All Things Financial Planning Blog


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I Don’t Understand My Financial Plan


Get Your Questions AnsweredRecently reflecting on some of cinema’s greatest intellectual quotations, I was reminded of movie Detective James Carter’s infamous query in 1998’s Rush Hour. Chris Tucker’s character eloquently asked Jackie Chan’s character, Chinese top cop Detective Lee, “Do you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth?”

Ok, maybe not one of the most memorable moments on the silver screen, but a funny movie that stands up well fifteen years later. But, that’s not what we’re here to discuss. The quote actually jumped into my head during a discussion about how we communicate with one another, especially in advice-based relationships.

A seemingly infinite amount of information is available on virtually every issue known to humankind, all searchable within seconds from any place with access to the World Wide Web. How we process this information, understand its meaning and filter the good, the bad and the ugly really depends largely on whether or not the information is communicated in a manner we can comprehend.

This certainly has its applications in the world of personal finance. I’d argue the personal finance industry at-large, more often than not, adds layer upon layer of complexity to relatively simple concepts in order to add an air of sophistication and justify an unnecessary amount of cost. I won’t go further on that today except to say that if something sounds too good to be true, you can’t understand it, what it costs and what risks are involved, run away.
Instead, I want to focus on the authentic struggle many financial planners and advisors have in working to develop the right communication strategy based on their clients’ needs.

Scalability allows a company to grow, taking a successful model and increasingly diluting it for consumption by an increasingly growing audience. The problem with scale in the financial planning business is that those seeking advice are all at different points in their lives, with different goals, different resources to meet those goals and different ways to achieve success in meeting those goals.

We also all comprehend things differently, learn through different stimuli and apply concepts to our daily lives at different speeds. Confused? Me too. What does all this mean?

It means that we have a gap in the relationship between financial planning professional and client that both sides have to work to fill. Financial planners need to ensure they have a process in place to help identify how best to communicate concepts and recommendations in a manner that best suits each client involved.

The client, on the other hand, has the duty to speak up when they don’t understand something in their plan, be it an investment recommendation, the path to reach a savings goal or a concept or term used to illustrate a point or answer a question. “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand this” are not only acceptable responses to questions posed or information presented by a financial advisor, but should be a welcome opportunity for the advisor to take an improved approach in helping the client comprehend, thereby teaching the advisor a little more about communicating with their client and challenging them to find better ways to illustrate concepts in the future.

The bottom line is, we all need to be more vigilant about what we understand about the decisions we make and are made for us in our daily lives. When it comes to an advice-based relationship, the more we question, challenge, and discuss, the deeper, more rewarding the relationship will be. Wowing someone with the ability to use big, complicated words to make a point isn’t a talent. Effectively communicating in a manner that gives your audience the best opportunity to understand is.

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


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How A Six-Year-Old Saves For Retirement


In our society of conspicuous consumption and spending-beyond-means, many parents face an uphill battle to encourage children to save for the future, resist instant gratification, and most importantly, understand how to budget and use credit wisely. At a recent dinner party with a group of parents with young children, the conversation turned to this exact topic. When I shared how I teach our kids about money, these parents encouraged me to write an article to share my approach. This article explains how my wife and I attempt to instill financial values in our six-year-old son. I recently began giving our six year old an allowance, but with a twist.

Taxes:
It’s never too early to learn about taxes. As Benjamin Franklin said, “The only things certain in life are death and taxes.” My six-year-old receives a gross allowance of $6 per week (one dollar for each year of his age), in the form of one-dollar bills. From this $6, he has to pay $1 in taxes to the Oghoorian-Family-IRS. In this way, he experiences the impact of “earning” (in this case getting) money and having to pay a portion of it to taxes. Of course the first thing he asked when I first collected taxes was what exactly his taxes pay for; my response was that his taxes pay for food, shelter, travel, and other services we deem “public” goods. So far, our son is subject to only a flat tax. But as his allowance grows with age (and he learns percentages), so will his tax bracket. I just hope he doesn’t get ensnarled in the Alternative Minimum Tax.

