The 50 Smartest Things to do with your Money
How to earn more, save more, invest better, spend wisely and protect your family--now
(MONEY Magazine) – What is the smartest money move you ever made? Was it buying a home or switching jobs? Perhaps you picked a winning stock or market-beating mutual fund. You know now that it was smart because it made you money, saved you money--or kept you out of money trouble. But by necessity, much of what we do with our money is educated guesswork. We don't know which stocks will perform best during the next year, for example, but we take our chances. It doesn't always have to be that way. The 50 smart money moves identified in this story are as close to sure things as you can get. Some are tried and true--like funding a 401(k)--while others are tips for smart spending, career management and financial planning that you may never have thought of. None will make you rich all by itself, of course. But each offers a high probability of success and a low risk of failure. Good payoff, low risk: the definition of smart.
MAKE IT A HABIT
these financial moves should be second nature
1 MAKE YOUR HOUSE COUNT Do: Open a home-equity line of credit and use it for the right reasons: to tap as a rainy-day fund, to finance college for your kids or yourself, or to pay down credit-card debt. Don't: Raid your home's equity to fund vacations, plasma TVs or that Beemer you can't afford.
2 STOP THINKING And start automating your financial life. Call your mutual fund or broker to have monthly investments routed from your bank. Do the same for your monthly utility, cell-phone and cable payments. You'll find it easier to budget, and you'll never pay a late fee again.
3 CRANK IT TO THE MAX Put as much as you possibly can into your 401(k). Assuming a 7% return and a 50% match, upping your annual contribution by a grand and maintaining that level for 30 years will add $153,110 (not a misprint) to your nest egg. You can stash away a maximum of $14,000 this year (a thousand more than last year), or as much as $18,000 if you're 50 or older.
4 REDUCE YOUR INCOME Taxable income, that is, by funding a flexible spending account at work. Your boss deducts pretax money from your paycheck, which you then use to pay for medical expenses ranging from insurance deductibles to aspirin to acupuncture. Every $1,000 you put in (the max is $5,000 a year) cuts your tax bill by about $300. Don't miss the annual sign-up, usually in the fall.
5 SAVE ON A SCHEDULE Invest the same amount in a mutual fund every month. That ensures you'll buy more shares when they're cheap and fewer when they're expensive. T. Rowe Price's Automatic Asset Builder program, for one, lets you contribute as little as $50 a month to nearly any of its funds--and limbo under the usual $2,500 minimum initial investment (800-638-5660; troweprice.com).
6 BE A CHEAPSKATE Look for mutual funds that have expenses below 1.33% for stock funds and 0.89% for bond funds. Study after study shows that keeping investment costs low is the best way to increase your odds of earning a high return. Cheapest of the cheap are index funds from Vanguard (800-851-4999; vanguard.com) or Fidelity (800-343-3548; fidelity.com).
7 LUNCH YOUR CAREER Meet a former colleague once a month for a bite to eat. A regular $30 out-of-the office lunch will reward you with a fat, up-to-date Rolodex the next time you're in the job market.
8 GO MAD, BUT NOT CRAZY If you really want to own the next big thing, set aside no more than 5% to 10% of your portfolio for those "swing for the fences" choices. You'll get your thrill--but won't do yourself too much harm if (as is more common) the stock doesn't live up to its hype.
9 OWN THE WORLD Diversify your portfolio beyond our shores and you'll reduce risk and have a shot at higher returns. Put at least 20% of your money overseas. Start with two MONEY 50 funds: Artisan International (ARTIX) for stocks, and American Century International Bond (BEGBX) for bonds (see page 132 for contact information). For more on international funds, turn to page 75.
10 CELEBRATE REBALANCING DAY Every Aug. 1 (or pick your own day), return your portfolio to its ideal allocation by trimming investments that have grown and adding to those that have lagged (use our Asset Allocator at money.com/tools). Do this once a year and you automatically sell high, buy low and, studies show, add measurably to your final return. Or put your money in a fund that allocates for you, such as Fidelity's Freedom Funds (800-343-3548; fidelity.com).
11 KNOW WHEN TO FOLD 'EM Sell a stinky stock or fund. In a taxable account, your losses can offset capital gains and cut your taxes, thus converting a dumb investment into a smart tax break. If you change your mind, you can always buy the asset back after 30 days.
12 DON'T SPEND A PENNY Or a nickel or a dime. At six-month intervals, find a bank with a coin sorter and deposit your change in a savings account. (One MONEY staffer's family saved $1,000 in stray coins last year.)
