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Should you pay more taxes?

Embed from Getty Images We’ve all been flooded with rhetoric lately on the necessity of either a) tax cuts or b) tax increases. It’s been on my mind lately at

Retirement Accounts: keeping the advice sane and safe

When my daughter and I were at the Women’s March, I saw a number of signs saying I can’t believe I’m still protesting this sh*t (and they didn’t have an

College planning, child-rearing expenses & a novel approach

I put off having a child as long as I could. My own mother made it seem like a lifetime sentence, where you’d have a continuous stream of hard work

Read more, spend less: financial planning lessons from novels

That would be one of my many, many New Year’s resolutions. But I already read tons of professional journals, work-related books, and general non-fiction. Like so many people since November,

Giving to charity: doing the best you can

By now, your mailboxes (IRL and virtual) are probably crammed with year-end catalogs and heart-rending appeals for donations. But just as with spending, we want to maximize the use of

Should you pay more taxes?

We’ve all been flooded with rhetoric lately on the necessity of either a) tax cuts or b) tax increases. It’s been on my mind lately at every level: national health care, State of Illinois cuts to services for disabled people, and a referendum in my school district to increase property taxes. Okay, I’m a liberal so my general impulse is to agree with taxes that look like they’ll improve services or take care of a need not obtainable elsewhere—I’m not actually opposed to paying taxes. But not every single increase. This post is an effort to come up with some principles to help with future decisions. I’m going to try to use some personal financial planning procedures to inform my reasoning.

Is the problem being addressed the result of poor decision making or abuse in the past?

There isn’t a citizen of any country I know of who thinks their government runs efficiently. We tend to scrutinize and complain about the public sector mostly because we feel that the money which funds it comes directly out of our pockets. But, I ask you, have you ever worked for a private company that didn’t have some benchwarmers, incompetents, and people who were missing in action in the middle of the afternoon? Someone who sloughed their work off on subordinates, had an in with the boss, maybe family money, and blamed everything on somebody else? Oh, wait, I got distracted there, since that perfectly describes our current “businessman-in-chief”.

As with personal financial mistakes, you can’t rewrite the past. But making up for these mistakes (personal or public) requires significant belt tightening, enterprising ways to earn more, identifying greater funding sources or some combination of all three. I don’t think that we can ever achieve total perfection—we’re all going to be tempted by some non-essential purchases, and every employer is going to have some non-productive employees they can’t get rid of. But the last choice, not the first, should be a tax increase.

Is the proposed tax reasonable compared to the benefits produced?

In other words, are we getting bang from our buck? Like Woody Allen, in my family it was a sin to buy retail. So before I can support paying increased taxes, I have to know that cost controls are in place, a real plan has been thought through and vetted or beta tested, and that the benefit will be at least commensurate with cost (which immediately disqualifies the current Republican health care proposal).

I am, for example, willing to pay more taxes to support a single-payer national health care system, because countries that have them have clearly better health outcomes at far lower per person cost. I currently pay about $14,000/year in health insurance premiums + $3,500 in deductible. I have yet to see a proposal for even luxurious health care that would cost me an extra $17,500 in taxes, although it appears Paul Ryan will give me the opportunity to pay more for even less coverage. Similarly, I’d gladly pay an extra $2,000/year (my current long term care insurance) if it would guarantee not only me, but every elderly person good quality long-term care.

When I hear that something is pitched as more value to me, I want to be convinced by the numbers. The current school referendum is being pitched to residents as a way to maintain and increase property values. However, I haven’t seen any math that wasn’t, shall we say, a little bit fuzzy. So let’s say that I pay an extra $450/year for 5 years—will my property value increase by $2,250? Or will the increased taxes hold down property values because the cost of carrying the property becomes so high compared to neighboring communities? Arguments that might sound reasonable but have no research to back them up don’t convince me.