Savings:
After paying taxes, our son must allocate another $1 toward savings; “forced savings”. Unlike the $1 tax that’s taken by the IRS, he gets to keep the $1 savings per week in a separate part of his cash box so that he can see it grow (rather than as a theoretical value he would see on a bank statement.) His savings rate is only 17 percent of his gross allowance, which is less than I typically recommend to my clients, but I wanted to keep things simple and in round numbers for now. Once he learns percentages, he will be required to save at least 20 percent.

Overspending:
Should our son be inclined to spend more than his net allowance, he may be granted a loan from the Bank of Mom & Dad at prevailing market interest rates charged by credit cards. A lower rate may be available if he’s willing to collateralize one of his toys. This will hopefully teach him the negative impact of interest as a debtor.

Keeping Track:
I also created a ledger, similar to an old checkbook for those of you who still remember them, for our son to write down his gross allowance, itemized deductions, calculate his net weekly allowance and his cumulative earnings and savings. This exercise strengthens his math skills and further reinforces the concepts already discussed.

Of course this is just the beginning. As our son learns more about money and saving, I will begin to introduce financial priorities that are important in our family such as charitable contributions and investing savings for capital appreciation. While he will certainly have to pay capital gains tax on his investment earnings, I haven’t decided yet whether to give him a tax deduction for his charitable contributions.

We hope that with this early and continued education in sound financial planning, that no matter what our son grows up to be and do in his life, he will always spend and save wisely. Of course, even with all our good intentions, we never truly know what the outcome will be. Check back in 20 years to hear about how our allowance experiment turned out!

Ara OghoorianAra Oghoorian, CFP®, CFA
Founder and President
ACap Asset Management
Los Angeles, CA


3 Comments

Defining Diversification


In the top few responses most people give when you ask what they know about investing, “it’s important to be diversified” is right up there with “buy low, sell high”. Both statements are true and very important components of investing. My concern is that we hear and say these things so often, we lose sight of what they actually mean.

Investopedia.com defines Diversification as “a risk management technique that mixes a wide variety of investments within a portfolio.” True, but what the heck does that mean? Can it be any mix of investments? What does it really hope to accomplish? Is my portfolio diverse?

Today my goal is not to sell you on a particular investment strategy or convince you that there is any one way to properly diversify. My hope is to provide some key educational points to enhance your understanding of this important rule of thumb.

As the last several years have shown, investing in the stock market can be a volatile experience. If you invest in stock in one or even a small handful of companies, the value of your portfolio can shift wildly, often it seems for no logical reason. The primary purpose to diversify your investments is to decrease these and other risks.

How does one increase a portfolio’s diversity? Let’s look at a portfolio strictly invested in stocks. The simple answer is to buy a higher number of stocks. The better answer is to buy a higher number of different kinds of stocks. Suppose you own General Motors. Buying Ford might technically make you more diverse, but only slightly so. You still own just two companies, both large, US automakers. Instead, you should look at a vast array of companies differing in size, location and type.

This means expanding your portfolio to large and small companies of all types (often called sectors) all across the globe, avoiding the urge to own more companies in the U.S. than in other parts of the world. U.S. companies make up just 40-50% of global market share. By focusing solely on the U.S., you cut off the opportunity to better diversify and participate in the opportunity for growth in more than 50% of the world’s companies.

I want to stress that none of this is a blueprint for any type of investment strategy. It is simply an effort to help you understand what diversification means. How much diversification, in what areas, and the blend or allocation of different types of assets is a decision that should be made with careful thought and, in most cases, professional advice based on your goals and ability to tolerate risk.

As you approach your personal financial planning and goals, it’s important to obtain at least a basic grasp on the essentials in order to make the most educated decisions possible. There are lots of trusted professionals there to help, but knowledge is always a worthwhile investment.

