The financial gurus will be debating for years how we got into the mess we’re in—and how we’ll get out of it. But while the talking heads are talking, you’d like to know how to shore up your resources so you won’t have to worry about every little hiccup in the stock market. Here are time-tested strategies you can master—how to spend less, reduce your debt, make the most of your tax breaks, and finance your retirement. The idea, says William Speciale, a Boston-based adviser with the financial planning firm Calibre, is to focus on what you can control: “Little steps can really make a huge difference.”
Forget the short form. Most taxpayers-65 percent of us, to be specific—just take the standard deduction. But you may save money by itemizing your deductible expenses. It doesn’t matter if you use an online program (like turbotax.intuit.com or completetax.com), a current tax guide, or a storefront preparer. Out-of-pocket health care charges, business expenses (including some for job searches), and charitable donations are just a few of the items you may be able to deduct. Fill out the long form, known as the 1040, and compare numbers. If your total deductions are greater than $5,450 (the standard deduction for 2008 for a single person) or $10,900 (for a married couple filing jointly), you’ll save money by itemizing when you file.
Your kids should file a tax return. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) doesn’t care how old they are. If they earn more than $5,450 in a given year (in wages and/or interest income), they have to file-even if you claim them as dependents. And if they make less than that, they should still file because they’ll get back all the money their employer withheld. Help them fill out the paperwork. It’s a great learning experience that may earn them some extra cash.
Avoid “rapid refund” programs. Sure, they sound great. After all, what can be better than getting your money fast? A tax-prep chain might try to get you to agree to one of these “instant” or “anticipation” options. Don’t take the bait. This is not your refund. It’s a loan—and a very high-interest loan at that. The average for 2008 was 123 percent. If you file electronically, even if it’s through a tax chain, the IRS will deposit your refund directly into your bank account within a week or two.
Checking and Savings
Make sure your free checking is really free. A lot of banks advertise it, but read the fine print. If the minimum balance is steep-thousands of dollars, in some cases—look for a bank with no minimum requirement. This could save $100 a year or more. Bankrate.com is a good site for comparing accounts. (And don’t waste $2 on ATM withdrawals at another bank’s machines.)
Bank online. You’ll be surprised how easy it is to pay bills, transfer funds, save automatically, and keep track of it all. In fact, gathering records at tax time will be a cinch. And by setting up the automatic bill-payment option, you’ll help protect your credit score. Banking online is actually safer than banking at a brick-and-mortar institution. Banks have spent a fortune to make sure their sites are among the most secure on the Internet. Besides, most cases of identity theft happen the old-fashioned way—by crooks who raid your mailbox.
Keep your money in supersafe places. Aim to amass at least six months of emergency expenses, in case you lose your job or become disabled. Where’s the best place to keep it? FDIC-insured bank savings, CD, and money market accounts are still three of the most secure places. (The government recently increased the limit it will insure to $250,000 per account until December 31, 2009.) Money market funds that invest in Treasury bills are supersafe, too, but low yielding. Internet banks and credit unions tend to pay higher interest rates, but go to fdic.gov and check to make sure they offer the same government-insured guarantee. Look into Series I bonds, or I bonds, which are just as safe and are guaranteed to keep up with inflation. They’re also free from state and local taxes (and possibly federal tax, if you use them for college costs). The downside? You can’t redeem them for at least a year. And if you cash them in before five years, there’s a small penalty. Other savings options, including corporate and tax-exempt money market funds, are a bit riskier. Compare yields at cranedata.us.
Cut up your extra credit cards. But don’t close the accounts. Yes, it’s smart to reduce your temptation to splurge by destroying your cards. But if you actually cancel them, it could hurt your credit rating. Here’s why: Lenders worry about how close you are to using all the credit available to you. If you close an account, you lose its credit line. As a result, you are using a greater portion of the reduced amount you can now borrow. How many cards do you need? While the average American household has nine, two or three active cards should be plenty.
