You don't have to be an expert to manage your money and prepare for life's unexpected twists and turns
If you're like most people, your New Years Resolutions have already expired. You haven't lost 10 pounds, you're not going to the gym five days a week, and when was the last time you called your mother?
Chances are, your financial goals have fallen by the wayside too. I don't want to discourage you from paying down debt, saving a downpayment for a house, or any of those big goals that you may have set for yourself at the beginning of the year. But if you sort of tuckered out on the big things (or even if you're still going strong--go you!), maybe it's time to set some more achievable goals. Here are ten things you can do in an hour or less apiece to make yourself--or your household--more financially sound.
1. Join Mint I'm an unabashed fan of the site, and not just because they do some great data-mining on their blog. (Don't worry, all at the very aggregate level). It will track and aggregate your spending for you, showing you where the money is going, and what's happening to your net worth over time. If you have sort of complicated finances--as I do, living in a two-journalist household--then it's an absolute godsend at tax and expense time. And in the last year they've added goals, allowing you to set your spending, saving, and debt-reduction goals and then track how you're doing with a thermometer. It's surprisingly motivating, and it's free.
I probably spend 20 minutes a week in Mint, categorizing our expenses and monitoring our financial position. But even if you don't put in that kind of time (and most of you don't have to keep track of which meals are tax-deductible), it's still incredibly helpful at tracking the broad outlines of your spending.
2. Get your papers together If you die, someone is going to have to clean up the financial aftermath. Make it easy on them by putting everything in one place where they can find it. Dave Ramsey calls this a "Legacy Drawer", and suggests putting in a cover letter and letters to your loved ones as well as the financial papers. But we're trying to keep this under an hour, so the notes are optional. Here's what it should contain:
A list of every financial account: loans, bank accounts, investment accounts, 401(k)s, whatever. Security experts will kill me for saying this, but I'd say this list should have the account numbers, the PINs, and the passwords.
Deeds and titles to any property you own (cars, land, etc)
Birth certificate and social security card, if you have them
Information about your will/estate plans: who has them, who the executor is
Funeral instructions (if any; mine are "cheapest coffin you can find")
A list of your major recurring expenses (so people know which bills to pay)
Start by putting this in a drawer; eventually, you should move this to a safe-deposit box, and tell whoever's likely to be taking care of your final details where to find the key. This should only take you an hour--if it takes you longer than that, well, you really needed to get these documents while you could find them anyway.
3. Buy life insurance If you're single, you don't need this unless you have a kid or someone else depending on you--your job usually offers you enough to bury you. If you're married, I think you do need a little, even if you don't have kids. Married life is usually built on the expectation of two incomes: a mortgage (or lease), the cars, all sorts of other recurring expenses. At a minimum, make sure your partner will have enough to bury you and pay off any outstanding debt--including not only mortgages and cars, but credit cards and student loans in their name alone, if you own property. You don't want to have to hassle with someone coming after their half of the house or car to pay off their unsecured debt. Obviously, if your partner is at home, or makes very little money, you're also going to want to replace some of your income.
You do not want "whole life" insurance, "return of premium" or any other product that promises you to give you some or all of your money back--all this is is a savings vehicle with bad rates of return, bundled with expensive term life insurance. Buy a simple term life policy for 20 or 30 years--long enough for you to accumulate enough assets to take care of your partner if you die. You can compare rates online or mosey down to your local insurance office, but either way, this shouldn't take you too long provided that you resist the blandishments of insurance agents who will attempt to upsell you "features" you don't need. Stand firm, buy term.
4. Cancel stupid recurring expenses Remember when you thought you'd try Stamps.com? How about that credit monitoring service you signed up for eighteen months ago? The dual subscriptions to Netflix left over from before you moved in together? For many of you, I am sad to say, your gym membership also falls into this category.
Whatever it is, if you haven't used it in three months, cancel it. Cancel it whether or not you think you should be using it. You can always rejoin the gym after you've developed a burning desire to actually go. With the hundreds of dollars you will save between now and then, you will easily be able to afford any re-initiation fees.
