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.


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….


Baby Talk

Spring is in the air and it leads me to think of lambs. Yes, I have a thing for sheep…don’t know why but they just make me smile…and lambs lead me to think of babies which, apparently, is a pretty common thought as I’ve been having the baby conversation with several couples lately. For this week’s topic, I thought we’d take a little journey through the finances of having little ones.
 
Let’s start with the proverbial “twinkle in the eye” period of time. Long before there is a bun in the oven, you and your partner should have some serious conversations about the actual costs of getting pregnant.  While some women “fall” pregnant quite easily (“to fall pregnant”—a curious phrase with biblical origins intended to free men from responsibility—take from that what you will), an increasing number may need some assistance. Making sure both of you (or you and your financial advisor if you are single) are on the same page about how many rounds of help you are going to pay for is imperative. The average cost of one round of IVF is ~$12k and the average is three tries before success. Adoption isn’t cheap either (although my personal opinion is that it should be subsidized since that would be way cheaper than accommodating kids without parents through to adulthood – oooh, I’ll get some letters on that one…) and you’ll want to have upwards of $35k in the bank if this is the route you decide to take.
 
Next up, the prenatal and birthing process. While many health insurance policies will cover a good chunk of the prenatal care under their “wellness” strategy, some require a co-pay for each visit and those visits are pretty frequent in the last stretch leading up to the actual birth. If you need some additional testing— that’s not “wellness” anymore so cha-ching. Giving birth, on the other hand, is often considered “surgery” which can (and often does) result in healthcare bills running at least $2,500 for an uncomplicated birth.  Complications can increase that bill exponentially since you’ll be footing 20% of the costs under some policies. For comparison sake, the cost to have a kid in England: ~$60. The average cost to give birth in the US: more than $5,000.
 
You’ve brought your little bundle of joy home so, hopefully, you’ve had the child care conversation. The days of this being a gender thing are long gone—this is a fiscal issue at its core. Is one of you is going to stay home and, if so, for how long? Can the two of you alter your work schedules so that one of you is home and available throughout the week? Will you be pulling in relatives to cover some of the time?  Childcare is going to run you about $225/week (more for an infant, less for an older child). Step back and compare your take-home pay with child care costs and you can start to see why some choose to leave the workforce for at least a portion of their children’s early years. And speaking of child care, if you aren’t married, make sure you have put the paperwork in place to ensure that you are both legally listed as your child’s parent otherwise grabbing little Susie from child care unexpectedly can become quite a challenge.
 
And for all of you who are way past the actual pregnancy zone, grandbabies are the budget buster of all time. I strongly suggest that you have a line item in your cash flow that is specifically dedicated to how much you are going to spend on your grandchildren each year. Let’s put this another way—say you had two children and each of them now has two children. That’s four grandkids you’ll want to shower with all sorts of things. Now, let’s say those four grandkids are spaced over a decade because one of your kids got married early and popped out a couple of honeymoon babies and your other child waited to get married then waited to have their kids. You can start to see how easily this can throw off the budget of the grandparent generation. Having some definition on what you can afford to spend in total can help avoid the spending creep as one grandchild becomes three grandkids which then turns into five.
 
In closing, here’s an interesting fact—New Zealand recently became the first country in the world to provide bereavement time off for a miscarriage. Given the fact that nearly 20% of pregnancies end in a miscarriage and that the further along a woman is when she loses the pregnancy the more likely a couple is to divorce, a couple of days off seems like a decent gesture. Of course, that’s what it looks like to be governed by a woman.

Image credit: 4317153 © Jolita Marcinkene | Dreamstime.com.


Divorce: The Biggest (Financial) Decision You May Ever Make

Divorce is often a gut-wrenching process. It is also one of, if not the, most important decision you’ll ever make. The average divorce today takes about a year, sometimes longer, to resolve and it can also cost as much or more than what you spent on your wedding (in today’s dollars). Divorce also has the potential to be financially crippling, now and perhaps even more so in the future.

According to the Journal of Financial Planning, female caregivers are estimated to lose, on average, $324,000 in lost wages, social security benefits and pension. Unfortunately, after divorce, many women find themselves in a much lower financial position than their ex-spouses. Not only is this due to the caregiving roles many women have, it can also stem from a lack of clear understanding of the marriage’s total financial situation, such as the long-term investments the family holds, the family’s tax picture and actual family income. It would be difficult for any woman to make sound decisions, especially when faced with a divorce, if she is not aware of the complete financial picture.

