Category Archives: Finance

The Fiduciary Standard for Investment

What Does Pricing Carbon Have in Common with the New Fiduciary Standard for Investment Advisors?

The short answer: A lot.

The typical answer: These issues both seem very complicated to me, I’m already concerned where you are going with this, so let’s change the subject.

My answer: They both have the potential to alleviate human suffering, grow the economy, increase employment, and compel us to choose leaders willing to support policies that are not partisan in nature.

It is no secret that, as the use of fossil fuels has increased, carbon dioxide levels have been increasing at a rate of about 0.5% per year for the past several decades. The economic benefit of converting carbon locked up in fossil fuels for millions of years into instant energy, of course, has provided prosperity to many for the last century (e.g., inexpensive travel, food choices, home/office heating and cooling). Unfortunately, the last several generations have passed the true costs forward to the next many generations. Carbon dioxide traps heat energy in the atmosphere. The resulting disruptive impacts of excess atmospheric heat contributes to increasing human suffering (e.g., droughts, floods, wind damage). It is increasingly apparent that the true cost of burning fossil fuels has not been reflected in its price. Economists consider it a market failure when the true cost of a product or service is not reflected in its price.

If fossil fuels were now priced at their true cost, the fossil fuel age would be brought to a close and allow for a new era of sustainable energy to be established. Technology to make this happen is already in place. Improved policy making is needed to move us forward toward. A good example is the policy offered by the nonpartisan Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL). CCL’s carbon fee and dividend proposal was studied by an independent entity, Regional Economics Models, Inc. (REMI). The results of the analysis showed that a gradually increasing fee on fossil fuels at the source, where the collected fees are distributed as dividends to households, would transition society from an unsustainable dependence upon fossil fuels and grow the economy by generating 2,800,000 new jobs and avert 230,000 premature deaths over a 20-year period. Members of congress are aware of the CCL bipartisan proposal and are looking for signs of support from their constituents (surveys show 68% favorability of a fee and dividend approach to carbon pricing) in order to overcome the actions of the fossil fuel industry to delay the needed transition to clean energy.

Prior to 1980, most members of the middle class did not need an investment advisor – you paid off the mortgage, saved some extra cash and relied on a pension and your Social Security benefit to fund retirement. With the advent of 401k plans and the demise of pension plans, the financial services industry grew to a scale comparable to the fossil fuel industry in economic size. It took a relatively long time for policy makers to identify that excess investment management fees are a cause of significant avoidable financial loss to savers. For instance, a retired couple without pensions and a savings of $1,000,000 may expect to draw down $40,000 per year to supplement their Social Security benefits. If their investment advisor charges a fee of 1% or 2% per year over the true (i.e., competitive) cost of the service provided, the couple is getting by with $10,000 or $20,000 less per year –as little as half the amount they expected! Is this suffering? Let’s consider a single retiree who has $300,000 in savings and no pension. This retiree is sold an annuity with a 10% upfront commission ($30,000) and locked into an investment management contract he did not fully understand with an annual fee of greater than 2% per year for 10 years. Excessive, non-transparent, fees benefit few at the expense of many.

Tax Payments Online

Did you know it is possible to schedule your estimated tax payments online?  This is a very handy service for people who have to make Form 1040-ES estimated tax payments in April, June, September and January each year.  To make your payments, use the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System (EFTPS®).  The EFTPS® enables individuals and businesses to send their tax payments to the IRS by electronic transfer rather than writing a check and mailing it, or sending an expensive wire.

With the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System (EFTPS®), a free service of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, you schedule payments whenever you want, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You can enter payment instructions up to 365 days in advance.  This way when your tax preparer completes your taxes and calculates next year’s estimated payments, you can login online and schedule those payments.  Then you’re done.  The nuisance of mailing in those payments by check every few months has been removed.

Reasons to use the service include:

  • It’s fast. You can make a tax payment in minutes.
  • It’s accurate. You review your information before it is sent.
  • It’s convenient. You can make a payment from anywhere there’s an Internet or phone connection 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
  • It’s easy to use. A step-by-step process guides you through scheduling payments.
  • It’s secure. Online payments require three unique pieces of information for authentication: an employer identification number (EIN) or social security number (SSN); a personal identification number (PIN); and an Internet password. Phone payments require your PIN as well as your EIN/SSN.

