New baby? No doubt this new arrival has turned every aspect of your life upside down in the best possible way. Now is the time to make sure your financial house is in order. Here’s a 10-step account and financial checklist to lay the groundwork for your little one’s successful future.
New account checklist for new babies
1. Apply for a Social Security number for the baby: An SSI number is the linchpin to open a bank account in your child’s name, purchase savings bonds, obtain medical coverage and access government benefits.
2. Review your life insurance: If you don’t have life insurance, you should get coverage as soon as possible. If you already have a life insurance policy, check to make sure it’s adequate to cover the needs of the new addition to the family.
3. Pick a guardian: Choose a family member or close friend who is willing and financially able to care for your child, should you or the other parent pass away or become incapacitated before your child turns 18.
4. Set up powers of attorney: Put in writing your legal power of attorney, which sets out who will be responsible for your financial and personal affairs should you be unable to make those decisions for yourself. You also should set up a health care power of attorney that makes your wishes known in the event you become seriously ill and are unable to participate in decisions about your care.
5. Write your will: It’s not just wealthy people who need a will. Every parent should create a document spelling out how his or her estate should be handled. The will may also include or reference legal guardianship and powers of attorney.
6. Open a savings account in the baby’s name: Choose a no-fee, no-minimum balance, online savings account. You can link the savings account to your checking for automatic withdrawals.
7. Set up an emergency fund: You should put aside money from each paycheck into a savings account with the goal of having sufficient funds to cover living expenses for six months.
8. Review your work benefits: Confirm how much paid (and unpaid) maternity leave is offered through the birth mom’s employer, and whether paid leave is available for the other parent. Determine how you will obtain health benefits for the baby, either through an employer or government plan. Consult with your human resources office on flexible spending accounts and other benefits that may apply to your situation as a new parent.
9. Check in with Uncle Sam: You can claim a tax credit of $1,000 for your new baby and take an annual tax deduction of $3,950 for each dependent child. You can also receive tax credits if you adopt a child and/or if you pay for child care. You should review your withholding status, which could mean that more take-home money is available to increase your emergency fund every month, for instance. Single parents may be able to claim head-of-household status.
10. Start saving for college: Set up a 529 savings account, which generally is not subject to federal and state taxes if used to pay for college tuition. (If the funds are used for other purposes, earnings may be subject to a 10 percent federal tax penalty.) Details on fees and other aspects of the 529 plans vary by state, so do your research.
Retirement does not always go the way people expect. While no two experiences are exactly the same, over time it seems that people’s financial situations in retirement tend to fall into one of a few distinct categories.
As you think ahead to how you want your retirement to go, keep the following categories in mind. They offer useful examples of what to avoid and what you might want to emulate.
1. Keeping up appearances.
Even though people tend to think of their finances as personal business, their wealth is often presented to the outside world in a variety of ways. While you probably won’t walk around sharing the latest information on your savings account balance with everyone, the car you drive, the house you live in, and the clothes you wear all provide clues as to your financial well-being, even if you don’t think of yourself as particularly status conscious.
Unfortunately, the public face of wealth can create a form of pressure that leads to poor financial decisions. One reason people sometimes spend beyond their means is to keep up public appearances — whether that entails trying to compete with friends and neighbors or trying to maintain a prior standard that you can no longer afford.
Another example of how trying to keep up appearances can be a distorting influence is that breadwinners often want to spare their spouses and children from any financial anxiety. Thus, they may hide any financial setbacks or be reluctant to admit the true limitations of their incomes. As a result, family members conduct themselves on the assumption that they can afford more than is actually the case, when they could be playing important roles in trying to economize if they knew the truth.
People can be particularly vulnerable to these behaviors in retirement, when not having wage income makes a financial reversal more difficult to overcome. Taking pride in your financial well-being is understandable; but remember that the longer you maintain an inflated illusion of your wealth, the worse the blow to your pride will be when the truth finally does come out.
2. Gambling and losing.
People in retirement are heavily dependent on the success of their investments, and this leads some people to take dangerous risks in order to try to improve their financial status.
Especially now, with savings account and CD rates so low, people are resorting to riskier investments to try to earn a decent rate of return. Earning next to nothing in a deposit account may be frustrating, but it’s not as frustrating as suffering damaging losses.
Some element of investment risk is necessary to earn the growth necessary to stay ahead of inflation, but don’t make investments without being fully cognizant of their downsides. Risk management is critical in retirement because drawing money out of your accounts to live on can amplify the impact of downturns, and your near-term spending needs mean that you don’t have as much time to recover from losses as when you were still working.
Some people are able to afford retirement because they downsize many aspects of their lifestyle — smaller house, fewer dependents, less entertainment, etc. This need not be a matter of financial necessity. Often, a simpler lifestyle can be appealing to people in their later years.
