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Squirrels, Nuts and Business Cycles

squirrel You might think that our title has something to do with the recent behavior of Wall Street and Washington. It probably could, but in this case, it doesn’t.

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It does refer to seasons. We’re in the Midwestern United States. We’re heading into fall which, of course, means winter is just around the corner. Squirrels are busy hoarding up nuts so they will have the food they need to sustain them through the winter months.

Hot and cold, boom and bust

Like the seasons, our economy moves through times when things are hot and times when they’re cold. We experience booms and busts.

It’s interesting, though, that our friends in the southern hemisphere are just heading into spring. Things are heating up there while they’re cooling down here! It reminds us that most businesses do best during the boom times, but some actually prosper when times are tough.

Almost every business has products or services that will do better when the economy isn’t doing as well. With your offerings, which ones will save your clients money? Those are the items you should promote now as consumers seek to stretch their budget.

Your cash stash

Speaking of stretching our budgets, just like squirrels hoarding nuts for winter, we should all make sure we have an emergency cash reserve. Financial planners recommend keeping between three to six months of living costs stashed safely away for ready access.

In recent times, some have suggested a Home Equity Line-of-Credit could be substituted for this cash reserve. Only you can decide if that’s the right option for you; however, with what’s going on with banks and the credit markets, it may pay not be your best option for your crucial cash stash.

If you own a business, you should also look at your working capital. Is it adequate to take you through a slow season? If not, look for ways to cut your costs so you can shore up your cash hoard.

Purchasing out of season

The seasons also create opportunities for us when we’re purchasing. For example, if you live where we live, you’ll probably get a better deal right now on a lawn mower than a snow blower. Timing your purchase when demand is down on these bigg ticket items can save you money.

Tougher times also create opportunities for us as consumers. Businesses still have bills to pay. They want to keep the doors open. So they may cut deals now that they would never consider in good times.

Purchasing in season

With other items, you’re better off buying in season. Retailers will often lure you to their stores by drastically discounting these items. For example, isn’t turkey cheaper right before Thanksgiving than any other time?

Time Money has a great article about the best time to buy everything. Planning when to buy is just as important as what you buy. Buying on impulse less often will save you BIGG money more often!

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Next time, we ask, “Are you a victim of your own success?” Until then, here’s to your bigg success!

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A Better Way to Pay Off Your Mortgage Early

home_mortgageOver the years, a number of ways have been touted to pay off a mortgage early. Recently, we’ve seen a number of solicitations for a new way to do it.

The basic idea is to take out a Home Equity Line of Credit (HELOC) with your chosen bank. You use this account like your primary checking account. You will pay all of your bills out of this account and deposit all of your income into it. Any left over money goes to pay off your mortgage.

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The benefit is appealing – you may pay off your 30-year mortgage in as little as 10 years. Of course, if you have any other debt (e.g. credit card debt or car loan), it’s almost certain you should pay that off first.

We’re talking in generalities here; you and your financial planner can determine your best financial move based on your specific situation.

The pluses

We liked that the program we looked at included a great visual that showed you the exact month and year your mortgage would be paid off if you stuck with it. We also liked that you could easily see your money coming in and going out.

Using intuition

The example showed a rate of 6% on the first mortgage and an 8.6% rate on the HELOC. Intuitively, it didn’t make sense to us to borrow at 8.6% to pay down a 6% loan.

So we decided to do some calculations to see if our intuition was right.

New vs. old

We decided to compare this new way of paying down a mortgage to the oldest of the old ways – including an additional amount with each regularly-scheduled payment.

The example we looked at was for a couple who made $5,000 a month and had bills totaling $4,000 each month. They held a $200,000 mortgage, with a 30-year term, and an annual interest cost of 6%.

The main driver – with the old way or the new way – was the $1,000 in discretionary money each month. The new program also accessed the HELOC in the first or second month, but once again that money is being paid back at 8.6% instead of 6%.

Apples to oranges

We found that the new program lived up to its promise – you will pay less in interest over a 30-year period. The problem is that it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison.

Their basic assumption is that you will use ALL of the $1,000 in discretionary money each month to pay down your mortgage if you are on their program. If not, you won’t use ANY of it – that is, you won’t pay down your mortgage OR invest it.

Apples to apples

So we decided to do our own comparison. We used the simple, old, do-it-yourself extra mortgage payments method – we added the $1,000 of discretionary income to our monthly mortgage payment.

The result?

We paid off all of our debt (which consisted of only a first mortgage) eleven months faster than they paid off theirs (which included the first mortgage and the HELOC)!

We found some of the assumptions about the timing of income and expenses questionable. With a more conservative approach, we would actually pay off all of our debt fourteen months faster using our old-fashioned strategy.