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


4 Comments

SETTING S.M.A.R.T. GOALS


How often in life have you been able to accomplish something without first defining what it is that you’re attempting to do? For example, have you gotten a new job without first deciding to apply for it? Did you purchase a new car without first contemplating your options and then deciding it was time for an upgrade? It’s likely that in each of these circumstances your first step was to identify your goal(s) and from there establish a plan of attack to reach them. The same scenario applies to organizing your financial life. One of the very first steps in financial planning is setting goals. Setting goals allows you to define your hopes and dreams for your future, both short and long-term.

When thinking about and setting your goals, ask yourself what would have to happen in the next 3, 5, 10+ years in order for you to be happy. From there, begin to document and shape your goals and ensure that they are S.M.A.R.T.
S.M.A.R.T. goals are:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Timely

For a goal to be specific, the more details, the better! You want your goals to include as much information as possible. For example “I want to save $25,000 for a down payment on a home in the next 4 years” is a goal that answers “how much?” “how long?” and “what for?”

Measurable goals should enable you to monitor your progress. How close are you to meeting your goal? How much more do you need to save?

Attainable goals are those that are realistic in nature. While we may all want to win the lottery or have a huge house or great new car – your goals should be set within reach. Perhaps maxing out your 401(k) contribution, taking advantage of a Roth IRA, or building up a sufficient emergency savings is a good place to start.

You want your goals to be relevant to your life. Your goals should reflect your and your family’s needs, values, and desires. Make sure your goals are meaningful to you or else you won’t be motivated to achieve them.

Timely goals are those that come with a deadline. Ask yourself how long it will take you to accomplish your goal. Working within a timeframe allows you to better track your progress.

When setting your financial goals, remember to write them down, prioritize them, and keep them in a place where you can see them often. Include your significant other or family in the goal setting process to make sure you’re all on the same page. Your goals will be the groundwork of any financial plan you create. Not only will having clear vision of what you hope to accomplish keep you on track, but you will be inspired to stay organized and turn your dreams into a reality.

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


15 Comments

6 Tips for a Better Financial Future


Summer is upon us and in full swing. While you (hopefully) have some well-deserved time off, take the necessary steps to get your financial life back on track. No matter what stage of your life you are currently in, these simple but valuable financial planning tips may help you do so.

  1. Take 5 minutes to check your beneficiary designations– Young or old, chances are you have some type of life insurance policy or retirement plan. And chances are, you have not taken a look at who will inherit these funds/accounts since you opened the account several years ago. Countless times I have seen clients shocked when I uncover their beneficiary designations to be an ex-spouse, a deceased family member, or even worse – a big blank line. Take the time now to check to ensure that you have the appropriate beneficiary designations in place on all retirement accounts and insurance policies. Your financial professional can help you with the tax and estate planning advantages to certain beneficiary designations for each type of account.Tip: The most common (and basic) type of life insurance most employees have is an employer-paid policy with a $50,000 death benefit (this is the most common type because the IRS requires you to be taxed on the value of employer-provided group term life insurance over this amount). More often than not, when employees go through their first-day-of-work orientation and elect their new benefits, they leave the beneficiary designation for this standard policy (and probably their 401(k) account) blank. Check it out now and make sure you have elected a primary AND contingent beneficiary.
  2. If you don’t know how to do taxes; it may not be a great idea to do your own taxes– It’s really as simple as that. Oftentimes, we attempt to do our own income taxes in order to save some money, but have no real knowledge of our complicated tax system. This may be a costly mistake if you are not aware of many important and ever-changing tax laws. Are you aware of all of the various deductions and credits you are entitled to? Are you aware of the rules for claiming dependents? Do you know how to properly calculate your charitable contribution deductions? Do-it-yourself tax software has made it very convenient to complete your own taxes, but tax planning is not simple and the decision to do your own taxes should not be taken lightly.Tip: One of the most common mistakes people make when they attempt to do their own taxes is failing to utilize carry-forwards from prior tax years. For example, you can carry unused capital losses (say, from a bad investment loss) forward for your lifetime. Your capital losses will offset other capital gains, and if there’s still a loss remaining, you can deduct $3,000 p/year from other taxable income. If you do not keep track of your carry-forward balances or look at your previous returns for guidance (assuming these prior returns are correct), you may miss this valuable deduction, costing you hundreds or thousands of dollars in tax savings. If you are not confident in your ability to prepare your return, consider having a professional complete them this time around.
  3. Can you name three investments in your 401(k) account?– If someone asked you if your car had leather seats and air conditioning, would you be able to tell them? Absolutely. Then why shouldn’t you know what your biggest retirement asset is made up of? Take the time to understand your 401(k) account as it will be an important savings vehicle for your retirement years. Explore your available investment options, know the deferral percentage rate you need to elect in order to take advantage of your employer match (if any), and ensure that your investment allocation is appropriate for your risk tolerance, time horizon and retirement goals.Tip: Some 401(k) plans allow you to automatically increase your deferral percentage each year by a desired increment. This will allow you to gradually increase your contributions effortlessly and systematically without dramatically impacting your cash flow. Consider the following example which shows the difference in ending account values between keeping a constant deferral rate compared to increasing it incrementally over the years. Both examples assume a starting account balance of $20,000 and a beginning gross salary of $65,000 p/year:

