personal finance

5 Short Books That Can Transform Your Financial Life

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Finance is an area of extreme importance in the personal and professional lives of military members, or at least it should be. In order to give readers a quick head start, I’d like to provide them with a list of recommended resources that offer sound advice and can be read quickly. Let’s face it, we’re all busy.

Get a Financial Life: Personal Finance in Your Twenties and Thirties – If you want one book to guide you in nearly all aspects of your financial life, this is undoubtedly the most comprehensive and useful financial book I’ve ever read. It offers sound advice in a concise format and covers investing, banking, insurance, real estate, taxes, and nearly every other topic you can think of. This is the best money you could spend if you are in your twenties or thirties, and probably even if you are older than that and just getting started.

Jonathan Clements Money Guide 2016 – This is another comprehensive resource I recommend. After a 2015 and 2016 edition, he transitioned the content to a free money guide on a blog called Humble Dollar, but if you want a physical book the 2016 edition is still highly relevant and recommended.

How to Think About Money – Clements’ other book is short in length (158 pages) but extremely useful when it comes to shaping your approach to personal finance. He teaches you how to think about money and use it to maximally impact your life and happiness.

The Elements of Investing: Easy Lessons for Every Investor – For investment advice, I turn to two authors, Burton Malkiel and John Bogle. Malkiel is the Chemical Bank Chairman’s Professor of Economics at Princeton University and is most famous for his bestselling book, A Random Walk down Wall Street: The Time-tested Strategy for Successful Investing, which is 500 pages long. His lesser known book, The Elements of Investing: Easy Lessons for Every Investor is much more manageable at less than 200 pages, was published in 2013, and provides all of the advice without the in-depth theory. It’s like skipping to dessert without having to eat your vegetables. In addition, you can check out The Random Walk Guide To Investing, which is only 224 pages but a bit dated since the last edition is from 2007. The principles, though, remain unchanged so it is still a worthwhile read.

The Little Book of Common Sense Investing: The Only Way to Guarantee Your Fair Share of Stock Market Returns – Bogle, founder of The Vanguard Group, is also famous for a book that I highly recommend, Common Sense on Mutual Funds. This book, however, is heavy on theory. If you don’t want a degree in finance, you can get the Reader’s Digest version by reading his other book, The Little Book of Common Sense Investing: The Only Way to Guarantee Your Fair Share of Stock Market Returns. This book is also a much easier read at 216 pages long, and will teach you how to get rich slowly, the only surefire way to get rich.

Do You Need a Financial Advisor?

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Not everyone feels comfortable managing their own finances, so I’d like to discuss whether to get help planning your personal finances and how to select an advisor if you need one.

Do You Need Financial Advice?

It isn’t hard to manage most of your financial life if you are willing to learn a little, spend a small amount of time on your finances, and get help only when you need it.  The areas you’ll need to address include creating and executing an investment plan, managing your assets, maximizing tax-efficiency, tax preparation, insurance, estate planning, asset protection, and other areas depending on your situation.

This list can be daunting to many, and most physicians are busy and would prefer if someone did this for them or helped them out significantly. If you’re in this camp, you likely need financial advice. In addition, some people want access to investments that they can’t get on their own like hedge or venture capital funds. I’m not one of these people, but if you are you’ll need an advisor.

How Do You Select an Advisor?

There are a number of important factors to consider when selecting a financial advisor.  These include:

  1. How are they paid?

You want a “fee-only” advisor who is going to be paid a flat fee, hourly fee, or percentage of assets under management. You want to avoid any advisor who is compensated with commissions on trades or investments they sell you. This will ensure that their incentives are aligned with yours.

  1. How much are they paid?

Whether you are paying a flat fee, hourly rate, or percentage of assets, you should be able to get an advisor for under $5000/year. The industry standard for a percentage of assets fee is 1% of assets under management, but you should be able to find this service for significantly less. Vanguard’s asset management service is 0.3%, for example, as are many of the “robo-advisers” I’ll discuss at the end of this article. Also, make sure he/she discloses any additional fees you will have to pay.

  1. What are their credentials?

There are a lot of different credentials that financial advisors can have, and many of them are nearly meaningless, like a physician having a BLS card. The ones that represent significant training and education include Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA), Certified Financial Planner (CFP), or Chartered Financial Consultant (ChFC). If they are an insurance agent, Chartered Life Underwriter (CLU) is a quality credential. If they have a MBA, CPA, or JD, that can be a plus as well. The rest of the credentials you’ll see mean little.

