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Luke Landes

Wherever you are on your path towards financial independence, it’s important to think about what would happen to your financial accounts if you were unexpectedly pass away. It seems like a morbid thought, but planning for the well-being of your family is essential.

Even if you don’t yet have a spouse or children, thinking ahead financially is still important. It could smooth the way for any friends or extended family members who will deal with your affairs, should you die.

Obviously, this process involves creating the proper wills and trusts. But one more simple step could help your heirs avoid some problems: designating beneficiaries.

Even if all of your financial assets are properly distributed in your will, your heirs may get tied up in probate dealing with specific financial accounts unless you designate beneficiaries. The good thing is that you can easily add beneficiaries to most accounts, bypassing the harrowing (and potentially expensive!) probate process. The beneficiaries designated on your account will only need some basic paperwork to receive money left in that account following your death.

Related: How Much Life Insurance Should You Have?

Not sure how to add these designees to your accounts, or even which accounts need beneficiaries in the first place? We’re here to help!

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Adding Beneficiaries to a Checking or Savings Account

You can add a beneficiary or a payable-on-death (POD) to most savings and checking accounts. Sometimes your bank will ask for this information when you’re opening a new account, but they don’t always. And sometimes you can’t add or change beneficiaries online.

If your bank has a brick-and-mortar branch, you may need to visit the personal banker with the beneficiary or with that person’s information, including address and Social Security number to add them to your account or change beneficiaries.

Dealing with an online-only bank or one that doesn’t have a location in your area? Call the bank directly to ask how you can designate beneficiaries for each of your accounts.

Read More: The Best Online Savings Accounts With High Interest Rates

Unfortunately, some banks (including ING Direct) doesn’t allow accountholders to designate beneficiaries. If this is an issue for you, consider moving your money to another bank that does allow for a payable-on-death designation.

You can also address this bank specifically in your will or trust. Again, even a will or trust may not remove all the headaches associated with accessing a bank account’s balance after your death. But if you like everything else about your bank account, aside from the fact that it doesn’t allow for a payable-on-death beneficiary, you may not want to switch banks. In this case, just ensure that the bank account is covered in your will.

Beneficiaries on Investment Accounts

Brokerages and banks will usually ask for a beneficiary when you open an investment account of any kind. Even if you don’t plan to save massive amounts of money in any given account, be sure you designate a beneficiary right away. You never know how that account balance could grow between now and when you might pass away.

Plus, a small account balance gives you even more incentive to name a beneficiary. In the case of accounts with a relatively small balance, probate fees could eat up the entire account balance if you aren’t careful.

Related: Evaluating an Investment Portfolio

Insurance Policies

Policies like life insurance will obviously ask for a beneficiary right away, since their point is to benefit your heirs should something happen to you. Still, you’ll want to be sure that these policies are kept up-to-date with your recent beneficiaries.

What About Joint Accounts?

You might think about skirting around the need for a beneficiary by naming a joint account owner, instead. In some cases, this can be appropriate. For instance, if you and your spouse combine finances, it’s appropriate to have most of your basic checking and savings accounts in both spouse’s names, even if you actively manage most of the money.

Naming your spouse as a co-owner on your accounts usually makes sense, but naming another person as co-owner may not. For instance, adding an adult child to your account gives that child the power to withdraw from your account at any time, even before your death. Also, the co-owner will inherit your account upon your death, even if you’d prefer to name multiple beneficiaries.

Other issues to consider include credit issues on the part of the account co-owner. If your joint account owner gets into financial difficulty, creditors could come after the balance of your account, even if the co-owner has never contributed to that account.

Read More: Joint Accounts vs Authorized Users — Are They The Same?

Joint accounts could be a viable solution for skirting around probate issues in some cases, but there are plenty of potential dangers to consider, as well.

Compiling Your Financial Information

Of course, you can designate a beneficiary on every one of your fifteen different bank accounts. But that doesn’t do a whole lot of good if your beneficiary doesn’t even know about the accounts after your death. This is why it’s so important to keep a file — whether electronic or physical — of all of your personal financial information.

