In money management, there’s a difference between automation and auto-pilot

By BOB CUNNINGHAM

My son is the worst about it of anyone I know.  You’d think that, being his old man writes about smart money management on a regular basis, he would be averse to such bad habits.  Nope.  Instead, he swipes or inserts his debit card to pay for things… and whatever balance his bank shows in his account at any given time – if and when he bothers to check – must be correct.

This folks, is referred to as money management on auto-pilot.  It’s not recommended.

In a neo-technical society, automation can be a great thing.  Banking apps are all the rage – just snap a photo of the check you want to deposit, complete a couple of clicks, and just like that you have made a deposit.  No need to venture out and walk up to an ATM, deal with a drive-thru, or (perish the very thought of it!) stand in line inside a branch.

But often, people confuse utilizing modern-day tools to assist noble efforts with a hands-off approach that, quite honestly, is just begging for problems.

You need to be on top of your money, gang.

So here is a quick breakdown of how you can utilize automation to your benefit, and what you should be willing to take the extra time required to do just to make sure you really are engaging in intelligent money management.

Use on-line banking…

Why wouldn’t you?  Like the trash-talking big guy proclaimed in the film, White Men Can’t Jump, to explain his sudden departure from the basketball court in the middle of a 2-on-2 tournament game he and his partner were dominating, “This is too easy!”

On-line banking allows you to quickly check your balance, see transactions, and the Bill-Paying feature lets you set up recurring payments on bills which are the same amount every month, such as your mortgage and car payments. You can also sign up directly with the vendor to get regular alerts for how much your bill is and when it’s due (ideal for utilities, for instance), go to your bill-pay page, and authorize payment in less than 30 seconds.

… But monitor it regularly

I go to my bank’s on-line site at least 3-4 times per week.  No, it isn’t because I’m obsessed with seeing a large balance.  Trust me, that isn’t applicable… not because my wife and I are poor – we’re doing fine – but because my regular bank account is used for paying bills and everyday expenses.  The bulk of our assets are located elsewhere, where they can earn a respectable rate of return.

I go there because I want to safeguard against two things – errors and oversights.  Errors are when someone charges you erroneously, or there is an error on the bank’s end (very rare, I have found).  Oversights are when it’s my fault – a charge I didn’t remember to account for, or perhaps a subscription auto-renew that I forgot about or didn’t want.

Simply put, I want to make sure the amount of money shown in our account is what should be shown.  Typically, the quicker mistakes are discovered, the easier they are to remedy.

Have your paychecks direct-deposited…

Many banks offer small incentives for agreeing to have your paychecks directly deposited regularly.  The perks can be fee-free basic accounts, discounts on loan rates, small cash-back considerations, even tangible gifts.  Nothing cozier than watching TV draped in a blanket with “Bank of Cucamonga” emblazoned.

Yeah, I’m kidding about the blanket.  Still, it is more convenient not to have to worry about physically possessing your check, getting to the bank to deposit it or cash it, etc.

…But know what’s being withheld from your net pay and why.

Don’t trust your employer with getting it right.  Be sure you concur with what is being withheld, how many hours you were credited with working, even the pay rate itself.  My other son recently took a new job, only to find out that he was being paid 75 cents an hour less than he thought he was promised.  And of course, he didn’t notice this until about a month in, making a correction (and retroactive reimbursement) more difficult to request and obtain.

Pay Yourself First:  Have money from your check sent directly to an investment account…

One of the oldest adages in personal finance, discussed numerous times on this site. “Pay yourself first” means that you set aside funds for savings before you pay any bills or cover any other expenses.  It assures you save, regardless of circumstances, which is especially critical when you are first starting out and have the maximum time to take advantage of the amazing principle of compound interest.

…And monitor your  balance to assure full credit and growth

Again, don’t trust that the powers that be will get everything right.  I once had a life insurance policy, for which I sent in a contribution toward what is referred to as a “payed-up additions rider,” which allows for growing your cash value more quickly provided you stay within certain parameters.  The insurance company mistakenly credited the payment toward a small policy loan balance I had, that I had just taken and wasn’t yet willing to pay on.

