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Personal Finance

Last week, I walked into a hip coffee shop nestled between Ann Taylor Loft and Urban Outfitters. Located in a family-friendly Chicago neighborhood on a cheerful, bustling street, the cafe didn’t appear to be anything other than typical. However, I soon learned that Next Door Cafe was offering a lot more than your run-of-the-mill espresso.

ndcWalking in, I saw a long wooden bar flanked with a case of fancy pastries. The 25-year-old hipster barista casually asked if I wanted to open a tab, assuming that I was going to stay for more than one latte. I took out my laptop and settled into a picnic table on wheels (all the furniture is on wheels so that the layout can change week to week).

The wall behind me showcased paintings by local artists, all of which appeared to be on sale. Other whiteboard-covered walls were everywhere, filled with inspirational quotes and goals for a community winter coat drive. Everything in the store was temporary and configurable; perhaps as a reminder that ndc2we should always be evolving.

A hostess sat near the front door like a hotel concierge. Her job was to greet guests and coordinate walk-in appointments. Wait… appointments? At a coffee shop? You bet — Next Door Cafe is doing something really unique to help Chicagoans with their money.

Two full-time, on-site financial planners hold office hours during the week, as well as a few weekends a month. Appointments are held in pods, or giant cubes outfitted with two couches and a table (also on wheels). In the privacy of a pod, anyone can discuss personal financial goals such as budgeting, understanding car loans, paying off debt, and saving for retirement. Some topics are handled in a single session, while others take multiple visits. Everything is tailored to an individual, and unlike a traditional advising appointment, every session is free. It’s approachable and it’s inclusive.

More than just money

It’s not just for people seeking financial help, either. A woman sitting at my table was sketching in her journal while she waited for the How to Self-Publish a Book lecture to start. She comes to many events because she likes networking with other authors. Do so has shown her new ways to make her business more efficient; “Artists and entrepreneurs like me need help,” she explained.

Several days out of the week, the café holds lectures about money. Aside from that, local volunteers teach about entrepreneurship, social media, and self-development. I heard there has even been a yoga class. The classes are diverse because they are led by local professionals. These volunteers submit their ideas and agree to share their expertise for free.

Those who prefer more personalized attention can schedule appointments online for one-on-one advice. They can cover any topic in which they have a need, including setting up businesses, writing resumes, configuring WordPress, and even life-coaching — just to name a few. The café seems to understand that personal finance is more than just budgeting. Being financially successful encompasses knowledge, business skills, and the ability to manage stress.

People of varying ages and industries come together to learn from one another. For example, the coffee shop is also a pitstop for students. I spoke with a young PhD candidate who has been coming to the cafe several days a week, simply because she enjoys the staff and the atmosphere. She explained, “Most of the time, I just study. But, sometimes I reserve the conference rooms in the back for group meetings and study marathons. It’s really convenient.” Like everything else, the rooms are free and temporary walls can adapt from one large room to two smaller ones.

The café also uses this space to hold group sessions. Here, groups meet regularly to learn and support each other in reaching their individual financial goals, such as debt reduction and combining finances. The store manager told me that attendees often become good friends. They tend to have a lot in common, so they continue to hang out after the classes meet.

The café seems to believe that support is a foundation of success. They embrace the sharing economy and have found a way to create self-sustaining communities that continue outside of the café.

What’s the catch?

By now, you may be wondering how this is all possible. How can everything — except the coffee — be free? Well, Next Door Café is a marketing and research experiment funded by State Farm. In exchange for the space, baristas, and financial coaches, they collect endless insights about future customer needs and have an environment to float concepts and ideas.

While there is only one location and no public plans for expansion, the financial industry should take notice. For mainstream financial education and support, this model is working. Next Door Café is speaking to Millennials in a way that resonates with their values and appeals to their norms. They have made financial wellness approachable, holistic, and community-driven. I suspect that more companies will replicate the fundamentals of this model as a way to develop deeper relationships with their customers.

What do you think about the Next Door Cafe? If you’re in the Chicago area, have you visited yet?


