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Archive for Retirement Planning

Apr
04

Tax Time – Do you understand your tax return?

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Whoa – I was amazed to see that my husband and I were getting a giant tax refund this year.  Good as it feels to get that nice check from the government, mathematically it doesn’t make a lot of sense to try to get a lot of money back.  You’ve just loaned that money, interest free to the government for a year.

This year, though, that rate of return definitely beats out the performance of my portfolio in the stock market… wonder if I should think of it as diversification?

Part of the reason our refund was so big is that we had a baby this year and my husband didn’t adjust his withholding at work.  Also, we have a number of real estate investments in our portfolio, and we have the ability to write off the “depreciation” on these because I am a full time real estate professional.  That’s a special tax status that lets you have unlimited depreciation loss, rather than capping the loss at $25,000 each year.

The more involved in real estate and business you get, the more opportunities you have to save money on your taxes.  However, you’ll also be getting more and more complicated tax returns to fill out.

I discovered a few years ago that I could not efficiently and accurately complete my own tax returns and I started using a CPA which was a great decision for me.  They do it much faster and cheaper than I could do it myself.  That’s another form of leverage, freeing up my time to focus on revenue generating activities.

If you’ve started using a tax preparation software or other tax professional to prepare your taxes, it’s still important to review your return.  It would have been easy for me to skip to the bottom line, see I wasn’t going to have to write a check for my taxes, and sign and mail my returns after my accountant sent them back to me.

 

Instead, I decided to sit down and review them and I found several items I had questions about.  Whether you find errors and inaccuracies, or just notice items that show you’re saving money or have the opportunity to pay less tax, it’s important to know what you’re doing with your finances, and your annual tax filing is a good time to sit down and review things when the numbers are all in one place.

Look at how much you’re spending on taxes, medical insurance, interest on your home mortgage, and your retirement savings.  These are some of our biggest expenses and it’s good to know where the money’s going.

Financial reviews more often are even better, but at tax time, they are a must!

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Mar
04

Are You Getting Out of The Market?

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I promised I’d keep you up to date on the stock market insights passed along from my Father who spend a good deal of his time immersed in the financial news of the day.  And there is some heated political commentary here which I don’t apologize for since I think the misguided “fairness” policies of the Obama regime are in large part responsible for a lot of the pessimism in the stock market now.

My parents are so upset that my Dad really shocked me when he told me last night that he was stabilizing his financial position by getting SIGNIFICANTLY out of the stock market, selling shares at a loss, and going into secure assets like cash and treasury bonds.

OUCH!

He suggested that he is concerned that the stock market will continue to do badly for the next 2-5 years or more and that the recession that we’re currently in will turn to a depression shortly.

This might be a good time for you to review one of my most popular posts – What to invest in during a recession.

Given that Ben and I are much earlier in our investing careers and not approaching a retirement horizon as my baby-boomer parents are, he admitted that it might make more sense for Ben and me to not SELL in order to increase our cash position, but to continue to stock pile cash, rather than dollar-cost-averaging into the market as it continues the Obama-fueled free fall.

Assuming the market has another few bad years ahead of it, we don’t need to be in a rush to continue buying in.

Take away lesson – look for security in cash, government bonds, and precious metals.

Inflation and Deflation

Also, he mentioned that we face both inflationary and deflationary risk.

Deflation will come in the short term – this is caused by economic contractions in which people lose their jobs and can not afford to pay as much for things like houses, cars, food, recreation, etc.  Deflation will cause the cost of goods to go down.  This is bad for businesses and people who hold real estate, as the prices they can charge for goods and services will decrease.

Inflation will come over a longer period and Dad thinks it is somewhat inevitable at this point.  Inflation means that the currency loses it’s value and spending power.  Milk used to cost $3 a gallon and now it costs $4.  This erosion of the dollar will massacre baby boomers’ retirement funds.  (This is unfortunate for Obama’s so-called “Investor Class” since it punishes the people who have worked hard and saved and done the responsible thing all their lives…)  Anyway, inflation will be one of the few “tools” that the government has to dig us out of this mess with.

When inflation strikes, leverage can be your friend (the opposite is true during Deflationary economies).

