Financial planning often gets a bad rap. Part of the problem is self-inflicted, since some industry participants would rather sell you a product than address your financial concerns. The process of planning is important, though, whether done with a professional or on your own. After all, you wouldn’t leave on a long trip without looking at a map – a poor analogy for some of us men, but you get the idea.
So where should you start? That really depends on you and your situation. Since everyone has different goals, needs, risk tolerances, and concerns, everyone needs a unique plan. But in general, planning needs to take into account at least three major areas – insurance, investments, and estate planning. While you can fill a library with all the necessary information to properly address these issues, below are a few single-specific tips to help you get started.
Insurance is confusing. It comes in all shapes and sizes and covers everything from your car to your health. You can even buy insurance that covers you against alien abductions. And like many areas of planning, insurance can be especially complicated for singles, depending on your situation. Life Insurance. For some singles, this may not seem like a pressing issue. But for singles with dependents, it’s crucial. Stick with a term-life policy – more expensive whole-life and universal-life policies are rarely worth the extra cost. You should generally buy enough insurance to equal eight to ten times your annual salary, though you may need more if you have several dependents or unique expenses, such as for a special needs child. And since you may not have a second income to rely on if you can’t work, disability insurance is also a good idea. Health Insurance. Most of us count health insurance as one of our primary employee benefits. For married employees, the benefit is even greater, since this insurance is usually also available to the employee’s spouse. For unmarried couples, though, it’s a whole different story. While some companies provide medical and dental benefits to domestic partners, it’s far from the norm. And even when these benefits are provided, they are usually taxed as income at their fair market value. While an exception exists, it requires the partner to qualify as the employee’s dependent and have an annual income of less than $3,100 – which makes it useless for many partners.
Successful investing is a difficult and time-consuming process. I’ll touch on specifics in later issues, but if you’re trying to put together an investment plan on your own, keep these issues in mind. Be patient. There aren’t any magic systems that will help you consistently beat the markets. And if there were, could you really buy them for $299 on the Internet? Investing is not a get-rich-quick scheme, it’s a long-term process that takes patience, discipline and experience. Diversify, but in moderation. Most people own several hundred stocks and bonds, either directly or through mutual funds. There just aren’t hundreds of great investments out there. You’re much better off keeping your portfolio at a manageable level of a two dozen high-quality stocks and a few exchange traded funds or mutual funds with strong track records and low expenses. Selling matters. Most people focus on buying stocks. That’s important, but even more critical is when you sell stocks. Manage your risk by selling losing stocks when they fall 10% below your purchase price. Also, if you have a winning investment, take some profits along the way – there are more than a few people who wish they’d done so back in March 2000. Mutual funds aren’t always the answer. Many people rely on mutual funds as the cornerstone of their investment portfolio. This can be a problem, since the vast majority of mutual funds consistently underperform the markets. Not only that, mutual funds are extremely expensive and include hidden fees that don’t show up in their disclosed expense ratios. These hidden fees can cost you thousands of dollars and take a huge bite out of your returns. Mixing in individual stocks and exchange-traded funds can help improve your returns and keep your costs in check. Develop your own approach. For example, my investing style is probably best described as opportunistic – I wait patiently in conservative investments until compelling opportunities arise and then deploy capital accordingly. While it fits my personality and has worked well for my clients, it isn’t right for everyone. Some people want more risk, some want less, and others just don’t have the time to spend researching and monitoring their investments. Find a strategy that fits your unique risk tolerances, goals, and preferences, and then stick with it.
Retirement planning for singles can be tricky. For example, most qualified retirement plans, such as employer-run 401(k) plans, are geared toward married couples and often don’t provide for lifetime distributions to unmarried beneficiaries. This can cause major tax headaches for the beneficiary. Here are some other issues to consider Make sure you have a will. This may seem obvious, but an amazing number of people simply ignore this basic planning step. Probate laws are complicated, time-consuming, and don’t always end up transferring your assets where you’d like. And if you’re a single parent, make sure the will names a guardian for your children. Designate beneficiaries for your IRA accounts. Because IRA’s don’t pass through your will, you need to execute a separate beneficiary designation to make sure your IRA passes to your intended beneficiary. Execute a durable power of attorney. This power of attorney should not only cover your business affairs, but also your health care decisions. You hope you’ll never need these documents, but if you do, you’ll be glad you thought ahead and made the necessary arrangements.
David A. Twibell, J. D. , is Executive Vice President of Colorado Capital Bank in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he directs the bank’s portfolio management and wealth advisory practice. He can be reached at (719) 482-7015 or email@example.com