Posts Tagged ‘organizing finances’

Tax Time = Tuneup Time

March 28, 2011

This recent article by NY Times writer Ron Lieber is a great reminder that tax time is a great time to check in with your complete financial picture and make some tweaks to keep you on track. It’s also a great time to organize your filing and get rid of financial clutter!

In short, the article suggests the following steps as long as you’re digging into your financial records. I’ve added my own tips to the steps as well as the author’s advice.

1. 401k checkup: First, rebalance your funds. As mutual fund values change, so does the allocation of your 401k account. It’s important to go in at LEAST annually (I recommend twice a year and help clients do the same) to reset to your target allocation.

While you’re in there, liquidate any company stock that you have accumulated. Many employers give their match in company stock, but it is risky to hang onto this. If things go south with your company, you could be out of a job AND see your 401k value go in the tanker. Diversify away from having all your eggs in that basket.

What about those old 401k accounts from former employers? If they’re still sitting in the company’s plan, this is a good time to consolidate those accounts into a rollover IRA, where your options will be greater and you’ll save on administrative fees. Not sure how to do this? Guess what else I help my clients do…

2. Saving for the Medium Term: We’ve all heard the rhetoric about saving for retirement and the benefit of saving early, and who hasn’t heard of the absolutely-necessary emergency fund? But what about the other things in the medium term, like vacations, large purchases, home maintenance or other big-money items that probably don’t fit into your day-to-day budget but that you’d like to eventually buy? Get started today by setting up a separate savings account for each goal, then make your savings automatic. Fifty bucks out of each paycheck probably won’t be missed, but it can add up quickly toward that week in Nantucket or new tires on your car. ING Direct lets you set up subaccounts and they offer great rates, compared to what you might get down the street at your bank branch.

3. Automatic Donations: If you’re charitably minded but often put off writing those checks till the end of the year, consider dividing your donation by 12 and setting up automatic monthly donations to ease the burden on your end-of-year budget. And no matter when you are giving money to charity, make sure you’re either writing a check or using a debit or credit card to provide an accurate record of the donation for your tax return. The IRS no longer allows the “I put ten bucks in the offering plate at church,” deduction. You gotta prove it.

If you’re an American Express cardholder, Lieber recommends their Members Give program, which lets you set up automatic donations or you can even use Member Rewards to make your gifts. I’m all about credit card rewards as long as they’re not incurred by debt you’re going to carry from month-to-month!

Taking these little steps should only take about an extra hour as long as you have all your financial information out, and it can make a tremendous difference in your financial health going forward, so just do it! You’ll be glad you did when you begin to reap the rewards of sound financial management.

Kelley C. Long, CPA is a Chicago-based financial coach who believes you shouldn’t have to have a million bucks to receive personalized financial advice. Check her out at www.kelleyclong.com.

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Financial Goals for the Real World

October 26, 2010

 

It’s in all the advertisements for financial service providers: “Let us help you achieve your goals!” “Your life. Anything is possible.” “Take charge of your financial future.” “What’s your dream?” “Together we’ll go far.” And the commercials with attractive silver-haired Baby Boomers sailing the ocean blue or chuckling over the Wall Street Journal while sipping coffee… does anyone really aspire to that?

 

beach

But the point is, without a bit of a dream behind them, financial goals can be as wishy-washy as a weight loss goal without a fitness and nutrition plan. You need motivation and some guidelines to stick with it or like a diet, the first chocolate cake you encounter will have you off the wagon and giving up.

But what does it really mean to set financial goals? What are your goals? Wait, you haven’t really thought about it? Many people don’t because they don’t think they are in a place to do so. They say things like, “I don’t have time or money for any new goals in my life.” Or, “Just getting the kids to and from school and putting food on the table while growing my career is enough of a goal for me!” Sound familiar?

So let me re-frame the question: If money wasn’t an issue, what would you do differently? Move to a different neighborhood? Go back to school? Go on a safari? Pay off your credit cards? Or even just hire a housekeeper? These are financial goals.

So go ahead, list them out. Then try to put a price on each goal. For example, a move to a different neighborhood could be as simple as the cost of moving: $2,000 for movers, $1,500 for a security deposit, $500 for those miscellaneous things that you always seem to need when you move like new wastebaskets and perhaps a small furniture piece.

For others it might require accumulating a down payment and getting your current home ready for sale. That’s going to require a bigger budget.

Not sure how much your goal will cost? Start doing some research. Call your community college to inquire about the average cost of a Master’s degree. Google “house cleaning” to find out what cleaning services in your area charge. Just doing the research and finding out a bit more about your “someday” dream will make it a touch more real and set you up to being closer to making it “today.”