Pay your bills on time. A single late payment means that you could pay a much higher interest rate on any future loans and on your existing credit card accounts. That’s because even one missed payment can lower your credit score by as much as 100 points. That plunge means that lenders view you as a risky customer. If you’re shopping around for a mortgage, you could end up paying as much as a full percentage point more. That’s an increase that could ultimately cost you tens of thousands of dollars in interest. Set up automatic payments to make sure you’re never late on your major bills. The sooner you can show lenders you’re back on track, the better.
Pay $10 more each month. Most American households keep their credit balances at around $2,000, but about 10 to 15 percent carry balances that are $9,000 or higher. If you paid the minimum $224 required on that $9,000 balance each month, it would take you 31 years and over $13,000 in interest to pay it off. Increasing your payment by just $10 a month, to $234, until you’ve paid off the balance would save you $8,900. And you’d get rid of the debt in five years. (To check your own balances, try the calculator at bankrate.com.)
Put your savings to work. Many people who are deep in debt usually have some savings stashed in a bank account. They argue that they don’t want to use their hard-earned savings to pay off debt. But do the math: It would make sense to keep the money in savings only if the bank is paying you an interest rate higher than the one your credit cards charge. Paying off a card with an interest rate of 13 percent is the equivalent of earning 13 percent interest on your money after taxes. There are no savings or investment options with that kind of guarantee. Experts caution that you still want to keep emergency cash on hand. A good rule is to take 5 percent of your paycheck to pay off debt and put an additional 5 percent into savings.
Pay more on your mortgage. You may have heard that because the interest is tax deductible, a mortgage is a good debt. But even if you’re getting a tax break, you’re still paying interest—and the longer you’ve had the mortgage, the smaller the tax break (because you pay less interest each year). As with all debt, paying it off sooner is better. So once you’ve paid off your credit cards and other high-rate debt, go ahead and add an extra payment each year (or spread it out over 12 months). If you do that over the life of a 30-year fixed loan with a rate of 6 percent, you’ll shave roughly 20 percent off the total interest you pay. On a $150,000 mortgage, that means saving about $26,000.
Reduce your credit card interest rate. It may be time to get nervy with the credit card companies. If you pay your bill on time and your credit card company still raises your rates or lowers your limits, call the company’s toll-free number (ask for the retention department) and explain that you’re thinking of taking your business elsewhere. You may reap a rate reduction. No matter what you’ve heard about the current credit crunch, banks are still motivated to keep good customers. And check your accounts often. These days, banks are increasing rates even on good customers.
Get your credit report for free. You’re entitled to one free report from each of the three credit bureaus (Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax) every year. Beware, though. Many sites advertising “free credit reports” are actually fronts for companies trying to sell you services—credit monitoring, debt consolidation, credit repair-most of which you don’t need. The reports are free, but you’ll be automatically signed up and billed for these products. Get your reports from annualcreditreport.com, which is sponsored by the three bureaus and the Federal Trade Commission. You can purchase extras on this site, too, but just stick with the free reports. If you want to see your credit scores (a numerical representation of how good a credit risk you are), you’ll have to pay $48 at myfico.com.
Shop around for car insurance. An online search and a few phone calls can turn up vastly different rates in the same area. You’ll also want to ask about lesser-known breaks. For example, even if your kids are grown and out of the house, they might be able to get a substantial discount if they insure their cars through the company you use. One place to start is carinsurance.com. Once you’ve found the best rate, ask your insurance agent if he or she can match it.
Sign up for an FSA. Many employers offer flexible spending accounts as a way to set aside part of your salary for health care and child-care costs. You can pay for everything from Band-Aids to orthodontic work with pretax money, which translates into a discount of about 30 percent or more, depending on your tax bracket. But plan carefully. If you don’t use all the money in your account within the year (at many companies, you have until March 15 of the following year to submit receipts), you lose whatever’s left.
