Memorial Day weekend kicks off the vacation travel season. Like many, I'm thinking about how to steal a few days away and enjoy some family time while the weather is nice.
As I trolled around for different options, I came across these tips from Equifax regarding safeguarding one's identity while traveling. Thought they might be helpful to share.
1. Don't announce your travel plans on social media. This invites identity thieves to target your house while you're away.
2. Place a hold on your mail. When criminals see an overflowing mailbox, they see an easy way to steal personal information.
3. Go through your wallet and leave at home your library card and other cards with your name on them. Carry only necessities in your wallet when traveling. Tourist areas are hotspots for pickpockets.
4. Set up a travel alert on your credit card accounts, and freeze your credit with the three credit bureaus.
When it comes to money, Mother may not necessarily know best, but she’s more willing to talk about it: Fidelity
I remember when my first son was three years old, and in the “why” stage of development, we had a lengthy conversation about ATMs.
“Why do we need to go to the bank?”
“Why do you put money in the bank?”
“Why do you need to save?”
Why, why, why, and before I knew it I was trying to explain to this tot the concept of interest, paying for a mortgage, budgeting – and yes, asking myself the whole time why I was trying to answer these questions with any depth when he was only 3.
Since then we’ve had a lot of follow-up conversations as his little mind tried to grasp through repetition these financial concepts, and I tried to impart financial lessons to keep in check the also-growing consumerism that seems to accelerate when kids enter kindergarten.
But what I’ve come to realize is that having simple conversations about even complex ideas on money has built a foundation for us talking about these issues that I hope will carry into his adult years. Because in addition to wanting to raise a responsible adult, I recognize that the time will come when I will need him, and his siblings, to understand my finances and estate, and execute them on my behalf. I want them to know my values and feelings about these matters, and to be able to take care of them for me if I need assistance.
Getting ready for spring break? Many families are heading out this weekend for a holiday as schools take their annual April vacation. I remember a year ago, after a long spate of sitting at my desk way too much, I was in dire need of a getaway but feeling conscious of a strict budget because we had some fun summer plans that took higher priority for the family funds.
In trolling around for deals, I realized that a credit card that I had been using exclusively for business expenses had racked up enough points for a week’s accommodations in Florida. With a quick click, we were on our way.
It was such a nice surprise to be able to take that trip without breaking my bank. Apparently I’m not the only one who tends to let those balances accumulate without paying much attention. Almost three in four Americans have forgotten about frequent flier miles or credit card rewards points that they’ve earned.
“For people who don’t take advantage of points, you’re leaving money on the table,” said Brian Kelly, author of “ThePointsGuy.com,” a website dedicated to teaching the ins and outs of maximizing the use of points for travel and other benefits.
Kelly worked with Princeton Survey Research Associates to find out how many people are actually taking advantage of points programs and how many are letting them expire. “I was amazed when I would go into a Starbucks how many people would use debit cards or cash,” he said in an interview. To Kelly, who is able to travel business class internationally because of his prolific use of points and spent just $2.50 on a ticket to Brazil last week, not taking advantage of a rewards program for even the smallest purchases is puzzling. Even if you don’t want to travel, Kelly reasons, “you should at least be getting cash back.”
Charles Schwab & Co. financial consultant Kimberly Segal says she recommends her clients save enough to meet 80 percent of their current expenditures when planning for retirement. But a recent survey by her firm finds that Bostonians with means aren’t necessarily hearing the message. Most are expecting to only need about half the income they earn now when they retire, even amidst concerns about healthcare and other rising costs.
It’s not as if Segal’s clientele can’t afford to save. The demographic polled by Charles Schwab are technically well off, with at least $250,000 in “investable assets and retirement funds.” On average they earn $113,000 a year, yet in retirement they expect to only need $63,000.
The disconnect is particularly striking given that the majority of survey respondents plan to continue living in the Boston area in their golden years. Only one in four said they will move to a new area, seeking a better quality of life and lower living costs when they stop working.