On the other hand, if the schools are truly deteriorating, why has there been an increased population of users? One of the arguments for increasing school taxes is an influx of new students, but then there should be an increase in the tax base. Personally, I would have preferred to deliver a baby in the comfort of the maternity care provided to French citizens. But since I’m not a taxpayer or citizen of France, they weren’t eager to provide those services to me.

Is the tax fairly distributed?

As a general principle, people who pay the tax want to derive benefit from it. It’s not a direct payment for services, though. There are some services, and some population segments, that need services but cannot pay for them, or the scale is so big that the costs need to be distributed—the military, services to the elderly and disabled, health care, and education.

Some things can be handled locally, some must have state level participation, and some jobs are so big that the federal government is needed. The larger the vulnerable population or need compared to the tax base, the higher the level we need to go. And we need to consider our society as a whole, not just our individual gain or loss.

Could the same benefits be obtained in some other way with fewer burdens?

I think it’s a myth that private enterprise always does things better, but without private initiative, innovation and sensitivity to consumers also suffer. On the other hand I strongly believe that the government needs to put some brakes on robber baron capitalism, For example, prescription drug prices negotiated by a national health care system can hold down costs for all of us—and I don’t notice drug companies pulling out of business with countries that have those controls.

I’m going to take a deeper dive into some specific issues in future posts—I’d love to hear your comments and reasoning on health care, long term care for the elderly, and college funding costs.

Retirement Accounts: keeping the advice sane and safe

When my daughter and I were at the Women’s March, I saw a number of signs saying I can’t believe I’m still protesting this sh*t (and they didn’t have an asterisk). I feel that way too, and I also feel that way concerning the fiduciary rule for retirement accounts. In fact, I can’t believe we’ve EVER needed to discuss this. The fiduciary rule was set to go into effect on April 10th of this year, but the so-called current administration has issued an executive order on February 3 delaying the order until—who knows?

What’s fiduciary?

The fiduciary rule is simply a requirement that your financial advisor–fee-only, fee-based, hourly fee, commissioned, or maybe roboadvisor (although that’s not quite clear)—be legally obligated to act in your best interest. How on earth is this even controversial? You’re paying for advice one way or the other and the advisor is allowed to act in their own best interests? And keep in mind that this fiduciary rule only applies to retirement accounts. Even so, the brokerage industry has fought it tooth and nail. They claim this rule will squeeze out the little investor who won’t be able to get advice. Give me a break—there’s plenty of fee-only advisors, many hourly, and (shudder) you can get some advice from the robos. At least they won’t skin you alive.

For eons now the SEC has been debating whether and how to employ the fiduciary standard for other investment accounts, and it looks like they’ll now be dithering until your children age into dental implants. Most people believe that any advisor they see is acting in the clients’ interest. Most people are wrong. So let’s take it from the top, yet again.

Difference between best interest and appropriate

Investment sales people (brokerages, bank investment departments, stock mongers, whatever) are only obligated to peddle something to you that’s appropriate for you, and boy, is that broadly defined. So, if it’s appropriate for you to be invested in the S&P 500, you can bet that you will be in the S&P fund that pays the highest commission to the broker, or that the brokerage pitches. I have never yet seen a broker-designed portfolio that included low-cost or no-load mutual funds, because even if those are in your best interests, they’re not in the broker’s best interest because they aren’t going to make any money from those funds.

How to get skinned alive

It can be even worse, depending on what you’ve blurted out to your broker. Before I ever became a financial advisor, my dad used a broker to invest his retirement savings. He adored T., who called him every few days—more than I did, as my dad liked to point out. He had told T. how he needed safety, but how he also wanted the most income possible. Dad had no idea that these were mutually contradictory statements. BTW, if you don’t know why, call me and I’ll explain. Since T. the broker had two options here, guess which one he took? The one that made T. the most money, which was selling my dad a whole raft of junk bonds—high income—which mostly went belly up, losing my 90-something father around $300,000 if my calculations were correct when I finally looked at what was going on in 2007. T. eventually exited the brokerage firm and dad was upset not because he’d lost so much money, but because T. didn’t call anymore; I have a sneaky suspicion it had nothing to do with ethics, sadly. My guess is he didn’t make his quota.