    Constant 3% p/year deferral rate: $1,576,264*

    Starting at 3% deferral and increasing by 2% p/year until 10%: $2,693,714*

    *Assumes 3% raises p/year, 7% annual return, and a 3% employer match, for 40 years.

     

  4. Do you know what will happen to you, your children and your assets when you pass away or become incapacitated?Estate laws are complicated, ever-changing and mostly misunderstood by the average American. Not having a basic estate plan in place is like showing up to a job fair without a resume. Did you know that in 2011, over 70% of Americans did not have a basic will in place? This is one area of your life that you do not want to risk being unprepared. At the very minimum, you will want to have a will, guardianship provisions (if you have children or legal dependents), and power of attorney documents. A revocable living trust is also an important estate planning tool you will want to consider, depending on your situation, estate planning goals and objectives.Tip: Many people believe that only the very wealthy need estate planning. This is simply not true. Basic estate planning documents are important to ensure you have control of your assets and well-being during your lifetime and after your death. Do not let the state decide how your assets will be distributed or who will care for your loved ones.
  5. Planning for educational expenses begins at birth– Far too many parents begin to plan for their children’s college expenses when it’s far too late – when the college-bound child is sitting in their driver’s education course. At this point, the tax advantages and compounding advantages of a 529 college savings plan are greatly diminished, and the impending expenses are likely to be paid out of any cash flow and lots and lots of debt.According to the College Board, the increase in college tuition at a public four-year school was 8.3 percent between the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years. That’s over twice the inflation rate over the same period! Take actions as soon as possible to begin planning for your child’s education. All things being equal, the earlier you start saving, the longer you have for your savings to grow and compound.

    Tip: Once a college savings vehicle is established, try to increase the amount you contribute each year. Aim to increase the total amount you save each year by at least 6%. For example, if you save $100 a month this year, you should save at least $106 a month next year. This will help your savings keep up with the high college inflation rate.

  6. Do you know what your risk tolerance is?– The old adage that says you should hold your age in bonds (as a percentage of your overall portfolio allocation) may no longer be appropriate for today’s investor, especially in today’s economy. Don’t know what your risk tolerance is? Think about the following scenario. You are given a choice between two cars to take on a cross country vacation. Option 1 is a fast, attractive, high risk sports car with very bad crash ratings. Option 2 is a slower, unattractive, safe sedan with excellent crash ratings. Which do you choose and why?Consider another scenario in which you have the option to stay in one of two resort hotel rooms. Option 1 is a suite on the 25th floor with great panoramic ocean views. Option 2 is the same sized suite, but on the first floor with convenient emergency exits. Which do you choose and why?

