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April 2008

How soon into a relationship should you disclose your financial condition, if at all? A wealthy woman wrote a letter to the editor of Money Magazine recently to explain that she does not want to let her new boyfriend, a relationship with the potential to get serious, that she has money. She is wondering whether it’s ethical to keep this information from her boyfriend or whether there’s a point at which she should let him know of her wealth.

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The magazine’s editors did a good job of answering the question, and I agree with their conclusions. If a relationship becomes serious and marriage is a possibility, there should be no secrets. This particular woman was hurt by a former boyfriend who “used her for her money” once he discovered that it was possible to do so. That should be an immediate signal that this was not the right guy for her, but it should not scare anyone away from being truthful about money in general. You do have to make a judgment call to determine the right time for approaching the subject. It’s probably not appropriate if you’re on the first few dates, but if you’re starting to pick out rings or talk about living together, I don’t see how these decisions can be made without full financial disclosure.

wedding ringCommenters who left their opinions below the Money Magazine article are divided. Some have very strong opinions in favor of not telling the boyfriend until the last possible minute. Some think they should discuss money as soon as they decide that the relationship is “serious.” But what is “serious?”

My questions are more specific: Should financial disclosure happen only after a couple decides to get married? Would this prevent money and the attitudes about wealth from affecting relationship decisions, or would it create the possibility for unhealthy surprises later? Should financial information, particularly if that information sets you apart from the average joe or jane, remain protected for as long as possible?

My girlfriend, A., reads Consumerism Commentary, so she can find details about almost every penny I earn and spend. I do have a special account set aside which I call “The A. Fund,” included in my savings totals. In order to allow the occasional surprise, I don’t provide her with details about that money. However, if she looks at my monthly reports, she could get a good idea of what I can and cannot afford in general. Not all relationships include someone who posts their finances in public, though.

What would you do or what do you do? Feel free to post a comment anonymously if you’re worried your significant other may read.

Image source: prozacblues
[Money Magazine: I don’t want to tell my boyfriend I’m loaded]

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By the time I was in third grade, I knew the answer to the age-old question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The question is always formed this way, with these particular words. The object of this question is to determine not the philosophy of the individual, but the type of career that is most desirable. The presence of the word “be” in the question is worth noting. From an early age, children are trained through language to associate their career with their identity. Who you are is what you do and vice versa.

The very fact that the question is asked instills the importance of a job or career.

In Across the Universe, the character Max is eating Thanksgiving dinner in the late 1960s with his family in rural Massachusetts, at which point he announces his intention to drop out of his undergraduate studies at Princeton University.

His father asks him to get serious for once: “What are you going to do with your life?” He responds rebelliously, “Why is it always what will I do? Why isn’t the issue here who I am?” His uncle chimes in, “Because what you do defines who you are.” Max responds, “Who you are defines what you do,” and asks for confirmation from his new friend Jude from Liverpool. Jude replies with a different point of view: “Surely it’s not what you do, but the way that you do it.”

I loved being involved with music. I’ve known I’ve had musical talent and an enjoyment of the art since I was in kindergarten. In third grade, as I mentioned above, I knew what I wanted to be: a teacher. It should have come as no surprise to me when in high school I decided that my purpose (my being) was to become a music teacher. When I was studying in college to be a music educator, the piece of advice that stuck with me the most was uttered by a professor most likely while I was still a freshman: “If there’s any other career that would make you happy, choose that now. Continue down this path only if teaching music is the only thing that you can or want to do.”

This advice stuck with me for several reasons. First, music wasn’t my only talent or interest. I excelled in every subject at school (when I wasn’t bored). My interests ranged from computer programming to physics to languages to mathematics. I even liked history when I was learning on my own rather than within public school curriculum. The world was open to me, but I stuck with music.

