Personal Finance: 20 Dos & Don'ts for 2009
During the worst economic crisis in a lifetime, the right financial decisions are crucial.
BusinessWeek asked financial planners for some advice on what to do—or not to do—with your money in the New Year. As we bid farewell to a dreadful 2008, these “resolutions” may help keep your finances on the right track in 2009:
1. Don’t try to predict the future.
“We are currently in the midst of unprecedented and complex challenges,” says Femi Shote of Asset Harvest Group in McLean, Va. Anyone who thinks he or she can predict what’s going to happen is “delusional,” Shote says.
Financial advisers often hear from clients who would like to sell stocks now and then buy again when the market hits bottom. “My response is, ‘How do you know when that will be?’” says Trent Porter of Priority Financial Planning in Fort Collins, Colo.
2. Do keep enough cash available.
Even if you’re not worried about losing your job, a rainy-day fund can provide peace of mind.
There are different guidelines for how much cash to keep on hand. Some say $12,000 or more per adult; others say it should be six to nine months of living expenses. With extra cash available, you can avoid selling investments to pay for expenses in an emergency.
3. Do invest internationally.
Though the financial crisis started in the U.S., the past year has been worse for investments in the rest of the world. The MSCI EAFE, an index of international stocks, is down 43% this year, and stocks in emerging economies fared far worse. American investors who diversified abroad have also been pummeled by the rise in the U.S. dollar.
Even after a year like that, advisers say it’s not wise to abandon international investments entirely. For one thing, though some key overseas economies, like China’s, have been hit hard lately, their long-term economic fundamentals look better than those of the U.S.
4. Don’t try to pick one winning investment. Diversify.
Putting all your money in one stock is dangerous at a time when a company’s bankruptcy can completely wipe out the value of its shares.
Robert Siegmann of Financial Management Group in Cincinnati advises clients to balance their portfolios between fixed income and stocks, with shares in various types of companies — small and large, U.S. and international. “Don’t try to pick the winning stock, or the winning idea. Just diversify across all investments and markets,” he says.
5. Do think about energy efficiency.
Russell Francis of Portland Financial Advisors in Beaverton, Ore., recommends that investors take advantage of a $500 federal residential energy tax credit that was rescinded in 2008 but returns in 2009. The credit can help cover the costs of adding insulation or replacing doors, windows, or furnaces—home repairs that should also save you on heating and cooling costs.
6. Don’t stop contributing to 401(k) and other retirement accounts.
Says Sidney Blum of GreenLight Fee Only Advisors in Evanston, Ill.: “Everyone loves to invest in their 401(k) when the markets are flying high, but they should keep putting money in while the markets are down.” He adds: “More money is made at the bottom of a market than at the top.”
Even more pessimistic planners say you should be taking advantage of any match your employer offers for retirement fund contributions.
7. Do live below your means. Save.
Investing for the future is only possible if you have some money left over at the end of each month to sock away. View this BusinessWeek slide show for 25 ways to save more each month.
8. Don’t make sudden moves.
“Refrain from making extreme changes to the portfolio just because the financial markets are volatile,” says William Howell, a financial adviser in Noblesville, Ind. “Stick to the overall investment game plan.”
In such an extreme environment, investment decisions based on emotion or fear are likely to lose you money. It’s probably better to ignore the day-to-day news and follow a long-term investing plan.
9. Do pay off expensive debts.
Rather than investing your money, you first might consider paying off debts, especially those with high rates or those for which interest is not tax-deductible. The avoidance of interest will likely save you more than your investments would have earned.
Stanley F. Ehrlich, an adviser in Westfield, N.J., notes: “Paying off a car loan with 7% interest provides an immediate 7% return, a return that is not [currently] available through most asset classes.” Credit-card debt is so expensive that most planners say it is always the first thing people should pay off.
10. Don’t give up on stocks.
“Historically some of the best periods for stock market returns have been during dismal economic times,” says Paul Winter of Five Seasons Financial Planning in Salt Lake City. Though investors approaching retirement shouldn’t risk too much money in volatile equity markets, investors hoping to build a nest egg for the long term have few better options than the stock market.