Looking for a way to simplify how you manage your finances, from your spending to your credit cards to your investments? Personal Capital’s financial dashboard may be just the tool for you.

This all-around financial management tool is easy to use, tracks all of your financial information, and offers investment advising, to boot. The free version of Personal Capital doesn’t come with personal advising, but the financial dashboard does offer a robust array of tools you can use to figure out your retirement plan on your own.

Here’s what you can expect when you use the free version of Personal Capital:

Link Up and Analyze All Your Financial Accounts

One of Personal Capital’s strengths is that you can use it to manage more than just your investments. It securely hooks up to your bank accounts, percapcredit card accounts, mortgage account, and other loan accounts. This allows you to track your total net worth, taking all of your accounts into consideration. Oh, and they also have an app, available on both Apple and Android devices.

The process of linking up accounts is really simple. Just type in the web address you use to access those accounts. When prompted, enter your usual login information and you’re good to go. Some accounts will ask additional security questions, which match those that you use when logging directly into that account.

I found it easy to link up my bank account, credit card accounts, and 401(k). However, I had trouble linking up my mortgage account, because my mortgage is with a smaller lender. As with many other financial tracking tools, Personal Capital doesn’t connect with every financial service or provider online.

So you may have to put in a support ticket to ask the company to connect with your smaller bank, credit union, or lender. The other option is to input the account information manually. I was able to add my home as an asset, and then add my mortgage as a manual account.

The home estimate comes automatically from Zillow, though you can override it manually if you’d like. The manual mortgage account only allows you to track the current mortgage balance, so it doesn’t track payments or amortization.

The bottom line here is that accounts with bigger-name institutions are easy to link to your financial dashboard. And Personal Capital pulls tons of helpful data from those accounts. The manual accounts feature leaves something to be desired, though.

Track Your Cash Flow

The main dashboard shows your overall cash flow for the last 30 days, broken down into categories. The categories are automatically assigned, and may not be completely accurate. But they give you a good at-a-glance estimation of your income and spending for the past month.

You can click into the cash flow tab to see a more detailed breakdown of your spending. This tab also allows you to toggle your tracker to 30 days, 90 days, six months, this year, or last year. This can be a helpful view if you’ve been trying to change spending habits and want to see general trends.

You can also toggle the view to show all of your accounts or just certain accounts, which can be helpful if you’re tracking just credit card spending, for instance.

Personal Capital will give you a list of the transactions it’s pulling in from all of your accounts. You can then re-categorize those transactions as needed. Taking time to do this can give you a better overall idea of your spending and income.

If you’re the type of person who prefers a more streamlined budget process and doesn’t need to track every dime, the financial dashboard may be perfect for your needs. However, keep in mind that this dashboard is only tracking actual spending. It doesn’t let you pre-set budget categories and then see how your actual spending matches up with your budget. For that type of detail, you need a tool like YNAB or

Learn More: You Need a Budget and a Pocketsmith

Track Your Net Worth

Along with basic budget tracking, Personal Capital allows you to track your net worth. In fact, net worth is one of the first things you see when you pull up the financial dashboard. The net worth chart looks pretty blank when you first start your account. But as you stick with Personal Capital, it’ll continue to graph out over time.

Again, you can click into the net worth tab to find out more about your overall net worth, cash on hand, investments, loans, and other aspects of your net worth. If you have specific goals for raising your savings or decreasing your debt, this is a helpful, visual way to keep track of those goals.

Retirement Planning and Investment Allocation

Of course, one of the main reasons to choose Personal Capital over other financial tracking tools is that it pulls in your retirement savings. The dashboard is compatible with a variety of retirement savings vehicles, including 401(k)s, IRAs, and more. And it will automatically pull in data from your retirement account, as long as that account is with a compatible provider.

I hooked up Personal Capital to my work-related retirement account with Charles Schwab. Again, the process of connecting the accounts was quite simple, and the dashboard pulled in a wealth of information. On the main financial dashboard page, you’ll see your portfolio balances for the last 30 days. You’ll also see your portfolio allocation.

