Building Financial Freedom
Does the idea of planning for your financial future seem too complex or confusing? Do you think you can't save money because you're barely making ends meet as it is? All excuses aside, there are two good reasons to seize control of your finances now:
The sooner you start planning for the future, the sooner you'll reap the rewards. Use this guide to help you build your financial freedom.
Establish a Spending Plan
The first step toward financial freedom is establishing a spending plan. The worksheet below will show you how much money you have coming in and going out. Fill in the monthly dollar amounts for each item below. Then, subtract your total expenditures from your total income.
This is the amount you can save without making any changes in your spending habits. A recommended savings rate is 10% of your take-home pay. If you find that your total is a negative number or is less than you would like to save, you need to find areas where you can cut spending. Begin by recording all your expenditures for one month (cash, check and credit) in a notebook so you know exactly where your money is going. Look for areas where you can cut back. Perhaps you can rent videos rather than going to the movies, cut down on your dry cleaning bill, use coupons at the grocery store, carpool to work or take your lunch rather than eating out.
Once you have determined how much you can save each month, enter this amount on your worksheet as one of your permanent expenditures. Pay yourself first by setting aside your savings when you receive your paycheck, before you have a chance to spend the money on anything else. It helps to have savings automatically deducted from your paycheck or checking account. Donít get discouraged if an emergency cuts into your savings. Just get back on track the following month.
Monthly Budget Worksheet
|Your Salary||________________||Rent or Mortgage||________________|
(phone, cable, gas, electric)
|Interest Income||________________||Debt Obligations (alimony/child support/credit card balances)||________________|
|Rental Income||________________||Child Care Expenses||________________|
|Social Security Income||________________||Medical/Dental Expenses||________________|
|Pension Income||________________||Taxes (income/property)||________________|
|Alimony||________________||Transportation (car payments, gas, tolls)||________________|
|Total Income:||________________||Total Expenditures:||________________|
|Subtract Total Expenditures from Total Income ________________________________________________|
How Your Savings Grow
If you can save just $1 a day, that's $365 in a year. If you invest this money at a 4% return, computed daily, here's how it would grow:
|Savings||With Daily Interest|
|$ 365||One year||$ 372|
|$ 1,825||Five years||$ 2,929|
|$ 3,650||10 years||$ 4,487|
What's Your Goal?
Your first goal should be to save three to six
months living expenses as a buffer against emergencies. Fill in your personal
savings goal for the immediate future:
At least 3 x Total Monthly Expenditures: __________
(or) 6 x Total Monthly Expenditures: __________
Keep your financial cushion safely tucked away in an easy-access savings account, short-term certificate of deposit (CD) or money market account. Make sure the bank or financial institution where you keep this money is insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), which protects the money you have on deposit up to $100,000.
The next step is to decide your short-term and long-term financial goals. Do you want to buy a home? Do you need to save for a childís college education? Are you planning for retirement? Are you saving for a vacation? Write down your goal(s):
Investing Your Money
Once youíve acquired the basics, youíre ready to consider some financial vehicles that will help your money grow over the long term. To increase your spending power, you must look for an investment that will earn enough to outpace the rising cost of living. For example, if a savings account earns 4% interest and the rate of inflation is also 4%, your savings will not increase in value at all. And, if the rate of inflation were to rise, your savings might actually decline in value. Realize, however, that not all investments will make money, and some are very risky.
Assess Your Level of Risk Tolerance
The following questionnaire is designed to help you assess your level of risk tolerance. Questionnaire results can serve as a guide to choosing the investments that complement your financial goals. Discuss the results with your financial advisor.
No matter what type of investor you are, it is important to diversify. That means distributing your money across different types of investments so that youíre not putting all your eggs in one basket. You may place some of your funds in conservative financial vehicles with a guaranteed rate of return, while putting additional money in aggressive investments that carry more risk but have a possibility of greater returns.
|Circle the answer that best describes your response.
Agree Strongly= 1 pt. Agree Somewhat= 2 pts. Disagree = 3 pts.
|1. Preservation of capital is most important to me.||1||2||3|
|2. I would accept a lower yield on my bond investments in exchange for the relative safety of government securities.||1||2||3|
|3. Although emerging growth stocks offer high potential return, I would prefer a portfolio of established, high-quality equity securities.||1||2||3|
|4. I would choose share price stability over higher current return.||1||2||3|
|5. Portfolio diversification is an important investment consideration.||1||2||3|
|6. I would accept a lower current yield if I could access my money at any time.||1||2||3|
|7. I would choose U.S. government bonds versus stocks as my primary long-term investment.||1||2||3|
|8. I would choose current liquidity over higher, long-term total return.||1||2||3|
Types of Investments
Here's a quick guide to some of the investment options available to you:
Savings Accounts. Such accounts are a good place to store your emergency funds. They are generally insured by the FDIC up to $100,000 for all deposits at one institution and provide easy access to your money. The chief drawback is that interest rates tend to be low.
