Archive for the ‘Finance’ Category

Save money by slaying the “energy vampires” in your home, this Halloween

Tuesday, October 18th, 2016

Ghouls and goblins aren’t the only thing California residents have to worry about this Halloween. There’s another threat lurking in nearly every household: you can’t see or feel it, but it drains your hard-earned cash without you even realizing. This threat is the “energy vampire” – and it accounts for nearly 10% of all energy use in California homes.

“Energy vampires” (or standby power) is a term used for any electronic we leave plugged in that slowly sucks energy from our homes. These can be video game consoles, phone chargers, guitar amps, laptops, printers and more. What’s worse, the average U.S. household spends about $130 per year to power devices while they appear to be off.

So how can households reclaim some of these costs? Here are a few tricks and tips:

  • Unplug your devices. Perhaps the most obvious thing you can do to battle energy vampires is to unplug devices when they are not in use. Make it a habit to unplug your charger when your phone is fully charged, or your video game console, when you’ve finished playing. These small, simple behavior changes add up in energy savings – and in dollars and cents.
  • Enable ENERGY STAR power management settings. ENERGY STAR qualified computers and monitors offer a variety of power settings to help you monitor your energy use. By enabling these settings, you can have your devices go into power save mode when they are not actively in use.
  • Use Advanced Power Strips (APS). Replacing your conventional power strips with advanced power strips can help reduce electricity waste when devices are idle – without your having to change the way you normally use your electronics.  Advanced Power Strips work by preventing electronics from drawing power when they are off or not being used.

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myRA – a safe startup retirement account

Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

Running Your Money column logoBy Harry Stoll

“myRA” is a retirement account established by the U.S. Treasury in January 2015; it’s for workers without an employer-sponsored retirement account. (If you have any other retirement plan, such as 401k or another Roth IRA, it doesn’t matter.) myRA is a form of a  Roth IRA, but with one important distinction: It is not stock market based as other IRA’s are, but on U.S. Treasury bonds. So it won’t grow dramatically, but you cannot lose money. The Treasury bonds backing it averaged 2.9% for the 10 years ending December 31, 2015.

You can open a myRA with as little as $25 and make contributions as low as $5 (provided your income is less that $131,000 or 193,000 for married couples filing jointly). You can arrange for you employer to make regular contributions, have regular contributions from a checking account or make periodic contributions from a checking account. The amount you can contribute in a year is $5,500, or $6,500 for those over 50.

The money you put in has been taxed so there’s no tax on it when withdrawn. The dividends are also tax free when taken out, which is a huge plus. There are hoops to jump through when withdrawing. In general you can withdraw after age 59 and ½ without being taxed or paying a penalty.

An important point: when the balance reaches $15,000 or you have it for 30 years, whichever is first, it must be transferred to regular Roth account. And before that amount is reached funds in the myRA can be transferred to another Roth IRA. Here’s a method to then get cash from the Roth IRA to which you transferred funds: I have a self-managed Roth in which I select the investments. I could transfer funds to from myRA to the regular Roth where it goes into an “available for investment” category. I could then have the broker send me a check.

This is an ideal retirement investment for those entering the labor market, whether it’s flipping burgers, bagging groceries, steaming lattes, or being a corporate lawyer. You can make contributions when you are able. It might be a strain sometimes, but it’s a start. End of lecture

MyRA can also be used by anybody as a safe place to stash some money and get some interest.

The U.S. Treasury has arranged for Comerica Bank to be the custodian for myRA’s. It accepts contributions from checking accounts. But you can’t delete an account once established. The web site states you can have up to five external accounts, but customer service said it’s up to three. Not a deal breaker, but annoying. And because your contributions temporarily go into a Comerica Bank account they can share certain of your information. No charge appears against the account; obviously the U.S. Treasury is paying Comerica a fee. I had no luck in getting Comerica to tell me the fee. I’ll try the Treasury and report back.

To get started: myra.gov

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Estate Planning: A long list will save me, right?

Wednesday, March 16th, 2016

Matthew Hart column logoFor the last few months I have been talking about the Advance Health Care Directive (AHD).  I covered who will make a good agent and why co-agents can be a bad idea.  Once the agents are specified in the AHD the next piece of information in the directive is a list of things that the agent should do and can’t do.  Some people try and get really exhaustive with their list thinking the doctor will be following it to the letter.

