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Divorce is emotionally traumatic on everyone involved especially if there are children.  While it may seem mundane, dealing with the money and tax issues that arise from the unwinding of a life together is as important for both psychic and fiscal sanity.

In the big scheme of things, there are more important things than money.  And many who are faced with this kind of life-changing event will cope by simply ignoring the details, shutting down trying to avoid confrontation and more emotional pain. The personalities of each person involved (including family, friends and lawyers) will come out to wreak havoc.  And if someone was a submissive person, then they may become more withdrawn from the process.  Someone who was more dominant in the relationship will likely be more so.

If I’ve learned anything from years of working with people and their money, it is that money is emotionally charged.  And while it may seem satisfying to try to extract some sort of revenge for the pain by attaching a price tag to impose on the other spouse, it is more important to get to closure and strike a deal which best positions each person for moving ahead.

I’ve often said that life is a journey.  And along this journey we’ll each encounter all sorts of things.  A divorce, like any other sudden, life-changing event, is just another part of the journey.  And while we cannot plan perfectly for this or anything else, we can prepare.

So it is with divorce.

I’ve written in the past about the critical mistakes that divorcing couples will make that can set them up for financial failure now and as they start the next stage of their new life.

Dealing with the Family Home in Divorce

For many the key to the settlement is the home.  While each may want to keep the home, it may be wiser to consider other options. For some, there may be sentimental reasons for keeping the home or emotional reasons and bad memories prompting one to put physical and emotional distance between themselves and the home.

For many, the main reason to keep the home is to avoid further disruption especially if there are kids involved which might entail changing schools or at the very least dealing with a move while school is in session.

Financial Triage

Despite the pain, you will need to step up and deal with these issues.  Otherwise, there is a greater risk that the financial foundation put in place for your post-divorce journey will simply not stand up.

At the very least it is important to make sure that all legal documents properly reflect who is responsible for the debts and bills associated with the property going forward.  This means contacting the utilities to change the name on the account.  In the event that the marital home was a rental, then make sure that the landlord changes the name on the lease. Get confirmation in writing.  Otherwise, there is the risk that an unpaid bill may end up in collection and lead to a black mark on your credit report.

The same can be said for credit cards.  It’s in everyone’s best interests to contact the credit card issuer to freeze the account to any new charges.  Don’t forget about old credit cards that you may not use or can’t find the actual plastic card.  To help with this get a copy of your credit report and make contact with each listed creditor appearing on it.

For property that is owned or mortgaged, this becomes a little more tricky.  The mortgage company won’t simply release someone from the debt not even with a valid final divorce decree.

In this case the only way to get this liability off your back is to sell the property or through a cash-out refinance by a spouse who will then assume the ownership and debt solely.

And as long as you are both on the deed, then the property tax liability and even water, sewer or other municipal charges will be the responsibility of each of you.  Only when the property is sold or refinanced will these liabilities be behind you.

Keeping the Home: Will It Make Sense?

A lot of my divorce financial planning practice centers on this very question.  Now if someone insists on keeping the home, I’ll spend a lot of time modeling the impact on near-term cash flow and long-term financial security.  It is not a guarantee that keeping the property is the best option.

It may not make sense at all.  There are the costs of running a home now on one source of income.  Even if one is receiving alimony to supplement this, it may not last long.  There are the added costs for maintenance that may need to be done by outside vendors that were once done by the spouse “for free” before such as snow removal, lawn care, repairs or house cleaning.

And while there may be support payments expected as a source of cash flow to cover these costs, what happens when or if your ex-spouse is unable to pay or simply decides to stop paying? Sure, there are legal remedies.  But these take time and cost money.  In the meantime, the bills may pile up and risk not only your credit.

