Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Veterans fought for you; let’s fight for them

For the first time in a number of years, I recently traveled outside of the United States. As much as I enjoyed my brief trip, I was nonetheless thrilled to return and once again walk on American soil. Being gone for just a few days really opened my eyes as to how truly fortunate we all are to live in this country.

As a nation, we certainly have our share of problems and issues. But at the end of the day, in my humble opinion, it’s still the best place to live in the world. And much of what we tend to take for granted was paid for with the lives of members of our great military.

Lately, there have been numerous reports that the Veterans Administration is not delivering the care that our nation’s veterans need and deserve. It appears to me that the problems have very little to do with a lack of funding. Instead, I believe it’s the layers and layers of bureaucracy that military personnel and their families have to wrestle with before they can even get an appointment, let alone receive the appropriate care.

Pondering this situation got me to thinking about the military from a financial perspective; specifically benefits. Established in 1930, the purpose of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is to provide patient care and federal benefits to veterans and their dependents.

A noble objective, but the Department of Veterans Affairs is, after all, a bureaucracy. The good news is that they have a toll free number: 800-827-1000. I mention this because I sense that many families don’t realize that their aging loved ones may be eligible for supplemental benefits.

For example, a low-income widow of a WWII veteran whose late husband served at least 90 days of active duty could be eligible for a pension as high as $625 per month. To qualify, he or she had to have served at least one of those days during a period of war.

In other words, if you have a veteran friend or loved one who needs care, I urge you to buckle up and begin going through the Veterans Administration forms. Even if you believe there is only a remote possibility they are eligible for benefits. You have nothing to lose and, potentially, much to gain.

The other financial aspect of war I’d like to mention is the cost. Wars are far more expensive than you might think. For example, most history books show the cost of the war in Viet Nam as $140 billion. However, many believe when factoring in benefits to Veterans and their survivors, the true cost exceeds $350 billion.

I recently came across an article that said there is still one survivor from the Civil War receiving benefits. From the Spanish American War of 1898, there are 16 people receiving benefits, and more than 4,000 from World War I.

I say good for them and thanks to everyone that served in all of our country’s wars. I’d also like to remind family members to make certain veterans receive all the care and benefits they deserve. As much as I disdain bureaucracy, fighting bureaucratic red tape is a small price to pay to help veterans and their families receive everything to which they are entitled.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Newly wed means new challenges to face

The warm weather has finally arrived.  Once again, baseball and soccer fields will be surrounded by mini vans filled with youngsters eager to participate with their teammates.         

Spring is also the time when young adults get dressed up to attend their high school’s prom, followed by the pomp and circumstance of high school graduation.

Then comes college, and four years later, an auditorium or stadium full of young adults eager to go out and face the world.  As they sit there and listen to the encouraging and inspirational words of their commencement speaker, they’re hopeful that they can live up to his or her words.

Unfortunately, it may not be easy.  Because the road they must travel is going to be far different from the road my generation and I had to navigate.  Things have changed dramatically over the last few decades, and they will continue to do so.

Take my journey, for example. I no longer have a minivan.  I no longer receive phone calls asking me if I’m willing to chaperone for a high school event or field trip.  And, thankfully, I am finished writing checks for college tuition.  As spring turns into summer, I am officially at that stage of life that I like to call professional wedding attendee.

For the past few years, it seems like I was at a wedding reception almost every weekend.  Today, I’m excited to share with my readers that the next wedding I will be attending is one that my wife and I are hosting. My middle son is tying the knot with a lovely young lady.

From a financial perspective, as with so many other things in life, the cost of getting married is far more than I had imagined.  But, that’s not really surprising.

Looking back, every big-ticket item along my life’s journey cost more than I thought.  Who ever dreamed a new car would cost more than $20,000 or that it would be common for a new home to exceed $200,000?  Who ever imagined that someone could graduate from college with a burden of student loan debts of more than $100,000?

But the reality is everything in the world today is expensive.  A question that I frequently like to ask at our retirement education programs is, “Who paid more for their last car than they paid for the first house?”  Not surprisingly, there ‘s a chuckle and a lot of hands are raised indicating that that is indeed accurate.

Today, all adults tying the knot are facing incredible financial hurdles in their future.  It’s an expensive world that I believe will become even more expensive in the years ahead.  Not only will they face rising costs for big-ticket items, like housing and education, but I believe other significant burdens are also being put onto the shoulders of our young adults.

For example, there’s been a steady shift from corporate retirement programs to individual saving accounts.  More and more of the cost of health care has shifted onto the family.  And, of course, it seems like Uncle Sam’s insatiable appetite for taxes has no limits.

It’s exciting to see all these young couples getting married.  I hope they realize just how expensive their journey together will be.

And that they plan accordingly for what’s to come.

