Nothing Wrong with Simplicity

I think we make our lives more difficult than we need to – in all aspects. Almost like we think we’re doing something wrong if we can explain ourselves in one sentence. But in my opinion, this is what we should be striving for. Life is complicated enough, I don’t feel like it needs any help from me.

More often than not I’ve found the mantra “keep it simple” has steered me in the right direction – even (or especially) when I’m working with clients. To be clear, you must absolutely do your due diligence when considering alternatives, but I’ve found those that you can easily understand and require the least amount of effort will often work.

This shouldn’t necessarily be applied when pursuing a degree or picking a home to live in for the rest of your life – because there is usually a lot of other things to take into consideration. But how you pay for school, or the home, shouldn’t be that complicated or fancy.

Call me boring, but I like to set things in place and then forget about them – secure in the knowledge that it’s doing what it’s supposed to do. Saving for college in a 529 plan – why not pick a target date fund with the year closest to when you’ll need the money? The same goes for your current employer sponsored retirement plan. Both of these will likely have a bunch of other options available, and not necessarily anyone available to help select what works best for you.

Alternatively you could hire someone to take care of it for you; my only input being make sure you understand what they are doing. This can apply to having a housekeeper, landscaper or financial advisor – in each case you’ll want to be very clear of your expectations, and understand what they will be delivering. Once the ground rules are laid, you can shift your focus to other things – circling back periodically to check on things.

Vets – save that pension

This post is for my fellow veterans – those who have already retired, or are considering a military retirement; and are interested in living a life of financial independence as quickly as possible. We’re in a unique position, we’ll have a steady stream of income starting at a relatively early age (some of us are under 40). Depending on where you choose to hang your hat, maybe this will be all you’ll need – but more than likely you’ll want to keep working, if for no other reason than to keep from being bored.

So let’s say you decide you want a second job/career. First, let’s talk about how to determine your income need. Many of those I’ve spoken to were satisfied to have their employer pay them the difference between what they were making on active duty and their pension; without consideration for skills and/or education. Please be real about what your worth is.

When you enter the workforce, I think it’s best to pretend you do not have any other income; but rather take stock of what skills/talents you have and what those are going for in the “real world”. Glassdoor and Salary.com are two resources I’ve found useful over the years to establish a baseline income level for jobs I was interested in. The only exception I would generally make is if you’re starting a business from scratch – because then using your pension (and VA disability if you qualify) can help significantly.

Once you’ve done your homework and established what the job should pay given your skills and experience, that becomes the minimum base salary I recommend you accept. So what if it’s more than you need because you’re getting a pension – does this mean you can buy a bigger house or a more expensive car?! No – not if you’re goal is what I stated in the beginning; financial independence as early as possible. Instead, I’m proposing you save the entire amount, and not all of it in retirement accounts.

Let’s say your after-tax pension check is $2,000/mth ($24k/year), and you’re not receiving any VA disability. The first thing I would do would be max out your 401(k) contribution – which for those under the age of 50 is $18k/year. Here’s why I like this – it’s going to reduce your taxable income, and it’s not going to feel like you’re saving the full $18k because it’s pre-tax dollars. You can’t put your pension into your 401(k), instead  you’re investing the money from your paycheck and using your pension to live. Because you’ll receive your pension on the 1st, and your 401(k) contributions will come out with every paycheck, you’ll want to make sure you’ve set a system in place to pay your bills in the beginning of the month with your pension check.

The remaining $6k I would put into a taxable brokerage account, I like Vanguard and Fidelity because they have low fees, but anywhere it can grow for the next 7 – 10 years taking advantage of the stock market is fine. How and where you invest will depend on your individual risk tolerance. If possible, I recommend making this an automatic withdrawal from your paycheck just like the retirement withdrawals; it’ll help avoid temptation to spend it elsewhere.

If you’re receiving VA disability, I would explore a different option – because it’s coming to you tax-free already. This money I would want to set aside in a Roth, either IRA or 401(k). If you’re income is too high for a Roth IRA and your employer doesn’t offer the Roth option, then talk to your advisor about using a taxable IRA and Roth conversions. My goal is helping you keep this money tax free. This strategy works just as well if you’re active duty and deployed in a combat zone receiving tax free pay – move your contribution to the Roth TSP option and increase it to the highest threshold you can stomach; but nothing less than an additional 2%.

These strategies will build your account values quickly, and the lower you can keep your living expenses the sooner you’ll become financially independent. I’m not against working, quite the opposite – I think I’ll work as long as I’m able to. But I believe we should work on our terms. Speaking for myself, after 10+ deployments and 5 years as a geographical bachelor, I’m done working on any terms other than my own – so it’s critical I do what I need to, to afford myself this freedom (and the same goes for you).