In some cases, an ex-spouse may continue to provide help in these areas.  But they may want to negotiate the classic side deal: Do the repair and deduct it from the support owed.  This isn’t proper and will not help your long-term cash flow. In some cases, the ex-spouse will try to claim the funds used for these repairs as part of alimony so that it can be a tax-deductible expense.  This is also flat-out wrong and distortion of the tax and divorce rules.

Selling the Home May Make the Most Sense

It may be easier and wiser to simply sell the home, split the proceeds, pay off outstanding debts, fund the emergency reserves and start off fresh without the added burden of running a home.

And while not seeming to be critical in a time of depressed real estate values, by keeping the home you risk losing out on a very valuable capital gains exclusion on the sale of property.  As long as you’re married when you sell your home, the first $500,000 in gain above the original purchase price and subsequent costs of improvements will be exempt from any capital gains taxes.

Once you are divorced this exclusion drops to only $250,000.  For those couples who bought homes several years ago before the huge run up in values, this may be a critically important consideration.

Seek Professional Guidance

Dealing with the many tax, financial and real estate issues related to a divorce can be complicated.  You may want to seek advice from someone specifically trained to handle such issues.  Not all CPAs, attorneys and financial planners are qualified or set up to help clients through this type of life-changing event.

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Black Friday is traditionally the day that can make or break a retailer’s bottom line.  But don’t let enthusiasm for the season, the sales or the advertising hype end up putting you into the Red.

Black Friday is here.  Even before you may have had a chance to digest your Thanksgiving feast or recover from a day of football, you may have already been lured into the local mall.  Maybe you were one of those early bird shoppers preparing for a marathon day of shopping at 1 AM.  (It’s not too late to consider these tips for the rest of your shopping season or to teach your kids).

I was not one of them.  I slept in and have probably missed a host of specials and discounts on every imaginable thing sold. While I don’t feel bad I know that I’ll probably be picking on the leftovers like a I will be with the Thanksgiving turkey in the refrigerator.

Although I’m not the best marathon shopper, I thought I’d share a few tips that may help you avoid turning this holiday’s shopping season into a budget-busting hole for your family budget that you’ll be paying for and digging out of long after that snazzy do-dad you bought for Uncle Charlie is lost or breaks.

Have a Budget

No one says that you have to go and take out a second mortgage on your home to buy gifts for the entire world (that’s even assuming that you can qualify for a Home Equity Loan or HELOC).

It’s probably reasonable to budget somewhere around 1% of your gross income for holiday purchases of gifts for others in your family and friend network. Unless you’re buying an engagement or anniversary ring for your significant other, there’s no need to bust the budget here – even then there are limits. (And you really should not be spending more on stuff than you’re putting away in your IRA or 401k).

Are you afraid you’ll be considered the cheap skate relative or office mate? Who cares?  Are those folks going to bail you out if you’re in financial trouble?  Do you really want to be one of the folks who’s still paying off the credit card charges you incurred for this holiday by the time you serve next year’s Thanksgiving turkey?  All of those great savings you got will simply be replaced by interest charges on the balance you carry.

Gifts are barely remembered while memories of sharing time with friends and family have more meaning to most folks.

Make a List and Check It Twice

Just like Old Saint Nick, you should prepare a shopping list. Have a written list of who’s going to be receiving gifts.  If you know them well, you can jot down a few ideas of types of gifts to try to find.  Before you even open up your web browser or step foot in the store, get this done.  Without a list you’re more likely to become an impulse buyer.

Have a Shopping Plan

Experienced shoppers know that it pays to have a plan of attack when those doors open.  You’ve been scouring the newspaper inserts (you do still get the newspaper, right?) and browsing the websites.  You’ve been in the stores before and know the floor layout.  You can bypass all the stuff you don’t need and just go straight to the department in the store where that perfect gift for Aunt Sally is.

Hey, store merchandisers know that you’re only human and easily distracted.  That’s why they’ll stack up stuff near cash registers.  That’s why grocery stores force you to walk through the entire store to get to the dairy case and that quick stop to pick up milk costs you $30 because you pick up a “few things.”

