Kailai Duan

Kailai Duan

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Financial Professional

430 Bedford St.
Suite 100
Lexington, MA 02420

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Should You Give Your Child An Allowance?

May 18, 2020

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Should You Give Your Child An Allowance?

May 18, 2020

Should You Give Your Child An Allowance?

Should parents give their children an allowance?

It’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer. Teaching your kids how to handle money is important. But how you go about giving them cash can set precedents that last a lifetime. Here are a few different takes on giving your kids money.

Not giving your kids money
There’s a lot to not love about this system at a glance, especially if you’re the kid. It seems like a way to simultaneously prevent your children from having fun and learn nothing about handling money. But it has some silver linings. Not paying your kids to do chores can be a way to teach them about the value of work without tying it to a monetary reward. That’s an important life lesson that can be applied to volunteer work and responsibilities with their future family. You also may be on a tight budget and handing out an allowance is just not part of your financial strategy right now.

Giving your kids an allowance (no work required)
This is a system where you give your kids a set amount of money each week or month. This is a straightforward way to get your kids some cash that they can spend, save, and use to learn about money.

But just giving your kids an allowance without requiring something in return, like doing chores, has some potential drawbacks. Most people will eventually have to get a job so they can earn money. Giving cash to your kids without tying it in some way to work may create a sense of entitlement that simply isn’t realistic.

Paying your kids commission
In this system, you pay your kids as they complete tasks. You would set up a job posting with different payments for different chores. Pay your kids when they’ve completed the work. If they get the job done quickly with a good attitude and some extra flourish? Give them a raise! It’s a great way of rewarding excellence and teaching children the monetary value of their time and hard work.

But this system also has flaws. Some of the most rewarding work we do can be for family or friends, or to serve our communities—with no reward other than appreciation and pride in a job well done. Giving the impression that one should only put in hard work or help out with the family for cash isn’t something every parent is comfortable with.

Fortunately, there are many ways to combine each of these systems. You could have non-paying chores that are duties simply because the kids are members of the family and then extra paid jobs. Or maybe offer a base allowance to teach your kids about saving, giving, and spending, and then paid chores added on. These systems can evolve over time as your kids grow. Let the needs of your family and what you want to instill in your children guide you.

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Healthy Financial Habits

Healthy Financial Habits

Consistency is essential for anything, and the key to consistency is habit.

Habits are behaviors that we do so frequently that they feel second nature. So your friend who’s woken up at 5:00 AM to work out for so long that it seems normal to him? He’s unlocked the power of habit to wake up, get out of bed, and make it happen.

Healthy money habits are the same way; they open up a whole new world of financial fitness! Here are a few great habits you can start today.

Begin with a Budget
Developing a budgeting habit is foundational. Consistently seeing where your money is going gives you the power to see what needs to change. Notice in your budget that fast food is hogging your paycheck? Budgeting allows you to see how it’s holding you back and figure out a solution to the problem. The knowledge a budget gives you is the key to help you make wise money decisions.

Pay Yourself First
Once you’re budgeting regularly, you can start seeing who ends up with your money at the end of the day. Is it you? Or someone else? One of the best habits you can establish is making sure you pay yourself by saving. Instead of spending first and setting aside what’s left over, put part of your money into a savings account as soon as you get your paycheck. It’s a simple shift in mindset that can make a big difference!

Automate Everything
And what easier way to pay yourself first than by automatically depositing cash in your savings account? Making as much of your saving automatic helps make saving something that you don’t even think about. It can be much easier to have healthy financial habits if everything happens seamlessly and with as little effort as possible on your part.

Healthy financial habits may not seem big. But sometimes those little victories can make a big difference over the span of several years. Why not try working a few of these habits into your routine and see if they make a difference?

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So You've Graduated... Now What?

So You've Graduated... Now What?

Graduating from college is a big deal.

It represents a transition from student to adult for millions of people. But leaving university and joining the workforce can be intimidating. Looking for a job, paying bills, commuting, and living independently are often uncharted territory for recent grads.

Here are a few tips for fresh graduates trying to get on their feet financially.

Figure out what you want
It’s one thing to leave college with an idea of what career you want to pursue. It’s something else entirely to ask yourself what kind of life you want. It’s one of those big issues that can be difficult even to wrap your head around!

However, it’s something that’s important to grapple with. It will help you answer questions like “What kind of lifestyle do I want to live” and “how much will it cost to do the things I want?” You might even find that you don’t really need some of the things that you thought were necessities, and that happiness comes from places you might not have expected.

Come up with a budget
Let’s say you’ve got a ballpark idea of your financial and lifestyle goals. It’s time to come up with a strategy. There are plenty of resources on starting a budget on this blog and the internet on the whole, but the barebones of budgeting are pretty simple. First, figure out how much you make, how much you have to spend, how much you actually spend, then subtract your total spending from how much you make. Get a positive number? Awesome! Use that leftover cash to start saving for retirement (it’s never too early!) or build up an emergency fund. Negative number? Look for places in your unnecessary spending to cut back and maybe consider a side hustle to make more money.

Looking at your spending habits can be difficult. But owning up to mistakes you might be making and coming up with a solid strategy can be far easier than the agony that spending blindly may bring. That’s why starting a budget is a post-graduation must!

Meet with a financial professional
Find a qualified and licensed financial professional and schedule an appointment. Don’t let the idea of meeting with a professional intimidate you. Afterall, you trust your health, car, and legal representation to properly trained experts. Why wouldn’t you do the same with your financial future?

Being scared of starting a new chapter of life is natural. There are a lot of new experiences and unknowns to deal with that come along with leaving the familiarity of college. But the best way to overcome fear is to face it head on. These tips are a great way to start taking control of your future!

