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Archive for January, 2010

High unemployment to persist for 5 more years, CBO says

January 29th, 2010 at 11:22 pm



The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) says we should count on the unemployment rate to average a little over 10% for the first six months of 2010, and that it probably won't fall below 9% until 2012. The CBO doesn't anticipate a "natural" rate of unemployment, about 5.3%, until 2014.

Economic growth, the CBO said, "is expected to be slightly faster during the first half of 2010 but slightly slower during the rest of 2010 and in 2011."

The CBO acknowledged the difficulty of predicting the future course of inflation as well as how successful various economic policy changes made by Congress, the Federal Reserve and the Treasury will be as they gradually phase out in the next few years.

You may find me flipping burgers at McDonald's.

Retirement Planning When You Don't Have a Job

January 25th, 2010 at 01:38 am



When you were still lucky enough to be employed, you may have faithfully contributed to your retirement through payroll deductions directed into your 401(k). Now that you're out of work, there's no point in even considering continued retirement planning until you find your next job, right?

Wrong. While it's true that for most jobless people, retirement contributions may have to be put on hold, there are still important steps you can take to manage your existing retirement assets.

1. Rebalance your portfolio.
If you haven't rebalanced your portfolio lately, it's important to do so now. With stocks having rebounded sharply higher since last spring, your stock/bond/cash weightings may be out of kilter with your intended asset allocations.

You should be rebalancing at least once a year, and the start of 2010 is an ideal time to do so, since performance data from 2009 is readily available. By rebalancing now, prudent investors will be able to lock in gains by selling some of their winners and buying weaker-performing funds at bargain prices. They'll also be able to restore diversification - a key tool in managing risk - in their portfolio.

2. Convert to a Roth IRA.
For most individuals who believe their tax bracket in retirement will be higher than in their earlier working years, a Roth IRA is preferable to a traditional IRA. That's because with a Roth IRA, while you don't get a tax break when you make contributions, after age 59 1/2, all your withdrawals, including accumulated earnings, can be taken tax-free.

Compare that to traditional IRAs, which are taxed upon withdrawal, based on the tax bracket you fall into at the time of withdrawal.

Despite the more favorable tax treatment of Roth IRAs, the stumbling block preventing many from converting traditional IRAs to Roth IRAs has been the hefty tax bill that can often come due from such a conversion, since the amount converted is added to your income and is subject to tax.

That's why long-term unemployment or underemployment can make a Roth IRA conversion a much more doable event with a much less painful tax bite.

If you've been out of work or underemployed for a while, this could be an ideal time to take advantage of your lower tax bracket and convert your IRA to a Roth IRA. The conversion could cost you very little. (Remember, in 2010 there are no income limits restricting who can do a Roth IRA conversion.)

Consider such a tax-advantageous move only if you have adequate savings and won't hurt yourself by paying the IRA conversion tax bill.

3. Don't Write Off Retirement Contributions Completely.
Granted, sudden unemployment has a way of helping one prioritize very quickly. The distinction between "necessity" and "discretionary" becomes very clear as you end up cutting cable TV, eating out, your kid's dance lessons or pending home improvements in favor of paying the mortgage, utility bills and health insurance.

The problem is, when you stop retirement contributions "temporarily," whether due to joblessness, underemployment or self-employment, it can be difficult to catch up to where you should be later. When you land your next job, you may wind up deferring retirement contributions for longer by telling yourself you have other more pressing needs for your newfound money.

Despite the unavailability of an employer-sponsored 401(k) plan, those who are determined to save for retirement even during a challenging employment period can do so. In addition to funding your Roth IRA or traditional IRA, you might also consider opening a SEP IRA if you've turned to self-employment or freelance work to help you get by. You can contribute 25% of your net income, up to $49,000.

(If you're planning on doing a Roth IRA conversion this year, it might be best to avoid opening any new SEP IRAs because it could increase your tax bill on the Roth IRA conversion.)

Another attractive option for self-employed individuals is a solo 401(k) plan. Unlike a regular 401(k) plan, a solo 401(k) plan is only available to self-employed individuals or small business owners who have no other full-time employees (unless it's the owner's spouse).

A solo 401(k) plan lets you save for retirement as employer and employee. As a sole proprietor, you can contribute 25% of your net income, up to $49,000. And as your own employee, you can contribute up to $16,500 more.

