Tuesday, November 22, 2011

OWS: Repay Student Loans?

Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protesters have decided not to pay back students loans as a way to protest the high cost of higher education.  Is this a good idea?  Check out what Prof Bob has to say.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Credit, Deficit Super Committee, and You

Do you know what would have happen if we followed a federal balanced budget amendment?  We would all be speaking German.  Deficit spending allowed the federal government to finance World War II by selling “war bonds.”  Our nation’s monetary policy allows the government to borrow (by selling bonds) to finance necessities and to smooth out the ups and downs of natural business cycles.

The deficit Super Committee deadline is Monday, November 21st, 2011. As the committee meets, I hope they are listening to some of those in the 1% who say they would not mind paying their fair share in taxes. I hope they listen to the 99% who want to see fairness in the tax system. I hope they listen to the majority of economist who say we should be borrowing and investing in infrastructure.

Let’s think about it for a minute. We borrow money to fix our roads, bridges, schools, and dare I say, Internet, so all would have access to the World Wide Web via high speed connection.  We bridge the digital divide and make a path for easier access to education for everyone. We put people to work.  It’s a simple equation; the more people who are employed, the more tax revenue the government receives and the less that is spent in social programs.  The more people unemployed, the more the government spends on social programs and the less tax revenue it has coming in.

Interest rates are at an all-time low, which makes borrowing for the government (and for you) very inexpensive.  It is okay, and maybe even a good idea to borrow money if it is for an investment that will have lasting returns.  Borrowing for a college education, a home, and even for the government to put people to work and get our economy going are good ideas.  It is important to look at the long-term vision and payback when considering taking on credit.  Does the Super Committee have the vision and the guts to make the right decisions?  For the health of our country, I hope so.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Credit, Debit or Cash - Holiday Shopping

Black Friday is less than a week away and there is no place I would rather NOT be than shopping at 4:00 a.m. when the stores open.  I will be in my bed sleeping off a good Thanksgiving meal of smoked turkey and ham with all the fixings.   But as we get into the season of spending, shopping and giving; here are some ideas to keep in mind.

When shopping for gifts make a list and check it twice.  Find out where you can get the best deal and make a budget for your gift giving. This may be a tougher holiday season financially so it is even more important than ever to keep both hands on your purse strings as you walk into stores playing holiday music and seeing displays that say “buy me!”  Using cash and the envelope system of budgeting keeps you within your budget.

Using credit cards provide some protection, however you may be tempted to spend beyond your budget. Credit cards are governed by the Fair Credit Billing Act which provides you specific rights to dispute your credit card charges when your purchases are not delivered as agreed.  You can also build rewards for using your credit card, whether airlines miles, cash back or points to use how you would like.  The major downside of using a credit card is that if you keep a balance, you could make the holidays last all year long or longer, trying to pay off what you purchased.

Cash and debit cards can keep you from having the credit card holiday hangover.  You will not receive monthly bills of unpaid balances.  This also helps you stay within your budget.  If you don’t have the cash, don’t buy it.  Debit cards do not offer the same as credit cards. Debit cards are regulated by the Electronic Funds Transfer Act (a federal law), and you only have a specified time to dispute charges.  If you wait too long, you may lose all of your money.

If you use cash, be sure you hang on to your receipts and keep track of what and where you spend money.  Sometimes my wallet is like a black hole.  I put money in and I don’t know where it went. Receipts can also help you in returning items.

You can also make holiday gifts if you have the time and talent, but that is a blog for another day. We hope you all have a great holiday season, spend your money, time and talents wisely and -- get a quiet moment to reflect on your blessings. Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Stock Market Thriller

“Make sure your seatbelt is securely fastened and keep your hands and feet inside the vehicle at all times.” 

This is what you hear as you get on an amusement park roller coaster. Maybe your stock broker or financial advisor should also say this when you begin to invest in the stock market. In the spirit of full disclosure, should we formally address the stock market by its thrill ride name?

There is Disney’s The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, Kings Island’s The Beast, Six Flags Great Adventure’s Kingda Ka, the Stratosphere Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas has Insanity, and the king of amusement park roller-coasters, Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio has Disaster Transport, Iron Dragon, Maverick, Mean Streak, Millennium Force, Raptor, Top Thrill Dragster and Wicked Twister. Any one of these names fit the gyrations, the ups and downs of the stock market.

