My Dog’s Name is FIDO, not FICO

With all of this new house buying and car replacement action going on, I’ve been getting some questions about credit scores, so, as the phrase goes, let’s talk….
 
Right off the bat, let’s clarify some terminology, which means we are back to the whole daffodil/narcissus adage—a FICO score is a credit score but not all credit scores are FICO scores. A FICO score is only one of several available scores. There’s the VantageScore, the Beacon, and Empirica, as well as a more tailored “mortgage FICO.” There are also some regional organizations that provide scores for more tailored uses. These days, some form of this score is a main factor in how we secure mortgages, credit cards, car loans, car insurance, life insurance, even job opportunities. This is an interesting state of affairs given that the flaws in the calculation are vast and prejudicial.
 
What goes into these scores? Let’s look at the factors FICO uses: 

Your payment history (35% of your score): Are you paying your accounts as agreed, do you have any delinquent accounts or accounts in collections, is there a bankruptcy on public record?

The balances on the credit you have available (30% of your score): How do your balances relate to your available credit? Note, this isn’t as it relates to your income, rather it’s as it relates to the total amount of your available credit. This category also includes installment loans and mortgage loans.

The length of your credit (15% of your score): How long have you had the account(s) open and what is the average account age? This factor is one of the reasons we close cards slowly.

New credit you’ve put in place, (10% of your score): Have there been recent inquiries or new accounts opened, changes to public records, or has something gone to collections? 

The types of credit you have in your name (10% of your score): What types of debt are you carrying? Credit cards, auto loans, student loans, mortgages, lines of credit, etc….  

Now, if you are reading between the lines, I’m sure you can see a few flaws with this process….

The most obvious flaw is that to have a strong FICO score, you have to be carrying some debt. If they are rating you based on your payment history and you don’t carry any debt then you don’t have a payment history to rate. How can that happen, you ask? Let’s say you are recently divorced and renting an apartment until you decide on your next steps, you are using your debit card so that you are spending your cash wisely, and drive a paid for car (or don’t have a car and are using Uber/Lyft to get around as many of our big city brethren now do). These are all very fiscally responsible things to do, right? Zing….none of that is helping your credit score and it could be hurting it.

If your payment history experiences one late payment, even though all of your other factors are stellar, that single bad payment can take six months (or more) to cycle through for your score to improve. 

Curiously, unlike the theory our judicial system aspires to, with a credit score, you are guilty until proven innocent and you better plan on setting aside a decent chunk of time to sort out an error. This is why we check our credit reports on a regular basis.

Something larger than a late payment, like bankruptcy, stays on your credit for seven years or longer. Many criminal felons spend less time than that in jail (with no ding on their score…).  Also, considering that one of the main reasons for bankruptcy in the US is due to medical debt, you can start to see how this scoring system has a flaw or two.

Finally, let’s talk about monopolies and conflicts of interest. We’re hearing all about how “Big Tech” is creating monopolies and that they should be broken up but no one (except perhaps Senator Warren) has spent much news time talking about how one single company now influences more than 10 billion credit/underwriting decisions every year or that to obtain and secure a high score inherently means maintaining multiple credit cards (which, if not handled efficiently means annual fees and additional risks of fraud and theft).
 
I know, I know…what the heck got in Kitty’s organically grown, responsibly harvested, and processed shredded wheat this morning caused this she’s on a tear? The gist of the situation is this: It drives me nuts that we have very little overall control over the situation. That being said, if we [grudgingly] accept that this score is going to impact our lives and no one else is going to sort out the inherent flaws, it’s up to us to put a strategy in place to make the most of the situation just to spite the powers that be (one of my favourite activities!). If your score, or the score of a loved one, isn’t strong, let’s talk about a strategy to get it back.

Settling Mom’s Estate: What do I pay?

Here at LindenFinancial Consultants, we often have to deal with topics that most people would rather not, and death is one of them. A particularly common question we hear from people settling an estate is: which of these bills do I really have to pay? Let’s talk about after-death cash flow.