Learn About Building a Money Binder to Prepare Your Finances for Your Death

Maintaining a money binder is an excellent way to keep all of your financial information together, including account log-in information. Just having a list of where you maintain all of your accounts and who the beneficiaries for those accounts are gives your heirs a place to begin.

Changing the Beneficiaries

One thing to keep in mind is that you’ll need to keep your beneficiaries up to date. Any major life event, such as a marriage or divorce, or the birth or death of a child, means you need to look over your account beneficiaries to make sure they’re still accurate. Also be sure that your account beneficiaries are listed in the appropriate order. This is important if you, for instance, want to account to pass first to your spouse but then to your child if your spouse has also passed away.

When you’re changing the beneficiaries on your accounts, be sure to also change that beneficiaries in your will so that they match. Mismatches between your will and your account beneficiaries can create major hangups for your heirs! Whenever you update one, double check the other to ensure that it’s correct.

More Complicated Situations

As you move towards financial independence, you’ll begin to enter on to more complicated financial situations which might require true estate planning. After all, you don’t want to see all your hard work and careful planning go to waste when your beneficiaries are heavily taxed on what you leave behind!

Related: Save Your Heirs On Taxes By Being Generous Now

Keep this in mind as you progress through your financial goals. If you’re well into the millions of dollars of assets, it’s probably time to do more than just designate beneficiaries and set up a basic will. At this point, you’re likely looking at trusts and other inheritance issues.

Still, though, even if you pull in a professional estate planner, you’ll have to take this step to ensure that all of your accounts are set up with beneficiaries that match your estate plan.

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Given the option, owning assets that produce income is a much better financial strategy than owning assets that generate expenses.

If you own a house or apartment for your own residence, for example, you have a lot of expenses. You will need to pay for maintenance, repairs, taxes, mortgage interest, landscaping, and utilities. Or you may pay a homeowner association fee that covers some of these expenses. If, however, you own a house or apartment that is available for rent or lease, you can generate income with the property. In some cases, you can even end up with positive cash flow after you pay the expenses.

Being a landlord is a viable vocation. After all, landlords exist for every rental tenant, and they often thrive financially. Sasha, a former writer for Consumerism Commentary, owns several properties. She shared tips for buying a rental property for prospective landlords based on her own experiences.

Succeeding in the business of rental properties requires a certain set of skills and desires, and making a living isn’t always as easy as others would lead you to believe. If you want to earn a living — for example, the equivalent of a $50,000 salary — you’ll need to profit more than $4,000 per month. That’s a lot of pressure.

Consider these questions and tips before jumping into the rental property business. That way you can determine whether you have what it takes to be a landlord.

Do you like “doing it yourself?”

If you’re a handy person who likes doing your own work around the house — light plumbing, perhaps some construction, yard work, and so on — you might be a good candidate for becoming a landlord. If you’re just starting out, you may be unable to afford outside contractors while still turning a profit. Doing the work yourself saves money.

Do you know the right people?

Do you plan to expand your property portfolio beyond one or two locations? (If you want to earn a living, you’ll likely need to expand quickly.) Well, you’ll soon reach a point where you can’t handle all the work yourself.

You’ll need to call in trusted contractors to handle repairs quickly and thoroughly. If you have personal relationships with contractors, you’re in a better position to negotiate discounts and enhance your overall profit. These relationships take time to build, and it takes time to find the best people to hire for the work. If you’re able to begin your adventure as a landlord with these relationships already formed, you’ll be in a much better position.

The same is true about real estate agents. If you have connections in this business, you will have better access to potential tenants, reducing your advertising costs. You may hear of new deals coming to market before the sign is even out in the yard. Word of mouth is incredibly important, and knowing agents can remove some obstacles before you even get started.

Can you handle the 24-hour responsibilities?

Hiring a company to manage your properties cuts into your profit. Depending on the location, you may be able to afford this from just your rental income. If that’s the case, work with a property management company that will answer the phone at all hours to fix any problems that arise.

Otherwise, if you’ll be DIY-ing the management, be prepared for calls in the middle of the night from tenants for problems big and small. If you’re starting your adventure with rental properties while working at another job, you will find yourself with competing priorities often.

Do you like dealing with people?