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Financial Plan - The Importance Of Having One

April 27, 2020

Financial Plan - The Importance Of Having One

A financial strategy is many things.

It’s not just a budget. In fact, a solid financial strategy is not entirely based on numbers at all. Rather, it’s a roadmap for your family’s financial future. It’s a journey on which you’ll need to consider daily needs as well as big-picture items. Having a strategy makes it possible to set aside money now for future goals, and help ensure your family is both comfortable in the present and prepared in the future.

Financial Strategy, Big Picture
A good financial strategy covers pretty much everything related to your family’s finances. In addition to a snapshot of your current income, assets, and debt, a strategy should include your savings and goals, a time frame for paying down debt, retirement savings targets, ways to cover taxes and insurance, and in all likelihood some form of end-of-life preparations. How much of your strategy is devoted to each will depend on your age, marital or family status, whether you own your home, and other factors.

Financial Preparation, Financial Independence
How do these items factor into your daily budget? Well, having a financial strategy doesn’t necessarily mean sticking to an oppressive budget. In fact, it may actually provide you with more “freedom” to spend. If you’re allocating the right amount of money each month toward both regular and retirement savings, and staying aware of how much you have to spend in any given time frame, you may find you have less daily stress over your dollars and feel better about buying the things you need (and some of the things you want).

Remember Your Goals
It can also be helpful to keep the purpose of your hard-earned money in mind. For example, a basic financial strategy may include the amount of savings you need each month to retire at a certain age, but with your family’s lifestyle and circumstances in mind. It might be a little easier to skip dinner out and cook at home instead when you know the reward may eventually be a dinner out in Paris!

Always Meet with a Financial Professional
There are many schools of thought as to the best ways to save and invest. Some financial professionals may recommend paying off all debt (except your home mortgage) before saving anything. Others recommend that clients pay off debt while simultaneously saving for retirement, devoting a certain percentage of income to each until the debt is gone and retirement savings can be increased. If you’re just getting started, meet with a qualified and licensed financial professional who can help you figure out which option is for you.

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Watch Out for these 5 Credit Card Red Flags

April 20, 2020

Watch Out for these 5 Credit Card Red Flags

Credit cards aren’t free money — that should go without saying, but millions of Americans don’t seem to have received that memo.

Americans now owe a record $1.04 trillion in credit card debt.¹ If you’re not careful, credit card debt could hurt your credit score, wipe out your savings, and completely alter your personal financial landscape.

So: debt, debit, both, or neither? Before you apply for that next piece of plastic, here’s what you need to watch out for.

Low interest rates
Credit card companies spend a lot of money on marketing to try to get you hooked on an offer. Often you hear or read that a company will tout an offer with a low or zero percent APR (Annual Percentage Rate). This is called a “teaser rate.”

Sounds amazing, right? But here’s the problem: This is a feature that may only last for 6–12 months. Ask yourself if the real interest rate will be worth it. Credit card companies make a profit via credit card interest. If they were to offer zero percent interest indefinitely, then they wouldn’t make any money.

Make sure you read the fine print to determine whether the card’s interest rate will be affordable after the teaser rate period expires.

Fixed vs. variable interest rates
Credit cards will operate on either a fixed interest rate or a variable interest rate.² A fixed interest rate will generally stay the same from month to month. A variable interest rate, by contrast, is tied to an index (fancy word for interest rate) that moves with the economy. Normally the interest rate is set to be a few percentage points higher than the index.

The big difference here is that while a fixed rate may change, the credit card company is required to inform its customers when this happens. While a variable APR may start out with a lower interest rate, it’s not uncommon for these rates to fluctuate. What’s more, the credit card company isn’t required to tell you about a variable rate change at all!³

Low interest rates are usually reserved for individuals who have great credit with a long credit history. So, if you’ve never owned a credit card (or you are recovering from a negative credit history) this could be a red flag.

Of course, you could avoid these pitfalls altogether if you pay off your credit card balance before the statement date. Whatever the interest rate, be sure you’re applying for a credit card that’s affordable for you to pay off if you miss the payoff due date.

High credit limits
While large lines of credit are usually reserved for those with a good credit history, a new cardholder might still receive an offer for up to a $10,000 credit limit.

If this happens to you, beware. While it may seem like the offer conveys a great deal of trust in your ability to pay your bill, be honest with yourself. You may not be able to recover from the staggering size of your credit card debt if you can’t pay off your balance each month.

If you already have a card with a limit that feels too high, it may be in your interest to request that the company lower your card’s limit.

Late fees
So you’re late paying your credit card bill. Late payments not only have the potential to hurt your credit score, but some credit cards may also assess a penalty APR if you haven’t paid your bill on time.

Penalty APRs are incredibly high, usually topping out at 29.99%.⁴ The solution here is simple: pay your bill on time or you might find self paying ridiculous interest rates!

Balance transfer fees
It’s not uncommon for a cardholder to transfer one card’s balance to another card, otherwise known as a balance transfer. This can be an effective way to pay off your debt while sidestepping interest, but only if you do so before the card’s effective rate kicks in. And, even if a card offers zero interest on balance transfers, you still may have to pay a fee for doing so.

Whatever type of credit card you choose, the only person responsible for its pros and cons is you. But if you’re thrifty and pay attention to the bottom line, you can help make that credit card work for your credit score and not against it.

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¹ Samuel Stebbins “Where credit card debt is the worst in the US: States with the highest average balances,” USA Today (March 7 2019, updated April 26, 2019)
² Latoya Irby, “Credit Card Interest Rates: Fixed vs. Variable Rates,” The Balance (May 20, 2019)
³ Latoya Irby, “Credit Card Interest Rates: Fixed vs. Variable Rates,” The Balance (May 20, 2019)
⁴ Latoya Irby, “Credit Card Default And Penalty Rates Explained,” (August 12, 2019)

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How to Budget for Beginners

April 13, 2020

How to Budget for Beginners

Everybody needs a budget.