5. Ramp up for retirement Unless you are already at the legal maximum, increase your 401(k) contribution by 1% of your income. Unless you are already pinching pennies so hard that Abraham Lincoln is actually screaming in pain, you can afford to put an extra 1% of your pre-tax income into your 401(k). Then every time you get a raise, you increase your contribution by another 1% until you hit the legal limit ($16,500) or 15-20% of your income. Almost painless, and you'll feel a lot safer in retirement. (Of course, if you want to save faster, you can--try 2% or 3%).
6. Start Saving If you don't have an emergency fund, you need one. Here's how to do it so that you almost won't notice: set up an automatic transfer into your savings account from every paycheck. Figure out how much can you afford, but even if it's only $25, transfer it from every paycheck, and resolve not to touch that money unless it's an actual emergency. (Emergency: my car won't start. Not an emergency: I really need a break, so I'm going to the beach for a week.)
The ideal way to handle this is to have a separate account that isn't linked to your other bank accounts, and to have the transfer done as part of your auto-deposit. That way, you never see the money--and I think you'll be surprised to find that you don't much miss it. But if you don't want to go to the trouble, you can do this with your regular savings account, as long as you're resolved not to touch the money in that account for anything but an emergency: just use online banking to do a recurring transfer on the same day as your paycheck hits the account.
Over time, increase the amount that you're saving. Eventually you'll have a tidy nest egg, and because the money was never in your checking account, you won't have been tempted to spend it on incidentals.
7. Rebalance your portfolio If you already have substantial assets, it's time to make sure they're correctly structured for your priorities. Are your mutual funds allocated the way that you want them, or over time, has one grown faster than the others, leaving your portfolio lopsided (many companies now automatically rebalance, but you should check.) You should also be thinking about your portfolio's life-cycle. If you're in your fifties, you should already be transitioning some of your money to bonds.
I know what you're going to say: you'll never be able to retire at those kinds of returns. My response is a piece of wisdom that I picked up from my driving instructor: "If you left late, you're going to get there late." Trying to flout that simple equation only gets you in trouble. Just as it's a bad idea to race through red lights in the hopes of making up the lost time, it's a bad idea to leave your assets in 100% equity because you're hoping that higher returns will still let you retire in comfort at 65. Risking destitution now is just compounding your earlier planning errors.
8. Make a Will If your finances are pretty simple, you can do this in half an hour with something like Quicken Willmaker, which took Lifehacker half an hour. LegalZoom will also do it for you for a pretty modest fee. If your finances are complicated--well, okay, this won't take under an hour, and you need a lawyer. But if your finances are complicated, you really need a will. If it freaks you out too much to meditate upon your own death, pretend that you are preparing this will so you can drop out of sight and assume your new identity as Agent 007 of Her Majesty's Secret Service.
9. Fix your withholding Are you looking forward to a nice big refund from the IRS this year? Don't look so happy--that refund means that you made the government an interest-free loan for most of the year. And if you're like many freelancers, and you owe the government a hefty chunk, then you may be liable for interest and penalties.
The easy way to fix either problem is to adjust your withholding. HR can help you do this. If you're getting a big refund every year, raise your exemptions; if you're having to pay, lower them. (If they're already as low as they can get, look at what you owe this year, adjust for what you'll owe next year . . . and start making estimated payments every quarter.)
10. Shop for better deals Can you get a better interest rate on your credit cards? How about your bank accounts? You don't have to follow through, if you decide thePITA factor isn't worth it. But it's worth taking fifteen minutes on the web to find out. Also worth doing: threaten to cancel your cable. You don't have to actually do it--though with Netflix and Hulu and Amazon Prime's new subscription service, it's possibly worth it. But if you call to cancel, they'll usually offer you a better deal.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
I traveled to every country on earth. In some cases, the adventure started before I could get there.
Last summer, my Royal Air Maroc flight from Casablanca landed at Malabo International Airport in Equatorial Guinea, and I completed a 50-year mission: I had officially, and legally, visited every recognized country on earth.
This means 196 countries: the 193 members of the United Nations, plus Taiwan, Vatican City, and Kosovo, which are not members but are, to varying degrees, recognized as independent countries by other international actors.