“We’re urging people at a younger age to look at retirement planning, prioritize current and future expenses, and take action on the plan to make them financially secure for retirement,” Segal said. “Doing it early on can alleviate concerns, especially unforeseen expenses in medical and healthcare costs.”
Several analysts have reported that car sales are expected to rise this year, in part because there’s a sizeable group of people who need to replace their older vehicles. But how much is the “right” amount to spend?
If you’re looking to finance, you might consider the 20-4-10 rule: 20 percent down; financing that lasts no longer than four years; and principal, interest and insurance that doesn’t exceed 10 percent of your gross household income.
It’s a formula that can help change the way we think about how we define the affordability of a car, and potentially start to free up some extra cash for other, more important financial needs such as retirement or even the more basic emergency savings fund.
“How that change in thinking lowers your stress level is just amazing,” says Mike Sante, a managing editor at Interest.com, which recently completed a study that looked at car affordability. “It can make a tremendous change in your quality of life. This is where the money is for your savings.”
Americans are largely spending too much on cars, an asset that is often our second-largest household expense after rent or a mortgage and offers no potential for increasing net worth. For example, taking into account car insurance costs and the Boston area’s median income of almost $70,000 a year, Interest.com calculated that a typical Boston household can afford to spend up to $26,025 on a car. It would take a pretty good amount of self-control to avoid spending more than that, since the average new car with bells and whistles costs $30,550.
Gas prices eating at your wallet? Try visiting the pump on a Wednesday, before 10 a.m., as well as these other tips
Feeling a pinch from the gas pump? No wonder. According to the American Automobile Association, gas prices rose every day from Jan. 17 to Feb. 20 – a 15 percent jump to $3.778 per gallon, the fastest run-up since 2005.
Not surprisingly, I’ve been hearing from a lot of folks who have “tips” for how to track, and maybe even help manage, the sticker shock. For example, there is an app called Gasbuddy.com that can provide you with a list of gas stations in the area and their latest prices so that you can compare prices before you fill up the tank. In some cases, you can save 20 cents or more per gallon, which can quickly lead to big savings.
I also liked looking at the gas “heat map” on their website, which shows where the highest prices are in the country in case you’re planning a road trip. Massachusetts was definitely on the warmer end, though nothing like California.
Mapquest has a similar function. At the top left corner of the map that shows up on Mapquest.com, you’ll see a series of icons. Click on the one for “travel services” and it will give you a menu that includes “Gas stations.” Click on that, and it pulls up a list of stations with prices.
Local retailer Cumberland Farms also recently introduced a new payment program called SmartPay Check-Link that the company says saves drivers 10 cents on every gallon of gas, every day. You have a choice of downloading the SmartPay app or picking up a plastic SmartPay card at a Cumberland Farms/Gulf location after registering for the program on the company’s website and syncing it up with your checking account. Each time you fill up your tank, the payment is automatically withdrawn from your bank account.
Ally Financial’s Kucharski Sees Auto Lenders Ready to Handle Increase in Consumer Demand With More Financing, Lease Offers
I recently spoke with Jim Kucharski, who works with auto manufacturers such as General Motors Corp. and Chrysler Corp. as vice president of Alliance Sales at Ally Financial. According to Kucharski, 2013 should be a good year for the auto industry because of significant, pent-up demand from buyers (both consumers and businesses) who deferred sales during the recession. In addition, the average vehicle on the road in the US is more than 10 years old, encouraging consumers to trade in this older fleet for newer models.
Ally forecasts that the auto industry may sell at least 15 million units this year, an increase of about 3-4 percent. The last time the U.S. auto industry sold 16 million vehicles was in 2007.
In addition to the demand generated from the replacement of old vehicles, the industry expects to benefit from almost 500,000 more lease returns this year compared to last year, which should result in either new leases or purchases, Ally said. A recent Wall Street Journal report said that design “refreshes” in the midsize-car market should help that segment to continue to lead the industry. Overall, more than 40 new vehicle introductions are expected in the U.S. this year, more than twice the number in 2012.
