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Most people don’t have financial plans

Most of us put more effort into planning a vacation than planning our financial future.

According to a study issued by BMO Harris Financial Advisors, only 38 percent of Arizonans have a financial plan, yet a majority admit a financial plan plays a critical role in achieving key life goals, such as saving for a home and being comfortable in retirement.

“There’s an obvious disparity when it comes to financial plans – most people know they need one, but they don’t have one,” says Larry Skolnik, regional sales manager, BMO Harris Financial Advisors. “No matter your income level, a financial plan can be an essential component to achieving your financial goals and ensuring the fiscal security of you and your family.”

Experts say a financial plan helps people work towards their short and long-term goals, providing a roadmap that outlines the path from where they are today to where they want to be in the future.

“Everyone should have some type of financial plan,” says Jason Miller, vice president and director of financial planning – Western U.S., BMO Private Bank. “Whether you are just starting out in your working years or nearing retirement, a solid plan is crucial to reaching your goals and protecting yourself and your loved ones.”

One crucial mistake people is assuming that they cannot afford to create a financial plan and will do so when they are making more money in the future, says Lisa S. Jackson, a certified public accountant and financial advisor with Whitman & Jackson CPAs.

“There is no better time to start than immediately,” she says.

Miller says the goal of a financial plan is to understand exactly where you are today and where you want to be in the future and then determine the necessary steps to get from point A to point B. A financial plan should include an analysis of where you currently are and what risks and/or challenges you currently face, as well as an analysis of how likely you are to reach your financial goals. Common areas included in a financial plan may be:

  • Budgeting and cash flow management
  • Asset allocation and investment management
  • Retirement planning
  • Risk management (e.g. life insurance coverage, disability insurance coverage, long-term care, creditor protection, etc.)
  • Estate planning

“When establishing goals it is recommended to include dollar and time specific targets in order to regularly measure the plan with clarity,” says Mary Collum,  senior vice president and director of private banking, National Bank of Arizona.

“Staying true to the vision is very important and will take discipline on both the planner and individuals’ part. Circumstances such as consistent injections of savings for the future, coupled with a plan to enjoy life today and live within one’s means, will weigh in on how successful the plan is.”

One of the most important elements to consider is making sure your financial plan is comprehensive and takes into account various possible outcomes, experts say.

“One of the most important elements of a plan is to make sure you are testing the outcome of your goals based on various economic environments such as rising interest rates, inflation, economic expansion or deflation and unforeseen events,” says Curtis L. Smith, registered investment advisor and wealth advisor for Raymond James Financial Services.

Smith’s list of things to consider when establishing your financial plan include:

  • Asset and investment allocation
  • Retirement accumulation and retirement income forecasts
  • Risk management items (liability coverage, life, disability, long-term care and health insurance)
  • Estate and philanthropy planning
  • Your economic and lifestyle goals (retirement needs,  savings goals, housing goals, vacations, etc.)
  • Family legacy goals

Another mistake people make when establishing the goals for their financial plan is not looking at all their investment options.

“People can get too focused on one investment strategy and forget to look at all options,” says Erik Pedersen, vice president of AXA Advisors. “The one they are focused on might not be the most suitable to reach their goals.”

Once your goals and plan are established, experts say you must remember to keep your financial plan organic and revisit the plan often.

“Be sure to revisit the plan when your goals have changed or events have happened in your life such as marriage, divorce, loss of job, inheritance or children going off to college,” Pedersen says. “But, there is truly never a bad time to revisit your financial plan.”

Once established, it’s been proven that financial plans will keep you financially responsible and healthy. According to the BMO Harris Financial Advisors study, 85 percent of Americans who have a financial plan say those plans have helped them achieve their goals, and 61 percent wish they has created a financial plan sooner.

“We are quick to take our car into the shop when the engine light blinks, giving us peace of mind our vehicle will take us safely to the next destination,” Collum says.

“Take charge of your financial world with this same sense of urgency in order to create and ensure you are headed on a successful journey to your financial destination.”

Soaring College Cost and Financial Planning

What Parents Should Know Before Paying for College

From $20,000 to $65,000 a year – that’s the tuition cost for one year of college, says John McDonough, a money expert who helps retirees and parents plan for their families’ futures.

“For the 2012–2013 academic year, the average cost for an in-state public college is $22,261. A moderate budget for a private college averaged $43,289,” says McDonough, CEO of Studemont Group College Funding Solutions, www.studemontgroup.com. “But for elite schools, we’re talking about three times the cost of your local state school. Either way, your kid’s higher education can easily shoot into six figures after four years.”

Along with worrying about rising tuition prices, parents also fear for their own futures if their retirement savings are drained by children’s college costs, McDonough says. Only 14 percent, for example, are very confident they’ll have the money to live comfortably in retirement, he says, citing a 2012 survey by the Employee Benefit Research Institute.

“Families feel they’re faced with conflicting goals, but there are numerous ways to pay for college while investing in your future retirement,” says McDonough, who offers insights for parents to keep in mind while planning for their child’s education:

• The ROI of a college education: At a time when so many American families are financially strapped, college is an especially stressful topic because parents know higher learning will help their kids succeed. College graduates earn 84 percent than those with only a high school diploma, according to Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce. Here is how earning breaks down over one’s life time, based on education: a doctoral degree-holder will earn $3.3 million over a lifetime; $2.3 million is estimated for a college graduate; those with only a high school diploma can expect $1.3 million.

