Spring cleaning: 10 ways to freshen up your financial situation

After cleaning the garage, packing away your winter clothes and cleaning the windows, turn your spring cleaning efforts to your finances. Here are ten ideas to freshen up your financial situation:

1.      Reduce paper: Most banks, brokerages, credit cards, and utilities offer online delivery and storage of statements and bills. Sit down with your paper statements and see how many you can move to online. You will save the time spent opening mail, remove clutter and help the environment.

2.      Pay your bills online: Sign up for an online bill payment service if you don’t already. Set up automatic payments for recurring bills.

3.      Purge: Get a good shredder and use it aggressively. You really don’t need the water bill from two years ago. Purge! This can also help reduce your risk of identity theft.

4.      Eliminate redundancies: Eliminating clutter is not only about getting rid of paper; Identify what accounts are redundant and can be combined and/or closed.

5.      Organize: Get a label maker and create a small, efficient filing system.

6.      Reduce costs: Review bills you get from cable and phone companies, because when contracts expire they may revert to higher charges. Give them a call and you’ll be surprised how easy it is to have your rates reduced.

7.      Check your coverage: Review your insurance coverage to make sure that it is appropriate for you.

8.      Compare interest rates: Make sure your banks and credit cards are competitive for their fees and interest rates.

9.      Track your goals: Create easy-to-use systems for tracking your big picture goals, including a simple budget, college savings, and retirement.

10.  Think about getting help: Identify what areas you may need professional help, and create a plan to interview candidates.

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5 ways to simplify your finances

For many Merriman clients, getting investments right is only part of achieving their financial goals. I am often asked what else people can do to help improve their financial outlook, and I always answer that being financially disciplined is just as important as investing wisely.

Here are five things I think everyone should do to simplify their financial situation and become more disciplined with their finances:

  1. Consolidate your accounts. If you have an inactive 401(k) with an old employer, transfer it into an IRA. Often, 401(k)s have limited investment options, and you can take advantage of diversification and management benefits by moving your old 401(k) into an IRA account held elsewhere.  Likewise, if you have several IRAs in your name, consider consolidating them into one. There is no real benefit to maintaining multiple accounts, and it can be a headache to manage them all.
  2. Get a handle on what you are spending. There are dozens of apps and websites that can simplify the process of tracking expenses. Mint.com is a great example – it is free and anyone can use it. If you own an Apple device, go the App Store and search for “budget.” Find the app with the highest ratings and download it. Knowing how much money you spend and what you are spending it on is important, both before and after retirement.  You cannot, for instance, know how much you are going to need in retirement unless you know how much you typically spend.
  3. Put your savings on auto-pilot. If your employer matches contributions to your 401(k), you should contribute at least enough to max out that matching and take advantage of that “free money.” If you can afford more, all the better. Don’t forget that saving is not limited to company-sponsored retirement accounts. Saving toward your emergency fund in a bank account or your child’s education in a 529 college savings plan is just as important.  As with your 401(k), you can set these types of accounts up for automatic contributions. Ideally, you would work with a Certified Financial Planner™ to figure out the exact percentage you need to contribute based upon your specific set of circumstances.
  4. Limit the number of credit cards you own.  The more cards you own, the more complicated it becomes to manage them. If you have several cards with outstanding balances, consider transferring balances to consolidate your credit card debt at a lower interest rate and save yourself a substantial amount in interest payments.
  5. Use an auto-pay service to manage and pay your bills. I have a Schwab checking account that allows me to pay thousands of vendors directly from my account. It also alerts me when I have a bill due. If you do not bank with Schwab, don’t worry – most banks now offer a similar service. Ask your local branch for help in getting this set up.

Some of these steps may sound daunting, but are actually quite easy to complete. I know you’ll be glad you did it. Ultimately, these steps will allow you more time to focus on the things that matter most to you.

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Postponing retirement

Many people are not optimistic about the chances of being able to retire at the traditional age of 65. In one survey, 39% of those surveyed said that they would work past age 70 or never retire.

A more recent study published by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College paints a more optimistic picture. It concludes that almost half of households can retire at 65 and maintain their standard of living in retirement. For those households whose members can’t afford to retire at 65, 23% would have to work another 1-3 years, and 17% of households would have to work an additional 4-6 years. The study concludes that 88% of households should be able to retire by age 70 and maintain their pre-retirement lifestyle.

Postponing retirement is a powerful way to improve your chances of not outliving your money. Each additional year you work means more savings, more chance for your investments to grow, fewer years to draw down your savings in retirement, and greater Social Security (which increases as you delay claiming it until the age of 70).

While you might not be enthusiastic about the prospect of having to work longer, the reality may not be as bad as you think.