There are always going to be some bills after someone dies that come every month like utilities, phone, mortgages, home equity loans, etc… and few people have any questions about covering those. It’s dealing with the less obvious ones that I often hear the “do we really have to pay this?” question.  As I’m sure you can guess, I usually respond with my favourite reply of “it depends.” 

In an ideal world, if you are agreeing to be the executor of an estate, pulling that person’s credit report would be part of the process so you know what the estate has for obligations. Unfortunately, while not impossible, pulling the credit report for someone who is either on their way out the door or well on through it, isn’t particularly easy. That being said, it can be well worth the effort so that you are making educated decisions about the estate. Here are some, but not all, of the liabilities you might be faced with:

Secured debt – This is going to cover primarily mortgages, home equity lines of credit, and vehicle loans. If the debt is secured then the estate or heir has to keep making the payments or sell the property to clear the debt. This one’s pretty cut and dry so let’s move on to unsecured liabilities.

Credit cards – I’ve lost count of the number of people surprised by the balances being carried on credit cards once they start sorting out the estate details. If the deceased was an “owner” of the card then, technically that debt is owed. If the deceased was an “authorized signer” on a card, then their estate isn’t liable for the debt (the “owner” is). What’s the difference you ask? The “owner” is the person (or persons) who applied for the card and signed the application whereas the “authorized signer” is someone who has a card that is associated with the “owner’s” account but didn’t actually participate in the application. This is an important distinction when getting divorced as well. In the event of the “owner’s” death, the credit card company can come after the estate for payment but if there isn’t anything left in the estate and there isn’t a “co-owner” of the card to hold liable, they are pretty much out of luck.

Medical bills – Final medical bills are often considered either the responsibility of the surviving spouse or the estate and this is usually buried in the paperwork being signed when someone is admitted to a hospital or senior facility. If there is no money in the estate and the survivor has relatively little for assets and income, these bills might be waived otherwise they should be paid or a payment structure arranged.

Student loans – While I’d love to say that everyone dies of old age, unfortunately, that isn’t always the case (the average age of a widow in the U.S. is down to the mid-50s) and that can mean passing away with liabilities we wouldn’t see with our older population. If the student loan is a Federal loan, it is usually forgiven. If it is with a non-Federal entity it may or may not be forgiven which means the estate might be required to clear that loan from the estate’s assets. As with credit card debt, a hard-nosed negotiation can often get this lowered or removed from the balance sheet.

Now, let’s say there are some unsecured liabilities and the main assets are life insurance benefits and/or retirement account dollars. If those assets are settled straight out to the beneficiaries then those dollars are protected from having to clear the unsecured liabilities. If the beneficiary designation says “estate” or there isn’t a designation then those dollars head on over to the estate account where they are used to clear the liabilities, and the remainder, if there is any, gets settled by way of the will. Even if you aren’t carrying any debt, one of the best gifts you can give your heirs is making sure your beneficiary designations are all in place and this extends to the estates of all your loved ones.

When/If we head into a more challenging economic situation and you are the one cleaning up someone’s estate, remember that you don’t have to make any payments on unsecured debt until you are ready to (OK, you can’t take forever, but you can certainly take a month or two to figure things out). Don’t let someone coax, cajole, or threaten you into making even one payment—doing that can be the equivalent of acknowledging liability for the whole debt and be a real pain if that isn’t in the estate’s best interest.


Planning for Our Fur Babies

Whether your family includes loved ones you birthed, adopted, or who birthed you, it’s important to remember that our pets need as much financial and estate planning as our babies who lack the benefit of genetic-based clothing. Now, I know that there are some of you out there who are going, “Seriously?!,” but for people for whom biological/adopted kids weren’t an option (by choice or by biology), or whose kids are long gone grown and flown, often pets are a very real substitute. 
 
Right out of the gate, our pets should have their own line item in our cash flow plans (yes, those budgets I’m always banging on about—will she ever stop…no, she won’t.) When we are calculating the level of Cash Reserve we should be maintaining, our baseline is often those non-discretionary items that have to be paid like the mortgage/rent, car payment, utilities, and basic food. In that food category, make sure you have food for your pets, particularly if they require special (= more expensive) food. If you have a pet that is on meds then there better be a little extra in your Cash Reserve to cover those costs (and no, despite many of our efforts, medical plans won’t cover the cost of pet prescriptions (and don’t think I haven’t tried). 

