Just this once, I’d appreciate your OK to take this finance blog off topic

By BOB CUNNINGHAM

Make no mistake – this is a website dedicated to personal finance… unconventional in many cases, in a world that constantly nudges you against your own best interests… but specifically about your money, nonetheless.

But for the second consecutive week, your visit here will not yield you some new, relevant information in the economic world.  I do apologize for that.  Please stay with me, however.

Last week, I wrote you a quick note asking you to excuse me from a new post due to illness – I had surgery to have my gallbladder removed, received doctor’s orders not to work for two weeks, and was in enough post-operative discomfort that proper concentration on work was challenging.  So I took the week off.  I promise it won’t happen often.

I’m feeling significantly better as I write this, and I certainly could attack a new angle in the world of personal finance with this post.  Instead, however, I’d like to request the opportunity for some inflection in light of recent events.  Your humoring of me by reading the following is most appreciated.

In the world of personal finance, and the accompanying “blogosphere,” we spend a lot of time discussing the best ways to save, spend, and invest our money – tools that are extremely handy, strategies that are surprisingly lame, and everything in between.

What we don’t talk enough about is enjoying the fruit of our labors, taking full advantage of how lucky we really are, sharing with those less fortunate, and so forth.

Now please don’t get me wrong – my recent illness was never life-threatening, and by this time next month I should be fully recovered from the ordeal.  Millions and millions of people are a whole lot worse off than I was even at the pique of my abdominal pain a week ago Sunday.  My perspective isn’t improperly altered.

But this did serve as the third reminder of the last five years that life can change drastically.  One minute, you’re going along fine with all your ducks seemingly lined up in a row.  And then suddenly, you learn that your father has died unexpectedly.  You’re cruising with everything planned, and falling into place as you had anticipated, and then BAM!  Your brother obtains a blood infection and is only 50/50 to survive.

Both these things happened in my life.

My brother’s illness came first during this stretch, and for six solid weeks I was doing virtually nothing except heading the 35 miles or so from my home to the hospital every day to check on his condition and try my best to keep my sister-in-law, niece, and nephew informed and calm.  Somehow, he had contracted pneumonia through a strep-throat like bacteria and his condition grew worse as he lay in the Intensive Care Unit, a ventilator inserted to help him survive.  He had become septic, and at one point the doctor informed us that he was “a coin-flip” to make it through, and if he did so, there was a good chance that he would permanently lose kidney function.  They had to do a juggling act, balancing a dangerously accelerated heart rate with declining blood pressure that made him susceptible to a crash.  Very, very dicey.

Ultimately, we were blessed with his recovery.  And, he regained proper kidney function just two weeks after leaving the ICU.  He was laid up at home for several months after the initial stint in the hospital, but today he’s doing just fine and back to work as a restaurant manager.

My dad had been battling multiple forms of cancer, active and in remission, but was feeling as well as he had for months when my son and I drove up to see him at his home not far from the south entrance to Yosemite National Park.  We had a nice visit, and he informed us that he was to have a review from his doctor the day after my son and I were leave for home, with the distinct possibility that he could be taken off of chemotherapy for as long as six months.  With that potential green light, my dad was hopeful of taking a road trip in his RV with my stepmother.

And he certainly looked and acted better.  My wife and I had gone up for a visit about two months prior and it was scary how sickly he looked at the time.  This once 6-foot-2, 215-pounds of brawn built by decades of working as a heavy duty equipment mechanic was 155 pounds and he had begun hunching over to the point that I was now taller than he.  I’m 5-10.  He had always towered over me, but not on this visit.

That trip forced me to start trying to mentally prepare myself for the inevitable.  He was 78, and I was realistic enough to recognize he might never get better.  That’s why the visit two months later when my son came with me was so very encouraging.

But in the following wee hours of the morning, barely 12 hours after my son and I had gotten home, we received the call that my dad was gone – passing away in the local Emergency Room after a coughing fit that apparently burst some blood vessels in his fragile lungs, a side effect of an immune system severely weakened by the months of chemo.