Keep grown kids on your health insurance policy. If you’re going to end up lending (or giving) your children money for coverage, it’s much cheaper to keep them on your policy as long as possible. In some states, you can do this until they are 26, whether they’re still in school or not. (New Jersey will give you until they turn 30.) Some states require proof that they are single, without children, and that they live in the same state as you. For the rules where you live, go to statecoverage.net. Even if your state doesn’t mandate extended coverage, your plan might, so call your human resources department for details.
Hold off on that long-term-care insurance. The soaring cost of extended nursing care has prompted many people in their 40s and 50s to sign up for long-term-care insurance in order to lock in a rate. It’s true that the premiums go up as you get older, but not by the huge amount you might expect. According to data collected by America’s Health Insurance Plans, a 65-year-old may end up paying just $126 more a year than someone who bought a policy at age 55. During those ten years, that person would spend close to $19,000 on coverage, even though he or she probably won’t need it until age 83 or so (if at all). Depending on your health, the best time to buy is between 60 and 65. Until then, make retirement savings the priority, not long-term-care insurance.
Sign up for disability insurance. It helps protect your income in the event you become unable to work for a long period. Ideally, you should have enough to replace 60 to 70 percent of your salary. If your company plan doesn’t provide this much coverage, consider buying more on your own. It can be costly, but it’s worth it if you can afford it. Visit affordableinsuranceprotection.com or unum.com for quotes.
Think twice about life insurance. If you don’t have dependents, you may not need it. If you do have kids or other dependents, you’re probably better off with term life insurance until, say, your children are grown and can take care of themselves. It’s generally less expensive than whole-life or other types of policies that build up value until you die or cash them in. Agents will tell you that whole-life insurance is a good investment because your money builds up tax-free, but these policies often have very high fees. You’re better off putting that money toward your 401(k) and IRA instead. To comparison shop for term life policies, try term4sale.com.
Write your will. Although no one likes to think about dying, you need to. A will doesn’t have to be a fancy contract that teams of lawyers slave over. It’s just a written record of whom you want to entrust your kids and assets to when you die. You can write one using a simple boilerplate form and then sign it in the presence of witnesses (usually two people who aren’t named in the will). The legal publishing company Nolo has a good template and instructions you can download for less than $25. (These templates are valid in all states except Louisiana. Of course, if your situation is complicated or you’d like a professional to look it over, consult an attorney.) You’ll also want to make sure all the beneficiaries on your life insurance policies and bank and retirement accounts are up-to-date.
Contribute to your company’s 401(k). If your company matches funds, sign up. This will be the best investment you can possibly make. Typically, a company will kick in 50 cents for every dollar you save, up to 6 percent of your salary. That’s the equivalent of earning an immediate 50 percent return—a rate you can’t get anywhere. Yet incredibly, one in three American workers who are eligible isn’t taking full advantage of it. With the matching funds, you can more than double the size of your 401(k) in 20 years, even if the stock market remains flat. For a family making $44,000, your contribution may cost you as little as $30 a week, money you won’t even miss after a while.
Put retirement savings ahead of college savings. This sounds crazy to parents who need to come up with tuition money well before it’s time to retire. But because of the tax breaks and the flexibility of retirement accounts, you’re much better off contributing to a 401(k) or an IRA and taking out loans for college. Many people don’t realize that the contributions you put in Roth IRAs can be withdrawn free of penalties at any time. That’s very different from the college savings plans, called 529s, that smack you with a significant penalty if the money is not used for college. Another plus: Most schools don’t count money in your retirement accounts when assessing how much financial aid they’ll offer you. (For more detailed advice, check out Kalman Chany’s book, Paying for College Without Going Broke.) Once you’ve saved the maximum amount that the government allows in your retirement accounts, then research 529 plans at savingforcollege.com.
