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Four Questions to Ask Before You Open Your Wallet

 
	Four Questions to Ask Before You Open Your Wallet Even if you have the best of intentions, it’s easy to overspend. According to a Gallup poll conducted June 9-15, 2014,* 58% of people who had shopped during the previous four weeks said they spent more at the store than they originally intended to. Even if you’re generally comfortable with how much you spend, you may occasionally suffer from a case of buyer’s remorse or have trouble postponing a purchase in favor of saving for a short- or long-term goal. Here are a few key questions to consider that might help you fine-tune your spending.
 

How will spending money 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 do you think about what you’re 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.

Some other questions to ask:

  • How will you feel about your purchase later? Tomorrow? Next month? Next year?
  • Will this purchase cause stress or strife at home? Couples often fight about money because they have conflicting money values. Will your spouse or partner object to your purchasing decision?
  • Are you setting a good financial example? Children learn from what they observe. What messages are you sending through your spending habits?

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How does health-care reform affect women?

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) expands women’s access to health insurance and adds several reforms to the existing health-care system that are specifically beneficial to women.

Access to care and affordability are important issues for women. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, because almost twice as many women than men who receive employer-provided health insurance are covered as dependents, they are susceptible to losing that coverage should they become widowed, divorced, or if their husbands lose their jobs.

In addition, the cost of coverage may significantly impact women. Women earn less than men, on average, and are more likely to be out of the workforce to care for children, parents, or other dependents. Because of this trend, out-of-pocket costs such as co-pays, deductibles, and premiums can pose a particular threat to women’s access to affordable care.

The ACA provides for the creation of state-level health insurance exchanges, available to small businesses and uninsured individuals, that will serve as a marketplace of private and public health plans. Individuals and families purchasing insurance through insurance exchanges may be eligible for subsidies or tax credits (based on income) that can be applied towards the cost of insurance. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 20% of women between the ages of 18 and 64, or about 19 million women, are uninsured. Of those, it is estimated that 36% will be eligible for tax credits and subsidies.

ACA specifies essential health benefits for women that must be offered by nongrandfathered plans. These benefits include maternity and newborn care, including prenatal visits and pediatric services. Several preventive services must be offered without co-payments or deductibles, including mammography exams; Pap tests; colonoscopies; type 2 diabetes screening; obesity screening; several immunizations including hepatitis, influenza, and HPV; and alcohol and tobacco counseling. Specific coverage benefits will continue to be shaped by U.S. Health and Human Services regulations.

How to Give Wisely and Well

Giving to charity has never been easier. You can donate the old-fashioned way–by mail–but you can also donate online, by text, or through social networking sites. According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics, over 1.4 million nonprofit organizations are registered with the IRS. With so many charities to choose from, it’s more important than ever to ensure that your donation is well spent. Here are some tips that can help you become both a generous and wise donor.

Choose your charities

Choosing worthy organizations that support the causes you care about can be tricky, but it doesn’t have to be time-consuming. There are several well-known organizations that rate and review charities, and provide useful tips and information that can help you make wise choices when giving to charity (see below). To get you started, here are some questions to ask:

Giving Tree

  • How will your gift be used? It should be easy to get information about the charity’s mission, accomplishments, financial status, and future growth by contacting the charity by phone or viewing online information.
  • How much does the charity spend on administrative costs? Charities with higher-than-average administrative costs may be spending less on programs and services than they should, or may even be in serious financial trouble. Some charities who use for-profit telemarketers get very little of the money they raise, so ask how much of your donation the charity will receive.
  • Is the charity legitimate? Ask for identification when approached by a solicitor, and never give out your Social Security number, credit card number, bank account number, account password, or personal information over the phone or in response to an e-mail you didn’t initiate. There’s no rush–take time to check out the charity before you donate.
  • How much can you afford to give? Stick to your giving goals, and learn to say no. Legitimate fundraisers will not try to make you feel guilty, and will be happy to send you information that can help you make an informed decision rather than pressure you to give now.

Harness the power of matching gifts

Many employers offer matching gift programs that will match charitable gifts made by their employees. You’ll need to meet certain guidelines–for example, your employer may only match your gift up to a certain dollar limit–and the charity may need to provide information. Check with your employer’s human resources department or the charity to find out how you can maximize your donations through a matching gift program.

Put your gifts on autopilot

If you’re looking for an easy way to donate regularly to a favorite charity, look into setting up automatic donations from a financial account. When donors contribute automatically, the charity benefits by potentially lowering fundraising costs and by establishing a foundation of regular donors. And you’ll benefit too, because spreading out your donations throughout the year may enable you to give more, and will simplify your record keeping.

Look for new ways to give

Although cash donations are always welcome, charities also encourage other types of gifts. For example, if you meet certain requirements, you may be able to give stock, direct gifts from your IRA or other retirement account, real estate, or personal property (but check with your financial professional to assess potential income and estate tax consequences based on your individual circumstances). You can also volunteer your time, using your talents to improve the lives of others in your community. And taking a “volunteer vacation” can be a fun way to involve your family and meet other people across the country or world who share your enthusiasm for a particular cause.

Use planned giving to leave a legacy

You can leave an enduring gift through your estate. For example, you might leave a will bequest, give life insurance, or use a charitable gift annuity, charitable remainder annuity trust, or charitable unitrust that may help you give away the asset now, while retaining a lifetime interest–check with your financial or tax professional regarding any potential estate or tax benefits or consequences.

