kids.

Second, we can work together with professionals that consider these gender differences as part of the advising process. As women investors increasingly become an area of focus for finance professionals, more advising firms are taking a female-centric approach to working with clients. 

For male investors, adding a female advisor to your team can provide a different perspective to balance your strategy. 

Finally, being cognizant of these differences and learning to appreciate our individual strengths can move us closer to embodying those positive financial behaviors of the opposite sex. 

Becoming a better investor should include learning from anyone with a proven track record, regardless of gender. Shifting our mindset to look at these differences in terms of successful outcomes instead of uniquely male or female traits can help bridge this gap.

Making Smart Money Moves for School

Planning for College

Ah, September. After the dog days of summer, this is the month where we can finally enjoy some cooler weather, all things pumpkin, football, and maybe even a cozy sweater or two. And if you’re a parent, you are either counting down the days or already basking in, what is really the most wonderful time of the year: back-to-school time. 

It’s fitting, then, that this month we take a look at what it takes to get your kids to and through school —  and we’re not just talking college! Let’s face it, K-12 can be costly, too, at both the public and private level. Luckily, there are two savings plans that help you plan and save for both your immediate secondary school costs, as well as your future college costs.  

Coverdell

Let’s start with the Coverdell Education Savings Account. This investment account allows you save up to $2,000 annually in after-tax contributions until the beneficiary turns 18. Earnings are tax-free and so are withdrawals, if they are used for qualified education expenses

This a self-directed plan, giving you the flexibility to invest in what you’d like. Parents, grandparents and other family members may contribute in the child’s name. However, it does come with limitations on who can contribute, based on income: if your AGI is more than $190,000 for joint returns or $95,000 for single filers, this is not available to you. 

For Use In: K-12 and College 

Qualified Expenses: Books and supplies, tutoring, computers/laptops, transportation, special needs services, uniforms, private school tuition, college tuition, and room and board. 

Other Things You Should Know: The balance must be spent by the time the beneficiary is age 30. However, you may transfer the balance to another beneficiary or roll it into a 529. 

529 Plan

The 529 plan is administered at the state level and also offers tax-free earnings and withdrawals for qualified education expenses. Think of 529 plans and ESAs as Roth IRAs that are pinpointed for education.

Previously used only for post-secondary costs, the 529 plan was updated in 2018 to allow for an annual withdrawal of $10,000 per year for K-12 tuition. Take note of that: unlike the Coverdell, the 529 can be used only for tuition at the K-12 level. 

The 529 also differs from the Coverdell in that there is no contribution cap. However, $15,000 annually is a good number to shoot for, since that is the maximum allowance under the gift tax exclusion. There is also no income limit for contributors.

With this plan, your investment selections are limited to what your state provides. Thus, you may choose to use another state’s 529 plan (yes, you can do that!). Your state may try to keep you local, however, by offering an income tax deduction for your 529 contributions. Check state-by-state deductions here

For Use In: K-12 (private school tuition only) and College 

Qualified Expenses: Books and supplies, computers/laptops, private school tuition, college tuition, and room and board. 

Other Things You Should Know: Should your child not go to college or you have excess funds, you can still use the 529 balance for non-education expenses. However, you will be assessed a 10% penalty and pay taxes on the earnings (and may have to repay any state tax breaks). 

The 529 is also transferable to other beneficiaries for education expenses, including siblings, grandkids, or even yourself. Or you can let the account stand and apply it toward graduate school. Worst case your grandchildren could inherit them!

Tax Credits

In addition to these savings plans, don’t forget to look into any state or federal tax credits for which you may qualify. 

State Programs

For secondary school costs, there are some states that allow for credits or deductions on qualified expenses. Depending on the state, that can include private school tuition or out-of-pocket costs for special needs students. You can view all state programs here

American Opportunity Credit

At the post-secondary level, you or your student can take advantage of the American Opportunity Credit for most undergraduate college costs (except transportation or living expenses). You may claim 100% of the first $2,000 spent on qualifying expenses, and 25% of the next $2,000 for a total credit of $2,500. 