This all leads me to pet insurance. A wise choice or another “insurance” program just this side of a scam? The answer is “it depends.” As with any insurance, you really have to run the numbers to see if carrying this type of coverage makes sense overall. Like your homeowner’s policy, there is usually a deductible (which should be built into your cash reserve, just like your car and home deductible) and most are reimbursement based which means you pay the vet, submit the bill, and receive some level of reimbursement for the expense. Unlike health insurance, wellness visits aren’t usually covered (although this is starting to change) and very often policies cover only a portion of treatment similar to the co-insurance you find with some health insurance programs. If your fur baby has a pre-existing condition, you’re probably out of luck unless you put the insurance in place when they very young and you didn’t know about the issue. There could also be coverage limits such as lifetime limits, per condition limits, and/or per year limits and you can sometimes add riders for boarding, travel in the event of urgent treatment, or pet retrieval in the event pets are lost (or stolen, which is becoming a surprisingly frequent occurrence). As I said – “it depends.”
 
All that covers if something happens to our non-human kids so what about if something happens to us?  With a show of hands, how many of you have instructions in your wills that cover how your pets will be taken care of if something happens to you? I’m guessing that there aren’t too many hands in the air. You put beneficiary designations on your retirement accounts, you build trusts for your errant children/grandchildren, you leave bequests to various schools and charities but what happens to those pets who have loved you unconditionally all those years (yes, even those cat owners out there…deep down, they love you, too). Make sure there are some instructions that outline who is going to take your pets, make sure your executor is very clear of your intentions, and make sure those people/organizations who are taking on this responsibility are on board with the idea. This leads me to funding that care…
 
Circle back to that earlier paragraph about budgeting and use that line item to build some funding into your estate plans to reimburse those kind people who are willing to take Fluffy until the end of his/her days. Taking on the cost of the family’s beloved gerbil is one thing given it’s ~3 yr. life span, it’s a whole other thing to house the family’s parakeet with its potential 20-year life span or even a cat, dog, or horse which can live 5, 10, or 15+ years (one of our cats crossed the 19-year mark). You could instruct your executor to set aside some funds for this cost, you could set up an immediate annuity to cover the costs if you have a number of animals with longer life spans, or you could even set up a small trust that would provide the new parent with an annual stipend and the balance (once your beloved pet joined you) could go to a charity. The key point is, just as house guests should be conscious of their impact on their hosts, you should be conscious of the sacrifice your pet’s new parent is making.

Image credit: Photo by Krista Mangulsone on Unsplash


That’s Not Me: Identity Theft

Today, we’re talking about identity theft which means I’m going to try and condense a two-hour workshop into a few paragraphs so here goes…Right out of the gate, let’s make sure we’re using proper definitions. There’s identity theft and there’s actual theft. If someone steals your actual credit card/credit card number and heads off to BJ’s for diapers (a surprisingly common thing to do since diapers can be resold), under our current legal system, that isn’t identity theft, that’s actual theft. They stole your money. Now, let’s say that person “borrowed” your personal data, opened a new credit card and THEN went shopping for diapers at BJ’s—that’s identity theft. Does it make it any less traumatic to differentiate between the two? No, not in the slightest but it is good to know they are different things from a legal perspective.

If you are worried about someone stealing your identity, it’s both good and depressing to know that a common culprit is someone you know or lives (or works) with you. Account takeover fraud is one of the most prevalent types of fraud and one of the most preventable. Something as simple as using two-factor authentication when accessing any of your accounts goes a long way towards preventing fraudulent transactions (and it goes without saying that you really shouldn’t be doing any financial stuff from your phone—yup, I know that’s killing some of you but it’s a fact…). When was the last time you swept through your various services and changed your passwords? If you have those passwords automatically load when you enter a site, you should probably just go ahead and send the thief a Venmo now (another startling vulnerable system).