And just like that, you’ve set some financial goals! With that out of the way, it makes it much easier to figure out how to achieve them. And trust me, it’s really not that difficult. I’ll be covering those steps in a future post, so stay tuned!

Financial Advice for the Ages

October 12, 2010

There are some personal finance rules of thumb that are set in stone across the board, no matter who you are, how much money you have or what your financial goals are. For example, whether you make $1,000 per month or are worth $10 million, you should have an emergency fund that equals a minimum of three months expenses.

But then there are also rules and suggestions that change as you age and (hopefully) earn more money. Depending on your situation, here are a few age-based tips to maximize your financial well-being.

Mid-twenties
At this age you’re probably still single, no kids, making pretty decent money, traveling a bit, pretty career-focused and not thinking too much about retirement. What essential steps should you be taking?

  1. Get debt-free and stay that way. Pay off your credit cards, student loans and car loan to get your credit score in tip-top shape for when you will inevitably want to qualify for the best mortgage rates.
  2. Take advantage of your employer’s 401k benefit. If you’re offered a match, put at LEAST the amount in there to maximize the match. Aim to defer at least 6% of your salary, 10% if you can afford it.
  3. Get your emergency fund in place ASAP. Start with only $25 per paycheck if you have to, but make it automatic, and once the money is in there it stays. You’ll be glad you have it if you lose your job or have an accident.

Mid-thirties
If you’re a typical American, by this time you own a home, have 2.3 kids and are settled into a career that provides a solid income. You probably spend a lot of time at your kids’ events and have a couple of nice cars in the garage. Make sure you’re staying financial healthy by also doing the following:

  1. Keep socking that money into your 401k. Do NOT sacrifice retirement savings to pay for your kids’ education. They don’t give retirement scholarships or loans.
  2. But you should be saving for college if you can. Decide how much you do want to help (some people want their kids to pay for some to make sure they value the opportunity) then open a 529 account for each child with monthly automatic contributions. Also, make sure you’re matching any expensive extracurricular activity costs with college savings. If you can’t afford to save for college AND pay for select soccer or elite gymnastics, reconsider the high-end program. Chances are your child won’t be making a career out of it and while it might be a tough pill to swallow to drop down to a more affordable league, it will be a lesson in sacrifices and choices that won’t be forgotten.
  3. Make sure your emergency fund balance has been adjusted to cover increases in your expenses over time. Once you’ve reached the goal, keep up with the automatic monthly savings into a Roth IRA or money market savings account.

Mid-fifties
You survived toddlers and are now enjoying the final teen years with your kids, who are hopefully college-bound overachievers. You may be considering a second act career or wondering what the heck you’re going to do with your time once the last of your brood flies the nest. What else should you be thinking about?

  1. It’s probably time to really think about what retirement means to you, then putting that story into numbers. Most people these days aren’t really planning to live out their days on a golf course, but would like the flexibility to hit the links when they like while also staying engaged and active. Think about how the cost of your lifestyle will change and make sure you can weather that.
  2. Take a look at how your 401k (you’re still contributing, right?) is allocated. At this point you should only have about 50% of your funds in stocks, so make any updates to put the other 50% in solid bond funds or other fixed income instruments.
  3. Try to get your house paid off sooner rather than later. Your goal should be to retire completely debt-free.

As with all personal finance tips, these are simply general ideas based on what the “average” American deals with through life. Of course your situation is going to be different and you’ll make adjustments as needed according to what’s important to you. Above all, remember that the purpose of all of this is to simply allow you to enjoy life without having money as a barrier to pursuing your calling.

It All Adds Up!

August 31, 2010

Today I had the chance to engage in one of my favorite activities. It was coin-rolling day – the day my piggy bank won’t allow me to put another penny in, and I break out the paper coin rolls then head to the bank for a nice little bonus deposit to my checking account.

Ready to roll!

Ready to roll!

Call me a nerd, but I love coin-rolling day. Sorting quarters and dimes into neat little piles satisfies my organizational tendencies and rewards me with extra money I didn’t even miss. And it only takes 15 minutes – I kept track! You can sort your change while watching TV, listening to a podcast, or make it a family affair by getting the kids involved.

I had lots of help

I had lots of help

Back in the day when Suze Orman first hit the airwaves as a guest of the Oprah Show, she wisely suggested that one way to save money without even trying is by saving your change. OK, so maybe she wasn’t the first to think of it, but I remember seeing it and have been saving my change ever since. Do you? If not, I suggest you try.