Parents will get the credit as long as the student is claimed as a dependent, with some limits based on modified AGI. The credit can be claimed for a maximum of four years. 

Lifetime Learning Credit

A little more flexibility is available with the Lifetime Learning Credit, including the ability to claim books or supplies, and the inclusion of graduate, vocational, and non-degree students. There is also no time limit on how many years you may claim the credit. 

The maximum amount you may claim is $2,000, or 20% of up to $10,000 in qualifying costs. Like the American Opportunity Credit, there are also income limits based on modified AGI. 

Ask an Expert

Just like we encourage our kids to seek help from a trusted expert, I encourage you to sit down with a financial advisor to make sure you’ve explored every option to make the most of your school savings plan. As programs and plans vary among states, your advisor can keep you posted on the plans, credits, or deductions that will allow you to maximize your money – now that’s a smart move!

Thinking of buying a boat? Read this first

June brings the official start of summer and with it, all the activities we associate with warm weather and good times: grilling, swimming, fireworks, and boating.

If you love the water and have been dreaming of buying your own boat for some time, you may currently be in the throes of boat buying fever. But is it worth it to make that plunge? After all, we’ve all heard the saying that the best days of a boat owner’s life are the day they buy AND the day they sell.

Before you commit to boat ownership or go buy a captain’s hat, let’s weigh the good and bad together.

The Good

Freedom

When it’s your boat, you can decide when you want to head out on the water, for how long, and where you want to go. If you have ever tried renting a boat or using a charter, you know that those decisions may not always be in your control (ever try to book a charter for a weekend during Red Snapper season? Ugh!).

Family Memories

Spent summers on a boat as a kid? You know how much joy and how many good memories come from family time on the water. That’s why many boat owners choose to use their boat as a vacation getaway.

When compared to the costs of a family trip, it’s not hard to see how a boat might pay for itself in terms of sharing that time together and enjoying a vacay on the water. Think of it as an investment in your family’s happiness.

Fulfilling a Dream

Even though a boat isn’t a “necessary” purchase, it can add value to your life. Being able to spend on the items that matter to you is part of living life. Once the cost of ownership is determined, you may decide the cost of fulfilling your dream is worth it. It can be a great way to spend your time and give you joy.

Boats are fun purchases that can be planned for and fit into your life plan. If you’ve always dreamed of owning a boat, do your research to determine what the true cost is and determine if the cost is worth the reward.  

The Bad

The Cost

The main problem with buying boats is just like cars, you know exactly which way their value will go once you drive away- DOWN! Whenever you are about to purchase a depreciating asset that has high maintenance costs, BEWARE, things are going to be expensive! I mean, there’s a reason they say that BOAT stands for “Break Out Another Thousand.”

  • Rapid Depreciation (expect 25-40 % in the 1st two years)
  • Registration and insurance
  • Trailer maintenance
  • Towing and storage
  • Slip fees and fuel costs
  • Repairs and maintenance

These are just a few of the many additional costs that can add up and drive up the costs of owning your boat. Be sure you understand all the costs you may incur over time, and whether you can truly afford the ongoing maintenance and upkeep.

The Work

Speaking of maintenance and upkeep, you’ll need to put in some serious elbow grease to properly care for your boat and ensure years of continued use and enjoyment.

Besides the large tasks of winterizing and de-winterizing your boat, you’ll need to flush the engine every time you take the boat out, keep an eye on the oil and potentially change it after every 50-100 hours on the water, clean, clean, CLEAN thoroughly to prevent mold and mildew, treat and repair upholstery, wax, check and clean the batteries… you get the idea.

If you don’t want to spend the considerable time it takes to properly maintain your boat, you’ll simply be throwing your money away.

Unrealistic Expectations

Have you or anyone you’ve known ever spent a lot of money on gym memberships or workout equipment, convinced that it would ensure a commitment to regular exercise, only to see that membership card at the bottom of a drawer or the equipment covered in dust?

Yeah. It happens to the best of us. Unrealistic expectations can cause us to spend money on things we plan to do, with the results sometimes coming up far short of what we envisioned.

