Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Top Four End-of-Year Financial Planning Tasks

Between turkey and holiday cookies, don't forget the most important type of planning you should do this year, financial planning. M&I, a part of BMO Financial Group, offers these four aspects of your finances everyone should review before 2012 arrives.

Budgets: Review your monthly budget and track your spending. Keeping track of where your money is being spent will highlight unnecessary expenses. Begin saving today. A savings account can help when life throws an unexpected curve ball. Ideally, build an emergency fund that could pay your necessary expenses for six months.

Creating budgets with your children is also a great way to teach kids about money and the difference between a need and a want. Our Helpful Steps for Parents tool provides parents with tips, games, and strategies to help teach children financial literacy. Visit www.bmoharris.com/parents to learn more.

"The Helpful Steps program starts with kids as young as five years old," said Jim Sathre, senior vice president, retail banking for M&I. "Giving kids a financial education will prepare them for every stage of life, from saving for college to buying a house."

Retirement: Examine how much you've been putting in your retirement account this year. If possible, plan to contribute the maximum allowable amount to your 401(K) and take advantage of your workplace retirement plan to gain matching contributions. If your workplace does not have a matching program consider a Roth IRA.

College: College planning is essential for every family whether you are just starting out or are planning to support a grandchild's education. If you have not started preparing for future college expenses, start now. College savings plans can offer considerable tax benefits. Each state offers residents a 529 college savings plan that provides tax benefits or other perks to help parents and students prepare for college bills.

Investments: Invest wisely. Investigate investment options to determine which is best to meet your financial needs. A few options include money market accounts, CDs and government bonds, and IRAs. Solid investments may reap dividends in the future.

We all know how important it is to save money and prepare for the future and reviewing your budget and investments will ensure you're meeting your financial goals.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Top 12 Financial Planning Strategies for 2012

December 6, 2011 (Business Wire) — The Financial Planning Association (FPA) of San Francisco announced today the top 12 financial planning strategies for individuals to consider for 2012.

Ranging from developing a comprehensive financial plan, putting in place a disciplined savings program to diversifying portfolios and benefitting from the latest tax changes, these comprehensive tips and advice will help investors start 2012 on the right financial footing.

#1. Get Started Today

If you spent much of 2011 in denial or ignoring what you know you needed to do financially, don't be embarrassed; you had plenty of company. The best way to come to grips with your financial future is to review your financial plan. If you don't already have one, make a plan. You'll want to analyze your asset base, your earning potential, and your spending. Most importantly, you'll want to review your goals. Are they still attainable, or even reasonable? You can do it yourself, but a professional financial planner has the knowledge and the tools to calculate what it will take to reach your goals while helping you manage your finances along the way to help you get there.

#2. Spend Less. Save More.

The best way to provide -- or recoup -- the money you will need in the future is to save more now. Here's a good way to start -- pay yourself first through payroll deductions into your 401(k) or savings account. Another place to look is at your credit cards. Instead of paying high credit card rates, you'll be earning market-beating 9, 12, 18, or an even higher percent. That's your return on every dollar you don't have to pay to a credit card company.

#3. Got lemons? Make Lemonade.

There is a positive side to stock market losses. Take advantage of the down market this year to harvest tax losses. Any losses not used to offset capital gains can reduce ordinary income by up to $3K in 2011, and the excess is carried forward into future tax years.

#4. Keep on Contributing to Your 401k

Continue putting away as much as possible into your employer retirement plan. If the contributions are on autopilot, you're less likely to come to a sudden stop when current events are discouraging. Also, dollars are invested throughout the year, so in a market that is up one month and down the next, you won't buy all your shares at high points and you'll get more shares at low points.

#5. Keep an Eye on a ReFi

With interest rates at all-time lows, it's a good time to explore if refinancing makes sense. You may find it preferable to refinance from a 30- year loan to a 15-year loan, as some institutions are offering 15-year loans at less than 4%. Run the numbers. You may find that the payment on a new 15-year mortgage is similar to an existing 30-year mortgage and would significantly reduce the amount of interest paid over the life of the loan.

#6. Assess a Reassessment

With the continuing decline in home values in many locations, homeowners should consider applying for a reassessment of their home value for property tax purposes. This is a relatively easy process that might save significant money, especially for those in expensive areas. The county assessor's office can provide you with the forms and process for requesting a reassessment.

#7. Update Your Estate Plan

Take a fresh look at your estate planning documents. The annual gift limit remains at $13,000 per donor per person in 2012, but the lifetime exemption of $5,000,000 in 2011 has been adjusted for inflation and will be $5,120,000 in 2012.Your financial planner and your estate attorney will know what these changes mean for your specific situation.

#8. Give a Gift or Make a Loan

Want to help out a family member who may be in dire straights, but don't feel comfortable making an outright gift? Loans to family members must use government-approved rates, or they will be taxed as gifts. It's called the Applicable Federal Rate, or AFR, and our low interest rate environment could make 2012 an excellent time to make loans. The current long-term AFR for loans more than nine years is 2.80% (compounded annually), and the short-term AFR for loans less than three years is only 0.2%

#9. Resolve to Review Beneficiaries

Use the start of the New Year to review all beneficiary statements for 401k plans, IRAs, and life insurance policies. Remember that retirement account assets pass by beneficiary statement and not by will; the same is true for life insurance policies. Every financial planner has stories of clients who divorce and never revise their beneficiary statements; the client dies and a life insurance policy or 401k is paid to the ex-spouse, leaving a current spouse or children with nothing.

#10. Keep Up with Contribution Limits

Take advantage of 2012 increases in retirement account contributions. The maximum 401k, 403b, 457 contributions increase to $17,000. Catch-up contribution for the over-50 set is an additional $5,500

#11. Keep Your Cool

Listening to the financial news wasn't easy in 2011 and we may face the same cacophony of doomsayers in 2012. Selling stocks when prices are down is not a successful long-term investment strategy. And remember -- when media headlines proclaim, "investors are dumping stocks," someone else is buying them.

#12. See a Financial Planner

Financial planners can help you navigate your way through these perilous economic times. No one knows what the future will bring, but a good planner can provide the kind of experience and objectivity that can bring clarity to difficult financial decisions.

If you have a financial planner, and you haven't updated your plan in light of recent economic realities, it makes sense to check if you're still on track, or if there are course-corrections you could make to improve the situation.