 

How to Transition to a Monthly Paycheck

For most of our working years I think it’s safe to say just about all of us receive our checks weekly or every other week; and plan to pay our bills accordingly. Speaking for myself, while on Active Duty my wife and I designated the 1st’s paycheck to the mortgage and the 15th’s to our living expenses. Simple and easy to repeat; and I’d wager many others do something very similar.

I never considered what would happen if I was only paid once per month – and although I “knew” it’s what would happen when I retired from the Navy I wasn’t ready for it. It’s a different dynamic, even if you’re being paid the same or making more; because if it’s something you’re not used to it’s easy to spend like you have another check coming at the halfway point – and if you’re used to weekly paychecks it can be even worse.

To add insult to injury, it’s likely there is going to be a gap of at least (1) month between your last regular paycheck and your monthly check when transitioning to a military pension or social security. It could be even longer if you’ve filed a VA claim, I believe the current wait for fully developed claims is (6) months – a fully developed claim is one in which all supporting documentation has been provided and the VA forms have been completed correctly.

So what can you do to help yourself?

At least six months, a year would be ideal, start gradually transitioning to paying your bills within the first week of the month.

First, figure out your living expenses. Start with tracking all your spending, Mint.com is a useful tool; but many banks will include a similar tool. This will tell you how much you need to earn, and if you’re not interested in transitioning to another job/career; it will help you determine if, and where, you need to cut back. For those who are Active Duty and are being paid BAH cut your expected earnings by almost 2/3 – because you will receive ~50% of your base pay only (whatever percentage you’re entitled to, it’s calculated off your base pay). If your expenses are more than your new income you have two choices – find another income source (not credit cards or other debt instruments) or dial back your expenses.

After you’ve calculated your living expenses and your monthly income, train yourself to live off one pay period.  For most of us this is going to take some coordination, because we don’t have sufficient savings to serve as a buffer. Start small, with a bill or two that are fairly consistent – like phone and/or cable. You know how much you need to set aside, and can plan for it by dialing back accordingly.

When you’re ready to start, set aside 1.5x’s the amount of the bill(s) you’re adding to the first of the month; and I recommend putting this somewhere other than your everyday savings/checking. You’re saving more than you “need” to build the habit and get you used to having less money available from your other checks. This also gives you the extra money you’re going to need to have available on the first of the month. If you cannot afford to save the full amount, then start by setting aside at least an extra $25. The less you can afford to set aside the more time you will need to give yourself for the transition, because we want the habit firmly anchored before the transition occurs.

The goal is a complete transition to paying all your bills on the first of the month before you leave the work force. This isn’t the only way to do this, and if it doesn’t appeal to you my hope is it has at least got you thinking about when you’re only going to have a monthly check. Don’t hesitate to get help if you need it, in this particular case I would recommend a fee only (hourly) planner – Garrett Planning Network, NAPFA, and the CFP Board all have “Find an Advisor” tool; to name a few organizations.

 

 

Do You Have/Need an Exit Strategy?

Recently I’ve been receiving not so subtle reminders of how finite our lives are, and how much of a difference having a plan can make. I think we can all agree it’s impossible to plan for every eventuality, but I also think we can all agree there is at least one exit we are all going to make – to the best of my knowledge nobody has found the secret to immortality in our present state (this is not meant as a religious or philosophical post).

I remember how torn I was, weighing whether to reenlist or not. I retired with over 20 years, but if I’m completely honest with myself it’s not because I loved the Navy. The biggest reason I stayed was fear – I wasn’t sure what I would do about health insurance for my son – having received the Autism diagnosis in the early 2000’s and there not being much information available (that we were aware of). This had negative consequences – I was not someone anyone would want to be around; I felt trapped and took it out on everyone around me.

I think many, if not all, of us can relate to feeling trapped at some point in our lives – be it in a marriage, or a job or some other contract. And because this can be so overwhelming it’s easy for us to lose sight of options, convincing ourselves there is absolutely nothing we can do to make our situation better – regardless of what those around us may be proposing.

If you have kids, do you let them go through high school without talking to you about what their plan is after graduation? If the answer is “no”, then why are you treating yourself any different? This leads me to having an exit strategy – begin with the end in mind. Sounds trite, perhaps; but it will make a significant difference.

For example, no-one marries with the intent to divorce; but even if you don’t divorce the odds are one of you will outlive the other – even if it’s 50+ years down the road. Have a discussion of what you want, how you want to be remembered and where you want to be laid to rest – and put it in writing. Yes, this is an Estate plan; but it’s not meant to be set in stone – review it at major milestones, or at least every 5 years if you have nothing going on.