One caution about planning on downsizing in retirement is to make sure you properly account for what your specific expenses will be, rather than just blindly assuming you’ll be able to live on a fraction of the money you needed when you were working. Also, remember that health care can grow to be a huge expense in retirement, especially if you have to move into a managed care facility.
4. Second careers.
Another way of affording retirement is to keep some income coming in via a second career. Some people do this out of necessity because they do not have enough money for retirement, but in many cases people like to keep working because it occupies their time and makes them feel useful.
Semi-retirement can be a perfect way to take things a little easier without completely withdrawing from the working world. As a retirement funding strategy though, don’t assume you will be able to keep working for as long as you want. Health issues or dated skill sets can make it harder to continue working as you grow older.
Ultimately, retirement is about conservation of your financial resources — making sure that what you have can be stretched to last over the remainder of your life. The problem is, no matter how carefully you plan ahead, there are some things you just cannot know in advance. Unexpected expenses, substandard investment returns, and your longevity can all make it more difficult to make your money last.
The answer is that conservation of financial resources requires frequent adjustments. Rather than being a course you can set and forget, managing your finances requires regularly refreshing your plan to see how the latest information on your financial status affects how much you can afford.
Planning for retirement
Retirement is not defined solely by finances. How you choose to occupy your time and whom you spend that time with are critical factors in post-career happiness. However, it cannot be denied that money is also a big influence on that happiness. For one thing, it dictates your level of comfort and the number of options you have. More than that, though, there is the psychological impact of having to live with the consequences of decisions you made throughout your career and beyond.
A lot goes into this. As you think back in retirement, you may be able to trace your financial condition all the way back to decisions you made about your education, and then to the effort you put into your career, how sensible your spending was, and how wise an investor you were. You might not always have made the right choices, but psychologically the important thing is to be able to look back on those decisions without regret. Being able to do that begins today, by putting care and discipline into decisions you make about your finances.
In today’s podcast, Carl and I discuss why reducing a complex financial plan to one page can be key for living the fulfilled life you envision and how certain emotions can stand in the way. We talk about avoiding financial mistakes, and what a financial adviser’s (or a friend’s) role might be.
Because Carl is “The Sketch Guy” for The New York Times, we talk about the origins of Carl’s sketches, and how these sketches and Carl’s other art have been received in the art scene.
Finally, Carl and I discuss the process of publishing, and listeners will get an early listen to what might be the focus of his FinCon keynote address.
Consumerism Commentary is offering five free copies of The One-Page Financial Plan to five Consumerism Commentary readers. To be considered for receiving one copy of the book, which is also available at retailers, leave a comment below the transcript.
When your life is out of control, nothing seems to go right. You have the worst luck, and you can’t seem to get ahead with anything, whether a project, a goal, or even simple things like taking care of daily tasks.
The same is true in all aspects of your life, especially those in which you’d like to see change or improvement.
Control comes through the practice of making better decisions, those decisions that take your future into consideration. Sure, if you’re struggling to survive, “the future” is a luxury. I understand that. But even small steps towards control can help you move forward towards having the freedom to consider more than just how your family will survive paycheck to paycheck. When the situation is controlling you, you feel helpless. But starting to control the small things in life will offer the confidence to, stamina for, and even luxury of making life better for your future.
Being in control can be a significant achievement. But the work isn’t over once you have control. I realized this while watching a baseball game. It was a subway series, with the New York Mets visiting the Bronx to play crosstown rivals the New York Yankees.
The commentator used the phrase “command and control” in discussing the talents of a pitcher. Every pitcher who makes it to the major league should be in control consistently. That means they should be able to throw fastballs for strikes and get other types of pitches in the strike zone on demand, whenever desired.
Brandon Katz describes in Bleacher Report, a baseball blog, what happens when pitchers do not have control: “Without control, basically all hell breaks loose for the guy on the mound. If you don’t have a good feel for your pitches, then it’s going to be a night of free base runners and a lot of runs due to unintentional walks and undoubtedly a multitude of pitches up in the zone.”
Command is another matter. Having command of the pitch is what separates the great players from the everyday. Katz describes pitching command thusly: “Pitchers with good command have the talent to place their pitches any where they want within the strike zone; they are able to throw not just strikes, but good strikes.”
This is also what happens when pitchers are in sync with their catchers. The two players determine for every pitch the speed, direction, pattern, and target, and a pitcher with perfect command hits that target every time. When the catcher wants a cutter to approach the strike zone from the the top outside corner but land in the catcher’s mitt low and inside, the pitcher with good command makes that happen. When the catcher wants a series of three fastballs starting low and ending high and outside, tricking the batter into swinging at a fastball out of the strike zone, good command is necessary for the plan to result in a strikeout.
