Whether you work with experts or not, getting your finances under control means taking actual steps to do so. And again, whether you are working independently or with an expert, you need to be able to research various investment and tax choices and catalog that information before you make the choices you need to make.
Start by being skeptical about investment research
When talking about investment research, trust no one-at least initially. When the markets climbed in the 1990s, so did the number of sources of investment information-cable TV, dozens of publications both new and old, and last but not least, the internet. After the fall, there are plenty of resources out there, but here’s how to check them out.
Pay attention to the source. Since the stock market fell during 2000-2002, there’s been a wakeup call on investment stories and who the sources are behind them. More often these days, you will hear business reporters ask on TV and in print whether investment managers, analysts, and any number of financial players have an interest in the investment they’re talking about.
That didn’t happen much before the value of the NASDAQ was cut in half during the worst of the downturn.
Much of the investment research easily available to us is on the Internet, particularly in weblogs, or blogs. Blogs or online diaries that specialize in virtually any topic have exploded in the last five years. On the Internet, on newsstands, on the air, financial advice is everywhere. An August 2005 report in the Wall Street Journal estimated that there were are about 5,000 personal finance blogs, up 40 percent from the previous six months.
The primary attraction of blogs is their immediacy. Also, they offer a sense of community around a singular personal finance topic or a broad range of financial topics.
The best blogs arc useful when they are run by a good editor (the blogger) someone who provides a depth of factual information in digestible form. But look before you blog. Here are some guidelines:
Check the rankings. Major business publications regularly publish lists of blogs they believe have quality content. These listings are not in themselves endorsements or guarantees that the content within will make you money or at the very least be accurate. But check those listings to get a feel for what the experts believe are the best blogs and why.
Check out the blogger. Many noted authors and experts create and run their own blogs. Make the effort to check the person out as you would any guru-run an Internet search on their careers, their accomplishments, their publications, and especially any evidence of criminal record or fines for disseminating questionable information. Take some time to visit the Federal Trade Commission (www.ftc.gov) and the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Web sites (www.sec.gov) to see if your blogger could be under potential investigation for statements made on their blog. Be persistent and make the time to check out anyone on the site you’re e-mailing thoroughly.
Watch the message boards. Believing everything you read on any kind of message board is usually a mistake. A blog may have a very talented group of regular participants who share incredibly useful information.
But remember one key fact-in the majority of cases, you will have absolutely no idea who these people are, and there will be no way to check. Make every attempt to corroborate blog information with tested, reliable sources. And don’t hesitate to call your financial adviser before you invest in anything.
Be wary of privacy issues. To enter many blogs, particularly to participate on their message boards, you have to register by name and possibly by e-mail or home address. Be particularly wary of what you are asked to tell anyone. Unscrupulous bloggers might be asking for demographic or personal information that no one should share, particularly in an unsecured environment. Other blogs might install cookies-little electronic tracking devices that are installed on a user’s computer after they visit a Web site. Cookies not only make it easier for a reader to find things the next time they return, they may also enable the blogger to keep track of your behavior online. Ask yourself the true price of participating.
Watch what you write. While the courts to date have largely protected bloggers and posters from liability from outside content posted on various blogs, negative comments about companies or institutions are starting to draw legal fire. There have been court cases calling blog postings into question for alleged false and defamatory statements. In most cases, the blogger gets sued, but if you are a participant in that blog, you could potentially be liable. At the very least, use a pseudonym and don’t write anything that identifies you.
Consult an expert before you invest. If an investor finds himself or herself moving toward a purchase, sale, or financial decision based on something found on a blog, there is one simple course of action consult an expert. Much like investment message boards on Internet service providers or other Web sites, the Internet shouldn’t spark life altering financial decisions. Research and debunking all bad information should.
Getting Organized on paper
Many people are migrating all their financial tracking and planning to their home computers, and it’s a time-saver. Yet there are key questions that should start the process of getting all the intelligence and numbers down in the same place:
Start tracking all spending. If you haven’t purchased financial accounting software or set up a reliable accounting method of your own, this is the year to do it. Expense tracking is the first critical step to getting personal finances in order.
Write down your goals. Have you ever written down the big things you want in life? Granted, all great dreams don’t cost money, but many of them do. Money buys freedom to travel, to retire early, to start a business, to change careers. Putting goals in writing gives them a formality and a starting point for the planning you must do.
Start gathering all the records you need. Start with a good documents checklist-you can find them online, in office supply stores, magazine articles, or your “CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER” practitioner might supply a complimentary organizer. During the review, you may realize that you don’t have everything you should, such as a durable power of attorney, or that documents, such as a will or life insurance policy (coverage and beneficiary designation, for example) aren’t up to date. One record that’s often neglected is an inventory of all your property. This is invaluable if your home is destroyed.
What records should you keep and for how long?
Here are some of the most critical ones:
• Obvious ones to keep indefinitely include wills and related estate planning documents such as living wills and trust documents, Social Security cards, birth certificates and adoption papers, military records, marriage certificates and divorce decrees, driver’s license numbers, and passports.
• Financial and tax records get a little more complicated. You generally should keep mortgage records (and home improvement receipts) indefinitely, even if you’ve bought and sold several homes. But you probably won’t need to keep car titles or most other property documents once the item has been disposed of. Keep indefinitely all records documenting retirement plans and individual retirement accounts.
• Tax records make many people nervous, so they tend to hang on to everything. Certainly keep your filed tax returns indefinitely if that makes you feel more comfortable, but you generally don’t need to keep supporting documentation beyond three to six years. Regular audits must be done within three years and the IRS has six years’ to challenge if there’s reason to believe you under-reported by at least 25 percent. However, it has no time limit if it believes you didn’t file or filed fraudulently.
• Investment records can pile up quickly, but they’re even more important than before because your estate executor will need them to establish the basis for assets you hold at your death. Keep the year-end statements from mutual funds for as long as you own the funds, plus three to six years for tax purposes. Pitch the monthly statements at year’s end. The same goes for other investment records. Leave stock and bond certificates with your broker.
• Dump canceled checks (except those for tax purposes) and ATM receipts once you’ve confirmed the transactions are cleared. You can throw out credit card slips once they’re accounted for, except for those related to tax records or warranties. You don’t need to keep the monthly statements forever, either. You can get copies from the company if you need them.
How to organize records?
Here’s where you can do yourself and your loved ones the most good, even if you hang on to records unnecessarily. A filing cabinet with clearly marked files is a good start. Some experts suggest making copies of critical documents and putting them in accordion files or a box that can be easily taken out of the home in an emergency. Software is another good way to store financial records. It can be updated and backed up easily.
For the most important paper documents, consider a fireproof safe.
And given all the attention we’ve given to natural disasters, edit down what you consider “critical” documents so you can easily grab the safe and throw it in the car or outside the house if you have to leave.
But the most helpful is to keep a master list of where all the financial records are located, along with insurance policy numbers, bank account numbers, and phone numbers of financial professionals. Make sure key family members know where the list is kept-your financial planner will probably instruct you to create your filing system and this master index, which he or she will keep a copy of. Keep one copy at home, one with your tax or planning professional, and if you’re close to your executor, make sure they have a copy as well.
Organizing for your professionals
Unless you are working for the rare professional who wants to see paper, start leaning toward computer software. Ask your planner or tax: prepare if they prefer that you work with a preferred list of financial categories to make your and their work easier.