Say no to company stock. Think of Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, and Enron. All were once on top, but when they went under, many employees were left without jobs and with retirement accounts that were overloaded with worthless company stock. You already have a huge stake in the company because you depend on it for your paycheck. Don’t risk your retirement money as well. If your employer offers company stock as a 401(k) option, don’t take it. If you get company stock as part of your matching-funds plan, sell it as soon as you’re allowed to and switch that money into some other type of investment. Ask your HR representative for details.
Don’t worry about Social Security. You’ve probably heard the dire predictions that anyone younger than 35 can’t expect to collect Social Security. Even in bleak economic scenarios, though, Social Security will probably pay you 65 to 80 percent of your currently promised benefits. And with some fairly modest changes—like raising the retirement age or increasing payroll taxes for anyone earning more than $250,000 annually-the system can be shored up for decades to come. Make sure you’re saving enough so you don’t have to count on the program for your entire retirement income.
Stay away from individual stocks. In spite of what you may hear from your cousin the broker, buying the stock of a single company is generally not wise. It’s essentially putting all your eggs in one basket-and paying broker fees that could eat up your earnings. In fact, you don’t really need a broker. Instead of buying individual stocks, invest directly in mutual funds, which spread your dollars among a group of stocks. It’s usually safer, cheaper, and simpler. But remember, you should do this only with money you can invest long term and can afford to lose in the short term.
Stick with index funds. You’ll want to go with a special type of mutual fund called an index fund, which buys a little piece of each of the companies that make up established market benchmarks like the S&P 500. One of the best-kept secrets of investing is that in the long run, index funds perform at least as well as the funds that charge high fees and have a professional stock picker making the choices. And how are index funds doing these days? As of early December, they had actually lost less than the average stock fund run by the so-called experts. For a list of low-cost index funds, go to vanguard.com or fidelity.com.
Don’t buy investment products from your bank. Banks sell a wide range of mutual funds, annuities, and individual stocks and bonds. These aren’t FDIC-insured, and they tend to be more expensive than what you could get elsewhere because banks usually charge high sales commissions. Buy directly from mutual fund companies instead. Go with companies like Vanguard or Fidelity, which charge low fees and no commissions.
Build a portfolio. The rule of thumb is to put 50 percent of your long-term savings in stocks and 30 percent in bonds and keep 20 percent available in cash (that means in a savings or money market account where you can withdraw it at a moment’s notice). In tough times especially, getting the right mix will depend on the risk you’re willing to take and how soon you’ll need your money. Stocks are generally more risky than bonds, but there are exceptions. For example, bonds issued by companies that are in questionable financial health-called junk bonds or, more euphemistically, high-yield bonds are a lot riskier than, say, stock in utility companies. Financialengines.com, which charges about $40 for a three-month subscription, is a great site for calculating the right mix.
Take care of your health. Eat right, exercise, and get plenty of sleep. Says Rutgers finance professor Barbara O’Neill, “The last thing you want in a financial crisis is huge medical bills.”
Keep Your Money Safe
FDIC-insured bank savings, CD, and money market accounts
FDIC-insured credit unions
Series I bonds
Money market funds that invest in Treasury bills
Somewhat Riskier: Corporate and tax-exempt money market mutual funds
Riskiest: Bank investment products not FDIC-insured Individual stocks
A clip-and-save guide to the sites in this feature.
- irs.gov: Calculate withholding, track refunds.
- turbotax.intuit.com and completetax.com: Tax-prep software.
Checking and Savings
- bankrate.com: Compare accounts.
- cranedata.us: Compare yields on investment accounts.
- fdic.gov: Determine whether your bank is FDIC-insured.
- annualcreditreport.com: For your free annual credit report.
- myfico.com: For your numerical credit score.
- affordableinsuranceprotection.com and unum.com: For rate quotes on disability insurance.
- carinsurance.com: Compare rates.
- nolo.com: For templates and instructions on writing a will.
- statecoverage.net: For the specifics on health coverage in your state.
- term4sale.com: Compare term life insurance policies.