I prefer to use shopping sites that will find and compare items.  Whether you use Amazon.com or MySimon.com or a host of other shopping robots, you can narrow down the price range to expect to pay for an item.  And for the Smartphone set, “there’s an app for that.”  You can download an app that will allow you to scan a product’s UPC which can then pull up product information and comparative prices.

Consider Charity

You might want to give back instead of simply consume.  Sure, we need consumers to buy more stuff to get the economy moving again (we also need corporations to invest their $2 trillion in cash back into their businesses by buying equipment and hiring folks but that’s a different discussion).

But nothing says that you have to stimulate the economy single-handedly.

There are causes and people who need your help throughout the year and providing a donation in lieu of a gift made in China will help them, make you feel good, provide you with a tax deduction, and reduce our trade imbalance which will ultimately improve the strength of the US dollar.

Remember the Spirit of the Season

What do you really want your family to remember about the season?  What values do you want to pass down to your children or grandchildren?

Sure, it can be all about the ostentatious display of holiday lights and some of those displays are really nice and others are just way over the top.

Sure, it can be about buying the biggest, best new shiny thing.

I’m not trying to be Scrooge here. Far from it.  I believe that the holiday is about family and friends.  And more particularly, I think that playing Santa for young kids is magical – for you and them.

When I was growing up, my brother and I typically received one gift each from our parents, aunts, uncles and grandmother. And after we opened them up, our parents let us keep one toy out to play with while the others were put away so we didn’t end up overly distracted and bored with the toys all at once.

On the other hand, I remember going to a cousin’s house and they had TONS of packages under the tree.  Their parents would wrap all sorts of little stocking-stuffers – candy, marbles, even tooth paste and socks.  It was all about showing the quantity of gifts even if they were mundane, everyday sort of things.

I think that I enjoyed our holiday more and better because we weren’t focused on tearing off lots and lots of wrapping paper.

And I think that’s what I want my soon-to-be 15-month old son, Spencer, to take away as part of his understanding of the holiday and our new family’s traditions.

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Mortgage interest rates continue to be at historic lows.  Rates for 30-year fixed rate loans are hovering in the 4% to 4.2% range. There’s no real whiff of inflation in the air that could lead to a spike in interest rates any time soon.

So should you refinance?  Crunching the numbers is crucial.

When I was a mortgage banker, the rule of thumb would be it made sense when prevailing interest rates were 2% or more below your current rate.  With the availability of zero point and zero closing cost loans, it even made sense when the rate was a mere 1/2% difference.  It was common for homeowners to get calls from their mortgage brokers alerting them that the rates had dipped and they should refinance even before the homeowner may have made their first mortgage payment on their new loan.  It was even common for mortgage brokers to keep current copies of income, credit and asset verification forms on file in order to start a new application quickly.

Things have certainly changed since the refinance booms of the 1980s and late 1990s.

Property market values have fallen throughout many parts of the country.  The number of jobless are at historic highs.  Credit has been strained by more than two years of economic crisis and now malaise. Banks are in much less tolerant moods now to offer special deals or bend the rules when underwriting a loan.

Since buying and owning a home is one of the largest investments for many, it pays to consult with a professional who can help you sort all of this out.

Break Even

One of the first things that an adviser can help you do is make an informed decision about how this refinance will impact the total picture for your personal finances.

Paying off debts and consolidating credit cards may look good but if you’ll just end up running up the tabs on these accounts right after the refinance, then you’re no further ahead.

Assuming you will not be tempted into debt again, then you need to figure out what the refinance will cost compared to the potential interest savings.  The “break even” point in terms of months or years is calculated by dividing the costs by the projected savings.

For example, if you took out a $400,000 loan three years at a 30-year fixed rate of 5.5%, then your principal and interest payment(P&I) is $2,271.16 per month.  After three years of payments, your balance is about $382,905 if you made no additional payments to principal.

