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Questions to Ask Before Buying That Thing You've Always Wanted

Even if you're generally comfortable with your finances, you may occasionally worry about how much you're spending, especially if you consistently have trouble saving for short- or long-term goals. Here are a few questions to ask that might help you decide whether a purchase is really worth it.

Why do I want it?

Maybe you've worked hard and think you deserve to buy something you've always wanted. That may be true, but are you certain you're not being unduly influenced by other factors such as stress or boredom?

Take a moment to think about what's important to you. Comfort? Security? Safety? Status? Quality? Thriftiness? Does your purchase align with your values, or are you unconsciously allowing other people (advertisers, friends, family, neighbors, for example) to influence your spending?

How will buying this now affect me later?

When you're deciding whether to buy something, you usually focus on the features and benefits of what you're getting, but what are you potentially forgoing? When you factor this into your decision, what you're weighing is known as the opportunity cost. For example, let's say you're trying to decide whether to buy a new car. If you buy the car, will you have to give up this year's family vacation to Disney World? Considering the opportunity cost may help you evaluate both the direct and indirect costs of a purchase. Ask yourself how you will feel about your purchase later. Tomorrow? Next month? Next year?

Will this purchase affect your family?

Couples often fight about money because they have conflicting money values. Will your spouse or partner object to your purchasing decision? And what about your children? Children learn from what they observe. Are you comfortable with the example you might be setting?

Do I really need it today?

Buying something can be instantly and tangibly gratifying. After all, which sounds more exciting: spending $1,500 on the ultra-light laptop you've had your eye on or putting that money into a retirement account? Consistently prioritizing an immediate reward over a longer-term goal is one of the biggest obstacles to saving and investing for the future. The smaller purchases you make today could be getting in the way of accumulating what you'll need 10, 20, or 30 years down the road.

Be especially wary if you're buying something now because "it's such a good deal." Take time to find out whether that's really true. Shop around to see that you're getting the best price, and weigh alternatives. You may discover a lower-cost product that will meet your needs just as well. If you think before you spend money, you may be less likely to make impulse purchases and more certain that you're making appropriate financial choices.

Can I really afford it?

Whether you can afford something depends on both your income and your expenses. You should know how these two things measure up before making a purchase. Are you consistently charging purchases to your credit card and carrying that debt from month to month? If so, this may be a warning sign that you're overspending. Reexamining your budget and financial priorities may help you get your spending back on track.




Demographic Dilemma: Is America's Aging Population Slowing Down the Economy?

It's no secret that the demographic profile of the United States is growing older at a rapid pace. While the U.S. population is projected to grow just 8% between 2015 and 2025, the number of older Americans ages 70 to 84 will skyrocket 50%.1

With roughly 75 million members, baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) make up the largest generation in U.S. history. As a group, boomers have longer life expectancies and had fewer children than previous generations.2

Now, after dominating the workforce for nearly 40 years, boomers are retiring at a rate of around 1.2 million a year, about three times more than a decade ago.3

Though the economy has continued to improve since the Great Recession, gross domestic product (GDP) growth has been weak compared with past recoveries. A number of economists believe that demographic changes may be the primary reason.4

Spending shifts

The lower birth rates in recent decades generally mean that fewer young people are joining the workforce, so the consumer spending that fuels economic expansion and job creation could take a hit. When young people earn enough money to strike out on their own, marry, and start families, it typically spurs additional spending — on places to live, furniture and appliances, vehicles, and other products and services that are needed to set up a new household.

On the other hand, when people retire, they typically reduce their spending and focus more on preserving their savings. Moreover, retirees' spending habits are often different from when they were working. As a group, retirees tend to avoid taking on debt, have more equity built up in their homes, and may be able to downsize or move to places with lower living costs. More spending is devoted to covering health-care costs as people age.

If a larger, older population is spending less and the younger population is too small to drive up consumer spending, weaker overall demand for products and services could restrain GDP growth and inflation over the long term. Less borrowing by consumers and businesses could also put downward pressure on interest rates.

A new normal?

The onslaught of retiring baby boomers has long been expected to threaten the viability of Social Security and Medicare, mainly because both are funded by payroll taxes on current workers. But this may not be the only challenge.

A 2016 working paper by Federal Reserve economists concluded that declining fertility and labor force participation rates, along with increases in life expectancies, accounted for a 1.25 percentage point decline in the natural rate of real interest and real GDP growth since 1980. Furthermore, the same demographic trends are expected to remain a structural impediment to economic growth for years to come.5

Put simply, a nation's potential GDP is a product of the number of workers times the productivity (output) per worker, and the U.S. workforce is shrinking in relation to the total population.

