Talking about money can be difficult. While we’re taught to avoid the potentially sensitive topic in polite conversation, there’s at least one person with whom you need to be able to have frequent and honest financial conversations -- your partner or spouse. Take the opportunity to strengthen your relationship by understanding what drives your partner’s financial decisions. While experts say it may not always be possible to agree on everything, knowing each other’s perspective can help couples avoid frustrating conversations and make better decisions together. “We all bring our own feelings and experiences to the table and that can have a big impact on how we invest and spend money,” says Joe Duran, CEO of United Capital, a private wealth consulting firm and New York Times best-selling author of “The Money Code,” a new book that aims to improve financial decision making. “But by honestly getting to the root of what money means to you and to your partner, you can take steps to improve your financial life together.”
Here are some ways couples can smooth over their differences:
List your financial priorities and savings goals and determine which are necessary, negotiable and realistic. Draw up a budget and create a financial decision mang checklist that satisfies both of you and resolve to stick to it. A clear action plan will help avoid surprise purchases or investments made by you or your partner that could become potential sources of argument.
“I like to think of each of us as having a ‘Money Mind,’ which motivates the way we think about money,” says Duran. “Some of us are driven by fear, some by the pursuit of happiness and others by commitment. Whether you’re spending too much in the pursuit of happiness, or missing key opportunities out of fear, become actively aware of what guides you and your partner financially and the potential consequences.” You’ll be more likely to avoid letting conversations turn into arguments if you’re speaking the language as your partner. Each of you should have an active voice in the discussion and be participating fully in the financial planning process.
Personal biases can sometimes get in the way of sound judgment. But a financial adviser can help you objectively map out a process to achieve your financial goals. Opt for one who doesn’t just focus on investments, but who can also match your financial aspirations with your current resources. More tips on how to discuss money with your partner can be found by visiting www.HonestConversations.com.
Don’t let miscommunication stand in the way of a healthy financial future. By taking steps to understand your partner’s perspective, you can develop a joint solution that makes everyone happy.
By: Dr. Mariam Azin
Can guns in the classroom prevent the next school shooting tragedy? The National Rifle Association has proposed arming teachers as a deterrent to the next Adam Lanza or T.J. Lane. While school districts will need to find the security solutions that they and their communities are comfortable with, I’d like to see our teachers, principals and staff armed with something potentially more powerful — the tools and information to identify students who are headed for a mental health crisis. Every time a troubled young person commits a horrific act of violence, we try to understand what went wrong. The media is still looking into Adam Lanza’s upbringing, mental health status, and school records for clues to the Newtown, Conn., tragedy. We’ve done the same for James Holmes, Jared Lee Laughner, TJ Lane. In every case, we find that there were warning signs, usually years in advance. One thing we know: a mentally healthy, socially secure and well-balanced teen doesn’t just wake up one morning and decide to kill a dozen people. Teachers, neighbors, peers and relatives always are able to look backwards and identify things that just “weren’t quite right.” Mental health experts estimate that one in 10 teens has a mental health issue, and as many as 80 percent of them may be undiagnosed. Mental health problems like schizophrenia, depression and bipolar disorder often manifest between the ages of 14 and 24. It is no accident that many of the most publicized mass shootings have been carried out by young people (often men) in their teens or twenties. What role can schools play in ensuring that teens who need mental health services are identified, referred and receive services? We may want to exempt schools from this responsibility and insist that they focus only on academics. But the reality is, they cannot focus on academics unless they have first established a safe environment for learning. Students who are in a mental health crisis are a disruption to the learning process in the best case, and a danger to themselves, their peers and school staff in the worst case. We can—and should—talk about appropriate security precautions. But this addresses only one piece of the problem. If we could make our schools perfectly secure, a troubled student intent on homicide would then take his weapon to the theater, the mall or the public park. We need to figure out how to prevent these kinds of attacks from happening at all, without turning ourselves into a police state. The way to do this is to focus on early identification of students who are showing signs of risk, and establishing a strong referral and monitoring program to make sure that students in need of mental health services actually receive and benefit from them. It’s not enough to simply log an incident report and walk away. We need to ask what kind of services does the student need? The family? And make sure they have access to appropriate resources. And then we need to follow up, to make sure that the connection was made and interventions are working. If they’re not, we need to try something else. Why should schools be involved in the identification and referral process? Because that’s where the students are. Our high schools and colleges are the front lines, and the last place where we will have young people all gathered together. We cannot count on every family being able to recognize potential problems and self-refer. But we can train our teachers, school counselors and administrators to do a better job of recognizing emerging issues, and give them the tools and resources they need for appropriate identification, referral and management of school- and community-based resources. Keeping our children and communities safe requires more than security precautions. We have a responsibility to potential future victims to do everything we can to prevent future tragedies like Sandy Hook. We also have a responsibility to potential future perpetrators to find them before their demons carry them too far away from us to save. We may not be able to rescue every future Adam Lanza from the demons within. But recognizing and treating signs of dangerous mental illness at the onset will do more to keep our communities safe than all the guns, locks and metal detectors our money can buy.