Some tenants can be difficult; there’s no way around it. In most states, tenants also have legal rights that level the playing field in disputes. If you’re able to screen tenants well and have a choice of potential residents, you can carefully choose who will be living in your house or apartment. If, however, you need to fill a vacancy to prevent losing money every month and there aren’t enough tenants interested in the property, you may have to accept a tenant you might not like in order to prevent negative cash flow.

Even if you believe you’ve chosen well, dealing with strangers is not for everyone. Tenants will certainly not care for your property as well as you would. Even nice people can surprise you in a tenant/landlord relationship. To become a landlord with a successful business, you’ll need to be able to deal with people who might be different from you in terms of values and personality.

Do you have cash and savings to buy the properties?

The great thing about buying a house with cash, rather than with a mortgage, is that you can eliminate the expense of the mortgage payments. Every cent of rental income you receive (after maintenance expenses) is profit. That can make the difference between a rental property business that succeeds and one that struggles.

Leveraging your property purchase by using other people’s money — a mortgage — can turn out to be profitable when property values increase, but that’s not guaranteed. Loans open up the possibility of becoming a landlord to more people, easing the affordability of properties. Having the cash to buy the property outright is not necessary. If you have the money and are willing to invest in your own business, though, it will be much easier to generate a positive cash flow.

Can you charge high enough rent to cover your expenses?

In some locations, monthly rental properties are very competitive. That can drive down prices, decreasing your profit. If you’re competing in an area where most investors own their properties outright without a mortgage while you have mortgage expenses to contend with, you have less pricing flexibility than your competitors. You need to charge high enough rent to cover your expenses, while still hoping to take home a profit.

With mortgage payments to contend with and potential competition, you may only be able to profit $200 to $400 per month on a property. That’s $4,800 a year… a far cry from the $50,000 we’re talking about for earning a living. You’d need to own over 10 properties, each profiting $400 per month, in order to reach that target.

Related: Using the 1% Rule to Determine If a Rental Property Is a Good Investment

Sure, once you own multiple properties, you may also be able to increase that per-property profit due to economies of scale — buying materials in bulk and receiving significant discounts from contractors. You might be able to reach the annual income target faster, but it will still take a long time to reach the number of units necessary. Use this mortgage calculator to assist in determining how much profit you might generate.

In other locations, though, you can charge much higher rent compared to the purchase price or mortgage payment. Property prices still tend to be high in New Jersey (where I live), so potential for profit isn’t as great. Head to other areas of the country, though, and you’ll see a different story. There, you can buy properties commanding rental fees of $1,000 or more, for purchase prices of just over six figures. Let’s say your monthly mortgage payment is $450 and you can successfully charge $1,100 in rent. Well, your path to earning a living just got much clearer and shorter.

How much work are you willing to do for an extra $400 a month?

The initial hard work may pay off when you add additional properties to your portfolio. However, the path to millionaire status through rental properties is not as simple as television shows on HGTV might lead you to believe.

You may profit in terms of your financial statements, but if you consider your time and your sweat equity worth something, the calculation gets a little trickier. This is particularly true when you’re doing more work to get started.

Learn More: Fixer Upper: What I Learned from Flipping My First House

Even in markets where home prices have remained relatively high, it’s still possible to earn a living with rental properties. The work isn’t for everyone, and that’s a good thing. Those who are willing to put the necessary labor into creating a successful business will be rewarded. While you can bring in extra cash from a sole property, earning a true living isn’t that easy. If you want to create a passive income that can support your family, you’ll need to expand and add some volume to your rental property portfolio.

Are you earning a living through rental properties? What lessons have you learned? If you’ve considered becoming a landlord but have decided against it, what held you back?

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It’s a fact: multigenerational households are becoming more common in the United States. In the ’50s, it wasn’t unusual for older adults to live with their grown children and possibly grandchildren. That living arrangement trended downward for several decades, but saw a big upswing between 2000 and 2014. In fact, in 2014, 19% of Americans — 60.6 million people — lived in households that included at least two generations of adults.

The economy explains some of these trends. When retirement funds crashed during the Great Recession, older adults may have suddenly found themselves unable to financially make it on their own. Now, couple that with rising housing costs and a shaky job market. The result is that many middle-aged children caring for elderly parents can’t afford to put mom and dad up in a care facility.