The labor force participation rate — the percentage of the civilian labor force age 16 and older who are working or actively looking for work — peaked at 67.3% in early 2000, not coincidentally the last time GDP grew by more than 4%. The participation rate has dropped steadily since then; in August 2017, it was 62.9%. This reflects lower birth rates, increased college enrollment, some men in their prime working years dropping out of the labor force, and large numbers of retiring baby boomers.6

Many economists acknowledge that U.S. population trends are a force to be reckoned with, but the potential impact is still up for debate. Some argue that labor shortages could drive up wages and spending relatively soon, followed by higher growth, inflation, and interest rates — until automated technologies start replacing larger numbers of costly human workers.7

Even if demographic forces continue to restrain growth, it might not spell doom for workforce productivity and the economy. Another baby boom would likely be a catalyst for consumer spending. Family-friendly policies such as paid maternity leave and day-care assistance could provide incentives for women with children to remain in the workforce. It's also possible that a larger percentage of healthy older workers may delay retirement — a trend that is already developing — and continue to add their experience and expertise to the economy.8

1, 3) The Conference Board, February 24, 2017

2) The Wall Street Journal, January 16, 2017

4-5) Federal Reserve, 2016

6, 8) The Financial Times, October 25, 2016

7) U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2016-2017, Bureau of Economic Analysis 2017

 

 

 

FOR WOMEN, A PAY GAP COULD LEAD TO A RETIREMENT GAP

Women in the workforce generally earn less than men. While the gender pay gap is narrowing, it is still significant. The difference in wages, coupled with other factors, can lead to a shortfall in retirement savings for women.

Statistically speaking

Generally, women work fewer years and contribute less toward their retirement than men, resulting in lower lifetime savings. According to the U.S. Department of Labor:

·         56.7% of women work at gainful employment, which accounts for 46.8% of the labor force

·         The median annual earnings for women is $39,621 — 21.4% less than the median annual earnings for men

·         Women are more likely to work in part-time jobs that don't qualify for a retirement plan

·         Of the 63 million working women between the ages of 21 and 64, just 44% participate in a retirement plan

·         Working women are more likely than men to interrupt their careers to take care of family members

·         On average, a woman retiring at age 65 can expect to live another 20 years, two years longer than a man of the same age

All else being equal, these factors mean women are more likely than men to face a retirement income shortfall. If you do find yourself facing a potential shortfall, here are some options to consider.

Plan now

Estimate how much income you'll need. Find out how much you can expect to receive from Social Security, pension plans, and other available sources. Then set a retirement savings goal and keep track of your progress.

Save, save, save

Save as much as you can. Take full advantage of IRAs and employer-sponsored retirement plans such as 401(k)s. Any investment earnings in these plans accumulate tax-deferred — or tax-free, in the case of Roth accounts. Once you reach age 50, utilize special "catch-up" rules that let you make contributions over and above the normal limits (you can contribute an extra $1,000 to IRAs, and an extra $6,000 to 401(k) plans in 2017). If your employer matches your contributions, try to contribute at least as much as necessary to get the full company match — it's free money. Distributions from traditional IRAs and most employer-sponsored retirement plans are taxed as ordinary income. Withdrawals prior to age 59½ may be subject to a 10% federal income tax penalty.

Delay retirement

One way of dealing with a projected income shortfall is to stay in the workforce longer than you had planned. By doing so, you can continue supporting yourself with a salary rather than dipping into your retirement savings. And if you delay taking Social Security benefits, your monthly payment will increase.

Think about investing more aggressively

It's not uncommon for women to invest more conservatively than men. You may want to revisit your investment choices, particularly if you're still at least 10 to 15 years from retirement. Consider whether it makes sense to be slightly more aggressive. If you're willing to accept more risk, you may be able to increase your potential return. However, there are no guarantees; as you take on more risk; your potential for loss (including the risk of loss of principal) grows as well.

Consider these common factors that can affect retirement income

When planning for your retirement, consider investment risk, inflation, taxes, and health-related expenses — factors that can affect your income and savings. While many of these same issues can affect your income during your working years, you may not notice their influence because you're not depending on your savings as a major source of income. However, these common factors can greatly affect your retirement income, so it's important to plan for them.




FIVE COMMON FINANCIAL AID MYTHS

With some private colleges now crossing the once unthinkable $70,000-per-year mark in the 2017/2018 school year, and higher costs at public colleges, too, financial aid is essential for many families. How much do you know about this important piece of the college financing puzzle? Consider these financial aid myths.

1. My child won't qualify for aid because we make too much money

Not necessarily. While it's true that family income is the main factor in determining aid eligibility, it's not the only factor. The number of children you'll have in college at the same time is a significant factor — for example, having two children in college will cut your expected family contribution (EFC) in half. Your assets, overall family size, and age of the older parent also play into the equation.