Predict the Next Stock Market Crash

Since 2009, the stock market has pretty much gone straight up.

 

From a low of 676 on March 9, 2009, the S&P 500 stands at 2,090 as of June 21, 2016. That’s a 209% increase over a period of just over 7 years.

 

And yet, things have been a little rocky so far this year.

 

The stock market dropped 9% from 1/1 to 1/20. It dropped another 6% from 2/1 to 2/11. And it fell 2% from 6/9 to 6/15.

 

We’re still near all-time highs, but is it possible that we’re at the top? Am I ready to predict the next stock market crash?

 

Of Course Not

 

I’m guessing you saw this coming, but no I’m not predicting the next big stock market crash.

 

The truth is that I have no idea what the stock market is going to do over the coming months, and neither does anyone else, no matter how loud they yell at you from the TV.

 

While the stock market is an incredibly powerful place to grow your money over the long term, it can be a roller coaster ride in the short term. Big upswings are followed by big downswings, leaving you to watch somewhat helplessly as your account values rise and fall.

 

And there’s just no way to know what’s going to happen next. We may very well be in for a big crash in the near future. Or we may not. But there are a few things to keep in mind no matter what.

 

Focus on the Long Term

 

Short-term drops on the stock market like we’ve experienced this year are the norm. 5% and even 10% drops are not uncommon.

 

Big crashes are also the norm. We experienced them in 2008, 2000, and many other times throughout history.

 

And through all of that, two things have held up:

  1. No one has been able to consistently predict these crashes ahead of time. And remember, if you want to profit, you not only have to get OUT at the right time, but get back IN at the right time as well. Otherwise you’ll miss the recovery.
  2. Over the long-term, the stock market has always gone up. Not every day, every month, or every year. But you have always been rewarded for keeping your money in the market over the long term.

What to Expect Going Forward

 

I can’t predict what the stock market is going to do, but I can give you two more things to keep in mind.

 

First, no matter what happens there will be plenty of ups and downs along the way. Expect that going in.

 

Second, investment advisor Rick Ferri, a man I admire greatly, foresees long-term stock market returns in the 7-8% range and bond returns in the 4-5% range. The exact outcome will almost certainly be different, but the point is that well-informed, reasoned experts still expect returns to be positive going forward.

Planning a Wedding Tips

I’m in the middle of wedding planning right now, and it has opened my eyes to just how incredibly expensive this whole thing can be!

 

I’m a frugal person at heart so the idea of spending a ton of money on one day seems a little silly to me. But it’s hard not to get caught up in all of it, and I’m finding that the costs are adding up quickly.

 

So, how do you have a wedding you love without spending more than you can afford? I’ve been thinking about this as I plan my own wedding. I’m fortunate that my parents have been very generous, and here are a few things I’ve learned along the way.

 

Plan Ahead

 

Yeah, I know. Big surprise that the financial planner is encouraging you to plan ahead. But there are two reasons why it’s helpful to make a plan before making any final decisions.

 

First, it’s amazing how quickly even the little costs add up. There are so many different pieces to a wedding that you can make a lot of seemingly reasonable choices and still end up with a big total bill. By planning ahead, you can see that happen before you’ve actually committed to anything and make decisions accordingly.

 

Second, it’s easier to get good deals when you’re on top of things early. Venues get booked, DJs aren’t available, and prices go up. The longer you wait, the less likely it is you’ll get your first choice and the more likely it is you’ll have to pay extra.

 

The Knot has a fantastic wedding budget calculator that can help you allocate funds across all wedding expense categories.

 

Get Creative

 

Your wedding doesn’t have to be like every other wedding. It can not only be cheaper to do things your way, but it can make for a fun and unique experience.

 

A friend of mine had a fall wedding and served pies instead of a wedding cake. This option was delicious and at least half as expensive; with pie at $2 per slice and wedding cake at $4 or more. Another one enlisted the help of her friends to make their own floral arrangements. I’m making small ornaments for wedding favors, out of paper (not expensive) and supplies I already had on hand.