Money Market Deposit Accounts. These accounts usually earn slightly higher interest than a savings account but still allow easy access to your money. Some banks and financial institutions require an initial deposit of $1,000 or more and limit the number of withdrawals or transfers you can make during a given period of time.
CDs (Certificates of Deposit). CDs usually earn more interest than a savings account and are a very low-risk financial vehicle. They are generally insured up to $100,000 by the FDIC for all deposits at one institution. You agree to keep your money on deposit for a fixed period of time. Usually, the longer the term, the higher the interest rate. There may be penalties for early withdrawal.
401(k) Plans. If your employer offers a 401(k) plan, it may be one of the best retirement vehicles available to you. A 401(k) is a retirement savings plan to which you can contribute a certain percentage of your gross income. However, contributions to a 401(k) and certain other qualified deferred compensation arrangements cannot exceed $10,500 in 2001, and are scheduled to gradually increase to $15,000 in 2006. Typically with a 401(k) plan you have several investment options from which to choose, including stocks, bonds, mutual funds or CDs.
|Thereafter contributions may be indexed periodically for inflation|
Your employer may contribute matching funds to your 401(k) plan. For example, your employer may match 50% of your contribution for any amount up to 5% of your compensation. That means an additional 50% contribution on the first 5% you contribute to your plan. Thatís also why 401(k)s are so highly recommended by financial advisors.
Contributions made to a 401(k) should reduce your current income taxes as well. You do defer paying income tax on the contributions you make. Likewise, the earnings in your 401(k) grow tax-deferred until the money is withdrawn. Income tax is due when the money is withdrawn. If you withdraw money before you turn 591/2, however, you may also be subject to a 10% IRS penalty. While withdrawals are generally not permitted, certain 401(k) plans may permit withdrawals for "hardship" reasons, such as medical emergencies or college tuition. You do pay income tax on the amount withdrawn, and a 20% mandatory withholding generally is required from the distribution. Moreover, the hardship distribution may also be subject to the 10% IRS penalty.
403(b) Tax Sheltered Annuities (TSAs). Similar to a 401(k) plan, TSAs are retirement plans for nonprofit organizations such as schools, hospitals or social service agencies. These plans allow you to set aside a portion of your pay on a pretax basis and the money invested in a TSA grows free from taxation until such time as you withdraw the money. Withdrawing money from your 403(b) plan before age 591/2 is generally prohibited. But there are exceptions. Certain 403(b) plans permit hardship exceptions such as the purchase of a primary residence or college tuition. If you qualify for a hardship withdrawal, you will still pay a 10% early withdrawal penalty plus regular taxes. The maximum amount you can contribute to a TSA is determined by how much you make, how long youíve worked for your current employer and the amount you contributed in prior years.
Individual Retirement Arrangements (IRAs). IRAs were established to encourage people to save for retirement. Subject to certain limitations, an individual generally may be able to contribute the lesser of the amounts shown below or 100% of your compensation to an IRA, and the earnings grow tax deferred until you begin withdrawals. Additionally if you are age 50 and over, you are permitted to make catch-up contributions to your IRA for years that you did not fully invest. You may contribute an extra $500 per year through 2005 and an extra $1,000 per year in 2006 and beyond. Your annual contribution may also be fully or partially deductible, depending on your income level and whether you are covered by another retirement plan. As with 401(k) and 403(b) plans, you may be subject to a 10% IRS penalty for premature withdrawals (generally before the age of 591/2), in addition to the income tax. You may have a choice of investment options for your IRA, including stocks, bonds, mutual funds or CDs. Keep in mind that your money must be in an IRA-approved account and that it must be designated as an IRA.
Thereafter contributions may be indexed periodically for inflation in $500 increments.
Keogh Plans. Keoghs are retirement plans for people who are self-employed. Usually a maximum of 25% of your net income (or a maximum of $40,000) can be contributed to these plans on a tax-deferred basis. Keoghs are more complicated than an IRA, 401(k) or 403(b), so get tax advice before setting up a plan.
Stocks. When you buy stocks, you acquire shares of a companyís assets. If the company does well, you may receive periodic dividends and/or be able to sell your stock at a profit. If the company does poorly, the stock price may fall and you could lose some or all of the money you invested.
you purchase a bond, you are essentially loaning money to a corporation, the
U.S. government or a local government for a certain period of time, called a
term. The bond certificate promises that the issuing entity will repay you on
a specified date with a fixed rate of interest. Bond terms can range from a
few months to
Bonds are generally considered a safer investment than stocks because bondholders
are paid before stockholders if a company becomes insolvent. Independent bond-rating
agencies such as Standard & Poorís and Moodyís rate the likelihood that
any given bond will default. You can find bond ratings in each agencyís publications
Although there are no penalties for selling a bond before the end of its term, the value of the bond is subject to interest rate fluctuations. If interest rates have risen since you bought your bond, you may have to sell it at less than face value. It is also possible that the bondís yield will turn out to be less than the rate of inflation.