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Five reasons to track expenses before retiring

For individuals nearing retirement, one of the first things to consider is: How much money will I be able to withdraw from my portfolio on an annual basis? This is a very important issue and ideally should be determined before entering into retirement.

Whether you use spreadsheets, receipts in shoe boxes or a computer program to track your expenses, it is important to know how much you spend to support your lifestyle. Before considering how much equity you will need in your portfolio during retirement, you should track your expenses for a few years to give you a firm idea of your outflows.

There are a number of software solutions available to help, including Quicken, Microsoft Money and Mint.com. While I don’t recommend any particular software, I do think you should find and use one that suits your needs. Here’s why:

  1. You can easily view expenses broken down by category. Until you actually measure the monthly expenses in an accurate and systematic way, you may only have a vague idea of how much is being spent in each category.
  2. With financial software, it is much easier to prepare your tax return. This is especially true if you itemize. All of the good personal finance software options have preloaded categories that are set up to capture deductible items. Once entered, you can produce individual category reports.
  3. With the aid of software, you always have access to a current balance on your credit card and personal checking accounts. This data can also be downloaded into the software, making catching errors or fraud very easy.
  4. The personal financial software can make it easier to pay bills on time and keep track of your automatic payments. Since it is possible to automate some of your monthly bills to be charged to a credit card or auto-debit from your checking account, the software helps you track all the different payment transactions in one central location.
  5. It allows for a smoother transition in the event you become incapacitated. Your spouse, partner or other family member will have a much easier time assuming bill paying responsibilities if you are using expense software.

Personal expense tracking software will help give you accurate, reliable information about how much money you are likely to need in retirement. This will help you determine if your monthly expenses can be supported by your current portfolio and if any changes need to be made – either to your expenses or your portfolio. Remember, if you can track it, you can manage it.

The best way to begin retirement planning is to start early. The sooner you know if your annual requirements are out of sync with what a balanced portfolio can produce, the more options you will have to correct the situation.

 

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The Modern Budget

As the old adage goes, it is best to focus on what you can control. The weather, for instance, is not worth fussing over. In the world of investing, two of the most important things we can control are our budget and how much we contribute to our retirement accounts. Fortunately, both of these items are very closely related. The more you save in your budget, the more you can afford to contribute to your retirement accounts.

We’ve all heard the old song and dance about how skipping your $4 dollar daily latte can have profound impact on your budget. Well, guess what? It’s true. That’s $120/month that could have been better spent. With 7% interest over a 30 year period that adds up to $147,000 dollars!

I don’t want to pester you over your daily decisions; rather I want to point you in the direction of a budgeting tool that will help you identify the “latte” expenditures in your budget.

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The Millionaire Next Door Revisited

Like millions of people, I read Thomas Stanley, Ph.D.’s fascinating book The Millionaire Next Door when it first came out in 1996.  So when I noticed recently that he’d written a new book called Stop Acting Rich…And Start Living Like A Real Millionaire, I wondered if it contained anything new.  As it turns out, it does contain some new insights.

My biggest take-away:  The greatest impediment to becoming wealthy is all the spending people do in order to make themselves appear wealthier than they really are.  Marketing professionals understand this and exploit it to the max.

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The effect your emotions around money can have on finances

I’ve always been fascinated by people’s emotions around money. I believe emotions are often the root cause of some of the most devastating financial mistakes that people make. Here at Merriman, we not only help our clients invest wisely, we also help them avoid these kinds of mistakes.

Now a study has been done by a professor at Kansas State University on this very topic, and an article about the study appeared in The New York Times this past weekend. As you read it, much can be learned from figuring out which group you fit into. It’s also interesting to think about which group your parents fit into and how their emotions around money may have affected you.

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Teaching young children about money

When I read this article from The New York Times, I was very happy to see that we as a nation are starting to expose young children to money matters. Using Sesame Street and the beloved Elmo is a perfect way to interest kids in the concepts of spending, saving and sharing, without talking over their heads or losing their interest.

The Sesame Street gang also spends time talking about want versus need. My brother started to teach this concept to my nephew when he was between 3 and 4 years old, and now at 5 he truly “gets it.” It doesn’t mean that he doesn’t feel he really NEEDS that new Star Wars Lego set at times, but when asked if he really does need it, he will admit he actually just wants it.

I’m as guilty as the next person of spoiling my nieces and nephew by being more than happy to buy them anything their hearts desire. But I have learned to hold back as I have seen the consequences of this behavior in many teenagers and young adults coming out of college in to their first jobs.

I hope you find The New York Times article informative and that you begin to expose kids as young as 3 to the concepts of want versus need as well as spend, share and save. You will be setting them up for success in the long run.

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