GET IN ON THE SECRET
savvy consumers know these tricks pay off
13 FILL 'ER UP WITH REGULAR Never pay for premium gas. High test won't extend the life of your engine or improve fuel efficiency, and it's not required by your warranty. It will, however, cost the average driver about $120 a year.
14 SPLURGE WITH YOUR MILES Use your frequent-flier miles to buy a business- or first-class seat. Coach seats on domestic flights are so cheap that they're rarely the best use of your miles--and those reward seats are scarce to boot. You'll spend 25,000 miles for a free seat worth $150 on a coast-to-coast flight, whereas 100,000 miles gets you a $3,000 business class seat to Europe and a shot at a good night's sleep.
15 FACE DOWN CREDIT-CARD FEES Ask your issuer to waive that $30-to-$70 annual fee. The ability to take your business elsewhere confers great power. Use it. Many issuers will blink if they think you'll walk. Missed a payment just once? Cite your on-time record and ask them to kill the late fee.
16 PAY TO REPLACE YOUR STUFF When you insure your home, make sure your policy includes replacement-cost coverage, not the default coverage, called actual cash value. It'll cost about 10% more but will pick up the full price of rebuilding and refurnishing your home.
17 DICKER WITH THE DOCTOR For routine and scheduled procedures like orthodontics, MRIs, colonoscopies or medically prescribed physical therapy, call your insurer and find out what it considers a "reasonable and customary amount" for the treatment. Then see if your doctor can match it. He or she probably will. Patients who ask get a lower price about half the time.
18 DRIVE LIKE IT'S 2002 Buy a used car instead a new one, and let someone else pay for the depreciation. In a car's first year, the value lost averages 30%, according to Edmunds.com. What that means: For about $25,000, you can buy either a new Toyota Camry or a 2004 Lexus IS 300. What's smarter?
19 SPEND YOURSELF INTO POVERTY Or at least into college financial aid eligibility. If you think your kid might qualify for aid, selectively spending down your assets and your child's can increase your chances of getting help. A year or two before your kid's junior year in high school, use any extra cash to pay off credit cards. If your child has an UGMA or UTMA custodial account, spend it on other education expenses, such as SAT tutoring or a computer for him or her.
20 SHARE YOUR SHARES Donate stock, not cash, to charity. Not only will you help those in need, you'll forever avoid taxes on any gains on the stock--and you can deduct the full value of the shares on your tax return. Your charity will be happy to help you with the paperwork.
21 DON'T LEAVE SKIDMARKS On your next car, get electronic stability control, a safety feature that helps prevent skids and spins. A government study found it reduces SUV single-vehicle crashes by 67%. It's standard on cars ranging from the Audi A3 to the BMW Z4, and a $500 option on others. For a list of ESC-equipped vehicles, go to esceducation.org.
22 SLEEP WITH THE CONCIERGE Book a room on the hotel's concierge floor. It'll cost $20 to $40 more than the same digs on another floor, but consider the freebies: drinks, hors d'oeuvres, dry cleaning, shoe shining and help with reservations.
23 SAY NO TO OENOPHILIA Never spend more than $20 on a bottle of wine (special occasions excluded). True aficionados know that some of the wine world's greatest pleasures can be found at the lower end of the wine list. If your snobby friends look askance at you for bypassing some overrated white Bordeaux in favor of an unpretentious but inexpensive pinot noir with a lovely fruity nose, get new friends.
DON'T MAKE EXCUSES
these simple steps can pay dividends right away
24 FIX YOUR ARMS Replace an adjustable-rate mortgage with a 30-year fixed-rate version. Short-term rates are already heading up, but long-term mortgages are still historically cheap (recently 5.8%). Lock in now and never worry again about your housing costs spiraling out of control.
25 KNOW THE SCORE Order your credit score from all three major credit bureaus for $45 from Myfico.com. True, you're entitled to free copies of your credit reports this year, but one detail will be missing: the magic number that lenders and insurers use to judge your credit-worthiness. Pay for that.
26 STEAL INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY Subscribe to a publication--a business magazine, a trade newsletter, a learned journal--that no one else in your office reads. Collect ideas, share said ideas with your boss, reap the rewards.
27 SET YOURSELF BACK Pick up a setback thermostat for less than $100 at your local hardware store or Home Depot. When you're sleeping or at work, it will automatically adjust the heat (or the AC). A 10° drop can knock as much as 15% off your utility bills.
