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Making Your Money Grow

January 12th, 2012 at 10:57 pm

With a little help from behavioral economists, I presented the following points this week at our monthly University of Evansville Lunch & Learn. It was a good discussion with a good group of people!

Making Your Money Grow…
With A Little Help From Financial Psychologists

1. We frustrate ourselves with our inability to control our investments
2. We could have more control over our investments, but we get greedy
3. We dwell more on losing investments than winning ones, and become fearful

So…

1. Keep your goals reasonable and realistic
2. Once your goal is established, determine how much risk you must take
3. The longer you have to save, the more risk you can stomach

Maximizing Your Savings

10. Start with your retirement plan…understand your options…learn about various investments to find out what’s best for you…put in enough to get the company match.

9. Don’t forget the flexible spending account if it's available through your employer. You’ll spend about 25% less in taxes on the money you put into the FSA.

8. Keep some money outside your retirement plan in separate accounts, including an emergency fund, new car fund, vacation fund, Christmas fund, house improvement fund. Studies have proven that people save more when they set up specific accounts.

7. Above the company match, consider a Roth IRA ($5,000 annually; $6,000 if 50 or older). Not all of your money should go into retirement. You can always take out your contributions penalty free, and you may never have to pay taxes on a Roth.

6. Annuities are as close as most of us come these days to receiving pensions. Annuities guarantee you money at an interest rate higher than you can get with a bank savings account or certificates of deposit.

5. Dump your debt. Pay off student loans, car loans, the mortgage, and get your credit card balances to zero. The Dave Ramsey way—smallest debt to largest so it becomes a 'snowball.' Many others recommend first paying off the bill with the highest interest rate. The best way? Whichever works for you.

4. Keep a list of every expense for just one month. It's boring. It's nerdy. But it works to find those nickel and dime expenses that add up.

3. Invest in retirement ahead of saving for your children’s college. Hopefully you can do both, but remember that you can get tax credits and low-interest loans for college, not for retirement.

2. Make sure that money you are trying to save gets deposited automatically, before you ever see it. For most people, once it's in their hands, or even in their checkbook, it's spent.

1. Set a specific goal(s) on paper no later than this weekend. Make sure the goal is realistic, and has an end date. If you have a spouse or significant other, decide on your spending and saving goals together. That's not easy since there's often a spender and saver in each relationship, but communication--and patience--go a long way.

Financial Psychology Reading:
Your Money Personality, by Dr. Kathleen Gurney
The Intelligent Investor, by Benjamin Graham
The Behavior Gap, by Carl Richards
Nudge, by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein

Who's Happy Now?

July 17th, 2010 at 08:39 pm

Referees and umpires figure they've been fair if both teams are squawking at them equally when the game ends. Political writers are pleased if both the Democrats and Republicans bemoan their coverage.

Based on those ground rules, members of Congress who voted for the financial overhaul bill that President Obama will sign next week should feel pretty good about themselves. The nation's biggest banks say the bill went too far and ties their hands. Consumer protection groups say lobbyists convinced lawmakers to water down the bill.

Thomas Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, denounced the bill: "Today is a sad day for the U.S. economy, for jobs, and for the future of our capital markets," he said. "Consumers will pay the ultimate price in higher fees, less choice, and fewer opportunities to responsibly access credit."

Then there's Congressman Barney Frank, one of the bill's co-sponsors, who complained that, "In some areas the legislation did not go far enough."

The 2,000-plus page bill sprang from the financial meltdown of 2008 that continues to plague virtually everyone, from business owners to employees, and especially those pink-slipped in the past two years. The bill does little or nothing to get us out of the Great Recession. Hopefully it helps keep us out of the next one.

Here are the highlights:

*There's now a process in place to break up troubled financial firms whose quick collapse might seriously harm the overall economy (can you say 'AIG' and 'Lehman Brothers'?). That's the primary reason President Obama keeps saying that taxpayers will no longer bear the brunt when 'too big to fail' institutions fail.

*Hedge funds now must be more accountable to regulators, although they still have more freedom than mutual fund companies. Derivatives such as credit-default swaps, which made our nation's economy look like a house of cards when home prices began tumbling at the end of 2007, also get regulated more.

*Much of the regulation comes from the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, designed to keep an eye on credit card companies, mortgage lenders, banks and credit unions. Already on the books is something familiar to most of us: the amount guaranteed on our bank accounts from the FDIC. It's now permanently at $250,000, thanks to the financial reform legislation.