You’ll also see a list of your current holdings, which highlights the holdings that have recently increased in value.

As with the rest of the financial dashboard, you can click any of these options to see more detail. The holdings detail will show you gains and losses in your investments over time, and will compare those gains and losses with the S&P 500.

The Allocation tab will visually break down your account allocations into cash, international bonds, U.S. bonds, international stocks, U.S. stocks, and alternatives. The breakdown tells you exactly what percentage of your total savings is in each of these vehicles. It also tells you the dollar amount you have invested in each option.

I really like the at-a-glance overview of portfolio allocation, as it makes things easy to understand. If you have multiple retirement accounts connected to Personal Capital, you can toggle between accounts to see the allocation breakdown for each individual account.

Overall, the retirement and investing aspects of Personal Capital’s financial dashboard are its strong suit, which isn’t surprising. This, after all, is what the platform is all about. But being able to see what’s going on with your retirement accounts isn’t even the best part about the free version of Personal Capital. You can, in fact, get some pretty solid retirement and investing advice without paying a dime.

Advisor Tools for Free

The three most helpful free tools Personal Capital offers are the Investment Checkup, Retirement Planner, and 401(k) Fee Analyzer tools.

Investment Checkup

For the Investment Checkup, the tools is mostly looking at your investment profile to see if your allocation is appropriate for your age, projected retirement age, and risk tolerance. The breakdown looks like this:


Once you run the Investment Checkup, you can look at the historical performance of your target allocation versus your current allocation. It will show future projections for your target and current allocations. You can also gauge your level of risk and return at this target allocation.

You can also compare your current allocation to Personal Capital’s target allocation, like this:


It’s always wise to take any investment advice with a grain of salt. You should also do your own research before moving your investments around. But if you’re new to balancing your investment portfolio, Personal Capital’s Investment Checkup could be a great place to get started.

Retirement Planner

With the Retirement Planner tool, you’ll be able to see how your current savings and savings rate stacks up against your overall retirement goals. You can include how much you plan to spend in retirement, and even how many kids you plan to put through college.

Again, the visual aspect of this tool is really helpful. It includes a graph of the most likely scenarios for your retirement savings, age, and spending goals. You can include both yourself and your spouse, as well.

One helpful aspect of the Retirement Planner tool is that it’ll automatically pull information from your dashboard, if you’d prefer. For instance, it can base your retirement spending goals on your current spending information, and your retirement savings goals on how much you’re currently saving for retirement each year.

You can then play with each piece of information, from annual retirement savings to annual Social Security income, and see how that changes the outcome. The eventual outcome will look like this:


The retirement planner adjusts for inflation. It will also show you the assumptions for annual rate of return and volatility. These are based on your current portfolio asset allocation.

This tool is far from perfect. It doesn’t, for instance, account for rebalancing your asset allocation as you near retirement age. However, it can give you a good idea of whether you’re on track to retire when you want with plenty in savings. It can also allow you to see different ways to meet your retirement goals, from saving more each year to decreasing your retirement spending needs.

401(k) Fee Analyzer

Sneaky hidden fees are one way to wreck your retirement savings. It’s astounding how much these hidden fees can eat away at your hard-earned savings. That’s where Personal Capital’s 401(k) Fee Analyzer tool comes in.

This tool will dig into your 401(k) to find both up-front and hidden fees, such as custodial fees, inactivity fees, and 12b-1 fees. It will then tell you about how much you’re paying each year in fund fees, and how much those fees will cost you over time.

The fee analyzer will also dig into any mutual fund holdings you have and will show the expense ratios for these mutual funds. This can help you decide where to invest your mutual fund holdings for the lowest cost.

The Bottom Line: Is it Right for You?

So, what if you’re not ready to pay for Personal Capital’s financial advising services? The free financial dashboard could still be a great tool to help you manage your money. Again, if you’re looking for a detailed budgeting tool, this isn’t it. But it could be used in conjunction with a budgeting tool like YNAB or Mint to get a better overall picture of your finances.