The same can be true of what you expect to gain out of boat ownership. You may have grand visions of spending every weekend out on the water, surrounded by friends and family. But the reality may be far different:

  • The weather may not always cooperate
  • Family schedules may dictate other weekend plans, especially with graduations, weddings, holidays and other summertime activities
  • If you don’t live close to a body of water, it can add another level of difficulty in making time to get out on the boat
  • Again, think of the maintenance and upkeep you’ll need to do which will also take away from actual time spent on the water

Having a clear understanding of how much you will truly be able to use your boat may uncover how realistic it is to buy one.

I am a card-carrying boat-a-holic, but the reality is, you may wind up saving yourself some time and money by using professional charter guides or simply renting a boat. And who knows, you might even catch more fish! Check sites like Airbnb, Boatsetter or Louisiana Fishing Guides.

As with any large purchase, do your homework and carefully consider the pros and cons I’ve listed here to arrive at an informed decision. Your financial advisor can also help you run the numbers to ensure you’re not biting off more than your wallet and lifestyle can chew.

Here’s to a great summer!

Gifting Graduates with Financial Wellbeing

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Pomp and circumstance. Caps and gowns. Weekend celebrations full of laughs, maybe a few tears, and plenty of cake. Yes, graduation season is officially upon us.

Whether your graduate is leaving high school and planning for college, or your grad is finally earning that college degree and preparing for post-grad life, you undoubtedly want to acknowledge their hard work with a meaningful gift. And what could be more meaningful than setting them on the path of financial wellness?

In the time-honored tradition of the sage commencement speech, I offer these words of advice to pass on to your graduate in the hopes of fostering healthy financial choices. Although this advice doesn’t offer the immediate gratification of a card full of cash, trust that these well-timed words can offer a greater ROI than any material item left on the gift table.

High School Grads

Academics and Finances Go Hand-in-hand

We send high school kids off to college without explaining that what happens in class has a major impact on college expenses. For instance, how much extra debt is incurred when students decide to drop a class two weeks into the semester? Or when a college sophomore decides to switch majors and has to essentially start over? What about those who don’t take a full course load and end up staying in school for five, six, or even more years?

Talk to your high school student about doing the research now to ensure they understand drop policies, what’s required of their major (including starting salary and where they may have to move to find a job in that field), and what’s required in order to graduate on time.

College Affordability

If your high school grad has her/his heart set on a pricey college, but the costs have you concerned, there are a few options to consider:

  • Take general education and prerequisite courses at a cheaper school, like a community college, before transferring to that pricey school. Bonus savings if your student chooses local and can save on room and board by staying at home. *Just be sure to work with both schools to ensure that credits will transfer.*
  • Research your occupational choice before deciding on your school. With a quick peek at the Bureau of Labor website, you can get a feel for the amount of time it will take to pay off your student loans. Don’t spend $200k on college for a $25k/yr career!
  • More expensive schools often have larger endowments to provide scholarships and other aid. Don’t be scared away by the price tag; explore all the options and you may be pleasantly surprised by what you can afford.
  • Scholarship options are not just for incoming freshmen. There are many scholarships available for students beyond the first year, including those just for upper-level students or those in select majors. Keep looking and applying with free sites like Fastweb.

Just Because You Can Doesn’t Mean You Should

If your high school grad will be borrowing federal loans, make sure they understand a few rules of thumb:

  • It’s not free money. It must be paid back. Monitor your borrowing as you progress through school so you avoid the sticker shock of eventual repayment.   
  • You may receive more federal aid than you actually need in the form of a “refund check.”  It’s not a refund. It’s loan money that must be paid back. Just because you can use the money however you want doesn’t mean you necessarily should. You’ll just be robbing your future self by increasing your loan amounts. Return the money or adjust the number of loans you accept up front.
  • If you have unsubsidized federal loans, that means interest is building on those loans from day one. When you eventually start repaying those loans, all that interest will be tacked on to your total loan amount – and you will then get charged interest on that new amount. It’s called capitalization.

You can lessen the sting of capitalization by paying the monthly interest on these loans while in school or during your grace period.