Bottom Line: Cash Now, Buy Later

It’s an ugly time in the US economy right now.  The smart money is on storing up cash until “the bottom” – whenever that might be – and keeping an eye out for a turn around, both in stocks and real estate.

For the stock market, the news today said that we’d know we were close to the bottom when the market didn’t keep having these giant downward slides like it has for the last couple days, and we started to see stronger interest in buying into the market.

The real estate market is a little slower moving and even easier to time the bottoms on.  There’s some great information about knowing when to buy, sell and hold real estate here.

 

Family Budget Best Bets:  Keep your job, look for extra ways to earn income – such as babysitting, lawn mowing, delivering pizza, starting a business, etc.  Then sock it away!  According to my friends in MLMs, network marketing or “direct selling” as it’s called now, does well during a recession because people are willing to put the time and energy into making a second stream of income during lean times.

 

Good luck!

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Although I’m not the biggest fan of Suze Orman, it’s hard for me to pass up the opportunity to read some well thought-out financial tips from a nationally recognized advisor.   If you haven’t heard, you can download Suze’s latest 2009 book for free from Oprah’s website until Thursday, January 15 at midnight.  You can also buy it for $10 at Amazon.com

Suze Orman’s Advice on Saving For College

Since I have been working on setting up baby Blake’s college savings recently, I skipped to page 160 to read her chapter about college savings.  It was focused primarily on “What to do about college now that your college savings tanked when the stock market took a dive…” There was a lot of discussion about loan options and financial aid that didn’t really interest me.

What did interest me was the following few points – my personal takeaways from the chapter:

  1. Keep your child’s college savings 100% invested in stocks until your child is 14 years old.  Between the ages of 14 and 17, gradually divest until none of the portfolio is in stocks.  – My husband and I have talked about this one, he feels that 100% in stocks is still too risky.  My rule of thumb is: Don’t put anything in the stock market that you can’t afford to keep there for at least 5 years.  With that in mind, I might start shifting the portfolio balance toward bonds/cash a little earlier than this.
  2. Use a 529 Plan.  She mentioned Coverdell plans, but 529’s were the emphasis.
  3. Don’t get a private loan for college under any circumstances.
  4. Save for your retirement first and THEN put away an appropriate amount for your child’s savings.  Don’t put your child’s college savings ahead of your own retirement, in terms of saving priority.
  5. Visit www.saveforcollege.com to get more information on saving for college.

I actually did visit this website, which had a handy-dandy college-savings calculator.  It told me that I should be putting away $602/month for my child’s college savings.  Not far off from the $641/month I calculated on my recent article on financial planning for college.

 

A lot of the advice in the book seems to be working under the assumption that you have been negatively affected by the recent stock market crash and are experiencing job loss, panic selling, getting behind on your house payments, going through a personal credit crunch, or experiencing other problems with your finances right now.  It’s pretty much a back-to-basics tome coming from a conservative, “the sky’s not falling, but you do need to be safe” perspective, encouraging you to pay off your credit cards and make sure you have health insurance.

This may be timely for some families, but I did not find it especially relevant or inspirational.  However, it’s free, so I can’t complain.  Thanks, Suze!  Be sure to pick up your free copy and let me know what you think!

 

Emily

When it comes to college savings, you may feel that you’re fighting an impossible battle, but the more you can save and the earlier you start, the more options your kids will have down the road.

Now that we have a baby in the house, starting to save for college has become a big topic of conversation for my husband and me.

Not only do we have to decide what type of plan to go with – we’re batting around doing BOTH a 529 Plan and a Coverdell Educational Savings Plan – but also how much to set aside.

The fact is, the top private colleges are extremely expensive and yearly tuition hikes show no signs of slowing. 

In fact, I read a interesting article recently saying that some schools were boosting their perceived desirability by charging MORE. Admissions actually went up when some schools raised their tuition because students have begun to equate a high price tag with a high quality education.

Can You Save Enough For Your Child’s College Education?