It seems like much in life is beyond our control, but when it comes to your wallet, taking control is crucial for a solid future. Experts say the first step is to improve your financial literacy – and this can be easier than you might think. With April being Financial Literacy Month, now is the perfect time to arm yourself with the knowledge to make better money decisions. “Many consumers go through life without a handle on how to manage money and credit,” says Mike Kane, vice president of Consumer Credit Operations at Ally Financial. “While it may seem overwhelming, you don’t need an MBA to manage personal finance. Many of the concepts are simple.”
Kane offers suggestions to manage finances and save more:
• Buying or leasing a vehicle is a serious undertaking. There are many different ways to obtain a vehicle, and it’s important to understand your options and pick the process that works best for your budget.
• Review your current car insurance coverage. If you have an older vehicle, comprehensive or collision coverage may not make sense. Consider increasing your deductible to help lower premiums. Simply inquiring about discounts from your current provider could also net you savings. Some insurers offer discounts for low-mileage driving, installation of car alarms or completion of defensive-driving courses.
• Check your credit report by obtaining a copy of your file from one of the credit reporting agencies. Credit scores range between 350 ( high risk) and 850 (a low risk) and generally, a consumer with a higher score will be offered lower interest rates since they have a history of timely payments and managing their debt well.
• Set up an automatic transfer from your checking account into a savings account for the amount you want to save each month. If you have to spend time transferring money, you may find an excuse not to do it.
• Switch your finances to a direct bank without physical branches. They can offer competitive rates in online checking and savings accounts, CDs and IRAs and have perks that make banking easier. For example, Ally Bank an FDIC-insured subsidiary of Ally Financial, offers mobile banking with Ally eCheck Deposit and has 24/7 live customer service. They also have no ATM fees and reimburse other banks’ ATM fees nationwide. More information can be found at www.Ally.com.
• Track spending for at least three consecutive months to trim unnecessary expenses you’re your monthly budget. On a quarterly basis, perform an expense audit. Evaluate your bills and expenses, finding anything you’re spending money on that isn’t giving you the value you’d like.
• Use free online tools to learn more about improving your financial education and ways to cut spending. Ally Wallet Wise, for example, offers a series of lessons that cover budgeting, banking and investing, credit and automotive finance.
During financial literacy month, commit time to learning more about saving money and managing your finances better.
Each year, thousands of trusting homeowners hire contractors for home repairs or renovation projects. But for many, dreams of a remodeled kitchen, new roof or updated patio are dashed by contractor fraud. Over half of homeowners who hire contractors state that fraud is their biggest fear, according to a recent online survey conducted for HomeAdvisor. But savvy homeowners can avoid fraud by recognizing the warning signs and following simple hiring practices.
Amy Matthews, home improvement expert and TV host, is sharing five simple steps homeowners can follow to safeguard themselves:
• Look for an established company with a permanent business location and a listed phone number: Fraudulent contractors are often “travelers” — businesses from out of the area, or contractors with no permanent business location. Making sure a contractor has a permanent business location and a listed phone number will alert homeowners to these “travelers” or other illegitimate contractors.
• Ask for a written, signed contract: Legitimate contractors will have no qualms about signing a contract and providing their business information. This simple step will typically weed out most fraudulent businesses afraid of having their scams discovered.
• Never pay with cash up front: Without cash in hand, unscrupulous contractors have few ways to pull off a scam. Never pay in full with cash before a job is started, and never pay a deposit with cash. Consider a request for a cash payment before work begins as a red flag that the contractor may be attempting to defraud.
• Ask for referrals or check reviews online: Referrals are a simple way to learn about a contractor’s track record from a friend, associate or other trusted source. Use websites like HomeAdvisor.com that offer ratings, reviews or screening services as a way to assure that a contractor has a history of honest business dealings and high-quality work.
• Use licensed contractors: A licensed contractor’s reputation is at stake when completing work. Before hiring contractors, check with the state contractor licensing board to see if a license is required. Make sure their license is valid and there are no legal claims against the contractor.