An increasing type of identity theft is medical identity theft where someone creates a duplicate persona then uses it (or more likely, sells it) to access medical care. Unfortunately, for our aging population, the more you use our medical system, the more likely this is to happen—sort of a double whammy of unpleasantness when you need that MRI only to discover that your insurance already paid for someone else’s MRI and effectively used up your sliver of available and affordable benefit. Of course, our inefficient healthcare system doesn’t help the situation with its sometimes unfathomable billing practices but that’s a bigger fish than we can fry here. Suffice it to say, keeping track of your medical records (or your parents) goes a long way towards making sure you are on top of your exposure.

Two other common forms that we’re seeing more and more are tax-related identity theft (where someone files an early return using your Social Security number and claims a refund before you’ve even pulled all your records together) and, particularly during the pandemic, unemployment benefits identity theft. This is primarily based on all those identities that were stolen from the IRS and Equifax a number of years ago. Why, you might ask? These thieves were no dummies. They stole the information, sat on it for a few years until it became stale, then swooped in and bombarded the systems when they saw weakness.

So what can you do? Some simple things are:
1) Always select “credit” when you are using your debit card. 
2) Learn to love your shredder (or drop your paperwork off here and use the commercial service we use here). 
3) Have everything online?  Make sure you pull down a hard copy at least annually so you have something to work from if you do have to deal with a theft issue. 
4) Carve out a few moments and pull your full credit report. You are entitled to one free report from each of the main agencies once a year so head out to www.annualcreditreport.com and pull one of the reports then mark your calendar to repeat the process four months from now. Look through the report and make sure you recognize all of the addresses listed, the various lines of credit reported, and whether there is an “authorized signer” on any of the cards. Repeat the process for everyone in your family, including your youngsters – stealing/cloning a child’s identity is surprisingly popular since it is usually years before anyone discovers the issue.

Another strategy is to “freeze” your credit which can help to reduce your risk of identity theft, since potential new lenders can’t access your credit reports while the freeze is in place. Although, you should know that in doing so you might not be able to renew your health insurance if you use the NYS (or other state-based) Exchange or a government-based program, your property/casualty insurance premiums will probably increase since those companies pull their client’s credit scores when calculating insurance costs or making changes to a policy, and accessing the Social Security Administration’s system will be problematic if you don’t already have an account established.

There’s lots more but this is a weekly missive, not a weekly War & Peace chapter. Please feel free to contact us if you have any questions.


The Biggest Divorce Mistakes Women Make: $even Figures Podcast

Kitty Bressington, CFP®, CDFA, was featured on the podcast, $even Figures, with Sandy Waters. With more than 20 years of experience, Kitty provides affordable, objective, well-explained financial advice helping clients understand the long-term ramifications of the financial decisions being made, particularly during the course of a separation and/or divorce. Kitty is also founding director of the Foundation for Women’s Financial Education, a non-profit dedicated to improving the financial literacy of women in the Greater Rochester area and local sponsor of the Second Saturdays Divorce workshop—a monthly workshop designed to equip you with unbiased legal, financial, and emotional information you need to make the right decision for your marriage and your life.

Listen now: 231. The Biggest Divorce Mistakes Women Make (audacy.com)


In Search of Greener Grass: Mulling Over Cash Flow

This week, while playing in my (beginner) golf league, I was pondering the green grass while learning how to play “best ball”. That led me to start wondering about how much water is used to keep things so green, what sorts of chemicals was I standing in and how on earth do they justify these courses in other, drier parts of the country? Then I channeled my late husband and hit a shot straight down the fairway and suddenly I was less concerned about all those environmental things…perspective is a wonderful thing.
 
So, let’s talk about those other parts of the country. At least once a month (and sometimes more often) I have someone comment to me that they are going to head West or South (not so much East) and get out of New York. Putting it right there on the table…yes, we pay some pretty decent size taxes here in the great state of New York. I’m not going to deny it. In fact, I’m going to embrace it. That being said, there is so much more to a cash flow plan than taxes—I can already hear some of you definitely drawing blood as you squeeze your fingers into fists of outrage but stick with me on this one. Let’s look at some other big-ticket cash flow items.

