Save Your Family

Grave

I don’t attach much importance to dreams.  They are just there to make sleepy-time less boring. Last night, I had a dream where I spent most of my time trying to prepare my wife to run our finances before telling my son that I wouldn’t be around to watch him grow up.    That’s an unpleasant thought to wake up with.  Lying there, trying to digest this dream, I started thinking about the transition from “I deal with the bills” to “I’m not there to deal with it”.   We aren’t prepared for that transition.   Last year, we started putting together our “In case of death” file, but that project fell short.    The highest priorities are done.   We have wills and health directives, but how would my wife pay the bills?  Everything is electronic.  Does she know how to log in to the bank’s billpay system?    Which bills are only in my name, and will go away if I die?   Is there a list of our life insurance policies?

I checked the incomplete file that contains this information.   It hasn’t been updated since September.  It’s time to get that finished.  Procrastinating is inappropriate and denial is futile.   Here’s a news flash: You are going to die. Hopefully, it won’t happen soon, but it will happen.  Is your family prepared for that?

The questions are  “What do I need?” and “What do I have?”

First and foremost, you need a will.  If you have children and do not have a will, take a moment–right now– to slap yourself.   A judge is not the best person to determine where your children should go if you die. The rest of it is minor, if you’re married.   Let your next-of-kin, your spouse keep it.  I don’t care.   Just take care of your kids! Set up a trust to pay for the care of your children.   Their new guardians will appreciate it.  How hard is it to set up?   I use Quicken Willmaker and have been very pleased.  Of course, the true test is in probate court, and I won’t be there for it.   If you are more comfortable getting an attorney, then do so. I’ve done it each way.    You can cut some costs by using Willmaker, then taking it to an attorney for review.

It’s a sad fact that often, before you die, you spend some time dying.  Do you have a health care directive?   Does your family know, in writing, if and when you want the plug pulled? Who gets to make that decision?   Have you set up a medical power of attorney, so someone can make medical decisions on your behalf if you aren’t able?  Do you want, and if so, do you have a Do-Not-Resuscitate order?  Willmaker will handle all of this, too.

What’s going to happen to your bank accounts?  I’m personally a fan of keeping both of our names on all of our accounts.   I share my life and my heart, I’d better be able to trust her with our money. If that’s not an option, for whatever reason, fill out the “Payable on Death” information for your accounts, establishing a beneficiary who can get access to your money if you die.   Do you want your spouse to lose the house or the car if you die? Should your kids have to miss meals?  Make sure necessary access to your money exists.

Does anybody know what you have for life insurance? Get a copy of the policy and make sure your spouse and someone else knows what company holds it and how much it is worth.

Now, it’s time to make some lists.   You need to gather account numbers and contact information for everything.

  • Bank accounts. List every bank and account you own.  Checking, savings, CDs.
  • Investment accounts. Again, every company, every account.
  • Mortgage and car payment information.
  • Life insurance. Get your policy numbers, contact information, beneficiaries, and amount of coverage all in one place.
  • Credit card accounts. Every card, every company.    If it’s just your name on the account, your spouse will need to send certified death certificates to stop collections.  Otherwise, she’ll need to pay the bills.
  • Utilities.  Get the account number for the electric bill, the gas bill, water/sewer/garbage, cable and phones.
  • Other bills. These include car/home insurance, Netflix, memberships and anything else you pay.
  • I’ve included the account information for my web host, registrars and websites. Some of it is salable, some of it is income-generating.
  • Car titles. Put the actual titles in the pile of lists.
  • Property deeds. Keep these here, too.

Non-financial information to list:

  • Online accounts. Any financial sites that would be useful, or any community sites you would like to have informed about your death.  Your online presence is a part of who you are.
  • Email accounts. Will your survivors need to interact with anybody potentially contacting you?   They will need your username and password, or most big providers won’t let them in.
  • Social media. How many networks do you participate in?  Do you want to disappear, or should all of your Facebook friends know your dead?
  • Blogs. Do you have a blog that needs an announcement?   Does it generate income?  Could it be sold?
  • Contact list. Who else needs to be informed of your demise?  Don’t make your loved ones hunt for the information.

Now, take all of this information and put it in a nice, fat envelope and lock it in the fireproof safe you have bolted to the floor.  Make a copy and give it to someone you trust absolutely.   Make sure someone knows the combination to the safe or where to find the key.

Your loved ones will appreciate it.

