Oh SNAP!

I may be hypersensitive to this because of my concerns for my son’s benefits, but it feels like a common theme when trying to cut government spending is reducing what is spent on public programs – like SNAP or Medicaid. To add insult to injury, this seems to become a bandwagon, with the most vocal people chiming in about how the majority of people they see using these programs are abusing them.

I’d like to challenge this with one thought – you see what you look for. If you’ve convinced yourself (or allowed yourself to be convinced by media) these programs are only being taken advantage of; then because of a phenomenon known as confirmation bias, this is exactly what you will see.

SNAP, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is designed to help people put food on their tables; but the benefit is not large enough (by design) to allow people to live off surf and turf every night. The USDA website provides an overview of what SNAP can purchase, and notably absent are things like alcohol, cigarettes, pet food, soda, candy, etc.

This program also places strict limitations on how long “Able Bodied Adults” (age 18 – 49 w/o dependents or a disability) can receive benefits – 3 months in 3 years, if they don’t meet special work requirements. I’ve included a link to the SNAP eligibility page here; because I think it’s important we form our opinions from verified facts, rather than blindly believing what we’ve been told. And please, take a moment if you catch yourself trying to argue to really explore where this feeling is coming from – is it because you don’t want to be proven wrong, or can you substantiate your belief with facts.

Is there abuse, almost certainly. The unfortunate truth is there will always be those who try to take advantage of a system. But a bigger truth is approximately 41 million Americans struggle to put food on the table (source Feeding America). Poverty is real, it’s not as simple as telling the elderly, those with disabilities or just out of work to “find a job”. Are you hiring?

Don’t be quick to judge next time you see someone using a SNAP debit card, this could be you during the next economic downturn or after a random accident. Take some time to educate yourself on the benefit amount and restrictions by going to the source, not Fox news or CNN. For convenience, here’s a link to the USDA website. And perhaps most important of all, don’t lose sight of the fact these are people, just like you.

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Forever GI Bill

Fellow veterans – there have been a LOT of changes lately, offering new, and expanding the reach of old, benefits. Below is a highlight reel of the Forever GI Bill (but don’t let this be the extent of your own research); subsequent posts will expand on other changes. This is a long post (21 bullets), please at least skim to determine if any apply to you. Unless otherwise specified, these changes will take effect 1 August 2018.

Forever GI Bill (aka Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act)

  1. Reserve Duty counts towards Post-9/11 Eligibility – Reservist authorized (ordered to AD) medical care, disability evaluation or health care study on or after 11 Sept 2001 counts as Active Duty towards eligibility.
  2. Purple Heart Recipients – anyone who was awarded a Purple Heart on or after 11 Sept 2001 is eligible for 100% benefit for 36 months.
  3. Yellow Ribbon Extension – Recipients of the Fry Scholarship and Purple Heart will be covered under the Yellow Ribbon Program.
  4. Yellow Ribbon Extension to AD Service Members – AD Servicemembers may use the Yellow Ribbon Program effective 1 August 2022.
  5. Consolidation of Benefit Levels – see chart, effective 1 August 2020.
  6. Reserve Educational Assistance Program (REAP) Eligibility – Reservists who established eligibility under REAP prior to 25 November 2015, and lost it due to the sunset provision, may elect to have that service credited towards the Post-9/11 program.
  7. Monthly Housing Allowance (MHA) – Will be calculated based on zip code of campus where student is attending the majority of classes, rather than location of the institute the student is enrolled.
  8. Changes to Licensing & Certification Charges – Entitlement charges will be prorated based on the actual amount of the fee charged for the test.
  9. Assistance for Students Affected by School Closures and Certain Disapprovals – VA is now authorized to restore benefits & provide relief. There is a LOT to this, read here.
  10. Transfer of Benefits Changes – Can now transfer entitlement if the original dependent dies prior to using the entitlement. Dependents can transfer entitlement to other dependents if Servicemember/Veteran dies. Applies to deaths on/after 1 August 2009.
  11. More benefits for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Programs – Another benefit with a LOT to it, read here.
  12. 15-Year Elimination – Time limitation is removed for individuals whose last discharge or release from AD is on/after 1 January 2013. Also applies to children of deceased Servicemembers entitled on/after 1 January 2013 and all Fry spouses.
  13. Reserve Components MHA – VA will prorate MHA for Reservists.
  14. Pilot Programs for Technology Courses – I haven’t seen much detail, just a heads up it’s coming.
  15. Work Study Expansion – Expiration date (30 June 2022) has been removed for certain qualifying work-study activities in which an individual may be paid additional educational assistance allowance.
  16. Changes to Survivors’ & Dependents’ Educational AssistanceDecreased entitlement from 45 months to 36 months. Also increases amount of educational assistance payable under the Survivors’ and Dependents’ Educational Assistance Program.
  17. Technical Schools and non-Institutions of Higher Learning – Must be accredited; expanded to include area career and technical education schools.
  18. Priority Enrollment – VA improving outreach and transparency about which institutions administer a priority enrollment system.
  19. Informing Schools about Beneficiary Entitlement – VA must make available to educational institutions information about the amount of educational assistance to which a beneficiary is entitled under chapter 30, 32, 33, or 35.
  20. Reserve Component Benefits – Guard and Reserve members with service in the Armed Forces occurring on/after 30 June 2008 may be able to receive Post-9/11 benefits.
  21. GI Bill Monthly Housing Allowance – Individuals who first use Post-9/11 on/after 1 January 2018 will receive monthly housing allowance based on DoD’s reduced basic housing allowance (BAH). Those that began using benefits prior to January 1, 2018 will continue to receive a higher monthly housing rate based in the non-adjusted BAH rate