Side note: Even if you think your child won't qualify for aid, you should still consider filing the government's Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) for two reasons. First, all students — regardless of income — who attend school at least half-time are eligible for unsubsidized federal Direct Loans, and the FAFSA is a prerequisite for these loans. ("Unsubsidized" means the student pays the interest during college, the grace period, and any loan deferment periods.) So if you want your child to have some "skin in the game" by taking on a small student loan, you'll need to file the FAFSA. Second, the FAFSA is always a prerequisite for college need-based aid and is sometimes a prerequisite for college merit-based aid. Bottom line? It's usually a good idea to file this form.

2. The form is too hard to fill out

Not really. Years ago, the FAFSA was cumbersome to fill out. But now that it's online at fafsa.ed.gov, it is much easier to complete. The online version has detailed instructions and guides you step by step. There is also a toll-free number you can call with questions: 1-800-4-FED-AID. All advice is free. In addition, a recent change has made the FAFSA even easer to fill out: The FASFA now relies on your tax information from two years prior rather than one year prior (referred to as the "prior-prior year" or the "base year"). For example, the 2017/2018 FAFSA relies on your 2015 tax information, the 2018/2019 FAFSA relies on your 2016 tax information, and so on. This means that your necessary tax numbers will be handy as you answer questions on the FAFSA. The first time you file the FAFSA, you and your child will need to create an FSA ID, which consists of a username and password.

Side note: The CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE, an additional aid form required by most private colleges, is more detailed than the FAFSA and thus harder to fill out. It essentially takes a financial snapshot of your family's past year, current year, and upcoming year (it asks for estimates for the latter).

3. If my child applies to a more expensive school, we'll get more aid

Not necessarily. Colleges determine your EFC based on the income and asset information you provide on the FAFSA and, where applicable, the CSS PROFILE. Your EFC stays the same no matter what college your child applies to. The difference between the cost of a particular college and your EFC equals your child's financial need (sometimes referred to as "demonstrated need"). The more expensive a college is, the greater your child's financial need. But a greater financial need doesn't automatically translate into a bigger financial aid package — colleges aren't obligated to meet 100% of your child's financial need.

Side note: When making a college list, your child can research a particular college's generosity, including whether it meets 100% of demonstrated need and if it replaces federal loan awards with college grants in its aid packages.

4. We own our home, so my child won't qualify for aid

The FAFSA does not take home equity into account when determining a family's expected family contribution (it also does not consider the value of retirement accounts, cash value life insurance, and annuities).

Side note: The CSS PROFILE does collect home equity and vacation home information, and some colleges may use it when distributing their own institutional aid.

5. I lost my job after I submitted aid forms, but there's nothing I can do now

Not true. If your financial circumstances change after you file the FAFSA — and you can support this with documentation — you can politely ask the financial aid officer at your child's school to revisit your aid package; the officer has the authority to make adjustments if there have been material changes to your family's income or assets.

Side note: A blanket statement of "I can't afford my family contribution" is unlikely to be successful unless it is accompanied by a significant changed circumstance that affects your ability to pay.




TEST YOUR INVESTING IQ

How much do you know about market basics? Put your investing IQ to the test with this quiz on stocks, bonds, and mutual funds.

Questions

1. What does it mean to buy stock in a company?

a. The investor loans money to the company

b. The investor becomes a part owner of the company

c. The investor is liable for the company's debts

2. Which of the following statements about stock indexes is correct?

a. A stock index is an indicator of stock price movements

b. There are many different types of stock indexes

c. They can be used as benchmarks to compare the performance of an individual investment to a group of its peers

d. All of the above

3. What is a bond?

a. An equity security

b. A nonnegotiable note

c. A debt investment in which an investor loans money to an entity

4. What kind of bond pays no periodic interest?

a. Zero-coupon

b. Floating-rate

c. Tax-exempt

5. What is a mutual fund?

a. A portfolio of securities assembled by an investment company

b. An investment technique of buying a fixed dollar amount of a particular investment regularly

c. A legal document that provides details about an investment

6. What is the difference between mutual fund share classes?

a. The investment advisers responsible for managing each class

b. The investments each class makes

c. The fees and expenses charged by each fund class

Answers

1. b. The investor becomes a part owner of the company. Stocks are often referred to as equities because they represent an ownership position. As part owners, shareholders assume both the potential financial risks and benefits of this position, but without the responsibility of running the company.

2. d. All of the above. A stock index measures and reports value changes in representative stock groupings. A broad-based stock index represents a diverse cross-section of stocks and reflects movements in the market as a whole. The Dow Jones Industrial Average, NASDAQ Composite Index, and S&P 500 are three of the most widely used U.S. stock indexes. There are also more narrowly focused indexes that track stocks in a particular industry or market segment.