What’s that? You don’t really spend that much cash? Well, I didn’t think I did either but even the little dollars here and there I use to buy coffee have produced enough change to add up. In fact, this little pile totaled $26 and I had several dollars left over that went back in the piggy bank since they weren’t complete coin rolls.

I know that doesn’t seem like much, but if it’s money you didn’t miss anyway, it adds up over time. Twenty-six bucks per month equals annual savings of $312, which is enough for cross-country airfare from most major airports! Think of it as a bonus vacation fund.

For complete disclosure, I have to share that when I arrived at the bank, the teller simply dumped all my neat little coin rolls into the electronic change counter. It turns out the banking centers in Chicago are a little more technologically advanced than those in Cincinnati! At least at my bank… I have to say, I’m a little bummed to learn this, as I actually like rolling my change. (Some banks charge for this service, so don’t toss those paper rolls yet!)

Regardless, my point remains: the next time you use cash for a purchase, use only dollars and pocket the change. You’ll be surprised how much money you “find!”

Note: No animals were harmed in the production of this blog post.

Estate Planning Really IS For Everyone

July 5, 2010

A couple high profile stories have been published recently regarding the disposition of multi-million dollar estates, demonstrating the dire importance of having an updated last will in place. Most notable was a case involving the dispute of Sammy Davis, Jr.’s widow’s estate, in which Mrs. Davis’s assets (including rights to Sammy’s artistic property), were in danger of passing into the wrong hands. Luckily the LA County court decided in favor of Manny Davis, the survivor of Sammy and Altovise Davis because there was sufficient evidence supporting her self-drafted will.

Sammy Davis, Jr.
The more interesting case involves the relatively unknown drama behind the estate of Stieg Larsson, author of the wildly popular Millennium trilogy that began with “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” Larsson passed away unexpectedly in 2004 at age 50 without a will, leaving his long time live-in girlfriend, Eva Gabrielsson with nothing. He had written the trilogy as a means to provide retirement income to himself and Gabrielsson but died before the books became a sensation. Control of his literary legacy went to his estranged father and brother by Swedish law, who are reaping the benefits of the delayed success of the books.

Dragon Tattoo
As these cases demonstrate, the signing of a will can make all the difference in ensuring your wishes are carried out should you die unexpectedly. And while these stories involve extraordinary wealth and pop culture influence, they also demonstrate why it is necessary to take care of this important step in your family’s well being. Not having a will in place leaves control of the disposition of your assets and possibly your children to the state in which you reside. It also makes a sad and difficult time for your survivors even more painful, as your wishes may not be realized.

Most people put off drafting a will for a couple reasons. First, they think it is wildly expensive and time consuming, so they procrastinate in favor of when they have more time and money to deal with it. While the process can be lengthy depending on the complications of your situation (second marriage, step-kids or a small business to name a few), most estate planning attorneys these days offer a “package” price, where you know what it will cost before you get started.

If you still think that can be a drag, try Legal Zoom, which offers a fill-in-the-blanks will starting at just $69. As the Sammy Davis, Jr. case demonstrates, these wills contain the necessary legalese to stand in court. But again, if you have a more complicated estate I suggest engaging a qualified attorney who can help you address issues you may not be aware of.

The other reason I find people avoid the process is that they just don’t want to consider their own mortality. They figure they don’t really need a will until they start collecting Social Security. I get this. I cried while typing out my burial wishes to be included with my will. The last thing I want to contemplate is where I want my ashes spread. But someday it’s going to be done, and avoiding painful thoughts of what will most certainly be is not a valid excuse to leave your kids at risk of becoming wards of the state.

If you don’t have a will, do you know what would happen to your family if you were to die unexpectedly? Depending on the state you live in, your estate may not pass 100% to your surviving spouse (or your parents if you are single). And even if it did, dying “intestate,” which literally means “not making a will,” is a much more burdensome and expensive process than if you had a will stating your intentions. And if you’re not married but have kids or a significant other, the result can be even more devastating for your loved ones.

As Benjamin Franklin so famously said, “… in this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

Budget: NOT a 4-letter word

April 26, 2010

What does the word “budget” mean to you? Do you cringe when you hear it, thinking of an end to spontaneous dinners at your favorite restaurants and a new habit of packing your lunch? No more cute shoes and Starbucks runs? If so, then you are like most people! But to me and in my financial coaching practice, budget means nothing more than an on-paper look at where your money is going.

Most of my clients come to me with needs including debt-reduction advice and help with saving more money. They’ve done the basic budgeting in their head and know there is extra money somewhere to put away, but they struggle to find it. The thing is, when they add up all the “fixed” stuff like rent/mortgage, utilities, car payment, other loans, childcare, etc, and compare that number with the amount of money coming in, a lot of people are sad and discouraged to see what “should” be leftover.