Fully funding any of these retirement vehicles may seem like wishful thinking when you're struggling to get by, but even a modest contribution of $50 or $100 a month can make a big difference over time, thanks to compounding interest and investment gains.

Skip doing so and you may have to do an all-out sprint in later years to make up for lost time.

A job layoff doesn't have to mean your retirement planning is stopped dead in its tracks. Even if there's nothing extra to put toward retirement savings, being mindful of your investments and positioning them appropriately can help keep your long-term retirement plans from being derailed by a temporary setback.

Consult your financial adviser for recommendations based on your personal circumstances.



The Magic Number for Retirement is....

January 18th, 2010 at 01:13 pm



You'll need at least $500,000 to be happy in retirement, say retired respondents to a recent Consumer Reports Retirement Survey of over 24,000 respondents.

Survey respondents' satisfaction with their retirement peaked when their net worth was between $500,000 and $1 million. Having a much higher net worth didn't translate into an extremely happy retirement.

% of retirees who said they were "very satisfied" or "completely satisfied" with retirement, based on net worth:

Less than $250,000 = 51% said they were happy.

$250,000 - $499,999 = 64% said they were happy.

$500,000 - $999,999 = 74% said they were happy.

$1 million - $1.499 million = 77% said they were happy.

$1.5 million to $1.99 million = 79% said they were happy.

$2 million + = 78% said they were happy.

What's your magic number for retirement?

Faces of the unemployed

January 12th, 2010 at 02:06 pm



This interview is the first in a series profiling those who are dealing with the loss of a job. Each story is unique, yet the emotions they feel, and the challenges they face, will resonate with many who share their experience.

I recently spoke with "Dido," a former psychology college professor in Pennsylvania who decided to change careers after investing 20 years in academia. Dido is also a fellow Saving Advice blogger


Q. Dido, why did you decide to leave a 20-year career as a college professor?

Dido: To understand why, you'll need to understand the nature of traditional tenure track positions in college-level teaching. It's very much a "publish or perish" environment. I started out teaching psychology at a research university, but because I wasn't publishing enough, I was asked to leave after six years. Since then, I have taught psychology courses at several small liberal arts colleges, where I mostly worked as an adjunct professor.

Q. What's the difference between a tenured professor and an adjunct professor?

Dido: If you're on the tenure track, you need to be doing some research and getting stellar teacher ratings from the students. An adjunct professor is the equivalent of temporary help, and you're usually hired for short-term periods of a year or less. As an adjunct professor, you're likely assigned to teach introductory courses that are requirements for incoming students, and these are the classes students are most likely to rate as "average."

As an adjunct professor, I was patching together individual courses for two years with no contract longer than four months at a time. At one time, I was teaching five different classes at four different colleges. I put a lot of miles on my car.

In 2003, I landed a full-time, one-year sabbatical replacement job at one liberal arts college. I taught there for six consecutive years with six consecutive one-year contracts. That contract wasn't renewed in May 2009.

Q. So it was after that layoff that you decided not to return to teaching?

Dido: My exit strategy was actually several years in the making. I had already begun to think about a career change a few years prior to my layoff, during that period of one-year contracts. I was unhappy with the instability of my teaching career and became involved with a small group of women who each felt like they were facing a transition point in their careers. We would meet periodically and give each other little homework assignments. Those discussions helped me realized that I wanted to merge my interest in psychology with an interest in personal finance. I wanted to do financial planning, helping people overcome financially self-defeating behaviors. I'm interested in how findings from psychology and behavioral economics can be used to help people more effectively manage their financial futures.

After some investigating, I realized that most financial planners essentially end up working as sales people for some company. I decided to take a different route and am now pursuing my CPA and enrolled agent licenses so that I can eventually work at a small CPA firm doing taxes, accounting and some financial planning. (Editor's note: An enrolled agent represents their clients with the IRS.)

I've been enrolled in classes since 2004 and have completed three of the four required CPA exams. I expect to have both my CPA and enrolled agent licenses by July of this year. Of course, I would have liked to control the timing of my departure from teaching, but that was not meant to be.