But that doesn’t stop “budget” from being an intimidating word to many people. Some folks may think it means scrimping on everything and never going out for a night on the town. It doesn’t! Budgeting simply means that you know where your money is going and you have a way to track it.

The aim with budgeting is to be aware of your spending, plan for your expenses1, and make sure you have enough saved to pursue your goals.

Without a budget, it can be easy for expenses to climb beyond your ability to pay for them. You break out the plastic and before you know it you’ve spent fifty bucks on drinks and appetizers with the gang after work. These habits might leave you with a lot of accumulated debt. Plus, without a budget, you may not be saving for a rainy day, vacation, or your retirement. A budget allows you to enact a strategy to help pursue your goals. But what if you’ve never had a budget? Where should you start? Here’s a quick step-by-step guide on how to get your budgeting habit off the ground!

Track your expenses every day
Start by tracking your expenses. Write down everything you buy, including memberships, online streaming services, and subscriptions. It’s not complicated to do with popular mobile and web applications. You can also buy a small notebook to keep track of each purchase. Even if it’s a small pack of gum from the gas station or a quick coffee at the corner shop, jot it down. Keep track of the big stuff too, like your rent and bill payments.

Add up expenses every week and develop categories
Once you’ve collected enough data, it’s time to figure out where exactly your paycheck is going. Start with adding up your expenses every week. How much are you spending? What are you spending money on? As you add your spending up, start developing categories. The goal is to organize all your expenses so you can see what you’re spending money on. For example, if you eat out a few times per week, group those expenses under a category called “Eating Out”. Get as general or as specific as you wish. Maybe throwing all your food purchases into one bucket is all you need, or you may want to break it down by location - grocery store, big box store, restaurants, etc.

Create a monthly list of expenses
Once you’ve recorded your expenses for a full month, it’s time to create a monthly list. Now you might also have more clarity on how you want to set up your categories. Next, total each category for the month.

Adjust your spending as necessary
Compare your total expenses with your income. There are two possible outcomes. You may be spending within your income or spending outside your income. If you’re spending within your income, create a category for savings if you don’t have one. It’s a good idea to create a separate savings category for large future purchases too, like a home or a vacation. If you find you’re spending too much, you may need to cut back spending in some categories. The beauty of a budget is that once you see how much you’re spending, and on what, you’ll be able to strategize where you need to cut back.

Keep going
Once you develop the habit of budgeting, it should become part of your routine. You can look forward to working on your savings and developing a retirement strategy, but don’t forget to budget in a little fun too!

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¹Jeremy Vohwinkle, “Make a Personal Budget in 6 Steps: A Step-by-Step Guide to Make a Budget,” The Balance (March 6, 2020).

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Now’s the Time for Future Planning

March 30, 2020

Now’s the Time for Future Planning

What happened to the days of the $10 lawn mowing job or the $7-an-hour babysitting gig every Saturday night?

Not a penny withheld. No taxes to file. No stress about saving a “million dollars” for retirement. As a kid, doing household chores or helping out your friends and neighbors for a little spending money was vastly different from your grown up reality – writing checks for all those bills, paying your taxes, and buying all the things that children seem to need these days, all while trying to save as much as you can for your retirement. When you were a kid, did those concepts feel so far away that they might as well have been camped out on Easter Island?

What happened to the carefree attitude surrounding our finances? It’s simple: we got older. More opportunities. More responsibilities. More choices. As the years go by, finances get more complicated. So knowing where your money is going and whether or not it’s working for you when it gets there is something you need to determine sooner rather than later – even before your source of income switches from mowing lawns and babysitting to your first internship at that marketing firm downtown.

A great way to get a better idea of where your money is going and what it’s doing when it gets there? A financial strategy.

A sound strategy for your money is essential, starting as soon as possible is better than waiting, and talking to a financial professional is a solid way to get going. No message in a bottle sent from a more-prepared version of your future self is going to drift your way from Easter Island. But sitting down with me is a great place to start. Contact me any time.

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Big Financial Rocks First

March 25, 2020

Big Financial Rocks First

A teacher walked into her classroom with a clear jar, a bag of rocks, a bucket of sand, and a glass of water. She placed all the large rocks carefully into the jar.

“Who thinks this jar is full?” she asked. Almost half of her students raised their hands. Next, she began to pour sand from the bucket into the jar full of large rocks emptying the entire bucket into the jar.

“Who thinks this jar is full now?” she asked again. Almost all of her students now had their hands up. To her student’s surprise, she emptied the glass of water into the seemingly full jar of rocks and sand.

“What do you think I’m trying to show you?” She inquired.

One eager student answered: “That things may appear full, but there is always room left to put more stuff in.”

The teacher smiled and shook her head.

“Good try, but the point of this illustration is that if I didn’t put in the large rocks first, I would not be able to fit them in afterwards.”

This concept can be applied to the idea of a constant struggle between priorities that are urgent versus those that are important. When you have limited resources, priorities must be in place since there isn’t enough to go around. Take your money, for example. Unless you have an unlimited amount of funds (we’re still trying to find that source), you can’t have an unlimited amount of important financial goals.

Back to the teacher’s illustration. Let’s say the big rocks are your important goals. Things like buying a home, helping your children pay for college, retirement at 60, etc. They’re all important –but not urgent. These things may happen 10, 20, or 30 years from now.

Urgent things are the sand and water. A monthly payment like your mortgage payment or your monthly utility and internet bills. The urgent things must be paid and paid on time. If you don’t pay your mortgage on time… Well, you might end up retiring homeless.

