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Spring break on a bare minimum budget

Written by FCN Staff - Leave a Comment

This post comes from Chloe Paglia at our partner site Zing.

Dealing with the frigid winter months usually means fantasizing about heading somewhere else for a few days. For college kids particularly, it means dreaming of putting down our books, gathering up our friends and leaving for spring break. Unfortunately, the typical spring break getaway involves paying for expensive airfare and lodging in popular spots like Cancun or Daytona Beach. Not every student has the means to pay for a trip like that every year, especially with all of the other infamous expenses associated with higher education.

So what do the broke kids do? Sit home and sulk about seeing all of their friends’ sunny beach photos on Facebook? No! There are plenty of opportunities to go on a just as good (dare I say better?) trip for a very small fraction of the cost. Here’s a guide to doing spring break on the bare minimum budget.

RAISING THE FUNDS

You and your pals can certainly take a vacation for only a few hundred dollars per person. Is that still too much of a stretch for your current finances? Fear not! There are quite a few ways for a college kid to make a quick buck before springtime.

Fundraising

Odds are that people will be sympathetic to your cause, remembering the days they tried to scrounge up enough money for a trip. You can host a bottle drive in your neighborhood, passing out flyers ahead of time to give your neighbors time to save their disposables. Or, if you have an ideal location in mind, you can host a bake sale!

Plasma donation

Most states pay money in exchange for plasma donation. It’s a lot like blood donation, but they separate the plasma from the red and white blood cells, which are then returned to the donor. Because of that, you can donate up to twice a week, earning up to $50 per visit!

Cleaning out your closet

Do you have clothes, media or electronics you aren’t using anymore? Get organized! Pack up everything you haven’t used recently and sell it to a pawn or consignment shop. While you’re at it, if you have any old textbooks lying around, sell those back to your school as well. You’ll reduce your clutter and put money toward spring break all at once. Thumbs up for multi-tasking!

Odd jobs

Last but not least, do some odd jobs for neighbors, family and friends. Offer your services for baby/pet/housesitting. If “sitting” isn’t your thing, offer to shovel snow or clean gutters. Profit from odd jobs can add up quickly, making them a perfect source of last-minute cash.

PICKING A DESTINATION

Location

All right, so you have your money saved up; the next step is picking a destination. The best way to do this is to pick an uncommon location for spring breakers and travelers alike. The lower demand the area has, the better deals you’ll get. I also suggest picking somewhere you and your friends have never been before to make the whole trip that much more adventurous. In terms of actual distance, the closer, the better. You’ll pay way less for travel that way.

Interests

If that doesn’t narrow your search enough, consider your interests. Do you love to ski or snowboard? Head to the closest resort! If you’re a big music fan, Nashville, Austin or Seattle might be your best bet. And if you’re just looking for a big city with a lot of history and culture to explore, you can find one in virtually any one of the fifty states. The main thing I’m trying to convey is to think broad and really explore your options.

Cheap transportation

When it comes to saving money, taking a road trip is almost always better than splurging on airfare. If you can pack a car full of people, you’ll be splitting the total cost of gas five or six ways. Personally, I think driving adds to the trip. You can make an awesome playlist, play cheesy car games and pull over to check out the wackiest roadside attractions. Just make sure to check out your car before you leave and bring a reliable map or GPS with you.

If you only have a couple of people in your group or your car isn’t reliable, consider taking a bus or train to your destination. You can sit back and enjoy the scenery as you’re taken to your destination for a very reasonable price. Bonus: Using your student ID and booking your ticket ahead of time will save you even more money.

WHERE TO STAY

Hostels

Far from being “hostile,” hostels are ideal for easy, convenient and cheap boarding. While you’re not likely to enjoy hotel amenities like private bathrooms, king-size beds or indoor pools, you will have a safe, clean spot to sleep. Check out hostels online before your trip to read reviews and compare rates.

Hotels

If you have a big group, splitting the cost of a hotel room can end up being pretty affordable too. Make sure you look online at different travel sites to get the best deal, as prices often vary from site to site. Prices do go up as the dates get closer, so get the ball rolling now!

Other options

If the weather allows, consider camping! Packing up tents and paying for a spot in a nice campground creates a whole new kind of trip, full of s’mores and campfire songs. You can also check with your group to see if any of your relatives or friends have a place they’re willing to let you guys stay in, which would be a huge relief to your overall budget.

DINING

Eating out three meals a day will add up fast, and could end up becoming the biggest expense of your trip. Buy and pack food in bulk so you don’t have to rely on restaurants for every meal. In this case, hotel rooms with microwaves and refrigerators will serve you well.

When you dine out, make it count. Explore the area and try new restaurants and cuisine! You can use online coupon sites like Groupon or Restaurant.com to get big discounts at local establishments.

Don’t let your tight budget keep you from having the time of your life this spring break! Use these resources and tips to get an ideal getaway for the least amount of money.

More stories from Zing:

Online sales tax: What’s the deal?