What most people don’t realize is that the list of do’s and don’ts is only for your agent.  The doctor will not be reading the list.  The doctor will be looking at the AHD to find out who is in charge and then will ask your agent what course of action to take.  Therefore, what is most important is whom you put in charge.  Moreover, as medical technology changes, a list of do’s and don’ts may become outdated before you know it.  In addition, as we age the list of do’s and don’ts might radically change.

The point I try and make to my clients is; it is more important to choose a good agent who you communicate with often so that they can execute your wishes around health decisions even in an environment of change.  Next month I will talk about probate.

Matthew Hart is a California Licensed Attorney who is an Estate Planning, Trust & Probate Law Specialist certified by the State Bar of California.  He can be reached at 925-754-2000 or www.MatthewHartLaw.com and he has offices in Antioch and Walnut Creek.

 

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Planning for Your Future: It’s always the spouse…isn’t it?

Tuesday, December 8th, 2015

Matthew Hart column logoBy Matthew M. Hart, Esq.

Last month I introduced readers to the Advance Health Care Directive (AHD), the document attorneys use to specify who will make your medical decisions when you cannot.  When I sit with my clients to discuss the AHD the big decision is who will make the decisions.  If my clients are married they usually choose their spouse.  Are you surprised I didn’t say, “they always choose their spouse?”

Part of my job is to gently help my clients face reality.  Although the spouse seems like the logical choice, what if my clients are in their 80’s and have only been married six months?  What if they have adult children in their 50’s and 60’s?  Sometimes, it will make more sense for that client to let the adult children make those final decisions instead of a new spouse.  What about the spouse who just can’t live without their mate?

When the critical time comes to make that tough decision, will the grieving spouse be able to set aside their emotions to make the decision?  Would it be more practical for an adult child to make that decision?  Although both of these situations are not too common, I have seen circumstances where the spouse wasn’t the best choice. When creating an AHD clients should take an honest look at who can make the final decision.

Next month I will talk about the issues around children and AHD’s.

Matthew Hart is a California Licensed Attorney who is an Estate Planning, Trust & Probate Law Specialist certified by the State Bar of California.  He can be reached at 925-754-2000 or www.MatthewHartLaw.com and he has offices in Antioch and Walnut Creek.

 

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Running Your Money: How to buy toilet paper

Tuesday, November 17th, 2015

Running Your Money column logoBy Harry Stoll

Ancient Chinese civilizations invented gunpowder, the plow, the printing press, steel making, horse harnesses, porcelain, and much more. Put toilet paper on that list also. This essential item is among the 100 or so non-perishable items in most homes. Here is a troika of buying principles:

Buy the products you like.

Buy them on sale.

Buy them in large quantities.

Of course you don’t want to do anything that wouldn’t be prudent, but you should buy your favorite products. How you decide that is strictly subjective, but you know what products you like, so buy them. Many shoppers decide the house brands are their favorites. Stores are able to buy huge amounts of products from established manufacturers because that lets the manufacturer sell them to the retailer at a lower cost.

One deal—one price. But don’t be fooled into thinking the products are the same; corners could be cut. The only way to find out is to test fly them yourself. I’ve had very good luck with paper house brands from Raley’s and CVS. But it remains that you have to buy the products you like. If the cost is astronomical you might have to lower your standards.

The next thing to do is find what you like on sale. Paper products and personal care products seem to be on sale every week. (I use one of the many Gillette razors and never find their blades on sale. Not fair.) And the markdowns are often huge. Maybe they are just turning a smaller profit and the profit on the usual price is obscene. There is nothing you can do about that. Find what you like and buy it when it’s on sale.

Now, what you do is buy as many of these products on sale as they will let you buy. Sometimes there is a limit, but often it’s within what you can reasonably tote out to the trunk and find storage for in your house. You might have to creative to find space; maybe one of those under-the-bed covered trays would help.

Now a word about Sam’s Club and Costco: Other than the pallet loads you have to buy, I have two problems with them. I can never find out ahead of time what the prices will be, and their regular prices, while admittedly low, are often higher than the same product on sale at CVS, Rite-Aid, Walgreen’s, or whatever grocer you shop at.

Coupons drive me crazy. I do snip them out of the Sunday paper but because they only let you buy one or two items I’m not too excited about them. As to those couponing TV shows: if you believe them you’ll believe in Smackdown is a competitive sport.

Shopping for fresh food is another task. Grocery stores usually come out with them on Thursdays. If you have a dedicated cook in your house, E can make use of those ads, but that’s a heavy-duty undertaking and fresh food must be bought about three times weekly.