More information about home improvement, maintenance and repair projects, including project cost guides, emergency support and pre-screened professionals, can be found at www.HomeAdvisor.com Don’t deal with unscrupulous contractors. By taking precautions, you can ensure your home renovation projects are completed professionally and on time.
While we are all taught to use good manners when answering the telephone, not everyone who calls you necessarily has good intentions. According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, a recent spate of lottery scams or advance fee frauds originating in Jamaica are targeting seniors and other Americans by telephone. While the Jamaican and U.S. governments have teamed to tighten laws and combat the problem, it’s important to guard against becoming the next victim. Knowing the difference between legitimate telemarketers and scammers is crucial.
Protect yourself by taking the following precautions:
• Never pay money to collect supposed sweepstakes winnings. Legitimate operations won’t require you to pay to collect winnings. It’s against U.S. law to play foreign lotteries. If you get a call saying you’ve won one, it’s probably a scam.
• Never wire money to anyone you don’t know.
• Ignore unsolicited calls from anyone, even charities and companies with whom you already do business. You have no way to confirm the caller is legitimate. Even caller ID can be faked. When in doubt, just hang up.
• Place your telephone number on the National Do Not Call Registry. It’s fast and free. Visit www.DoNotCall.gov or add your number to the registry by calling 888-382-1222 from the phone you wish to register.
• Check unfamiliar area codes before returning calls. Be aware that there are many three digit area codes that connect callers to international telephone numbers.
• If you don’t make international calls, ask your telephone provider to block incoming and outgoing international calls.
• Never provide anyone with personal information, such as bank accounts, pin numbers or Social Security numbers.
• Prevent criminals from accessing your money. Contact your bank, brokerages, as well as the Social Security Administration to add a password to your accounts.
• If callers insist on speaking with you, tell them you’ll call them directly. Don’t take a number offered by a potential fraudster. You’re safer looking up the number independently.
• Scammers often create false deadlines. If you feel pressured, hang up. You’ve spent a lifetime earning your money. You deserve time to choose how to spend it.
• Help others from falling victim to scammers by warning friends and family. If you’ve received a call, mail or email you think might be from a scammer, report it to the Federal Trade Commission by calling at 877-FTC-HELP (877-382-4357) or contact local authorities.
“The Jamaican Government is resolved to successfully combat this scourge. We have put in place both legislative and operational measures that will ensure that persons who prey on vulnerable seniors are held accountable,” said. Jamaica’s Minister of National Security, Peter Bunting, who is working with U.S. officials to stop new Jamaican lottery scams. You don’t have to live in fear to avoid being a victim. By becoming informed of the latest tactics used by scammers to defraud consumers, you can protect yourself and your finances.
Spring is a time of rejuvenation and fresh starts. And while spring cleaning closets, the garage and basement requires good old-fashioned work, new tools can help take the fuss out of sprucing up finances.
Start by getting a complete view of your finances. Consider using a free online tool, such as Mint.com, to see all your financial accounts in one place. You can use the site to establish a budget, as it automatically categorizes your spending, making it easier to ensure you stick with your plan. Set yourself up for success. If you’re prone to go over your budget or miss important bill payments, sign up for email or text alerts about large purchases, late fees and bounced checks. By establishing clear goals and tracking your spending on-the-go from your phone or tablet, you’ll be more likely to save for the things you want in life and avoid debt. De-clutter Your online banking information can get cluttered in much the same way as your paperwork. Eliminate the “eMess” by tracking and managing all your account information in one place. For example, Quicken software lets you see your full financial picture in the form of charts and graphs. Learn where you stand and get motivated visually to meet your goals. More information can be found at www.Quicken.Intuit.com.
Saving money doesn’t have to mean forfeiting your social life or creature comforts. Many theaters, museums, zoos and parks offer special discount days such as standing room only or pay-what-you-can nights. Some even offer free admission on certain days of the month. Or simply let the great outdoors be your entertainment. Take a hike, make a picnic, or host a backyard barbecue. Forgo the fancy gym membership and dust off those running shoes and bike, working out the old-fashioned way. Raining? Check out community centers in your area – some may be free, or charge only minimal fees.
Do you want to pay off high-interest debt? You can do so wisely by refinancing with more competitive rates. Newer alternatives can eliminate the costs associated with traditional bank lending. If you have good-to-excellent credit, consider applying for an unsecured personal loan for up to $35,000 on a site like Lending Club, a leading platform for investing in and obtaining personal loans. Hundreds of people across the country can invest in your loan, which means a streamlined process and lower rates for you. More information can be found at www.LendingClub.com. If the onset of spring is your cue to organize your finances, let new tools help you do so with ease.