Buying and Selling Homes in 2014: A More Balanced Market

Decorating Your Home: A Guide for Music Lovers

Published on February 28th, 2014
Modified on February 7th, 2014 - Leave a Comment
Filed under: Frugality, Travel

News flash: You are now allowed to spend retirement savings

Written by Jeffrey Steele - 9 Comments

Aside from the need to work, toil and slave to salt away one or two million bucks or more, there’s one thing that has long ticked me off about the whole topic of retirement planning — the single-minded focus on accumulation.

Entire libraries could be filled with the books, newspaper pieces, magazine articles, DVDs and CDs devoted to the why, how, when and where to stockpile assets for retirement. (And that’s just counting the stuff from Suze Orman!)

But almost no one focuses on the spending of those assets. There’s no overlooking that oversight, no selling short the impact of that shortcoming. Assuming retirees’ cash reserves will be finite when they saunter off into the sunset, and for most of us they will, wouldn’t it really be kind of nice if we actually knew how much we could safely spend in each of our glittering golden years?

The lack of guidance about how much to “decumulate” does quite a number on many older adults. Having spent a lifetime accumulating a nest egg, in part through high interest savings accounts and zero percent APR credit cards, they now fuss and fret about how much of that nest egg they can nibble away at yearly, without seeing their savings expire before they do.

The result is a ludicrous scenario in which otherwise responsible, level-headed older adults with hundreds of thousands of dollars in assets wring their hands with worry about spending their own savings. Imagine the questions they ask.

Should we buy a new Ford or Toyota, or conserve cash by acquiring a pre-owned 1988 Yugo? Should we replace that old sofa by visiting a nice furniture store, or by launching a midnight raid on a municipal dump? Should we re-use dental floss, whittle toothpicks out of downed tree limbs?

Do we have enough in the summer vacation kitty to exit the county for the first time?

The spending down lowdown

Anthony Webb, a researcher at the Boston-based Center for Retirement Research, decided he would launch a study to determine whether there might be a fairly simple formula to guide people in spending-down decisions.

Webb examined five different approaches, the first being the once-popular “four-percent rule.” That rule of thumb holds that it’s okay for retirees to spend about four percent of the amount they have at the time of their retirement in each year of retirement.

Another strategy tested was one of spending interest and dividends, but not principal. A third concept tied retirees’ withdrawals to their life expectancy. A fourth focused on the strategy of purchasing an annuity to provide guaranteed proceeds on a yearly basis over the course of retirees’ lifetimes.

It was the fifth strategy that delivered a real departure from the been-there, done-that routine. “I said what would happen if instead of following the four-percent rule, the household draws out amounts equal to the Internal Revenue Service Required Minimum Distribution rules?” Webb explained.

The IRS has a table that shows how much older Americans must withdraw each year from their 401ks and IRAs. That schedule of withdrawals is known as the Required Minimum Distribution, better known as RMD. The amounts are mandated because the IRS wants to get its eager hands on tax revenue it didn’t collect when moneys were deposited into the 401ks and IRAs tax free.

The dictated withdrawal percentages increase with age, reflecting that the individuals have fewer years before they will pass away and can, therefore, grab more. For instance, at 65, the percentage is 3.13 percent of year-before assets. That percentage grows to a minimum of 3.65 percent of assets at 70, 4.37 percent at 75, 5.35 percent at 80 and so on.

The envelope, please

In testing these scenarios on real-world households occupied by fretting, nervous retirees, Webb quickly eliminated from consideration the four-percent rule, which saw the last of its champions fall by the wayside during the Great Recession. Why so? Taking four percent or $40,000 of $1 million in retirement assets in the first year is fine. But what if a market meltdown shrinks that $1 million to $550,000 in Year Three? Continuing to take $40,000 a year will soon deplete the nest egg, quickly transforming the leisure-loving retiree into a blue-shirted, 25-hour-a-week Wal-Mart greeter.

Other approaches also fell short, and were too complex to follow. You guessed it. The strategy that proved A-OK, and that many retirees should consider pursuing PDQ, was the RMD. The strategy benefits from its simplicity, in that the IRS RMD tables are easily accessible. It was also a more real-world strategy, because the percentages are applied to the year-earlier principal, not as with the four-percent rule of the principal at time of retirement.

“We tested it for households more or less concerned about the risk of outliving their wealth,” Webb recalls. “And the strategy that came out best was a strategy of spending the interest and dividends and at the same time drawing out an amount of principal equal to the RMD tables.”

Webb agrees with this blogger that too much attention is devoted to building up nest eggs. “Thrifty, careful types do accumulate money,” he says. “It really is okay to spend it. That’s what it’s there for. The only question is how rapidly” to draw it down.

Published on February 26th, 2014
Modified on February 28th, 2014 - 9 Comments
Filed under: Retirement, Saving & Investing

Money mistakes to avoid in your 20s

Written by Suba Iyer - 7 Comments

The year 2013 was a milestone for me with lots of life changes. As I step deep into my 30s now, I thought it might be interesting to take a look back at my 20s. If I could go back and give my 22-year-old self some sage money advice (I was just out of college and starting graduate school in a new country), what would it be? Over the years, I have made several statements that started with “I wish I had…” I have tried to recover from them, but I still wish I had never done them in the first place.

