All Things Financial Planning Blog


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Protect Yourself Against Identity Theft


Young Adults Should Learn to Manage Money Without Credit CardsIdentity theft is an increasingly worrisome topic for many. With more than a million people affected by identity theft each year, the below are some steps and strategies you can implement to ensure you and your family are protected:

Check Your Credit Annually. Visit a website such as www.annualcreditreport.com for a free copy of your credit report and verify all information is accurate. For an extra layer of protection, consider enrolling in a credit monitoring service which can monitor all 3 credit reporting agencies in real time and alert you of any unusual activity.

Review Credit and Debit Card Statements Monthly. Take time to ensure all transactions are legitimate. If you see a questionable charge, contact your bank or credit card company immediately.

Keep Your Personal Information Secure. Don’t share personal information such as your full name, date of birth, SSN, address or phone number over the internet unless it’s a site you’ve initiated contact with and you’re certain it’s secure. Refrain from posting personal details such as your birthday or address on social media sites.

Limit What You Carry. Don not carry your social security card and limit the number of credit cards you have on hand.

Purchase a Micro-Cut Shredder. This machine ensures that your documents cannot be pieced back together. Use it to turn old financial statements, bills, credit card offers and any other secure or personal information into paper confetti.

Opt Out. You can opt out of prescreened offers for credit cards, insurance and more by calling 1-888-567-8688 or visiting www.optoutprescreen.com.

Keep Your Snail Mail Safe. Instead of leaving your outgoing mail in your mailbox, drop it off at a secure USPS center. In addition, if you know you’ll be out of town for a few days, request a vacation hold on your mail.

Keep Your Passwords Safe, Secure and Unique. Make sure your passwords are strong and get creative with them. Use a combination of letters, numbers and symbols and update them every few months. Think you’re already unique? Check out this list for 2012’s most common passwords: http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-205_162-57539366/the-25-most-common-passwords-of-2012.

Bulk Up on Security. Safeguard your computer with firewall, antivirus and spyware protection and update them often. This will protect your computer and files against intrusions.

Be Cautious of What You Click. If you receive an e-mail from a stranger or even a friend with links and attachments, know that opening them could expose your computer and files to a virus. Ask yourself if any part of the e-mail looks suspicious before clicking on links or files.

The above are just a few smart steps to ensure your identity is protected. Remain vigilant about how you share your personal information and who you share it with. Do your research and take necessary precautions to ensure your identity remains with you and you only.

Mary Beth Storjohann, CFP®, CDFA
Senior Financial Planner
HoyleCohen
San Diego, CA


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My Divorce is Finalized. Now What?


Many people mistakenly believe that once their divorce is finalized, their days of filling out paperwork and forms are over. The truth is you’re close to being done with all the documents – but not quite there. In the beginning days after your divorce is finalized, obtain a copy of your certified divorce decree and take some time to review the below checklist and ensure you have all applicable items in order or scheduled on your calendar and ready to be addressed:

  • If you’ve reverted back to using your maiden name (or changed your name at all), update your driver’s license, social security card, automobile title and registration, any insurance policies, employer records and any other important documentation. (Note: It’s generally free to change your name as part of your divorce decree, but will cost you money if you do it at a later point).
  • If you’ve moved, update your mailing address and have all mail forwarded to your new home.
  • If a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO) is required per the divorce decree, follow-up to ensure it is drafted, entered into and implemented. Check with related investment companies, pension plans, 401(k) administrators and benefits departments to ensure the QDRO is on file and executed.
  • If permissible under the divorce decree, update beneficiaries on any retirement accounts and life insurance policies.
  • Prepare and execute a Quitclaim Deed for any transfers of real property between you and your ex-spouse.
  • Based upon the divorce decree, prepare and sign transfer of title paperwork where required for any automobiles or watercraft.
  • Remove your or your ex’s name from any jointly held accounts.
  • Close jointly held credit accounts and ensure you establish (and use) credit in your own name.
  • Ensure that your bank accounts are registered in your name only. Order checks with your new name and / or address on them. (Note: When ordering checks for a new account, ask that the check numbers start with 1000 instead of 1 or 100).
  • Once all joint accounts are closed, wait 2 to 3 months and order a new copy of your credit report.
  • Notify your tax preparer and update your tax withholdings to reflect your new filing status (likely Head of Household or Single) and / or withholding requirements.
  • If necessary, explore options for new medical insurance coverage or apply for COBRA health insurance.
  • If you haven’t done so, evaluate the need to obtain life insurance on your ex-spouse to replace any potential loss in spousal or child support income. Or, if required, ensure that you or your ex-spouse obtain additional life insurance to ensure continued care should you predecease monetary obligations. Ensure you provide and/or ask for proof of any compulsory policies.
  • Set up direct deposit and/or income withholding for child support, spousal support or alimony payments and keep track of any payments made or received.
  • Work with an estate planning attorney to write and execute a new will, trust, and powers of attorney. In some states, marriage or divorce can revoke a previous will. Ensure that you revoke all power of attorney privileges previously granted to your ex-spouse in writing and place special consideration on who you designate as your executor and successor trustees and the responsibilities and tasks that will befall them.
  • If you were married to your ex for more than 10 years, keep a copy of both your marriage license and divorce decree on hand. Once you are eligible, you will have the right to claim upon your former spouse’s social security benefits, which may result in a larger benefit than your own.
  • Update and change all passwords on your online access accounts.
  • Review the divorce decree for any other miscellaneous items or actions required of you or your ex.