Since it’s primarily an investing platform, Personal Capital’s strengths are certainly in the investing arena. Whether you’re just starting out investing for retirement or you’re ready to take more control of your investments, the Retirement Planner and Investment Checkup tools are great. They’ll give you insight in your allocation and savings plan. It can be a really good place to begin in your DIY investing journey.


Certain expenses can sneak up on you, especially if you don’t run into them too often. For example, a new passport costs $110, but renewal only comes around once every 10 years. Other recurring bills like property taxes, car registration, and insurance payments can also make an unexpected dent in your wallet when they pop up. Do you really even consider these types of things when configuring your budget?

There are many ways to budget for these kinds of costs and make sure that you’re financially prepared. The central idea is to assess all of your potential expenses that occur less frequently than a month, do some simple math, and put away enough money each month to cover them when they pop up.

Getting Organized

When it comes to financial planning, attention to detail is key. And the first step to planning for annual expenses is to have a detailed budget in place.

I prefer to use a spreadsheet for mine, but there are many tools that can help you build a budget. I pair my spreadsheet with Mint to help me automatically track my spending and compare my monthly spending against the budgets I’ve set for myself.

I strongly recommend that you use an automated tool like Mint or the new YNAB if you’re concerned about recurring costs (which you should be!). No amount of planning can fully prepare you for all of the different expenses that come about in a year. It’s especially easy to forget something small or things that come around every 2+ years.

For example, I recently had to renew a few internet domains that I keep as a hobby. While checking out online, I realized I hadn’t budgeted for them at all this year. They just hadn’t come to mind when I was logging things like insurance premiums and membership dues. Once I implemented Mint, though, the app showed me these charges and, in a sense, forced me to rebudget.

My budget spreadsheet has two sections. The upper section has categories like rent, clothing, car payments, and other monthly expenses, along with their associated monthly cost. I’ve then made another column to extrapolate those numbers to show how much I pay annually. This is just to give me a better sense of where my money is going as a whole.

The second section flips this model. Instead of categories, I call out explicit purchases. These include things like new eyeglasses, and I estimate how much I expect to spend on them annually. I then divide that number by 12 to see how much I should be socking away each month to cover their cost. At the bottom of that section, I can simply total the monthly estimates. That way, I know much I need to budget each month to cover all of these costs for a year.

Some expenses don’t happen once a year, so you may need to do some simple math to properly estimate them. For example, your insurance may be charged biannually. Just make sure to do the right math to treat these costs like other annual expenses.

The same goes for purchases that happen every few years, like the passport example mentioned at the start of this article. Saving for a passport renewal at $110 every 10 years costs you a whopping $0.92 per month. Which would you rather prepare for: an unplanned $100+ expense hitting your account, or simply putting less than a dollar away each month?

Getting Disciplined

Once you understand how much you should be saving each month, it’s time to start putting it away. I made a second savings account with my bank, just for this purpose. On the first day of each month, I transfer my magic monthly number from checking into that account. It’s no different than how one might transfer a few hundred dollars into a primary savings account, an IRA, or another taxable account. Instead of a second savings account, you can keep track of this through a spreadsheet or other document you’d prefer. However, I find having a discrete account to be really beneficial.

Of course, one hurdle here will be that when these expenses come up for the first time, you won’t have saved enough yet to cover them. Think carefully about what kinds of expenses those are, and make sure to properly save for them as an aside to this process. I also prefer to inflate my monthly number by a bit (~10%) just in case. It never hurts to be overprepared, and that can really help when something you hadn’t thought of (like that pesky passport renewal) catches up to you.

Once you’ve calculated your annual costs, you might be surprised at how much you need to be saving each month. For some of you, it might be hundreds of dollars that you hadn’t previously budgeted. You need to be disciplined in saving that money each month, or you risk putting yourself into potential debt. Stick to transferring that money on the first of each month! I like to make mine an automatic transfer so I don’t have to remember it. And throughout each month, carefully track which costs hit you that aren’t in your normal monthly budget, so you can recoup that money to pay your bills.