If you are in your 20s (or even 30s), here are some money mistakes to avoid.

Money mistakes to avoid in your 20s

  1. Not contributing to your retirement: This was the most damaging mistake for me. I still haven’t recovered from it. I was earning minimum wage while in graduate school and could have socked my savings away in a Roth IRA. At the very least, I could have started saving for retirement when I started my first job. I thought retirement was too far away and I should be saving for some immediate needs like getting a car. The end result — I didn’t save for retirement or a car or anything else. I just spent my entire salary. This mistake alone cost me more than $100,000.
  2. Buying more car than you can afford: My husband and I bought over $50,000 worth of cars. We both bought new cars. (We were afraid we would end up with a lemon.) Adding in the insurance for new cars and the interest rate for the car loan, it was over $70,000 down the drain. The only consolation is, we sold one of those and are planning to drive the other one into the ground.
  3. Not starting an emergency fund: This was the excuse I used not to start contributing to my retirement, but I never ended up starting an emergency fund either. Every single month, I would always end up with one big expense or another and I told myself I would definitely start the next month. I didn’t actually do it until my late 20s.
  4. Living on credit cards: Thankfully, I never got deep into debt, but I was always playing a dangerous game by living high on credit cards and emptying any savings I had the previous month to pay for it. Credit cards taught me to live paycheck to paycheck which I continued to do until my late 20s.
  5. Not setting financial goals: I never stopped to think about what I would like to do in five or ten years. Only when we got married and everyone around us began buying a home did we realize that we didn’t have any savings to show for our working years. This mistake cost us more than money. We were not saving anything — even after we started working with a budget — simply because we never set any financial goals for ourselves. Early in our early marriage, we would fight at least once every month about our lack of savings.
  6. Trying to keep up with the Joneses: This one was not terribly damaging to us personally because we wised up on this issue pretty quickly. But what I didn’t realize was that I was trying to keep up with my parents. Yes, parents. Somehow I missed the logic that it took them over 30 years to accumulate what they have and I can’t have it all at once. I tried hard and paid the price.
  7. Not starting the habit of paying myself first: Thanks to my choice of career, I was well paid. If I had only learned to save first instead of waiting to pay all the bills and then save the rest, I would be well ahead of the curve now.

There are some money mistakes I saw my friends do. I am thankful I didn’t make them. But this list would be incomplete if I didn’t include them here.

  1. Owing too much in student loans without learning about career prospects: In India, where I grew up, parents play a major part in picking the career for their children. While I don’t agree with that idea in general, it definitely encourages the discussion about the career prospects after graduation long before starting college. One of my friends who went to grad school with me had over $100,000 of student loans and he majored in English literature with absolutely no idea of what he was going to do with that degree.
  2. Going into debt for a wedding: With wedding costs skyrocketing, it makes sense to manage this even carefully. You don’t have to elope to cut costs; there are plenty of ways to have an awesome day for a fraction of the price.
  3. Not carrying health insurance: The young feel invincible, but all it takes is one small accident to start the downward spiral of medical bills. A close friend of mine thought she didn’t need insurance, got pregnant and due to some complications now has $89,000 of medical bills that I hear about every time I talk to her.

Now that I am in my early 30s, I hope not to write a list like this one ten years from now. I would like to think I am much more financially savvy now and will think twice before making any big financial decisions. Only time will tell.

What were your biggest money mistakes?

Published on February 24th, 2014
Modified on February 18th, 2014 - 7 Comments
Filed under: Planning, Saving & Investing

Precious metals: The effect of QE tapering on gold and silver

Written by FCN Staff - One Comment

This post comes from Keith Guyot at our partner site Zing.

Gold prices fell more than 25% from January 2013 to January 2014, according to Goldprices.org. Silver was down nearly 36% in that same time period. Meanwhile the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet ballooned from $3 trillion to $4 trillion in 2013, and has grown nearly fivefold since the beginning of the recession in 2008.

Myriad Federal Reserve policies have come and gone in the past decade. A vast majority of them either had no effect on precious metal prices or positively influenced them. It was late May 2013 when the Federal Open Market Committee began hinting it would taper QE3. The precious metal market reacted to the news accordingly, with gold rising from about $1,192 per ounce in June to nearly $1,400 by July.

The FOMC quickly scuppered its QE tapering plans based on disappointing summer unemployment numbers. By December, gold subsequently lost all it had gained in those two summer months. But gold is now up again by $48, or 4%, as of January 20, as the FOMC officially announced a $10 billion per month reduction in QE starting in January 2014. And it appears this trend will continue throughout 2014 as long as QE tapering continues.

Good Job Numbers Golden for Precious Metals

Some economists believe the Fed’s plan to taper QE3 may have to be cut short at some point in 2014. Peter Schiff, CEO of Euro-Pacific Capital, said via CNBC that the Fed must keep “spiking the punch bowl” because it cannot remove it completely without “ending the party.” But as long as the unemployment rate continues to fall, the Fed is comfortable with tapering.