 

Music, in particular a live band, is another expense that can be reduced, involve friends who have musical talents or crowd source a playlist from all your guests. There are an infinite number of ways you can get creative, save money, and make the wedding yours in the process.

 

Consider Your Guests’ Budgets Too

 

Your friends and family want to come celebrate with you, but for many of them it’s a big financial commitment. Doing what you can to make it easier for them will be much appreciated.

 

I have a friend who had a camping option, as one of the accommodations for her wedding. Not only was the price right, but it was a memorable experience. Suggesting accommodation options to guests with a range of prices is always appreciated.

Merging Finances with Your Partner

I work with a lot of new couples who are in the midst of merging their financial lives for the very first time. In fact, my fiance and I are in the process of doing it ourselves too.

 

It’s not an easy thing to figure out. There are logistics to handle, habits to change, emotions to manage, and often it feels like there is never enough time in the day for any of it.

 

But successfully managing money together is key to creating a happy partnership, so here are four pieces of advice as you go through this process yourself.

 

1. Focus on Joint Goals, Not Joint Accounts

 

It’s tempting to get caught up in the logistics of joining your finances. How do you create joint accounts? Which accounts should you join? What if you want to keep some money for yourself? Does that mean your relationship is in trouble?

 

Ignore all of that. It doesn’t matter. At least not at the start.

 

What really matters are your joint goals. What are you working towards? What is your shared vision for the life you’re building together?

 

Start having conversations about what you each value and want out of life. Listen to each other so you can truly understand what’s important to the other person.

 

Find the goals you already have in common and make those the priorities. And start talking about how you can find middle ground on the others.

 

This communication is the real key to successfully merging your finances. All the rest is just logistics.

 

2. Establish Shared Expenses

 

Now, about those logistics…

 

One easy place to start is with your everyday expenses. Things like cable, internet, electricity, and groceries.

 

Decide which expenses you want to share and how you want to split them up. For example, if one person makes significantly more, maybe they’re responsible for a bigger share of certain expenses. That way each of you is left with some free money at the end of it.

 

3. Create a System

 

There are two main ways you can start sharing those expenses.

 

The first is to create a joint bank account where those bills are paid. Then you each are responsible for transferring money to that account on a regular schedule to cover the bills. This lets you practice managing a joint account without having to join everything.

 

Another option is to put each person in charge of certain bills. For example, one of you could handle the cable bill while the other handles the electricity bill. This kind of system may be easier to get up and running quickly.

 

Also, create a system for long term savings. I know someone who gave half their paycheck to their partner to invest for the long term. This might not be the right move for you, but start by discussing each of your current habits and how you might change those or improve on them as a couple.

 

4. Plan for Extra Money

 

Here’s something my fiance and I have done that’s helped us a lot.

 

In addition to our regular expenses and savings, we each have a number of “wants” that our extra money could go towards. For example, I’d like to get curtains and my fiance wants gardening supplies.

 

So we made a list of these things and put them in priority order. And now any time we have some extra money, we simply refer to this list and put it towards the top item.

 

This makes these decisions easy, limits the opportunity for arguments, and ensures that we’re both able to indulge a little bit.

Retirement Planning

I think it’s safe to say that we all have the goal of one day reaching financial independence. That is, the point at which we have enough money in savings and investments to support ourselves for the rest of our lives. So, how much money is enough?

 

Most of the time that question is answered with a single big number. And it’s true that in the end you’re working towards a single total amount of savings and investments. But that total number is composed of many smaller numbers representing the savings you need to support each individual expense.

 

What if you looked at it that way? What if you broke it down by how much money you’ll need to support each expense, each habit, and each indulgence for the rest of your life without ever working again?

 

How Much Does That Gym Membership Really Cost?

 

Let’s look at a single expense. Say your gym membership. And let’s say that costs you $40 per month. How much money do you need in order to support that expense for the rest of your life?