Health insurance: I let my fingers do the walking this week and did a little shopping for health insurance in three fairly popular transplant destinations. In North Carolina, the exact same plan as the one I carry is 60% more expensive. In Florida, the difference was 24% more (with a $2k higher deductible) and in Boise, while I’d be paying slightly less, I could be denied coverage (something not allowed in New York). I had a hard time believing that Boise, Idaho, was on a “Best Places to Retire” list so you can imagine my surprise when I found it on several. Another aspect to this research is access to medical facilities.  Comparable costs won’t do you any good if you have to drive more than an hour for a simple check-up or none of the local doctors are taking new patients.

Utility / water rates: As I think I’ve mentioned before, when my parents moved from Penfield to Avon, my mother nearly had a heart attack when they received their first water bill since, apparently, Avon pipes their water through gold pipes by way of Mars (there’s a whole story behind our water rates but we’re talking finances here, not politics). Thinking of heading West or South? Water rates for basic residential usage in Jacksonville, FL, average $43/month and can run more than three times that in some of areas further West. 

Vehicle incidentals: Let’s assume you are taking your car with you. If I were moving to Iowa, I could be paying more than $195 to re-register my car (versus the $55 check I just mailed). Heading south to Maryland, that’s going to be $135. Filling the tank on the way to the DMV, you’ll be paying ~$2.88/gallon for gas in Iowa and $3/gallon in Maryland. Sure, your car insurance in Boise is about half of what you are paying in New York but what they don’t tell you is that your coverage is less robust than what you enjoyed in New York because our mandatory minimums are higher than other states. 

Stepping lightly on a third rail, climate change: The changes we’re seeing in the environment can have knock-on impacts on your costs of living. For example, it’s getting harder and harder to secure cost-effective homeowner’s insurance along parts of the coast and in fire-prone areas. In some of these areas, it isn’t a matter of the insurance costing more, it’s a matter of not even being able to secure coverage.  Does your financial planning accommodate paying to rebuild your house? 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, travel: If you are moving to state A and your loved ones are in state B, make sure you budget for travel back and forth to see them. It doesn’t do you any good to eliminate the NYS state and property taxes and end up spending more on Delta to visit those budget-busting grandbabies.

Of course, there are lots of reasons to move and I don’t want to discourage anyone who is thinking of moving from doing so. What I would encourage people to consider is that moving isn’t really a fiscal thing—it’s a deeply emotional one. Long before you put the numbers together, make sure you think through the “why” of your move. If you are pretty sure of your “why” the next step will be to build a Cash Flow Worksheet (remember those) as if you already lived there. Despite some pretty glaring faults, the internet is very useful when it comes to finding out how much something costs in other places. As with so much that has to do with our finances – it’s not about making the right or wrong choice, it’s about making an educated choice.


DAFs – A Tech Surveillance System or a Nifty Giving Strategy

With the recent continuation of the markets’ irrational exuberance, many of us have some horse-choking gains in our non-IRA accounts so how can we make the best of a taxing situation? First, let’s acknowledge that paying capital gains, even at the highest rate of 20¢ on a dollar, means we’re still walking away with 80¢ we didn’t have before so, to be perfectly honest, we are moaning just a bit about being fortunate. That notwithstanding, is there a way we can avoid that 20¢ or perhaps even spin a little gold from the straw we’re being given? Of course there is (otherwise I’d be writing about something else this week) – donating some of those appreciated holdings.

As we touched on a few months back, there are a several ways to make donations – you can write a check or give a group cash, you can donate the appreciated position directly to the charity (which assumes they are set up to receive something like this), or you can donate the position into a Donor Advised Funds (DAFs). Think of DAFs as a soup tureen you can pour a whole bunch of appreciated stock(s) into all at once, taking the charitable deduction for that year, then gradually spoon out just what you want to donate over the subsequent years. Furthermore, while you are deciding what you’d like to support, your donation continues to appreciate (or depreciate – this is an investment after all), you can rebalance the position into other investments (without the capital gains), and if you get hit by a bus, you can have a charities designated as beneficiaries, which is a lot less complicated than having them as the beneficiaries in your will or on your account.