Unemployment dipped to 6.7% by December 2013, the lowest reading since October of 2008, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Steven Cochrane, managing director of bank stress testing and economic forecasting firm Moody’s Analytics, told Pew Charitable Trusts that jobless rates across the four main regions of the U.S. are as low as they’ve been since before 2008. The Fed expects unemployment to hit the magic 6.5% mark well before summer.

Gold A Commodities Exception

The prices of several commodities, including soy beans, sugar and copper, have hit all-time record highs at some point since QE1 commenced in November of 2008. Gold is no exception, peeking at $1,889.70 in the second half of 2011. QE has increased the money supply substantially and has also artificially inflated commodities prices along with it.

Gold has always been viewed as an inflation hedge for investors. As the housing bubble blew up in the mid-2000s, so did the price of gold. The difference today is that several other large banking institutions (Bank of England, People’s Bank of China, Bank of Japan et al.) have also adopted quantitative easing policies. The U.K. plans to continue its QE unchanged, while Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plans to expand his country’s initiatives.

A global correction cannot happen with gold until all asset purchase programs are ceased. Regardless, the $1252 per ounce price on January 20 will likely look like a bargain by summer.

More stories from Zing:

Online sales tax: What’s the deal?

Buying and Selling Homes in 2014: A More Balanced Market

Decorating Your Home: A Guide for Music Lovers

Published on February 21st, 2014
Modified on February 7th, 2014 - One Comment
Filed under: Saving & Investing

MyRA Exposed!

Written by William Cowie - 12 Comments

In his State of the Union address, President Obama introduced the myRA account. It stands for “My Retirement Account.”

WHAT IS IT?

The myRA is a new variant of the Roth IRA, with the following features:

1. Contributions are after-tax, like a regular Roth IRA, not pretax like a regular IRA or 401(k) fund.
2. All gains accumulate tax-free.
3. The annual limit remains $5,500 (or $6,500 if you’re 50 or older) for all IRAs including myRA.
4. Your myRA account can only invest in Treasury bonds (current return just under 1.5 percent according to the Wall Street Journal, with a ten-year average of 3.6 percent).
5. All money contributed is guaranteed by the U.S. government, so you can’t lose.
6. It will have no fees. Uncle Sam will pick up whatever administrative fees there are, for employee or employer.
7. Withdrawal of the principal is tax-free at any time.
8. Withdrawal of the interest is tax-free if done after age 59 and a half.
9. The minimum to start is $25, with a minimum contribution of $5/month.
10. Once your myRA balance reaches $15,000, you must transfer it to a regular Roth IRA.
11. You may switch to a Roth IRA earlier. The myRA plan is intended as a feeder, not a competitor, to traditional Roth IRA accounts.
12. The plan is not administered by an employer, but by an outside private firm (still to be nominated).
13. MyRA accounts will be offered through employers via payroll deductions. (Employer participation is not required.)
14. Workers can contribute from multiple part-time jobs.
15. According to the Treasury Department, it looks like the myRA program will only be open only to those who have direct deposit.
16. There will be an income limit. Only households earning up to $191,000 a year will be eligible for the account ($129,000 if you are single).
17. Employers won’t face any fees, fiduciary liability or reporting requirements — yet.
18. Your myRA is totally portable from one job to the next.
19. There’s no provision for employer matching.

This new vehicle is aimed at the following kinds of people:

  • Those without money to open regular accounts
  • Those without the discipline to save or invest (automatic payroll deduction takes care of that)
  • Those without the knowledge of how to invest
  • Those who are fearful of losing their money
  • Those who are intimidated by brokers, company retirement plan experts or financial planners
  • Those who work multiple part-time jobs

It always takes a few weeks to digest all the nuances of a new program, and myRA is no exception. Here are some of the most obvious benefits and drawbacks of the new program so far:

BENEFITS

1. Safety: Warren Buffett’s famous first rule of investing is: Don’t lose it. With a myRA, you can’t lose the money you put in.

2. No fees: This is not a trivial benefit. More and more, traditional 401(k) funds are being criticized because their fees eat up most of their returns, which are often lower than the S&P 500 to begin with. Also, many employers refuse to offer retirement programs, because they get stuck with a bill for that. With myRA, nobody pays any fees.

3. Portability: The myRA program could be a first step in separating people’s retirement funds from their employers. This is not only valuable for people who change jobs, but also the increasing number of people who hold down multiple part-time jobs.

4. Administrative freedom: Freeing employers from administration and liability may bring more employers into the fold to help their employees with their retirement funding.

5. Automatic deductions: Psychologically, it helps participants by taking the money out through a payroll deduction — the principle of automating your savings (out of sight is out of mind).

6. Encouraging saving: The habit of saving, if created through this program, will succeed where others have failed. It’s not to create millionaires, but it can help create that saving habit.

7. Simplicity: It avoids the intimidation workers face when they’re presented with having to make investment choices between a bewildering array of funds with names that all sound the same.

8. Emergency fund: Something not envisaged by the creators, the myRA might end up being the perfect way to start an emergency fund: principal withdrawals are tax-free and unrestricted, and the interest rate is almost double that of a regular savings account. Not to mention the deductions are automatic.