Many years later, after some bad experiences, I left teaching and the arts. My current choice of a day job happened mostly by accident. I needed a job after leaving the arts, so I started as a temp in a financial company. I moved into accounting after that because the accounting department was nearby and they needed someone, and have switched jobs at the same company a few times since then. This job, which is unfortunately becoming a career, does not define who I am. It has nothing to do with the person I am, it’s only the result of a series of circumstances defined by others.

Strawberry Fields ForeverIn the arts, I was a teacher and a leader. I earned the respect of my peers by being very good at what I did. I even taught others how to be leaders. I was a great motivator. Of course! Music is something that is exciting, invigorating, and essential for the soul. The arts are necessary for modern culture. In my current career choice, being a leader is a joke. It’s a world of middle-managers and meaningless tasks. Why should I get excited about any activity that is not directly changing the world for the better in a way that satisfies the ideals that are important to me? Sure, it’s important to someone that I make sure that one department of our company pays back another department of our company for whatever expense they happened to incur. But how is that changing the world, how is this meaningful or satisfying?

So I have Consumerism Commentary. That’s more fulfilling. I write, usually nonsense like this, and reach more people than I’ve reached in any other facet of my life. For someone who has been building communities and leading smaller groups of people for almost 20 years, that is definitely cool. But Consumerism Commentary is an accident like my current job, though it is a happy accident. I don’t believe I’m changing the world, but I’m happy if I help someone get to a piece of information faster, or on the rare occasion, make someone think about something, anything they’ve taken for granted. But I don’t even use my real name, so whatever I’m building with Consumerism Commentary doesn’t exist in the “real world.”

I don’t want to be defined by my role at my day job, and without sharing my real identity online, I can’t be defined by my blogging endeavors. If I were still teaching music or involved in the arts, I would agree that who you are defines what you do. But I’m not, at least not at the moment. So I’m resigned to agreeing with Jude for now.

Image credit: ^riza^

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Last week, I spent several days in San Diego with family and friends, including my mother and her long-time boyfriend, my brother and his girlfriend, and my girlfriend. One benefit of visiting family for vacation every April is the fact that my mother seems quite willing to spend money to ensure everyone’s enjoyment, at least through this year. (If I continue to earn more money than I expect, that may not be the case for much longer.)

I decided to estimate how much my mother might have spent on our trip to San Diego as an exercise in curiosity. To be fair, I did pay some of these expenses, but only a small portion.

Lodging. A room with double queen beds at the Hyatt Regency Mission Bay may have cost $750 over the course of three nights. We had three rooms for an estimated total of $2,250. I believe she was able to receive one night free, but I’ll stick with estimates based on the full retail value. Add internet access at $10 per room per day and valet service of $20 per day. Add tax. Running total: $2,780.

view from our hotel roomTravel. The trip from my mother’s home in Orange County, California to the hotel in San Diego was 80 miles. At a rate of 50.5 cents per mile, the round trip in our car “cost” $80. My brother and his girlfriend drove separately, so I would consider than an additional $80. Cab rides throughout the four days added about $120 to the transportation total. Running total: $3,060.

Meals. Tuesday: lunch at a restaurant with an ocean view in La Jolla ($200) and dinner at Osetra ($300). Wednesday: breakfast at the hotel ($150) and dinner at a fondue restaurant in San Diego ($250). Thursday: breakfast at the hotel ($150), lunch by the hotel pool ($50), and dinner on a cruise around the bay ($300). Friday: brunch at a restaurant near the hotel ($200). As I didn’t see any of the bills, these prices are just estimates. Running total: $4,660.

Entertainment. My girlfriend and I visited the San Diego Zoo one day, and the tickets cost a total of $60. Food and souvenirs added an additional $40 to that cost. My brother and his girlfriend attended kayaking lessons, which I’ll estimate at $60. My mother treated herself and the other women to manicures and pedicures at the hotel’s spa. My brother and his girlfriend, only a few days from leaving for the next leg of their band’s country-wide tour, received facials and massages, and I had use of the spa’s shower and steam room. Based on the price list on the hotel’s website, this must have cost over $500 total. Running total: $5,320.