If you’ve noticed your banking and financial service fees going up, you’re not imagining it. Thanks to new rules and regulations restricting banks from making certain kinds of risky investments, they are finding new streams of revenue. But experts say that there are steps you can take to avoid paying a price for the nation’s well-intended but costly new banking reforms. “Now more than ever, reading the fine print is a must if you want to protect yourself from higher fees and surprises,” says Shari Olefson, legal, financial, and real estate expert and author of the new book, “Financial Fresh Start: Your Five-Step Plan for Adapting and Prospering in the New Economy.”
Here are some tips to avoid pitfalls and bank smarter in the new economy:
• Compare: Just as you might shop prices for a manicure or personal trainer, shop for bank and financial services too. Compare at least three different banks and the details on services you need. What are the fees associated with these services and what are the requirements you have to meet to avoid penalties?
• Explore alternatives. Consider switching to a smaller bank, credit union or online bank to avoid paying certain fees. Fees can also sometimes be avoided by consolidating accounts and credit cards, or by switching to a less expensive service, such as away from a premium account to basic checking. Look specifically for banking services to which the new rules don’t apply. For example, banks with less than $10 billion in assets are exempt from many of the new rules and reforms.
• Monitor rewards: Some banks and financial service companies are aggressively cutting expenses. So if you use your bank’s reward program, watch for signs that the program may change or be phased out. “You want to be able to use your rewards before you risk losing them,” says Olefson.
• Practice overdraft prevention: Keep a cushion in your account. Try tracking spending manually, using an old-fashioned paper register to spend more mindfully and pay your bills manually, too, since auto-payments are among the leading causes of account overdrafts. If you do become overdrawn, be sure to pay fees quickly to avoid being charged again for the original offense.
• Stick to your own ATMs: Plan your ATM visits and cash needs in advance to avoid using another bank’s ATM machines.
• Rinse, wash, repeat: “Like most other businesses, banks innovate, especially when it comes to the potential types of new fees they can charge, even under the new rules and reforms,” Olefson observes. “These innovations are never-ending. Periodically revisit the financial services you use and how much they cost in order to ensure you’re paying the least amount possible.”
More tips for thriving in the new economy and information about “Financial Fresh Start,” by Shari Olefson, can be found at www.FinancialFreshStartTheBook.com. Take steps today to ensure that your banking and financial services are working for, and not against you.
Spring travel can offer a much-needed cure for cabin fever. Whether you’re planning to head to the closest national park or sunny beach, or you’re trekking around the globe, there’s no question that technology has made traveling easier than ever before. What many travelers don’t know, however, is that the technology they use in the vacation planning stages or on the trip itself can actually put them at risk for cybercrime or even identity theft. These days, keeping yourself protected means more than just wearing sunscreen. “People can use mobile alerts to find flash sales on flights and resorts, and their PC to book vacations without the extra expense of a travel agent,” says Marian Merritt, Internet safety advocate for Norton by Symantec, global leaders in online security. “But, in the excitement of planning a vacation, security can often be an afterthought.” Offers for free airline tickets on social media sites, phony (“phishing”) emails about how to earn more frequent flyer mileage, or offers for discounted excursions are all ways cybercriminals try to lure you in so they can steal your personal information. At first glance, any of these scams can look entirely legitimate, so before you click a link in an email or on a social network, take the extra step to verify the offer by visiting the company website. One of the most used digital devices on vacation is the smartphone -- you use it to take pictures, search for the best places to eat and to find your way around with GPS. But, if your phone goes missing, it can be a bigger headache than the security line at the airport. Merritt recommends installing security software like Norton 360 Multi-Device before you hit the road, so if your phone or tablet is lost or stolen, you can remotely locate it or even temporarily lock it to prevent anyone from accessing it until you get it back. If you’re going to be spending time in the sand or out on an excursion, leave your phone locked up in the hotel room safe for the day. Not only is it likely to be a distraction from the fun, but bringing it everywhere increases your risk of loss or theft. And, considering all of the apps, photos and private information that live on your phone, losing it is probably worse than losing your wallet. Finally, while it may be tempting to make purchases while lounging by the pool or to check your bank account balance while waiting at the gate for your flight, unsecured public Wi-Fi hotspots can be a virtual paradise for cybercriminals. Let yourself really unwind and wait until you're on a protected network at home before conducting potentially sensitive activities, or consider using a virtual private network (or “VPN”), like Norton Hotspot Privacy to surf securely and without leaving a trail of your personal data. Make your spring vacation memorable for all the right reasons and don’t let digital security risks stand in your way.