  1. What services do they offer?

As discussed in the 2nd paragraph, there are a lot of services you may want or need.  Make sure that your advisor either provides the ones you want or has someone who can. Also make sure it is clear which of these services your fee includes and which it does not.

  1. How much experience do they have?

We’ve all been medical students and residents, so we’ve all been inexperienced professionals. Looking over our shoulders most of the time, however, was a supervisor with experience. Make sure your advisor has experience, specifically with physicians. We have unique problems like sizeable student loans and professional liability issues that they should be familiar with.

  1. What is their investment philosophy and is it compatible with yours?

Make sure that they can explain their financial philosophy to you in a manner that makes you comfortable and that you can comprehend. You don’t want to hire an advisor who talks over your head. Just like a doctor who avoids using complex medical jargon when talking to his/her patients, an effective financial advisor should be able to make complex subjects understandable for clients. Also, make sure their investment philosophy is compatible with yours. If you are a believer in passive index investing, you don’t want to hire an advisor who believes primarily in active management.

Are There Other Options?

“Robo-advisors” are on-line tools that have lower fees than a financial advisor but less of that personal touch. Betterment.com or Wealthfront.com are two of the larger companies, but there are others as well. While I have never used these services, I think they are worth considering when you are examining all of your options for obtaining financial advice, especially because the price is right.

What Do I Do?

As someone who writes financial articles, I have a personal interest in this, stay reasonably up-to-date on the latest developments, and do most of my own financial management. When I need help or feel like I’m in over my head, I have access to CFPs from Vanguard, a CPA, and an estate-planning attorney that I can call in a pinch.

If you want an advisor, though, I’d go to Vanguard or the White Coat Investor’s list of advisors.

TSP I Fund News and Finance Friday Articles

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This one is certainly interesting for anyone who invests in the TSP I Fund, its international stock index fund:

Trump orders federal retirement money invested in Chinese equities to be pulled

And then they put out this update:

Board defers action on I Fund transition — (May 13, 2020) Due to a meaningfully different economic environment related in large part to the impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the nomination of three new Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board Members, pending further study, the Board is delaying the implementation of the I Fund benchmark change to the MSCI ACWI ex-U.S. Investible Market index from the MSCI EAFE index.

This is why I try to keep all of my international stock holdings at Vanguard in their total international stock fund, which includes emerging markets like China.

 

Here are my favorites from this week:

Does Covid-19 Prove the Stock Market is Inefficient?

How Debt-Free Living Helped Us Beat the Coronabear

No Alternative

Why Vanguard?

 

Here are the rest of the articles:

AMA’s Disability Insurance: You Get What You Pay For

Can Millennials Count on Social Security In Financial Planning?

Charitable Remainder Trusts – A Potential Solution To The SECURE Act

Does Better Virus Response Lead to Better Stock Market Outcomes?

Forced Frugality: Applying Lockdown Life Lessons to Reach FI Faster

How to Thrive with Airbnb Rentals Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic

Nothing Fails Quite Like Success in the Stock Market

Now Is The Best Time In History To Do A Roth IRA Conversion

Partial FIRE: The Solution to Your Problems?

Refinancing with a Physician Home Loan

Retirement is Squishy

The 5 Types of Investors In This Market

Thinking Through Financial Decisions

This new site is all about money for military spouses

What Happens to Stocks After a Big Up Month?

What the White Coat Investor Actually Uses

What Ultralow Yields Mean for Your Financial and Retirement Plan

Why You Should Pay For Rental Properties In Cash

Estate Planning in the Navy

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Everyone reading this needs to take a few estate planning steps. First, everyone needs a will, which you can get for free. Second, everyone needs to make sure your life insurance and retirement accounts have the correct beneficiaries. Third, many should consider working with an estate planning attorney, as we’ll discuss below.

You Need a Will

A properly constructed will ensures that your values and desires are carried out in the event you no longer can communicate them. While you may wish to give your estate to family members, your church, or a charity, without a will what happens to your assets is dictated by state law. The IRS, a nursing home, your spouse’s next spouse, or some other less than desirable entity may wind up with the lion’s share of your assets.

A will designates where you want your assets to go and, if applicable, who will take care of your children. A will usually names the guardian who will take care of your children and the trustee who will manage their assets. These roles can be the same person, or you can name different people. A will cannot specify when or for what purpose your assets should be given to your beneficiaries, so if you don’t have any other documents then the assets will be given according to your state law (Reference: Martin, Larson and Larson). For example, if you have an estate of $3 million (don’t forget that this number could be bigger than you think because it would include your life insurance) and you die without a will, your children could inherit all of that money at the age of 18 or 21, the most common ages of maturity.