Even though these monthly obligations might be in mind more often than your retirement or your toddler’s freshman year in college, if all you focus on are urgent things, then the important goals fall by the wayside. And in some cases, they stay there long after they can realistically be rescued. Saving up for a down payment for a home, funding a college education, or having enough to retire on is nearly impossible to come up with overnight (still looking for that source of unlimited funds!). In most cases, it takes time and discipline to save up and plan well to achieve these important goals.

What are the big rocks in your life? If you’ve never considered them, spend some time thinking about it. When you have a few in mind, place them in the priority queue of your life. Otherwise, if those important goals are ignored for too long, they might become one of the urgent goals - and perhaps ultimately unrealized if they weren’t put in your plan early on.

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7 Tips for Talking to Your Partner About Money

March 9, 2020

7 Tips for Talking to Your Partner About Money

Dealing with finances is a big part of any committed relationship and one that can affect many aspects of your life together.

The good news is, you don’t need a perfect relationship or perfect finances to have productive conversations with your partner about money, so here are some tips for handling those tricky conversations like a pro!

Be respectful
Respect should be the basis for any conversation with your significant other, but especially when dealing with potentially touchy issues like money. Be mindful to keep your tone neutral and try not to heap blame on your partner for any issues. Remember that you’re here to solve problems together.

Take responsibility
It’s perfectly normal if one person in a couple handles the finances more than the other. Just be sure to take responsibility for the decisions that you make and remember that it affects both people. You might want to establish a monthly money meeting to make sure you’re both on the same page and in the loop. Hint: Make it fun! Maybe order in, or enjoy a steak dinner while you chat.

Take a team approach
Instead of saying to your partner, “you need to do this or that,” try to frame things in a way that lets your partner know you see yourself on the same team as they are. Saying “we need to take a look at our combined spending habits” will probably be better received than “you need to stop spending so much money.”

Be positive
It can be tempting to feel defeated and hopeless that things will never get better if you’re trying to move a mountain. But this kind of thinking can be contagious and negativity may further poison your finances and your relationship. Try to focus on what you can both do to make things better and what small steps to take to get where you want to be, rather than focusing on past mistakes and problems.

Don’t ignore the negative
It’s important to stay positive, but it’s also important to face and conquer the specific problems. It gives you and your partner focused issues to work on and will help you make a game plan. Speaking of which…

Set common goals, and work toward them together
Whether it’s saving for a big vacation, your child’s college fund, getting out of debt, or making a big purchase like a car, money management and budgeting may be easier if you are both working toward a common purpose with a shared reward. Figure out your shared goals and then make a plan to accomplish them!

Accept that your partner may have a different background and approach to money
We all have our strengths, weaknesses, and different perspectives. Just because yours differs from your partner’s doesn’t mean either of you are wrong. Chances are you make allowances and balance each other out in other areas of your relationship, and you can do the same with money if you try to see things from your partner’s point of view.

Discussing and managing your finances together can be a great opportunity for growth in a relationship. Go into it with a positive attitude, respect for your partner, and a sense of your common values and priorities. Having an open, honest, and trust-based approach to money in a relationship may be challenging, but it is definitely worth it.

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The Birds Have Flown the Coop!

February 24, 2020

The Birds Have Flown the Coop!

The kids (finally) moved out!

Now you can plan those vacations for just the two of you, delve into new hobbies you’ve always wanted to explore… and decide whether or not you should keep your life insurance as empty nesters.

The answer is YES!

Why? Even though you and your spouse are empty nesters now, life insurance still has real benefits for both of you. One of the biggest benefits is your life insurance policy’s death benefit. Should either you or your spouse pass away, the death benefit can pay for final expenses and replace the loss of income, both of which can keep you or your spouse on track for retirement in the case of an unexpected tragedy.

What’s another reason to keep your life insurance policy? The cash value of your policy. Now that the kids have moved out and are financially stable on their own, the cash value of your life insurance policy can be used for retirement or an emergency fund. If your retirement savings took a hit while you helped your children finance their college educations, your life insurance policy might have you covered.Utilizing the cash value has multiple factors you should be aware of before making any decision.*

Contact me today, and together we’ll check up on your policy to make sure you have coverage where you want it - and review all the benefits that you can use as empty nesters.

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*Loans and withdrawals will reduce the policy value and death benefit dollar for dollar. Withdrawals are subject to partial surrender charges if they occur during a surrender charge period. Loans are made at interest. Loans may also result in the need to add additional premium into the policy to avoid a lapse of the policy. In the event that the policy lapses, all policy surrenders and loans are considered distributions and, to the extent that the distributions exceed the premiums paid (cost basis), they are subject to taxation as ordinary income. Lastly, all references to loans assume that the contract remains in force, qualifies as life insurance and is not a modified endowment contract (MEC). Loans from a MEC will generally be taxable and, if taken prior to age 59 1/2, may be subject to a 10% tax penalty.

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3 Ways to Shift from Indulgence to Independence

February 19, 2020

3 Ways to Shift from Indulgence to Independence

On Monday mornings, we’re all faced with a difficult choice.

Get up a few minutes early to brew your own coffee, or sleep a little later and then whip through a drive-thru for your morning pick-me-up?

When that caffeine hits your bloodstream, how you got the coffee may not matter too much. But the next time you go through a drive thru for that cup o’ joe, picture your financial strategy shouting and waving its metaphorical arms to get your attention.

Why? Each and every time you indulge in a “luxury” that has a less expensive alternative, you’re potentially delaying your financial independence. Delay it too long and you might find yourself working when you should be enjoying a comfortable retirement. Sound dramatic? Alarmist? Apocalyptic? But that’s how it happens – one $5 peppermint mocha at a time. This isn’t to say that you can’t enjoy an indulgence every once in a while. You gotta “treat yourself” sometimes, right? Just be sure that you’re sticking with your overall, long-term strategy. Your future self will thank you!