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Report: Antioch household income decreased 22.7% from 1999-2013, third highest in California

Wednesday, September 30th, 2015

Rising costs and stagnant wages are a nationwide issue but some Californians are feeling an especially tight squeeze. To determine which California city’s residents are most affected by rising homeownership costs and wages that have not kept pace with inflation, consumer finance site NerdWallet analyzed and ranked 207 cities in the state on these key economic factors, adjusted for inflation, over the past 14 years.

The report found that household income has trailed inflation in Antioch, decreasing 22.70%, the third highest in the state, behind Palm Desert at 24.2% and Westminster at 23.9%. That compares to a 7.8% drop in annual household income in California, on average and accounting for inflation.

The report also provides comparisons on a city-by-city basis of housing and college education costs during that time.

The full report can be found here.

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Estate Planning: How do I restrain financial power?

Sunday, September 13th, 2015

Matthew Hart column logoBy Matthew Hart, Esq.

Last month I introduced the Durable Power of Attorney or DPA, for short. To recap, your agent with this power can do pretty much anything you can do financially, but they can do it in your name, such as take out a credit card in your name. Being an attorney, I am always concerned with checks and balances. As stated in the previous month’s column this power is critically needed by every adult but how do we keep bad things from happening?

First, you never put anyone in charge that you don’t trust, today to take charge of all of your money. If you hesitate at that thought, then you are considering the wrong person. Choosing the right person is critical.

Next, for the bulk of my clients I recommend a Springing Durable Power of Attorney. A springing DPA only “springs” into effect upon your incapacity. Therefore, even if your agent got a hold of a copy of your DPA they could not use it for bad things while you have capacity.

Contrast that to an Immediate DPA which takes effect the day it is signed. I have seen greedy children do a lot of damage with an immediate DPA therefore be sure you have a good reason to have an immediate DPA.

Next month I will address Bank DPA’s and Internet DPA’s.

Matthew Hart is a California Licensed Attorney who is an Estate Planning, Trust & Probate Law Specialist certified by the State Bar of California. He can be reached at 925-754-2000 or www.MatthewHartLaw.com and he has offices in Antioch and Walnut Creek.

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Running Your Money: Protecting your privacy – sort of

Thursday, August 27th, 2015

Running Your Money column logoBy Harry Stoll

About once a year, you’re no doubt receiving a missive from credit card companies informing you of what they do with your private information. This includes when you open an account or make deposits or withdrawals; pay your bills or apply for a loan; or use your credit or debit card. It also collects personal information for others such as credit bureaus, affiliates, or other companies.

I certainly have no quarrel with my credit card company, or loan holder getting such data; they are laying their money on the line and it’s good business to know what I’m up to.

But sharing information goes further. There are seven categories of private information and you can limit the sharing of only three categories. Here are the categories and what you can limit:

-For their everyday business purposes such as to process transactions, maintain your account, respond to court orders and legal investigations, or report to credit bureaus. You cannot limit this sharing.

- For their marketing purposes to offer deals to you. You cannot limit this sharing.

- For joint marketing with other financial companies. You cannot limit this sharing.

- For their affiliates everyday business purposes. (An affiliate is an entity owned or controlled by the financial institution.) You cannot limit this sharing.

- For their affiliates’ eveyrday business purposes—information about your credit worthiness. Ta da! You can limit this sharing.

- For their affiliates to market to you. You can limit ths sharing.

- For their non-affiliates to market to you. You can limit this sharing.

I don’t mind my bank or credit company marketing to me. Mostly I hit the delete button, but occasionally they offer something I can use, such as a bonus for opening an account or using my card a bunch of times.

From childhood, we’ve been taught that it’s nice to share. But we’re (hopefully) all grown up now and should be able to decide with whom to share.

These categories were last laid out in the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999. It was enacted to thwart wholesale sharing of information, including sale of personal information to porn sites and to dodgy financial institutions offering high risk investments to low risk clients. The last time credit card reforms were enacted by the Federal government was in 2009, known informally as the Credit Card Holder’s Bill of Rights. It did not change the sharing of information rules.

So we have but three categories we can limit, but I urge you to limit what you can (assuming that’s’ what you want.) Formerly, financial institutions made it somewhat difficult to limit by requiring you to call an 800 number and work your way through the maze or to stamp and address an envelope. Now, they usually include a postage paid envelope.

We Californians can limit the sharing of personal and financial information with affiliates and outside companies the financial institution does business. That’s a step beyond.

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