Archive for General Financial Planning

Business travel expenses: A black hole for your budget?

For a year or two after I graduated from grad school, business travel seemed very glamorous. That was until I realized you actually had to work at those cool destinations, and most of the time everything was closed by the time the workday ended. Later in life, I had a husband who traveled frequently for business. In both cases, horrendous travel bills would roll in, and the reimbursements never quite matched the bills incurred. And because I did the bookkeeping, I was never sure how much money we’d actually have after a job, because I hadn’t seen the expenses and he kept terrible records.

If you travel for business, you may have noticed that your company (or contractor, if you’re self-employed) may not be in a terrific rush to process your expense report and issue a check. Particularly in the case of a contractor, your client may see your travel expenses as just part of your overall payment, and that payment may not show up for 60 or 90 days. Depending on your credit card interest rate,  slow pay can eat significantly into your income or profit.

Here are my tips for damage control:

Get an advance.

For some reason, freelancers are very, very reluctant to ask for any money up front. Learn from your plumber or carpenter—no tradesperson buys materials without an advance, or commits time without seed money. I’ve suggested this over and over, and once the client (and my ex) screwed up their courage and asked, they’ve never been denied. Even if you have to do a rush job, they should be able to cut a check and have it waiting when you arrive on site.

Have them do the booking.

If you can’t get an advance or there’s company policy forbidding it (unlikely but possible), see if you can get them to book airfare or a hotel for you, putting it on their credit card. Then they’re bearing the risk of slow payment or no-show, not you.

One credit card only for business travel.

If the card has to be in your name, not the company’s, make sure you segregate that card and use it only for reimbursable business expenses. No, that’s not necessarily obvious—I see people mixing expenses regularly. If you bought your spouse some perfume at the duty-free shop, put it on a different card. That way, absolutely everything on the card should be submitted for reimbursement, or can be easily tracked as a business expense.

Look for the lowest interest rate card you can find, find one that accumulates travel points or offers perks, and pick the closing date as far as possible from when you begin using it (you can request  a change in closing dates). Unless you’re on that bus in the sky every single week, don’t even consider paying for a super-premium card (unless your company or your contract will cover it and you can pass on the cost).

Put a sticker on it that says biz travel only. If you’re using an app, make sure the charges are going to one account only.

 One checking account only for business travel.

This should be opened with your travel advance. If you have to seed it with start-up money, go back and look at your travel cost for the past few years, and divide them by the amount of trips. You need to seed it with at least the average cost of one trip (more, if there are lots of short ones in quick succession).

It’s less common to need cash nowadays, but sooner or later you’re going to pull cash to pay for something, and that record will almost certainly be lost and you won’t be reimbursed. Pull from this account with a debit card and you’ll have that record.

Obviously, pay your business credit card from this, and only this, account.

Process expenses immediately

As in, on the plane home. Every night at the hotel if possible. The longer you leave this go, the worse it gets. Also, it’s very unlikely that you’re going to be reimbursed immediately. You want to be on the soonest reimbursement processing possible, or the closing date and payment due will come faster than your reimbursement. No excuses.

Buy a sturdy accordion file with dividers.

No matter how you strive to keep everything paperless, it still accumulates.  Outfit this file with a stamp or two, an emergency check, hide extra pens, paper, and some post its—all the stuff you don’t have the one time you really need it. Into this file goes any travel documents, every single receipt handed to you, and post-its reminding you of any cash you spent. Now it’s not rattling around in your backpack, messenger bag or brief case.

Stay within your per diem.

You can find a hotel within your allowance—federal government employees do it all the time. Ask for the corporate (or federal rate if you can), the AARP rate, the AAA rate, whatever.  You’re working—this isn’t a vacation and you can live with a moderately priced chain. Save the luxury for your vacation, or when someone else will pick up the much larger tab. If you truly cannot  book within the per diem allowance, you need to talk this over with your corporate travel department and get them on the job.

Offer a discount for swift payment

This only applies to freelancers, of course. But somehow it always works better to say 5% discount

for payment within 15 days of invoice than it does to say 1.5% per month added for late payment.  You’ll never get the penalty interest, but you might get swifter payment. Figure the possibility of a discount into your overall charges if necessary, but it’s cheaper than paying 29.9% annual credit card interest for 90 days.

 

 

Don’t put your money where the guns are

As anyone who has tried it knows, investing in socially responsible funds is a thorny problem. Even if you drill down to a mutual fund’s holdings, it’s really hard to be okay with everything in a portfolio. Most people interested in the area can agree that tobacco and arms manufacturers are not socially responsible. But what about drug companies (at least some)? Or makers of junk food? Mining companies? Oil companies? Banks with exploitive lending or account opening policies? Or tech companies that are known to exploit workers overseas? Depending on how involved you are, it becomes really difficult to pick a portfolio as well as have a realistic chance of actually making some money.

Nevertheless, while nothing in this world is perfect, we, and investment products, can move toward better choices. Socially responsible investment funds have lately done quite well compared to the market as a whole, so it appears that even with this selection process, you can still find solid investments. But then we get to the issue of guns.

There’s a website, www.GoodbyeGunStocks.com, where you can input your mutual fund and find out if the fund invests in gun companies or purveyors of guns. Sure, withdrawing your own investments from funds that own gun stocks won’t, in itself, change the world. But, making your opposition clear definitely has an impact long-term on both the mutual fund manager’s choices and screening, and the attractiveness of the underlying company.

