Monday, January 27, 2014

Make sure you can afford your next new car

I hope you had an opportunity to visit the North American International Auto Show this month. I thought it was spectacular and I tip my hat to all of the auto firms that exhibited, especially our beloved three, General Motors, Ford and Chrysler.

The products coming out of Detroit continue to be incredible and I think the rest of the world will soon discover and appreciate the quality and innovation coming out of Motown.

Naturally, a large part of the car buying process is determining what’s affordable. If money were no object, many of us would probably be driving Ferraris or Rolls Royces.

That’s why, as a financial advisor, I have to go through sort of a tug of war between encouraging people to save and invest or spend judiciously. That’s an especially tough call when a big-ticket item such as a new car is involved.

Of course, it’s important for families to have dependable transportation. It’s very difficult to be a reliable and responsible employee without one. So, in that respect, the purchase of a good vehicle is extremely important.

As a financial adviser, when advising on any big-ticket item like an automobile, I always recommend that families should be able to own what they purchase. You’ve probably heard the expression “house poor.” Well, the same principle can apply to cars. That’s why I often tell clients that more horsepower is great, but make certain you can afford to feed all the horses.

The auto show is a wonderful way to begin the New Year and perhaps do some research for your next new car purchase. To help put into focus what is affordable, I’d like to remind everyone that Uncle Sam is taking a larger bite out of your paychecks in 2014.

If you’re one of the 10 million Americans that earn in excess of $100,000, you’re going to have less disposable income because your Social Security tax is increasing. For 2014, the wage base jumps 2.9 percent, from $113,700 to $117,000. You might say that’s “only” about a $200 increase, but the total employee tax is now $7,254. And don’t forget, your employer matches that number.

For those married couples fortunate enough to earn more than $250,000, there is an additional Medicare surtax of just under 1 percent. Many of you will find this out when you file your 2013 tax return. The increase actually went it to effect last year, but it was under the radar, so I think many will be a bit surprised when they file their tax return.

There are several new taxes or tax increases attached to the Affordable Care Act as well, including a tax on medical devices costing more that $100.

The Auto Show certainly offers a number of outstanding choices from which to select a new car. But, as with any investment, you need to do your due diligence. In this ever-changing world, it’s important that you know what you can afford, especially after taxes.

It costs money to own a car or truck. In addition to maintenance, there’s insurance and the cost of filling the gas tank. It adds up. Going to the auto show is fun and exciting, but before you make your purchase, make certain you have a good grasp of reality.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

How to cope with economic anxiety

With the holidays behind us, and the unseasonably cold weather taking a break, most households are back into their routines. But, as we all know, in today’s world, there is nothing routine about our economy.

From an investor’s perspective, there have been two years in a row with excellent returns. 2013, for example, saw the DJIA post its largest ever annual point gain, a whopping 1,072 points. It was also the largest yearly percentage gain since 1995.

Yet, despite the strong investment returns so many enjoyed, it appears to me that investor anxiety remains high. Although the year is still young, I have already had several clients in my office echoing that very concern. They just seem to have a lack of confidence in this economy and are uncertain as to how it will impact them.

I certainly understand why such lack of confidence in the economy persists, but as a financial advisor I think there are steps you can add to your planning process that will help minimize some of the anxiety.

I believe the distrust of the economy and the anxiety is justified. With such issues as the debt ceiling debate, much uncertainty still lies ahead. The easy solution in the planning process could simply be to save as much as you can because you are very likely going to have to spend more in retirement than you ever imagined.

And while saving and investing more may be an admirable goal, it doesn’t necessarily mitigate any of the anxiety that may lie ahead. My suggestion for minimizing the anxiety of the unknown and lack of confidence in the economy is simply to improve what you can control and not worry about what you can’t. Let me provide some examples.

An often-repeated mantra is the lack of confidence in Social Security. Will it be there when you reach retirement age? Maybe. Maybe not. Because mathematically, there’s no way it can continue on its current path. Just take a look at your most recent Social Security report. It states in black and white, that at its current level, there will only be enough funds to pay 74 percent of the projection listed on your statement.

Rather than worry about it, plan for it by lowering your expectations. In other words, as you crunch the numbers in preparation for your retirement, simply anticipate less from the Social Security bucket.

Another worry is the cost of health care. Without being political, I believe the new health care law has increased anxiety, not reduced it. There are steps to take to help minimize anxiety. For example, if you work, and you have a high deductible health care plan, see if you’re eligible for a Health Savings Account. If so, contribute to it. You might also consider a long-term care policy or a life insurance policy with a living benefit.

If the future causes you anxiety, focus on what disturbs you the most and then determine your course of action.

Nobody has a crystal ball and families are beginning to realize that Uncle Sam isn’t going to pay for everything. With proper planning, you can take steps to help reduce economic anxiety. It’s a new year and I encourage all my readers to discuss your concerns with their advisors.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Save money in 2014 using the snowball effect

How much money would you guess is held in the collective retirement accounts of everyone throughout the United States? Billions? Trillions? I recently came across some data from the Investment Company Institute that answers that question. I thought my readers would find it quite interesting. I know I was surprised at the amount.