I was devastated, and embarrassingly unprepared for the emotional strain of his loss.  That was 2015.  Less than two years later, I endure the aforementioned illness requiring my own trip to the ER and, subsequently, surgery.  My maladies were nothing compared to what my brother and father went through, but when you’re laying in a hospital bed, all sorts of thoughts race through your mind.  It’s just human nature to ponder the what-if’s.  That said, there are also positive take-aways from the experience:

  • Be sure you live your life to the fullest while you’re healthy enough to do so.  Don’t be reckless, of course,  But don’t wait so long to smell the pizza that you never actually get to.  We get only one life, friends.
  • Be sure you’ve made the arrangements you need to make to assure your loved ones are taken care of in the event something happens to you.  THE dumbest thing you can possibly do is convince yourself that nothing will ever happen to you.  You simply don’t know that, nor do you have any real control over it.
  • And lastly, don’t forget to take the time – time after time – to tell your loved ones how important they are to you, and how much you appreciate them.  I’ve always loved my family – my wife, two sons, daughter-in-law, grand-daughter, parents, brother, sister-in-law, nieces, nephews, cousins, aunts and uncles.  But these days – before I got sick but, admittedly, not so much until after my dad died – I make sure everyone I care about most knows how I feel – frequently.

This is, after all, so very much more important than IRAs, online savings accounts, or even “pay yourself first.”   Please always keep the proper perspective.  Thanks for reading.

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DISCLAIMER:  This post represents the author’s opinions only.  In no way should any part of the content of this post be interpreted as official financial advice, nor does it represent an intention to solicit readers into a specific company or investment.  Results are never guaranteed.  Utilize the information as you see fit, make all money decisions at your own risk.

My apologies: No new post this week

A QUICK NOTE FROM BOB CUNNINGHAM:  Unfortunately, I will be unable to post this week due to illness.  An abdominal issue forced me into surgery Sunday, July 16 and I’m now recovering (nicely, thank you).  I will return to this space for a new post no later than July 25.

Please take this time, if you would be so kind, to review some of my previous posts and submit comments.  Just scroll down, or you can refer to my list of Recent Posts on the right-hand portion of this page.  The battle to do the best and most with your money should never take time off.

Thank you for your time and understanding. See you next week.

Four common personal finance tips you should feel comfortable ignoring

By BOB CUNNINGHAM

Have you heard the phrase, “conventional wisdom?”  It’s typically used when information is thought to be so common-sense correct and accepted, that numerous alleged authorities echo the same sentiment, thought, or advice.

When preparing to cross the street, it’s conventional wisdom to look both ways.  Okay, no argument here.

But in the personal finance niche, I have learned over my 30+ years enrolled in TSOHK (The School of Hard Knocks) that conventional wisdom isn’t always the savviest take, nor can it be assumed to be applicable, or even helpful.

Sometimes, it can be downright detrimental.

In this week’s BWE post, I want to talk about some examples of when conventional wisdom simply isn’t the best way to go about your money life. Now, to be fair, not all of these are blatantly false.  It’s just that in some cases they over-simplify a topic, and while I’m usually in favor of keeping things straightforward, I’ll never support the notion of bypassing applicable specifics.

So, without additional adieu, here are some money misconceptions:

1) All debt is bad.  As noted author Robert Kiyosaki of the pioneering finance and investing book, ‘Rich Poor Dad,’ has often said, there is most definitely such a thing as “good debt” as well as bad debt.  Kiyosaki correctly postulates that good debt is used to buy assets, such as stocks and bonds or investment real estate, and bad debt is associated with credit card debt and other methods of purchasing liabilities – things that depreciate over time.

But I’ll take it a step further in noting that a debt doesn’t have to directly purchase an asset in order to be good debt, even if a liability is being bought.  If the debt, in itself, creates the opportunity to profit, I believe it should be considered good debt.  This scenario is most common when discussing home mortgages – low interest rates, the interest being tax deductible.  Mortgages, when utilized correctly, can be truly valuable.  But there are other ways to reap these types of benefits.

For example, say you need a new car – not brand new, necessarily, but an updated vehicle because your current wheels are costing you too much in repair and maintenance.  Because of your stellar credit, you qualify for 1.9% financing through your bank.  You’re looking at spending about $20,000 on a certified pre-owned car.