Remember to keep copies of all executed documents on file. Though the above checklist is a standard overview, it may not be comprehensive or fit your exact situation. Work with an attorney or trusted expert when working through these “next steps” after your divorce and remember to review your divorce decree closely and ensure you understand what is required of both you and your former spouse.

Mary Beth Storjohann, CFP®, CDFA
Senior Financial Planner
HoyleCohen
San Diego, CA


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Young Consumers Detect Foul Play


Tax and wage related ID theft on the rise

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) released its annual nationwide list of consumer complaints ahead of National Consumer Protection Week, March 4-10, 2012. For the twelfth year in a row, identity theft remains the number one consumer complaint. A growing number of consumers are reporting tax and wage fraud which accounted for 24% of all identity theft complaints in 2011, increasing from just 12% two years earlier. These types of complaints come from consumers who believe their social security numbers (SSN) have been stolen and used for fraudulent purposes, including tax refunds and employment.   

Younger consumers in their teens, twenties and thirties filed more identity theft complaints than any other age group. 

Government documents and benefits fraud (which includes tax and wage fraud) accounted for 27% of the 279,156 identity theft complaints reported last year, followed by, credit card fraud (14%), phone or utilities fraud (15%) and bank fraud (9%), among others.

In 2011, the ten states with the highest identity theft claims per capita are:

  1. Florida
  2. Georgia
  3. California
  4. Arizona
  5. Texas
  6. New York
  7. Nevada
  8. New Jersey
  9. Maryland
  10. Delaware

Here are a few tips to help safeguard your identity:

Monitor your credit report. Everyone is entitled by law to a free copy of their credit report, annually. According to the FTC website, “www.annualcreditreport.com is the only authorized source to get your free annual credit report under federal law.”

Keep your SSN private. If requested to provide your SSN, ask the following three questions:

  1. Why do you need my SSN and how will you use it?
  2. Will you accept a different type of identification?
  3. How will you protect my SSN?

Report ID theft: call toll-free 877-ID-THEFT or visit: www.ftc.gov/idtheft

In 1987 the FTC began to collect fraud and identity theft complaints and now captures claims from the commission, Better Business Bureau, state agencies and other consumer protection organizations. The 1.8 million complaints reported last year were sorted into 30 categories by the FTC. Following identity theft, the other top complaint categories, include debt collection, prize, sweepstakes, and lotteries, shop at home and catalog sales, banks and lenders services, Internet services, auto related complaints.

Christine Parker, CFP®
Special to FPA


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10 Things to Do in 2012!


It’s time to get the checklist out again as we start a new year. You’re hearing this from a checklist fanatic. I’m always afraid that somewhere down the road I will drop the ball on something which is why I try to follow the logic of the book titled The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande that was written to avoid simple mistakes in medicine. I’m putting together my version of the 2012 checklist for your finances, along with a little health and happiness thrown in because health and wealth habits are very similar. When it comes to New Year’s resolutions or checklists, I figure there are only 4 reasons things don’t get done:

  • They are really not important but they sound good on paper
  • You don’t know that you need to do them
  • You don’t have the time to do them (aka they are not a priority)
  • You don’t know how to do them (it feels too overwhelming)

I really wanted to title this blog The Big Things You Must Do in 2012. I had an epiphany as to how things actually get done. My epiphany was that big and important things often are put on the back burner because they are too overwhelming. Yet easy little things can be resolved when you do 1 piece at a time or even just a few minutes a day, especially by using a checklist. Just recently we’ve revamped the way that we correspond with our clients based on what we call their “to do lists”, which are all the things they know they have to do but they never seem to have the time to do it and often we can’t do it for them without more information. My mantra for 2012 and future years is to do the little things, not the big things! Our process is to be proactive with our clients about six times a year to try to get all those dangling participle items off the checklist. If we give someone five things to do they never get done but if we give them one thing, we have a better shot. It all comes down to the goals versus activities. Yet it is a series of smaller activities that get goals accomplished. So focus on the activities and try to adjust a few little things a day and they will ultimately add up to completed goals and a finished checklist if you don’t make the tasks overwhelming.