• Move retirement assets to qualify for grants: Most parents know about the 529 savings account, but that’s not necessarily the best or only option. Reallocating your retirement assets, such as 401(k)s, can better position a child to qualify for grants and scholarships. This legal and ethical maneuvering may be the single most important factor when considering how to pay for college.

• Know your student’s strengths and weaknesses: Consider independent and objective analysis of your future college student. Assessment might include a personality profile and a detailed search for a future career. Also think about a more nuts-and-bolts approach, including scholarship eligibility, SAT and ACT prep courses, review of admissions essays and an in-depth analysis of chances for enrollment in a student’s top four choices of colleges.

• Make a checklist of financial aid forms: In order to maximize a fair price of higher education, remember there is plenty of data to review. McDonough recommends a checklist with a timeline and notable deadlines. Be ready to troubleshoot the “alphabet soup” of data forms: FAFSA – Free Application For Federal Student Aid; CSS profile – College Scholarship Service; SAR – Student Aid Report; and more. Think about this process as a second job, or find professional help you can trust.

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Save money with smart open enrollment changes

Employers will soon be offering workers their yearly opportunity to make changes to their health care benefits. All too often this open-enrollment period has required combing through pages and pages of confusing insurance terms, according to an Associated Press report.

But this year workers will receive help translating that jargon thanks to a new requirement that insurers provide a user-friendly coverage summary of all health plans. Combined with innovative wellness plans that reward employees for staying health, experts say millions of workers should be able to make smarter benefit decision and save money in the process.

“There’s a $5 or $10 bill just sitting there,” says Jody Dietel, chief compliance officer with WageWorks. “They have to do a little bit of homework, but that $5 or $10 is theirs for the taking.”

More than 55 percent of insured workers estimate they waste up to $750 each year because of mistakes during open enrollment, according to a recent survey by insurance provider Aflac. Those wasted dollars are more crucial than ever. Even three years after the recession ended, 62 percent of middle class Americans tell the Pew Research Center they have been forced to cut back on spending in the past year.

Here are ways to make sure you’re getting every dollar’s worth from your health benefits:

MAKE TIME

“I think people spend less than an hour on (open enrollment) — not because they don’t want to — but because they feel it’s overwhelming and complicated,” says Rebecca Madsen, a senior vice president with UnitedHealth Group. Open enrollment generally starts in October or November for plans that begin Jan. 1.

Many insurers are trying to present benefit information in interesting, more user-friendly ways. UnitedHealth runs the website www.healthcarelane.com , which lets visitors explore a virtual town, where each person they encounter offers information and advice about a different health plan offering. The Department of Health and Human Services offers a more straightforward website designed to demystify health care topics: www.healthcare.gov .

This year’s open enrollment should be easier to navigate even for those who get their information from paper and ink sources. Starting this month insurers are required to provide standardized 8-page summaries that explain key terms and cost details of their plans. The rule was passed as part of the Obama administration’s health care overhaul and is intended to make it easier to compare policies and the costs and benefits of various plans.

STAY FIT, SAVE MONEY

Most large employers now offer wellness programs designed to keep employees healthy and, ultimately, cut medical expenses. These programs often come with financial perks to increase participation. More than 81 percent of businesses with 50 or more employees offer at least one wellness benefit, such as gym memberships, quit-smoking programs and stress management classes, according to the Wellness Council of America, an insurance industry group.

These companies are trying to curb health insurance costs that have climbed more than 25 percent over the last five years, outpacing inflation.

For several years now, many companies have offered cash or gift certificates to encourage employees to participate in their programs. Some still do, but low participation rates have prompted an increasing number to offer insurance cost breaks instead.

For instance, employees enrolled in UnitedHealth’s personal rewards program can cut their premiums by $1,000 per year for meeting basic health benchmarks for cholesterol, blood pressure and other measures.

“The two-pronged trend here is that there is more money on the table, but at the same time you have to do more to get it,” says Ian Duncan, actuary and professor of Actuarial Statistics at University of California, Santa Barbara.

In some cases employees must provide evidence they are filling important prescriptions, or attending exercise classes before they can claim the financial reward.

Meanwhile, other employers are trying an opposite strategy by assessing penalties on those who have health risk factors. Eleven percent of large employers require employees with unhealthy habits like smoking to complete classes to avoid higher premiums, according to a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Experts say such carrot and stick approaches will likely increase in the years ahead. Under President Obama’s health care overhaul, employers can increase the value of such penalties to as much as 30 percent of workers’ total premiums.

TAKE A HEALTH CARE TAX BREAK

Employers continue to give workers a chance to save money by setting aside pre-tax money for medical expenses. These flexible spending accounts can help employees save 20 to 40 percent on medical expenses not covered by insurance, such as braces, glasses and contact lenses.

Employees should estimate their out-of-pocket health care expenses and have that amount withdrawn from their paychecks over the course of the year. The money contributed to an FSA is not subject to payroll tax, which effectively lowers participants’ taxable income, but with the condition that they must spend the money before the end of the year. Money left in the account on Dec. 31 is forfeited.

Wageworks estimates about 75 percent of U.S. employees have access to a flexible savings account, though just 20 to 25 percent participate, mainly because of concerns about the “use it or lose it” rule.

The health overhaul makes one major change to flexible spending accounts beginning in 2013: Health care flexible spending accounts will be capped at $2,500, which could limit tax savings for people with large families or expensive medical conditions. The government previously didn’t limit how much workers could set aside, but most companies capped contributions at around $5,000.