Of course, it's more complicated than that. For example, the new consumer protection bureau doesn't have power to snoop into the lending practices at your local car dealer. Their lobbying group fought hard to keep dealers exempt, and politicians who have been trying to keep American car companies alive decided not to add to the car dealers' challenges.

"It's a victory for auto dealers and for consumers," said Bailey Wood, legislative and communications director for the National Automobile Dealers Association. He says regulation by the new consumer protection bureau would have driven up the costs of auto loans.

On the other hand..."Here we have an industry that came to taxpayers desperate for help, and the American taxpayers saved this industry's hide," said Douglas Heller, executive director of Consumer Watchdog. "Yet, they thank us by using their lobbying might to exclude them from oversight."

See, no one's completely happy. The politicians may have gotten this one right.

Top 10 From The Top Personal Finance Pros

March 26th, 2010 at 02:19 am

We all have our favorite writers: Ernest Hemingway, Jane Austen, John Steinbeck...Jackie Collins. We savers/spenders/investors have our own list: David Bach, Janet Bodnar, Dave Ramsey and the venerable Jane Bryant Quinn are some of my favorites.

From their wit and wisdom, I have compiled a Top 10 list of saving, spending and investing guidelines. All four have a slightly different perspective on personal finance, but they all espouse these ideas:

1. Educate yourself. That doesn't mean spending months becoming an expert. Read Kiplinger's Personal Finance (kiplinger.com) or learn about investing at Morningstar.com. Two good books are Dave Ramsey's 'Total Money Makeover' and David Bach's 'The Automatic Millionaire.' Both are easy reads that cover most of the saving, spending and investment fundamentals you'll ever need. If you want the bible that covers virtually every personal finance topic, pick up (carefully) Jane Bryant Quinn's 1,000-page 'Making The Most Of Your Money.'

2. Make a budget. Rich, poor and in between, we all get more fun out of our money when it's working for us rather than the other way around. For one month, keep track of every dollar from your paycheck. Don't cheat. Be honest, and after that one month, you'll find money you've wasted. Mint.com is one of the most popular budgeting websites.

3. Invest early. See page 95 in David Bach's 'Smart Couples Finish Rich' to see what happens when Susan puts away $2,000 per year for eight years, beginning at age 19. Her buddy, Kim, does the same thing starting at age 27. When they both turn 35, guess who has $59,322 and who has $29,874. Ah, the magic of compound interest. Investing early doesn't mean latecomers should give up. Even if you're just starting to squirrel away money at age 35 or 55, 'investing early' means starting this month rather than next year.

4. Expect the best, prepare for the worst. That's why all of our favorite authors agree that a $1,000 emergency fund (prepare for the worst) comes first, followed by socking money into stocks and bonds for the long run (expect the best).

5. When your boss offers free money, take it. Hopefully you are one of the 53 percent of employees covered by a 401(k) or similar retirement plan at work. Most of them offer a match. You put in 8%, for example, and they'll put 4% of the company's money into your retirement account. Short of an inheritance from Aunt Maude, this is the easiest money you'll ever find.

6. Insurance is really boring, and really important. You need health insurance and disability insurance, and your kids who live at home need the security of your life insurance. If you drive a car, own a home, or rent, you need the appropriate coverage. But watch out for those selling variable annuities, whole life or universal life insurance. That's where insurance agents get their biggest commissions.

7. Your credit card balance should be $0.00. It's tough to save when you're paying Visa every month. It's also tough for most of us to put off buying the TV, phone or granite countertops we really want. But if you'll save up and wait until you have the cash, that big-screen will look even bigger and brighter.

8. Buy the big items wisely. A house can be a good investment, especially if you put down 20% (allowing you to skip private mortgage insurance), keep your mortgage to 20 years or less, and make sure your monthly mortgage payment is no more than 25% of your take-home pay. The average new car is twice as expensive as the same car with two years and 20,000 miles on it, according to Edmunds.com. And you'll come out ahead in the long run if you buy rather than lease.

9. This, too, shall pass. 2008 was a terrible year to be in the stock market. 2009 was a great year. No matter how good or bad the investing world appears, all you can be sure of is change. That's why the 'D' word is so important. Staying diversified according to your age (your investments should become more conservative as you get older) is your best strategy.

10. Spend it! Tightwads, listen up. Your goal is not to skip every vacation opportunity, or ignore giving to charities or your church, just so you can die with a million bucks. Your kids will end up spending money they didn't earn, and you'll be turning over in your grave (which is very uncomfortable). Frugality does not have to be a lifelong lifestyle. In the words of Dave Ramsey, "Live like no one else now, so that one day you can live like no one else."