Let’s assume that the prevailing rate now for the same loan term is 4.5% and your new loan will be just enough to pay off the old balance and any closing costs for this loan.  Assuming a new loan amount of $395,000 to cover 1 point (or 1% of the loan), plus the various fees and the payoff balance of about $385,200 (payoff balances are higher than statement balances because of accrued interest), then the new monthly payment is estimated at $2,001.41 for P&I.

The $9,800 in closing costs divided by the estimated monthly savings of $269.75 translates to a break even of 36 months. So if you think you’ll likely remain in the home for at least 3 years, then it may mean more cash flow into your pocket.

Selling or refinancing before then means that you will not be better off and your actual effective interest cost for borrowing (the Annual Percentage Rate) will actually be much higher than the stated coupon rate.

What’s not taken into account by this calculation is the additional interest that you are going to pay because you will be extending the term of the loan by three years. Sure, the new loan will be written for a 30-year term.  But so was the last one you had started three years ago in this example.  So instead of being mortgage-free in 2037, you’ll be paying on this loan until 2040 if you don’t refinance before then or sell the property.

Try a Different Term

Just because you’ve always had a 30-year fixed rate doesn’t mean that you have to always get the same term.  Usually, a term of 20-year or 25-years is offered at the same interest rate.  Assuming you can handle the higher payment for the shorter term, it may make sense.

In this example, a 25-year term fixed rate loan at 4.5% for $395,000 will mean a P&I payment of $2,195.54 each month.  Compared to the original loan payment of $2,271.16, this means your monthly cash outflow will increase by $75.  But you will save two years in interest payments over the old loan.

Cash In or Cash Out

Instead of “cashing out” equity and walking away from the closing table with a check, it’s becoming common to see people “cashing in” and come to the closing table with a check to pay towards the loan payoff.

This may be because the homeowner wants a lower payment.  Or it could more likely be because of the drop in property value and the lender’s loan-to-value limits.

In either case, you now need to consider whether locking up this cash by paying it to the bank makes sense. Will it still leave you with sufficient emergency cash reserves? Besides flexibility, what else are you giving up?  Could this money be invested somewhere else and what could you expect as a return?

This is the kind of comparative analysis that a qualified financial adviser can provide when making such financial decisions.

Home Equity Value: Another Potential Problem

These are best case scenarios.  What happens if the property value has dropped?  If you had less than 20% equity in your property when you bought or last refinanced, it’s quite possible that you may not have enough equity to do a refinance.  Or you might be underwater with your current loan above the market value.

Even if there is equity to do a refinance, there are new risk-based lending guidelines that require the lender to tack on an additional amount to the interest rate or the closing costs or both if the loan amount is higher than 75% of the appraised value.

And depending on the area, some lenders are not taking the appraised value provided by the appraiser without reducing it by a 5% “haircut” which may make it economically unfeasible to do the loan or qualify under the lender’s counter-terms offered.

Staff Crunch, Delays and Legal Issues

Given the low rates, lenders are swamped with applications and may not be able to process an application within your rate lock period.

And recent issues regarding the proper filing of mortgage documents that is now resulting in some homeowners challenging their foreclosures could spill over to good credit quality borrowers as well.  In addition to the drain on lender resources to fix this problem, it could delay conveyance attorneys or title companies in tracking down the records needed to do a proper title search.

So should you refinance? If it fits into your financial plan, then yes.  If you don’t have a financial plan, then call a qualified adviser to get one before trying to figure all this out on your own.


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We live in a sea of credit, credit cards and debt in general. It’s the lifeblood of our economy and personal finances.

Now with recent legislative changes having taken effect in February, it’s time to reassess the credit cards we carry and make the most of them while avoiding any nasty bites from behind.

Cardholders have been receiving disclosures in tiny print from their credit card companies for a while now. But most of us ignore these densely worded forms. But there are hidden traps in them.