Now that you understand the little things are big things and that activities are just as important as goals, then let us move on with my top 10 list you will get done for 2012:

  1. What do you have? This is a way to figure out what you own and what you owe to determine where you are. Basically you just add up the worth of your home, cars, bank accounts, investment accounts, retirement plans and even your tangible assets. Those are things in your house like your furniture, your jewelry, your coin collection, or anything else that you feel has some material value if you decided to sell it. Then add up everything that you owe which includes your mortgage, student loans, credit cards and personal debt from relatives, friends and bookies. The result is you Net Worth.
  2. Do a budget check up. Of course that makes the assumption that you have one, which unfortunately most people don’t. If you want to take the time, watch this Budgeting Webinar. You’re trying to get some sense of how much money is coming in and how much is going out. The difference between the two should be your savings or you’re overspending and not living within your means. Of course you’re going to forget stuff, which is why you can use this budget form as a guide. Just remember that your financial life needs to start with a positive cash flow to be sure you are saving!
  3. An insurance review is a critical part of financial planning. The events that could cause dramatic changes in your financial position are usually if we become disabled, have our homes destroyed, have somebody sue us, have healthcare problems, and of course dying. One of my previous blogs talked about the biggest risks we face in life and about half of them can be resolved by insurance.
  4. When is the last time you did a will? I try to make sure that clients take a look at their estate planning documents every 5 years or more frequently if there are any major changes in their lives like divorce, deaths and healthcare issues. If you don’t have a will at all, then it’s time to get on the stick because they are really important things to have unless you want the court system and people you don’t even know to manage your affairs. If your life is a little more complicated then you might also want to have a durable power of attorney that allows others to take care of your affairs if you are incapacitated or out of the country, a healthcare proxy if you end up under life support and maybe even some trusts if you are single, have children with special needs or have a an estate that’s worth more than $1 million.
  5. Check your credit report. You can often find some crazy little things in there that you might want to clean up, especially if you are planning to get a loan sometime in the future. If you see your credit score under 600, then you probably have some work to do to clean things up. Your report is free at least once a year from all the three major agencies and there is absolutely no need to pay to get a look at your report.
  6. How risky is your money based on where it is right now and how much risk do you think you should be taking? Most of the traditional planners use some type of asset allocation to figure out how much risk you’re taking based on your mix of stocks, bonds, international stocks, real estate, commodities and anything else you may own. If you really don’t know what you’re doing, it’s probably time to ask for a free second opinion about your portfolio from a trusted advisor of someone you know. The benchmark is the volatility of the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index, which has something called a beta, which is 1. That simply means if your beta is .5 after someone does the analysis, you have about half the volatility or risk of the S&P 500 stock index. If you’re taking more than that, it’s probably time to make some changes. If you absolutely can’t find someone to do this, then try Morningstar or check this link.
  7. Are you paying too much in taxes and what are you going to do about it? Most of us aren’t certified public accountants or have the knowledge and desire to figure out the 72,536 pages of the tax code (which started with 400 pages in 1913). Just like it’s hard to determine your risk, you probably do need a professional here. Again it’s time to sit down with your tax person if you have one. If not, find a friend or co-worker that has one and see if you can get a free consult. Some accountants may even do it as a courtesy to their current clients in hopes you may work with them as a paying client in the future.
  8. Check out refinancing as we have some of the lowest rates in history. I am not just talking about your home; you might want to consider your car, a personal loan or any other loan that sits out there where you’re paying more than 4-5% to borrow the money. When I did a recent analysis of my client’s mortgages I noticed that a very large percent of people have mortgages higher than 5%. Unfortunately real estate prices have dropped about 30% from their highs, so you still need to have equity in your house. Preferably you should have more than 20% equity so that you don’t have to buy private mortgage insurance or have to pay down the mortgage with your savings and investments. That reminds me about credit card debt. It may make sense to take money out of savings and investments if you have a high interest rate and you’re getting very little from your portfolio or savings accounts. The simple explanation is that if you are paying a 15% rate on credit cards, you’re not likely to get better than a 15% rate on your portfolio. So paying off the credit cards is the same as getting a 15% rate of return. When it comes to your mortgage refinancing, ask how long it would take to break even on the new mortgage and figure out if you plan on staying in the house that long. Getting a 1-2% better rate in today’s world can mean saving thousands over the life of a 30 year loan. Be sure to shop around and get competitive rates that include the closing costs and any points as well.
  9. Ask for a raise or think about a career change. One of the best ways to improve your financial life is to make more money! Unfortunately people are uncomfortable negotiating with their boss to get a raise. Even worse is that we’ve had record job losses over the last few years and that can really wipe out years of progress when you have to live on unemployment checks. Since the recession began, we have lost almost 9 million jobs and only 2.2 million new jobs have been created. So you need to be proactive in two ways: First you can go to your boss and give her/him a program that is a win-win where you do better for the company and get a raise for it as well. The second thing is to retrain for another job that gives you better opportunities. This too is uncomfortable and may even require money to take courses. Making a change is never easy, but jobs aren’t guaranteed any more. Your human capital and earning power are probably the best single investments you have in your financial life.
  10. Mend a relationship and get healthier! There is a theme in my blogs over the last few years of the direct link between wealth, and health and happiness in life. People should have balance, so maintaining discipline in these key areas is critical. Here again I urge you to make these small daily changes in life to meet your big goals for a happy, healthy and prosperous life. One of the best ways to be happier is to spend more time with the people that make you feel better and a reconciliation with someone you really care about may be the best resolution you accomplish in 2012.

