What to Do Today
1. Budget. The first step is to create a budget. Once you know what you’re spending your money on, you can figure out what you don’t need to spend it on — and sock those savings away. “Every month you have to pay yourself first,” says Joe Moglia, CEO of Ameritrade. “Take a little out of your paycheck.” It doesn’t have to be much — it could be foregoing that extra latte or getting the DVD free at the library. For an easy budgeting tool, go to www.saygoodcredit.com.
2. Retirement. Just about every survey of American investors these days shows that retirement is a main reason for saving. Yet an astounding number of people ignore the opportunities offered by employment-based retirement plans. According to a recent survey by Aon Consulting, more than 20% of those eligible for a 401k plan do not participate at all, while another 53% do not save at a rate high enough to take full advantage of their employers’ matching contribution — the closest thing to free money in the retirement savings universe. Consider it money that grows without being taxed.
3. Emergency reserves. Many financial planners recommend that you have enough money in a savings or money-market account for at least six to nine months of essential expenses, including your mortgage or rent, insurance premiums, credit card payments, utility and grocery bills and other fixed expenses, such as car payments or student loans. And it’s always a good idea to have cash on hand. During the blackout of 2003, the ATMs in my neighborhood were out, but we had about $500 in the house, enough to cover our immediate needs for a week or so.
A major illness, an extended disability or the loss of a job could wipe out your financial reserves and any prospect of being able to save enough to achieve your other life goals. Here’s what you need to protect your savings:
4. Health insurance. A recent study of court records and direct interviews indicated that about half of personal bankruptcies in the U.S. are caused in part by medical debts. A relative of mine is about to have her hip replaced and because she’s over 65, Medicare is paying for it. But people under that age face enormous bills — when a child needs an appendectomy, for instance — and many of them lack insurance.
A doctor in New York told me he recently performed heart bypass surgery on a 30-year-old man. His total bill, including surgery and the 10-day stay, came to $100,000. Luckily his insurance covered it.
If your company provides medical benefits, you have the most cost-efficient coverage available. Sign up. If you’re responsible for your own medical insurance, you may want to look into health savings accounts (HSAs), a combination of a high deductible health plan and a tax-deductible savings account allocated to health care expenses. The funds in the account grow tax-free and can be withdrawn tax-free to pay for any qualified medical expenses, including over-the-counter medications, dental care, eyeglasses and other costs not usually covered by conventional health insurance plans.
5. Disability insurance. Over 80% of Americans don’t have adequate disability coverage, according to a survey by the Consumer Federation of America and the American Council of Life Insurers. You may already have disability insurance through your employee benefits plan, either as paid sick leave or actual disability payments if you’re unable to work for an extended period of time. But these programs tend to pay far less than your weekly salary. For the self-employed, having a financial safety net is even more crucial.
6. Life insurance. If you die prematurely, a life-insurance policy will provide immediate funds for funeral expenses, and may help replace your lost income. “Life insurance isn’t a priority if you are single, but if you have a spouse or dependents, you want to make sure they’re taken care of,” says Barbara Raasch. Employers frequently offer coverage as part of their benefits package.
Protect Your Legacy
One of the most thoughtful legacies that anyone can leave is peace of mind. No one wants to mar the memory of a loved one with “I think this is what Mom wanted but she never said” doubts. You can prevent that with the right advance directives and documents:
7. A will. Over half of the adult population in this country dies without a will. This is not just senseless; it’s downright irresponsible. If you die intestate, or without a will, says Karin Barkhorn, an estate planning attorney at Bryan Cave LLP, “the state determines how your assets are dispersed.” What’s more, the government could end up collecting a lot more tax than necessary.
8. A living will. Also known as a health care directive, a living will specifies what medical measures should be used to keep you alive if you are incapacitated. The agonizing Terri Schiavo case in 2005 showed how the absence of a living will can rip a family apart. Health care providers are generally required to comply with the wishes you describe in your living will.
9. Durable power of attorney. This document authorizes a loved one to make financial decisions on your behalf should you become unable. It allows someone to renew your CD at the bank, pay bills, sell stock or even sell your home or business, based on the agent’s determination of what is best for you. “If you are in the hospital and cannot pay your bills or sign a check, someone will have to do it,” says Raasch. “If any of your assets are held in your name only, your spouse can’t touch that money unless the court appoints him guardian. The emotional turmoil of your loved ones having to go to court will only add to your misery.”
Although it’s best to have these documents prepared by a family-law attorney, you can cover the basics on your own with software such as Quicken’s WillMaker Plus or Kiplinger’s WillPower.