“Normal” Markets = Volatility

In the past few days the markets have reminded us of the potential risks of investing – things can lose value, sometimes dramatically. Unfortunately too many people needed the reminder, having grown complacent with the steadily rising returns – so comfortable they may have even changed their asset allocation to hold more equities because they were not seeing the returns their friends, neighbors or loud guy on the Subway were getting.

Chasing returns is, in my opinion, an exercise in futility. Instead, determine the appropriate amount of risk necessary to achieve your goals (removing greed from the equation) and start there. Most (I’m pretty sure this is really all, but just in case) reputable firms offering investments will have a tool to help you determine your risk tolerance – so be honest when completing it.

You will see more impact over time from how much you invest, so get your money working for you as soon as possible. If you have children, start having the conversation with them about saving – anytime they receive money (job, gift, allowance, etc) take 10% and set it aside for future goals (doesn’t have to be college, could be 1st car, 1st apartment, etc).

No matter what you do with your money there will be risk. If you stick it in savings you have the risk of its value not keeping up with inflation. If you spend it, because after all you can’t take it with you, there is the opportunity cost (risk) of the potential growth you could have experienced and the value it would have grown to in your later years. And we’ve already covered what could happen if you invest.

So what to do? Keep money you’re going to need in the near future (< 3 years) relatively liquid (available) – that could be CDs, savings accounts, etc. The further down the road you need the money, the more risk you can take – as long as you factor in your risk tolerance (how accepting you are of risk).

The worst thing you can do is use someone else’s investment philosophy without consideration. Determine what your goals are, how long until you need the money and how much you potential loss you can accept to get there. None of this is meant as investment advice, I have no way of determining what is/isn’t appropriate for the reader. If this resonates with you, and you want help, find an Advisor you can trust (this includes online options like Betterment or Wealthfront).

Independence Through Technology

Technology is really leveling the playing field – and it’s exciting to consider the possibilities. Some of the more obvious (to me) are home delivery of groceries and restaurant meals; ride-share apps; and the large number of apps tablets (iPad, Samsung, etc) provide access to.

But let’s take it a step further – with the advent of “smart homes” individuals can potentially gain almost complete independence; to the point where if they need an aide the aide could be more in the background, making sure everything is moving smoothly. Families could set up a refrigerator with the grocery list, and when items need to be replenished the fridge could automatically order – followed by a delivery from a local grocery store. You could even use an app like Task Rabbit to hire someone to help put the groceries away.