 

Using the 4% rule, which says that you can withdraw 4% of your savings each year with minimal risk of ever running out of money, it becomes a simple math problem. Take the monthly cost, multiply it by 300, and you get your answer.

 

In this case, $40 multiplied by 300 equals $12,000. That is, you need $12,000 in savings to support that monthly gym membership for the rest of your life.

 

Values-Based Decision Making

 

Looking at it this way can help you make more informed values-based decisions when it comes to spending and saving.

 

For example, how long will it take you to save the $12,000 needed for your gym membership? And which do you value more? That habit or the ability to be financially independent a little sooner without it? What about a $500 per month car payment? That will require $150,000 in savings. Is that an expense you’d like to support?

 

There are no right or wrong answers here. The goal is simply to understand how each expense affects your savings need and to make decisions based on what you value.

 

How to Plan Differently

 

Next time you look at your budget, I would encourage you to do a few things differently. Consider the options related to each expense. For example, you could have a $500 per month car payment or a $200 per month car payment or take the bus, let’s say that is $50 per month or walk, $0 per month.

 

Then, for each category, multiply your monthly budget by 300 to see how much money you’ll need in order to support that expense for the rest of your life.

Smart financial decisions

It’s a noble endeavor, but the truth is that we’re all human and we all make less-than-optimal decisions from time to time. Myself included. Here are three examples where I made decisions that were frowned upon by my financial planning alter-ego.

#1: The Big Indulgence

My brother got married. It was a beautiful wedding, lots of fun with friends and family, and he and his wife had a great time. It was also a little awkward for me. As the older, single sister at the time, I honestly felt a little self-conscious.

So what did I do? I spent a LOT of money on makeup: brushes, blushes, two types of foundation, extra eye shadows. I went nuts! It was an emotional decision through and through. It was way more than I “should” have spent, and certainly more than I had planned. But I wanted to look good and the makeup helped me feel comfortable. It may not have been the most rational decision, but it was certainly a human one.

#2: The Overextension

A few years ago I decided to start my business. And while I was excited about the possibilities for how it could grow, there was also a lot about it that I couldn’t really plan for. I didn’t know how long it would take to be profitable, how much of my time it would consume, or really anything else about what the experience would truly be like.

So of course I also decided to start remodeling my house at exactly the same time. Another project with a lot of moving parts, a lot of uncertainty, and a big investment of time and money. Tackling two big goals at the same time caused a lot of stress. I was worried about money, stretched for time, and initially couldn’t give either one the attention they deserved.

My financial planner alter-ego should have told me to take one thing at a time. But in this case my impatience got the best of me.

#3: The Impulse Buy

In early January I got a call from a friend. She was heading for the Australian Open in a few weeks and she had an extra ticket. She was calling to see if I wanted to go. Heck yeah I wanted to go! This was the Australian Open! So without giving it too much thought, I said yes.

Of course, I hadn’t planned for this trip. At all. I hadn’t saved for it. I hadn’t carved the time out of my schedule. And it was only a few weeks away. This was a last-second, impulse decision to the extreme.

Now, I had an amazing time and don’t regret a single thing. But money was tighter in the months surrounding the trip and everything was just a little more stressful. In an ideal world I would have planned for this kind of trip months ahead of time. Sometimes life happens and the planning happens in hindsight.

Prepare for Emergencies

Last week Kristen and Julia, our rising high-school senior, visited McGill University in Montreal, Canada.  By all accounts it was a hugely successful trip. Julia is thrilled at the prospect of furthering her education and expanding her horizons. She will be 18-years old soon and “on her own” as a freshman, hopefully, at a college of her choice.

Students may be worried about making new friends, studying, and adjusting to college life. Parents or guardians may share these concerns too, but they should not neglect legal and financial matters. Our 18 year-olds are now adults who can enter into contracts, make their own health care decisions, and are afforded levels of privacy to which we may not be accustomed. Who will make medical decisions on behalf of your child if he or she is unable to do so? What will you do if you need to get medical information in a time of an emergency? Will you be able to have access or make decisions on financial/tuition matters with the bursar’s office? Is it important to have access to your child’s academic record? Consider these items allowing parents/guardians to assist their adult children before they leave for college:


Health care proxy
: This document allows your child to name someone they know and trust to make medical decisions on their behalf, if for any reason, they are unable to make the decision or communicate their wishes. While standard forms may be available on-line through state medical societies, your estate planning attorney can draft this document.