More often than not, the process usually stalls out there with feelings of poor willpower and negative self-talk. It is at this point that I remind clients they aren’t counting the other little things that are also needs in our everyday lifestyle. Haircuts, oil changes, personal care items, house cleaning, gas money, and yes, food. Most people do have an amount of money each month that they could put toward debt reduction or savings without really feeling a pinch to their accustomed lifestyle, but it isn’t as much as it initially appears.

So once you have all the predictable bills down that won’t go away without major changes, take a look at the other things you’re spending on. You will probably be pleasantly surprised to learn that even when you factor in such indulgences as date night at Nada or your daily stop at Coffee Emporium, you will still be able to find that little bit of extra money.

And even if it is only $50 per month, if you make saving it automatic through payroll deduction or auto-transfer from your bank, you will be surprised at how quickly you will see a difference. Then as you acquire little windfalls like tax refunds, a raise at work or some other bonus, you will be more inclined to put some of that money toward your goal, getting you there even quicker. So enjoy your gastronomic pleasures, knowing that you can still stick to a budget and achieve your financial goals.

A version of this article was published in Cincy Chic on April 26, 2010

Spring Cleaning Your Finances

March 15, 2010

Cleaning up your finances doesn’t have to be a big chore; you can do it while catching up on your DVR one evening. Not only will you put a better system into place to reduce clutter, you will also re-connect with your money and hopefully begin taking control of it.

Filing
Start by getting organized. Gather all your documents in front of you — grab your files, empty that basket, pull out your bills and round up your receipts. Next sort them into the following piles:

 Receipts, paycheck stubs, bank and credit card statements and monthly bills
 Investment statements (401k, brokerage, IRA, etc.)
 Tax returns and the documents used to prepare them
 Insurance policies, ownership deeds, etc.
 Warranties, user manuals and their corresponding receipts
 Identification documents

Next, place your identification documents (also called “forever docs”) in a fire-proof safe in your home. This includes birth certificates, passports, marriage license, divorce decree, will, trust, power of attorney, death certificates and other original documents. For all of the other piles, create a folder for each and add new papers as you receive them.

Some folders will then have folders within them. For example, in your folder for monthly bills, you might have a separate folder for electric, cable, credit card statements and so on. If you can, keep these files in a fire- and water-resistant safe. If that is not possible, at least keep them together in a drawer or on a shelf.

Then let the de-cluttering begin. Read on for guidelines on how long to keep what type of documents.

RECEIPTS, PAY STUBS AND MONTHLY ONGOING BILLS
Utility bills: Keep for one year, unless you claim a home office deduction, in which case they become tax documents.
Pay stubs: Keep for one year until you receive your W-2. As long as your last paycheck matches your W-2, you can toss them.
Bank and credit card statements: Keep for two years, as you may need them when applying for a mortgage or other loan.

INVESTMENT STATEMENTS
Keep your monthly or quarterly statements until you receive your annual. If you make any trades, keep the trade confirmation for a purchase as long as you hold the asset and for a sale, for at least three years. If you make any non-deductible contributions to your traditional IRA or convert to a Roth IRA, save the IRS Form 8606 until you withdraw during retirement as proof that you’ve already paid the taxes.

TAX RETURNS AND SUPPORTING DOCS
Keep everything for at least three years. For questions on IRS recordkeeping guidelines, check out IRS Publication 552.

INSURANCE POLICIES, OWNERSHIP DEEDS, ETC.
Keep all as long as the policy is in effect or as long as you own your home or car. Consider placing this file in your fireproof safe as well.

WARRANTIES AND USER MANUALS
Save all active warranties. Toss any that have expired or for items you no longer own. Try to weed this file out on an annual basis. I like to staple the receipt showing proof of purchase to the warranty in case I need it. If you are comfortable using the Web, I recommend tossing user manuals. Manufacturers now have downloadable versions on their Web sites, so you can rid yourself of this clutter.

As far as ATM receipts and other receipts for purchases, you can toss these after you’ve checked them against your bank statement. I keep receipts for clothing until I’ve worn and washed the item and for household items until it has been used at least once, unless it has a warranty.

As you are de-cluttering and tossing unneeded documents, be sure you shred them before putting them in your recycle bin. Even if it is a statement for an account that is closed, you don’t want to tempt identity thieves by offering your name, address and an account number on one page.

Finally, once you have your important papers more organized and up-to-date, make a note to revisit your files on an annual basis to weed out those no longer needed and collect and add any new documents collected.
A version of this post was published in the Cincy Chic column “Cents & Sensibility” on March 15, 2010.