Q. Job loss often triggers a great deal of emotional distress, turmoil and feelings of isolation. But it sounds like your classes and exam preparation have kept you very busy during your last eight months of unemployment. Is that true?

Dido: Yes, studying is my anxiety reduction technique. I have felt a sense of isolation, but ironically, it was while I was still working.

Q. What do you mean?

Dido: When I learned that my teaching contract would not be renewed, my colleagues at work started avoiding me. People were friendly, but most of them never asked me about my future plans. No one really had time to listen. There was a studied avoidance of me, and after my office was moved to the philosophy department away from my colleagues, the separation became even more uncomfortable.

Most educators who have committed themselves to a teaching career have a very strong loyalty to academia. So they really couldn't relate to my career switch. I have a PhD in psychology, but at the college level, everyone has a PhD, so it's not valued. Now I have to hide my degree because prospective employers think I'm overqualified.

Q. How did your interest in personal finance develop?

Dido: I got involved in a Simple Living network that was created by a group of Quakers who formed an online study group based on the book, Your Money or Your Life. That book changed my life, and really got me thinking differently about money.

Q. Tell me about your "Happiness Project."

Dido: The Happiness Project was an assignment I gave students who were taking my Money & Happiness class at several of the schools I taught at. It was an elective course for psychology majors. We delved into behavioral economics, cultural expectations about money, advertising and consumerism, and "positive psychology." As part of the class, I asked students to use what they were learning to make a conscious effort to make themselves happier.

The Happiness Project is also the title of a new book by Gretchen Rubin. I decided to create my own "happiness project" by coming up with different ways of keeping myself happy while dealing with my job loss. So this month, I'm keeping a gratitude journal. Each night I write a bit about what I'm grateful for each day. Next month, it'll be something different, maybe committing myself to performing random acts of kindness. I'll also use ideas from Sonja Lyubomirsky's The How of Happiness and the tools at Happier for guidance.

Q. What else are you doing to keep busy?

Dido: After being shunned by colleagues after my teaching contract wasn't renewed, I made sure to cultivate friendships outside of work. So these days, I exercise regularly with my walking "buddies." I'm active in my congregation, I do some volunteer work, I'm a community leader on a diet website forum and I'm part of an online women's coaching group. Each week, we talk on the phone and offer feedback to one another on "getting unstuck." And, of course, I'm looking for a full-time job.

Q. How has prolonged unemployment affected your personal finances?

Dido: I'm fortunate in that I recently started working for H&R Block for the coming tax season, but unemployment has been very hard on my bank account. Despite having a substantial cushion prior to my layoff, my credit card debt now exceeds what I have in savings. After my layoff in May 2009, I had about $3,000 worth of work done on my car. My dog became seriously ill and required expensive surgery and radiation treatments. I racked up over $9,000 in credit card debt.

Not counting my mortgage, this is the first time in 15 years that I've been in debt. I'm very much concerned about going deeper into debt before I find a real, self-supporting job.

Fickle economic currents can swamp the boats of many workers who never saw the wave coming. People like Dido can regain a sense of control by being proactive, taking the initiative to manage their careers rather than waiting passively by the phone for a call that may never come.

Although returning to school and changing career paths may not always be feasible or the right move, other choices exist for those determined to discover them.




Purge 30 in 30: 1st Weekly Progress Report

January 8th, 2010 at 02:04 pm



I'm thrilled that so many of you have taken up the January challenge with gusto and enthusiasm. It certainly motivated me to get cracking knowing that others were doing the same.

The challenge is simple: "purge" your home of unwanted or unused items as a means of simplifying your life, decluttering your home and perhaps making a bit of extra cash in the process. "30 in 30" describes the goal of finding one item to dispose of daily, or if you prefer, 30 items for the month.

You'll earn the most points (3 points) if you manage to sell your items on eBay, Craig's List, or elsewhere, but you can also donate your items to charity (1.5 points) or barter with others (1.5 points). As a last resort, you'll earn a single point for each item you dispose of by simply throwing it away.

My progress has been slower than many of you, but here are the seven items I've rounded up so far, to mark my progress at the end of the first week:

- 4 books, to be donated to the library: 6 points

- 1 VCR tape, to be donated to cable company for recycling: 1.5 points

- 2 household items to be donated to Good Will: 3 points

1st week total: 10.5 points

Your own results may vary. If you meet the monthly goal of disposing of 30 items during the month of January, and depending on how you dispose of your things, you may earn as little as 30 points (if you simply threw everything away) or as much as 90 points, if you sold everything.