Should you pass on financing the purchase because you’re acquiring additional debt?  Maybe… if you can’t afford the monthly payment in your current circumstances, none of the forthcoming pointers will truly be applicable. Still, go with the point I’m making here and let’s assume your budget allows for the payment.

Being that this is for buying a car, are we to assume automatically that this is bad debt?  After all, the car will most certainly depreciate in the coming years, right?

Most people would read the above and suggest, “sure the terms are great, but you’re still better off paying cash if you have it available.”  I disagree, because what is being overlooked – and this happens frequently – is the opportunity cost.

Instead of forking over $20K on the car up front, what if I can put that money to work earning, say, 4-5% with tax-free access to this money if I ever need it, and still acquire the car?  Wouldn’t that be a 2-3% positive Rate of Return over what the auto loan is costing me?  Sure is.  And if you’re thinking perhaps that the small profit I’ve illustrated would be devoured by the car’s depreciation, that really isn’t so because the car will go down in value over time regardless of how I buy it.  In other words, if I pay $20,000 cash now, the car will still be worth only $15,000 (or less) in two years.  How I went about buying the car isn’t really relevant.

In short, it actually makes (arguably) more sense to take advantage of the ultra low-cost financing, put the cash to work earning more than that, and still drive my nearly-new ride.

2) Live below your means.  I really hate this expression, which virtually EVERY financial guru insists you must do, because it is so vague.  If the key is to avoid unnecessary spending, just say that.  But even then, more specificity is needed.  If you go out to the movies once a month as your sole entertainment, you’re certainly spending money unnecessarily – you don’t HAVE to go see the flick.  But obviously, if that is your only fun all month long, you’re most certainly living below your means.

I’m also opposed to the concept that you have to set a living standards guideline.  Determine your fixed expenses, and your necessary discretionary expenses, then decide how much of what’s left from your paychecks you’re comfortable with saving and investing, and otherwise live normally.  Make a reasonable, thought-out plan, pay yourself first before you do the rest, and have a life.  Progress doesn’t have to be excruciatingly painful.

3) Tax-deferred is better.  There are some pretty savvy financial minds out there who harp on the idea that if you can defer paying income tax until later, you’re going to be better off because more of your money is working for you. Sounds logical, but I will prove it’s balderdash.

The most obvious example is a Traditional IRA (or an employer-sponsored 401K), which uses before-tax income to be funded, with taxes not due until you take the money out down the line.  This is opposed by the Roth IRA, which uses after-tax money now, and allows you tax-free withdrawals later.

A quick look at the numbers through an example:  Teresa opens a traditional IRA and commits to putting $200 per month into it, for 20 years.  For this exercise, we’ll assume a 25% income tax bracket and a 7.2% rate of return on the invested money.  Richard goes the Roth route, and so his after-tax monthly contribution (based on the same 25% tax rate) is $150 per month, again with the same 7.2% ROR.  Where will each be in 20 years?

  TERESA:  $200 per month for 20 years = $48,000 invested.  At 7.2% ROR, her account balance after 20 years, according to a financial calculator at www.bankrate.com, is $103,844.78.

  RICHARD:  $150 per month for 20 years = $36,000 invested. At 7.2% ROR, his account balance after 20 years is $77,884.34.

Now of course, Richard has already paid his income taxes, so he keeps the whole $77K+ should he choose to take it out.  Teresa, however, still owes the 25% income tax.  Her balance after paying the tax?  $77,884.34.

Well, how ’bout that!  In the end, with both getting the same ROR and owing the same percentage of income tax, they come out exactly the same.  Except for one thing… Teresa paid $25,960.44 in tax, while Richard paid just $12,000.00 ($50 per month times 12 months times 20 years).  Which do you suspect hurts more – $50 each month on the front end, or more than $25K straight to Uncle Sam in exchange for simple account access?

This example demonstrates why the government loves deferred taxes – because it makes more money that way.  Those who insist that tax-deferred is the better method fail to understand that the extra compounding in the account benefits only the government, NOT the account owner.  Why? Because unlike you, the government doesn’t pay taxes (to itself) on the gains.