“In the absence of any objective measure of the value of an education, price becomes the default yardstick. The more expensive a college is, the better the education it presumably provides. (After all, if other families were willing to pay this much to send their kids here, it must be worth it.)” – www.Money.CNN.com

No doubt about it, college is getting expensive.  Assuming you wanted to, could you actually afford to send your kids to a private 4-year college? Here’s what you’d have to save:

  • Tuition, room & board, books, etc. at a private college may be on average around $142,000 for the whole she-bang.  Using $25,000 for tuition, $7,000 for room and board, and an additional $3,500 or so for books, travel, and entertainment each year, or $35,500/year.
  • At a public college with a tuition of closer to $6,500, but the same cost of living expenses, we could expect a yearly bill of $17,000 or $68,000 all together.  I know where I could buy a house for that much money, right now… (Come to think of it, maybe I should just buy that house on a 20-year mortgage and plan to sell it when junior’s ready for college…)

If you think that the cost of education will keep rising, let’s say at an average rate of about 5% a year, you’ll actually need more than this to pay for your child’s costs by the time he’s old enough for college.

Building in this price inflation, you could be looking at:

  • Private College Education Costs in 2028: $377,000
  • Public College Education Costs in 2028: $180,000

Whew!  That’s a real sting, but it pays to be more realistic and foresighted now, than to be caught flat-footed with fewer options on the table down the road.

Does Your Financial Plan For Your Kids College Let You Start Saving (and Investing) Now?

What all this means is if you want your kids to have the option of the very best education money can buy, and you start saving when they’re born, with a 20-year investment window, let’s see how much you have to put aside each month.  (I’m going to assume an 8% rate of return because we’ll need to invest a little more conservatively since we don’t have as many years for the investment to grow.)

  • To save up for the public school education, we’d need to save $3,700/year and we’d end up with $182,825 in 20 years.  That’s setting aside just $308/month per child.
  • To save up for the private school education, you’re looking at socking away more like $7,700/year to accumulate $380,474 in 20 years’ time.  That works out to $641/month per child, which is a much heftier chunk of change, especially when you consider the cost of several children. 
  • Also, if you start later, say when each child is five years old, you’d have to put away for $525/month for public school and $1,083/month/child for private.

 

I know most of us aren’t putting away that much for our own retirements (retirement savings should take priority over college savings in your financial plan, by the way) much less saving it up for the kids’ college.  It’s a big undertaking, especially when you consider all the other costs that come along with a new baby.

At a certain point, if you’re not incredibly wealthy, I think you have to just say, “I will save as much as I can reasonably put toward my kids’ college education, and if they want or need more when the time comes, perhaps they can contribute to the costs through their own job or business, through scholarships, and through debt. 

I was fortunate to get a college scholarship myself.  Even though it wasn’t to a fancy-schmancy private school  (rather, it was to a great public university), I decided to take it because it offered a great value.  There are lots of grants and scholarships available for kids who keep their grades up and excel in extra-curriculars.

Keep Your Head Down and Your Chin Up (If You Can Do Both At The Same Time) And Start Saving

It can be frustrating to feel like you’re fighting a no-win battle to save for a college education for your children.  The key is to not get discouraged, but to just make regular, affordable contributions month-in-and-month-out.

You may not be able to save 100% of what your kids will need for college, but remember that this is a gift to them, and everything that you CAN save will relieve them from debt, work, and compromise down the road.  However, although I’m not a big fan of debt.. hard work and compromise aren’t always so bad.

Keep Pluggin’ Away!

 

Emily

Dec
11

What Does Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich Have To Teach Us About Ethics?

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Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich By now, we’ve all heard about the governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, trying to auction of President-elect Obama’s vacated senate seat.  This type of unethical behavior in pursuit of profits is particularly abominable when we see it practiced in politics and by people in a fiduciary position of trust and power.  What’s happened to our country that we have elected officials who think this is OK, and a number of people in the media willing to just say "Oh, that’s Illinois politics for you," and kind of laugh it off?

It’s troubling to see this type of corruption in our politics.  But I don’t believe Blagojevich’s case is isolated, or that this is just a problem in politics.  I am afraid unethical behavior in pursuit of personal gain is more common than I previously realized.