The error wasn’t a big deal, and was easily corrected by the company, but had I not caught it, it would have ultimately cost me money in the form of lost compounding on the funds which never would have reached my desired destination.

By all means, utilize the great modern technology available to us whenever you can, and it makes sense to you.  But whether you go old-school or new-tool, be “accountable” every step of the way.  Pun intended.

Thanks, as always, for reading.

***

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.

Ultimately, it’s all about retirement

By BOB CUNNINGHAM

On this website, and hundreds of others like it that I read and monitor, we talk about practically anything that has to do with money/personal finance.  And we should… there’s a helluva lot to cover about the subject.

But what it all boils down to, whether you’re in your 50s or half of that, is preparing for the “Big R.”  What proactive steps are you taking, now and in the near future, to properly prepare for retirement?

So let me ask you, is that what we should really focus on ad nauseum?

While planning for the long-term future is certainly important, I contend that excelling in the short-term, including the ‘now,’ is at least equally vital.  In fact, one often facilitates the other.

Maximizing your efficiency in saving and investing now, logically, will result in you having more money to work with later.

Let’s take a quick look at why planning for retirement has become such big business, cliff notes version.  You ready?  It’s because virtually all private companies have deserted the traditional pension system in favor of a 401K/IRA-led way of saving for one’s own career conclusion.  And, many public and government agencies appear headed in the same direction.

Sure… just save some money with your company in its 401K, or do it on your own with an Individual Retirement Account, combine those with the scraps that are our social security payouts – assuming those rates stay where they are now – and you’ll be set.  Who needs a big, fat monthly pension check when the S&P 500 historically averages a 10% annual return?

I’m tellin’ ya, it’s bananas.  And yet our society has fully accepted this monumental shift in monetary focus.  But what people fail to properly gauge is that, while $500,000 in a retirement account may sound like a butt-load of money, it is in fact barely enough to keep a retired couple above the poverty line.

Undoubtedly, you’ve heard that experts traditionally recommend drawing down your nest-egg at about 4% per year, so that you can live while retaining the full balance of your primary account.  In other words, if you start with $500,000, and want to leave a legacy, you should take annual withdrawals from that account of no more than 4%.

Really?  Hmmm… let’s see how that might play out.

Let’s say you’re an average wage-earner in the U.S., about to retire.  Your household income, says Betterment.com, is about $68,000 a year gross.  That’s roughly $50,000 net spendable money after taxes.

If you expect to maintain the same standard of living you’ve become accustomed to, you would have to have about $1.25 million saved.  And that’s not even considering the erosion caused by inflation.  At a 3 percent inflation rate, $50,000 of net spending power becomes just $25,000 in about 24 years, which is roughly the average length of retirement nowadays.

Of course, you can always sacrifice your kids’ inheritance and spend down your money – in fact, I think you should because it’s your money.  But try making $500,000 last 24 years when you’re taking $68,000 withdrawals on a taxable account.  According to calculators on the BankRate.com website, do that and you will be out of money in less than 15 years.

Your retirement account is a Roth IRA?  Cool.  No taxation on the withdrawals.  But with $50,000 annual withdrawals and inflation, your investments had better return more than 14% each and every year if you expect to continue paying the bills 24 years later.

Also, we didn’t enter increased medical expenses or anything else into the equation.  Scared yet?  Ya should be at least nervous.

So what do we do?  If we’re smart, we utilize specific strategies that take the guesswork out of money, and we start doing them now… to benefit us now, a little later, AND into retirement.  We do things that allow us to live a better, smarter life RIGHT NOW and over the ensuing years, and not just obsess about what we’re going to do when we actually get old.

And I have a strategy that makes all of this relatively simple and definitively painless.  Beginning in 2018, this website will be dedicated to detailing this approach and its various advantages on a regular basis.  Yep… I’m going to make you wait for it.

But, if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you already know what I’m talking about.  DPWLI… to know what this acronym stands for, refer to earlier posts, and let me know your reaction to the suspense.