One last point:  Is it feasible to conclude, based on the current national financial state of affairs (i.e. the national debt nearing $20 trillion!) that tax rates might very well be higher down the road than they are now? I believe so. Sure, they might go down… but who’s willing to bet on that?  Pay now-pay nothing later is a much safer and prudent way to go.  As many before me have pointed out, would you prefer to pay taxes on the seed, or the harvest?

4) Average Rate of Return is important.  Another fallacy I enjoy debunking.  It sounds innocent enough – “the average rate of return for the ABC Fund over the last three years is a sparkling 15%!”  Really?  Okay, well’s let’s consider the following scenario and see if a 15% average annual ROR is truly beneficial.

ABC FUND:  Year 1 ROR = +30%, Year 2 ROR = -55%, Year 3 ROR = +70%. Average ROR annually over the three years = +15% (30 – 55 + 70 = +45 divided by 3 years = +15 per year).  Total opening balance in the account at the beginning of the three-year period:  $10,000.  Total after the three-year period at 15% annual average ROR = . . .  $9,945.

Whaaaaat??  We actually fell by 55 bucks?  What the fudge?

Yep, it’s true.  And this is just the investment itself.  It doesn’t take fees into account.

How can this be?  Run the math, my friends.  After Year 1, with a 30% gain, you would have $13,000.  After Year 2, down 55%, you would have $5,850. After Year 3, even with the monstrous 70% gain, you end up with $9,945.

The above is an example of Wall Street ‘gotcha’ at its finest.  Losses matter much more than gains.   If you have $1,000, and lose half (50%) the first year but gain half in the second, are you now back to even?  Nope… you’re still down 25%.  When you drop 50%, you need a doubling (100%) gain the next year just to get back where you started.  Crazy, but true.

The big banks and investment companies don’t want you to understand this, which is why keeping full control of your assets, through sometimes unconventional strategies like whole life insurance (see last week’s post) is the only way to really know what you have and, better still, what you can expect to have at any point in the future.  Steady gains every year, even small ones, are much better for you in the long run.

Once again, thanks for reading.

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DISCLAIMER:  This post represents the author’s opinions only.  In no way should any part of the content of this post be interpreted as official financial advice, nor does it represent an intention to solicit readers into a specific company or investment.  Results are never guaranteed.  Utilize the information as you see fit, make all money decisions at your own risk.

In the end, the most important aspect of personal finance is independence

By BOB CUNNINGHAM

Today is Independence Day… and I’m not referring solely to celebrating America’s independence from England, achieved in the 18th century.

As we enjoy family and friends, perhaps eat a little (or a lot of) barbecue, and sit back to enjoy the local evening fireworks display, we should also keep in mind that in personal finance/money management, independence is everything.

Consider this:  In the ‘revolution’ of money today the smart people are the rebels who seek to break away and do their own thing, paying as little of taxes as possible, while the metaphorical Redcoats are represented, ironically, by the American government.

Come again?

This column is not intended to be unpatriotic – heck, few people are more red-white-and-blue than I am – but when it comes to finance, our society has been led down a road that tends to serve the best interest of, shall we say, the kings more than the common folks.

Virtually every personal finance educator and guru I know says to rely heavily, or even solely in some cases, on government savings and retirement programs and their alleged tax-favored benefits. They cite 401Ks, IRAs, 529 plans, and others – all government sponsored programs with strict rules associated with them – as your best choices to put money away for the future.

Well, Ladies and Gentlemen, I’m here to tell you flat out that there’s a better way for all of it.  It’s a strategy that, despite significant nay-saying from the “in crowd” in the personal finance community, has been utilized literally for centuries by some of the wealthiest individuals to walk the planet.  And yet, it’s a system virtually anyone with just a little bit of money available to save can utilize.

What is this glorious solution to all of our money problems?  It’s… wait for it…

WHOLE LIFE INSURANCE

Ta-da!!…

OK, let me back-up a moment.  Whole life insurance is NOT the answer to all money problems.  I was exaggerating for emphasis… trying to create a dramatic moment.  But it IS, far and away, the best approach to managing your personal wealth.

Oh, and when I refer to whole life insurance, what I should actually be writing is “the right type of whole life insurance, properly structured.”