Another example I come across is similar to what I experienced in the Navy – people are afraid to leave their jobs (not just the military) because of uncertainty; will they make enough money, what else would they do, etc. In this case, my advice is to build yourself a “freedom fund”. Save money into an account with the strict purpose of giving you a buffer. How much is up to you, but I would suggest at least 6 months of income. I would also recommend you make a list of what is non-negotiable. What do you absolutely have to have – could be a minimum salary, specific benefit(s), etc; and also what you are completely unwilling to have in your life – could be too much autonomy, a micro-managing boss, specific working hours or days of the week, etc.

If you take nothing else away from reading this, please take the time to understand what’s most important to you. Don’t be upset or feel like you’re doing something wrong if your internal values don’t match your coworkers or friends – these are your values. When you are considering a change, especially a major one, take a moment to consider possible consequences. I’m doing this with my clients all the time, as I’d wager most Advisers are. Take it for what it’s meant to be, a glimpse of other possibilities; not finding fault with your ideas.

 

When the Floor Drops

This time of year (Mar – May) is rough for me, it brings back a lot of memories – most vivid perhaps the week my wife spent in the ICU until she passed, her subsequent burial over Easter weekend of 2012 and what would’ve been our wedding anniversary on May 18th. Certainly the most dramatic, but not the only time I’ve lost my equilibrium because something totally unexpected, and unwelcome, occurred. And when this happens, it’s up to us to decide how we’ll react – do we roll with the punches and come back fighting, or do we drop to the mat? Admittedly I haven’t always responded with grace under pressure – it’s taken years and multiple incidents I could’ve (and should’ve) handled better to get me to where I am; and I still consider myself a work in progress.

I’ve made it my mission to help families with disabilities and veterans (with and without disabilities) set and achieve their goals. It’s my intent to help them understand the opportunities that exist, opportunities many of us can’t begin to conceive of when we’re living in the moment (myself included). Sometimes it just takes an outside perspective to send the lifeline, provide a glimpse of what’s possible if you can just stay afloat a little longer.

Having gone through multiple meetings w/ medical professionals for diagnoses for my son, my wife, and even myself (working with the VA); and having made the transition to civilian life after over 20 years of active duty – I understand what it’s like to feel the floor drop out from under you. Watching all your plans dissolve, like a sandcastle built too close to the edge of the ocean when the tide comes in. What I’ve learned is this – no matter how dark things may seem; if you continue moving forward, not giving in to what seems so much easier, eventually you will come to the end of the tunnel. What’s waiting for you will depend on what supports you’ve sought and cultivated, and how you’ve chosen to look at things.

Personally, I choose to focus on the positives. From when my son got his first diagnosis my wife and I made it a point to celebrate the little successes, like getting him to use signs (ASL) to communicate. I believe noticing, and celebrating, our successes – no matter how seemingly inconsequential – helps us push through the negatives that are an unfortunate part of life. I wasn’t always like this, not too long ago I was perhaps one of the most negative people I’ve ever known – I wouldn’t want to associate with the past me now; and I’m thankful for those who stuck with me.

I say this to help you, the reader, understand it’s never too late to shift your perspective. If you’re weighted down because of medical, consumer or student loan debt it’s not the end of the world; there are resources for you. If you, or a loved one, has recently received news that at first cripples you into inaction; take a moment and acknowledge its impact and significance. Then ask yourself who can help you with perspective – perhaps a religious leader, a partner or a professional you respect; to name a few options. I will tell you, again from personal experience and with the utmost respect for how you’re feeling – no matter how much you may believe you are alone and there is no one who could possibly understand what you’re going through and that you’re all alone, it is my belief you are wrong.

The internet is a fantastic tool, please don’t hesitate to use it. Be careful about who you share with, there are “emotional vampires” who will, in my opinion, only make things worse – by feeding into your perceptions and beliefs, rather than helping you look for, and celebrate, your successes – no matter how small. After my wife died one of the successes I would celebrate was just getting out of bed – to me that was a win. That is what I mean by celebrating successes. Over the course of our lives we are going to have good things, and bad things, happen to us. It’s up to us to decide which we let shape us. So take the a minute, get up and look around you – I challenge you to identify at least (3) things that make your life better, and why.

Pathfinders for Autism

Pathfinders for Autism was founded in February 2000 by parents of children with Autism, creating a Resource Center shortly after. In the years since Pathfinders was founded it has grown to be Maryland’s largest Autism organization (to the best of my knowledge). Their most recent effort towards raising awareness has been with the staffo of emergency rooms throughout the state, helping nurses and doctors understand the additional complications which may be present when an individual with Autism arrives – for example non-verbal or seeming lack of comprehension to questions asked.

Who They Are 

Pathfinders’ Mission statement is short and to the point (from their website) – “to improve the lives of individuals with autism and the people who care for them. We accomplish this through a variety of programs and services, all of which are offered free of charge.” Personally, I continue to refer clients and other professionals to their website because of the immense amount of information to be found there. I’ve also been fortunate enough to participate in a few of their programs, and I was blown away by how well they were run.