Let’s walk through an example. Say you normally give $100/mos to your local spiritual organization, which means that over 4 years you would have given $4,800. Now, perhaps you have a stock or mutual fund you inherited from your granddad that’s been sitting in an account, ignored for most of your adult life and that account has accumulated boatloads of capital gains over the years (meaning, to touch it is to tax it). You could open a Donor Advised Fund and donate a portion ($4,800) of that account to the DAF. For the year you move grandpa’s stock into the account, you can add a charitable contribution to your itemized deduction, which will, with a little planning, make your deductions more valuable than the standard deduction. Then, over the following years, you can donate $1,200/yr. to the organization of your choice.  Four years later, you can repeat the process. Now you are getting a little tax benefit for something you were already thinking of doing, not to mention perhaps cleaning up your portfolio a little.

What if you’re not sure that you want to do something like this now, while you are young(ish) and may spend all your money to die broke? You can make a DAF part of your estate planning by naming the Donor-Advised Fund you set up (but didn’t fund) as a beneficiary of your will or your retirement account. That way, if you get hit by that bus before you’ve spent all your money (responsibly or irresponsibly – this is a no judgement zone), the remainder will flow into the DAF and the dollars can be distributed based on your intentions. You can even dictate a schedule for the DAF to use the dollars.

Where might you find these little charitable curiosities? Many of the bigger investment firms now have them (Fidelity, Schwab, Vanguard) or you could work with a local community foundation to help you establish one. One advantage of the local community route is that they often fund smaller organizations that you won’t see (or don’t qualify) for the bigger firm’s lists. Some DAFs provide little checkbooks so you can write out a donation if you’re at an event and many have a fairly sophisticated electronic donating system where you use a few dropdown boxes then click a few buttons and you’re finished in time to grab that mojito before dinner.

So, if you are charitably inclined, consider checking out a Donor Advised Fund for your giving strategy.  Using one might just save you a few tax dollars and almost certainly will make donating anything other than the $20 in your pocket easier.


Health Savings Accounts: Both Scary and Useful

Now that tax season is behind us, we can take a little breather and think about actions we can take to help with next year’s taxes as well as better support our retirement prospects. Most companies’ open enrollment season starts in the Fall so this gives you plenty of time to evaluate whether or not a Health Savings Account (HSA) might work for you.

What is an HSA? Not only is it a tax-deductible account you can use to save money to cover medical expenses tax-free; it’s also a tax-deductible account you can save money into for retirement. In a nutshell, you can contribute money into one and take a tax deduction for that tax year, you can invest those dollars and let them build tax-deferred, and then, in retirement, you can draw them out tax-free. There really isn’t another type of account like it.
 
For the here and now—if you are a somewhat heavy user of medical services, and you have the nice low and consistent co-pays, it’s unlikely that you will pay enough in co-pays to be able to take advantage of the medical tax deduction because of the high threshold that deduction uses (7.5% of your AGI). By switching to a High Deductible Health Plan and using an HSA, you can fund the HSA with tax-deductible dollars then pay for those services from that account tax-free. Once you’ve met your insurance deductible, your insurance kicks in and pays for any additional services you might need throughout the year. Is it really that simple? Of course not, but very often it does make much more financial sense than the co-pay process. A little more work at first—yup.  A little more money in your pocket overall—more than likely. You can even complete a once-in-a-lifetime rollover from your IRA into your HSA to frontload your account.
 
For the big upcoming medical events—another strategy is to use an HSA in anticipation of big medical events. Let’s say you are a young healthy person but you know you’re going to want to start a family (we’ve already talked about Baby Talk and how expensive giving birth is and you can count on spending many times more than that that if you need help to get pregnant), or perhaps you’ve been having a hip / knee / shoulder / reproductive / nasal / digestive / etc. issue that you know you’ll need to deal with at some point. These are big-ticket medical expenses where most insurance policies require a significant contribution from the participant. You could fund an HSA every year, with the contributions rolling from one year to the next and building along the way because you’ve invested them in a conservative allocation. Then, when your planned for event finally happens, you use the balance in one fell swoop when the bills come in.
 