Some of the bonds available include:
Mutual Funds. A mutual fund is generally a professionally managed pool of money from a group of investors. A mutual fund manager invests your funds in securities, including stocks and bonds, money market instruments or some combination and decides the best time to buy and sell. By pooling your resources with other investors in a mutual fund, you can diversify even a small investment over a wide spectrum, which should reduce risk.
There are many types of mutual funds with varying degrees of risk. Most mutual funds charge fees, and you often pay income tax on your profits. Tax rules can be complicated, requiring professional advice.
Annuities. Annuities may be deferred or immediate. Both are financial contracts you make with an insurance company. However, a deferred annuity helps you accumulate money for retirement, while an immediate annuity provides you with a steady stream of retirement income in return for your money.
With a deferred annuity you put money in, and over time it accrues income and interest. The payout occurs at some later date, when you receive a steady stream of payments to supplement your other income. The contributions you make to a non-qualified annuity are not tax-deductible. Contributions to a qualified annuity that is funding an IRA, 401(k), 403(b) or other qualified plan may be before tax or tax deductible. However, taxes on the earnings in the annuity are deferred until you begin receiving payments. Because annuities are generally administered by insurance companies, they can be set up to include life insurance benefits, such as a death benefit to a surviving spouse.
Immediate annuities are usually purchased with one lump sum payment and then begin an immediate payout. You receive payment on a monthly or other regular basis, giving you needed income. You can generally choose to have the payouts guaranteed by the issuer for as long as you live or choose from a number of other payment options.
Both deferred and immediate annuities can be either fixed or variable. The issuer of a fixed annuity guarantees a fixed rate of interest (deferred) or a fixed payment (immediate). Although you are protected from any downturn in the market, you wonít benefit from any upswings. A variable annuity can earn a flexible rate (deferred) or pay a variable payment (immediate) depending on the performance of the underlying investment options you choose. Variable annuities are designed to accumulate money or provide an income stream that hopefully will rise over time to keep pace with inflation. However, there is some risk involved if the market does poorly during the time your money is invested.
Annuities can be a complicated investment, so discuss them with a qualified financial advisor to make sure you understand all the options and make the smartest decisions for your financial needs.
Your Home. Your home may be the largest investment you will make during your lifetime. The market value of your home is determined by such things as its condition, the neighborhood, school districts, square footage of the house and house style.
Other Ways to Build Your Financial Freedom
Social Security. Youíve paid into it most of your life, so donít forget to include it in your financial planning. The income you receive when you reach the eligibility age (e.g., 65) is based on the average of your 35 highest salary years. You also can collect 80% of your benefit at age 62. If you die, your spouse may be entitled to your benefits. The age at which you can collect full benefits is currently scheduled to increase gradually to 67. You can check the record of your earnings and get a statement of your anticipated benefits by calling Social Security at 800/772-1213.
Life Insurance. Life insurance can help to financially protect your loved ones in the event of your death. Itís important if you are married and even more important if you have dependent children. There are several types of life insurance:
Health Insurance.Health coverage protects you in case of sickness or injury. Without it you run the risk of being financially wiped out by just one serious illness or accident. Most people receive subsidized health benefits through their employer, but coverage can also be purchased as an individual.
Disability Insurance. This is probably one of the most overlooked forms of insurance for working-age people. Disability coverage replaces a portion of your income when you can't work because of illness or injury. Most policies replace 60% to 80% of your income. (You also may receive income from Social Security for certain disabilities, or from Workers Compensation if you are injured on the job.) If your employer provides a 60% disability policy, you might want to consider a supplemental policy covering 20% of your income.
Long Term Care Insurance. Long Term Care insurance is designed to help pay for nursing home care, assisted living care or home health care expenses. This fast growing type of insurance can protect you and your assets against the high cost of long-term care. Most policies pay benefits when long-term care is prescribed by a physician as medically necessary or when someone can no longer physically or mentally take care of basic needs.
Homeowners Insurance. Homeowners coverage protects your financial investment in your home. It provides compensation for damages to your home and its contents, and it may protect you from financial liability if someone is injured on your property. The extent and amount of coverage needed depends on your situation, but if you can afford it, it is wise to insure your home for 100% of its replacement cost.
Auto Insurance. Auto insurance is more than a matter of insuring your vehicle for loss or repairs after an accident. It is a financial safety net that can help you offset the cost of bodily injuries to yourself or others, lost wages due to injury, and lawsuits brought against you as the result of an accident. Most states require the purchase of basic coverage and then you determine the additional insurance you need.