9. Cash return: A myRA will be a perfect place in which to store the cash portion of your investment portfolio, because of the low risk, and the return: higher than money market funds and savings accounts.

DRAWBACKS

No government program is perfect, and critics wasted no time pouncing on the proposal. One even went as far as to suggest this is all a communist plot by the government to unload all those bonds it has been buying from the Fed as part of the Quantitative Easing program. Please. A quick calculation, based on maxing out at $15,000, exposes that criticism as nothing more than the old notion that “haters will hate.”

Others pointed out that myRA will not solve the retirement crisis, but it wasn’t designed to do that in the first place.

It was designed to get more un-involved people into the mindset of saving, by making the entrance into the system easier and risk-free.

Nevertheless, there are some real drawbacks:

1. A low return is the quid pro quo for no risk. (However, when you consider the after-fee return of 401(k) or IRA funds, it doesn’t look quite as bad.)

2. Employers are not required to sign up. One of the big elements of America’s retirement crisis nobody talks about is the fact that many people are shut out of the current system by employers who simply refuse to participate. The myRA program doesn’t address that problem, so many (if not most) of the workers this is aimed at will still be shut out of a tax-advantaged retirement savings plan.

3. The only means of contributing is by direct deposit. Those who are paid by cash, debit card or check are excluded. That’s unfortunate because I suspect there’s a big overlap between this group of workers and the group the Administration is trying to help.

4. It doesn’t address the main problem behind retirement — under-funding. Lance Roberts, chief executive of STA Wealth Management, a Houston-based money manager, was quoted in the Washington Post as saying, “If you look at all the options out there — IRAs, Roth IRAs, savings bonds — the reality is that there are plenty of savings vehicles out there. Having vehicles to save money is not the problem. The problem is having money to save.” And, of course, the willingness to make sacrifices to save.

SUMMARY

In terms of the overall problem — not enough Americans are saving enough to fund their retirement — the program can best be described as good, but modest.

The myRA is aimed at filling a gap in the current array of retirement savings vehicles, and it succeeds to a great degree.

It will draw in more savers if more employers can be enticed to participate (it’s free to them) and if it can be done without requiring direct deposit.

I’m retired, so I don’t have direct deposit (because I don’t have a job, happily). But if I was able to, I’d definitely use a myRA for at least my emergency fund.

How about you? Can you see a myRA in your future?

Published on February 19th, 2014
Modified on February 15th, 2014 - 12 Comments
Filed under: Retirement, Saving & Investing

Are you investing or betting?

Written by Richard Barrington - 3 Comments

To my way of thinking, putting your money behind the Bitcoin represents a bet rather than an investment. Of course, the distinction can be confusing — outside of sports pages, the place you might most often see people referring to bets is in the financial news. Any large or prominent financial stake in something is likely to be referred to as a bet.

I believe there is an important difference between a reasoned assumption of risk (i.e., an investment) and an all-out win-or-lose gamble (i.e., a bet). With each passing year, I appreciate that distinction more and more because I’ve seen people put their money at undue risk when they mistake a bet for an investment.

There is no hard-and-fast definition that captures the distinction between the two, but below are some thoughts on how to tell the difference.

It’s a bet rather than an investment when:

  1. It’s an all-or-nothing type of proposition. Relatively few publicly-traded companies suddenly go completely out of business, so in most cases when you invest in the wrong stock, your downside might be 10, 20, or 30 percent. Bets, on the other hand, are all-or-nothing — you win or you lose. This doesn’t just apply to cases like betting on the Broncos in the Super Bowl. Certain financial transactions, such as uncovered options, can also mean your entire investment is riding on whether you are right or wrong.
  2. It depends entirely on a single event. If you make an investment in a good company that happens to miss one quarter’s earnings, you will have plenty of chances to make up for it in subsequent quarters. Like bets on a sporting event, though, some financial propositions are based on one outcome or have short-term expiration dates, and so they don’t give long-term fundamentals a chance to come into play.
  3. You live or die depending on popular opinion. Shorting a stock is a good example of this. It is a risky proposition, because you might be right that a company is overpriced, but as long as people keep paying more for it, you lose. Shorting a stock is also a risky proposition because your downside is theoretically unlimited.
  4. Your interests are not aligned with those of the people in control of the enterprise. Gamblers are often frustrated when they have bet on the Wildcats to win by ten, only to see the Wildcats sit on a nine-point lead to run out the clock. This is a reminder that the Wildcats’ coach is interested in winning the game, not beating the point spread. These days, you have to look carefully at executive compensation packages before you invest in a company. Executives might have specific incentives which are not lined up with your goals for the company as a shareholder.
  5. You cannot obtain fundamental business information. For all the media coverage that precedes the Super Bowl, much of the game plans the teams have in store is kept top secret. You can bet on the game, but you don’t have all the information you need to understand how it will be played. Similarly, investment schemes like hedge funds with intentionally opaque investment strategies put you in a position of making a blind bet rather than an informed investment.
  6. You do not perform fundamental analysis. Then again, often the right fundamental information is available but people do not bother to do the analysis. There is more to a business plan than having a hot product, and an investor should have a good feel for a company’s business plan. Also, even a great company can be overpriced, so you need to know how the current price relates to projected earnings.
  7. It is driven by emotions. Part of the reason people bet is for the emotional rush — plus, having a different kind of stake in the game can make a blowout like the recent Super Bowl more entertaining. Investing, on the other hand, should be cold-blooded, with decisions driven by the head rather than the heart.