Step 1: Understand Your Household Finances

One of the smartest things any woman can do is understand the family’s financial well being as soon as possible, no matter her situation. To get started, seek to understand what the assets are (stocks, property, retirement), what the actual family income is, and what are the family’s expenses. If thinking of a divorce, what maintenance (alimony) and/or child support would be needed to maintain your standard of living and cover your children’s needs?

Step 2:  Understand the Financial Implications

Even if divorce is just a whisper in your head, a clear way to help you make an educated financial decision is to engage the services of a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst (CDFA). A CDFA will help you review the family finances and guide the conversation to help you understand the short-term and long-term financial implications of the decisions you will need to make.

Remember…divorce is a negotiation. Amazon didn’t buy Whole Foods without understanding their market share, profitability, and liabilities. Kodak and Xerox didn’t spin off parts of their businesses without taking into account how that was going to impact their future bottom lines. Divorce is essentially the same thing. What you need to ask yourself is what is the level of maintenance can you realistically accept/offer and what does that mean to your cash flow?  How do you split the family assets to be equitable and what are the long-term ramifications of those decisions?

Step 3: Seek a Professional Divorce Team

Attorneys have their place during your divorce as they counsel you through the legal aspects. However, most people don’t realize that the majority of attorneys and judges do not have a strong financial background (few law schools require any financial classes in their curriculum). This makes picking the right attorney for your particular situation critical. A strong attorney will incorporate the work of a financial professional into the process.

Getting divorced is hard enough, working with a team of divorce professionals can ultimately reduce the cost of the divorce and reduce the time it can take to make that divorce happen. Most importantly, before making any decisions in terms of divorce be as prepared as you can…financially, emotionally and legally. I often suggest that women check out a local divorce advice workshop like Second Saturday.

Even if you are not thinking about divorce, understanding and staying on top of your family’s finances can help you navigate whatever surprises come your way.

Kitty Bressington is a CERTIFIED FINANICIAL PLANNER™ and Certified Divorce Financial Analyst®. She is the owner of Linden Financial Consultants, a fiduciary financial advisory firm, and founding member of Foundation for Women’s Financial Education.


What’s in Your Resolution Wallet for 2017

With the New Year, almost without fail, most of us make our resolutions and one of them probably has something to do with money. A common resolution is to “save more for retirement” that often, as weeks or months go by, turns into “I’ll set aside a few dollars after I do this or pay that….” Let’s turn that on its head and suggest that you spend this year getting a handle on how you are spending money.

Even with the economy rebounding, more Americans are stressed out about money than ever before and many women carry the weight of that burden. This financial stress is actually hurting us, both emotionally and physically. Financial stress is directly linked to high blood pressure, ulcers, headaches and depression not to mention it’s the second leading cause of divorce in our country. How about we take a different tack to that New Year’s Resolution and spend the year figuring out why we’re stressed?

For many people, one of the roots of this stress is simply not knowing where their money is going. Understanding where we are spending our dollars is the first step to understanding why we are spending those dollars. Are you eating out too often simply because you aren’t sure what to cook, or perhaps, as a newly single woman, you aren’t thrilled about going home to an empty house so you delay the inevitable by eating out.

Just like a personal trainer can help you get in shape physically, a financial coach can help you get fit with your money. They can help you understand your financial issues and habits and guide change in your behavior with your money. There are many great financial coaches but be sure to look for one that has had rigorous and comprehensive training.

This year, make your New Year’s resolution to understand how you spend your money so all your future years can be less stressful and more savings focused.


Spring Cleaning of Your Financial House

Spring cleaning is the first thing that comes to my mind when I see the days getting longer and the flowers starting to sprout. Spring cleaning also applies to your financial house. Why not take an hour and review how you are doing compared to the budget you put in place last January? What? You didn’t write a formal plan for yourself for the New Year! It’s never too late to sit down and review where you stand financially. It’s not that difficult either, but it doesn’t hurt to have a coach on the sidelines helping you evaluate your next move.

For example, a good “best practice” is to (1) write down your goals and aspirations, (2) devise a plan to help you reach those goals, (3) periodically review where you stand relative to your plan and (4) engage the services of a professional to coach and counsel you on the right moves to make. As a career financial advisor, I work with very smart people every day who know what they need to do, but lack the resources to actualize their plan. That’s where I come in. As a fee-only financial advisor, my job is to provide as much or as little coaching as each client might desire. And, frankly, that’s all many clients need to feel confident and on-track with their plan. Questions? I am only a phone call away…