Key Financial Steps to Take Before Year End

Young adults examining documents and calculating
OK, it’s early November, and there’s plenty of time left on the calendar until year-end, right?

Maybe, and maybe not — at least when it comes to tidying up your household money matters. You’ll need more time than you think to get your financial house in order by Dec. 31, and the clock is ticking. Time constraints with Thanksgiving and Christmas beckoning will surely swallow up some valuable time, as will end of the year (and quarter) workplace deadlines, leaving less time than you think to make financial decisions that could mean big bucks (and less in taxes) to the financial side of your life.Financial consumers should take end-of-the-year financial deadlines seriously, as tax, retirement savings and other household financial decisions can spell the difference between sizable individual assets, and missed opportunities that curb the size of those assets.

No worries, though, as help is on the way. In the latest edition of Fidelity Investments Viewpoints report, the Boston-based mutual fund behemoth lists its top 10 end-of-the-year “smart financial moves,” including a thorough review of your investment portfolio for asset allocation purposes (that’s number one on the Fidelity list.)

Turning investment losses into tax gains, choosing a charity to maximize tax gains, using any money left in a flexible spending account and taking required distributions at age 70½ also make the list.

While the Fidelity year-end “to do” list is well worth a look, other financial experts off their best bets for a year-end household financial checklist:

Start with your budget. Your budget is the best place to start your financial goal evaluation, says Katie Ross, education and development manager at American Consumer Credit Counseling. “Paint a clear picture of your financial situation right now,” she said. “This budgeting and daily expense worksheetmight be a good resource for you to use. Once you know where your money is going, you can identify areas to cut back. That will also help you find more money to apply towards your debts, or add to your savings and get a good head start for the new year.”

Pencil in some ‘quality time’ with your financial adviser. This tip comes from Taylor Schulte, founder of Define Financial in San Diego. “While you are most likely in touch with your financial planner throughout the year, December and January are good times to get a face-to-face meeting on the books, if possible,” Schulte says. “Use the time together to ensure he or she is up to speed on all of your 2015 life updates and start discussing your 2016 goals. Do you need to start thinking about your child’s college education? Have your insurance needs changed? Have your career ambitions changed? Do you anticipate a significant change in income or expenses?”

Have a thorough list. That’s the advice from Stuart Ritter, a financial planner and vice president of T. Rowe Price Investment Services, who provided the following to-do list to MainStreet.

  1. Check your asset allocation; rebalance if necessary.
  2. Review beneficiary designations.
  3. Make sure you are saving 15 percent of income.
  4. If you are saving enough, contribute to a Roth IRA, you can contribute until April 15, but the sooner the better.
  5. Use a donor-advised fund for charitable contributions to avoid capital gains tax.
  6. Consider a 529 plan for your child’s college education.
  7. Gift up to $14,000 without gift tax consequences.
  8. Be aware of capital gains distributions.

Maximize your 401(k) contributions. Margaret J. Smith, director of tax and financial planning at Canal Capital Management in Richmond, Virginia, advises topping out on your retirement plan by year-end. “Employees can defer up to $18,000 each year, $24,000 if over 50, resulting in significant tax savings this year,” Smith says. “Also, if you expect 2015 to be a large income year, and 2016 may not be the same, consider accelerating deductions such as charitable contributions, your January mortgage payment/interest expense and medical expenses into 2015 to receive a larger tax benefit this year.”

Time is on your side right now, with eight weeks or so left until Dec. 31 — use the time wisely and get your financial life in order for 2016.

Retirees Get Big Lessons on Loopholes From Budget Deal

LOS ANGELES — Even people decades away from retirement should pay close attention to how Congress just ended two lucrative ways of taking Social Securitybenefits, known jointly as the “claim now, claim more later” strategy.

One big lesson: Once claiming methods are seen as benefiting the affluent, they are labeled loopholes, and that puts them on the chopping block.

“They can go away, and they can go away fast,” says Michael Kitces, a partner and director of research for Pinnacle Advisor Group in Columbia, Maryland.

