Book Review: MANAGING ALONEApril 17, 2014
By Sheryl Smolkin
Making a will and getting our financial affairs in order is something we all know is important, but many of us never get around to it. Younger people in particular often feel they are invincible and that it is too soon to think about death and dying.
But people die as a result of illness or accidents at all ages. And where they have not done the necessary planning, spouses left behind may not have the money or information they need to pay the mortgage, support their children and move on with their lives.
“Managing Alone” is a self-published book by Manulife Certified Financial Planners Jennifer Black and Janet Baccarani (co-owners of Dedicated Financial Solutions). The authors use 10 fact scenarios to help both young and old widows and widowers in different situations coping on their own without the help and support of their partners.
The book is short (119 pages) and easy to read. The stories are based on actual situations encountered by Black and Baccarini while advising clients. Each chapter focuses on two or three critical financial issues for the widow or widower profiled. Only a few of the many topics covered are how to:
- Locate and access your deceased spouse’s assets.
- Claim government benefits available to widows/widowers and their children.
- Deal with final expenses and your spouse’s final tax return.
- Establish your own credit and financial identity and why this is important.
- Obtain the right insurance coverage at the lowest possible cost.
- Manage if your spouse did not leave a will.
- Get family affaris affairs in order when death of one spouse is imminent.
A story that should resonate with younger readers is about Kayla and Jacob, a couple in their 20s with three young children. When Jacob drowned on a fishing trip without a will, Kayla had no idea how to manage the family finances. To compound matters, all of Jacob’s bank accounts were frozen. The bank also refused to pay on the mortgage insurance policy because he had traces of alcohol in his blood at the time of death and was engaged in “a dangerous activity.”
This chapter discussed in detail how Kayla met with a financial planner who advised her to use the proceeds of Jacob’s small insurance policy to cover expenses until she could get a job. He also helped her to develop cash flow projections and cut back on expenses so she could get by without selling the house.
Several years later she remarried and her new husband adopted the children. As part of their financial planning, the couple opened joint bank accounts; switched the ownershp of Kayla’s house to joint ownership; made beneficiary designations on company pension and insurance plans; purchased life and disability insurance with named beneficiaries; and drafted wills and powers of attorney.
Another interesting scenario features Walter and Anna, a financially well-off couple in their 60s. Anna died suddenly of bacterial meningitis. Eventually Walter felt ready to meet a new companion again, but his family was concerned that unscrupulous potential partners may try to take advantage of a grieving spouse. Working with his lawyer, accountant and financial planner in consultation with his children, Walter set up a trust to protect the estate. This section clearly explains the different kinds of trusts and how to set them up. He also updated his will and powers of attorney.
At the end of every chapter, there is a work sheet where you can fill in points to think about that may apply to you and questions to ask your advisor.
In addition to the book, the authors have established the website widowed.ca, a free online resource for widows, widowers and their loved ones, providing an easy way to locate a wide variety of information and services needed after the loss of a cherished companion.
You can find articles, event notices, Q&As, discussion forums and links to government websites on this frequently updated and valuable resource.
I highly recommend this book for couples, the recently widowed and their family members. The website covers an added continuum of valuable information and networking opportunies. Information on purchasing a print or electronic copy of the book can be found here. The ebook for Kobo can also be purchased from Chapters/Indigo for $10.99.
Book Review: STOP OVER-THINKING YOUR MONEYMarch 13, 2014
By Sheryl Smolkin
In his new book “Stop Over-thinking Your Money,” Globe and Mail personal finance columnist and television personality Preet Banerjee says personal finance is a lot like physical fitness. In order to be in better shape, everyone knows they have to work out and eat well. A personal trainer delivers results, not by showing clients a new way to perform sit-ups, but rather by simply making sure the sit-ups get done.
Similarly, in this book Banerjee discusses in five simple rules how to think about money and focus on the 20% of what you really need to know in order to be in top financial shape.
Rule 1: Disaster- proof your life
Investing is only one of many factors that affect your personal finances. If you are going to retire well at age 65 you have to put away money for a long time. But if you die, lose your job or become disabled before then, your long-term plans could go up in smoke. That’s why he says disability insurance, life insurance and an emergency fund should be the foundation of your financial plan. Wills and powers of attorney must also be taken care of early on.
Rule 2: Spend less than you earn
Spending less than you earn is the cornerstone of financial stability. It allows you to eliminate money stress and begin creating wealth. Here’s where you learn how to budget. Banerjee highly recommends Kerry K. Taylor’s electronic spreadsheets on Squawkfox.com. By starting with your old or current budget, the many undesirable things you spend money on like take-out coffee, fast food breakfasts and debt repayments will jump out at you. Then you can create a new budget and start tracking your spending more diligently. Surplus can be allocated to savings.
Rule 3: Aggressively pay down high interest debt
Thou shalt not carry credit card balances! When you have high interest debt, the amount of cash flow it ties up on a monthly basis is painful to calculate. Banerjee shows how you can transfer high-interest balances to low interest balances using a line of credit. Then he recommends developing a plan of attack for paying down your debt. While he acknowledges that changing spending patterns to alleviate debt is easier said than done, he says the only way to keep your finances on an even keel is to save more before you spend.
