Ukulele

What I learned at Ukulele Camp that applies to finances

I’m pretty die-hard about DIYing everything I can. Yes, I know there’s a lot of argument that you should pay someone to do things while you’re out earning more per hour at something else, but I don’t buy it entirely. First of all, most of us spend plenty of time scrolling Facebook, binge-watching Netflix, and staring into the refrigerator. None of that is billable time.

There are a lot of projects that just require brute force and minimum skills—I’ll paint my bedroom over a weekend before I pay someone $800 to do it. However, I draw the line at danger (painting the trim on my second floor from a loooong ladder), back-breaking difficulty or heavy hauling (digging post holes and installing a fence), or things that I’m not confident about learning from YouTube (installing a new kitchen faucet and drain).

I’ve had quite a few music lessons over the past, um, decades, so I have been pretty convinced that I could teach myself to play ukulele and guitar from the huge number of books, YouTubes, and online courses available. And, they’ve worked pretty well. Feeling somewhat confident, I went to a few jam sessions at the Old Town School, where I discovered I had miles to go before I cheep. I definitely needed some real-time instruction.

This weekend we trucked up to Midwest Uke Camp in Olivet, Michigan. I came home, not only reinvigorated about playing, but about the place of music in life in general—playing, performing, singing, dancing. With all the grinding away, I had lost sight of the pure joy of it all. And since November, 2016, I think I’ve lost sight of some of the joy available in life. As so many blues masters knew, no one can take music away from you.

But, like everything else I do, I did see some parallels between the very delightful Uke Camp experience and our financial life:

  • When there are a lot of choices, you can’t swoop up everything.

For some time slots, there were 3 or 4 classes I wanted to take. I tried to find out who was a good teacher (all of them!) or offered something particularly appealing. No matter how much you wish, you can’t take more than one—and you probably can’t afford to hook on to every good investment. Go with what you can, given what time and knowledge you have available.

  • It’s not possible to make the optimum choice every time.

There was one class where, maybe, I could have chosen better. The teacher’s style just wasn’t right for me, although his music, omg… But that doesn’t ruin the whole selection, nor the other seven or eight choices I made. Similarly, for every given number of choices (investments) you make, some will not turn out as well as you expect. And some will perform far better—who knew I loved Django Reinhardt gypsy jazz? You have to look at the total experience (performance), incorporate what you learned, and try to do better next time, where you will make mistakes again. Improvement is not perfectly linear, but it should lurch in the right direction.

  • In person makes a difference.

I adore self-study. I can make all kinds of mistakes and make them LOUD, and no one will hear me, except for my dog. When she sees me grab the uke, she immediately asks to go out.

Nevertheless, there’s a lot to be gained from the personal interaction with a good teacher. They can correct subtle mistakes in real time, come up with a trick that solves your individual problem, and there’s the serendipitous addition of techniques and information they just happen to think of that’s not in their books or videos. A good teacher always knows more than they’re putting in print. That’s the chief benefit—the individualization. Sure, you can learn a lot about playing (and financial planning) from a pre-fab program, but at some point, you need it to apply to you, particularly. I think online lessons, websites, asset allocation programs, and all that jazz are great, but everyone has some unique challenges. In fact, if you come to the professional already having a good background, you can probably get more benefit from the one-on-one.

The interaction with other people can often give you new insights and ease your mind about how you compare. It’s oddly comforting to see other people struggling or making and recovering from mistakes. I’d love to see more opportunity for people to be part of investment clubs.

  • Seize the opportunities when offered

The best teachers may not be back. The event probably will not go on forever. It can be hard to find fiduciary, fee-only advice. The crowd was mainly older than 50 and so many said they wished they’d done it, younger. I hear it all the time about financial planning, too. Don’t put it off—neither playing an instrument nor making a financial plan are as difficult as they seem in your imagination.

