Want to feel better about your finances? Move to India. Apparently consumers there were left relatively unscathed by the recession, according to a new white paper from MetLife and the Boston College Center for Work & Family.
India appears to be a perfect blend of what researchers call “financial wellness,” a multi-faceted concept that describes the overall financial health of an individual. Five factors go into financial wellness: personal characteristics, financial literacy, financial behavior, financial situation and financial stressors.
In India, they're not afraid to talk about retirement. Seventy-five percent of India's consumers use informal sources of advice like friends or family, versus 30 percent in the U.S. (intrestingly, less than 20 percent in India use advisors, brokers, accountants, banks or insurance company reps). It’s also more common for workers to openly talk about their incme.
Back in the U.S., we’re so financially stressed that it’s literally making us sick. MetLife reports 58 percent of employers say financial “illness” plays a role in employee absenteeism.
So how can we improve our retirement prospects in the coming year, or at least get on the right track? The Financial Planning Association of San Francisco has 12 tips:
1. Get Started Today
The best way to come to grips with your financial future is to review your financial plan. If you don't already have one, make a plan. You'll want to analyze your asset base, your earning potential, and your spending. Most importantly, you'll want to review your goals. Are they still attainable, or even reasonable? According to The Hartford, both pre-retirees and retirees said a milestone birthday (19 percent of pre-retirees, 14 percent of retirees) or the realization that they are within 10 years of retiring (15 percent of pre-retirees, 11 percent of retirees) were the two most common triggers for serious financial planning.
2. Spend Less. Save More.
The best way to provide — or recoup — the money you will need in the future is to save more now. Here's a good way to start — pay yourself first through payroll deductions into your 401(k) or savings account.
This year was record-setting for participant contributions, according to Fidelity. Eighty-four percent of plan participants contributed over the past 12 months, the highest level in more than two years. Their average contribution was a record $5,890, up $200 from the same period a year earlier.
Another place to look is at your credit cards. Instead of paying high credit card rates, you'll be earning market-beating 9, 12, 18, or an even higher percent. That's your return on every dollar you don't have to pay to a credit card company.
3. Got lemons? Make Lemonade.
There is a positive side to stock market losses. Take advantage of the down market this year to harvest tax losses. Any losses not used to offset capital gains can reduce ordinary income by up to $3K in 2011, and the excess is carried forward into future tax years.
4. Keep on Contributing to Your 401(k)
Continue putting away as much as possible into your employer retirement plan.
More than half of defined contribution plans experienced an increase in 401(k) loans in the past two years, but, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch, only 28 percent of plan participants stopped or decreased contributions in 2011, compared to 67 percent and 33 percent respectively during third quarter 2010.
If the contributions are on autopilot, FPA says, you're less likely to come to a sudden stop when current events are discouraging. Also, dollars are invested throughout the year, so in a market that is up one month and down the next, you won't buy all your shares at high points and you'll get more shares at low points.
5. Keep an Eye on a ReFi
With interest rates at all-time lows, it's a good time to explore if refinancing makes sense. You may find it preferable to refinance from a 30- year loan to a 15-year loan, as some institutions are offering 15-year loans at less than 4 percent. Run the numbers. You may find that the payment on a new 15-year mortgage is similar to an existing 30-year mortgage and would significantly reduce the amount of interest paid over the life of the loan.
6. Assess a Reassessment
With the continuing decline in home values in many locations, homeowners should consider applying for a reassessment of their home value for property tax purposes. This is a relatively easy process that might save significant money, especially for those in expensive areas. The county assessor's office can provide you with the forms and process for requesting a reassessment.
7. Update Your Estate Plan
Take a fresh look at your estate planning documents. The annual gift limit remains at $13,000 per donor per person in 2012, but the lifetime exemption of $5,000,000 in 2011 has been adjusted for inflation and will be $5,120,000 in 2012. Your financial planner and your estate attorney will know what these changes mean for your specific situation.
8. Give a Gift or Make a Loan
Want to help out a family member who may be in dire straights, but don't feel comfortable making an outright gift? Loans to family members must use government-approved rates, or they will be taxed as gifts. It's called the Applicable Federal Rate, or AFR, and our low interest rate environment could make 2012 an excellent time to make loans. The current long-term AFR for loans more than nine years is 2.8 percent (compounded annually), and the short-term AFR for loans less than three years is only 0.2 percent.
9. Resolve to Review Beneficiaries
Use the start of the New Year to review all beneficiary statements for 401(k) plans, IRAs, and life insurance policies. Remember that retirement account assets pass by beneficiary statement and not by will; the same is true for life insurance policies. Every financial planner has stories of clients who divorce and never revise their beneficiary statements; the client dies and a life insurance policy or 401(k) is paid to the ex-spouse, leaving a current spouse or children with nothing.
10. Keep Up with Contribution Limits
Take advantage of 2012 increases in retirement account contributions. The maximum 401(k), 403b, 457 contributions increase to $17,000. Catch-up contribution for the over-50 set is an additional $5,500
11. Keep Your Cool
Listening to the financial news wasn't easy in 2011 and we may face the same cacophony of doomsayers in 2012. Selling stocks when prices are down is not a successful long-term investment strategy. And remember — when media headlines proclaim, "investors are dumping stocks," someone else is buying them.
12. See a Financial Planner
Financial planners can help you navigate your way through these perilous economic times. No one knows what the future will bring, but a good planner can provide the kind of experience and objectivity that can bring clarity to difficult financial decisions.
If you have a financial planner, and you haven't updated your plan in light of recent economic realities, it makes sense to check if you're still on track, or if there are course-corrections you could make to improve the situation.