For retirement—want to get the most out of this type of account? Fully fund an HSA and let the dollars roll until you need them for those hearing aids and dental care in retirement (which aren’t usually covered by Medicare). Sure you could contribute to your company retirement plan or an IRA and take the tax deduction now but then you’ll pay taxes when you take the money out, something you won’t do with an HSA. You could also use a Roth IRA but you won’t get a tax deduction now like you do with an HSA. This strategy requires a little more budgetary attention since you’ll want to cover your current medical expenses out of pocket to make the most of the strategy but that’s not out of the realm of possibility with a little prep work.

Want to make the most out of this strategy? Fund your company retirement plan up to the maximum you need to get the match, fully fund your HSA, and then throw additional dollars into your Roth or post-tax investment account—three legs of your retirement stool all set and ready to help you later in life.
 
Of course, there is a catch to all of this. In order to use a Health Savings Account, your health care plan must be a high-deductible one, not one of those co-pay plans, and that’s not always the right type of an account for everyone, which is why I bring this up now. In order to do our taxes for 2020, many of us had to at least take a peek at what we spent on medical costs for last year. Take an hour one day and do the math so you are ready for your next open enrollment. Which is better for you—using a High Deductible Health Plan and an HSA or using a co-pay based plan? While there are pros and cons to each, make sure that you are making the decision based on the numbers and not the emotions. Some people find the idea of a high deductible plan to be a little scary and I get it. Tackle those fears by looking at the numbers and building a plan. There is no insurance fairy godparent looking out for you so it’s up to all of us to make a well-informed choice.

First Comes Love, Then Comes Marriage

May makes me think of June and June makes me think of weddings. This week, let’s chat about getting hitched…tying the knot…plighting one’s troth (there’s one for the literary crowd out there). 
 
For the majority of human history, weddings were small, family and/or village-based affairs more along the lines of church potluck events. Only a small percentage had a wedding reception, as we currently think of them, and they were usually the wealthiest of the local community. The upper upper echelon in the largest of cities held grand affairs and they were primarily for political reasons. Over the last couple of centuries, as the middle class developed, these larger ceremonies crossed economic layers and became more common for more people. That being said, they were still fairly modest because there was no such thing as credit cards, retirement accounts, or home equity lines of credits (heck, there were barely banks as we know them).
 
It wasn’t until after World War II that big weddings became more popular across the board and the idea of overspending on the event rose in alignment with the phrase “Keeping up with the Jones.”  In 2019, the average wedding cost was over $28,000. That’s essentially $60 of necessary expense (the marriage license) and $27,940+ of discretionary expenses—and we all know how Kitty feels about discretionary expenses. In an interesting economic turn, prior to this point, the biggest expense of a wedding was often the groom’s suit, which was traditionally the first for the young man (and sometimes the only, just like his beloved – LOL!). I find it interesting that purchasing something practical for the family was the focal point of the wedding expenses, which certainly isn’t the case now. Now, tuxes are rented and expensive wedding gowns are rarely (if ever) worn again. 
 
How about the engagement ring? Throughout history, exchanging jewelry (usually but not always a ring) has been a part of the ceremony as a symbol of the contract being agreed to (bridal parties willing or not). It wasn’t until the Edwardian Age that engagement rings were exchanged. Even then, it wasn’t until the Roaring 20’s that anyone other than the “one percenter’s” exchanged rings that even remotely compared to what is routinely exchanged today. Of course, that lasted for about a decade before the Great Depression meant we once again exchanged simple bands. Then, along came De Beers who launched their “a diamond is forever” marketing campaign in 1948, and, suddenly, diamonds became part of the wedding culture. Once again, like Hallmark holidays or owning versus renting a home, our traditions were created by marketing teams.
 
Of course, a wedding is something to celebrate—a joining of souls who managed to find each other in this crazy madcap world is a wonderful thing. Both my parent’s and my own wedding pictures are part of my screen saver so I’m not a total Ice Queen. The question I pose is: are the events of one day really something to go into debt for? Raise your hand if, looking back through the years, you might think twice about spending so much money on the wedding (yours or your child’s) when you could have put some of it down on a new home, or paid rent for a year(+), or paid off school loans, or done a family VRBO, or, or, or. I would also suggest that dipping into your own savings to cover the costs of your child’s wedding should be done only after a thorough examination of your own long-term financial stability.
 