Sure, the card companies are not supposed to arbitrarily increase your interest rate on existing balances and it cannot apply payments to the lowest interest rate balances first.

On the other hand, the privilege of having a card will now likely cost more: the return of annual fees, inactivity fees and even fees if you use the card but not enough.

You could consider closing out the cards you don’t use. But remember that will likely have a negative impact on your personal credit score. One of the factors that a credit score is based on includes the longevity of an account and you could inadvertently be hurting your score by closing out an account that you don’t use. It may make sense to use the card for a few transactions to meet the minimum. But plan on paying these charges off in full each billing cycle.

If you do happen to carry a balance, then consider replacing your BIG BRAND card with one of the smaller competitors. These card issuers may offer better deals, lower rates and lower fees, too. Start with a credit union or smaller, local bank by logging onto FindACreditUnion.com.

To compare your existing cards and find other deals, you may also want to check out CardRatings.com or Savvy-Discounts.com.

Considering a balance transfer? Watch out. Big banks are moving to up the fee from the average of 3% of the balance to 5% and eliminating the dollar cap. Look for banks that will do such transfers and cap the total fee.

It’s your money and the one certain way to get ahead is to control the things that you can control. And by watching the details regarding your credit, you can control your costs. Put more into your pocket by reducing the bite from your plastic.

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Here are some suggestions for saving money.  While “cash is king” now with the high level of consumer anxiety, these tips can and should be used any time.

 

1.) Pay Yourself First:  This is the best advice that any consumer can take to heart. It works through any and all environments.  Set aside a certain dollar amount each pay period to savings and investment.  When you receive a pay raise, increase the amount going to savings, investment or your 401k to include a good portion of the raise.  Money is like water.  It fills up the space provided and the more available cash someone has, then the more likely it will be spent.  By directing it to savings (or an auto investment like a 401k) the less temptation there is for someone to use it on “wants” versus “needs.”

 

2.) Start an auto-investment savings and investment plan:  This is related to the first step.  Direct a portion of your savings into a separate savings account for your emergency fund.  Direct a portion into your company-sponsored retirement plan. 

 

3.) Bring Your Own:  Whether it’s bagging your own lunch or brewing your own cup of java, this will add up.  Eliminating just one cup of special mocha grande latte (or whatever they call it), you can save nearly $5 per cup.  Add that up:  Over the course of a year, eliminating just one cup per day on your way to work can save at least $1,200.  Over the course of five years, that money put in a FDIC-insured account might be worth $5,000 to $6,000 – a tidy sum for some other more worthwhile endeavor (maybe a vacation, maybe a home improvement, maybe college savings).

 

4.) Use Cash:  When buying gifts or even a night on the town, use cash instead of credit cards.  Cash seems more real.  It is more immediate.  When the amount in your wallet drops by the cost of four movie tickets and jumbo drinks, it stings a little more than putting it on plastic. 

 

5.) Avoid Unneeded Insurance:  Don’t skip needed coverage on your auto, home, income or life.  And review these types of policies at least annually (or when there is a life-changing event like a birth) to make sure that adequate coverage is in place.  But skip the extended warranty coverages on small ticket items.  For instance, a cordless phone that costs $20 at Radio Shack may offer a 2-year extended warranty for replacement at $5 but that’s just increased your cost now by 25%. And it is more than likely that if and when the phone gets fried, you’ll be able to simply replace it at the same current cost with even more fancy features anyway.

For big ticket items, it may make sense to have some type of insurance in place:  a computer used for work, an expensive plasma TV.

 

Speaking of insurance.  Deal with a reputable Property & Casualty insurance agent who has access to many carriers.  Be sure to call and review your coverage.  Going for the lowest premium is not a way to save money.  Example:  Owning a home with a replacement cost of $400,000 and having outdated coverage up to only $300,000 exposes you to all sorts of risks and out of pocket costs if there is a damage claim since you’ll only get a proportion of the loss covered by the insurance.  Why?  Because you did not have full replacement cost coverage.