I conducted an analysis of all the funds I recommend to my management clients. It was rather depressing. Again, there’s going to be a tension between what would be ideal, and what is possible. I can make my peace with managers owning Walmart, one of the largest retailers of guns and ammo, because they are such a large company that they sell just about everything. Getting them to stop selling this would, I think, require a change in gun laws and so action is better taken on the political/legislative front, in my opinion.

The next level, and this is where it starts to bother me, is investment in sporting goods stores who promote guns and ammo as a major business angle. I, personally have a problem with funds that invest in, say, Vista Outdoor and Dick’s Sporting Goods and will be reviewing investment recommendations in funds that own them. I’m going to leave this up to a client’s decision if this disturbs them, but from now on I will be raising the issue. I do live and work in an area where there is great support for stringent gun control.

The ones that really bother me are the ones that directly invest in gun producers, like Ruger and American Outdoor Brands (Smith & Wesson).  I’m not sure I can personally invest in any mutual fund with holdings in such companies, and I will be making clients aware of this in discussing investment possibilities.

In addition, I have contacted the managers of these funds to raise my objections to these specific holdings. Hearing directly from advisors and investors makes a direct contact. You can easily find the managers of your funds on Morningstar.com, or contact me and I’ll get the names and addresses for you.

Most international funds are free of these investments. Thanks to stringent gun control in other countries, most gun manufacturers and sellers are in the U.S. Sigh.

 

Some resolutions for millennials

I thought I might start off January with some financial resolutions for people at different stages of life, based upon what seems to be difficult but achievable. I’m not going to suggest lose weight and get more exercise because I’m going to try to come up with things you and I might actually do. I’ll disclose a secret and say I’m not actually a millennial. But one lives here, and I meet with millennials fairly frequently. Even if you’re not a millenial, some of these will still apply. So here goes:

  1. I will calm down about my student loans. Just about everyone has them, and everyone hates them. It’s probably too late to do anything about what you borrowed, now, so you have to think through how to manage them. They’re not shameful—they were an investment you made in getting a better job. If they’re fairly low, say under $30,000, it’s really the equivalent of paying off a car over 10 years (rather than 3 or 5 for an actual car). If they’re higher, hopefully you have selected a career that made it worthwhile—if not, you should definitely look into the various programs to bring down the monthly payment.
  2. I will assess whether I should pay off my loans early. If your loans are the subsidized kind (under 4%) you’ll probably be better off investing and saving rather than rushing to pay them off—in the long run, the same money judiciously invested will earn more than the loan is costing you.
  3. I’ll make sensibly frugal choices. Don’t buy an expensive car (or even a new one) until you’ve worked out a budget. Watch the rent you commit to paying. Try to downshift spending without denying yourself the fun—go out, but maybe drink beer instead of a craft cocktail. Meet for drinks instead of dinner. Choose a medium priced restaurant and do your gourmet eating and drinking at home—you can buy a pretty darn good bottle of wine for the cost of a glass or two at a restaurant. You get the idea.
  4. I’ll contribute to my retirement plan the day I’m eligible. There will never be a better time in the future when it will be easier. It’s always hard. If you never get used to that 10%, you won’t miss it as much.
  5. I’ll think of that retirement account as gone and locked up. Don’t borrow from it and don’t even think of cashing it in when you change jobs.
  6. I’ll build up an emergency fund before I take a vacation. Or buy a house. Or have kids.
  7. I’ll commit to paying off my credit cards every month, and pay attention to how to maximize rewards. Play that right and you’ll be able to take more vacations.
  8. I’ll manage my career. Think of your career as an investment asset—get all the training you can to continuously upgrade skills. Everyone gets a terrible boss someday, and everyone has co-workers they can’t stand. Get interpersonal skills training, read up on coping skills, and always have a plan B for moving on. Go to conferences and networking events in your field, and learn as much as you can about marketing. If you’re dreaming about a creative or independent job, realize that at least 60% of that job will be selling the product, not creating the product.
  9. Insofar as possible, I won’t quit without lining up another job. If I get fired, I’ll find career services or a job hunting group to get me back on my feet as soon as possible. Losing a job is debilitating and depressing, even if you hate it. Finding a new one is a part time job. Plan for it.
  10. I’ll pay attention to my employee benefits. Employee benefits can be worth 1/3 of your salary. Does the job offer a Flexible Spending Account? Disability coverage? Free life insurance? How much vacation time? What’s the deductible on the health insurance? Decent or crappy investment options in the 401k? Good employer match, bad, or none? Will they pay for more education (which I will definitely avail myself of)? These are things that you should know before you accept a job, because they’re potentially worth thousands to you. I can’t tell you the number of people I’ve seen who have paid for a lawyer to produce a will (or not made one at all) when their employer offers low cost legal service. Just go light your cigar with a $500 bill.
  11. I’ll set savings and required payments on autopilot by setting up auto withdrawals. Making a decision once, by setting them up, is more likely to continue (on time) than if you have to make a decision every month. You can always cancel the auto-pay if you absolutely must.
  12. I’ll learn about investing. Even if you’re a good saver, you need to educate yourself about investing. I can almost guarantee you didn’t learn about it in school, and unless your parents were exceptional, you didn’t learn it at home either. The only way is self-study—and don’t believe anything you hear at one of those free “investing” lunches—nothing in the investment world is EVER free.

 

Happy new year and best wishes for 2018.