Health care stethescope

That other retirement account: Financial planning for HSAs

Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) may be the best deal out there, if you can get it. All of us like to beat the tax man, right? HSAs are what’s known as triple tax free: you get a deduction when you put money into the account, the account grows tax free, and as long as you make withdrawals for allowable health care expenses (pretty easy to do), you don’t pay any tax on that either. They’re like a traditional IRA or 401k going in, and a Roth coming out.
But like many good things, there are a few problems and things to watch out for:
1) I’ve probably repeated this for the millionth time now, but you don’t have to pay yourself back for the medical expenses in the year you spent the money. You can accumulate the receipts (and carefully file them so you can find them) and withdraw them in any year, as in when you actually retire. You’ll have to be able to pay your deductible and out of pocket costs out of pocket, but if these are fairly low, you can keep the HSA invested.
2) As with every financial account, watch the fees. Some accounts ding you heavily if you don’t keep a minimum balance. Some charge you a monthly fee. Some employers will pay fees while you’re employed with them, but if you leave they stop paying the fees and the account starts getting bites out of it. If this is the case, you can rollover your HSA into a servicer with different (hopefully, better) rules.
3) It doesn’t do you any good to park it in a savings account paying half a percent. In this case, woohoo it’s growing tax free. But the growth is infinitesimal. You want an HSA that allows you to transfer the bulk to a brokerage, or at least invest in mutual funds. Even if you still work for the same employer as when you deposited the funds, you can rollover the account (or most of it) to a provider of your own choosing. Be sure you carefully check fees and options at your current account, and at the one you are thinking of opening.
4) If you are working with an investment advisor, you may want to consider whether the HSA should be invested as part of your overall portfolio strategy. If it’s going to be untapped for years, it should be managed to build wealth.

Once you’re retired, it’s probably a good idea not to hoard that HSA. If you leave it to your spouse, it becomes their HSA. But for any other heir, it’s a lump sum distribution that they will have to pay taxes on.

So, how do you use it up? Well, of course you can submit those hoarded medical expenses you’ve saved. You can also use it to pay premiums for long term care insurance, premiums for Medicare Part B and Part D (drug), vision and dental care not covered by Medicare supplement insurance, and any copays and deductibles. You cannot use it to pay supplemental or Medigap premiums.

Since these accounts do not usually grow extremely large, it seems to me that it would be pretty easy to use it up during a normal retirement. It’s a nice way to build up a war chest for unexpected medical expenses that crash retirement budgets. Too bad I can’t use it for veterinary bills.

last will and testament

Don’t lose everything…financial planning for the unexpected

I love those articles that tell you everything you’re doing is wrong. Lifehacker had a decent one yesterday on how to wash your hair, swallow pills, do laundry, etc. One of the things you may be doing wrong is your will.

You do have a will, right? If so, you’re the exception to about 75% of the people I see. I see it so often that I have developed a boilerplate recommendation to include in my client reports. So don’t pay me to tell you what you already know! Get a will, health care advanced directive, and powers of attorney for financials and healthcare (which might cover the advanced directive nowadays).
Stop reading right now! Call an attorney!

Okay, back live? If you’re part of a couple, here’s a talking point to go over with said attorney. My favorite way of scaring those of you without any will is to let you know that under Illinois law, if you die your spouse will split your assets half and half with your children. There are a lot of wrinkles to this, but most people aren’t thrilled with giving half their money to the kids until both members of a couple are gone.

This may be wrong. At a great NAPFA study group I attended last Friday, attorney Anthony Ferraro noted an important exception. Let’s say (picking randomly) the wife is in a nursing home, and through repositioning of assets, she has qualified for Medicaid to pay for the costs. Unexpectedly, the husband dies and everything is left to her. Suddenly, she has assets that must be spent down and she’s kicked off Medicaid. At current long-term care rates, it’s very likely that small estates (say, under $500k or so) will be completely expended if she’s “lucky” enough to live for several years.

Good financial planners (and attorneys) have heard more disaster stories than you can imagine. It’s just amazing what can happen that you never anticipated. While I sometimes recommend an on-line will generating service as better than nothing, for anything but the simplest lives, it’s barely better than nothing.

As soon as you become a couple, have kids, or have any assets at all, you need to talk to an estate attorney. What would happen to your kids? Who’s in charge of the proceeds of your insurance policy? What if you leave an estate to a child who gets divorced? What if your family and your partner don’t agree on your medical care? And a million other surprise events…

Do you want to have life changing decisions made by a judge? No, I didn’t think so. Get thee to an attorney!