My way of tracking recurring costs is by creating a new unique category in Mint called “Annual Expense,” or something similar. I then tag things like eyeglasses or my Amazon Prime membership with this different category. At the end of each month, Mint easily tells me how much I spent on these kinds of expenses, and then I transfer that amount from the second savings account back into my checking.

This allows me to then have enough to make the credit card payments for those charges. It’s a surprisingly simple system (just like most things when it comes to budgeting), but it takes discipline and organization.

Finally, don’t get complacent. This system only works as well as you maintain it. That means that when an unexpected cost comes up, it’s time to get to work. Appropriately budget for it, change your monthly magic number, and plan ahead for what comes next. Yes, it’s work, but that’s what good financial planning is all about. And let’s be fair here: the “work” is actually quite easy.

Your Plan

The method I’ve outlined here works great for me, but I’m curious what works for you. The fundamental strategy of planning for annual costs is to determine what you need to save each month, and put that money somewhere. These expenses will be different for everyone, but you should certainly know where yours stand.

Please chime in if you have a different system for planning, as we’d all like to hear about what’s been effective for you. It’s often hard to think about these kinds of recurring costs, causing people to disregard or fail to save for them. A system that’s easy to understand can go a long way to protecting your financial future.

For reference, here are all the annual costs for which I currently budget: Amazon Prime, license and passport renewal, internet domains, new eyeglasses, vacations and travel, car registration, property tax, gym membership, Xbox Live, veterinary costs, a new cell phone, car maintenance, holiday and birthday gifts, and a local film festival.

What other/different expenses do you see each year?


Ah, millennials. They are the first generation to grow up with iPhones, FaceTime, and GPS apps. Most of their banking is done online and, thanks to Amazon, the majority of web purchases arrive at their doorstep within 2 business days. They hit the generational jackpot when it comes to convenience and ease, it would seem.

And now, according to a new study from Fidelity, they are also very likely to still be receiving financial help from their parents, even if they’re “out on their own.”

The newest study, published today, was conducted between July and August 2016, and included responses from 305 Millennials (aged 25 to 35). They had an average salary of $68,000 and an average total savings of $67,000. Of these 305 young adult respondents, 48 percent had a 401(k) and 28 percent had an IRA. Also, note that Millennials as a whole also have an average of over $37,000 in student loan debt. (They do hold less credit card debt than the generations before them, though.)

A very interesting find of the study, aside from their financial allocation habits, was the increase in their support system. From the participants’ responses, the study found that the Millennial generation is cutting their parents’ financial cord much less, and much later, than in years past.

Keeping the Cord Intact

Nearly half of these Millennials (47 percent) own up to letting mom and dad pay for a number of things since they’ve been on their own. Some of these costs include family-type expenses – like cell phone plans, streaming services, subscriptions, and insurance plans. They may also include more specific contributions, like car payments and grocery bills.


More notable than budget help, though, is the fact that there’s been an uptick in adult kids actually moving back in with the ‘rents.

This new study found that 21 percent of Millennials report living at home, which is up from the 14 percent found in 2014’s study. While some of these kids never left, a good number of them consciously chose to move back home after being in the real world for a few years. Of course, 67 percent of respondents also said that it’s more acceptable now than ever for adult children to move back home with their parents, so perhaps that’s one encouraging factor.millennials-4

Another 66 percent of Millennials said that they live outside of their parents’ home and cover all of their own expenses. Of those truly independent folks, though, 25 percent of them admit to having moved back in with their parents at some point for financial reasons. (Only 12 percent of Gen X respondents said they had done the same, along with 9 percent of the baby boomers.)

So, what are these young adults doing with all of the money? If they aren’t spending on rent or their own cell phone plans, where is it going? Turns out, they’re saving most of it!

They Are Saving More Than Their Older Counterparts

A surprising 85 percent of Millennials said that they have some form of savings. This is up from the 77 percent who said the same in 2014’s study.millennials-3

Emergency funds are at the financial forefront, as 59 percent have money saved up for serious, unexpected costs. In fact, not only do a large number of them have emergency money tucked away, but they also, on average, have more money saved up than the older generations. Millennials have a whopping $9,100 tucked away on average. They say this amount should cover about six and a half months of their living expenses. Gen Xers, on the other hand, only have $8,700 and Boomers? A mere $7,100.