There is no excuse for someone in the military – you need a will. You likely deploy, you are probably at higher risk of dying as a result, and you can get one for free at your local legal services office, which are located on almost every military base. If you have trouble locating legal assistance, you can find the office nearest your location by visiting this website. Military.com also has a great page about legal assistance you can find here.

If you just don’t trust me for some reason, there’s also an article on Military OneSource that explains the details about why you need a will.

Probate

If you have a will, upon your death the will must pass through probate. Probate is a process that can be tedious, expensive, and lengthy, depending on where you live. During probate a court validates your will and empowers the executor to use it. Assets like insurance policies and retirement accounts that name a beneficiary do not have to go through probate. Because it is expensive, public, and can be contested, probate is something to avoid if at all possible.

Keep in mind that once you have a will and have named beneficiaries for your life insurance and retirement accounts, you will need to update them if you marry, divorce, have children, your executor dies, one of your beneficiaries dies, you move to a different state, or any other significant life change occurs.

Estate Planning Attorneys

If you want to specify when or for what purpose your assets should be given to your beneficiaries or you want to avoid probate with a trust, this is where an estate planning attorney enters the picture. A common strategy is to create a trust for the benefit of your children that specifies when they are to receive your assets. For example, my estate plan gives my two children 1/3rd at the age of 20, 1/3rd at the age of 30, and 1/3rd at the age of 40. There are other options, such as granting a trustee or creating a more detailed estate plan that communicates your values to your children, such as paying for education or a down payment on a house even if they haven’t reached the age at which they’d normally get the inheritance.

You may also need an attorney to draft advance directives to specify your wishes if a medical emergency should occur. Who will be the decision maker? What are your specific life support decisions should your condition be irreversible? These documents are usually included in a comprehensive estate plan, but what isn’t included is the conversation you should have with your family. As medical professionals we all realize that these documents are rarely available when decisions need to be made, so having a conversation with your family about your wishes may be more important than having the actual documents.

You may also need powers of attorney to grant others the right to make financial decisions in the event of your incapacity. These can be “durable” (used at any time) or specific to certain conditions, such as your incapacity.

The federal estate tax, also known as the death tax, has changed many times since World War I. In 2020, a single person can pass $11.58 million to his/her heirs without paying estate tax, and those married can pass $23.16 million. Because most of us won’t have this high of a net worth, the federal estate tax is usually not an issue. Individual states, though, may also have estate or inheritance taxes that you need to plan for because many have much lower amounts that are tax free. Many states have very different laws, so make sure that any estate planning attorney you work with is familiar with the laws of your state.

The estate tax is not relevant if you die and you are passing assets to your spouse. Spouses can pass unlimited amounts without taxes. If your spouse is not a US citizen, though, the situation gets a lot more complicated.

If you have an estate worth more than $11.58 million (single) or $23.16 million (married) and you are trying to pass assets to a non-spouse, there are many different (and complicated) trusts and strategies you can adopt. The bottom line is that you’ll need the help of a qualified estate planning attorney.

The other option is to give away enough money as you approach the end of your life so that your estate is no longer above the limit. Take a look at your finances, get some idea of how much money you are likely to die with, and decide if you should start giving some of it away to charity and/or family now.

Same-sex couples should consult an attorney due to the complexities of estate planning in that scenario.

Letter of Last Instruction

A final document to consider creating is a letter of last instruction, also known as a “doomsday letter.” In today’s increasingly electronic world where financial statements are no longer delivered via US mail, family members may have difficulty locating all of the necessary items in the event of your death. Your letter would help in this case and should include (Ref: Clements):

  1. Funeral instructions
  2. A list of financial assets and liabilities, safe deposit boxes, and any professionals you deal with (financial advisors, attorneys, doctors, etc.)
  3. The location of key documents, like birth certificates, titles for cars, wills and trusts, tax returns, and financial statements
  4. Usernames and passwords for key websites
  5. An inventory of high value household items or possessions and who you want to receive them (if they are not included in your will)

Summary

Likely everyone reading this needs a will and to make sure that their life insurance and retirement accounts have the proper beneficiaries listed. In addition, those with more complex or large financial holdings, a desire to shape how and when they bequeath their assets, the need for trusts, or a same-sex relationship should consult with an estate planning attorney.

References

Clements, Jonathan. Money Guide 2015. Jonathan Clements, LLC, 2015.

Martin, Tom, Paul Larson and Jeff Larson. Doctor’s Eyes Only: Exclusive Financial Strategies for Today’s Doctors and Dentists. Brockport & Schoolcraft, LLC, 2012.