“From our perspective, we see tremendous demand by consumers and supply by lenders to handle consumers with a variety and breadth of credit capacity and scores,” Kucharski said. “Not only is the auto market growing, but the auto finance market is growing.”
The rally in the markets this week probably has a lot of people checking their 401(k) balances to see what kind of bump they may have gotten in their portfolios. Mary Mullin, a financial advisor with Merrill Lynch Wealth Management here in Boston, says that there are some pretty solid reasons to be optimistic about a rebound in growth, not just in the U.S., but worldwide this year.
“The macroeconomic challenges still exist, but we’re talking to individuals about re-evaluating their portfolios because there are a lot of good companies out there doing good things,” Mullin said in an interview.
Mullin said research published by her firm examines the “great rotation,” referring to a move in the markets from cash and bonds into areas of potential growth, including housing, and back into equities.
If you look at individual companies, you’ll find several with strong balance sheets and profitability, she said. “A lot of companies have cash on their balance sheets and are paying strong dividends or are increasing their dividends,” Mullin said. “We’re also seeing signs of life in the housing market, which brings consumption that goes around that.”
So what are some investment themes that Mullin is looking at as she advises her clients?
I feel like every January, most personal finance columns encourage us to kick off the New Year with a fresh set of financial resolutions that involve finding ways to streamline our budget and save more. At the top of almost every list: give up that daily Starbucks latte.
I’m kind of tired of hearing that same tip, and feel that if at this point people haven’t gotten the message then writing it one more time isn’t going to persuade them to change their habits.
So let’s assume that we all know it’s not the smartest move to spend several dollars on that higher-priced cup of Joe every day when you can brew a less expensive version at home and put it in a go cup. This year, what else can we do to get our financial house in shape?
Bob Stammers, who heads up investor education for CFA (Chartered Financial Analysts) Institute, offered a few other ideas that I found pretty helpful:
Last year, my New Year’s Resolution was to go paperless. I succeeded, but not in the way that I expected.
I began the year trying several new online applications that aimed to help me organize tasks ranging from setting up a snapshot of all my bills and reminders to pay them, to creating a family system that would allow my kids to track their allowances and chores.
As I often discover (and re-discover) when I embark on an effort to create new habits, starting simple is best. As such, I found that a lot of these applications fell by the wayside, probably because I tried to integrate too many of them into my busy routine at once. Collectively they were too new, and therefore too difficult to master, in an efficient amount of time.
I ended up laying the foundation for my paperless life – and eliminating literally bags upon bags of clutter - with three simple steps:
1. Assign one email address as my contact for reminders from banks and bill companies, and then sign up for paperless statements.
2. Create a filing system on my computer to organize all documents, back it up twice with an external hard drive and a cloud-based storage system, and set quarterly reminders on my calendar to download statements.
3. Buy a desktop scanner that’s also portable for when I travel. As silly as this may sound, having the big all-in-one printer/scanner/fax machine that sits at the opposite end of the room was simply too much effort when I could more easily throw a piece of paper into the scanner to file online while talking on the phone or finishing an email.
2013 is going to be another good year for borrowers, and a lousy year for savers, as interest rates remain low amidst a slow-growth economy, Bankrate Senior Financial Analyst Greg McBride said in an interview.
McBride forecasts that the U.S. economy will expand by about 2 percent this year, tempered by an unemployment rate that will decline very slowly and gains in wages that will be “nothing to write home about.”
Those consumers looking to purchase or improve their homes or upgrade the cars will have a window of opportunity as borrowing costs remain low. Auto loans, for one, are at record lows and are still falling, making 2013 a favorable year from a financial standpoint for anyone looking to buy either a new or used car, McBride said
A few years before my mom passed away, she had knee replacement surgery and needed some help in the weeks immediately following her operation. It was always tricky figuring out the best arrangement at times like these – she lived across the country, which meant we had to put together a patchwork of support for her care during those times when immediate family weren’t in town.
She was fortunate to have a strong network in her hometown, and the kindness of her friends at these times of need was heartwarming. But in one unfortunate incident my mom learned the troubling lesson of how even those who have the best of intentions can sometimes succumb to their own life stresses and take advantage of someone who is disabled.