Looking further ahead, the majority of Millennials are also saving for retirement. When the study was conducted in 2014, 51 percent of respondents said that they had a retirement savings account. This year’s study, however, found that number had jumped up to a solid 60 percent.millennials-5

Sure, this generation is much younger and admits that retirement is still far, far away. But the actual number of them saving for their golden years is still comparable to older generations. Of Gen Xers, for example, 61 percent are saving for retirement, along with 67% of baby boomers.

But They Aren’t Doing Enough to Make That Money Work For Them

Sure, the Millennials seem to be doing a great job at tucking money away. Perhaps that has to do with their parents’ willingness, and ability, to help out. I would imagine this makes it much easier to put cash in a savings account. There’s extra money when mom and dad are covering auto insurance bills each month or you’re riding their cell phone plan coattails. But hey, to each his own.

There is one problem, though. Young adults don’t seem to be saving their money as smart as they could.

The vast majority of Millennials are saving their emergency fund in a traditional savings account. There, it’s likely to earn less than 0.25 percent in interest. (According to Bankrate, in fact, the average money market and savings account APY (as of 10/14/16) has been 0.11% for 22 consecutive weeks.) Of course, this isn’t going to accumulate the same return as a brokerage or investment account.

Speaking of, only 8 percent of Millennials are keeping their money in one of those types of accounts, compared to 11 percent of Gen Xers or 23 percent of baby boomers.

What Are They Focusing on Instead?

Many of these 25-35 year olds are more conservative than they should be when it comes to their money. As a result, they are missing out on potential returns.

Though 63 percent have investment accounts, only 9 percent of Millennials would use “investor” to describe themselves. Instead, 46 percent would identify with being a “saver” and 44 percent would instead say they’re a “spender.”

They’re tucking cash away in IRAs (28 percent) and 401(k)s (48 percent), along with the emergency funds mentioned above. Accumulating more savings is a priority to 44 percent of them, as is building an emergency fund (also 44 percent). But this younger generation is also very concerned about the here and now.

So, why are Millennials moving in with their parents or taking advantage of mom and dad’s financial help? Many of them say it’s in order to afford just their essential living expenses. In fact, 38 percent cite this as their reason. A whopping 33 percent are working to reduce their credit card debt. Another 30 percent of them are trying to pay off their often-crippling student loans. They aren’t racking up the high credit card debt that their older counterparts accumulated. Instead, they seem to be very worried about financial security.

Fidelity asked them whether money concerns keep them up at night. One-quarter of respondents said that yes, they worry “all the time” about their financial future. (Interestingly enough, this is about the same percentage of Gen Xers and baby boomers who said the same thing.) Another 17 percent said that they worry a few times a week or more.

So, What Does This All Mean?

It’s obvious to the younger generation – at least, to those who are paying attention – that their financial future is less secure than generations past. They have seen a number of financial crises in their lifetime, which may have impacted how they view money, debt, and the importance of saving for the future.

They have heard talks of Social Security running out. They’ve seen high unemployment numbers in recent years, and witnessed a house market crash. College educations, which were supposed to guarantee their careers, have become more less affordable. A degree also doesn’t get them as far in the working world as promised. Our country is in record debt, as are its citizens. Personally, I think Millennials are right to be a little spooked. I’m glad to see that we are shifting to financially-conscious young adults, even if moving back home is what’s allowing that to be possible.

As long as our up-and-coming generations are getting concerned with their money, their financial futures, and the need to stay out of debt, our country has a chance to shift its mindset. Perhaps something else will change within our society that can support Millennials’ penny-pinching. Until then, this seems to be the logical (and more readily acceptable) option.

Parents, don’t downsize your home just yet – the nest might not stay empty for long!


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4 More Personal Finance Rules I’ve Broken

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