Here are 3 ways to shift from indulgence to independence:

1. Make coffee at home. Reducing your expenses can start as simply as making your morning coffee at home. And you might not even have to get up earlier to do it. Why not invest in a coffee pot with a delay brewing function? It’ll start brewing at the time you preset, and what’s a better alarm clock than the scent of freshly-brewed coffee wafting from the kitchen? Or from your bedside table… (This is a judgment-free zone here – do what you need to do to get up on time in the morning.)

Get started: A quick Google search will yield numerous lists of copycat specialty drinks that you can make at home.

2. Workout at home. A couple of questions to ask yourself:

1) Will an expensive gym membership fit into your monthly budget? 2) How often have you gone to the gym in the last few months?

If your answers are somewhere between “No” and “I’d rather not say,” then maybe it’s time to ditch the membership in favor of working out at home. Or perhaps you’re a certified gym rat who faithfully wrings every dollar out of your gym membership each month. Then ask yourself if you really need all the bells and whistles that an expensive gym might offer. Elliptical, dumbbells, and machines with clearly printed how-tos? Yes, of course. But a hot tub, sauna, and an out-of-pocket juice bar? Maybe not. If you can get in a solid workout without a few of those pricey extras, your body and your wallet will thank you.

Get started: Instead of a using a treadmill inside the gym, take a walk or jog around your local park each day – it’s free! If you prefer to work out at a gym, look into month-to-month membership options instead of paying a hefty price for a year-long membership up front.

3. Ditch cable and use a video streaming service instead. Cable may give you access to more channels and more shows than ever before, but let’s be honest. Who has time to watch 80 hours of the greatest moments in sports every week? Asking yourself if you could cut the cable and wait a little longer for your favorite shows to become available on a streaming service might not be a bad idea. Plus, who doesn’t love using a 3-day weekend to binge-watch an entire series every now and then? There’s also the bonus of how easy it is to cancel/reactivate a streaming service. With cable, you may be locked into a multi-year contract, installation can be a hassle (and they may add an extra installation fee), and you can forget about knowing when the cable guy is actually going to show up.

Get started: Plenty of streaming services offer free trial periods. Go ahead and give them a try, but be careful: You may have to enter your credit card number to access the free trial. Don’t forget to cancel before your trial is over, or you will be charged.

Taking time to address the luxuries you can live without (or enjoy less often) has the potential to make a huge impact on your journey to financial independence. Cutting back here and investing in yourself there – it all adds up.

In what areas do you think you can start indulging less?

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Part 1: The Reality of Student Loans

January 20, 2020

Part 1: The Reality of Student Loans

Student loans are a hot button issue in today’s financial and political conversation.

It seems that many people are getting more and more worried about the student loan crisis with each passing year. But is there actually a crisis? Just how serious are student loans and what sets them apart from regular debt? Let’s look at the facts to see if there’s a real reason for concern.

How do student loans work?
Student loans come from either the Federal government or private lenders. Federal loans are more common, so let’s focus on them. Essentially, you borrow money from the government to cover college tuition that you then must repay with interest after graduating or dropping out. But why have these loans seemed to cause a problem for so many people?

First, student loans tend to be large and are getting larger as tuition seems to increase every year.[i] Second, they tend to be difficult to discharge and forgive. Third, an undergraduate degree may no longer be the ticket to financial security that it once was.

It’s possible to graduate with a perfectly good degree from an upstanding university and still struggle to pay normal bills, let alone thousands in debt and interest! All this means that many Americans are attempting to start careers, families, and businesses with a cloud of massive and unforgivable debt hanging over them. This financial strain may have serious effects on the health and wellness of students and their families for years after graduation.

The effects of student debt
Did you know that a survey found one in fifteen student loan holders have considered suicide due to their finances? [ii] But young adults aren’t the only ones affected by seemingly insurmountable debt; PLUS Loans, which are given out to parents with kids in college, have started to take a toll and even some senior citizens are feeling the financial heat. But it looks unlikely that former students, whether recently graduated or long retired, will find relief anytime soon. In fact, Uncle Sam is cranking up the pressure on delinquent student debt by withholding tax refunds, adding collection costs, and even confiscating government IDs.[iii]

What to do about crushing debt?
Student debt is definitely a serious issue that should be ringing alarm bells if you’re a parent with college-age kids or a recent graduate transitioning into the workforce. Do you and your family have the financial tools for dealing with thousands in unshakable debt? Is it ever too early to start planning and saving for college? How do you handle Federal loans after you’ve gotten your diploma? We’ll be talking more about that in Part 2: The Tools for Dealing with Student Debt, so stay tuned!

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Money Saving Tips for the Holiday Season

December 23, 2019

Money Saving Tips for the Holiday Season

The holidays shouldn’t be a time for worrying about your finances.

But the cost of travel, food, and gifts can add up quickly, making it hard to focus on the things that matter most. Here are some tips to help protect your pocketbook this holiday season so you can focus on sharing old traditions and making new memories with friends and family.

Play secret Santa
Secret Santa is an easy way to divvy up gift buying duties, especially if you have a large family or friend group. Have everyone participating put their names in a hat. Everyone then draws a random name out of the hat and must buy a gift for the person they’ve selected. It’s a simple and fun way to limit how many people you need to buy gifts for and control how much you spend on presents. Optional Secret Santa: Only do the gift swap with the kids and skip the adults this year.

Buy gifts with cash when you can
Watch out for credit card debt this holiday season. Purchasing presents with credit can be tempting (especially during the Black Friday frenzy), but how much you’re going to owe can quickly add up. Set a budget for yourself and then take that much cash out of the bank. Once it dries up, stop buying gifts! Your future self will be glad come January when you don’t have a whopping credit card bill to pay off.