Typically, Congress foists big Social Security changes on younger people and phases them in over time, such as when it voted in 1983 to increase over the course of 22 years the age for full retirement benefits to 67 from 65 for people born in 1960 and later.
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This time, though, Congress killed the maneuvers quickly. They will be gone in six months since President Barack Obama signed the bill Monday, and the decision affects people close to retirement age.

The outgoing strategies consisted primarily of “file and suspend,” which allowed married couples to start a spousal benefit while allowing the primary earner’s benefit to continue to grow. That worked in conjunction with “restricted application,” which let people collect spousal benefits for a few years and then switch to their own, maxed-out benefits at age 70.

Economist Laurence Kotlikoff, who co-wrote a best-selling book about Social Security claiming strategies, estimated that together, the two strategies could add $50,000 to many couples’ payouts.

The Obama Administration criticized such tactics as “aggressive claiming strategies” that allowed high-income households to maximize their benefits, although in reality any dual-income couple could benefit, Kitces said.

How popular the strategies actually were is open to debate. Most people currently file for benefits too early to take advantage of the tactics, which require waiting until full retirement age (currently 66).

But Mary Beth Franklin, a columnist who writes about Social Security for trade publication Investment News, said she is hearing from many people who had planned to use the strategies “and many of them are very upset that they won’t get the chance to execute their plan.”

No Rush to Benefits

The fear that claiming strategies might go away could tempt some people to think they should “lock in” their benefits by applying as early as they can, but that is the wrong lesson, said Franklin.

People who delay taking Social Security benefits will still come out ahead, even if they won’t be as far ahead as they would have hoped using the claim now, claim more later strategy. And lower-earning spouses can still file for up to half of the primary earner’s benefit; they just have to wait until the primary earner files.

Putting off filing for as long as possible is still the best way to maximize Social Security checks and protect against the risk of being poor in retirement.

Another lesson to take from the budget deal: Congress can fix Social Security, but it will not be pretty. The budget deal helped Congress avoid a big hike in Medicare premiums and a 20 percent drop in benefits for disabled people. But lawmakers waited until nearly the last minute to deal with the fact that both the Medicare and Social Security Disability Insurance programs were running short of money.

Making Social Security itself solvent will require changes that are much more controversial: cutting benefits, increasing taxes, further raising retirement ages. The longer Congress dithers, the more dramatic those changes will have to be.

The moral of the story is to not rely on any particular claiming or retirement strategy to remain unchanged. But that should not prompt you to make decisions that will leave you worse off.

L.L. Bean Hires ‘Outsider’ to Lead Company

LL Bean
FREEPORT, Maine — Outdoors retailer L.L. Bean is going outside the company for the first time in its 103-year history for its new CEO, tapping the chief merchandising and marketing officer of a Chinese e-commerce business, officials said Tuesday.

L.L. Bean Chairman Shawn Gorman made the announcement to workers in a memo, telling them the L.L. Bean family and board unanimously agreed to hire Stephen Smith from Chinese online grocer Yihaodian.

Hiring a CEO who embodies the values of Bean was a top priority for the family and the Board, and I am confident we have done just that.

“Hiring a CEO who embodies the values of Bean was a top priority for the family and the Board, and I am confident we have done just that,” Gorman told workers Tuesday in the memo provided to The Associated Press.

Smith will take over his duties in January, replacing Chris McCormick, who has served as CEO for 14 years.

McCormick, who last year announced his plans to step down, was the first person outside the Bean family to serve as president and CEO. However, he’d worked at L.L. Bean for more than a decade before being tapped to lead the company. He took over from L.L. Bean’s grandson Leon Gorman, who retained the title “chairman emeritus” when he died in September.

Last year, Gorman said the retailer would look for a successor both inside and outside the company, but he said his preference was to promote someone from within L.L. Bean who’s familiar with company culture and “the Bean way of doing things.”

But the company was impressed by both Smith’s understanding of L.L. Bean’s culture as well as his background in multi-channel retailing, having worked for international supermarket owner Delhaize and Walmart International subsidiaries before going to work for Yihaodian in Shanghai. Before that, he worked for the Resort Sports Network and the Hannaford supermarket chain in Maine.

Leon Gorman met Smith before his death and gave his approval, said Shawn Gorman.