Estate Planning. Another way to safeguard your familyís financial future is through estate planning. Generally, estate planning includes taking an inventory of your assets and making a will or establishing a trust, with an emphasis on minimizing taxes. Estate planning is very complex and subject to changing laws. You may want to seek professional advice.
Do You Need a Financial Advisor?
If you need help with your blueprint for the future, you may want to consult
a financial advisor, who can give you advice on everything from budgeting, taxes,
retirement and estate planning to investments, insurance and
Some financial advisors charge you no fee; instead they make a commission on the financial vehicles that they sell you. Other advisors are fee-only, which means they charge you for their services but do not make a commission on financial products you buy. Still others charge a fee for providing the financial plan and may also receive commissions if they sell you any products.
Shop around and talk to several financial advisors. Be sure you feel comfortable with them and can understand their explanations. Ask for their credentials. One credential is a Certified Financial Planner (CFP) designation, which means the planner has taken a series of courses in financial planning, has passed an exam, has at least three years experience and takes continuing education courses each year. Other designations include Chartered Financial Consultant (ChFC), Certified Public Accountant (CPA) and Registered Financial Planner (RFP). Investment advisors and broker/dealers may also be regulated by the state. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) regulates broker/dealers and some investment advisors. Individuals associated with these firms generally must pass certain licensing examinations.
Brokers vs. Online Services
If you plan to buy stocks or bonds as part of your investment portfolio, you will need to either choose a broker (full service or discount) or sign-up for an online service.
A broker is a licensed professional who monitors investments and gives advice on stock purchases for a fee. The fee can be either a percentage of your portfolio or a per transaction fee. Brokers may also make commissions on some of the investments they sell. Before selecting a broker, make sure your candidate is part of the Securities Investor Protection Corporation (SIPC), a nonprofit corporation that can protect your interests up to $500,000 if the broker should become insolvent. Also call the National Association of Securities Dealersí (NASD) toll-free hotline at 1-800/289-9999. The NASD can tell you if there has been any disciplinary action against a particular brokerage firm or sales representative.
Discount brokerage houses generally have lower fees than those touted as full-service. They employ brokers who, primarily, are order takers and may, or may not, give investment advice. If you use a discount broker, be sure you are well-informed about stocks and can make your own investment decisions.
Online services allow you to buy your own stocks, bonds, and mutual funds for significantly lowered fees, but not without risk. Although research is available, you are making your own investment decisions. Most online services provide varying levels of research, news and customer service. You should also become familiar with the online brokerage commission schedule and fees before joining or trading through an online service. Keep in mind, too, that some online services offer delayed quotes, others have real time quotes; some excel at customer service and, for others, it may be nonexistent. Online services have different levels of strengths so, again, be well-informed before using one.
However you decide to buy stocks, from a full service broker, discount broker or online service, research each option carefully and make sure it meets your investment needs.
Tips for Investors
Shop around. Compare the products and fees of various banks, financial planners, brokers and investment houses.
Ask questions. All investments carry some degree of risk, so you should fully understand what you are getting into. Ask for a written explanation of products, operations and fees.
Educate yourself. Spend some time at your local library gathering information. Read investment and financial publications such as the Wall Street Journal, Barron's, Investor's Business Daily, Money, Smart Money, Forbes and the monthly Standard & Poor's Stock Reports. Moody's Investors Service also has manuals that contain financial information on thousands of companies.
Get advice. A financial advisor, your accountant or tax advisor are all good sources of information to help you understand the choices you are making and what your risks will be. Make sure any salesperson or advisor understands your goals and how much risk you are willing to assume.
Don't buy stocks or other investments pitched to you over the telephone. And never let a salesperson pressure you into acting immediately.
Be suspicious if a salesperson promises a spectacular rate of return. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Don't put all your eggs in one basket. Diversification distributing your money across different types of investments is the key to sound investing.
Never invest in a product you don't fully understand.
Finally, re-evaluate your financial plan regularly. Also, stop and review your plan whenever you marry, divorce, have a child, buy a home or retire.
For More Information
References and Special Offers
The New York Institute of Finance Guide to Investing
The New York Institute of Finance
How to Achieve Absolute Financial Freedom
Joseph J. Janiczek, Prosperity Press $29.95
The Average Familyís Guide to Financial Freedom
Bill Toohey, Mary Toohey, John Wiley & Sons $22.95
PAMPHLETS FROM THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT
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RELATED Life Advice PAMPHLETS
See other Life Advice guides on related topics: Annuities, Mutual Funds,, Disability Insurance,Choosing a Financial Advisor, Life Insurance, 401(k) Plans, 403(b) Plans, Planning for Retirement, Lump Sum Distribution, Long Term Care, Planning Your Estate and Making a Will. To order, call 1-800-METLIFE thatís 1-800-638-5433.
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