Don’t get me wrong — this distinction between a bet and an investment doesn’t determine whether or not something is a good idea or not. There can be bad investments just as there can be good bets. However, the distinction does relate to whether or not the decision is speculative by nature; and based on that, you should determine whether your financial future should be at stake or just a little pocket money.

Published on February 17th, 2014
Modified on February 15th, 2014 - 3 Comments
Filed under: Saving & Investing

How to keep your pets safe this winter

Written by FCN Staff - One Comment

This post comes from Halina Matt at our partner site Zing.

If you live in these United States, then you’re painfully aware that so far, this has been one of the coldest winters ever on record. Well, technically I’m not sure if it’s the coldest on record, but man, it sure feels that way, doesn’t it? Now, if you’re freezing when you step outside your house all bundled up in a warm coat, scarf, hat and gloves, can you imagine how your little furry friends must feel? That fur doesn’t provide as much protection from the elements as you may think. In fact, there’s an old saying: “If you’re cold, so is your pet.” It’s imperative that you keep their safety in mind as we feel the repeated effects of the aptly named polar vortex. Here are some tips to help you keep Fido and Mittens safe and warm.

Keep Them Indoors

The most obvious and logical precautionary step is to keep your animals indoors as much as possible. Just like their human companions, pets are subject to hypothermia if they’re left outside too long in the freezing cold. As the Humane Society points out, pets can suffer permanent damage due to this exposure. Remember how your face froze by the time you walked down your driveway to your car? Well, your dog is experiencing that same discomfort, and even outdoor cats should be kept indoors during the cold winter months.

Provide Shelter

If keeping your pets indoors all winter isn’t an option, AccuWeather.com notes that it’s imperative to your pet’s safety that you build a waterproof safe haven to protect them from bitter winds and dropping temperatures. Don’t forget to make sure it’s stocked up with clean and dry bedding, and provide plenty of food and water because keeping warm requires lots of energy. Be sure to check on the food and water periodically, though, to make sure it hasn’t frozen.

Bundle Up

Who doesn’t love an excuse to buy cute little pet sweatshirts with matching booties? Well, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), those added accessories are not only fashionable, but they’re also functional. Short-haired dogs especially can benefit greatly from wearing a sweater or dog coat, so it’s a good idea to have a variety around the house to keep your dog warm when he ventures outside. Booties can also provide some added protection to cold-sensitive paws. Wipe down your pet when they venture back inside, removing any damp clothing that can make them cold, and avoid shaving your pets down to the skin until temperatures warm up.

Keep Them on a Leash

In cold and icy conditions, it’s very important to keep your dog on a leash. According to the ASPCA, in winter, dogs can easily lose their sense of smell and become lost. Keeping them leashed – better yet making sure they have their ID tags and microchips – will help ensure they stay safe by your side.

Other Safety Concerns

As with any time of the year, it’s extremely important to be aware of dangerous chemicals that can harm your pets. Antifreeze is of particular concern in the winter, along with salt and other ice-melting chemicals that are prevalent in cold weather.

Cats sometimes find shelter under the hoods of cars in the winter, so the ASPCA recommends banging loudly on the hood of your car before starting it to prevent any injuries.

Do you have any tips to share with pet owners? Let us know in the comments below!

More stories from Zing:

Online sales tax: What’s the deal?

Buying and Selling Homes in 2014: A More Balanced Market

Decorating Your Home: A Guide for Music Lovers

Published on February 14th, 2014
Modified on February 7th, 2014 - One Comment
Filed under: Family & Life

To love, cherish and argue about money

Written by Jeffrey Steele - 2 Comments

In the 1960s-era suburban landscape where I spent my formative years, the atmosphere was much less structured than it is today. If we kids wanted to see our friends, it was routine for us to run to their homes, open the back screen doors and stroll right in.

But if their parents were fighting, as wasn’t uncommon, we beat a hasty exit out that same rear portal. With the potential of pots and pans and anything not nailed down being picked up and flung, you wanted to be elsewhere, and quick. To do otherwise was to risk stopping a flying coffee mug with your ear.

It was right around age eight or nine that I came to realize all wasn’t peaches and cream between married couples. The enclave sometimes reverberated with shouted oaths and bellowed accusations between two folks who had a few years earlier posed happily for photos, slicing into a multi-tiered cake.

Now they were throwing cake, and pastramis, and canned sardines.

What were most of those arguments, debates and battles royale about? In this fast-paced world, where change seems to come ever more rapidly, it’s comforting to know they were about the same thing couples argue about today: Money, of course.