Despite all the firepower the brokerage industry could muster and all the rending of expensive business suits, the rule at best only applied to retirement accounts, which are presumably needy of more protection because—the only money the little guy has? A potential future burden on government support? Because people who have money in other accounts are sophisticated investors? Where’s my emoticon (dog running in circles) when I need one?

What, me worry?

I just saw an article where it was claimed that, well, not to worry. Since, the article argues, the brokerage industry has already moved toward the fiduciary standard for retirement accounts, they’ll do it anyway. With all due respect, I need that emoticon right away. I’ve noticed that when it comes to fleecing the consumer making the most money possible, or being freed from regulation, the brokerage and banking industry can move with lightning speed to change their policies, whereas when something is designed to protect the consumer, implementation will be as slow as regulators will allow. No regulators, no regulation. And please don’t tell me your broker is a nice guy and wouldn’t do that. I have some inherited very attractive “hi-yield” bond certificates I’d be happy to sell you.

Know what you’re getting

Really, with this new change, you have no hope but yourself (which is actually all you’ve got right now). How do you know you’re getting fiduciary advice? Ask you advisor to sign a statement, or review their registration brochure. Does it specify fiduciary? For all advice? Is there any mention on their website about being a member of SIPC ? (look in the tiniest print on the page, near the bottom)—that’s a broker. Next, look at what kind of investments they’re recommending. Are they no-load mutual funds? If not, why not?

I am a fiduciary. I’ll be happy to detail what investments I’m recommending, why, and exactly how I get paid. They’ll be in your best interests. Accept no less.

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College planning, child-rearing expenses & a novel approach

I put off having a child as long as I could. My own mother made it seem like a lifetime sentence, where you’d have a continuous stream of hard work and never have any time to yourself again. Also, in her assessment, I wouldn’t make a very good mother as I was far too impatient. She sure made it sound like fun.

How we live now

Okay, she was partly right but thank heavens mostly wrong, although you might get some agreement from my daughter on

Sunrise in Botswana

Sunrise in Botswana (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

the assessment of my parenting, depending on when you ask. Nevertheless, my mom was pretty much in tune with our current U.S. culture of child-raising. I know more than one mom with a full time job and more than 200,000 miles on the mommy-mobile. Most parents I see are quite worried about college for the kids, and even more worried about what a top-level admission will mean to their finances. When I see people with infants, we always discuss not only college, but how much tutoring, music lessons, sports activities, and arts training are going to cost. And if the kids are old enough, we’re probably going to talk about a college admissions coach.  In 2009, estimates were that it cost $1.1 million to raise a child through college—and college costs have gone up a lot since then.

It can seem like a rat race from the moment they’re born. However, as I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve been living in an alternate reality every night from 10:30 pm to midnight or so: I’ve been in Botswana. No not really, and I’m not even sure the actual Botswana is as depicted, but in the No. 1 Ladies Detective agency world, children are quite a different matter. In the 2nd book of the series, Tears of the Giraffe, we can experience an entirely different way of being with and rearing children.

Spoiler alert! Stop here if you don’t want to know details on this book!

An alternative life

A little background: Mma Ramotswe is the heroine and chief detective. Her fiancé is Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, a warm hearted and easily buffaloed owner of a car repair service. He spends significant time doing free work for a friend who runs an orphan farm (which seems to care for many children orphaned by the AIDS epidemic, among other reasons). In one very swift meeting with the head of the orphan farm, Mr. Matekoni finds himself going home with two children, one of whom is in a wheelchair.