Okay your top 10 is out, get to it and turn the little things into the new big thing this year.

Dave Caruso, CFP®
Certified Financial Planner™
Coastal Capital Group
Danvers, MA


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How to Maintain that Credit Score


Unless you’ve been in hiding for some time, you’re aware of two things. One is that the process for consumers to get loans or credit of almost any kind has become increasingly stringent. The second is that, if you do have the need to borrow money, rates have rarely, if ever, been more attractive. Borrowers need sky high credit scores to garner those historically low rates, and more and more things such as property & casualty insurance rates are determined in part by your credit worthiness. 

How do you get a top level score and, more importantly, how do you stay there? There are more free tools available today to help you do just that than ever before. I thought I’d share some of my favorites.

It’s hard not to start with www.annualcreditreport.com. This is the government sanctioned website where you’re entitled to one free credit report per year from each of the three major credit bureaus. Simply go to the site, pull your report and comb through to check for errors or inaccuracies. If you know that you can be disciplined about it, schedule reminders to check one bureau every four months to enhance the chances of catching an error sooner. If you know it’s highly unlikely that you’ll stick to that schedule, go ahead and pull all three reports now and set up a reminder to return in one year.

If you’re thinking of tinkering with new debt, cancelling an old card, refinancing a mortgage or any other related credit decision, I would suggest another free site that’s relatively new. TransUnion, one of the three major credit bureaus, runs www.creditkarma.com. This site offers the first truly free (no credit card or monthly agreement required) credit score that I’m aware of, but does much more. A variety of helpful tools, such as their Credit Simulator, help us understand how any credit decision, from closing a dormant account to missing a payment to making a major purchase might impact your credit score.         

If after all of this fine tuning, you’re comfortable where things stand with your credit, but still want to maximize potential benefits, check out www.nerdwallet.com. This is a site for those of us who use credit cards for the miles, the points, cash back or whatever incentive they provide. Nerd Wallet takes some basic, non-personal information about your spending habits and then shows you which rewards cards would pay you the most based on that spending each year. While it’s not always wise to change cards just for the rewards, in some cases, we’ve observed the potential for cardholders to get hundreds, if not thousands of dollars more back each year by making a change. It’s important to note, I do not recommend spending more or holding cards with balances on them just for this exercise.   

If you’re not comfortable with where things stand and need help, there are many highly qualified, non-profit organizations out there that can assist with credit counseling. There are also those who are simply out to profit from consolidating your debt. Do your homework. One of the largest and most well-respected counselors is Apprisen Financial Advocates. They have 60 locations across the country and can be found online at www.apprisen.com.

The bottom line is the only one truly responsible person for maintaining this increasingly important score is you. With all of the tools out there that offer assistance, the time is now to take action and ensure you’re doing everything you can to keep that score as high as it can be. 

Good luck!

Chip Workman, CFP®, MBA
Lead Advisor
The Asset Advisory Group
Cincinnati, Ohio