investing

10 tips to boost investing insight in 2015

Don Taylor

5 best money moves to make this year
By Jean Chatzky

This is my 16th year of writing a "Top 10" column to get you thinking about improving your finances in the upcoming year. May you benefit in 2015 from these investing tips.

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1. Figure out what you're trying to reach

I encourage people to figure out what their goals are in life, and then work on a financial plan that will help them achieve those goals. However, goals that aren't well-defined -- like "I want a comfortable retirement" or "I want to save for my children's education" -- don't have numbers behind them, and that makes them harder to achieve.

I often see people financing goals they should have invested for, especially when it comes to their children's college education. With some exceptions, such as financing a mortgage, I'd rather see you earn a yield on your investments than pay a rate on a loan.

Young couple organizing their finances in white dining room © Spectral-Design/Shutterstock.com

2. Insure, save, invest

Investing isn't the first step in providing for you and your family's future. Insurance is that first step. Between life insurance, health insurance, disability insurance, home, auto, liability insurance and long-term care insurance, evaluating and meeting your needs for insurance is an important first step before starting to save and invest for your future.

Financial professionals tend to differentiate between saving and investing. With saving, protecting principal is more important than increasing purchasing power. With investing, the emphasis is on building wealth and increasing purchasing power. An emergency fund, with its role of providing liquidity in times of financial need, is the place for savings. Retirement accounts, at least while you're still working, are the place to invest. Consumers with low risk tolerances tend to save money they would be better off investing.

3. Have an emergency fund

Too many people live paycheck to paycheck. They can't handle any financial setbacks in their lives. Some expect their credit cards to see them through the tough times, only to find themselves trying to dig out from under a mountain of credit card debt that may be growing at 23.99 percent interest.

As you start to build wealth in your investment portfolio, the portfolio can act as a financial backstop for at least part of the funds available in an emergency. Until then, it makes sense to have three to six months' worth of living expenses in a high-yield savings account or other liquid investment available to meet an unexpected financial need.

4. Know your income and outflow

Whether you want to do a forensic accounting of how you spent money in 2014 or decide to track spending with a financial app on your smartphone in 2015, the idea is to keep track of how you spend your income and figure out where the money goes.

While you're doing that, put together a spending plan and stick to it. I call it a spending plan instead of a budget, because like a diet, no one likes to be on a budget. Call it "planned spending" and it puts a positive spin on allocating your income to your need for current consumption, savings and investment. That's right; your spending plan should include line items for saving and investing.

I'm not a member of the "lose the latte" branch of financial planning. As long as you're not financing that latte by carrying credit card balances and you are meeting your savings and investment goals, enjoy your coffee. There's a lifestyle balance between current spending and saving for your future. All delayed gratification takes the fun out of today. Of course, if a cup of fancy coffee is the highlight of your day, you've got other things to work on besides your finances.

5. Invest in your health

What's health got to do with investing? Well, as my junior high school health teacher, Mr. Andrew Codispoti, always told his students, "health is wealth. All the money in the world can't buy health." OK, the poet Virgil said it first and better: "The greatest wealth is health." Invest in your health and the return on investment might amaze you.

6. Retirement income needs

Don't get confused into thinking that the 401(k) and IRA contribution limits, even with catch-up contributions for those 50 and older, were set by the government to ensure that you can retire comfortably. You're probably not saving enough.

Retirees wind up putting together a retirement income stream from retirement savings, Social Security and pension benefits. Pension benefits are getting rare in the private sector. Try to estimate your retirement income needs, and then work out a plan as to how you will meet those needs. Don't go ostrich on the topic; work with a financial professional if you need help coming up with a target for your retirement nest egg.

7. Maximize expected Social Security benefits

Too many seniors are in a rush to file for Social Security benefits. File before your full retirement age and there's a big reduction in benefits. For senior couples that can make it work, the higher wage earner can "file and suspend" at his or her full retirement age, earning delayed retirement credits up until age 70, while the lower wage earner files for a spousal benefit at his or her full retirement age.

When in doubt on the benefit claiming strategy that will maximize your Social Security benefits, hire a professional to review the different claiming strategies.

8. Maximize your employer's contributions to your retirement

If your employer matches any part of your contribution to their 401(k) or 403(b) plan, make sure you contribute up to the limits of the employer match. That's free money and you don't want to leave any free money on the table.

The typical plan will match 50 cents to every dollar you contribute up to 6 percent of salary. That has your employer contributing 3 percent of salary. You've made 50 percent on your money before even deciding how you're going to invest it.

9. Review and rebalance your portfolio

Over time, you'll see your asset allocations change as the investments you own go up and down in value. Reviewing your portfolio holdings lets you see if you've gotten overweight or underweight in your target asset allocation.

Portfolio rebalancing has you buying and selling investments to get your asset allocations back to your target levels or ranges. Buying and selling in tax-advantaged retirement accounts typically won't have a tax impact, while buying and selling in taxable accounts does have an impact on your taxes.

If you're working with an investment professional, you should know his or her approach to rebalancing. If you're doing it yourself, weigh your investment horizon against your risk tolerance and whether you're adding new money to the portfolio to decide on the frequency or timing of your portfolio rebalancing.

10. Track investment fees and expenses

Knowing what you're paying for in fees and expenses when investing is an important move. Managing those fees and expenses is just as important. Whether your investments are in a tax-advantaged retirement account or a taxable brokerage account, by knowing what you're paying, you can make better decisions about how you're invested, reducing the drag on your investment returns net of fees. The Department of Labor's "A look at 401(k) Plan Fees" Web page is a good place to learn about fees in that type of retirement account.

If you're working with a financial services professional, you should know how they're paid. There are several different compensation models including hourly fees, assets under management, commission-based models or a flat fee for a specific financial plan or service.

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