You can’t trace the entirety of this trend to the economy, though. Actually, some of it is due to increasing diversity in America. The Pew research shows that more families with Asian, African American, and Hispanic backgrounds are likely to live in a multigenerational household. This is likely due, at least in part, to upbringing and the cultural expectation that adult children are to support their elderly parents.

Regardless of culture or background, many adults expect to have at least some role in caring for their parents when they’re no longer able to do so themselves. But what this looks like — and the financial and emotional toll it takes — can vary from family to family. If you think you might be in this situation in the coming years, start taking the following steps now:

1. Consult your spouse and siblings

The first step in deciding how to help your aging parents financially isn’t necessarily to talk to your parents. Sure, the conversation might come up. But before you commit to anything or set expectations, consult with your spouse and any siblings who are in the picture.

It’s essential to be on the same page about elderly care with your spouse. Financially and practically supporting one (or more) spouse’s parents can put some serious strain on your marriage. So, talk to your spouse about what you would like to do for your parents. Then, reach an agreement on what you, as a couple, are willing and able to do — financially, but also practically and emotionally. Also, decide ahead of time what boundaries you need to put in place, in order to preserve healthy relationships all around.

You’ll definitely want to pull in your siblings for this. See how much they’re willing and able to contribute to your parents’ care, financially. But again, also consider the practical aspects of caring for them. Who is most able to take on emotional support roles? Who is best at dealing with practical details? Does one of the siblings prefer to have mom or dad live with their family, or do you need to work together to support your parents in a care facility or retirement community?

Having these conversations before approaching your parent(s) can help everyone stay on the same page.

2. Talk with your parents

Next, you’ll want to have a frank conversation with your parents. You don’t have to start by laying out the nitty-gritty details of their budget. Instead, try talking more generally about your parents’ goals and needs as they approach old age. Do they want to live on their own as long as possible? Have they considered a retirement or assisted living facility, depending on their physical and medical needs? Do they expect to be healthy well into old age, based on their ancestry? Or are health problems already cropping up and complicating matters?

Read More: How to Afford Healthcare in Retirement

During this conversation, you might bring up some of the options you’ve already thought out. Whether that’s helping your parents settle into a nearby assisted living facility or adding an in-law suite to your home, present these options as just that… options. Unless your parents are at the point where they are no longer capable of making sound decisions, you should try, wherever possible, to defer to their judgement and preferences.

3. Understand the financial situation

Once you’ve gotten a feel as a whole family — spouse, siblings, and parents — for everyone’s needs, preferences, and boundaries, it may be time to have a more frank conversation about money. By this time, you should already know what you are willing and able to contribute to your parents’ care and well-being. Hopefully, you also have an idea of what, if anything, your siblings can contribute.

Now, it’s time to figure out where your parents are financially. You might even want to consider pulling in a financial planner who can look holistically at your parents’ investments, retirement accounts, and other assets. This can help you get a more objective view of the best way to allocate resources.

Related: Moving Assets Into a Revocable Living Trust

Digging into the financial details may be awkward. But it’s essential in this decision-making process, as the available resources — including government-funded benefits, Social Security, and assets — will tell you what options are available to your family now and in the future.

4. Consider long-term care insurance

If there are potential health issues in the picture — or if mom and dad don’t have enough money to handle potential assisted care — consider long-term care insurance. This is an insurance product specifically for paying for long-term healthcare, often including assisted living and in-home care that isn’t covered by insurance or Medicare. Depending on your parents’ current health status, premiums may be relatively affordable. And you could consider paying for premiums yourself — or with the help of siblings — to reduce the risk of having to pay out loads of money for long-term care in the future.

5. Put a plan in place (and have a backup)

Once your family has worked through all of these issues — probably over the course of several month or even years — it’s time to put a formal plan into place. This might include steps like adding an in-law suite to your own home, or converting some space you already have in order to move your parents into your home. Or it might require you to visit local assisted living and retirement communities, to be ready to move mom or dad there when the time comes.