Take advantage of sales and coupons early
Start collecting wishlists a few months before the holidays begin. If Aunt Margaret mentions a new cookware set she has her eye on in August, take note! Shopping early is an easy way of increasing your chances of finding sales and deals before the hardcore holiday shopping ensues. For online shopping, investigate couponing apps and add-ons. They can automatically add discounts to purchases, potentially saving you big money over a few gifts!

The holidays are about remembering what really matters, not worrying about money. The goal of these tips isn’t just to save you some cash, but to help you celebrate the things and people you love, free of financial distractions. Happy Holidays!

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Royal Wedding or Vegas? Keeping your wedding costs under control

December 16, 2019

Royal Wedding or Vegas? Keeping your wedding costs under control

The average cost of a wedding in the U.S. is over $33,000.[i]

That’s an expensive day by any standard!

That amount might be enough for a down payment on a first home or for a well-equipped, late-model minivan to shuttle around your 1.9 kids – assuming your family has an average number of children as a result of your newly wedded bliss.[ii]

If you’re having cold feet about shelling out that much cash for one day’s festivities – or even worse, if you fear you might have to go into debt to pay for it – here are a few ideas on how you can make your wedding day a special day to remember, and still save some money for other things (like that minivan).

Invite Close Friends and Family
Many soon-to-be newlyweds dream of a massive wedding with hundreds of people in attendance to honor their big day. But at some point during any large wedding, the bride or the groom – or maybe both – look around the well-dressed guests and ask themselves, “Who are all these people, anyway?”

You can cut the cost of your wedding dramatically by simply trimming the guest list to a more manageable size. Ask yourself, “Do I really need to invite that kid who used to live next door to our family when I was 6 years old?” Small weddings are a growing trend, with many couples choosing to limit the guest list to just close friends and immediate family. That doesn’t mean you need to have your wedding in the backyard while the neighbor’s dog howls during your vows – although you certainly can. It just means fewer people to provide food and drink for and perhaps a less palatial venue to rent.

Budget According to Priorities
Your wedding is special and you want everything to be perfect. You’ve dreamed of this day your entire life, right? However, by prioritizing your wish list, there’s a better chance to get exactly what you want for certain parts of your wedding, by choosing less expensive – but still acceptable – options for the things that may not matter to you so much. If it’s all about the reception party atmosphere for you, try putting more of your budget toward entertainment and decorations and less toward fancy food. Consider trading the seven-course gourmet dinner with full service for a selection of simpler, buffet-style dishes catered by your favorite restaurant.

Incorporate More Wallet-Friendly Wedding Ideas
A combination of small adjustments in your plan can add up to big savings, allowing you to have a memorable wedding day and still have enough money left over to enjoy your newfound bliss.

  • Consider a different day of the week. If you’re planning on getting married on a Saturday in June or September, be prepared to pay more for a venue than you would any other day of the week or time of the year. Saturday is the most expensive day to get married[iii], and June and September are both peak wedding season months.[iv] So if you can have your wedding on, say, a Friday in April or November, this has the potential to trim the cost of the venue.
  • Rent a vacation house – or even get married on a boat. The smaller space will prevent the guest list from growing out of control and the experience might be more memorable than at a larger, more typical location. Of course, both options necessitate holding the reception at the same location, saving money once more.
  • Watch the booze costs. There’s no need to have a full bar with every conceivable drink concoction and bow-tied bartenders that can perform tricks with the shakers. Odds are good that your guests will be just as happy with a smaller-yet-thoughtfully-chosen selection of beer and wine to choose from.
  • Be thrifty. If you really want to trim costs, you can get creative about certain traditional “must-haves,” ranging from skipping the flowers (chances are that nobody will even miss them) to purchasing a gently-used gown. (Yes, people actually do this.) Online outlets may provide beautiful gowns for a fraction of the price of a new gown.

There’s a happy medium between a “royal wedding” and drive-thru nuptials in Vegas. If you’re looking for a memorable day that won’t break the bank, consider some of the tips above to keep things classy, cool – and within your budget.

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Getting Your Reindeer In a Row

Getting Your Reindeer In a Row

Dasher. Dancer. Prancer. Vixen.

Comet. Cupid. Donner. Blitzen. (And Rudolph too, of course.)

This is a holiday roll-call that’s instantly recognizable: the reindeer that pull Santa’s magical sleigh. But what if things got so hectic at the North Pole (not a stretch when you’re in charge of delivering presents to every child on Earth), that when it was time to hitch up the reindeer on Christmas Eve, they were all out of order?

Prancer. Cupid. Dasher. Comet. Dancer. Vixen. Blitzen. Donner.

Hmmm, someone’s missing… what happened to Rudolph? (Looks like he got left behind at the North Pole. In all the hubbub one of Santa’s elves forgot to review the pre-flight checklist.)

Since so much can change during the year from one crazy “Happy Holidays!” to the next, your ducks – or reindeer, that is – may not even be in a row at this point. They could be frolicking unattended in a field somewhere! And who knows where your Rudolph even is.

We can help with that. An annual review of your financial strategy is key to keeping you on track for your unique goals. Lots of things can change over the course of a year, and your strategy could need some reorganizing. I mean, did you hear about everything that changed for Prancer? (What do you call a baby reindeer, anyway?)

Here are some important questions to consider at least once each year (or even more often):

1. Are you on track to meet your savings goals? A well-prepared retirement is a worthy goal. Let’s make sure nothing drove you too far off track this year, and if it did, let’s explore what can be done to get you back on the right path.

2. Do you have the potential for new savings? Did your health improve this year? Did that black mark on your driving record expire? Changes like these have the potential to positively impact your life insurance rate, but we’d need to dig in and find out what kinds of savings might be in store for you.