    The amount of risk you are willing to assume for a chance at receiving a desired return can help you begin to design your overall investment portfolio. Among the various factors to consider when deciding on an appropriate allocation are: your proximity to retirement, how comfortable you are with investing, your other available income streams, liquidity needs, and your general comfort level with the financial markets.

    Tip: Your risk tolerance (once you determine it) should help you and your financial professional design an appropriate and diversified investment portfolio that will help you achieve your goals and objectives. It is important that you are comfortable, knowledgeable and confident in your investment plan, or else it may be very difficult to stay on course.

By FPA member Grant Webster, MSBA, CFP®
AKT Wealth Advisors
Special to FPA

 


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Mutual Accountability


Business CoachWe talk a lot at the financial planning firm I work for about mutual accountability. In fact, it is part of our vision statement. What it means to us is that there are responsibilities for both the advisor and client in maintaining a healthy relationship designed to successfully meet our clients’ goals.

For advisors, that means being diligent and putting together sound advice and plans that serve the best interest of the clients and families we gratefully spend our careers serving.

But, we must also expect clients to be accountable for carrying out those plans and letting us know when goals or situations are in flux. Without proper execution, the advice we offer will never amount to much. Despite what many think, long term success occurs less in the swings of the stock market and more in the mundane financial decisions we make every day.

So what happens when we deviate from those plans?

See if this analogy hits close to home. You’re making an ongoing effort to eat less. Maybe you’ve consulted with a dietician, attended a Weight Watchers meeting or sought advice on the Internet. You put a plan together designed to meet your goals. Then, one night you decide to splurge. It might be a trip to the fridge for an extra bite of leftovers or a quick cookie in the pantry.

Do you own up that you’re making a conscious choice to go off plan? Or, do you “sneak” the quick indulgence? Hide it from a spouse or your children? Claim ignorance at your next meeting as to why the pounds aren’t melting away?

Have you ever thought about why?

It’s ridiculous, really. That cookie isn’t adding calories to anyone else’s diet. It isn’t breaking their rules. The person you’re really hiding from is yourself. You’re avoiding accountability.

Are these types of indulgences the end of the world? It depends. Does one cookie become a whole sleeve? Does twice a month become a nightly ritual? How badly are you willing to sabotage your long term goals for short term enjoyment?

The same is true with our personal finances. We all have places we turn for financial planning and advice. Financial planners, investment managers, and sources like this blog or other Internet resources can be full of valuable, insightful information. Either way, we might receive some useful advice or read a particularly relevant article and decide to commit to making a change in our financial lives, just like with our diets.

What happens next is crucial. Do we carry it out? Do we save a little more? Spend a little less? Or do we quickly find ourselves back at square one after too many instances of whatever the financial equivalent is to an extra bite of cheesecake when no one’s looking?

Unfortunately, like our waistlines, accountability will eventually rear its ugly head. We can spend that extra dollar when no one’s looking and cheat our responsibility to our future selves all we like. In the end, we will have no one else to answer to when important goals go unmet. No one has the kind of stake in your future that you do.

There are wonderful advisors and tools out there to help you build a path to meet your lifetime goals, but the path is really all they can show you. The decision to walk down the path is yours. Sure, you’re going to stray from time to time, just don’t get so far off course that you can’t find your way back. Keeping those diversions to a minimum and letting your trusted sources know when they occur will help ensure the needed corrections will be relatively minor.

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


10 Comments

Democrats or Republicans: Who’s Better?


On November 6, 2012, registered voters will have the privilege of heading to the polls and cast their ballots for President, members of Congress and a whole host of local candidates. The citizens of the United States will elect its representatives to lead our Nation through challenging economic and political times.