“Leon is one of the best judges of character that I know,” Gorman said Tuesday. “Coming out of that meeting with Steve, Leon’s words were, ‘Steve’s the real deal.’ That carries immensely. It’s high praise for someone who is somewhat reluctant with high price. Leon is a tough guy. So to hear that it’s reassuring.”

Smith said he believes in the company’s customer-first philosophy and brings to the job a requisite love of the outdoors, having grown up fishing, skiing, snowboarding, canoeing and kayaking.

“Trust me, I feel the responsibility of being a great brand steward. I want to continue the legacy. You can’t underestimate it. You have to understand that’s what you’re signing up for,” he said.

Smith joins L.L. Bean as the company prepares for the largest number of store openings in its history.

McCormick previously announced plans to triple the number of stores to at least 100 by 2020. The push will include L.L. Bean’s first West Coast presence with the opening of stores in the Pacific Northwest.

The Maine-based company was founded in 1912, when Leon Leonwood Bean sold his original Maine Hunting Shoe. The company had $1.6 billion in sales last year and has more than 5,000 workers.

‘How My Family Makes It Work Living on One Income’

Caucasian mother and son working at table
Groceries, car payments, the mortgage, clothes for the kids.

If you’re like most families in America, that’s just a fraction of what you need to take into consideration when mapping out your monthly budget.

And these days, unless you or your spouse is commanding a high salary, the idea of stretching one paycheck to cover an entire family can be daunting.

Still, some folks — more than you may think — are finding crafty ways to make it work. Here’s just how many more: According to a Pew report, the ranks of stay-at-home moms are on the rise, with some 85 percent making the choice to care for their families. And being a stay-at-home dad is now almost twice as commonas it was in the ’80s.

To hear firsthand what it’s like to make the leap to single-income status, we asked families across the U.S. to share their stories — and their best money tips.

“My husband, Trevin, and I met in college, and when we got married 10 years ago, I became the primary income earner while he pursued a career as an artist.

We now have three little boys, ranging from 3 years old to 7 weeks. But even before we welcomed our first child, we felt the best thing was to have a parent at home. Plus, if we opted for day care, it would eat up Trevin’s earnings.

Sometimes one of his art shows would do well, and we’d have extra income. And sometimes he wouldn’t sell anything.

So we both came to the decision that he’d care for the kids and do art on the side.

Our single salary secrets: I’ve changed jobs and gotten a few raises, so I now earn about $47,000. Although money has been tighter than we’d like, we’ve managed to stick to a budget and provide for our family.

Our situation is pretty great. Trevin is incredibly close to all three of our boys — most kids only see their father for an hour or two at night after work.

Feeding five can be a budget buster, so I buy our most expensive items — like diapers — at Costco. We have the executive membership, in which you get 2 percent back, and that always covers the $110 annual fee.

Our go-to supermarket sends me coupons based on our regular purchases, and I use DealsToMeals.com for alerts about which stores have the best prices that day.

When I cook I always make extra, saving the leftovers to take to work instead of buying lunch. And we only eat out for special occasions.

I also shop at thrift stores and use hand-me-downs — I’ve never had to buy new clothes for my youngest son.

What I love about our life: I’m lucky to have a flexible work schedule, so I go in really early in the morning and come home at 3 P.M. That means I can still bring my kids to doctors’ appointments and take care of things around the house.

Trevin and I also make sure to communicate openly about finances. Each month I put aside $100 for him (sometimes $200 if things are going great), so that we each have our own spending money.

In the future, I’d love to be able to work from home. I have a website, and I do affiliated marketing that brings in a few hundred extra bucks a month. Eventually, I hope it can become a viable source of income.

But, for now, our situation is pretty great. Trevin is incredibly close to all three of our boys — most kids only see their father for an hour or two at night after work.”

Who: Daniel Ruyter, 40, digital marketing manager, Orlando, Florida.

“My wife, Jen, left the workforce two years ago, when our sons were 3 and 11.

Although she has a degree in communications, she’d been working at a restaurant so that we could better juggle out schedules to avoid paying for child care.

But that proved stressful for both of us. She’d wake up early with the kids, and often wouldn’t get home until 2 A.M. And I had to rush back from the office so that she could leave for work.