Theoretically, a phone/tablet could be programmed to run anything in your home – just imagine. Concerned about elopement, you could control the locks – reducing the risk, and receiving an immediate alert when/if somebody enters/leaves. You can even get real-time video, eliminating any uncertainty about what is happening.

I don’t remember the last time I stepped foot into a bank; and, depending on the State, an ABLE account could provide the same capability. There are current limits on how much can be contributed and saved; but it’s a start. Money could be deposited into the ABLE account; and, through the use of a debit card, individuals could make online purchases through a retailer (with care being taken to ensure they meet the guidelines of “qualified expenses”).

Of course there are drawbacks – it’s no different than anything else. And, some of the technology may be too expensive; so it’s out of reach – right now. One thing I can say for certain, based upon past experience, is as technology becomes more mainstream costs will come down. You don’t need to be an early adopter; let someone else work the bugs out and you can reap the benefits later. But allow yourself to dream, imagine the possibilities. I feel too often we, as parents, get caught up in the now – head down, pushing forward; and don’t allow ourselves to stop, put our heads above the treeline and look around. See what’s available – even if it’s in the future.

Those things in the future – those are our hopes. Will everything work as advertised, or be the 100% solution. Probably not. But isn’t a 50% – 75% solution still better than where you are now? Don’t just allow yourself to hope, give yourself permission to take some time – even if it’s only once/month – to spend an hour or two exploring the app store; or listen to what others are saying. Often this is where I get clued into tech advances. And then, instead of dismissing it out of hand (I think if we’re honest we all do this more than we’d like); pick one or two things to try. And don’t just try it once, give it time to allow yourself to become comfortable with the technology. Then, if it’s not for you – get rid of it, and try again.

 

Protect Your Adult Children

There is a movement in place to encourage supported decision making, of which I’m a HUGE fan – despite my having recently petitioning for (and being granted) guardianship of my son. However, I’m concerned not enough is being done to safeguard their well-being – specifically ensuring they have things like a basic estate plan, property and casualty insurance, etc.

Why am I concerned? Because in every study I’ve read, more than 50% of Americans (not Americans with disabilities) do not have an estate plan. Here’s one article from AARP, showing just how rampant this problem is. No, not everyone will need a Special Needs Trust; but everyone (in my professional opinion) should have a basic estate plan – consisting of (at a minimum): a Will, Durable Power of Attorney (DPOA) & Health Care Proxy. This covers the big (3) – estate, property and person.

Let them decide who to leave their treasures to (Will). The DPOA doesn’t have to be broad, it can be narrowed to just specific financial decisions (like buying/selling property). And the Health Care Proxy is what will allow you (or whoever the individual chooses) to make health care decisions in the event the individual is unable to (unconscious, unable to speak/write, etc). These are basic requirements I encourage EVERYONE to have in place – with or without a disability.

Last on the list – property and casualty insurance. I think this is most often overlooked, although I cannot prove it. But I don’t know of any agencies requiring the people they serve in a Residential capacity to purchase a Renter’s insurance policy. I doubt families think of it, they often have too much else going on; and frankly it’s not something we as a society talk about.

Just about everyone owns something that is important to them. With technology becoming less expensive and providing those with disabilities so much more freedom; it’s less and less uncommon to see young adults without at least a smart phone or tablet. These cost money, often in excess of $200 or more. When you’re living off just Supplemental Security Income ($735/mth), and limited to $2k in assets; there is not a lot of room in your budget to replace anything if the home you’re living in has a busted pipe or your item(s) are stolen.

Even without these limitations, how many of us can honestly say we can replace high ticket items from savings without a second thought? Renter’s insurance policies are usually not very expensive, especially when weighed against the benefit they provide. Landlords are not required to replace items, nor are organizations providing Residential support – be it an Arc or a Nursing Home.

So if you have a child, or relative, over the age of 18 whom you’re helping ask yourself if they have these basic protections in place. Do you? If the answer to either question is “no”, fix it. Although I’m not a huge fan of online legal advice, if you’re constrained by budget using a website like NOLO or legalzoom may be pretty useful. Buyer beware, these sites may not necessarily have the most current forms as required by law, so at least have whatever you do reviewed by an attorney.