One night, I was staying over at a friend’s house when his parents arrived home after a party where too many cocktails had been served. I’ll never forget us listening furtively to the row that played out downstairs between his mom and dad. The only line I recall decades later? “That was a $300 set!” one shouted.

A set of what? Didn’t matter, it was 300 smackers. My friend and I never learned what the set was. His parents were too busy applying ice bags to their craniums and avoiding sunlight the next morning to say.

My feisty Valentine

With Valentine’s Day soon upon us, it’s the right time to statistically verify this tendency for couples to duke it out over cash. A recent Fidelity Investments survey of couples with yearly total incomes of at least $75,000 or investment assets of at least $100,000 revealed almost four in ten couples fight about money occasionally or often, and about one in seven never resolves those debates.

There are big knock-down-drag-outs over retirement. For instance, almost a third of couples fail to see eye to eye on whether they will continue to work during traditional retirement years. Four in ten say they spar over what kind of lifestyle they can expect to experience in their post-work lives.

Just slightly more than one in three say they can’t decide where they will live in retirement, which as we know is usually influenced by financial assets.

One of the reasons married people often come to loggerheads with their spouses is the tendency not to be equal partners when it comes to personal finance decisions. Only 43 percent of couples in the Fidelity Investments survey reported being equal partners when it comes to retirement savings.

For instance, more than one in five (21 percent) of wives said they had only some or no input in daily money matters, and only 17 percent reported having a primary role in retirement planning. By contrast, 39 percent of men reported they had the primary role in preparations for the golden years.

The better news is that nearly one in four women now report being the primary financial decision makers in their marriages. By comparison, it was just 15 percent the last time Fidelity conducted the survey, in 2011.

More than money

Is there any hope for those instances when money issues turn lovebirds into angry birds? It is possible to resolve money disputes, says Kathleen Burns Kingsbury, author of the book “How to Give Financial Advice to Couples.” First, though, the factors underpinning marital money beefs must be grasped. Money squabbles, she says, are rarely just about money. They are really about the individuals’ personal feelings about security, power, respect and love.

Next, it’s essential to realize that in many marriages, couples come into the union with very different “money beliefs,” Kingsbury says.

“A money belief is a thought or attitude toward money that influences your savings, spending, investing and gifting every day,” she continues. “These beliefs tend to reside in our unconscious thought. Because we live in a society where money talk is taboo, we often don’t identify these attitudes.”

Money beliefs are generally formed between the ages of five and 15 while watching parents interact with greenbacks. So they are often oversimplified. After all, Kingsbury says, “They were formed in a child’s mind.”

Recognizing arguments over money are about more than cash is one step to more harmonious couplings and fewer money arguments. In addition, talking about each other’s money beliefs and acknowledging that neither one is wrong, but just different, can help people actually learn more about their partners and develop stronger, healthier and more open relationships, according to Kingsbury.

So next time you argue about retirement savings, whether to invest in index funds or ETFs, whether to go after zero-percent APR credit cards or a high-interest savings account and how much each spouse should be bringing home, try talking calmly and frankly about each spouse’s money beliefs.

It’s much safer than hurling a blender.

Published on February 12th, 2014 - 2 Comments
Filed under: Family & Life, Retirement

Financial to dos before you say “I do”

Written by Suba Iyer - 2 Comments

Money is a sensitive topic — even between loved ones. When my husband and I got married, money was the last thing on our mind. The only knowledge we had of each other’s finances was that neither of us had any debt, both of us had some savings. My husband didn’t even know my salary. Knowing each other’s financial makeup better would not have changed our decision to marry but it would have made our newlywed days a lot less stressful. Money was the contributing factor in a lot of our early arguments. And it took us a good two years before we decided to sit down calmly and talk about money. Given that money is cited as one of the top contributing factors in divorce, it is essential that couples have conversations before marriage to establish where each of them stands financially. Here are a few questions to ask before you say “I do.”

Are your goals compatible?

For the first few years of our marriage we saved absolutely nothing, so we made a budget. But we failed miserably. We not only didn’t save, but we felt miserable trying. We were not enjoying what we did spend our money on. Then we had a talk about where we wanted to be financially in the next five to ten years and set specific goals. Did we have any major expenses on the horizon? How much did we need in total for each of these expenses? How much did we have to save every month for these? Only after giving “a name” to every one of our dollars were we able to make progress in our savings. Every time we wanted to buy something, these goals made us pause and think about our priorities — common priorities that both of us set together.

Are your spending & saving styles compatible?

In our relationship, I am the spender and my husband is the saver. That doesn’t mean I spend recklessly; I just need more structure and goals to keep my savings on track. My husband, on the other hand, usually never spends anything with the exception of one of two expensive wants. Before we made a spending plan, this personality difference contributed to some of the arguments we had early on. After a year of not saving much, I felt, as someone who doesn’t spend on anything big, that it was not my fault; however, my husband felt that since he only splurges once or twice a year it wasn’t his fault either. Only after we set some financial goals for ourselves and made a spending plan could we save and spend on things we both loved.

What are you bringing into the marriage?