This doesn’t include the money my girlfriend and I spent to fly across the country, about $800. Estimated total: $6,120.

While it’s true that we could have saved thousands of dollars by traveling less over the past week, and I would be happy spending time with my family doing anything, having these yearly vacations gives me something to look forward to every spring. I may be wrong, but I believe my mother would consider this to be money well-spent. I hope to be in a position to provide similar vacation opportunities for my family at some point in the future.

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This week, the Internal Revenue Service of the United States will begin sending direct deposits to those who qualify for the economic stimulus tax payment and checks soon after. Everyone who is interested in the tax ramifications of this payment should now know that the money received as a result will not be counted as “income” for federal tax purposes and that the payment is an advance of a new credit introduced for 2008’s income tax calculations.

The way I see it, the question in the minds of many is more immediate: What should we do with our stimulus payment? This deposit of $300, $600, or more is in some ways an unexpected gift. Though some could rightly argue that it is simply more of our own money returned to us, it is unexpected and thus not planned for. Some could also argue that it is wealth redistribution, as some low-income taxpayers may receive a payment larger than their total tax liability for 2007. (Note that the government changed their terminology for this program in March from “rebate” to “payment.”)

Regardless of opinions, here are some of the more popular options for dealing with an unexpected sum, either from the government or from any source.

If you have high-interest credit card debt, consider using your found money to reduce your interest payments. Credit card debt is an unnecessary expense. Unless you have an introductory rate or a special deal, chances are that you cannot earn a higher rate of return in an investment, particularly a liquid investment, than what you are paying in interest. Reduce your total debt and your interest payments by applying the total amount of your stimulus payment towards the balance on your credit card with the highest interest rate.

If you’re taking on the debt avalanche (a method mathematically superior to the snowball method), your payment will go far towards reducing your total debt.

If you have a mortgage on your primary home, consider making an extra payment to your principal this month. While it’s unlikely to make a noticeable dent in the short term, even one extra payment will reduce your total spent on mortgage interest significantly over the next few decades. To illustrate, a $500,000 loan over 30 years, starting June 1, 2008, with an interest rate of 7%, will benefit from a $8,400 reduction in total interest paid over the life of the loan if an extra payment of $1,200 is processed on June 1.

If you have no immediate savings, consider depositing the payment in a high-yield savings account. This is an important step to building a tiered emergency plan. While this money may not earn as much return over time as an investment in the stock market might, having funds available in a semi-liquid account allows you not to dip into debt as quickly or sell investments incurring fees and tax consequences.

You can count on an emergency arising at some point, and it’s advisable to be prepared.

If you are debt-free and you have an emergency fund, consider devoting this money to retirement. Saving for the future will increase the possibility of having the ability to stop trading your time and effort for money. In other words, if you’d like to retire from working someday, you’re going to need money to sustain your ability to pay for your expenses. Money invested in the stock market now has a good chance of earning a good rate of return when your time horizon for needing the income is several decades away.

I suggest opening a Roth IRA with Vanguard, invested in VTSMX, the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund. (And no, they don’t pay me for this recommendation.) The fund has a low fee and a low barrier to entry for Roth IRAs.

If you have a Roth IRA, you can invest this money in your 401(k). This option isn’t as straightforward as sending a check to your 401(k) custodian, though. You can’t just deposit money into your 401(k) as you would be able to with another investment account. You’ll have to temporarily increase your 401(k) deferment by the amount of your stimulus payment and then reduce your deferment afterward. Assuming you’re not already maximizing your 401(k) contributions, this is a roundabout method of investing your found money in an tax-deferred account.

If you are set for retirement, consider saving this money for your children or other relatives to help pay for higher education. I haven’t decided whether I am a fan of 529 accounts which only offer tax-free earnings when funds are withdrawn for educational expenses (and in some cases, the rules are strict about which schools’ expenses will qualify), but helping to pay for education — so your children don’t have to work as much during the time they should be concentrating on learning — will be beneficial for their future earning potential.