Partnership for Extraordinary Minds

Welcome 2018 – I’m starting the year recognizing a small, local non-profit which has been a HUGE help to families, mine included, through outreach and information sharing. Partnership for Extraordinary Minds (xMinds) was founded in 2009 by parents, and focuses solely on improving educational experiences and outcomes for students on the Autism Spectrum.

Who They Are 

xMinds’ Mission is simply stated: “To improve the educational experiences and outcomes of students on the autism spectrum in Montgomery County, MD.” They do this by providing a wide range of resources; including (but not limited to): peer networking; self-advocates sharing their stories; encouraging self-advocacy; and supporting educators.

What They Do 

xMinds is all about advocacy, specifically advocating for: knowledge & understanding, Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) staff training (from bus drivers to teachers), continuum of placements and educating parents.

They do this through speaker events – they actively seek out professionals and successful self-advocates to come and talk to parents. Although there is a fee for nonmembers, it’s typically not too expensive (~$15) and in my experience the events are more than worth it! They also hold an annual forum with MCPS, this year’s will be their 10th anniversary (10 April 2018, 6:30 pm).

 

What Else Should I Know

xMinds‘ website is a GREAT resource for families new to Autism or well along on their journey. They offer links to information about Autism, IEPs, MCPS and a host of other resources. I encourage anyone who has a child on the Spectrum, whether you live in Montgomery County, MD or not; to visit their website and sign up for their newsletter – you won’t be disappointed.

Disclaimer

I am not an employee of Partnership for Extraordinary Minds and any errors noted are my own.  If I have misrepresented, or misstated anything please provide constructive feedback so I may make the appropriate change(s). All opinions and views are my own.

Next Steps (Saving More Part 2)

You should be feeling pretty excited, you’re building momentum and financial independence is on your horizon – not just a dream to be lived by someone else. You’re becoming more aware of your spending habits, and this awareness is allowing you to identify what’s a want vs need; and make the harder decision of postponing gratification for a future goal. You’ve not only identified the goal(s); you’ve also set up account(s) for them and you can now watch the money – bringing you closer to accomplishment!

Now, let’s tackle debt. If you don’t have any – stop reading here. There are several methods of attacking debt, the (2) I focus most heavily on are highest interest rate and lowest balance. I think paying the highest interest rate first is pretty self-explanatory, these are costing you the most money. However, many people need help staying motivated; so paying down the lowest balance first will give you a “win” and show you what’s possible in the shortest amount of time.

You could build an excel spreadsheet to graph out  your options, work with a debt counseling agency or use an online debt snowball payment calculator. The online tool I’m most familiar with is undebt.it, however if you Google debt snowball you will find many more options – pick the one you are most comfortable using (and is free). All of the tools listed only work if you are honest and realistic about your current situation. If you only have $25 extra each month, then use that number. Using a higher, unsustainable, number will only lead to this being discarded.

Initially don’t include your mortgage. If you have a higher than average interest rate (> 6.5%) on your primary residence, consider talking to a mortgage lender for a refinance – but don’t start adding additional payments to be mortgage free (again, this applies to those with a lot of other debt). Typically the first debts you are going to want to address are going to be your credit cards, because they generally have high interest rates – especially store cards.

Understand your spending habits (see part 1). If you are still using the card(s),  you will need to stop to realize any success with the snowball. You want to get the balance down as quickly as possible so the finance charges stop – if you get to a state of equilibrium, where you have a balance but it’s not increasing through purchases; you are still paying additional amounts in interest every month. Once you’ve got the card(s) paid down, if you want to continue using it – and you can pay it in full each month – go ahead.

When you’re using a tool like the debt snowball you should focus on (1) debt at a time. This allows you to maximize the amount you knock down each month. When the first debt is paid off, you will take the payment you had been making and add it to the payment of the second debt (and so on). This is the power of the snowball – you gain momentum over time, and can in some instances shave years and tens of thousands of dollars of interest off – if you are disciplined and consistent. Good luck.