College Grads

Prepare Now for Loan Repayment

Repaying student loans may start immediately for those with private loans, or it may start in six months for those with federal loans. You may have just one lender to pay, or you may have several. And for federal loans, you may have up to eight repayment plans to choose from. Clearly, there are a lot of options and choices to make now to ensure you get and stay on track. Here’s how to get started:

  • Update your contact information with all loan servicers to ensure you don’t miss any critical communication. This is very important as you move or change phone numbers after graduation.
  • Complete federal loan Exit Counseling as a great way to understand your federal loan repayment options and sign up for the plan that is right for you.

Start Saving Early

 It may seem hard to save when you’re starting your career, but it can make a world of difference in being able to weather financial setbacks or plan for a comfortable retirement. Consider this: When you start saving outweighs how much you save! A 25-year-old who invests $5,000 a year for just ten years will earn more than a 35-year-old who invests the same amount every year for 30 years. Compound interest favors the young.  

Saving can be made easier with a few tips:

  • Budget. No, it’s not always fun. But the clarity helps you align your money and your values. If saving is important to you, a budget will be your guide to make it happen.
  • Create an emergency fund for the unplanned stuff that will happen. Cars breakdown, people get sick, jobs fall through. If you have an emergency fund, you can lessen the blow from these costly events so you’re not financially crippled.
  • Participate in your employer’s 401(k); if they offer a match, max that out. If you don’t, you’re just leaving money on the table. You employer could pay your future tax bill for you! Also, if you leave that job, don’t cash out! Rollover your 401(k) into a new plan instead.
  • Don’t use credit cards for loans. Carrying a credit card balance is one of the most expensive ways to borrow money and should be avoided at all costs. This is the place where most money problems start. Anytime you use a loan to buy assets, you reduce your future purchasing power. Your money can’t work for you in this situation. There are costs to using future money (interest, fees, opportunity cost). Simple rule- If you can’t pay it off at the end of the month, then that is the clue that you are probably spending outside of your means.

Avoid Lifestyle Creep

As your career advances and you find yourself earning more, it can be tempting to upgrade: better clothes, a fancier car, a larger apartment or home, and expensive vacations. This is lifestyle creep and while it may initially feel like freedom to do what you want, it can actually keep you held hostage in maintaining a lifestyle you can’t afford.

Here’s what you do to avoid lifestyle inflation:

  • Plan for fun spending and keep an account just for that. Work it into your budget so you’re making regular contributions to your fun account, allowing you to enjoy both planned purchases and spontaneous splurges.
  • Keep your eye on the bigger prize by prioritizing your goals. If you know you need to invest $XX a month to retire at 55, or need to save $XX for your child’s college fund, you’ll be less tempted to spend on unnecessary wants when your goals are clear and defined.
  • Evaluate your inner circle for those who support or sabotage your financial plans. If Friend A likes a high-priced night on the town, while Friend B would be happy with a potluck and game night, you may want to surround yourself with more folks like Friend B. FOMO isn’t only a mental strain, it gets expensive too!

For the Class of 2019, and to you, their friends and family, I wish you all the best of luck in your future endeavors. May the gift of financial health be one that we continue to share and pass down, for that is the gift that keeps on giving.  

Are Two Heads Always Better Than One?

If you’ve ever had a roommate and/or been married, you know how hard it can be for two people to work together for what is (hopefully) a mutually beneficial goal. Whether it’s to save money on rent, or simply because you love and want to build a life with someone, we enter into these interpersonal arrangements with the best of intentions to compromise with and respect our partner to achieve the best possible outcome.

Yet, based on the estimated 50% divorce rate in America, those intentions clearly don’t always pan out.

Why, then, do we think that a business partnership would be any different?

When you think about it, business partnerships take the same level of commitment and compromise to work as marriage or living together. And yet almost 70% of them face a similar fate of failure. I believe that this ultimate failure – like any relationship – can be due in large part to not asking the right questions.

So aside from analyzing the common pros and cons of forming a partnership, I recommend also asking yourself a series of questions that will help you determine what both you AND your potential partner can do to address hot button topics upfront and set realistic expectations for a balanced relationship.

First, let’s take a look at the essential pros and cons of a business partnership.