Even with your seat belt securely fastened, it is a good time to reassess your risk tolerance and which investment options best fit your personal goals and ‘ride’ tolerance. Monday’s Wall Street Journal (11.7.11) has an entire section titled Investing In Funds which examines mutual fund investing and different opportunities. How to Rest Easy in a Crazy Market provides seven tips to help you “enjoy” the ride and make sure your portfolio stays on the tracks. Here are the seven points:

1. Get real about your tolerance for pain. We have all heard “the higher the risk, the higher the potential return” but we don’t hear “the higher the potential for loss.” Risk involves the ups and downs, and if we are in risky investments, we better be prepared for the downs and possible total loss of our investments.

2. Favor funds that cast a wider net. Spread your risk out by being diversified in your holdings or in funds that are more diversified. In other words, don’t put all your eggs in one basket, but diversify in different baskets composed of different eggs.

3. Hire a pilot who charts a smoother ride. All of the funds are going to have their ups and downs, but look at funds managers who reduce volatility to smooth out the ups and downs. Unless you like the ups and downs, make sure you have on your shoulder belts and HANS devise.

4. Don’t try to wager on where stocks are headed. Face it, you can’t time the market for peaks and valleys. Be a continuous investor, putting money in the market monthly where you don’t have to worry about the highs and lows and trying to time the market. Also rebalance your portfolio periodically to make sure you stay on track.

5. Fine-tune your cash stash to your family’s needs. With any investment, you need to think about when you will need to convert it to cash. Would you need to cash in your investments if you were to lose a job, buy a car, down payment for a house or pay for college? Everyone’s circumstances are different, but money that you will need with a short time horizon should not be in volatile investments.

6. Don’t assume that a stock-free portfolio is risk-free. Bonds, precious metals, commodities, houses, pork bellies as investments all carry risk. Know the risk of the investment and your investment objective before investing, not after the investment has declined in value and it is too late.

7. Don’t be ashamed to seek help. Investments are complicated and if you need help, there are personal finance classes offered at your local colleges and universities as well as financial advisers and planners that can help you determine and reach your financial goals. This is not to say that you don’t need to be concerned with your investments. No one is going to be more concerned about your investments and wellbeing than you. Be financially knowledgeable, financially literate, and monitor your progress towards achieving your goal.

You have the decision whether you are on one of the top 10 thrill masters or want to go for an easy ride in the park. Be knowledgeable, make wise decisions, go for your goals and enjoy the ride.

What is your favorite roller coaster name to best describe the stock market? We invite you to post your response in the comments.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Rising Cost of Auto Insurance

It seems like every time I turn on the television, I am bombarded with insurance commercials. I see Flow offering discounts for Progressive, a gecko advertising for Geico, Mayhem causing trouble -advertising for All State Insurance and countless others. Most of the insurance companies are advertising their low rates; others make their distinction on service.

Rates seem to continue to increase and it may not be my imagination. In the November 2011 issue if Smart Money, they state that auto insurance has increased 10% from 2008-2010, siting increases are due to the increased costs to repair a vehicle, soaring medical bills, increased probability of being in an accident, and increased number of uninsured motorist (now estimated at 16%).

So what is a person to do, to make sure they are covered with the correct amount of coverage and still keep their costs low? Here are some suggestions:

• Keep an eye on your credit score. Most insurance companies use your credit score to help estimate your risk and therefore your rate. By keeping your credit score high, you can keep your insurance rates low.

• Have the correct amount of coverage. Your state has a minimum coverage you must have. If you don't have enough insurance you could be putting other assets at risk if you get sued. By having too much insurance, you could be wasting your money.

• Shop around for different rates. It takes a little time, but may pay big dividends in savings to switch companies.

• Look at the deductible on your insurance. The higher your deductible, the more money you will have to pay out if you are in an accident, and the less the insurance company has to pay out.

• You could also give up some of your privacy and have your driving habits monitored. Progressive Insurance has "Snapshot" which monitors your driving habits. Your premium will be set on how you drive.

We all need to have insurance and the correct amount of insurance. Shop around on-line and/or talk to your insurance agent to make sure you are covered.