And if you plan on growing old, your children’s future earning potential may be quite relevant. They may have to help support your health in your later years.

If you have no saving or investing holes to be filled, consider charitable giving. While $300 may not be much to you, there are many organizations who would be happy to receive the money to help fund a program. This is a highly personal decision, so you should find an organization that has personal meaning.

Religious organizations and churches are popular choices, and some people prefer to support scholarships pertaining to a meaningful field of study. Organizations that support social, arts, and athletic programs constantly require funding. If a health condition has affected your family or friends, chances are there is a related organization supporting research towards treatment and a cure.

All out of ideas? Buy something, either for someone else or for yourself. MyMoneyBlog has some tips on where your money will go the farthest, with several stores offering a 10% bonus on your money when purchasing a gift card or a pre-paid credit card. Watch out for these types of benefits. Often, and where not prohibited by law (ie., California), gift cards lose value over time or charge a fee, reducing your bonus (if any). Some of the stores offering a 10% bonus include Kroger Supermarkets, K-Mart, Sears, and Radio Shack.

In some cases, you have to bring your actual stimulus check to the store to receive the bonus. For those of us who are efficient and will receive their payment via direct deposit, we would not qualify.

The stated purpose of this economic stimulus plan, as devised by both the White House and the Congress, is to stimulate the economy by getting money into the hands of who might spend it, particularly on American-made products. The political purpose is deeper yet more superficial: to ensure that both the Democrats and the Republicans appear to care about the economy as the presidential election draws nearer.

The economy is often a matter of psychology rather than pure financial statistics, so it’s unclear whether these payments will have any measurable effect on the economy. If economic sentiment changes from negative to positive, it’s unlikely that one could prove that the stimulus package would be the cause.

How do you plan to invest or spend your stimulus payment?

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Back From California and Blog Roundup

by Luke Landes

I spent this past week visiting family in California. My girlfriend (A.) and I joined my family’s west coast contingent for a few days in San Diego, staying at the Hyatt Regency Mission Bay. Among other things, A. and I visited the San Diego Zoo, where I exercised my new Canon Digital Rebel XTi camera […]

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Tax-Deductible Weddings, Part 2

by Sasha

We’ve talked about tax deductions related to your reception site, but there are a few other nice opportunities for wedding-related deductions that shouldn’t be missed, both for during and after your wedding. The I Do Foundation has a number of creative ways to incorporate giving into the wedding itself, which you can do through them […]

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Why I Still Have No Money

by Smithee

I recently explained my history of having no money and as promised, will now come clean with the mistakes I’m still making: I’m driving the wrong car I’ve never owned a car long enough to get it inspected. The first Jeep Cherokee was a lease, and I foolishly let them talk me into not converting […]

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Tax-Deductible Weddings, Part 1

by Sasha

We’re entering the peak wedding season, it seems. Ever since I got engaged earlier this year, I’ve been bombarded by sales pitches from every angle. They’re certainly tricky. They come disguised in several colors of tulle, bearing elegantly inscribed messages to remind me that I only live once and want my special day to be […]

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Why I Have No Money

by Smithee

Near the end of my college career there was a sort of “Psychic Fair” on campus. As I recall, nobody charged us anything, so I got a reading from a Numerologist. She basically had me fill out a form with some information about myself. I remember “full name” and “birthdate”, for example. Multiple calculations later, […]

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Fortune Magazine’s Best Stocks for 2008: Last December’s Prediction

by Luke Landes

This should prove to be a good study of professional prognostication. Last December, Fortune Magazine predicted the best stocks to hold in 2008, directing investors to ten specific stocks the magazine thinks will perform well this year. How are these stocks holding up so far, compared to the indexes? The S&P 500 Index is down […]

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