Do you love to think about money? Financial planning? No? Congratulations, you’re perfectly normal.
Most people absolutely hate thinking about money. Like going to the dentist or doing taxes, it’s a duty, a pain, and more than a little confusing. We want the best possible outcome, but we are fearful of “messing up” along the way.
It’s that basic fear of making mistakes that drives the multi-billion-dollar marketing machine we call Wall Street. From the corner bank all the way to the New York Stock Exchange, our financial system is a thicket of laws, regulation, customs and specialized language that feels to mere mortals like a barrier to entry.
Which, of course, it is. Any industry does the same. The paid practitioners don’t want you to understand the simplicity of what they do. It’s bad for business. Their business.
Some financial planning, such as for estate plans or specific tax questions, can be quite complex. Yet people often buy “products” meant to solve problems that really are quite simple.
Here’s a beginner’s checklist to help you decide when to pay for financial help and when to do it yourself.
1. Saving more
The goal: Getting ahead of your expenses and keeping more cash for the long-term.
The product: Credit cards that siphon off small amounts or round up to the dollar on spending, directing money to savings.
The fix: You can auto-deduct from your paycheck at work a flat amount into a separate account at no cost. Why open a new credit account for that? Talk to your human resources manager or payroll provider.
2. Paying taxes
The goal: Less pain in the brain around April 15.
The product: Storefront tax advisers who offer you a short-term, high interest loan while they compile and file on your behalf.
The fix: The IRS recently opened up its Free File service to anyone and everyone. There are companies, too, that will guide you through the process at no cost if you make less than $57,000 a year. Getting a quickie loan on a tax return is just silly.
3. Paying for education
The goal: Affording college for yourself or your kids.
The product: Long-term student debt. Did you know that federally backed student loans cannot be extinguished in bankruptcy? Few students realize that when they sign a loan form while away at school.
The fix: Consider a prepaid college plan, available in many states. You purchase college classes today and lock in the cost, then get years to pay down the bill in fixed installments. Alternatively, consider a 529 plan, which gives you tax break now while saving for college.
4. Retiring on time
The product: High-cost annuities sold by insurance companies or “target-date” products populated with costly actively managed mutual funds.
The fix: Owning investments is not as complex as you might believe. It really only requires a well-designed, inexpensive collection of low-cost index funds and steady, disciplined rebalancing along the way.