She had hired a friend who had recently lost their job to be her nurse for a week. Longstanding confidence, built on years of friendship, led my mom to trust this individual with her debit card to make some grocery purchases. Unfortunately, the friend did more with the card than just buy groceries. A couple of weeks later, my mom happened to check her bank statement and discovered several other amounts that she had not authorized.
The friend, who was feeling the pinch from her own financial strain, had used my mom’s bank account to take her children on some excursions. My mom speculated that the friend had thought she would get away with it because my mom was distracted from most paperwork and the chances were slim that she would check her account closely.
I have to admit, I found this infographic from creditsesame.com cute, festive, and relevant to the holiday shopping season ... A nice way of reminding all of us to watch our credit even as we spend it ...
What’s in your wallet? Whatever it is, identity thieves still see it as the easiest way to get your information.
As concerned as we all are with an online or other technology-related data breach, the vast majority of identity theft happens from stolen or misplaced items such as wallets and pocketbooks. The second most common cause is a compromised license, Social Security card or other form of personal I.D. Burglaries rate third.
These top three causes accounted for 73 percent of cases involving identity theft, according to a study of 2011 claims data by Travelers Insurance. The thieves often acquired the personal information through less obvious means, from sorting through trash for bank statements to stealing pre-approved credit card applications in the mail. Only 10 percent of those surveyed could identify the perpetrator of the identify fraud made against them.
My work and personal email inboxes are chock full of online ads, promoting next week’s so-called “Black Friday” retail doorbusters to kick off the holiday shopping season.
Seems as if retailers in the Greater Boston area need to do a little more homework, though, if they want to capture this market. According to the results of the survey that I posted last week, more than 70 percent of Boston.com readers plan to wait to do most of their holiday shopping until early December, when there aren’t many crowds in the stores. I have to agree with my readers. Who wants to deal with Black Friday when you can wait a few days and have some time to think and space to breathe in the stores?
Several companies that have contacted me, claiming to have done “studies” that forecast an increase in holiday shopping spending, also don’t seem to have a good pulse on what Boston-area residents plan to do. Sixty-four percent of readers who answered my survey said their budgets are going to stay the same this year. Another 25 percent said they’re reducing it. Only 11 percent will increase their budget.
Excel spreadsheets are once again becoming my best friend.
As I begin preparing my annual Christmas shopping list, instead of my usual paper system tacked onto my bulletin board or stuffed in my wallet, I have decided to lay out my list of people, and purchases, in a few simple columns so that I can easily find and track all of the information.
At the end of last year’s holiday season, I realized that my budget should not only include those items I buy for gifts, but all the other items I end up purchasing because it’s the one time of the year that I actually take time out to shop. It’s the extra things that end up blowing my budget and bloating my credit-card bill come January.
It also helps me reinforce the fairness factor among my kids. We always try to make sure that we split our immediate family budget pretty evenly among them, but having a formula that automatically tallies up the amounts for me as I input each one makes it a lot easier to make sure that I am keeping my word.
Easthampton Savings Bank is one of 88 banks nationwide that is participating in this year’s “Lights, Camera, Save!” video contest for teens that’s organized by the Education Foundation of the American Bankers Association.
The contest asks teens ages 13-18 years old to create a video that educates themselves, and their peers, about the value of saving and using money wisely. The videos can’t be longer than 90 seconds and must be an original work by the student (including all music and images).
Last week we learned that much of this year’s growth in the balance of consumer loans came from borrowing for school expenses. As we head into the fourth quarter, Moody’s Analytics is noticing an additional trend: a rise in auto lending.
In fact, auto lending is growing at the fastest pace in seven years, according to a recent report by Moody’s Analytics. Total outstanding debt on loan and leases increased last month by more than $50 billion, or 7 percent, to $767 billion from year-ago levels, said the company, which provides research and other financial tools to help companies measure and manage risk.