PROS

  • Your partner has skills, knowledge, connections or other beneficial offerings that you do not.
  • You don’t have to go it alone. Having someone to weather the storm of starting a new business can provide confidence and camaraderie.
  • The workload is divided, thus it’s easier to accomplish more.
  • Creativity or innovation can be sparked by having another perspective / sounding board.

CONS

  • Joint decision-making can be long and tedious, it will lead to disagreements and possible resentment, and it can ruin relationships.
  • You have to share profits or stock, and this can get ugly when you have to jointly decide how to spend or reinvest to grow the business.
  • Work ethic and responsibility are subjective. Again, a recipe for resentment.
  • You may be liable for your partner’s actions or activities.

Now, here are the questions you can ask to determine whether a partnership is right for you.


1. Are you a team player?

There’s nothing wrong in admitting you prefer to work alone. In fact, it’s very common for entrepreneurs to have lone-wolf tendencies.

However, overlooking this self-evaluation will lead to major problems down the road, when you resent not being able to make decisions on your own. If both you and your partner lack the ability to be a team player, your power struggle will undermine and eventually destroy any goodwill you may have.

Be honest about where you fall on the self-sufficiency scale and ask your potential partner to do the same.

Also, don’t forget to consider the most obvious question: do you even need a partner? Unless you have to bring someone on board for financial capital or for the skills they possess that are not easily acquirable, chances are you can do this on your own.


2. Can you accept differences among skills and roles?

Ideally, the division of labor will be divvied up into ways that play up your unique skillsets. For instance, one of you may handle clients, while the other handles the books. This division is one of the reasons people choose partnerships: to each bring your complementary skills together in a yin yang balancing act.

But what happens when that division leaves one partner feeling like they are working harder or more hours? Or not getting their due recognition? Or more passionate then the other? Or any other myriad way that feelings of inequality can rear their ugly head?  

What once seemed like a complementary style may now seem like a partner with differing levels of passion, drive, or working hours than you.

Can you recognize contributions that may look different on the surface, but bring equal value to the table? Or what will you do if there is genuinely an uneven distribution of work?


3. Do you have similar values and have you set clear expectations?

Choosing a partner should be like a job interview: you should be looking for the “best fit” candidate that shares your values and vision for the business. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement having a great idea or great chemistry together and forgetting to perform this exercise in due diligence (ask anyone who’s ever started a friend or family partnership – and failed).

Having this pointed and deliberate conversation can help identify the right partner and set clear expectations from the outset.

Ask your potential partner interview-like questions to help guide both of you toward a more grounded, realistic approach to how your business will run:

  • How do you handle adversity?
  • Where do you see yourself in five years? In ten?
  • How comfortable are you with risk?
  • Tell me about how you motivate yourself.
  • Can I contact your previous business associates?

Bottom Line

Business partnerships, just like any other partnership, rely on carefully selecting the right partner that will bring balance and value to the table…and then is continuously committed to working hard every day to meet shared visions and expectations.

Choosing to form a partnership may not be the best decision for everyone or for every situation, but it can be very beneficial if entered into for the right reasons and with a realistic understanding of both the positive gains and negative drawbacks.

If you decide to go down this path, it will be essential to build an operating agreement. Legal and financial professionals can help to set up protections for all parties involved, through good times and bad. Again, just like any relationship, the goal should be for all partners to do well and, if and when it’s time to part ways, for an amicable split that ends with dignity and respect.

The Funny Month of February: Love and Money

Ah, February. With only 28 days, this short little month manages to pack quite a wallop, from wacky weather to omniscient groundhogs, to Super Bowl hype, to Mardi Gras, to the wrap up of a glitzy Hollywood award season.

Our general mood seems to shift with this month, too, as the practical and the romantic converge to realign our focus to a few key February agendas:

  • taking stock and organizing, as a byproduct of lingering New Year’s resolutions, being stuck inside, and current Marie Kondo mania;
  • money, thanks to those freshly delivered W2s and the commencement of tax season;
  • and love and relationships, as Valentine’s Day serves as our annual reminder to ply our loved ones with cards, candy, and gifts.