HIPPA release:
 The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA), a federal law, protects your child’s privacy even from parents. The act prohibits a health care provider from releasing any health care information unless your child provides the health care provider with a HIPPA release form naming you as an authorized recipient.


Durable power of attorney:
 This document allows your child to appoint an agent in order to manage his/ her financial matters. While parents may be paying the tuition bills, this does not grant authority to discuss or resolve their child’s financial issues with the college’s student accounts office or bursar’s office.


FERPA waiver:
 The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) governs privacy of educational records and prohibits an institution from discussing a student’s record with anyone unless the student has granted authorization. Colleges may allow students to grant access to one or more individuals via an on-line wavier form. However, remember your children are gaining independence and responsibility. Simply engaging your student may prove an equally, if not a more effective means of communication about how they are doing in school.

Survivors Benefits

Social Security Survivors benefits are paid to widows, children, parents and ex-spouses of covered workers.

The Social Security program actually consists of three benefit programs that make payments for various reasons. They are:

  1. Retirement benefits,
  2. Disability benefits,
  3. Survivors benefits.

This post covers number 3, Survivors benefits. These are not the same as the benefits commonly referred to as spousal benefits.

If a worker, who is covered by Social Security, dies and leaves family members behind, they are the “survivors” and are covered under the Survivors benefits program. Social Security will use the deceased worker’s record to calculate payments for his / her family.

There are four eligible parties that may receive payments after the worker’s death. They are the widow (or widower if the wife dies first), children, parent, and ex-spouse. Each has detailed rules for eligibility.

A widow(er) will get benefit payments if:

  • They are age 60+, or
  • Age 50+ and disabled, or
  • Any age and caring for a worker’s child under 16 or disabled and entitled to benefits on worker’s record.

A child will get benefit payments if:

  • They are under age 18, or
  • Between 18 and 19 and still in secondary school, or
  • Over age 18 and severely disabled before age 22.

A parent will get benefit payments if:

  • They are dependent on the deceased worker for greater than 50% of their support

An ex-spouse will get benefit payments if:

  • They fit one of the three requirements for widow(er) above and were married to covered worker for 10 or more years, and
  • They are not entitled to a larger benefit based on their own record, and
  • Not currently married unless marriage was after they turned 60 or 50 and are disabled.

Fear or Uncertainty

As I meet with clients to present their financial plan, it is common to sense a figurative (and often literal) sigh of relief at the meeting’s end. Admittedly, some may just be glad to have survived the long presentation, but I’m fairly certain that most are relieved to have a path forward.

 

A recent article on Govexec.com (“From Voting to Writing a Will: The Power of Making a Plan”) struck a chord with me and added a little bit of science to my observation. In this piece, Todd Rogers and Adan Acevedo apply behavioral science to show how having a plan can reduce the “intention-to-action gap” that so many of us can relate to.

 

Ideally, we should have a plan in place before a crisis hits and we need to act. This is a central theme in all aspects of financial planning – do you have a Will, is your emergency fund sufficient, is your home adequately insured, are you saving enough for retirement? Thinking about these questions and then building a plan to address them can decrease some of the stress and anxiety in our lives.

 

During the recent Metro Washington Financial Planning Day, one of the presentations addressed the value of running a “financial fire drill.” As children we were taught to “stop, drop, and roll” during fire safety awareness events. As adults, a financial fire drill can help us assess whether we are prepared to address adversity in our financial lives.

 

An effective plan defines the desired end goal as well as the necessary steps to achieve that goal. We may need to adjust our initial path as “life happens,” but the planning process is iterative and can help keep us on track. I borrowed a bit of wisdom from my colleagues and now use it at the conclusion of each financial plan I write: “Financial planning is an ongoing process as opposed to a single event and your plan will need to change as your life changes.“ Do you have a plan to push beyond life’s challenges and reach your goals?