I'll be posting weekly updates and inviting all of you to do the same.

If you haven't done so already, show us what you're made of and record your progress here!

Free Advice from a Financial Advisor for 2 Days in January

January 4th, 2010 at 12:48 pm



Ever wish you could sit down and chat with a personal financial advisor and receive personalized financial advice, but didn't want to pay $150 to $300 an hour? Do you think you're pretty much on track toward reaching your financial goals, but still wish a financial advisor could confirm that?

Well, now's your chance.

For two days in January, the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (NAPFA) and Kiplinger's Magazine will open their phone lines from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Eastern Standard Time, to dispense financial advice, absolutely free. NAPFA considers this a public service. For the ninth year, NAPFA is making this opportunity available to anyone, not just Kiplinger's subscribers. All you need do is make sure you have your financial paperwork at the ready, should the advisor require further details to answer your question.

So mark your calendars for Friday, January 22 and Tuesday, January 26. Just call 888-919-2345 to speak to a NAPFA advisor. If you like, you can also participate in an online discussion with a NAPFA advisor at Kiplinger's on those two dates.

If you could ask a financial advisor a single question, what would it be?

From the Trenches: A Financial Counselor Reflects on How We're Coping

January 3rd, 2010 at 01:49 pm



If you wanted to gain insight on how working Americans are dealing with the recession, you need look no further than Michelle Vullo Pastor, a Denver-based Accredited Financial Counselor. Through her business, Enrich Finance, Michelle visits the workplace to speak with employees about their personal finances.

I sat down with Michelle recently to talk about her impressions of how Americans are responding to the financial crises many of them face.


Q. Can you tell me a little more about your business, Michelle?

Vullo Pastor: Enrich Finance is a financial wellness company specializing in consumer credit and personal finance issues. I travel across the country to visit with employees in all sorts of industries, from manufacturing and technology to law firms, government agencies and hospitals. I get my business primarily through word-of-mouth.

This year, I've visited 95 companies, from San Francisco to Worcester, Massachusetts, to provide workshops on reducing debt and saving for the future. At some companies, I might present a two-day, 16-hour presentation where attendance is mandatory and shift work is stopped so that employees can attend. We also offer one-on-one counseling for individual employees, which could include a series of five or six sessions, according to the employee's needs. At other times, I'm called in after layoff announcements have been made.

We deal with hundreds of different companies of all sizes, and I talk with people who are making as little as $25,000 to over $400,000 a year. Regardless of income, what is striking is that for some employees, this is the only personal finance education they'll receive.

Q. What's the difference between an Accredited Financial Counselor and a Certified Financial Planner?

Vullo Pastor: Unlike a Certified Financial Planner, an Accredited Financial Counselor like me has no products to sell, so my advice is completely objective. I don't provide specific investment advice.

Q. Why do employers invite you to speak with their employees?

Vullo Pastor: My presentations are paid for by employers because they understand that a distracted or stressed out employee is not a productive employee. Research shows that fully 25% of employees worry about their finances to the point where their health and productivity suffer and this, in turn, takes a toll on the employer's bottom line. In fact, 70% of healthcare costs can be traced back to poor lifestyle choices brought on by stress, such as smoking, overeating, substance abuse and poor sleep habits.

What's more, employees in financial trouble may be fielding creditor phone calls at work, calling their bank or credit card companies from the office, using excessive sick time or even looking for higher-paying work elsewhere.

So employers are often looking to increase worker productivity; at other times, they want to offer an additional benefit.

Q. How do employers become aware there's a problem?

Vullo Pastor: Sometimes, individual employees may approach HR or their manager for a raise or pay advance. Another big red flag is they'll be looking to take out a loan or distribution from their 401(k).

Q. What kinds of things do you speak about?

Vullo Pastor: Nearly everything that affects an employee's personal finance, including budgeting, impulse spending, debt consolidation options, how to compare loans, avoiding foreclosure / bankruptcy, negotiating with creditors, auto loans versus car leases, dealing with collection agencies, 401(k) loans, medical bill relief and how to build an emergency fund.

