So many theories – What’s the reality

How many times have you read a headline that fairly screams “retirement crisis” or some variation on that theme.  I often get the question – Am I saving enough? Or, How much should I be saving?  There are number of handy rules of thumb that can point people in the right direction but each requires a bit more understanding than simply a percentage or a dollar figure.

Let’s begin with a better understanding of where to start.  If you look at your paycheck the first number we need is your “net pay” which is how we will form our baseline.  Take that number and multiply it by the number of paychecks you receive each year then divide that by 12 for your monthly baseline cash flow.  That’s pretty simple math and it gives us something we can start to work with (a bit of a simplification, yes, I completely agree).  Rule of Thumb #1 – the higher that number, the more you should be saving.  Why is this?  For starters, Social Security is going to cover a higher percentage of a lower monthly amount than a higher amount. 

Let’s run through an example:  Let’s say your annual salary is $65,000.  Depending on your tax and insurance deductions (let’s leave your retirement savings out of it for now), your take home might be something in the range of $43,500 or $3,630 a month.  On the other hand, let’s say your annual salary is $95,000, your monthly take home might be something closer to $5,300.  If the average Social Security is $1,540/month, then you can quickly see that $1,540 covers a bigger chunk of $3,630 per month than it does $5,300 which means the higher earner needs to save more to make up the difference.

The next step is to consider whether or not you have a pension (and yes, there are still plenty of those floating around out there).  If you do have access to a pension and you are the lower earner in the above scenario, then you don’t need to save nearly as much as the higher earner does who might not have access to that pension.  This leads me to Rule of Thumb #2 – if you don’t have access to a pension, the more you should be saving.  Of course, having a pension isn’t fool-proof and you may want to be saving more to insulate yourself from the risks associated with non-government based pensions but that’s now a matter of choice rather than baseline survival.

So now we have some idea of how much we need and what structured resources we might have available so let’s turn to what we should be saving.  You’ll often hear “you should be saving 10% (or 15%, or 20%) of your income” or “you need to save up 10x your salary.”  That give us Rule of Thumb #3 – Target 10% of your salary since it is an easier equation to work with.  That being said, don’t forget that if you are receiving a matching contribution from your employer that counts towards your 10%.  If your income is higher and you don’t have a pension, you should be thinking about saving a higher percentage.  If you want to retire before your Social Security Full Retirement age, ditto.  If you want to retire before you are Medicare eligible or earlier, double ditto.  If you are getting started later in life, want to retire before you are Medicare eligible, and have a healthy income, perhaps consider couch surfing for a while so you can catch up on your retirement savings.

But what about all those “what’s your number” ads? So here’s the challenge with those – what’s the time frame leading up to that “number?”  What life expectancy is being use in that calculation?  What’s rate of return on your assets?  What rate of inflation is being used for your expenses?  All of your expenses, or is a different rate being used for your medical expenses?  What rate of inflation is being used on the Social Security benefits?  Rule of Thumb #4 – f you are using one of the many computer formulas available on line, make sure you understand how they are calculating what you need to save to make your “number.”

Of course, all of this starts with the making sure you have a good handle on your cash flow, have your non-housing debt eliminated (or under control), and are considering a retirement lifestyle roughly equal to your current lifestyle.  Here you have Rule of Thumb #5 – If you aren’t sure where to begin, begin at the beginning.  Start saving 1% of your pay (net or gross, your choice) and put a note in your calendar for three months later.  This lets your budget adjust for 3 months.  When that three months is up, increase your savings by 1% and mark your calendar out three more months.  Repeat this process until you’re saving at least 10%.  Can’t find 1% (or whatever you need)?  Come on in and I’ll help you find it (full & fair disclosure, my version of what you need in life is probably going to look different than yours….).

So there you have it – a solid five Rules of Thumb to bring some perspective to your long-term savings plan.  Draw yourself a little hand-turkey (remember those from kindergarten), label the fingers, and post it on your fridge as a reminder on how to secure your future.  And who said money isn’t fun!


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.