3. Have your coverage needs increased? Marriage, having a child, or buying a home are all instances in which your life insurance coverage probably should be increased. Have any of these occurred for you over the last year? Have you added the new family member as a beneficiary?

If you haven’t had a chance to review your strategy this year, we can fit one in before Santa shimmies down the chimney. Which of your reindeer do you need to wrangle back into the ranks before the New Year gets going?

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The effects of closing a credit card

September 9, 2019

The effects of closing a credit card

Americans owe over $900 billion in credit card debt[i], and credit card interest rates are on the rise – now over 15 percent.[ii]

So if you’re on a mission to reduce or eliminate your credit card debt (go you!), you may be thinking you should close out your credit cards. However, you need to know that doing that may have several effects, some of which may not be what you’d expect.

There are times when canceling a card may be the best answer:

  1. A card charges an annual fee
    If you’re being charged an annual fee for the privilege of having a certain credit card, it may be better to cancel the card, particularly if you don’t use it often or have other options available.

  2. You can’t control your spending
    If “retail therapy” is impacting your financial future by creating an ever-growing mountain of debt, it may be best to eliminate the temptation of buying on credit.

Then there are times when closing a credit card may not make much difference, or could even hurt your score:

  1. Lingering effects: The good and the bad
    Many of us have heard that credit card information stays on your report for 7 years. That’s true for negative information, including events as large as a foreclosure. Positive events, however, stay on your report for 10 years. In either case, canceling your credit card now will reduce the credit you have available, but the history – good or bad – will remain on your credit report for up to a decade.

  2. The benefits of old credit
    Did you know that one aspect factored in to your credit score is the age of your accounts? Canceling a much older account in favor of a newer account can actually leave a dent in your score, and we know that canceling the card won’t erase any negative history less than 7 years old. So it may be best to keep the older credit account open as long as there are no costs to the card. Another point to consider is that the effects of canceling an older account may be magnified when you’re younger and haven’t yet established a long enough credit history.

Credit utilization affects your credit score
Lenders and credit bureaus not only look at your repayment history, they also look at your credit utilization, which refers to how much of your available credit you’re using. Lower usage can help your credit score while high utilization can work against you.

For example, if you have $20,000 in credit available and $10,000 in credit card balances, your credit utilization is 50 percent. If you close a credit card that has a credit limit of $5,000, your available credit drops to $15,000 but your credit utilization jumps to 67 percent if the credit card balances remain unchanged. Going on a credit card canceling rampage may actually have negative effects because your credit utilization can skyrocket.

If unnecessary spending is out of control or if there is a cost to having a particular credit card, it may be best to cancel the card. In other cases, however, it’s often better to use credit cards occasionally, and make sure to pay them off as quickly as possible.

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Is a personal loan a good idea?

September 3, 2019

Is a personal loan a good idea?

Life is full of surprises – many of which cost money.

If you’ve just used up your emergency fund to cover your last catastrophe, then what if a new surprise arrives before you’ve replenished your savings?

Using a credit card can be an expensive option, so you might be leery of adding debt with a high interest rate. However, you can’t let the ship sink either. What can you do?

A personal loan is an alternative in a cash-crunch crisis, but you’ll need to know a bit about how it works before signing on the bottom line.

A personal loan is an unsecured loan. The loan rate and approval are based on your credit history and the amount borrowed. Much like a credit card account, you don’t have to put up a car or house as collateral on the loan. But one area where a personal loan differs from a credit card is that it’s not a revolving line of credit. Your loan is funded in a lump sum and once you pay down the balance you won’t be able to access more credit from that loan. Your loan will be closed once you’ve paid off the balance.

The payment terms for a personal loan can be a short duration. Typically, loan terms range between 2-7 years.[i] If the loan amount is relatively large, this can mean large payments as well, without the flexibility you have with a credit card in regard to choosing your monthly payment amount.

An advantage over using a personal loan instead of a credit card is that interest rates for personal loans can be lower than you might find with credit cards. But many personal loans are plagued by fees, which can range from application fees to closing fees. These can add a significant cost to the loan even if the interest rate looks attractive. It’s important to shop around to compare the full cost of the loan if you choose to use a personal loan to navigate a cash crunch. You also might find that some fees (but not all) can be negotiated. (Hint: This may be true with certain credit cards as well.)

Before you borrow, make sure you understand the interest rate for the loan. Personal loans can be fixed rate or the rate might be variable. In that case, low rates can turn into high rates if interest rates continue to rise.

It’s also important to know the difference between a personal loan and a payday loan. Consider yourself warned – payday loans are a different type of loan, and may be an extremely expensive way to borrow. The Federal Trade Commission recommends you explore alternatives.[ii]

So if you need a personal loan to cover an emergency, your bank or credit union might be a good place to start your search.

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Is a balance transfer worth it?

August 26, 2019

Is a balance transfer worth it?

If you have established credit, you’ve probably received some offers in the mail for a balance transfer with “rates as low as 0%”.

But don’t get too excited yet. That 0% rate won’t last. You’re also likely to find there’s a one-time balance transfer fee of 3% to 5% of the transferred amount.[i] We all know the fine print matters – a lot – but let’s look at some other considerations.

What is a balance transfer?
To attract new customers, credit card companies often send offers inviting credit card holders to transfer a balance to their company. These offers may have teaser or introductory rates, which can help reduce overall interest costs.

Teaser rate vs. the real interest rate
After the teaser rate expires, the real interest rate is going to apply. The first thing to check is if it’s higher or lower than your current interest rate. If it’s higher, you probably don’t need to read the rest of the offer and you can toss it in the shredder. But if you think you can pay the balance off before the introductory rate expires, taking the offer might make sense. However, if your balance is small, a focused approach to paying off your existing card without transferring the balance might serve you better than opening a new credit account. If – after the introductory rate expires – the interest rate is lower than what you’re paying now, it’s worth reading the offer further.