28 BACK YOURSELF UP Buy an external hard drive and regularly copy all the precious data on your PC. How devastating would it be to lose your family photos, financial records and music files? Don't wait until your computer dies to find out. The easy-to-use Maxtor OneTouch II external hard drive is $160 to $300 (depending on capacity) at compusa.com.
29 DON'T TELL THE KIDS Pass on money to your children now rather than bequeathing it. Gifts of up to $11,000 a year are tax-free. Your kids and grandkids will thank you--which they can't do if you wait until you're dead.
30 DO TELL THE KIDS Have your child open an IRA. Kids who earn money from an afterschool or summer job can put as much as $4,000 a year into a Roth IRA. After five years of tax-free growth, he or she can make penalty-free withdrawals for college expenses.
31 SHRED (SO IT'S NOT READ) Buy a paper shredder. When it comes to identity theft, real-world thieves eyeing your trash cans like hungry raccoons are a bigger threat than Internet hackers. Invest in a crosscut shredder, and turn your financial documents into confetti. Personal shredders can go for as much as $90; Amazon.com sells the Fellowes Shredmate Cross Cut Shredder for just $50. (For more identity-theft tips, see page 94.) Plus: Free confetti!
32 BUNDLE UP Consolidate your communication bills. If you spend more than $50 a month on local and long-distance phone service from two different companies--or more than $110 a month on phone, cable and high-speed Internet from three different ones--you may be able to save by ordering a bundled service from one provider.
33 ACCEPT CASH ONLY Switch your airline-miles or other merchandise credit card to one with rewards you'll actually use--like cash back. Search for a no-fee card that suits you at cardweb.com or bankrate.com.
34 STAY WELL LUBRICATED Change your oil. You'll improve your chances of the odometer setting records by draining oil on the automaker's suggested schedule. Don't sabotage your diligence with cut-rate oil. Look for the American Petroleum Institute's seal of approval on the bottle.
35 GET A FAT PIPE Upgrade to a broadband Internet connection. Imagine the time you'd waste if whenever you turned the page of a magazine you had to wait 17 seconds to read it. (Just think: You'd still be on tip No. 16.) That about sums up dial-up Internet access. A high-speed connection via cable or DSL costs more--expect to pay about $30 to $40 a month compared with monthly dial-up rates of $10 to $24--but you'll save time and money banking online, researching your investments and booking a vacation.
36 THINK CURB APPEAL Before you put your home on the market, plant a daisy or two. Simple landscaping should cost less than $500 but will increase your sale price by a couple grand. Other high-return/low-expense projects: Put a coat of fresh paint on the front door, turn up the wattage in your lamps, and hire a pro to deep clean.
CHANGE YOUR LIFE
take the time--and money--to turn your finances around
37 DIGITIZE THE DRUDGERY Buy either Quicken or Microsoft Money, software that will help you track your spending, view your portfolio allocations, estimate next year's tax bill--all the tedious tasks you know you ought to do but never would unless someone made it very easy. Pick up the premium edition of either program for $70 and change at Amazon.com. You'll spend a couple of hours on initial setup, but from then on, you'll be amazed at what you can do with your money, once you know what you're doing with your money.
38 MONETIZE THE SPARE BEDROOM Start a business from your home, however small, and magically, expenses ranging from Internet access to plumbing repairs can become at least partly deductible. There are rules, of course: You have to use your home workspace exclusively for work, among other things. Print out Publication 587 from irs.gov for details. Just don't read it when you're tired.
39 BUY RUNNING SHOES How is investing in $120 sneakers a smart money move? Let's see: Running reduces the risk of heart disease and stroke, lowers blood pressure and burns more calories than any other exercise--for less than a $50-a-month gym membership.
40 OWE NO PLASTIC If you have cash wallowing in a money fund or bank account at 1% and a credit-card balance at, say, today's average rate of 13%, write a check for the balance immediately. That's a 13% return--with no risk.
41 SEND THE KIDS TO COLLEGE Save whatever it takes, borrow whatever it takes, spend whatever it takes. Education is the smartest investment you can make in your children's most valuable asset, their earning power. College graduates make 80% more than people with only a high school diploma, which adds up to an extra million over a lifetime.
42 THAT GOES FOR YOU TOO A recent study found that going back to school to get an M.B.A. can add a full 45% to your salary.