Q. Americans have been forced to reexamine their attitudes about money since the recession started in late 2007. How successful have they been in creating a more responsible money mindset, and do you think these changes are lasting or transient?

Vullo Pastor: People are cutting back in some areas but are unwilling to reduce spending in other areas. For example, they may be willing to eat at home more often, but they won't give up their cell phone or cable TV. Those are the first two luxuries I find myself suggesting they cut back on when money gets tight, but many people refuse to do so.

People are scared. In the past, they often used credit, like a home equity line of credit, to finance a lifestyle they couldn't afford, but now that credit's tight, that's not so easy to do.

Some individuals still have trouble getting their priorities straight. I had one client who was desperate to reach me just a few days before Christmas a few years ago. She was in dire straits. She couldn't pay her utility bills, so she had opened new accounts for them in her 12-year-old daughter's name. She told me excitedly of how thrilled she was to have been "adopted" by an "angel family" at her church, which meant that her children would receive Christmas presents. As we discussed her situation further, I asked her what other big expenses were coming up, and she told me that what she really wanted to buy her daughter for Christmas was an Xbox, a video game console that typically sells for about $300. I told her she couldn't afford it, but she wasn't willing to listen to that advice.

Q. What's the #1 concern on people's minds right now?

Vullo Pastor: Job security, to the point where many employees are sticking with jobs they don't really enjoy. While funding the kids' college education and saving for retirement used to be on the radar, these financial goals have fallen by the wayside lately; people are more narrowly focused on just making it through the year.

One of the most disturbing trends I've seen is an increasing number of employees who are not only taking loans out against their 401(k)s but cashing them out entirely, despite the big tax hit many will take for early withdrawal. People want that cash in hand, but when you see a 55-year-old with barely any retirement savings, that's not good. Robbing yourself of your own retirement is probably the very last thing I would recommend.

While there are almost always other options, too many people are using that 401(k) money to maintain a lifestyle they can't afford and they may cling to a false sense of entitlement that because they work hard, they deserve this.

Another worrisome trend I've seen is a big increase in wage garnishments by credit card companies and other creditors. If, by the time an employee comes to see me, his wages are already being garnished, it can be very difficult to set things right.

Q. How do you help employees who sit down with you for one-on-one counseling?

Vullo Pastor: It's amazing that many employees, even those making a six-figure salary, have never really studied their budget. Others are close to the edge of a full-blown financial disaster.

I'll ask clients ahead of time to bring their financial information with them to the counseling session, and I've had some who brought in an entire box of unopened credit card statements and bills.

One of the simplest, yet most important things you can do is take a look at how much money's coming in, and how much is going out. Most of my clients aren't willing to track their spending for an entire month, so we arrive at their spending habits by looking at old utility bills and so on.

I worked with an attorney once who was earning over $400,000, yet he was spending $5,000 more a month than he earned. So the problem of overspending is often the same, regardless of personal income.

If there's a negative monthly cash flow, I'll brainstorm with the client for places to cut spending. For instance, I'll warn about "bill creep," or the ease with which recurring monthly bills can increase, like when you switch from basic to expanded cable or upgrade to a higher speed DSL service.

If expenses have already been cut to the bone, we'll look into possibly restructuring high interest credit card debt into a debt consolidation loan from a credit union; credit counseling, bankruptcy and home equity loans are other options. We'll send them home with a written plan and check in with them after a few weeks and tweak the plan as necessary.

Q. It sounds like your job involves two parts financial counseling and one part psychotherapy. Is that true?

Vullo Pastor: Absolutely. If I'm working with a married couple, sometimes one spouse is very committed to making changes but the other is not on board; for example, the wife wants to keep on the cleaning people but the husband does not. It can be difficult. The counseling sessions can get very heated. I've had to leave the room because people are yelling at each other. Finances are the #1 cause of divorce.

Q. How do you get people to change their behavior?

Vullo Pastor: Because so many people are operating in the dark when it comes to their finances, it can be a real eye-opener for them to learn about the true state of their financial affairs. Once we arrive at hard and fast numbers, what's coming in vs. what's going out, I can offer clients a system that allows them a fixed amount of "fun money" each month. This is money they can freely spend knowing that all their essentials (the mortgage, utility bills and so on) are covered. Knowing what their limits are can provide security and peace of mind.