3. c. A debt investment in which an investor loans money to an entity. Unlike shareholders, bondholders do not have ownership rights in a company. Instead, investors who buy bonds are lending their money to the issuer (such as a municipality or a corporation) and thus become the issuer's creditors.

4. a. Zero-coupon. Unlike many types of bonds, zero-coupon bonds pay no periodic interest. They are purchased at a discount, meaning the purchase price is lower than the face value. When the bond matures, the difference between the purchase price and that face value is the investment's return.

5. a. A portfolio of securities assembled by an investment company. A mutual fund is a pooled investment that may combine dozens to hundreds of stocks, bonds, and other securities into one portfolio shared by many investors.

6. c. The fees and expenses charged by each fund class. A mutual fund may offer various share classes to investors, most commonly A, B, and C. This gives an investor the opportunity to select a share class best suited to his or her investment goals.

Mutual funds are sold by prospectus. Please consider the investment objectives, risks, charges, and expenses carefully before investing. The prospectus, which contains this and other information about the investment company, can be obtained from your financial professional. Be sure to read the prospectus carefully before deciding whether to invest.




EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED: WHAT TO DO IF YOU BECOME DISABLED


In a recent survey, 46% of retirees said they retired earlier than planned, and not necessarily because they chose to do so. In fact, many said they had to leave the workforce early because of health issues or a disability.¹
Although you may be healthy and financially stable now, an unexpected diagnosis or injury could significantly derail your life plans. Would you know what to do, financially speaking, if you suddenly became disabled? Now may be a good time to familiarize yourself with the following information, before an emergency arises.
Understand any employer-sponsored benefits you may have
Disability insurance pays a benefit that replaces a percentage of your pay for a designated period of time. Through your employer, you may have access to both short- and long-term disability insurance. If your employer offers disability insurance, be sure to fully understand how the plan works. Review your plan's Summary Plan Description carefully to determine how to apply for benefits should you need them, and what you will need to provide as proof of disability.
Short-term disability protection typically covers a period of up to six months, while long-term disability coverage generally lasts for the length of the disability or until retirement. Your plan may offer basic coverage paid by your employer and a possible "buy-up" option that allows you to purchase additional coverage.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 40% of private industry workers have access to short-term disability insurance through their employers, while 33% have access to long-term coverage. For both types of plans, the median replacement amount is about 60% of pay, with most subject to maximum limits.²
Consider a supplemental safety net
If you do not have access to disability insurance through your employer, it might be wise to investigate other options. It may be possible to purchase both short- and long-term group disability policies through membership in a professional organization or association. Individual policies are also available from private insurers.
You can purchase policies that cover you for life, until age 65, or for shorter periods such as two or five years. An individual policy will remain in force as long as you pay the premiums. Because many disabilities do not result in a complete inability to work, some policies offer a rider that will pay you partial benefits if you are able to work part-time.
Most insurance policies have a waiting period (known as the "elimination period") before you can begin receiving benefits. For private insurance policies, this period can be anywhere from 30 to 365 days. Group policies (particularly through your employer) typically have shorter waiting periods than private policies. Disability insurance premiums paid with after-tax dollars will generally result in tax-free disability benefits. On the other hand, if your premiums are paid with pre-tax dollars, typically through your employer, your benefit payments may be taxable.
Review the Social Security disability process
The Social Security Administration (SSA) pays disability benefits through two programs: the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program and the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program. SSDI pays benefits to people who cannot work due to a disability that is expected to last at least one year or result in death, and it's only intended to help such individuals make ends meet. Consider that the average monthly benefit in January 2017 was just $1,171.
In order to receive SSDI, you must meet strict criteria for your disability. You must also meet requirements for how recently and how long you have worked. Meeting the medical criteria is difficult; in fact, according to the National Organization of Social Security Claimants' Representatives (NOSSCR), about two-thirds of initial SSDI applications are denied on their first submission. Denials can be appealed within 60 days of receipt of the notice.³
The application process can take up to five months, so it is advisable to apply for SSDI as soon as you become disabled. If your application is approved, benefits begin in the month following the six-month anniversary of your date of disability (as recorded by the SSA in your approval letter). Eligible family members may also be able to collect additional payments of up to 50% of your benefit amount.
SSI is a separate program, based on income needs of the aged, blind, or disabled. You can apply to both SSI and SSDI at the same time.
For more information, visit the Social Security Disability Benefits website at ssa.gov, where you will also find a link to information on the SSI program.
¹2016 Retirement Confidence Survey, Employee Benefit Research Institute
² Bureau of Labor Statistics, National Compensation Survey, 2016
³NOSSCR web site, accessed March 2017