Whatever you plan, though, make sure you have a backup. This is especially true if your goal is to move your parents into your own home. Often times, this is an excellent fit and winds up benefiting everyone. But if medical or mental health needs become more complex, this arrangement may not work out as well as you’d hoped. Always hope for the best, but plan for the worst. In this case, you may need to plan for an alternative living situation, or figure out how you could afford in-home care to help lighten the load.

6. Make it all legal

After the plan is made, it’s a good idea to ensure that a responsible sibling has medical power of attorney and financial power of attorney for your parents. While you’re helping your parents get these documents drawn up, it’s a good idea to have them go over their will with an attorney, as well.

Planning Your Estate? You Need These 3 Documents NOW

In the end, it’s up to your parents, as long as they are of sound mind, to decide who has power of attorney and how to spell out their own will. And they may prefer to work these documents out directly with an attorney. If that’s the case, simply make sure you know who has power of attorney and where copies of their documents are stored, in case you should ever need them.

7. Start helping out early

As memories start to fade or medical needs get complicated, older adults occasionally have trouble managing their finances. If you notice this happening to your parents, you may want to start helping out with their finances sooner rather than later. Sometimes this is as simple as helping them write a budget and set up automatic bill payments so things don’t get missed. Or it may be more complicated, like managing investment accounts to make the most of the savings.

Related: 7 Free Tools to Help Aging Parents With Their Money

Caring for elderly parents can be stressful — both emotionally and financially. Taking the time now to plan ahead for this eventuality will help take some of the stress out of the situation for everyone.

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Though I’ve lived in the D.C. area for the past 5 years, I still haven’t bought a home here. It just hasn’t made sense yet, especially since I’m not sure how many more years I’ll choose to stay in this area. The properties I do own are located back in Texas and stay consistently rented out. The two of them combined cost less than one comparable home here in northern Virginia, and that’s only talking about the actual property value, so I’m quite content with the arrangement for now.

I’m not yet sure if I’ll ever move back to the land of affordable homes. Either way, one thing is for sure: it’s hard to discuss the cost of setting down roots in D.C. without talking about property taxes. The biggest surprise, though? While it’s exponentially more expensive to buy a home here versus Texas, the property taxes are actually quite a bit lower!

This is pretty fresh in my mind right now, too, as I received a tax assessment notice in the mail just yesterday. For the third year in a row, one of my properties’ values is climbing up again. Last year, for instance, it jumped $5,000; this year, it’s climbing another $8,000. While this might be good news if I were looking to sell sometime soon, it’s not good news for a long-term rental property. A higher assessment, of course, means higher property taxes. And higher property taxes mean less money in my pocket.

Don’t Blindly Pay, Especially With an Increase

With high or climbing property tax rates, it’s worth the effort to try to reduce those rates, if at all possible. After all, when filing personal income tax returns, taxpayers look for every deduction and credit, often saving hundreds or thousands of dollars. However, most homeowners simply accept their property tax bill without questions, even though it could easily be a bigger bill than their income taxes.

Related: 30 Things to Budget for When Buying a Home

With the stress of income taxes done and behind us, now is the perfect time to take a look at your property value and the accompanying tax bill. The amount of property tax you owe is based on an assessed value of your house, and local governments typically assess properties every 18 to 36 months. This means that, depending on where you live, your assessment could have been performed when the market was at a peak. Add to it that the average assessments lag behind current values by about three years, and there is plenty of room for real-time error.

What If You Don’t Agree With the Assessment?

Homeowners could save thousands of dollars with a successful appeal if they only set aside a little bit of time to dispute the bill.

Of course, we’d like to think that our home values continue to increase because we want to feel that the decision to buy a home will result in a good investment over time. When it comes to assessments for tax purposes, though, it’s better to have the lowest value possible. Review your recent assessment, and consider these factors for appeal:

  • Comparable home prices. Look at actual sales of houses in your area. Knowing the current market is a key to determining a fair assessment for your house.
  • Age of the assessment. If the assessment is from over a year ago, comparable homes in your area might have sold for less money more recently.
  • Room count and layout. Most assessments are accomplished without definite knowledge of your house’s layout. There could be mistakes in your assessment that result in a higher value on paper, like too many bedrooms. If your basement is unfinished, you could also argue for a lower assessment
  • Amenities. When assessments are based on comparable home prices, you could be unfairly taxed if your home doesn’t have the same amenities as your neighbors’ houses. Don’t have a pool like the houses surrounding yours? Then, you shouldn’t have the same property tax bill.