Yes, admittedly, I’m messing with my audience a little here.  But teasers are good, and it won’t be long now before the info will be at your fingertips.

In the meantime…  thanks, as always, for reading.

***

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.

Some clarification is warranted on the importance of giving, and how to give

By BOB CUNNINGHAM

Wishing you a wondrous and fruitful Thanksgiving holiday from surprisingly scenic Palm Springs, Calif.  My wife and I are here on a brief get-away, and please accept my apologies for being tardy with this post.

As we enter the holidays, I thought it would be prudent to briefly discuss the ‘giving thanks’ aspect of the season.  I believe it’s an important subject to touch on, because many so-called personal finance ‘gurus’ talk about the importance of charitable giving as part of a savvy overall money management strategy.

I support the notion of giving to those in need 100 percent, but I am skeptical of the implications by some that you can tangibly benefit from donating to causes, worthy and otherwise.

The great thing about giving is the intangible positives you derive not only from doing so, but from being in a position when doing so generously makes sense.

Here’s the deal from my standpoint:  You should always give if you want to give.  You should give to whomever you wish, for whatever cause you deem just and appropriate.  But it’s naive to believe that all giving is the same, and for me, getting the most out of each donation – and having the right people benefit from it – is the name of the game.

I know a great many well-meaning folks who give something to everyone, just for the asking.  And I mean everybody.   From the charitable trust that saves two turkeys from slaughter each Thanksgiving, instead of one, to handing a buck or two to that guy named Chuck who frequents the corner gas station in his dented-up ’93 Honda Accord, always in need of “enough gas to get home” without having even once bought so much as a dram of unleaded with what he’s given.

These people who give are generous souls, and of course it is absolutely their right to give any time they damn well please.  But is it the best use of their charitable dollars and cents?  Not really.

I’m not saying some charities are more worthwhile than others… well, OK, I confess I am sort of implying exactly that.  You may very well disagree, and I respect that.  My point is that $10 or $20 sent to, say, St. Jude Children’s Hospital (my favorite charity) or the Wounded Warrior Project (second favorite) is likely to benefit more genuinely deserving people than giving a dollar each to ten folks who are “down on their luck” and working freeway off-ramps.

For one thing, the donations to official charities are much more likely to be used toward the cause they represent.  Secondly, those donations are tax deductible if you make enough of them.  Helping Willie get a burger… and a beer or, worse, a fix in many cases unfortunately… simply isn’t as wise a choice.

Now, obviously, there are exceptions.  There’s a gentleman not far from where I live who is a double-amputee.  I see him a lot at the same intersection, and if the light is red when I arrive there, I often give him something.  Yes, this contradicts what I just wrote in the preceding paragraph, but the guy has no legs from just above the knees.  I figure he needs a break, and the government assistance he is getting is probably far shy of what he realistically needs to live a basic quality of life.

And, truth be told, I made sure his wheelchair doesn’t have curtains to hide underneath the seat.  There are con-artists in all forms out there.

Generally, it is savvier and more helpful overall to focus on legitimate organizations.  In addition to the two I named above, I like the American Red Cross, American Cancer Society, and the Salvation Army, as well as numerous others.

Before I wrap this up, I have one more point to make:  If you’re young and just getting a foothold financially… the type of reader this website is geared towards… I would like to offer the following suggestion:

Don’t give to any charities – not yet, anyway.

Huh?

What I mean is, in the long run you will be able to do a lot more good and assist a great many more worthy causes if you first take care of your own situation the best you can.  It’s like the oxygen mask that falls from overhead during emergencies on commercial flights.  Regardless of the airline or the type of plane, the instructions for its use are always the same for folks who have children with them:

Please secure your own mask first, then assist your child with theirs.

Why?  Because the effort to help the child first could result in suffocation for both, if the adult passes out and the child panics.

With charitable giving, put on your own financial mask first.  Make sure it is snug and secure… that way, you might be in the position to not only help the child (or other worthy benefactor) in the seat next to you, but any needy individuals on the entire airplane…

… So to speak, of course.  Thank you for reading.