Individual candidates aside, which political party should you vote for if wanted robust economic growth and higher stock markets? The answer may surprise you.

The two dominant political parties in the United States are the Democrat and Republican parties. It is difficult to define the complex ideology of the present day political parties and the followers that comprise them yet alone recalling ideology of decades past. Let us start with a “who we are” from the Democratic and Republican National Committee websites:

Democratic: Our party was founded on the conviction that wealth and privilege shouldn’t be an entitlement to rule and the belief that the values of hardworking families are the values that should guide us.¹

Republican: The Republican Party is inspired by the power and ingenuity of the individual to succeed through hard work, family support and self-discipline.²

My further refinement of their respective ideologies: Democrats believe in a more equal society where Government plays a larger role and Republicans believe more in an entrepreneurial society and less Government.

Which political party, Republican or Democrats, when in control of the White House, has the highest stock market returns over the last 111 years? The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) has increased 7.79% during years when there has been a Democrat as President. This is more than double the performance of a Republican Presidency which increased 2.95% over the same period. Not what many would expect.

This appears to be completely counterintuitive given the differences between both parties’ ideologies. What can be learned from the enclosed chart when looking at political party control for both White House and Congress and its historic impact on the stock market, economy and inflation?

Stocks (DJIA)           Industrial Production          Inflation (CPI)
Democratic President            7.79                              5.27                                             4.46
Republican President             2.95                              1.81                                               1.80
Democratic Congress             6.05                              4.49                                              4.37
Republican Congress              3.57                              1.45                                              0.65
Dem. Pres., Dem. Cong.          7.33                             6.31                                               4.62
Dem. Pres., Rep. Cong.           9.63                              1.11                                               3.79
Rep. Pres., Rep. Cong.            1.62                               1.57                                             -0.37
Rep. Pres., Dem. Cong            4.92                              2.04                                               4.01
Table courtesy of Ned Davis Research, Inc.

If you are a stock market investor, you would welcome the very specific scenario of a Democratic President and a Republican controlled Congress. This combination would have resulted in a very satisfying 9.63% average gain for the DJIA.

What is the worst scenario historically for investors? This would have been during complete Republican control of both the White House and Congress. During this time, the DJIA was up only 1.62% on average, the worst performing period of any political party combination. Given the Republicans rooted fundamentals in business, entrepreneurship and small Government, this is a surprising outcome. Industrial Production, which measures output from factories, mines and utilities, also languished under complete Republican control with its second worst result of 1.57% growth.

How did stocks and the economy fare when Democrats completely controlled the White House and Congress? The DJIA had its second best result with an average gain of 7.33% while Industrial Production performed at a chart toping 6.31% growth rate. But, this scenario also produced the highest rate of inflation with the Consumer Price Index (CPI) surging 4.62% over that period. Good gains for stocks and the economy but tempered by higher rates of inflation.

Regardless of political ideology, history shows us that conflict may be the best scenario for investors. When the White House has been in Democratic control and Congress in the Republican’s hands, stock market investors have fared best.

Should you prefer gains in Industrial Production, you hope for a Democratic sweep of power. Low inflation rates, you would welcome a Republican President and control of Congress.

Who is Better? It all depends. Candidates, political parties and special interest groups are projected to spend billions of dollars persuading voters to punch a ballot in favor of their platform and candidate. They will use statistics, polls and a variety of other numbers to either taint the opposition or bolster their own standing. British politician Benjamin Disraeli stated “There are three types of lies — lies, damn lies and statistics.” Don’t be easily swayed by highlighted numbers. Dig deeper into the stated arguments and underlying statistics to better understand what you are being led to believe. Most important, on November 6, go vote.

1. www.democrats.org
2. www.gop.com

Ed GjertsenEdward Gjertsen II, CFP®
Vice President
Mack Investment Securities, Inc.
Glenview, IL