The balance transfer fee
Many balance transfers have a one-time balance transfer fee of up to 5% of the transferred amount. That can add up quickly. On a transfer of $10,000, the transfer fee could be $300 to $500, which may be enough to make you think twice. However, the offer still might have value if what you’re paying in interest currently works out to be more.

Monthly payments
The real savings with balance transfer offers becomes evident if you transfer to a lower rate card but maintain the same payment amount (or even better, a higher amount). If you were paying the minimum or just over the minimum on the old card and continue to pay just the minimum with the new card, the balance might still linger for a long time. However, if you were paying $200 per month on the old card and you continue with a $200 per month payment on the new card at a lower interest rate, the balance will go down faster, which could save you money in interest.

For example, if you transfer a $10,000 balance from a 15% card to a new card with a 0% APR for 12 months and a 12% APR thereafter, while keeping the same monthly payment of $200, you would save nearly $3,800 in interest charges. Even if the new card has a 3% balance transfer fee, the savings would still be $3,500.[ii] Not too bad. If you’re considering a balance transfer offer, use an online calculator to make the math easier. Also, be aware that you might be able to negotiate the offer, perhaps earning a lower balance transfer fee (or no fee at all) or a lower interest rate. It costs nothing to ask!

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The state of financial literacy

August 19, 2019

The state of financial literacy

We learn a lot of things in school.

Some of which are useful later in life, some of which are hurriedly memorized and then promptly forgotten, and some of which barely get a passing glance. In decades past, financial literacy wasn’t an emphasis in school curriculum – unless you include the odd math problem that involved interest rate calculations. For all our years of education, as a nation we were woefully unprepared for one of the largest challenges in adult life: financial survival.

Recently, however, schools have begun to introduce various topics regarding financial literacy to the K-12 curriculum. Some states have fared better than others in this effort, with graded results ranging from A to F, as measured in an analysis done by the Washington Post.[i] Read on for the breakdown.

How we’re doing so far
In its annual Survey of the States, the Council for Economic Education reported that not one state had added personal finance to their K-12 standard curriculum since 2016, and that only 22 states require high school students to take a course in economics. Only 17 of the 50 states require students to take a course in personal finance.[ii]

We can’t count on schools (at least not right now)
While it’s easy to pick on schools and state governments for not including financial literacy education in the past and for only making small strides in curriculums today, that’s not solving the problem that current generations don’t understand how money works. As with many things, the responsibility – at least in the short-term – is falling to parents to help educate younger people on financial matters.

Other financial literacy resources
Given the general lack of financial education provided in schools, unsurprisingly, most teens look to their parents to learn money management skills.[iii] Fortunately, there are some great online resources that can help begin the conversation and help educate both parents and children on topics such as budgeting, how (or if) to use credit cards, differences in types of bank accounts, how to save, managing credit scores, etc.

Pepperdine University offers a “Financial Literacy Guide for Kids, Teens and Students”[iv], which covers many of the basics but also provides a useful set of links to resources where kids and parents alike can learn more through interactive games, quizzes, and demonstrations.

Included highlights are mobile apps which can be useful for budgeting, saving, and so forth, and even listings of websites that can help kids find scholarships or grants.

So if you feel like you haven’t learned quite as much about money and finances that you wish you had in school, contact me so that we can explore how money works together, and I can help put a strategy in place for you and your family!

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Avoid these unhealthy financial habits

August 12, 2019

Avoid these unhealthy financial habits

As well-intentioned as we might be, we sometimes get in our own way when it comes to improving our financial health.

Much like physical health, financial health can be affected by binging, carelessness, or simply not knowing what can cause harm. But there’s a light at the end of the tunnel – as with physical health, it’s possible to reverse the downward trend if you can break your harmful habits.

Not budgeting
A household without a budget is like a ship without a rudder, drifting aimlessly and – sooner or later – it might sink or run aground in shallow waters. Small expenses and indulgences can add up to big money over the course of a month or a year. In nearly every household, it might be possible to find some extra money just by cutting back on non-essential spending. A budget is your way of telling yourself that you may be able to have nice things if you’re disciplined about your finances.

Frequent use of credit cards
Credit cards always seem to get picked on when discussing personal finances, and often, they deserve the flack they get. Not having a budget can be a common reason for using credit, contributing to an average credit card debt of over $9,000 for balance-carrying households.[i] At an average interest rate of over 15%, credit card debt is usually the highest interest expense in a household, several times higher than auto loans, home loans, and student loans.[ii] The good news is that with a little discipline, you can start to pay down your credit card debt and help reduce your interest expense.

Mum’s the word
No matter how much income you have, money can be a stressful topic in families. This can lead to one of two potentially harmful habits.

First, talking about the family finances is often simply avoided. Conversations about kids and work and what movie you want to watch happen, but conversations about money can get swept under the rug. Are you a “saver” and your partner a “spender”? Is it the opposite? Maybe you’re both spenders or both savers. Talking (and listening) about yourself and your significant other’s tendencies can be insightful and help avoid conflicts about your finances. If you’re like most households, having an occasional chat about the budget may help keep your family on track with your goals – or help you identify new goals – or maybe set some goals if you don’t have any. Second, financial matters can be confusing – which may cause stress – especially once you get past the basics. This may tempt you to ignore the subject or to think “I’ll get around to it one day”. But getting a budget and a financial strategy in place sooner rather than later may actually help you reduce stress. Think of it as “That’s one thing off my mind now!”

Taking the time to understand your money situation and getting a budget in place is the first step to put your financial house in order. As you learn more and apply changes – even small ones – you might see your efforts start to make a difference!

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