“Auto lending is on fire,” Cristian deRitis, senior director of consumer credit analytics for Moody’s Analytics, said in an interview. “It’s pent-up demand that built up during the recession.”FULL ENTRY
Consumer borrowing is up, but not for shopping – The cost of education is going to make this holiday a tough season for retailers
This week the National Retail Federation, the retail industry’s main voicebox, released its annual forecast for holiday spending, and not surprisingly the results indicate that consumers are going to continue to be cautious during the fourth-quarter buying season.
Discount stores will be the biggest beneficiaries of streamlined holiday budgets, with nearly two-thirds of consumers saying they will shop there to seek the best deals, the NRF said. Department stores ranked second. Clothing retailers were a close third, while electronics stores ranked fourth among the almost 8,900 individuals polled. Total budgets are forecast to barely edge up to an average $749.51 on gifts, décor and greeting cards, from the $740.57 they actually spent last year, the NRF said.
Consumers are also showing an interest in controlling the way they spend their money, an adjustment to the “new normal” that is evident in not only their adherence to budgets and avid pursuit of discounts, but their reduced use of credit cards. As a result there is more interest in using layaway programs (hence the already large number of TV commercials airing to promote this practice) with many consumers saying that they plan to begin their shopping this month, even before Halloween, in order to make sure they are able to grab the season’s “must have” items before it’s too late.
“Consumers have more credit available to them, and have more cards in their wallets that they did a year ago, but they have not been willing to take them out and charge up,” said Cristian deRitis, senior director of consumer credit analytics for Moody’s Analytics. “This year’s holiday season will be tough. People are worried about issues such as the fiscal cliff and the impact of Europe on the U.S. economy. Consumers are still quite cautious.”
Expecting an inheritance? Apparently so, if you’re a member of Gen Z. And that youthful optimism may deter these individuals from taking retirement savings seriously – with potentially damaging consequences.TD Ameritrade interviewed about 1,000 members of Gen Z (young people ages 13-22) and a similar number of parents, and found that almost 40 percent of Gen Z respondents believed that they will have an inheritance and therefore won’t need to worry about saving for retirement. In contrast, just 16 percent of parents thought as much.
That result was surprising, said Carrie Braxdale, managing director, investor services, TD Ameritrade, Inc., because this group of young people was generally pretty savvy about articulating the current challenges in the economy and job market. And with the majority of them already actively using some kind of investment or savings account, they also clearly had been taught about the importance of saving and thinking about a financial plan.
Still, they are focusing mainly on “savings needs that are more near-term,” Braxdale said. “Many explicitly said they are saving for college or current expenses.”
Whenever I write anything about affluent Americans, inevitably I hear from some readers about how journalists are “out of touch” and not understanding the issues. I find these emails striking because they reflect a lot of the uncertainty and frustration most people are feeling in today’s job market and economy. And while I am often just reporting the results of someone else’s study, I understand that even doing that simple act can rub people who are struggling the wrong way.
So when I was told about a recent “Affluent Insights Survey” that Merrill Lynch conducted, I found myself wondering how we might think about its results so that it can be useful information for a variety of individuals, of varying incomes, and not just for those who happen to have $250,000 or more of investable assets. To me, these surveys are helpful if we can find even just one or two nuggets of new information that might serve as potentially interesting solutions when applied to our own lives.
Let’s start by laying out some of the context for the results uncovered by the survey. Among the 1,000+ individuals that Merrill Lynch interviewed, close to half view today’s economic uncertainty as a “new normal,” with rising healthcare costs, the care of aging parents, and the extended financial support being given to adult-age children weighing on their minds. Four out of five, or about 80 percent, of those surveyed worry that they won’t be able to achieve their financial goals before they retire.
Some of these “affluent” individuals are drawing a harder line on funding college. About 48 percent told Merrill Lynch that they were willing to support adult-age children for as long as they need. But some are trying to use the expense as a way to teach a financial lesson. About 38 percent of parents today paid for, or plan to pay for, the full cost of their children’s college education, down from 48 percent a year ago, the survey said. And when asked about their ability to fund higher learning, 19 percent said they chose not to pay for the full amount so that their kids would appreciate their education more.