After you receive notice of your newest assessment, review it quickly and appeal right away. You’ll be filing what’s called a Notice of Protest with your county’s ARB, or appraisal review board. Even if you would prefer to resolve your concerns informally — many appraisal districts will work with you directly to review and resolve your objections — filing this notice in time is still important, as it retains your right to escalate your dispute to the ARB at a later date. You typically have 30 days from the date the appraisal district mailed your new assessment notice to file your dispute.

You’ll want to review the property record card and look for inaccurate details. You can also take photographs of relevant features of your house and look at documentation for comparable home sales in your neighborhood. Make notes of any improvements you have made, as well as anything that may have depreciated your home’s value (a foundation shift resulting in structural damage, for instance, or mold remediation).

The ARB will typically give you about 15 days’ advance notice of your hearing, though you can occasionally postpone this to a later date, if needed.

When you have your hearing, bring all this documentation to support your case, along with copies to pass along to the board members and district representative. When presenting your case, try to keep emotional pleas out of your argument, and just stick to the facts. Firmly but respectfully present your reasoning, and hope for the best.

If you are unhappy with the decision of the district or the appraisal board, you can take your case even higher. In many states, you have the option of appealing to the state district court in the county where your property is located. Be sure to check your individual appraisal district’s options, by looking online or calling the local tax assessor-collector’s office.

It Doesn’t Hurt to Try

Authorities are aware that most assessments are inaccurate, but they won’t do anything about it unless homeowners speak up. Some homeowners are unsuccessful with the first appeal and simply give up — however, I would suggest that pressing on is worth the fight, especially if you’re paying high (or markedly increasing) taxes.

The county certainly isn’t going to do you any favors; if you want to lower your tax bill, it’s going to take some effort. The savings from a successful appeal could be substantial, though, so don’t give up until your home’s value is accurately assessed.

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Should High Schools Require Money Management Classes?

by Luke Landes

It’s common knowledge that kids today aren’t learning the same things that we learned when we were younger. Take cursive, for instance. Forty-six states have implemented Common Core Standards on at least some level, which eliminates mandatory teaching of cursive in the elementary school curriculum. While children are instead learning how to type and use […]

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Are Credit Card Annual Fees Worthwhile?

by Luke Landes

The best credit card deals are often spoiled by an annual fee. Annual fees can range from about $50 to $2,500, with the high end reserved for the super-select American Express Centurion Card (the “black card”). In return for this fee, credit card issuers provide a range of benefits beyond what typical no-fee cards offer. […]

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How to Pay a Tax Bill You Can’t Afford

by Luke Landes

It’s a good thing I’ve been saving a good portion of my income for the past year. Even with making estimated tax payments — the last of which was due on January 16 — I still have a significant tax bill this year, thanks to increased income. Many taxpayers dread filing their taxes, even if […]

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Money Systems That Lead to Success: Automatic Savings

by Luke Landes

A while back, I wrote about the opinions of Scott Adams on his eventual success as the creator of the comic strip Dilbert. I focused on the failure aspect of the article he wrote for the Wall Street Journal and I wanted to revisit the topic, as only touched lightly on the success factors. Specifically, […]

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FNBO Direct Savings Account — Opening and a Review

by Luke Landes

While I’m generally happy with my Capital One 360 account for a good portion of my savings, I’m looking to spread the money around to take advantage of some higher interest rates. One of the banks I’ve targeted is FNBO Direct, the online arm of First National Bank of Omaha, currently offering 0.95 percent APY as […]

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Here Are 4 of the Biggest Risks When You Invest

by Luke Landes

No investment is without risk. You may feel safe when you do what financial advisers consider the “right thing” — invest in a broad stock market index fund with a long-term view — but there is risk there as well. Unfortunately, to build wealth over time, investors need to accept a significant amount of risk. […]

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