Let’s start a new tradition…have a simple pre-WWII wedding and throw a full-blown 10-year anniversary celebration. Since the average American marriage lasts ~8½ yrs., you do the math….


Cryptocurrency: When FOMO Becomes Uh Oh

Over the past year, I’ve fielded a number of questions about the feasibility of investing in cryptocurrency so I thought I’d give you “Kitty’s Take” on the whole “let’s invest in something that doesn’t really exist” situation.
 
What is cryptocurrency anyway? Right out of the gate, we need to understand that these are currencies, not investments, and there are a lot of them (more than 50 at last count). There’s Bitcoin (currently trading at ~$49,500 per token), Dogecoin (trading at $0.41), and PancakeSwap (trading at $29.35 per token), just to name a few. For comparison, the $5 bill in my wallet is trading at…wait for it…$5. Let’s put it another way, when you invest in a share of Ford Motor Company, you own a little itty bitty sliver of Ford Motor Company. When you invest in a bond mutual fund, you become a little itty bitty recipient of the dividends of a bunch of bonds. When you buy a token of a cryptocurrency, you’re holding the rights to a little itty bitty share of…of…an electronic promise. 
 
Cryptocurrencies are usually positioned as an alternative to cash and these tokens can be traded for services and things but only as long as the company selling you those services and things accepts the cryptocurrency as a form of payment. On a positive note, these currencies are run on the blockchain principle, which has some great recordkeeping features meaning no more missing or inaccurate cost basis. Every transaction involving every token is tracked and, in theory, can be pulled out of the ether when you need it (or by someone monitoring your activities but that’s a whole other rabbit hole). On the downside, from a currency standpoint, while the vendor you are negotiating with may take Bitcoin, if you hold PancakeSwap, you have to log on to an exchange, replace your PancakeSwap tokens for Bitcoin tokens, for a fee, then return to the place of purchase and exchange your tokens for whatever it is that you are buying.
 
So why are these currencies so popular? Mainly it’s the convergence of several different factors, including a whole lot of marketing savvy using social media, layered with a lack of anything resembling regulation, and a year of millions of people looking for anything, literally anything, to distract themselves from the COVID situation. Mostly though, it’s been FOMO—”Fear of Missing Out”. Now, FOMO isn’t anything new. It’s been around for as long as humans have been walking upright. FOMO is that Dutch Duke in 1636 spending his ancestor’s fortune on tulip bulbs because his fellow Dukes were all talking about them (and no, that didn’t go well for anyone involved), and it’s the guy on YouTube telling you he traded enough Bitcoin to buy a house (and because it’s on the internet, it MUST be true…).
 
Now, I’m sure you are catching the vibe of my thoughts on the viability of buying cryptocurrency so let’s exit my brain and talk about some real-life issues. First off, about 7 million people in the US and over 2 billion people in the world are unbanked—meaning this new currency is completely out of the reach of all of those people. That’s not really going to improve our wealth inequality situation. For those who are banked and are using some form of this currency, apparently, not only can it be harmful to your net worth, using it can be unhealthy for your relationship, too. According to a Bloomberg study, ~60% of people who “invest” in cryptocurrencies say their beliefs or their investments have had a negative impact on their personal relationships. What if you’re banked and single, or not overly worried about your relationships? How about the environment. These cryptocurrencies are complete resource and energy hogs. To keep these currencies humming, there is an increasing number of server farms parked all over the globe and some of these farms have an energy consumption that is on par with the energy used by smaller countries. Even if all of those farms used renewable energy (chuckle, chuckle), all of those servers need rare minerals to build and some put mining for rare minerals in the same category as blood diamonds. Mmmmm…
 
Bottom line—consider following two simple rules: 1) things that are intangible, lack regulation, and have a lot more in common with gambling over at Turning Stone probably shouldn’t be in your portfolio if you need those dollars to meet your long-term goals and 2) if you don’t understand it and/or if you (or your advisor) can’t explain it to your mother, you probably should be putting your money to better use.