We didn’t bring any debt into our marriage. We didn’t bring any assets either, other than a very modest savings account. So this part of our finances was uncomplicated. But if one of you is bringing substantial assets or debt into the marriage, it is important to talk about how those will be handled. Will you be considering the debt as a combined debt that both of you will pay off or will that be kept as one person’s responsibility? If one person has a lot of assets, will pre-marital assets be kept separate? Will it be beneficial to have a prenuptial agreement?

What will be your money management arrangement?

Some people are comfortable having combined accounts, some prefer to keep it separate, and the rest fall somewhere in between. Any of these arrangements is perfectly fine if it works for both of you. You should not assume the other person will agree to whatever arrangement you prefer. It is best to talk about the pros and cons of each method and decide on the best arrangement.

What are your financial roles?

When we started taking control of our money, I wanted my husband to be involved in every single financial decision we made — budgeting, spending, choosing the best savings account, where to invest, etc. My husband honestly couldn’t care less; he thought that since I liked finances so much, I would make the best decision for us. Without knowing his logic, I felt like he didn’t care about our finances and resented that. After going back and forth several times, now we know where we stand. We each have our strengths and handling finances is one of mine. So I handle everything in our household from budgeting to investing. We established a limit of “$x” above which every purchase has to be discussed, like how necessary the item is or if it is possible to get a better deal if we wait to purchase it.

How will your financial communications be?

After establishing our financial roles, it is absolutely essential to figure out how communication will be handled. Even if one person exclusively handles the entire household’s finances, the other person should know what is going on at all times. My favorite way to do this is to schedule financial dates. Once a month we go out to a coffee shop just to talk finances — how we did that month, our net worth, any upcoming financial decisions, anything that needs changing, etc. Initially, we were arguing a lot, but these days I look forward to our financial dates as a great time to dream about our future together.

As two people join their lives together, it is essential that both of them work toward their common goals and be honest with each other. Understanding each other’s strengths and weaknesses before tying the knot will make it a lot easier to enjoy the marriage.

Did you (or will you) talk about finances before your marriage? How did you handle your finances as newlyweds? If you had to do it over again, would you do anything differently?

Published on February 10th, 2014
Modified on February 7th, 2014 - 2 Comments
Filed under: Family & Life, Saving & Investing

Your Internet passwords stink, but it’s not (completely) your fault

Written by FCN Staff - 2 Comments

This post comes from Sean T. Johnston at our partner site Zing.

If you’re like most Americans, you probably don’t pay much attention to creating impenetrable passwords for your online accounts. According to Splashdata, an online password provider, the list of the top online passwords are just terrible from a security standpoint.

The good news is that “password” is no longer the number one password online (it’s now number two!). The bad news is that “123456” took the top spot; “abc123” and “111111” were also among the top 10.

C’mon people, really? Your financial information, emails and personal data are online, and the only thing protecting your information from people with nefarious intentions is “123456”?

Do yourself a favor and take a look at this list of the most common passwords in 2013. If anything looks familiar, you should follow these tips to create more secure ones.

Now that we’ve addressed your terrible passwords, let’s talk about the websites that allow them. In fairness, they should know better than to let a flimsy string of sequential numbers be the only layer of password cyber security for their customers.

According to a recent study by Dashlane, a password management application, not all online companies have the same commitment to ensuring their clients create rock-solid passwords. The Dashlane study scored many leading websites on their password policies. You can read the full study here, or a summary on Gizmodo.

Key Points from the Dashlane Study

  • Over half of the 100 largest e-retailers still accept weak passwords like “abc123” and “123456”.
  • Over half of the websites tested do not block entry to an account after 10 incorrect password attempts.
  • 61% of the websites don’t offer any assistance to new registrants in creating secure passwords.
  • Only 10% of the online retailers tested met Slashdata’s criteria for “good password policies,” a score of 45 or above.
  • Eight sites tested send passwords in plain text via email, which is widely considered among Internet security experts to be a bad idea.

Only one major online retailer, Apple, scored a perfect 100 in the Slashdata study, while several major websites were in negative territory. Amazon, Overstock and Office Depot were among those with low security scores.

The Fix is Simple

The problem is clear, but what would it take to solve it? According to the study, there are four things online retailers can do to improve their security policies:

  • Require that all passwords contain at least eight characters with a combination of upper and lowercase letters, numbers and special characters.
  • Block account access attempts after four failed password entries.
  • Give users on-screen advice for creating secure passwords when they sign up.
  • Assess the strength of passwords as users are creating them.

When it comes to lax password security it’s clear that there’s work to be done on both sides of the equation. We, as consumers, need to put a little more attention into creating secure passwords than we currently do. On the other hand, several major Internet retailers clearly need to beef up their policies and stop enabling us to create lazy passwords.

Or, we can just wait until alpha-numeric passwords are obsolete. That day is not too far off, either.

More stories from Zing:

Online sales tax: What’s the deal?

Buying and Selling Homes in 2014: A More Balanced Market

Decorating Your Home: A Guide for Music Lovers

Published on February 7th, 2014 - 2 Comments
Filed under: Identity Theft

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