If you’re like many Americans, you have concerns about funding your retirement. According to a recent survey conducted by Ally Bank, retirement planning tops Americans’ financial anxieties. Rather than take a head-in-the-sand approach to your future, be proactive. Wise investments can offer advantages like tax-free, aggressive growth. And experts say the best time to get started is now. “The first few months of 2013 will be ideal for opening IRAs, as contributions made in this timeframe may be counted on 2012 tax returns,” advises Diane Morais, Ally Bank Product & Innovation executive. “Existing savers looking to grow their retirement nest egg securely may want to consider a rollover of their existing IRAs or qualified retirement plans, and it is important to shop around for the most competitive interest rate to ensure the best return on their investments.” And the IRS announced in October 2012 that the limit on contributions to Traditional and Roth IRAs would rise for the first time since 2008, from $5,000 to $5,500. “The increased contribution limit for 2013 makes now a prime opportunity for people of all ages to contribute meaningfully to their retirement savings,” Morais emphasizes. Looking to boost your retirement readiness securely?
Here are some important things to consider:
• The most common IRA plans are Traditional, Roth and Simplified Employee Pension IRAs. Depending on age and taxable income, you could have more than one IRA plan to choose from to help you meet your goals.
• Once you choose an IRA plan, you can typically select from a variety of products, from lower risk savings accounts and certificates of deposit (CD) to higher risk stocks, bonds and mutual funds.
• For secure growth, consider CDs and online savings accounts. Such products are less risky than stocks. Or roll over existing IRAs, 401(k) or 403(b)s into one IRA with great, stable rates.
• Look beyond branch banks. For example, a bank with no physical locations, such as Ally Bank, can offer competitive rates, low fees, and round-the-clock, live customer support.
• Be advised, there are restrictions as to how you can add money to IRAs based on age and when you can use the money you’ve saved. Your tax professional can help you determine the best plan for your needs. Above all, look for straightforward retirement products that will help you get closer to your retirement savings goals.
• Don’t be afraid to move around your retirement money to make the most of it. A direct roll over is fairly easy and avoids the tax withholding and associated reporting requirements of a personal withdrawal transaction.
• You can convert your Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA. Beginning in 2010, eligibility requirements based on income and marital status have been eliminated. More information about retirement savings plans can be found at http://www.ally.com/bank/ira/.
Every day you wait is another day your retirement money isn’t actively growing. Whether you’re just getting started or building on your current savings, there’s no time like the present to make a contribution to your retirement account.
Want to take control of your retirement planning, but don’t know how? You’re not alone. Most Americans want to manage their retirement portfolio on their own, but feel intimidated by the process, a new study reveals. Nearly three-quarters of Americans said they’d love to manage their own retirement portfolio if they had the right knowledge and tools, according to a survey by Jemstep.com, an online investment advisor, and market research group, Harris Interactive. Meanwhile, 67 percent said they think retirement investing is complex and intimidating.
The good news is that planning for your future doesn’t have to be complicated. Here are four things you can do to take control:
• Know how much you have and need: When you’re dieting, it’s helpful to weigh yourself and set a goal weight. Retirement savings works the same way. How much money do you have and what do you need to save for retirement? You can turn to free online tools for help. For example, CNN Money’s online calculator factors in your age, current income and savings to determine what you should be saving yearly to support 80 percent of your pre-retirement income. Visit cgi.money.cnn.com/tools to determine your goals.
• Create a diversified portfolio: Research shows that the single best thing you can do for your retirement portfolio is to diversify holdings. That means splitting money between different asset classes, such as stocks, bonds, cash and commodities. Each asset class behaves differently under different market conditions. For example, when a recession hits, some asset classes might rise while others fall. Diversifying means that your portfolio should be more stable. How should you slice the pie? That depends on three things: your tolerance for risk, your goals, and the number of years until retirement. • Select the best investments: Next, you’ll need to pick specific funds for each asset class. You might decide, for example, to put 20 percent of your portfolio in funds that represent the stocks of large, stable companies. Which funds should you choose? When you’re making that choice, you’ll want to look at “fund characteristics,” such as the fees it charges, its historic returns, its volatility, and other factors. If this sounds complex, don’t worry. There are resources that can help. For example, Portfolio Manager, a new service from Jemstep, analyzes your current portfolio, gives you a personalized investment strategy, and offers step-by-step instructions on what to buy and sell to build the ideal portfolio for you. More information is available at Jemstep.com.
• Stay on track: Things change over time. Stocks rise and fall. As they do, the weight of your different asset classes in your portfolio will change. Remember to periodically “rebalance” your portfolio with your diversification goals so you can maintain your target weights. Retirement investing doesn’t have to be complex or intimidating, especially if you have the right tools at your fingertips.