Other Investors and Business People Have Noticed The Sliding Ethical Scales…

I went for a walk yesterday with a former student, now a friend, who is a fellow entrepreneur and stay-at-home Dad here in Seattle.  Michael told me about some of his recent investments and some private lending he’s been doing.  Passive investments like these are a great way to generate income once you have built your wealth to a level of "critical mass" where you can live off the INCOME from your savings, and not have to eat into the principle.

He’s having some trouble with one of his partners though, so we eventually ended up talking a bit about business ethics and the prevalent lack thereof in many cases.  Sometimes we stay awake at night wondering if what people are telling us is real or whether it’s just what they feel needs to be said to "get the deal done."

We’ve seen examples of this type of honesty in sales, in brokerage, in investment opportunities, and it’s frustrating at upsetting.  My inner-Pollyanna tends to be very trusting, and I’m coming to realize that I need to be a little more cynical and self-protective when it comes to working with people I don’t know well.

How Far Over The Line Will People Go In Search Of Profits?

I got upset on Tuesday night when I was reading a marketing course that taught out-and-out deceptive practices in the name of sales.  The author promoted a tactic of "fabricating" first-hand-accounts and personal testimonials on a sales page in order to sell a product he or his students had little-to-no experience with.  The author justified this approach saying he was using a pen name and he had a disclaimer page which mentioned that the story might not be 100% accurate. 

In my book, there’s a difference between a dramatization and an outright lie, and this approach crosses the line.

When queried about the approach on his discussion board, the author replied by saying that the people who write TV commercials are just writing a script, they’re not actually sharing their first-hand knowledge with the product.  Then actors, who have also not used the product, also deliver the lines.  Are they lying?  His case was that he was just "doing marketing" and that’s the way it’s done.

I can see the parallel, but ethically, I have some major concerns with following that approach.  Does anyone else think it’s weird that a 40-something guy is writing sales pages on the Internet using the voice of a teenage girl?  Something about that just seems a little creepy to me. 

At The End of The Day, You Have To Be Able to Look Yourself In The Mirror

I think the lesson Governor Blagojevich teaches us is that it’s not wise to do or say things that you wouldn’t want made public.  If your actions are not in line with your core beliefs, you have to re-evaluate what you’re doing.  Some people are willing to do *almost anything* for the money.  I’ve certainly felt that pressure before, myself, and it’s My Ethical Advisory Boarda lot easier to take the high moral ground when you have the financial resources to meet your daily needs.

To avoid getting caught up in the moment, I often think of folks who have been a moral compass to me – my parents, my grandparents, business partners and ask, "If so-and-so found out about this, would I be embarrassed?  What would he/she think of me or say to me about this?"

Now that I’m a parent, I can also use the example of my son, Blake – "Would I want Blake doing this behavior?"  "How would I justify this to my child if he caught me at it?"

Let’s Each Commit to High Ethical Standards and Change The Country One Person At A Time

There’s a lot of shady stuff on there, especially on the Internet, I think, where it’s so easy to be anonymous, it seems like we can re-invent ourselves time and time again.

Plus, the habit of dishonesty is catching.  It’s a slippery slope to go from embellishing a story to make a point, to starting to make up parts of stories, and then just completely lying.  If we see others engaging in this type of behavior, we can start to justify to ourselves that "that’s how things get done" and it makes it a little easier the next time we want to bend the rules ourselves.

I would like to put a notice out to marketers and business people everywhere, that this type of behavior is no longer acceptable.  Lead the field in your circle of influence by maintaining the high moral ground and privately discussing your concerns with others if you see them stretching their ethical boundaries.

This type of accountability is the only way to uphold the American values that have made our country strong, our businesses prosper and our society thrive.  I hope to see business ethics become stronger than ever in the face of the public scandal surrounding Governor Blagojevich.

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About Emily Cressey

Emily Cressey is a real estate investor and licensed real estate agent living in Seattle, Washington. After graduating Phi Beta Kappa with an Economics degree from UNC-Chapel Hill (Go Tarheels!) her focus has been on building business for cash flow and investing in real estate for wealth. If you have questions about real estate investing, personal finance, or would like some flat-rate, affordable advice on one of these topics. Please fill in the Contact form.