The ICI is the investment company industry’s primary source for statistical data and research on investors and retirement plans. According to their research, as of September 30, 2013, the total value of retirement assets in the United States was $21.7 trillion, which accounted for 34 percent of all household financial assets.

$21.7 trillion is a staggering sum of money. Especially when you consider that taxes have not been paid on most retirement dollars. In other words, there’s roughly $5 trillion in future tax revenues that Uncle Sam is waiting to scoop up.

Unfortunately, it probably won’t do Uncle Sam much good. More than likely, it’s already been spent before it ever lands in the government coffers.

Exactly where can this $21.7 trillion be found? In Individual Retirement Accounts, defined contribution plans, government pension plans and private sector defined benefit plans.

The largest amount, $6 trillion, is held in Individual Retirement Accounts. In the category of defined contribution plans, which includes 401(k) plans, there’s $5.6 trillion, of which an astounding $4 trillion is in the 401(k) plans. Nearly 60 percent of the $5.6 trillion is invested in mutual funds.

In the pension category, federal state and local governments account for $5.4 trillion, while private sector defined benefit plans held $2.9 trillion. If you’re doing the math, annuity reserves outside of retirement accounts accounted for the other $1.9 trillion.

The bottom line is that there’s a lot of money in our nation earmarked for retirement. And every one of those dollars needs to be watched carefully and managed prudently. That being said, everybody has to start somewhere.

So, where should you start? Well, consider that an enormous snow boulder begins with a small snowball. If you don’t have any money in this staggering sum, or if you want to increase your share of the pot of retirement dollars, let me suggest two relatively simple ideas for 2014.

Only two things are needed. The easy one is a bucket or piggy bank. The difficult one is dedication.

One plan of action is flat line saving. That simply means you save a specified amount every week throughout the year. For example, by routinely saving $25 a week, believe it or not, you’ll have $1,300 by the end of the year. And that’s not counting any interest.

Another idea, one that requires you to keep an eye on the calendar, is to save the amount of dollars to match the week of the year. For example, for the first week of January, you only have to save $1. That’s easy! And so is saving $2 for week number two.

By week 20, you’re saving $20 and by week 40, you’re putting $40 into the piggy bank. Surprisingly, this method actually surpasses the $25 week routine because at the end of 52 weeks you’ll have $1,378 in savings.

You have to start somewhere and these methods are simple. Small amounts can grow into significant amounts. It simply takes dedication.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Traditional, Roth IRAs play a vital role in retirement planning

Before we look ahead to 2014, don’t shut the door entirely on 2013. Remember, you still have time to open an Individual Retirement Account for the 2013 tax year. If you need a deduction, consider a traditional IRA. If not, I strongly encourage readers to open a Roth IRA if they are eligible. Both the traditional and Roth IRA have a myriad of eligibility rules and regulations, so if you are thinking about contributing, be certain you’re indeed eligible. IRA accounts are often overlooked, but I truly believe they can play a vital role in retirement planning.

That being said, following what was a fairly productive year for many investors, I expect to see a lot of negative headlines in the press and on the financial television networks. The pundits will soon be putting fear into investor’s minds. For example, I expect financial articles to scream headlines such as “Are we overdue for a major market correction?” or “How to prepare for the upcoming market downturn.”

Many of the newsletter writers will be out there forecasting impending doom as well. I’ve already seen one guy advertising that he sold his $1 million portfolio and is going to advise everyone how to start building a new one from scratch. Another predicts that the Dow will fall by 50% or more. Don’t accept it for a fact.

Instead, you should take such scare tactics with a grain of salt. After all, these guys are basically just trying to sell you newsletters and will say what they need to say to get your attention.

The fact of the matter is that nobody can accurately and consistently predict the future. Even the most successful investors will tell you that trying to time the market is an iffy proposition. I wouldn’t let short-term headlines dictate your long-term planning.

At some time during 2014, something is going to happen in the investment world that will cause investors a few sleepless nights. In fact, there will likely be several times over the course of the year.

But as I often say, you need to have an iron stomach and stay committed to your strategy regardless of market conditions. Market fluctuations are normal and often irrational. What causes the market to go down one day turns out to be irrelevant the next. It was commitment to strategy that rewarded investors in 2013 and I expect it to ultimately reward them again in the years ahead.

I am excited about 2014. Yes, there are a lot of people out there who are expecting a market correction following a powerful year. And they may be right. It is possible.

But it’s also possible that the powerful rally will continue. Again, nobody can say for certain, including the pundits in the media and the newsletter writers. One thing is for certain, you need to prepare for the upcoming year.