Monday, May 12, 2014

When the going gets tough, talk to Mom

Over the course of a lifetime, we all face various challenges. In the recent economic meltdown that our nation has slowly been crawling out of, we lost an incredible 8.8 million jobs.

This resulted in economic mayhem and personal stress in households throughout the nation. Many mortgage payments went unpaid. And as they lost their jobs or were forced to retire sooner than expected, many felt that the deck was stacked against them. The fact that millions of others were out of the job market was little consolation.

Prior to the recession, the participation rate was already declining due to such factors as globalization, technological advances and changing demographics. As the recession hit, the loss of jobs accelerated.

Only now have we reached the point of recovering the jobs that were lost during the great recession. But we still need significantly more jobs to get the economy to the point where we can say it’s humming along.

But right now, stagnant is a better description of the economy. Our GDP is currently growing at the anemic rate of less than 2.5 percent. The average age of cars on the road is a shocking 12 years. Many experts have referred to this as a jobless recovery.

Why can’t the economy seem to gain any traction? There are many reasons. Without getting too political, reckless government spending and constant Washington bickering play a large role.

Unfortunately, we still have plenty to worry about. Last year, the major sources of economic worry were internal issues like the debt ceiling and budget deal. Now the concern seems to be geopolitical with the possible re-emergence of the Cold War.

I bring these things up because, once again, investors need iron stomachs to climb the wall of worry. Emotions need to be kept on the sidelines. For most investors, in spite of all the worries and concerns, the last two years were pretty rewarding. I have no crystal ball, but I remain optimistic about the future.

I was recently at a conference with some of the best and brightest financial and economic experts you could ever meet. But the one person I most enjoyed hearing was not in the personal finance business. Rather, it was a former athlete now in the entertainment business.

Yes, I had the good fortune to meet former Super Bowl quarterback Terry Bradshaw, now an NFL analyst. Obviously, winning multiple Super Bowls brings a certain amount of fame. But as he pointed out, enjoying the journey and staying on top is the key. Even though he was a famous athlete, like households everywhere, he had severe issues and setbacks, including financial. But his desire to rebound both mentally and financially is what impressed me the most.

As is usually the case, it was his parents who provided constant support throughout all the ups and downs. He described himself as a mama’s boy. And why not? It seems that no matter how many ups and downs we have in life, whether it’s in sports, business or our personal lives, the support and unconditional love we receive from our moms is a given.

I would like to thank my mom and all the mothers everywhere who stand by their sons regardless of life’s circumstances. Simply stated, Happy Mother’s Day.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Want to keep up with technology? Ask your grandkids

Over the years I have been very fortunate to meet and pick the brains of some of the best and brightest financial advisers, economists and financial analysts from all over our country.

I was recently at an educational workshop listening to and taking notes from various presenters. While they may have disagreed on various investment and economic projections, they all agreed emphatically that the world is changing. And I was astonished to realize how rapidly it’s changing.

One speaker pointed out that this is the first time in American history that the elderly are looking to the youth for information. I am a perfect example in that when a son or daughter-in-law comes to visit, it seems I’m constantly asking them to resolve or fix a technical issue on a phone or a computer.

The point is that, while it may be a technological issue for me, it’s basic knowledge for the youth of our nation. For example, my wife recently reminded me that while she was visiting our grandkids, our almost 3-year-old grandson asked her if she brought her iPad. What is often a puzzle for adults is the norm for the youth.

One presenter, Scott Klososky, mentioned that in today’s world telephones are not really phones. He actually referred to them as outboard brains, and I have to admit, I think he’s right on the money.

We’re entering an era where people are trying to find the balance between humanity and technology. Picture a family of four sitting at the dinner table, each of them staring at their smart phones and not interacting with one another. That is a scene that’s out of balance.

On the other hand, a family not utilizing technology is likely to have difficulty climbing the economic ladder. Finding the right blend between the use of technology and social skills is a challenge that lies ahead for many.

Technology is changing the landscape throughout the entire world. In years past, cities and malls were full of record stores. Technology companies like Apple changed the way we purchase and play our music. Kindles and iPads changed the way we read books. These technologies are great, but there are losers as well. Consider the demise of Borders Books and the recent closings of several Barnes & Noble stores.

I’d like to remind readers that just 14 years ago Kodak had one of its most profitable years. At the time, they had many patents in hand for the upcoming change in technology. Unfortunately, they didn’t make adjustments fast enough and went through bankruptcy. Kodak was not alone. There are numerous firms that no longer exist, primarily because they failed to utilize technology. But all is not doom and gloom because technological upstarts such as Facebook and Instagram have taken their place. These companies not only know how to embrace technology, but also how to touch the human side of us all.

Clearly, the world is changing at the speed of light. What people my age need to learn and embrace is simply what the younger generations already know. It’s the norm for them.

Although some companies may lose, I believe technology will ultimately improve our lifestyles and the way we function every day. And, of course, new technology will offer numerous investment opportunities.