In the space I have here, I can’t go into full detail on how it works, but I can give you some basics and attempt to explain why you’re much better off with this approach rather than Uncle Sam’s.

“Having money is nice, but having the independence to do with it what you wish, and when you wish, is truly priceless.”

The cliff notes version is that properly-structured whole life insurance can allow you to have a cash value fund which can be used for literally anything you want with very few restrictions; have a specific, measured rate of return (over and above the money that goes toward the actual insurance itself); be able to access those dollars legally, at any age, with no income tax due; have the ability to enjoy that access while at the same time those dollars continue to work for you as if you never touched the funds; have this money possibly not count as income or assets for purposes of outside financing qualification or student loan assistance if desired, etc.; and several other benefits.

Let’s briefly take each point above individually:

1) Can be used for anything with very few restrictions. Because you have access throughout, you can use the money for whatever you want.  So having one account for retirement income, another for college savings, and still another as a health savings account, etc. is unnecessary unless you prefer to go that route.  The only guidelines are that you can’t always put into the policy as much as you want, or risk it becoming an investment account (referred to as a Modified Endowment Contract) by law rather than an insurance policy, which would essentially convert the policy into government control.  To get around this, simply open another policy.  And if you’re not personally insurable, someone else can be the insured and you still own the policy and the associated control. How cool is that?

Government programs, by the way, have maximum investment allowances of which you cannot circumvent by opening another account. It’s one per customer, and once you’re maxed for your yearly contribution, that’s it ’til next year.

2) A measured rate of return. You will know in advance what the minimum performance of the savings will be because the correct type of policies offer that aspect, with the only variable being the annual dividends paid out. And as we go into this strategy in more detail down the line, you’ll learn how to pick the right sources for your policy(s). Government programs rely directly on Wall Street, and we all know how volatile the stock and bond markets can be at any given time.  Isn’t it better to know you not only will avoid loss of principal or interest forever, but that you are assured your account will grow annually as long as you maintain at least the minimum premium?

3) Access your money income-tax free.  The money in your cash value can be accessed completely free of income tax using two different strategies – withdrawing the dividends paid, or borrowing against the account.  No age or credit requirements. And get this… policy loans never have to be repaid, or can be paid back solely at the policy owner’s discretion.  It should be noted, however, that the savviest long-term strategy for using whole life insurance cash value is to systematically pay back any loans taken.  Government programs all restrict and regulate how you can access your own money, whether it be age 59 1/2 on the front end, or forcing you to take withdrawals from an account – even if you prefer not to – when you turn 70 1/2.

4) Access your money and still have it actively working for you.  You can’t beat this have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too feature.  Because funds borrowed from cash values actually come from the general pool of the insurance company, not your policy cash value specifically, you can borrow funds up to about 90% of your cash value for a major purchase (a car, for example) and at the same time, the funds are still growing within the policy as if you had never taken the loan at all.  This, Friends, is better than paying cash for a car because you avoid losing the opportunity cost.  And it’s obviously preferable to attempting to secure outside financing for a purchase because of the control you retain “borrowing from yourself.”  Try borrowing against your retirement account and see if they will credit you interest earned as if you didn’t take the loan.  Ain’t happenin’.

5) The money doesn’t officially count as assets.  I’m going to tread lightly here because I’m not a tax lawyer or accountant, so be sure you do your own due diligence if you opt to initiate this strategy.  In essence, my point is that you might be able to legally exclude life insurance cash values when requested to list assets for applying for certain types of outside financing, and as part of estate settlements and personal liability.  But again, check on this yourself – I am NOT telling you this is a broad benefit.

I hope I’ve sufficiently introduced the whole life insurance strategy to you, and awakened you to the definite availability of legitimate, preferred savings alternatives to government programs.  Like any other form of saving and investing, the earlier you get started the better off you will be long-term.

Maintain your independence!  God Bless America.  And as always, thank you for reading.

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DISCLAIMER:  This post represents the author’s opinions only.  In no way should any part of the content of this post be interpreted as official financial advice, nor does it represent an intention to solicit readers into a specific company or investment.  Results are never guaranteed.  Utilize the information as you see fit, make all money decisions at your own risk.