Q. Are workers optimistic about the future?

Vullo Pastor: Not really. Nearly everyone these days knows someone who's lost their job, whether it's a friend, neighbor or even their own spouse. Maybe they're employed, but they didn't get a pay raise this year, their work hours were cut or there were forced furlough days.

Q. What is at the root of our obsession with spending?

Vullo Pastor: Immediate gratification. People work hard, and they feel they deserve to have fun things in life, whether it works with their budget or not.

It's important to some people that they appear as successful as their neighbors, coworkers, friends or family. For instance, I had two clients who worked at the same company. When I spoke with the first one, he told me how financially strapped he was and described a situation that really did seem desperate.

When I met with the second man, he too spoke of the terrible shape of his personal finances and how much trouble he was in, but he mentioned the first man by name and said, "Now there's someone who really has his act together. He makes so much money. That's who I want to be like."

So what you may envy as your coworker's great success story can really be just a house of cards.

Nowhere is the sense of immediate gratification apparent than in real estate. When I delve into my clients' background, more often than not, they purchased their house with no or very little money down and can't afford the payments.

Q: Do you think that, 10 years from now, Americans will look back at this recession as a blessing in disguise because of the lessons it's taught us?

Vullo Pastor: I believe that most people are reacting in crisis mode and have not yet made fundamental, lasting changes in their financial lives. Once the money starts flowing again, I suspect that many will revert back to their old ways of spending and saving.


Join the January Challenge: Declutter!

January 1st, 2010 at 10:22 pm



The depths of winter are always a good time to turn our thoughts inward and focus on "cleaning house."

No, I'm not talking about the dusting or vacuuming. I'm referring to the rejuvenating effect of decluttering one's living space. How many of us can think of closets, desk drawers, basements, attics or other stashes full of who-knows-what that's been accumulating, untouched, for years? You may disagree, but I'm of the mind that living with clutter tends to clutter the mind as well. I also believe that simplifying one's daily existence can often lift an enormous weight from one's shoulders.

Over the years, as I've read your blogs, many of you have expressed a desire to shed the burdens and responsibilities that so much excess "stuff" creates, whether it's a loss of time spent in maintaining that stuff, the loss of money spent in buying that stuff or the loss of space in storing that stuff.

And so, borrowing from an idea suggested by wowitsawonderfullife, I urge you to join me in the first month-long challenge of the New Year by committing to "purge" 30 items in your home during the month of January, whether it's unwanted books, old clothing, furniture, other household items or even old paperwork you've held onto for way too long.

The goal of this challenge is twofold: 1. Declutter your home, and 2. Make some money.

Ideally, you'll do both, but depending on the way you dispose of your unwanted items, you may only be able to accomplish one of these goals. No matter! Progress is progress!

Here's how you'll earn points:

3 Points: Sale of item on Craig's List, eBay or elsewhere.
Since we're all trying to save money, it makes sense to award the most points to those who can declutter their lives and recoup some money at the same time.

1.5 Points: Bartering the item.
Bartering for what you need rather than buying something new is easy on the wallet and easy on the Earth. However, while you're replacing an unused or unwanted item with an item you can use, you're not actually reducing your clutter, so for purposes of this Challenge, you'll only earn 1.5 points for a barter.

1.5 Points: Recycling the item.
More and more items can be recycled these days, from old sneakers to electronics.

1.5 Points: Donation.
If you can find a charitable group, family member, friend or coworker who can use your item, you'll earn 1.5 points.

1 Point: Trashing the item.
Your trash can should be a last resort, but I believe you're still making progress by decluttering, as long as you don't plan on replacing what you've thrown out.

A 3-point bonus will be awarded to those who hit the target of 30 items purged by January 31.

Now, 30 items may seem like a lot, but if, for example, you have a stack of books, count them individually and you could be halfway toward meeting the monthly challenge. If you have trouble finding items to purge and it's getting near month's end, pull out a drawer you've been meaning to clean out anyway and start there.

If I'm on my game, I'll post each week asking for progress reports and consolidate them all on January 31. All you need to do is keep a numbered list of how you've lightened your load in 30 ways.

Are you in?