***

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.

Do you have to take risks to make a return on your money? Emphatically… No!

By BOB CUNNINGHAM

Greetings, all.  I’m tapping out this post from the Rio Hotel & Suites in Las Vegas.  I’m here to attend a convention – so it seems appropriate to discuss what some call the “Wall Street Casino.”

Essentially, what we’re talking about is the subject of risk.  More specifically, we want to ascertain why it has become common “knowledge,” that in order to get good returns, you have to be willing to take some risk.

There is some truth to that notion when you look at it from the risk perspective.  There are investments out there that are highly speculative. No one knows what’s going to happen, and folks don’t even have a decent idea of what’s going to happen even if they pretend they do.

And I’m not talking about investments that have a reputation as being risky, such as options trading, day trading, commodities, or even collectibles.  No, sir, I’m referring to that mainstream investment called the S&P 500 Index.

You may have heard of it.

Obnoxiousness aside, financial experts of all kinds will have you believe that investing in the stock market is the only legitimate way to earn good returns, and that if you do it right by conducting proper due diligence, diversify your portfolio, consult a professional, etc., you will most certainly be fine in the long run.

These know-it-alls love to cite that the S&P, which stands for Standard & Poor, has returned an average of about 10% annually since The Great Depression.  I’ve read multiple articles on-line and in print magazines, of late, suggesting you shouldn’t be wary of the potential for a sharp decline in the market such as what we experienced in 2008 and 2009 – even though we’re nearing a record-duration bull market as I write this – because even if it does drop sharply at some point, the market inevitably comes back and then some…

Pish posh.

Folks who saw their investment account balances drop 40% or more nearly a decade ago are just now catching up.  A few are showing a slight gain from pre-2008 levels, but projected as an annual return most would have been better off keeping their money under their Serta Perfect Sleeper.

And with retired people who are counting on taking an income from their investment assets, a volatile market can literally make them queasy because they’re not sure if they’re going to have enough money to do the things they want to do in their golden years.

By the way, that aforementioned 10 percent annual S&P growth is before taxes and fees, and your actual return isn’t 10% because you can only earn that if the market were to return exactly that percentage every year.  We’ve demonstrated multiple times on this site how average returns are a far cry from actual returns.  Here’s another quick example:

(Start with $1,000 account balance.  Earn 60% the first year, lose 50% the second. Your average annual return would be 5% (60 – 50 = 10, divided by 2 years), but your actual return is a 10% annual LOSS ($600 gain first year = $1,600 in account, 50% loss the second year = $800 loss – net result is $1,000 + $600 – $800 = $800 balance in account after the second year.  $1,000 – $800 = $200 loss is 20%, divided by 2 years = 10% loss per year).

Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a financial instrument in which you could store money safely, and still earn a respectable annual rate of return with virtually zero risk?  How sweet to fund it and forget it, knowing that you have a better chance of being struck by lightning – twice – than of losing with that account!

Dividend-paying whole life insurance.  Yes, we have introduced this product on this site, and I’ve written on it numerous times.  And in the coming weeks and months, this blog will adjust its focus from a general personal finance educational approach to a site dedicated to teach as many folks as will take the time to learn, the numerous benefits of utilizing life insurance “living benefits.”

It has to be the right kind of insurance, set up by properly trained agents representing carriers who have been established for more than a century.  But when you use this tool to hold your nest-egg, you will get the following:  Safety of principal and gains, a guaranteed rate of return that can be even higher depending on annual dividends, a structure that legally allows you to access your funds tax-free whenever you want, and a system available by some companies (but not all) that allows you to borrow funds from your cash value – without qualifying – and yet your full cash value continues to earn returns and grow as if you never took a loan at all.

It’s all about educating people.  Our public school system falls far short of any legitimate teaching about money or investments or retirement savings, so it’s up to citizens like myself who are passionate about people of all ages succeeding financially, for the short- and long-term.

Keep reading this space every week, friends.  We will continue to shed light on what is not only a desirable alternative to the gambling that investing in Wall Street and the money markets is, but also a critical undertaking we need to be aware of… NOW.