Because of this unique convergence of organization, money, and love, the brief month of February can serve as the perfect catalyst to get on the same financial page with your spouse or partner.

In other words, make February the time you have “the talk.”

Whether newly coupled, further along the path, or with the golden years right around the corner, reviewing your plans for combined finances and retirement can ensure you are both taking the right steps to get to where you want to be together.

Here’s how to get started.

Common Ground

The 2018 Fidelity Couples and Money Study shows just how out of sync most couples are when it comes to shared financial planning:

  • 46% cite money as the biggest challenge in their relationship
  • 67% argue over money
  • Over 40% of couples do not agree on when they will retire
  • 54% don’t agree on how much they need for retirement savings; 49% have “no idea” what that number might be

Clearly, we seem to be acting as single people within the context of our shared finances.  Only by gaining insight into our partner’s resources and goals can we begin to remove the fear and anxiety around money and replace it with shared purpose and strength.

It starts with establishing a common ground in which you are both completely honest about short and long term issues:

  • Current financial debts and obligations
  • Current methods of budgeting and saving
  • Shared goals for short term savings (think vacations, cars, home improvements)
  • Shared goals for long term savings

This last category will be very broad and should include the big questions like where you want to live in your later years, what you want to accomplish in retirement, any known health issues or how you can plan for the unknown ones, at what age you want to retire, how much you want to dote on the kids or grandkids, and so on.

The key to this discussion is to be frank and open about your dreams and expectations, and how you can work together to make both of you happy.

Be thorough, but don’t make it painful. Stretch it out over a few nights, maybe with your favorite takeout, or the promise of watching your favorite show together once you’ve covered X, Y, and Z.

RESOURCE: Fidelity’s Couples and Money Starter Guide

Take Action

With a new perspective on where you both are coming from and where you want to eventually be, now is the time to lay out a plan for the next year. What steps can you take in the next twelve months to get you closer to those shared goals?

Months 1-3

If you haven’t budgeted together before, now’s the time to do so. Otherwise, you’ll each be making decisions in a vacuum, never knowing if or how you are contributing to the future.

If you have been co-budgeting, try recalibrating and seeing how you can cut back, rearrange, or prioritize in ways that positively impact your goals.

RESOURCE: Best Budgeting Apps for Couples

Months 4-8

Get your affairs in order. Take these months to review all the paperwork: insurance policies, account statements, wills, and trusts, etc. Work with a professional if you have to in order to create a solid plan for your assets.

This exercise will serve double-duty, not only tackling these important topics but helping to identify which one (or both!) of you need help in better understanding these topics.

Part of caring for your partner is caring enough to give them the information and resources to be financially empowered in the event they will have to manage finances on their own.

RESOURCE: Estate planning for unmarried and married couples.

Months 9-12

Take advantage of end-of-year incentives to better align and maximize your goals:

  • If you get a holiday bonus or tax refund, use that money to max out retirement account contributions, beef up your emergency fund, or build college savings plans.
  • If you itemize, now’s the time for charitable giving.
  • Most companies offer open enrollment toward the end of the year, usually in October. Analyze your benefit utilization to determine if your enrollments are appropriate, or if you could make better use of the options available to you.
  • If you’ve got FSA money to spend, now’s the time to schedule a physical, get new glasses, order the screenings, dental issues etc. Remember that physical wellness is a component of overall financial wellness.

This twelve-month plan will prepare you well to meet again next February, maybe over a romantic Valentine’s Day dinner, to review how far you’ve come, and plan once again for the year ahead.

RESOURCE: Year-end Money Moves

Know When You Need Help

If managing shared finances were as easy as all this, then money wouldn’t be the primary cause of stress for almost half of all couples.

Navigating “the talk” can be challenging even for the most simpatico of couples. You should expect to hit some bumps along the way, and maybe even face what appear to be absolute stalemates as you try to establish your joint plan.

This is where a certified financial planner can help. We can provide an objective third party perspective, guide you with expert advice, and suggest solutions that will be in the best interest of both of you and your future plans together.

Including a professional advisor in your financial planning may be just what you need to ensure that you and your partner remain happily on track for many Valentine’s Days(and Mardi Gras) to come.