And it’s a good idea to insure only that portion of the risk that you are not willing or able to bear.  So consider increasing your deductibles on things like your auto and home insurance policies.  A policy with a $1,000 deductible will cost less per year overall than one with a $250 deductible.  And with the savings you’ve established from Step 1 above, you’ll have the deductible covered.

 

Example of being penny wise (i.e. annual premium) but pound foolish (i.e. larger out-of-pocket outlay).

 

6.) Save the Planet – Reduce, Reuse, Recyle: There is a bumber sticker out there that says “Think Globally, Act Locally.”  Here you can do your part to make the world a little more green while putting some green in your pocket as well.   There are a host of ways that one can cut back without too much impact on lifestyle.  Your mom’s advice here works: Shut off the lights when not in a room, don’t keep the refrigerator door open so long that you could paint a picture, wash your clothes in cold water instead of hot, unplug battery charges when not in use.   To reduce water consumption consider shorter showers (a challenge with teenagers, I’m sure) and don’t let the water run constantly while shaving or brushing teeth. And consider reusing plastic packages for other storage instead of simply tossing them.  And if your community has a recycling program, use it.  The more your community recycles, the lower the garbage collection tipping fees.  And that may mean one less excuse to raise your property taxes.

 

Hope that this helps.

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According to a Wall Street Journal article, here are some of the many reasons why the financial planning process is vital for today’s consumer:

 

• Health care and education costs are

rising significantly faster than the general

inflation rate.

 

• Many retirees today will live 25 or more

years in retirement, requiring far more

financial management of resources to

maintain a desired lifestyle.

 

• Social Security and company pensions

no longer provide the majority of retirement

funds for many people.

 

• Tax laws change almost annually.

 

• Downsizing companies no longer provide

cradle-to-grave benefits or job security.

 

• The average American changes jobs

seven times in a lifetime.

 

• According to CardWeb.com, the average

American household today has

$9,300 of credit card debt, up from

$5,800 a decade ago.

 

• The Center for Association Leadership

reported a survey in which 50% of respondents

said they rarely, if ever, use

a household budget to manage their

spending.

 

• There are myriad investment options

available, and not all of them are appropriate choices for you.

 

Given our very busy lives,  is it very likely that a consumer will be able to evaluate all the options out there on their own without guidance? 

How does a consumer know how to make a proper evaluation of the various options on issues?

Most consumers don’t have a plan but a hope.  Yet hope, as important as it is on any difficult endeavor, is not a strategy.

Having a plan that starts with goals – an end in mind – will help focus one’s efforts and keep one on track even if detoured off course by the occasional pothole or market meltdown.

I want to encourage folks to open up and think about what they want their money to do for them.  It’s not enough to simply say, “I want to be rich.”  That is a relative term.  Being rich means something completely different to someone on Rodeo Drive compared to someone living in a hut in the jungle.

Regardless of where one lives there is common agreement that people almost universally want to be free from want, hunger, disease.  And all want to have a safe home for raising a family.

The trappings surrounding the success we call “being rich” are what may be different.

So how does one get there then?  Wishing alone will not make it so.

So take it one step further.  Be SMART about what you want – have goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and have a Time limit.

Having a plan is the first step.  Next is staying on track to get between Point A and Point B.  This is where the right coach can do wonders.  If Tiger Woods can have a coach, shouldn’t you?  A good coach can offer advice with an objective perspective, tell it like it is and be brutally honest. 

It’s a complex world out there – whole life versus term insurance, over 10,000 mutual funds, multiple options for elfer care and medical treatment, tax laws that change constantly.

Are you really sure that you’re prepared to handle these details on your own?  Do you really think that the Web or some talking head on TV is the best source of information for your specific needs?

Maybe it’s time to try something different and sit down with a real money coach, not just someone trying to sell you something.

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