Thanks for reading.

***

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.

Small savings here and there can add up to surprisingly significant amounts

By BOB CUNNINGHAM

My family and friends often give me a hard time about being frugal.  When I first revealed to them that I had a personal finance blog, they asked if I had written a post yet on cheap eats or the wonderful world of coupon clipping.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy spending money, or that I’m not willing to splurge on occasion.  I am, and my wife and I do.  What I don’t like is feeling as if I have wasted money.  Spending $500 or more on the latest cellphone, for instance, just seems like a bad investment when I can go out and obtain a perfectly functional phone – for talking, texting, and taking basic photos – for less than $100.

My adult kids, ages 27 and 24, want the fancy phones.  Like the old fart in those Consumer Cellular ads, I’m happy with my basic phone.

Either way, there are numerous ways to save small amounts of money on a consistent basis… and when you do these consistently, I believe you will be genuinely surprised by how the little discounts, rebates, and cash back add up.

I do clip coupons, but I’m not obsessed.  Mainly, I look for discounts on grocery brands I buy, and restaurants we frequent.  I also constantly am asking for discounts.  When I recently had the oil changed in my car, I requested “the best deal you can give me. Been a customer here a long time,” and got a discount for a coupon I didn’t have and was afforded an additional  10% senior discount despite being ‘only’ age 53.  If I hadn’t asked, I’d have never received either courtesy,

Also, I’m a big believer in taking advantage of cash-back credit cards.  The process is really quite simple – apply for and (hopefully) get approved for a credit card that offers either a flat cash-back rate for all purchases, or quarterly “specials” with as high as 5% back on certain categories, or both.  The categories, usually featured for three months at a time, include restaurants, grocery stores, gas stations, or department stores among others.

The idea is to use the card each and every time you shop – for virtually all of your weekly purchases.  Concentrate solely on what you would spend anyway.  Don’t spend more just to utilize the card.  Defeats the purpose.

Then at the end of the month, you use your checking account funds to pay off the card.  You never want to carry a balance on the credit card, because you will then be wickedly guilty of stepping over dollars for dimes.  After all, how much sense does it make to get 5% back on groceries, but pay 20% or more interest monthly to carry a balance for those very same trips to the store.

None, of course.

Do this right, by using credit cards as the point-of-sale tool and your bank account to pay the credit card balance in full each and every month, and those 5% purchases here, and 1.5% there (and elsewhere) start to add up nicely.

Although it certainly isn’t recommended for younger adults who are trying to establish themselves as financially healthy long-term, my wife and I like to eat out.  We rarely do fancy dining, but we like Applebee’s, El Torito, Panera Bread, and the like several times a month.  Currently, our Chase credit card pays 3% cash back on all our restaurant purchases (including fast food, although we don’t do much of that).  Generally, in two months we have accrued enough cash that we get a dinner on Chase courtesy of a gift card to most any chain eatery we choose.

Over time, you can acquire a few cards, each of which might be dedicated to a different part of your overall budget – one for dining, one for groceries, one for gas, and one for miscellaneous.  The common denominator among all of them remains paying the balances in full each month, thereby NEVER paying interest on these purchases.

It’s like earning a rate of return on your expenditures, rather than just your investments.  Best of both worlds.

Thanks for reading.

***

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.

Tax reform important, including to those who don’t think they have much to tax

By BOB CUNNINGHAM

Frequently, when the subject of taxes comes up I hear people refer to their own lack of income and assets, and indicate that “any changes won’t affect me much..”

Even if the statement were true, which it almost always isn’t, that represents the wrong attitude when considering your personal finance.

Sure, many people – primarily younger adults still trying to get themselves established – lack the income and/or asset accumulation to be significantly affected by marginal tax rates and such.  But it’s still a good idea to understand how the system works, and how new changes in the law compare, because eventually, such things will directly impact your bottom line.

I’m not going to attempt to go into any sort of detail in this space on the proposals recently offered by President Trump.  It would take a great deal more space than is practical to dedicate here in order to do it justice.