His thinking is extremely straightforward—these children would benefit by a home, he can give it to them, and Mma Ramotswe will be happy to have them also—because who isn’t delighted by children, any children? So the kids are bundled into his truck, with wheelchair, and off they go. He does consider that maybe he should have talked about it a bit with Mma Ramotswe, but he’s pretty confident she’ll go along.

Are you gasping at this point? Can you imagine this scene in the U.S.? Me neither. Contrary to my expectations, this is not setting the stage for a big blow-up. In fact, Mma Ramotswe does wish he’d talked to her ahead of time, but sees it as further evidence of what a good man her fiancé is. She does mention that some people have too many children—6 is enough, she says—but since they do have extra bedrooms and do make enough money to feed them,  she’s okay with the sudden transformation into parents.

Parenting transformations

I think the way this sudden parenting is handled is what makes it all so different, and indeed a pleasurable experience:

  • Everyone sits down to dinner every night after school and work. Mma Ramotswe cooks dinner nearly every night anyway (with help from the girl, and Mr. J.L. B. Matekoni at times.) What’s on the table is what Mma Ramotswe likes (with an eye to pleasing Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni). No special meals, no complaints, and plenty of family togetherness. No extra work.
  • School is pretty simple. They walk, and go to the public school. Private schools are mentioned, but in the context of helping kids with problems. At one point the kids experience some bullying, but it’s dealt with very matter-of-factly by helping the kids (in a family discussion) decide how to respond.
  • Entertainment and recreation are simple and center on the family. After dinner, the kids clean up and study (no driving to endless activities). They spend time with each parent, and when the boy starts acting sullen, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni spends more time with him and takes him to some sporting activities. On weekends, the kids go to visit relatives with one or both parents. Mma Ramotswe remarks how one aunt is extremely long winded, but it’s good for the kids to hear her stories because it teaches them about Botswana and who they are.
  • There’s a huge awareness of the natural world, and one of the favorite recreations is sitting outside listening to sounds, talking with each other, and walking through the garden.
  • When there are behavior problems, the parents are confident that they can be solved by connecting with the kids. Mma Ramotswe also attributes some misbehavior to “kids are like that” and is certain that with time will come wisdom. She has a great ability to laugh things off.
  • Both parents are confident that the kids will find their niche in life. They both value education, and are very impressed by people with college or other advanced training, but there’s no mad rush to channel the kids toward anything specific.
  • Even though Motholeli has a significant handicap, it’s not a cataclysm. She is still regarded as a capable person who can make a contribution, has tasks, and has interests that the family finds ways to involve her participation. No one is ashamed of her, and she’s fully integrated into all activities.

What financial planning lessons do I take from this?

People more than things.  What gives this family pleasure and solid relationships is the emphasis on being together. They have very little interest in acquiring more than is necessary and they are very dedicated to making things last and wringing the last bit of use out of anything. The things they treasure have personal meaning, not monetary value: a photo, a commemorative plate, a teacup, but mainly each other.

Confidence, optimism, and realistic expectations toward life. Without a pre-planned agenda or specific expectations for the children, they are much freer to allow natural talents and preferences to emerge.

Reliance and enjoyment of friends and family. When you keep up with even remote relatives, there are plenty of ways to get help, advice, entry, information, and support when you need it. Mma Ramotswe is also very conscious that she has reciprocal obligations, and hands out time, sometimes money, and effort for her vast network of distant relatives and friends. When, in a later book, an employee asks her to be godmother, she sighs a little knowing that this will require obligations to contribute to school fees, gifts, and all sorts of needs (for the rest of life), but focuses almost immediately on the need of the child and the honor being done to her, and gracefully accepts the offer. She thinks we cannot always choose whose lives will become entangled with our own; these things happen to us, come to us uninvited.

We don’t live in Botswana, but these books are giving me lots of opportunities to think about how to dial down the burners a little bit, to enjoy what we have, and to choose relationships and activities over possessions. Even for a financial planner, it’s not all about money.

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