43 SPEAK CONFIDENTLY No one ever got a raise by being a wallflower. Spend a few hundred dollars on a public speaking class at a community college or get training and practice at Toastmasters (toastmasters.org). Annual dues: $50
44 GET A PAYCHECK WITHOUT WORK You have about a 30% chance of becoming disabled for three or more months at some point in your working life. Disability insurance keeps the cash flowing. You need this. If you're not covered at work, get a policy that pays 60% to 70% of your earnings until age 65. For help shopping, go to iii.org.
45 HAVE A PLAN Hire a financial planner to review your retirement and college savings plans. At garrettplanningnetwork.com and myfinancialadvice.com, you'll find planners who work by the hour (usually $150 to $200 per). Getting on track will take eight to 10 hours up front, plus an hour or two for a yearly checkup.
SMART MOVES FROM THE PROS
Three leading fund managers share their favorite current holdings
46 BUY LARGE-CAP GROWTH STOCKS "They're the cheapest that I've seen them, compared with bonds, since 1981," says Tom Marsico, manager of two top-performing large-cap funds, Marsico Growth and Marsico Focus. He likes GE (GE), UnitedHealth (UNH), Genentech (DNA) and Procter & Gamble (PG), which are dominating their markets and generating cash.
47 BUY BERKSHIRE HATHAWAY Long-time value investor Wally Weitz points out that with each B share (BRK.B; recently $2,840), you're buying, at a discount, a highly diversified portfolio overseen by his favorite investor, Warren Buffett. "Whether the market goes up or down, or interest rates go up or down--whatever opportunities come or go," says Weitz, "Warren's thinking about investing your money on a daily basis."
48 BUY QUALITY Stocks that Bill Nygren, manager of Oakmark and Oakmark Select, likes include Wal-Mart (WMT), Home Depot (HD) and Kohl's (KSS). "The opportunity five years ago was in mundane businesses left behind in the irrationally exuberant market," he says. "The opportunity today is superior large businesses that are priced as if they were average."
49 STOP ASSUMING IMMORTALITY Hire a lawyer to craft a will, a durable power of attorney, a living will and a health-care proxy. It may cost $1,500 to $2,000 (more for large or complicated estates), but could save your heirs thousands in taxes and fees. Unless, of course, you live forever.
50 RENOVATE Average cost to fix a dated or cramped kitchen: $42,660. Average fraction of that you'll add to your home's value: 80%. Pleasure derived by creating a gathering spot that fosters more family time: off the charts.
15 Dumb Moves
SOMETIMES THE SMARTEST MOVE IS THE ONE YOU DON'T MAKE
Putting all your eggs in company stock. If the business falters, your retirement plan could fall off along with it. Limit company stock to 10% of your portfolio.
Cashing out your 401(k) when you leave your job. Not only will you pay a 10% penalty and income taxes, but you'll also lose out on future tax-free growth.
Buying an investment you don't understand. To know if it makes sense for you, you have to make sense of it. Ask your broker, planner or agent questions, and if the answers aren't clear, move on.
Hiring a planner or adviser without asking how you're paying for the advice. And how much. How else can you figure out whether the advice is worth the price?
Saving for your children's college education at the expense of fully funding your 401(k). Your kids can always take out loans, but you won't be able to borrow for your retirement.
Buying last year's top-performing mutual fund. Today's hot fund is almost certain to be tomorrow's loser. Opt for funds with a history of low costs and returns in line with their peers.
Buying tax-free bonds and variable annuities for your IRA. It's like wearing a poncho and carrying an umbrella, only worse. You get no extra tax benefit from the annuity, and the bonds' interest will end up being taxed.
Stretching out loan payments. If you take a 40-year mortgage or a six-year auto loan, you'll build equity too slowly and pay more interest over the life of the loan.
Filing homeowners insurance claims for minor bills that exceed your deductible by a couple hundred bucks. You'll just wind up paying more in premiums the following year. Save claims for real disasters.
Applying for more than two credit cards. You'll damage your credit score while increasing your temptation to run up balances.
Buying life insurance on your kids. If your kids don't support the family, they don't need insurance.
Getting a tax refund. It's an interest-free loan to Uncle Sam. Use the calculator at irs.gov to adjust your withholding so that you can keep more cash each month.
Photocopying your résumé at the office instead of at Kinko's. Ask yourself if the money you're saving is worth the risk that you'll a) have a paper jam; b) run into your boss; or c) leave your original in the machine.
Paying retail right off the bat. A simple Web search or phone call should tell you whether you'd save by buying elsewhere.
Prepaying for a full tank of gas when you rent a car. You're buying gas for the rental agency.