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.

 

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.

How Much Is Too Much College Debt?

CREDIT-Jannis-Tobias-Werner-Shutterstock.com

 

Over 44 million Americans walked away from their time in higher education with some amount of college debt. The total amount of student loan debt collectively carried by college students and grads today is $1.45 trillion, and the average 20-something-year-old borrower pays $350 per month on their loans.

 

There’s no question about it: student loan debt is a serious financial burden for many students, parents, and newly-minted grads.

 

Whether you’re considering college costs for a family member or want to go back to school yourself, you likely want to avoid dealing with student loan debt thanks to statistics like this and harrowing news items that detail individuals who are struggling to handle their tens of thousands — or even hundreds of thousands — of dollars’ worth in college debt.

 

But debt isn’t inherently bad. In fact, student loans can be useful tools to use as leverage. The real question is how much is too much college debt, and when does it shift from useful tool to financial anchor holding you back?

 

Using Student Loans as Productive Financial Tools

 

There’s a lot of fear and uncertainty around student loans. But this kind of debt can actually be useful to you or your student. Here are some reasons why:

 

Student loans allow you to leverage your cash flow. Instead of shelling out for the cost of college in cash — and potentially leaving you vulnerable to other unexpected expenses and emergencies — student loans allow you to gradually pay for college over time in a way that doesn’t stress your liquidity as much.

 

You can pay down debt and continue saving. In addition to not needing to drain your savings accounts, the fact that you can pay back student loans over time allows you to balance that responsibility with the responsibility you have to yourself to save for the future.

 

Student loans can help students build their own credit. If your teenager is headed off to college, taking out a loan can help them build their own credit (which they’ll need as adults in the real world). This is a less risky way to help them than providing them with a credit card, which can be hard to manage and far more costly if they fail to make payments thanks to dramatically higher interest rates.

Still, Debt Is Debt

 

If you’re reading this and thinking you now have the green light to take out all the student loans you want, think again. At the end of the day, debt is debt. And it costs you money to borrow and finance an education.

 

It might make more sense to avoid student loans altogether if you have the financial means to do so (or your student can help pay their own way, so you’re not on the hook for the entire cost).

 

But what if you are….

 

  • Considering emptying your savings accounts to cover college costs
  • Not saving for retirement so that you can save for college instead
  • Able to pay for college out of pocket through your cash flow, but just barely

 

If you find yourself in these situations, student loans can be a reasonable solution. Just make sure you understand how much debt is too much first.

 

How Much College Debt Is Too Much?

 

Let’s be clear on the obvious indicators of “too much college debt.” If you’re looking at debt that reaches into the six figures, it’s too much.

 

Most grads won’t earn anywhere near $100,000 in their first year out of school, making this debt extremely difficult to pay off and a huge burden to handle financially. If your student is aiming for a career path that typically pays $40,000 to entry-level workers, $80,000 is far too much debt.

 

How much of an income you can expect to make after college is the biggest factor in determining how much is too much. Here’s an easy way to start estimating an appropriate amount of student loans:

 

  • Research how much you (or your student) can expect to make after entering the workforce with a new degree. Don’t just look at old data from something like the Bureau of Labor Statistics — go on job boards like Monster.com or Indeed and search for open positions that you might qualify for after school and view what the starting salaries are for those jobs.
  • Look at how much a degree from a chosen university will cost. Include tuition, fees, room and board, and other common expenses like textbooks. Most colleges have information on average costs and expenses that you can use.
  • Calculate how much of that cost you can reasonably cover and determine how much in student loans you’d like to use to help finance your education.
  • Compare a reasonably expected salary to your expected amount of college debt.

 

If your expected amount of student loan debt is more than your expected salary, it’s too much. If it’s the same as your expected salary, it’s also likely too much (if you don’t want to spend the next 10 years paying off those loans).

 

If you estimate that the amount of your salary is more than the amount of debt you plan to take on, it could be a reasonable financial move to make.

 

Even when student loans can be used as financial tools, you need to be very careful about how much debt you take on. You also need a strategic plan for repaying it at the lowest cost possible before you start applying for loans.