At a minimum, I suggest you review your 2013 year-end portfolio to determine if you need to re-balance. Take a good look at the contributions into your retirement programs like your 401(k). In other words, get everything in order for 2014 and expect the unexpected. I’m sure the New Year will have a few surprises, but don’t let them knock you off your investment track.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

A simple plan for 2014: Expect the unexpected

Overall, most economic indicators show that the economy is gaining strength. A large contributing factor was the Federal Reserve bond buyback. In non-financial terms, the economy has been boosted by the medicine injected by the Federal Reserve.

In 2014, it appears the Federal Reserve will begin to wean us off the stimulating medicine. As we open the book on 2014, the question becomes whether or not the economy is strong enough to stand on its own two feet.

Only time will tell, but there are other hurdles that stand in the way of steady improvement. I believe our nation’s deficit spending is a major concern. And who knows where the uncertainty over the new health care law will lead?

Although the actions of the Federal Reserve and Congressional spending are important in the big picture, my concern as a financial adviser is the impact all these policies will have on my clients and readers.

I am neither a market forecaster nor an economist, but I have a feeling 2014 will be a somewhat choppy year. That could easily translate into interest rates beginning to climb and a stock market seeking direction.

For your kitchen table planning, I believe you need to maintain financial discipline regardless of the direction of interest rates or the stock market. For example, you should continue contributing to your retirement plans and use your credit cards judiciously. My suggestion for 2014 is to keep it simple. Expect the unexpected and stay on target regardless of the negative headlines. That means, among other things, paying yourself first and holding the reins on credit card spending.

Reviewing the past year, I’m finding that far too many people over thought it. Their instincts said the economy would collapse and “experts” and commercials urged pouring money into gold and silver. Don’t get me wrong, a reasonable percentage into precious metals is fine, but too many people listened to too many commercials.

Unfortunately for those that bought large amounts of gold in 2013, the gold market fell hard. Others, who listened to the doom and gloom on television, sat on their cash and their hard-earned money barely grew.

Too many gold buyers and cash sitters missed out on all the fun in 2013. Most of them would likely have fared better by sticking to their original strategies.

I have always said that wealthy retirees didn’t necessarily choose better investments than others. Rather, over the years they remained disciplined and consistent with their investments in a myriad of market conditions.

They had a disciplined method and they stuck with it. They paid themselves first during tough times, didn’t overspend during the good times and didn’t panic when the television newscasters said it was time to panic. In short, they did not change their investment strategies.

Looking at their success reminded me that simple and consistent money habits can turn out just fine. Again, I suggest you keep it simple in 2014. Don’t let headlines and others derail you from your financial goals and investment objectives.

Naturally, I will do my best to keep you informed and up to date, and I wish my clients and readers all the best in 2014. I plan to be with you throughout the year to help keep you educated and informed.

Prepare a financial game plan for 2014

Like the blink of an eye, holidays come and go at lightning speed. A common term in football is “three and out,” and it’s followed by a punt. In life, the three and out are Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s.

From a financial perspective, many people do punt following the big three holidays. In other words, they begin the next year by going though the same motions as the previous year. As we reach the apex of the holidays, please don’t just turn the page to 2014.

Can you imagine going to a football game and watching the offense run the exact same play over and over? Well, that’s what many households do with their finances. As we close the book on 2013 and open the pages to 2014, I urge you to review 2013 and develop a game plan for 2014. Because if circumstances haven’t already changed, they’re soon going to.

Look at 2014 as an opportunity to implement some new offensive plays. Take your 401(k) for example. Instead of just sticking with the status quo, consider reviewing your menu of investment choices and increasing your contribution every pay period.

Other examples would be paying down the principal on your mortgage or opening a new type of investment account. In short, don’t just wake up and assume your 2013 game plan is going to work in 2014. Instead, act like a football coach and add some new plays to your playbook.

That being said, 2013 was probably a pretty good year for many investors. At the other end of the spectrum, however, others were stunned about what recently happened to their health insurance premiums. But everyone may soon realize that 2013 had several other steep increases when they prepare to file their tax returns.

Because most people get paid once or twice a month, they may not be aware that they had an increase in the amount being withheld for Social Security taxes. On an income of $100,000, this amounted to about a $2,000 increase over the year. But there plenty more increases for 2014 waiting in the wings.

People at the high end of the income scale will find the top tax bracket has increased from 35 percent to 40.5 percent. The tax rate on interest income has jumped from 35 percent to 43.4 percent, and the capital gains tax went from 15 percent to 23.8 percent. High-income earners will also discover that the Affordable Care Act has upped the Medicare tax from 1.45 percent to 2.35 percent.

The reality is, with pensions becoming dinosaurs, personal investment decisions are more important than ever. That, combined with increasing taxes and ever-changing government rules, suggests that new game plans are in order.

Just closing the book on one year and opening the book on the next without any kind of financial inventory or a change in your financial game plan is a recipe for mediocrity. But with a little effort and thoughtful planning, I’m confident you can make 2014 a good financial year.

However, even with the taller financial hurdles ahead, when you consider the big picture, many of us are very fortunate. This is the time of year to be generous to the less fortunate. So, to all my readers, I wish good fortune and a Merry Christmas.