Increasingly, “families are getting together, with their college-age kids, to talk about how they will pay for college, even in this group where the cost was traditionally paid for by parents,” said Merril Pyes, a managing director in Boston with Merrill Lynch. “Parents are talking with their kids about how to pay for it, what they’ll get out of college, and what their kids will do when they get out.”
Having more conversations as a family about finances seems to be one of the bigger lessons we can learn from this survey, which provided other examples of how people are trying to communicate, and work together, more to solve concerns and challenges.
Individuals who participate in company stock plans are increasingly earmarking the assets for investment or retirement instead of paying off debt – a shift that offers some hope that segments of the population are starting to be able to refocus on saving rather than just paying off bills, Fidelity Investments said today.
The Boston-based investment company found that more than half (57 percent) of company stock plan assets are being allocated for eventual investment or retirement savings after participants sell them. Just 13 percent are targeted for paying bills or debt in the future. In past years, about a third of assets were allocated for bill payment, and only a quarter targeted for savings and investment, Fidelity said.
Earlier this week a study by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC) showed that the number of American households opting out of the banking system grew steadily from 2009 to 2011.
About 17 million adults don’t have a checking or savings account at all, representing about 8.2 percent of U.S. households. Another 51 million are so-called “underbanked” adults, which means they have a bank account but may also consistently frequent higher-risk services such as pawnshops and payday lenders. The FDIC said it partnered with the U.S. Census Bureau to conduct the survey in June 2011, collecting responses from almost 45,000 households.
The purpose of the report was to assess the inclusiveness of the banking system since, as the FDIC said, “public confidence in the banking system derives in part from how effectively banks serve the needs of the nation’s diverse population.”
When I was pregnant with my first child, I went into sticker shock when I learned the cost of childcare. I had assumed it would be expensive, I just didn’t realize that my recent move to Massachusetts meant I would be paying prices that didn’t just rival – they exceeded -- New York and some other places I had previously lived in.
And the trend continues. A study by Child Care Aware® of America found that Massachusetts had the highest average annual cost for full-time infant daycare in the U.S. at an average $14,980 per year, and that top expense continues through age 4. It’s only when a child enters school that the state drops off the top 10 list.
Time to read your 401(k) statements: New regulations aim to make it easier for participants to understand the fees
If you participate in your employer’s 401(k) plan, you may have already noticed a change in the format of the statements that are provided to you, detailing your investments. If you haven’t, keep an eye out – by Aug. 30th, the information provided on there will be changing.
The U.S. Department of Labor is requiring that plan sponsors (your employer) provide more detailed information on fees and expenses related to 401(k) plans. It’s important to note that the fees listed are not new. They’ve always been there. It’s just that now the DOL is trying to make it easier for participants to see the administrative expenses charged for running a program, as well as the individual expenses – or those fees that may have been deducted from a participant’s account based on actions they may have taken, such as redemption or loan fees.
Plan sponsors must also notify participants about the existence of any revenue-sharing arrangements. This is a practice that involves using a portion of the investment-related fees paid by participants to help cover a plan’s administrative costs. It is this type of so-called “soft dollar” arrangement that has been the subject of some debate, and helped prompt the new fee disclosures. (To get a sense of the historical context around the fee debate, read this 2006 column by Bloomberg columnist John F. Wasik, “401(k) Fees Are Still Exorbitant, Buried Secrets.”)
Previously there was concern about administrators passing along fees to participants in the form of individual fund expense ratios, which is an annual percentage deducted from plan assets. The lack of transparent disclosure raised criticism that some plans may have been paying excessive administrative fees, and investors were buying into them without considering other, lower-cost options such as index funds. Other concerns included the potential for conflicts of interest: Plan sponsors and administrators may have an incentive to pick funds that pay more in revenue sharing, instead of evaluating funds for being the best investment. (SmartMoney highlighted this ongoing concern in a May 2012 article, “Will 401(k)s Abandon Revenue Sharing?”)