Keep good records

If you itemize when you file your taxes, you can deduct donations you’ve made to a tax-qualified charity, but you may need documentation. Keep copies of cancelled checks, bank statements, credit card statements, or receipts from the charity showing the charity’s name and the date and amount of the contribution. For donations or contributions of $250 or more, you’ll need a more detailed written acknowledgment from the charity. For more information and a list of requirements, see IRS Publication 526, Charitable Contributions.

These are a few of the organizations and agencies that publish reports and charity ratings, and/or give useful tips and information to consumers on choosing a charity and giving wisely:

Healthy Personal Finance Habits

Develop a budget and stick with it

A good way to start on the right track financially is to make sure you have a budgeting system in place. Start by identifying your income and expenses. Next, add them up and compare the two totals to make sure you are spending less than you earn. If you find that your expenses outweigh your income, you’ll need to make some adjustments to your budget plan (e.g., reduce discretionary spending).

Once you have a budget, it’s important to stick with it. And while straying from your budget from time to time is to be expected, there are some ways to help make working within your budget a bit easier:

  • Make budgeting a part of your daily routine
  • Be sure to build occasional rewards into your budget
  • Evaluate your budget regularly and make changes if necessary
  • Use budgeting software/smart phone applications

Set financial goals or reprioritize current ones

After developing a budget, it is time to set new financial goals and reprioritize your current ones. Take a look back at the financial goals you set for yourself in the last year–both short- and long-term. Perhaps you wanted to increase your cash reserve or save money for a down payment on a home. Maybe you wanted to invest more money towards your retirement. Did you accomplish any of your goals? If so, do you have any new goals that you would now like to achieve?

Finally, have your personal or financial circumstances changed during the past year (e.g., marriage, a child, job promotion)? If so, would any of these changes warrant a reprioritization of some of your goals?

Make sure your investment portfolio is still on target

You’ll also want to be sure to review your investment portfolio to ensure that it is still on target to help you achieve your financial goals for the upcoming year. To determine whether your investments are suitable for reaching your financial goals, you’ll want to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do I still have the same time horizon for investing as I did last year?
  • Has my tolerance for risk changed?
  • Do I have an increased need for liquidity?
  • Does any investment now represent too large (or too small) a part of my portfolio?

FamilyMake it a priority to reduce debt

Any healthy financial plan is one that makes reducing debt a priority. Whether it is debt from student loans, a mortgage, or credit cards, it is important to have a plan in place to pay down your debt load as quickly as possible. The following are some tips to help you manage your debt:

  • Keep track of all of your credit card balances and be aware of interest rates and hidden fees
  • Develop a plan to manage your payments so that you avoid late fees
  • Optimize your repayments by paying off high-interest debt first or consider taking advantage of debt consolidation/refinancing programs
  • Avoid charging more than you can pay off at the end of each billing cycle

Review/take steps to improve your credit history

Having good credit is an important part of any sound financial plan, and today is as good a time as any to check on your credit history. Your credit report contains information about your past and present credit transactions and is used by potential lenders to evaluate your creditworthiness. A positive credit history is important since it allows you to obtain credit when you need it, and at a lower interest rate. Good credit is even sometimes viewed by employers as a prerequisite for employment.

Review your credit report and check it for any inaccuracies. You’ll also want to find out whether or not you need to take steps to improve your credit history. To establish a good track record with creditors, make sure that you always make your monthly bill payments on time. In addition, you should try to avoid having too many credit inquiries on your report (these are made every time you apply for a new credit card). You’re entitled to a free copy of your credit report once a year from each of the three major credit reporting agencies. You can go to www.annualcreditreport.com for more information.

You may also like to meet with a financial professional. A financial professional can help you:

  • Determine your income, assets, and liabilities
  • Identify financial goals
  • Understand specific products/services
  • Monitor your overall financial plan
  • Adjust your plan if needed

What health-care provisions are effective in 2013?

With the Supreme Court’s favorable ruling on the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), more of the law’s provisions will become effective in 2013. Here are some of the new features that may be important to you.

Medicare Part D participants who reach a gap in their drug coverage (the “donut hole”) are required to pay the entire cost of prescription drugs out-of-pocket. In 2013, the ACA will continue to close this gap by increasing subsidies to reduce the cost of brand-name and generic drugs to participants who reach the donut hole. These subsidies will continue until 2020, when the participant’s maximum contribution toward the cost of prescriptions will be reduced to 25%.

The threshold for the itemized deduction for medical expenses increases from 7.5% to 10% of adjusted gross income, beginning in 2013. However, this increase is waived for taxpayers age 65 and older through 2016.

In 2013, the annual pretax employee contribution to a Section 125 cafeteria plan flexible spending account (FSA) is reduced to $2,500, subject to annual increases for cost-of-living adjustments. The reduction does not apply to certain employer nonelective contributions (e.g., flex credits).

Beginning in 2013, the hospital insurance (HI) portion of the payroll tax, commonly referred to as the Medicare portion, increases by 0.9% for individuals with wages exceeding $200,000 ($250,000 for married couples filing a joint federal income tax return, and $125,000 for married individuals filing separately).

In addition, 2013 marks the imposition of a new 3.8% Medicare contribution tax on the unearned income of high-income individuals. This 3.8% contribution tax generally applies to the net investment income of individuals with modified adjusted gross income that exceeds $200,000 ($250,000 for married couples filing a joint federal income tax return, and $125,000 for married individuals filing separately).

Looking ahead, 2014 brings the implementation of the health insurance exchanges, premium and cost-sharing subsidies, and the requirement that most individuals have health insurance.

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