Control is just the beginning. I’m in control of my finances. I know I’m spending only what I can afford to spend, less than I earn with enough to save for the future. I am like a major league pitcher. Just my presence in the major league means I’ve outshone hundreds or thousands of others on teams in Little League, high school, college, and the minor league.
But I’m not Matt Harvey (or whoever your favorite superstar pitcher might be). I do not have complete command of my financial performance. Not only do I rely on the stock market to take my net worth higher, but I haven’t determined how to invest in such a way that I can position myself the best for my future.
While many would be satisfied with a diversified portfolio of index stock and bond funds, when your needs involve a regular income, protection of your assets, tax efficiency, and growth for taking advantage of a variety of opportunities, things get more complicated. I can throw my strikes, but I’m still learning about the finer points of money management — the skills that will get me to the point where I can just show up on the mound and batters get nervous.
For example, I’m in the process of moving out of New Jersey. My portfolio until recently included as part of my bond portfolio the Vanguard index fund that’s exempt from New Jersey state income tax. The purpose of that was to keep my overall tax burden lower while being able to (relatively) count on some steady income. But if I’m not a resident of New Jersey and not paying New Jersey income taxes, the tax benefit of the investment is irrelevant to me. And quite possibly a waste of an investment opportunity.
And one might argue that the state of New Jersey is in such a bad condition that it was a bad investment in the first place.
But now I have the full investment previously in the New Jersey bond fund sitting in a sweep account earning a paltry (taxable) 0.01% interest. I need to come up with a plan to invest this amount soon, as opportunity cost — the cost of doing nothing compared to potential results — is a real thing and quite expensive. My initial thought is to stop worrying about tax efficiency, particularly considering I am not sure what my plans for residence will be beyond the fall of this year. A strong suggestion in continuing the income portion of my portfolio is to look at the Vanguard Intermediate Term Corporate Bond Index.
Clearly, the trickier pieces of my investment game — being able to paint the corners with my strikes — is not where it needs to be yet. My control is on point; my command requires some work before I’ll get my All-Star Game invitation.
Here’s what I need to do.
Dive deeper into investment research. Until now, it’s been enough to know that the stock market index generally returns 8% over long periods of time for those who buy and hold and don’t react to market news. It’s been enough to know that bond indexes can balance stock indexes and prevent some damage in market downturns without a major detrimental effect to overall returns.
I’m still not interested in investing a major portion of my portfolio in individual stocks, but if a unique investment opportunity comes my way, I will need to be able to evaluate the offer and make a decision that is as informed as possible. I have some business opportunities coming my way, and I’d hate to miss something important because I wasn’t able to analyze the situation effectively.
Talk to more people in similar situations. I’ve done a great job of helping people and teaching others what I know. I’m always available for friends who want business advice or would like to take their blogging to the next level.
Because I found myself paving the way and perhaps doing things that haven’t been done on a large scale before, and have been that way for about three decades, I haven’t done the best job of seeking out mentors when what I’ve wanted to learn has all ready been perfected by others. Whether it’s success in business management or investing, I need to spend some time talking to established experts in addition to mentoring others who see my successes as something similar to what they’d like to achieve.
Practice over and over. It’s great to avoid mistakes, but there’s often to better learning substitute than making mistakes and having to deal with the consequences. The mistakes I’ve made throughout my life — and I’ve made many both pertaining to and beyond my finances — have forced me to learn on my feet, adjust, and improve. I’ve made poor decisions regarding working with others, I’ve had to learn to live with hurt in personal relationships, and I’ve misjudged people. Mistakes like these have given me more insight.
As I make more investing decisions, I’m sure I’ll make more mistakes. More opportunities coming my way means more opportunities to fail. But the experience I gain when that does happen will be valuable — and as long as I don’t rely too much on the success of any particular decision, I should be able to whether failures and use the knowledge gained to my advantage later, increasing my command, not just control, of my finances.
Accumulating money is not a real goal for anyone’s life. Growing wealth is not the point. People don’t work hard because they want to see their bank balance grow; those of us who track our finances and chart our net worth over time aren’t trying to compete in some financial competition. I imagine there are ... Continue reading this article…
Over the last year, a friend of mine has been trying to convince me to move my financial assets. I currently have a taxable investment account at Vanguard, and my portfolio consists of a mix that includes a domestic stock index fund, an international stock index fund, and tax-advantaged municipal bond funds. This friend believes ... Continue reading this article…
A week ago today I was in Phoenix. I had been there for a few days, and I had been planning to spend a month with my girlfriend away from the cold New Jersey weather. It wasn’t a vacation. We each needed to continue working, but figured we might as well do so where the ... Continue reading this article…
Any self-help guru would agree that how you think about money shapes your behavior with money. If you want to improve your financial situation, whether to get out of debt or to reach financial independence, your relationship with money is the first thing that must change. If you believe you will never be able to ... Continue reading this article…
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