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Personal Finance, Canine-Style

No matter how many excellent books you read, or how many experts you consult, sometimes the best advice comes from beast out fertilizing my yard.  My dog is pretty smart.  At middle-age, she’s got no debt, no stress, and no possibility of being fired.    I asked her what her secrets are, and she gave me 5 rules for managing her finances.

  1. Sniff around. You never know when or where an opportunity will present itself.  Keep your eyes open and look in some unusual places and you may just find the golden opportunity you’ve been waiting for.   Jacob and Susan D’Aniello have a multi-million dollar franchise called DoodyCall.   They have turned themselves into millionaires, starting with a shovel, a leash, and a plastic bag.   Never be afraid to look your future in the eye.
  2. Don’t be afraid to sniff a butt. It’s important to know who you are dealing with, especially when your are making life-changing or expensive decisions.  If it doesn’t smell right, bare your teeth and back off.   Seriously, in most situations, you can trust your gut instinct.  Especially if that instinct is telling you to run away.  Read everything you sign.  If you don’t understand it, find someone who does.  Know what you are getting into at all times.   Get referrals.  Call the Better Business Bureau.   You are in charge of protecting your own interests.
  3. Lick your own butt. Watching your emergency fund grow is nice, but not everything is.   There are some aspects of personal finance that are downright unpleasant, but ignoring them is worse.  You can’t ignore an upside-down budget forever, or it will never get fixed.   Sometimes you just have to grit your teeth and do what needs to be done, no matter how distasteful.  But keep the mouthwash handy.
  4. Bury a bone. Minds out of the gutter, please.   Save for the lean times.   You may have two bones today, but what about tomorrow, or next week?  What if the bone-fairy never comes to visit again?    Make your surplus last, because you never know when life will whack you with a newspaper.  If you don’t have an emergency fund, start one.   Today.   Now.   Go set up an automatic transfer of $10 per week.  Now.   If you don’t have an emergency fund, everything is an emergency.
  5. Wag your tail. Don’t be afraid to enjoy the good things.   When you make progress on your debt, congratulate yourself.  Take credit and take pride in what you’ve accomplished.  It’s more important to be happy than rich, so don’t obsess over the little things, or the material things.   Enjoy your family, enjoy your job(or find a job you can enjoy), enjoy your life.

Maybe I shouldn’t write while watching my dog poop at 5AM.

Update:  This post has been included in Festival of Frugality.

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Balance Your Borked Budget

You’ve got a budget worked out to the penny.  You know every dollar that comes in and every dime that you spend.    All of your bills are getting paid on time.  Then, one day, it all comes crashing down. Your budget is no longer even a reasonable approximation of your cash flow.  You’ve got no idea what’s coming in or going out.   Bills are piling up and fees are digging you deeper in debt.

What happened?  More importantly, how do you get back on track?

The first thing you need to do is identify the problem. What, exactly, went wrong?  Did you lose your job or need a surprise botox injection?  Your car died or your kid developed a hockey habit?  Sports car or shoe sale?  Whatever the cause, if you can’t identify it, you can’t deal with it.  Some of the possible problems may be things that can get clubbed and buried in the backyard, while other things may be expenses that won’t be going away.    If it’s a one-time expense, you can simply refocus your debt repayment to take it into account.  If it’s an ongoing expense, you will need to adjust your other expenses, possibly in a drastic manner, to make ends meet.  You can’t know which way to go without knowing what caused the problem.

Next, commit to to making it right. Don’t leave it at a mere commitment.  Actually commit and actually do it right. Future-you is counting on you to fix the problem before he gets screwed.   This is important.  Without firm–and real–commitment, nothing else will matter.  At best, you will be treading water.  At worst, you will drown yourself in unanticipated bills.

Cut everything extra.   Every expense–whether it’s your mortgage or your maid–is a rock in your pocket, one hundred miles from shore.  How much can you carry and stay afloat?  This isn’t the time to keep paying something because you enjoy it.  If it isn’t absolutely necessary, it’s got to go.  Cut your internet, cancel Netflix, learn to shut off the lights when you aren’t using them.   Is the early termination fee less than 6 months of your cable bill, your satellite bill?  Cancel it.    You can always sign up again later.  This is the time to be ruthless.

Is there a way to bring in some extra cash?  Can you pick up a second job, or land a freelancing gig?  If you’ve suddenly found yourself unemployed, can you spend some time on being a Mechanical Turk?  Sell all of the things you don’t use anymore, or, more likely, never should have bought in the first place?  Do you have a spare kidney?