Nor do I intend to go all political on you.  Again, that’s not what this blog is for.

But I will comment on some specifics, and suggest you pay attention to them regardless of your current economic standing.  NOTE:  Nothing from this post, or anything else found on this website, should be interpreted as professional advice.  For all things tax-related, seek the advice of a certified tax professional.

The major tone to the president’s changes elicits simplicity – purportedly, 80 percent of Americans will be able to file their taxes annually on one sheet of paper.  Wow… I presume we will need both sides of the page?

The simplification in terms of tax rates is two-fold.  First, the proposal suggests a low-end tax rate of 12 percent, up 2 percent, among only three levels.  What… he’s raising taxes on the lowest income Americans?

Hardly.  Instead, as I understand it, those who don’t make enough currently to be required to pay federal tax will still be under that line.  And the aforementioned 2 percent difference will more than be made up for by a doubling of the standard deductions, for both individuals and married couples.

And some long-held itemized deductions, like for mortgage interest and charitable contributions, will remain intact.  Other deductions, however, such as home office write-offs and gambling losses (currently, the law allows you to claim losses up to a maximum equal to any claimed winnings) would go by the wayside.

After the 12 percent, the other two rates are 25 percent and 35 percent, plus possibly an additional upper bracket still to be determined.  Currently, the top bracket is about 39%.

Also unclear is the treatment of capital gains.  Under current law, they are taxed at a cap of 15 percent – this affects you and me if you understand that, in order to get the capital gains rate on the growth of your investments, you are required to have held these investments at least for one year.  If you sell stock less than 12 months after you bought it, folks, any gains are taxed as regular income. That can make a substantial difference.

It’s also important to understand that the 12%, 25%, 35% and whatever other rates are included in the new proposal are, like the current system, tiered.  In other words, if your adjusted gross income is $100,000 per year, you would fall under the 25% rate.  But that doesn’t mean all $100K is taxed at 25%.  Instead only, the portion that falls within the 25% rate range is taxed at that rate.

So in a fictional example, you may get taxed nothing on the first $25,000, 12% for dollars $25,001 through $74,999, and 25% for dollars $75,000 through $100,000. Again, these numbers are fictional for ease of explanation, but if the above were true, your effective tax rate on $100,000 would be $5,999.88 (12% of 74,999 – $25,000) + $6,250 (25% of $100,000 – $75,000) = $12,249.88, or about 12.25%.

In the meantime, as Washington D.C. labors over tax reform and other issues, your job as an individual (or couple, if you’re married), is to pay as little in taxes as you can legally avoid.

Doing so starts with understanding the basics of how your taxes are determined… and may be perpetuated by utilizing tax-friendly strategies including (but not limited to), Roth Individual Retirement Accounts, maximum leverage on personal as well as investment real estate, and owning dividend-paying whole life insurance policies as a central part of your financial plan.

We’ve discussed the life insurance aspect in previous posts, and we will continue to explore these types of strategies in the future.  So stay with me, and as always…

Thanks for reading.

***

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.

‘Budgeting’ has negative connotations for some, but it doesn’t have to be that way

By BOB CUNNINGHAM

In personal finance parlance, it is known as “the B word.” And not in any sort of positive way.

Budgeting, defined as the excruciating act of creating a personal or family summary of income and expenses for the purposes of determining what can be spent and (hopefully) saved, carries such a negative vibe that some alleged PF gurus claim you can effectively manage your money without it.

Not likely…

Look, it’s really a matter of what you want to accomplish, in life and specifically when it comes to your money.  Are you truly satisfied to wing it from week to week, month to month and hope you have enough to get by?  Or are you willing to put in a little effort, in the boring form of crunching numbers, to improve your circumstances?

If you are among the vast majority of folks who want to make financial progress ongoing, there’s no way around some version of monetary accountability.