What They Do 

Pathfinders does so much, it’s difficult to capture it in a format like this – so I am going to highlight a few of the things which impress me the most and encourage you to check out their website. I want to stress – many of the resources and information provided isn’t just for Autism, it can be applied equally well to just about any disability.

The Pathfinders for Autism Resource Center is how they originally started, and remains a significant part of their daily activities. Pathfinders’ staff will respond personally to all inquiries made – whether through Facebook, e-mail or phone; and they distribute monthly “Parent Tips” covering a wide variety of topics.

They sponsor workshops around the state – bringing in experts on topics like vocational rehab, financial planning and dietary interventions, to name a few. Annually they are a sponsor of Honestly Autism Day, combining a resource fair with well-known Key Note speakers and break-out sessions.

As mentioned above, they train First Responders – this includes Law Enforcement, Fire Fighters, Emergency Medical Services (EMS) and, most recently, Emergency Rooms. These trainings are more than powerpoint presentations, Pathfinders will bring self-advocate volunteers and provide scenario-based instruction – which in my opinion is really the only way to help people truly understand what they could be faced with.

What Else Should I Know

As I stated, Pathfinders for Autism does so much more than I can fit into this medium. Personally I’ve used their “Autism by Age” tab on their website to help me figure out what to do after my wife passed away, and I continue to refer to it even today. Their Resources and Help tab offers information for residents and non-residents alike, as well as a search tool for providers and services (and much, much more).

Pathfinders for Autism is an authorized 501(c)3, you can find their 990 and other financial information on their website. They sponsor a Run Wild for Autism 5k Race and 1 Mile Fun Run & Walk at the Baltimore Zoo, or you can donate online. In my opinion, they have proven themselves to be extremely good stewards of the funds received, and are a most deserving organization.

Disclaimer

I am not an employee of Pathfinders for Autism 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.

Check Yourself!

This year my son turns 18, which by any measure is a major milestone; but I’m finding it especially noteworthy as I consider what it means with regards to my estate planning and his disability. When he was younger I was able to delude myself into thinking there may be a miracle cure, he’d suddenly wake up one day and no longer have the cognitive delays he’s had since birth. Some of this is hyperbole, I’m certainly being melodramatic – but it has been weighing on my mind.

Specifically what will happen when I’m gone. Having lost my spouse to a sudden illness, making the toughest choice I’ve ever had to make taking her off life support; I understand nothing is promised. I have an estate plan, I completed it the year after my wife died; but so much has changed in the intervening years – now it’s time to revisit the plan and make the appropriate changes.

Many of my readers will experience similar thoughts and feelings, if you haven’t already; the question is what are you doing about it? It’s much easier to turn a blind eye and say “I’ll get to it”; but let’s be honest – for a myriad of reasons we never do. Me, I’m waiting until after my son’s birthday; for a couple reasons. First, I’ll be applying to the VA for his “helpless child” status; an unfortunate moniker which nonetheless will enable him to receive my Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP) when I’m gone. For those of you who are not familiar with SBP, it provides a spouse and/or child(ren) with up to 55% of the veteran’s pension.

The other reason I’m waiting is because I need to make the decision about becoming his Guardian. As a minor this is automatic, but after he becomes 18, should I choose to pursue this option, I will need to prove to a judge he is incapable of taking care of himself. In my son’s case this isn’t as simple as “yes” or “no”. I’ve always, and regardless of if my decision is for guardianship, will continue to be, a proponent of alternatives to guardianship. That’s a topic for its own blog, but needless to say I have some major decisions to make in the next few months.

Why am I writing all this? To show you I “get it”. I understand how difficult it can be to verify asset titling and beneficiary designations, and why you may not want to make that call to the estate planning attorney to get your documents in order. But believe it or not, doing so WILL help. In some ways I can’t wait to get mine done, ensuring my son’s first and third party trusts are established so he has one less thing to worry about when I’m gone.

Losing someone is difficult, there is so much to be done it’s often hard to conceive how you’re going to accomplish it all. Why add to this by making your family and loved ones try to figure out what you would’ve wanted? Have the tough conversation, and get your final wishes in writing – it’s a whole lot less unpleasant than not having anything when the unforeseen happens. My wife and discussed extreme measures, and although it didn’t make the decision easier when I had to make it; I’m glad I knew what she wanted – because I knew ultimately I was honoring her. So take a look at your documents, if it’s been more than 4 years since you had your estate plan done (or you haven’t gotten around to it yet) reach out to an attorney. I’m here for my clients should they need the moral support, and I’m sure many of you can rely on your Advisors as well.