As for total interest savings, we would save between $10,989 and $24,210, depending on the timing of income and expenses discussed in the previous paragraph. This takes into account the cost of their software as well as a small annual fee on the HELOC.

Conclusions

In a strictly financial sense, the old-fashioned way is your best bet. However, it’s important to also consider the human side.

That’s where programs like this come into play – some people would be more likely to pay off a mortgage early because they could track their progress so easily.

Of course, you could set up one account yourself. With basic spreadsheet skills, you could set up a chart (or talk a friend into doing it for you) to show the effect of additional mortgage payments.

The bottom line – the old way is the better way if you’re looking to save the most money. But if you’re a little light on financial discipline, programs like this may be helpful.

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Next time, we’ll discuss a resource that great athletes wouldn’t do without … and neither should you. Until then, here’s to your bigg success!

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9 Questions to Answer Before You Make Extra Mortgage Payments 

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I Need Money! Should I Borrow from my Retirement Plan?

balancingWe’ve been talking about money decisions in tough times and how it may affect your 401(k). We started by looking at cashing out a 401(k), which is the absolute last resort.

Next, we looked at cutting back on 401(k) contributions. This is a much better option than cashing out, but you should try to contribute up to the limit of your employer’s matching contribution. That’s found money so you’ll be thankful you did.

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Now, we want to look at borrowing from your 401(k). The best advice we can give you on this is … don’t listen to us! Seriously, we can only talk about this in a general sense. So before you make a decision, talk with your professional financial advisor about the specifics of your situation. Then you can do what’s best for you with confidence.

There may be a better solution

Before you borrow from your 401(k), consider whether a home equity line-of-credit might be a better solution. You may already have one you can tap into. If not, consider applying for this type of loan instead of borrowing from your 401(k).

These loans are not as easy to get as they were a couple of years ago. You also won’t get as much of a line as you might have then because house values in many areas.

How much can you borrow?

If you decide a home equity line-of-credit isn’t your best bet, you can tap your 401(k) up to two times each year for money. It’s your money, so there’s you don’t need to be approved for the loan. You can borrow up to half of the vested portion of your portfolio, with a $50,000 limit.

Pay back is purgatory!

A loan from your 401(k) is a relatively inexpensive source of money. However, you’ll be paying the loan back with after-tax dollars (i.e the interest isn’t deductible). Compare that to a home equity line-of-credit, which is deductible in most cases.

In the eyes of the government, you and your 401(k) are two separate “entities”. So even though you think you’re borrowing from yourself, you’re not – you’re borrowing from your 401(k) so you have to pay it back within five years with an exception for first time homeowners who may have a longer payback term.

You can do that with each paycheck or you can do it in installments. You have to make a payment at least once every quarter. For example, if you borrowed $10,000, you would have 20 quarters to pay back the loan so you would have to pay $500 every quarter plus interest.

Of course, while you’re paying back the loan, you’ll have less money to spend every paycheck or every quarter, depending on which way you choose to pay back the loan. If things are tight now, what will they be like with even less free cash flow?

The other thing to consider about paying back your loan is that the dollars that were taken out of your portfolio are only earning whatever interest rate you’re paying. If that rate is less than what you could have earned if you kept it invested in your portfolio, you’re losing money you would have had at retirement.

No pay back is hell!

So it may be tempting to “borrow” the money and then not pay it back. In the government’s eyes, that’s the same as cashing out. So you’ll have to pay income taxes and, if you’re under 59½, you’ll also pay a 10 percent penalty. 

Analyzing the scenarios

The Center for American Progress Action Fund recently analyzed a number of scenarios [pdf]. Let’s look at the two extremes:

IF you take out a loan, pay it back with interest, and continue making your regular contributions, THEN there is almost no effect on your expected portfolio at retirement. In fact, in all the scenarios they considered under these conditions, there is less than a one percent difference in the end portfolio. Not so bad, huh?

But that ignores the fact that we’re borrowing money because we need it now. So we’re likely to cut back on our 401(k), if not stop making contributions altogether. That’s the double whammy.

IF you do that (i.e. the double whammy), THEN you can expect your savings at retirement to be as much as 22 percent less. 

What if …

Before you borrow, ask yourself some questions. For example, what if your company cuts back and you lose your job? Let’s spin it in a positive direction, what if you get a great job offer? You want to consider these scenarios as well before deciding if you want to borrow now.

Bottom line

Look for other ways to cut back on your spending. Even a little bit here and there can make a bigg difference. Consider temporarily cutting back on your contributions, but don’t dip below your employer’s match if you can possibly avoid it. Borrow if you must, but don’t cash out unless there is just no other alternative.

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