Still, that doesn’t mean it has to be painful… or a pain in the posterior. Budgeting is actually relatively simple, if you decide to keep it that way. Here’s how:

Know as accurately as possible your monthly take-home pay

True, determining what you make isn’t always that simple.  Sales professionals who work on commission, for instance, can have a wide variation in what they make from month to month. But there are ways around this.  First, determine an average income.  Go back three months, six months, or whatever time-frame you believe can most accurately reflect your net pay, and come up with a “common” figure.

Obviously, if you are on salary, you simply need to take a peek at your paycheck, or observe the associated direct deposit in your bank account.

Now reduce that number by 20% for budgeting purposes.  For instance, if you’ve determined that your average monthly net income is about $3,000, reduce it by 20% ($600) and work with $2,400 as you figure your budget. The 20-percent fudge factor allows for errors and anomalies while also demonstrating to you (eventually) that you can get by with less than you think. What if you only make $1,500 in a particular month… are you going to have to move back in with your parents?  You may be nodding your head after reading this, but we both know you’ll do whatever it takes to avoid that scenario.

Make savings an integral part of any “spending” plan

Next take at least 5% of the $2,400 (10% is reommended), and mark it down as your monthly savings goal.  Yep, do it now… this resulting $120 for socking away in our example is important – commit to it, even before you figure out what your bills are.  That comes next.

Once you have your typical monthly income established, and your associated monthly commitment for savings, the next step is to mark down your fixed expenses.  These are the monthly bills that are the same every month – rent or mortgage payment, car payment, TV/internet bills, cellphone bill (in most cases), loan payment to Mom and Dad, etc.  It doesn’t matter what they’re for, if you pay them and they are constant, they should be included here.

Determine your expenses in two broad categories first

Now add up the total of your fixed expenses, tack on the aforementioned $120 savings figure, and come up with a total.  Then, take that total and subtract it from the $2,400.  The result is what you have available to spend monthly on what is referred to as discretionary spending – the costs that change every month, such as groceries, gasoline, and entertainment.

Guess what? You’re more than half finished.  Not exactly bamboo under the fingernails, correct?

OK, sure, I’m not claiming this is as fun as Space Mountain on Halloween. But it’s a lot less costly.

Be willing to go back through previous spending history

Now comes a little bit of effort, because you need to go back through your on-line banking or credit card receipts, and determine how much you’ve been spending on those discretionary costs.  My suggestion is that you separate them into the following categories:  groceries, eating out, gasoline, entertainment, and miscellaneous.

After you have those figures determined for the last month (ideally, figure out three months’ worth of each category and average for a more accurate monthly reference), take the monthly figures and add them up.  Compare to what your new budget “allows” you to spend.  Analyze what you’ve been overspending on, and what you’ve been more reasonable about. Adjust accordingly. Let logic and common sense be your guide.

For instance, let’s say your discretionary spending amount that you determined from your income/fixed expenses/savings portion of the budget is $600 per month. And you’ve determined you’ve been spending closer to $900 per month.  That means we need to find $300 to cut, but remember that we took your initial average take-home pay and cut it by 20 percent.  That was $600 lopped off the $3,000 average monthly pay, yes?

Decide on spending cuts if needed, but you don’t have to go overboard

So whatever we determine needs to be cut, it probably doesn’t truly need to be as drastic because we padded the initial income figure by using only 80 percent of it.  Are you with me?

In other words, you have some leeway… as long as you’re prepared to make some needed cuts when it’s obvious.  Are you going out to the movies a lot, or do you mostly stay in and watch Netflix? How ’bout fast-food?  That is the young adults’ most significant bug-a-boo, bar none.  Are you on a first-name basis with the folks at Carl’s Jr.?  If so, that has to change.  Cooking at home typically costs a fifth of fast-food, and a tenth or less compared to eating at sit-down restaurants.  How about at the grocery store?  Do you buy a lot of processed and/or name-brand foods, or do you focus on produce, dairy, and generic stuff?

After you have determined all your adjustments, be sure that the first thing you do at the beginning of each month is put the savings away. “Pay Yourself First” is a universally accepted personal finance adage for assuring you save regularly regardless of your budget.

Ultimately, as long as you’re willing to do a little self-analysis with what you spend, and make some common-sense alterations, it can be pretty simple and only a little painful.