Something needed to change.

Either we’d put our youngest in day care, or we’d see if we could swing it with one income. In 2013 I got a pay increase — and although it didn’t offset the loss of Jen’s income, we made the joint decision that she’d quit.

Our single salary secrets: There was definitely an initial learning curve. We hadn’t trained ourselves to adjust to one income — and our budget took a hit. So we sat down with our financial planner and discussed where to cut back.

The dynamic in our relationship was awkward at first — even though Jen staying home was a mutual decision, it felt a little ‘Leave It to Beaver.’

One area was eating out. We were spending $200 to $400 a month on lunch, and another $200 on dinner. Now I pack my lunch, and we have a monthly $50 date night.

We also watch our frivolous spending. I was always an early adopter of gadgets, but I’m no longer the first or even second person to have the latest iPhone. I choose my purchases carefully, and think about the long-term.

For Christmas we realized we’d been shelling out upward of $1,000 on our kids — some of which has gone unused. So this year we set a limit of $100 per child. We’ll put the savings toward a family cruise.

We’ve also been able to save on home improvement costs, since Jen has tackled some projects during the day, like painting, landscaping and refinishing furniture.

And I’ve started doing consulting on the side, which has bumped my overall earnings to nearly $100,000.

I do design work or write content for a client after the kids are in bed, early in the morning, and on Saturdays. The income from 20-plus hours of weekly consulting goes toward savings and big-ticket items.

What I love about our life: The dynamic in our relationship was awkward at first — even though Jen’s staying home was a mutual decision, it felt a little ‘Leave It to Beaver.’

Her role is to take care of the kids, have dinner ready and clean up afterward. My role is to provide income for the family. But, overall, we’re happy with this setup.

Still, I want to work toward increased financial independence so that we can ramp up our savings and take more vacations. With that goal in mind, now that my youngest is in kindergarten, we’re looking to build a home-based business for Jen helping people plan weddings on a budget.

Ideally, she’d be able to make money, while also being available to pick up our kids from school, help with homework and take them to playdates. That was my experience growing up, and we’d love for them to have that too.”

Courtesy: Sarah Gumina

“When I got pregnant with my daughter in 2007, my husband, Joe, and I were living in Southern California.

I was climbing the ladder at a PR agency in the entertainment field, and he was working with special needs kids at a middle school.

We looked into child care options, but the cost was the same as Joe’s salary. He always wanted to be a stay-at-home dad, so he jumped at the chance to do so.

Our single salary secrets:Bringing in the income for the whole household has been stressful. For example, if a client was upset, I’d get really nervous about the possibility that they’d jump ship. I never used to let that kind of thing get to me, but there was so much riding on my salary.

I think it has been a great experience — and sets an example for our kids that women can be breadwinners and dads can change diapers.

In 2011, when I was on maternity leave after my son’s birth, a major client left the agency — and we had layoffs. I lost my job a month after I returned to work. As a family, we were in a really tight financial position.

I started doing freelance work, but it took us two years to recover to the point where we felt stable. Even now, as the owner of my own PR company, my income fluctuates.

So we learned to be very frugal. Our vacations are never farther than a two-hour drive, and we stay in condos that friends let us borrow.

We also signed our kids up for a co-op day care, where parents take turns working once a week to keep costs down.

But the biggest budget game-changer was the fact that we moved to Colorado and bought my childhood house from my parents for less than $300,000. Our mortgage is half of what we spent renting in California, and the cost of living is generally cheaper.

What I love about our life: Despite our efforts, we’re still living paycheck to paycheck, and don’t have a huge amount in savings. This has occasionally led me to make difficult decisions, like taking on a lackluster client for the money.

Joe always planned to go back to work eventually, and now that our youngest is in kindergarten, he just started as a special ed paraprofessional at our kids’ school. His income will go to savings and health insurance.

One of the biggest challenges was dealing with some of Joe’s macho guy friends, who would make backhanded jokes about him being Mr. Mom. It didn’t affect our relationship, but I got tired of defending him all the time.

Still, I think it has been a great experience — and sets a terrific example for our kids that women can be breadwinners and dads can change diapers.”