Rule 4: Read the fine print
From today forward, he instructs readers to read every word on any document they put their signature on. Gym memberships, cellphone contracts, loan documents. You name it. He gives the example of a friend whose wife could not collect on his mortgage insurance because the policy was underwritten at the time of death. The policy said it was invalid if he had any alcohol in his bloodstream while operating a motorized vehicle (a snowmobile in this case) when he died. In contrast, a life insurance policy underwritten at the time of purchase paid out within two weeks.
Rule 5: Delay consumption
The fifth rule is simply an extension of the first. Stop worrying about keeping up with the Joneses. As you earn more money or get a bonus don’t get caught up in lifestyle inflation. And avoid the monthly payment trap. Think seriously about whether house renovation is actually an investment and if the personal gain from expensive hobbies is really worth the cost.
Throughout the book Banerjee keeps returning to the message that if you wait to make a perfect plan you may never start. And in the beginning, building up lots of money depends more on putting money away than making money grow because of smart investment decisions. You can control how much you save but you have almost no control over market performance, he says.
This book is an accessible, quick read but like any guide, it is up to you to buy into Banerjee’s five financial rules and implement them. He calls them the roadmap to an easy “A” in personal finance.
But when you are ready for a more sophisticated “A+” strategy he would be happy to provide additional guidance along the way. Who knows? That could be his next book, But until then, you can find him on twitter @preetbanerjee. He is looking forward to hearing from you!
Book Review: RRSPS THE ULTIMATE WEALTH BUILDERFebruary 13, 2014
By Sheryl Smolkin
If an alien parachuted into Canada in the first two months of the year and needed to quickly understand the what, when, why and how of registered retirement savings plans (RRSPs), there is no better source of information than Gordon Pape’s new book RRSPs The Ultimate Wealth Builder.
The prolific writer has authored and co-authored over 20 books with down-to-earth investment advice, many of which have become best sellers. And this one is definitely another winner.
RRSPs were created by Louis St. Laurent’s Liberal government and have been around since 1959. Of course as Pape explains, there have been many important tweaks along the way.
- Contribution levels have jumped from 10% of earned income (maximum of $2,500) to 18% of the previous year’s earned income (maximum of $24,270 in 2014.)*
- Since 1996, unlimited carry-forwards of unused contribution room have been permitted.
- Contributions can be made until age 71. The maximum age was reduced to age 69 as part of the government’s austerity program in 1997, but raised back to 71 in the 2007 budget. Now there is growing demand to bump it up further to age 73.
- Registered retirement income funds (RRIFs) were added to the program in the 1970s, allowing taxpayers to further tax-shelter funds after retirement subject to mandatory minimum withdrawals.
Early chapters of the book set the scene with an extensive RRSP vocabulary (Chapter 2) and the rules relating to contribution levels, deadlines, carry-forwards and spousal plans (Chapter 3).
In Chapter 4 Pape says the most common mistake people make is to walk into their bank and say, “I want to buy an RRSP.” “You invest in an RRSP so the type of RRSP you select will have a huge impact on how your money will grow over the year,” he says.
If you are a regular RRSP contributor, you may think you have little to learn about the subject. But here are a few interesting tidbits I picked up that you may not be aware of:
- You can contribute in one year and defer your tax deduction to a later year when your earnings are higher and the deduction is worth more.
- If you don’t have sufficient cash but you have a self-directed RRSP, you can make a contribution “in kind” of another qualified investment at its fair market value. For example you can contribute a $5,000 GIC maturing in three years.
- If you receive a retiring allowance or severance pay it can be transferred directly to your RRSP without withholding tax even if you do not have contribution room. You can transfer in $2,000 times the number of years or part years you were with the employer up to and including 1995 without withholding tax. You can also make an additional tax-free contribution of $1,500 for each year or part year prior to 1989 in which no money was vested for you in a pension plan or deferred profit sharing plan.
Pape also shares important details about making RRSP withdrawals for buying a home or returning to school and the complex RRSP mortgage and repayment rules.
For example, did you know that if your RRSP funds are used to invest in a mortgage for you or your children, interest payments have to be made at market rates?
In addition, non-arm’s length RRSP mortgages must be administered by an approved lender under the National Housing Act and insured either through Canada Mortgage and Housing or a private company like Genworth MI Canada.
Chapters 12, 13 and 14 thoughtfully address the perennial questions: RRSP or mortgage pay down? RRSP or debt pay down? RRSPs or Tax-free savings accounts.
The one area where I disagree with Pape is on the merits of an employer-sponsored Group RRSP. He says they are often not a great deal because employers can’t contribute to them directly; Group RRSP contributions reduce your total contribution level for the year; and Group RRSPs frequently offer a limited number of investment options.
In my experience working as Canadian Director of Research for a global actuarial consulting firm, smart employers view their Group RRSP as an important attraction and retention tool. They generally incent employee participation by grossing up salary to match or partially match employee contribution levels.
In addition, fees are often lower than individual RRSPs opened with retail financial institutions and there is a large (but not too large) selection of diversified investment funds for employees to choose from. Interactive websites plus in person and online education are also frequent valuable group RRSP add-ons.
What I do not disagree with is that RRSPs can be a powerful machine for creating wealth that you ignore at your peril! RRSPs The Ultimate Wealth Builder can be purchased online from Indigo books for $13. An e-reader version is also available for $13.99 from the Kobo bookstore.
*Contributions to the Saskatchewan Pension Plan of up to $2500/year form part of your RRSP contribution limits. You can also transfer $10,000 from your RRSP to SPP each year until you are 71 without tax consequences. In 2013 the SPP balanced fund earned 15.77%.