If nothing else, make a commitment to avoid high-interest debt

Last item:  I could easily write 10,000 words about sensible budget decisions, cutting spending, etc.  But that isn’t the point of this post.  Instead, focus on the idea that getting basic organization in your financial life doesn’t have to be difficult and it truly doesn’t have to suck.

A huge take-away is this:  Whatever path you go, do your utmost to stay out of debt… specifically, credit cards that – speaking of sucking – will suck the life out of any possibility of you getting ahead with your money and ultimately being able to reasonably afford many of the things and experiences you desire.

As always, thank you for reading.

***

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.

Worried about a market correction? I’m not, because it won’t determine my fate

By BOB CUNNINGHAM

As I write this weekly entry, the Dow Jones is coming off a gain of more than 200 points.  Despite predictions of impending doom by some, and the realistic acknowledgement from even the most optimistic of investors that the markets won’t go up forever, they continue their improbable ascent.

It’s a lot like late 2006 and most of 2007, when we hit record highs according to all the major benchmarks… right before falling to Earth like a rocket in 2008, reducing many account balances by almost half in a matter of months, even weeks.

So why am I not concerned about the inevitable decline?  What puts me in a position of being so confident?  Simple… I’m flat broke and, thus, have nothing to lose.

LOL… JUST KIDDING.  How I crack myself up.  Truth is, while my wife and I are far from being considered wealthy, we have some decent retirement savings… we’re doing OK.

And the really cool thing is that our funds aren’t invested in the markets.

“But Bob, you’re missing out on some of the greatest profits ever!”

That’s true.  And we’re perfectly fine with that.  Our nest-egg is invested in dividend-paying whole life insurance, which gives us a steady and predictable gain… with NO chance of loss.

None. Nada. Zilch.

Look, friends, unless you’re brand new as a reader on this site, you’ve read here before about how losses annihilate an account more significantly than the same rate of gain helps.  I’ve demonstrated how average annual rate of return is a fallacy.  Go up 25% one year, go down 25% the next… and instead of being even, you’re actually down 12.5%.  Reverse the order – down the first year, then up the second – and you’re STILL down 12.5% after the second year.

Doesn’t seem fair, does it?

And while it is absolutely true that we are missing out on some pretty sweet gains right now, it is without question that we will be better off over the long run than those who insist on riding the roller coaster.  History says so… and I’m not willing to buck a trend lasting more than 140 years.

“Okay, but hasn’t the S&P 500 averaged about a 10% return all-time?  That’s what I always read.”

Again, that’s a bogus average – taking all the returns and adding them up (since after The Great Depression, I believe), subtracting the losses, and dividing by the total number of years.  The effective return, according to Morningstar.com, was slightly better than 3%.  The effective return is how much your money would have actually grown.  Dividend-paying whole life insurance returns between 4% and 5.5% (depending on dividends) EVERY YEAR, and is tax-free when the money is correctly acquired via withdrawals of principal and dividends and/or non-qualifying policy loans.

It’s truly great having a fairly specific idea of how much money you will have at any given time in the future.

“If this is true, why doesn’t everyone use dividend-paying whole life insurance, and get the heck out of the stock market altogether?”

Many would if they knew about it.  And more and more people are going that route, thanks to the strategy getting more publicity from sources such as this blog.  Still, the same conventional drivel of favoring 401Ks, IRAs, etc. continues to be perpetuated by Wall Street, many personal finance gurus, and our federal government.  It’s a constant battle.

The purpose of this blog is to educate folks… primarily, younger adults and families… that there is a much better way than conventional retirement savings vehicles.  The key is starting NOW.  This superior approach offers more safety, liquidity, a steady rate of return, tax benefits, and a living benefit that allows for self-financing of major purchases and other handy uses that you simply can’t get from traditional savings and investments.

And I’ll continue to plug these in this space and others.  Slowly, the tide will turn in favor of Americans who, like myself, want to retain complete control of their finances at all times.

As always, thank you for reading.

***

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.

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.

***

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.