Remember, this is a drastic situation calling for drastic measures.  Your future is depending on you.  Don’t make him come back and kick your butt.

Update:  This post has been included in the Carnival of Personal Finance.

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What D&D Taught Me About Finance

I admit it: I’m a geek. I’m not a hobby geek who only geeks on the weekends. I’m a full-fledged, licensed and certified geek. I am a geek about so many wondrous things that it’s hard to list them all. My wife knows, my kids know. It’s not much of a secret. One of my many geek qualifications is my sordid history of gaming. Role-playing, tabletop only. If that’s gibberish, it’s okay. Nobody needs to understand my geekitude but me.

I started playing Dungeons and Dragons more than 15 years ago. There were no live chickens or human sacrifice. Just a small group of geeks, proto-geeks, pseudo-geeks, and the occasional nerd playing DnD in a poorly lit room for several hours. We laughed, we cried, we fought evil, saved the world, and raised the stock price of an assortment of caffeinated beverage companies.

As the man said, I told you that, so I could tell you this:

DnD taught me many things.  It taught me THAC0 calculation, dice-identification, and the fact that no woman, anywhere, considers tabletop roleplaying to be an alpha-male trait.  “I’m a level 73 kinder warrior-mage-thief” is not a pickup line anywhere in the world, even Gen-Con.  Remember that.  Also remember, the singular of dice is die.  If your are talking about one, it’s a die.  Get it wrong and I will throw a bag full of dice at you and make you dig out the purple, sparkles-like-a-vampire, 27-sided die from among the hundreds of other dice.

DnD also taught me some surprising things about the world of personal finance, which is not a part of a planar campaign.

All the best toys cost too much. At the current exchange rate of 10 silver pieces(sp) to 1 gold piece(gp), potions of extra healing will drive you into debtor’s prison.  Just as a sword of extra-slaying +10 will cost you everything you earned raiding that castle for the last 6 Wednesday evenings, so will a big screen TV set you back a full month’s salary.  Don’t risk your life or sell your life’s energy for something fleeting, just because it’s “the best” or the newest gadget, geegaw, or artifact.

Pretty Lady

Never sell your soul for a castle or a horse. When the Baatezu come to offer you a “no money down, 0% for a year, all-expenses-paid, surrender-your-first-born” deal for a castle or the prettiest horse in the park, take a cue from the former First Lady.  Just say no.  Spending money today that you have to pay for tomorrow is almost always a bad idea.  Don’t spend your soul, spend your savings.  Don’t buy something until you can afford it.  A Lexus or an Arabian, a mansion or a rambler.  Are any of them worth auctioning your future?

Your armor isn’t stronger just because it’s shiny.  A suit of Full-Plate of Protection-From-the-Charms-of-Bar-Wenches +5 may look pretty, but it’s not going to help against the orcs, kobolds, or trolls unless, of course, they are wearing skirts and sitting on a bar-stool above a sawdust-covered floor.  Does the shiny new iPod really provide a benefit, or is it just a shiny gadget to woo the ladies?

A good sword is necessary to keep your stuff. This is a not a call to self-defense, or mugger, err, orc-slaying–though why that’s ever viewed as a negative is beyond me.   You need to be aggressive in defending your loot.  Call your credit card companies and demand they turn over the booty, err, lower your rates.  Tell your friends to step away from the Diamond Ray of Disappearance, err, expensive outings or you will chop off their heads, err…no wait, that one can stay.  I think my friends may be scared of me.

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="196" caption=" "] [/caption]The promised reward for completing an adventure isn’t the only way to make money. Sure, the local duke(your boss), may be willing to pay you a chest of gems(your salary) for defending the town from the ravages of the Tarrasque(your job), but that isn’t the only way to make money.  You could do your job, collect your pay, and go home at night, but why?  Don’t forget to pick up the loot along the way.  If you spot the shiny penny, grab it, whether it’s abandoned gold, a new idea for a niche-blog, or a chance to turn your leisure hobbies into money.  There are thousands of ways to make money outside of your day job.  Every one will help your bottom line.

It takes cunning to slay the dragon. When tackling your debt(dragon), wading in swinging your sword may be emotionally satisfying, in the short term, but long term, it’s just a painful method of reminding yourself that you are crunchy and taste good with ketchup.  Make plans.  Have a strategy.  Come out a winner.  Then, sit down for beer and dragon steak.   Goal-less, plan-less attacks fail in the long-term.

Update:  This post has been included in the Carnival of Personal Finance.

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