In five decades of traveling, I’ve crossed countries by rickshaw, pedicab, bus, car, minivan, and bush taxi; a handful by train (Italy, Switzerland, Moldova, Belarus, Ukraine, Romania, and Greece); two by riverboat (Gabon and Germany); Norway by coastal steamer; Gambia and the Amazonian parts of Peru and Ecuador by motorized canoe; and half of Burma by motor scooter. I rode completely around Jamaica on a motorcycle and Nauru on a bicycle. I’ve also crossed three small countries on foot (Vatican City, San Marino, and Liechtenstein), and parts of others by horse, camel, elephant, llama, and donkey. I confess that I have not visited every one of the 7,107 islands in the Philippine archipelago or most of the more than 17,000 islands constituting Indonesia, but I’ve made my share of risky voyages on the rickety inter-island rustbuckets you read about in the back pages of the Times under headlines like “Ship Sinks in Sulu Sea, 400 Presumed Lost.”
Heather Armstrong’s Dooce once drew millions of readers. Her blog’s semi-retirement speaks to the challenges of earning money as an individual blogger today.
The success story of Dooce.com was once blogger lore, told and re-told in playgroups and Meetups—anywhere hyper-verbal people with Wordpress accounts gathered. “It happened for that Dooce lady,” they would say. “It could happen for your blog, too.”
Dooce has its origin in the late 1990s, when a young lapsed Mormon named Heather Armstrong taught herself HTML code and moved to Los Angeles. She got a job in web design and began blogging about her life on her personal site, Dooce.com.
The site’s name evolved out of her friends’ AOL Instant-Messenger slang for dude, or its more incredulous cousin, "doooood!” About a year later, Armstrong was fired for writing about her co-workers on the site—an experience that, for a good portion of the ‘aughts, came known as “getting dooced.” She eloped with her now ex-husband, Jon, moved to Salt Lake City, and eventually started blogging full time again.
ISIS did not merely blast apart old stones—it attacked the very foundations of pluralistic society.
If the ruined ruins of Palmyra could speak, they would marvel at our shock. After all, they have been sacked before. In their mute and shattered eloquence, they spoke for centuries not only about the cultures that built them but also about the cultures that destroyed them—about the fragility of civilization itself, even when it is incarnated in stone. No designation of sanctity, by God or by UNESCO, suffices to protect the past. The past is helpless. Instead these ruins, all ruins, have had the effect of lifting the past out of history and into time. They carry the spectator away from facts and toward reveries.
In the 18th century, after the publication in London of The Ruins of Palmyra, a pioneering volume of etchings by Robert Wood, who had traveled to the Syrian desert with the rather colorful James Dawkins, a fellow antiquarian and politician, the desolation of Palmyra became a recurring symbol for ephemerality and the vanity of all human endeavors. “It is the natural and common fate of cities,” Wood dryly remarked in one of the essays in his book, “to have their memory longer preserved than their ruins.” Wood’s beautiful and meticulous prints served as inspirations for paintings, and it was in response to one of those paintings that Diderot wrote some famous pages in his great Salons of 1767: “The ideas ruins evoke in me are grand. Everything comes to nothing, everything perishes, everything passes, only the world remains, only time endures. ... Wherever I cast my glance, the objects surrounding me announce death and compel my resignation to what awaits me. What is my ephemeral existence in comparison with that of a rock being worn down, of a valley being formed, of a forest that’s dying, of these deteriorating masses suspended above my head? I see the marble of tombs crumble into powder and I don’t want to die!”
Some Republican candidates are promoting a policy change that would hurt workers by disguising it with a pleasant-sounding phrase.
Americans like their Social Security benefits quite a bit: They oppose cuts to them by a margin of two to one. Even Millennials, who won’t be seeing benefits anytime soon, feel protective of Social Security, according to a poll from the Pew Research Center.
One way to effectively cut Social Security benefits is to raise the age at which they kick in. And yet, when asked specifically about raising the retirement age, Americans are mixed.
Perhaps confusion arises because “raising the age of retirement” sounds like a nice jobs program for older Americans, or an end to forced retirement. I sympathize with that position: Anyone who wants to retire later and work into old age should have a job. But that’s not what raising the retirement age would entail—the fact is, raising the Social Security retirement age represents a reduction in benefits: Because the monthly payments a person receives grow bigger the later in life he or she retires, raising the age cutoff reduces the total amount of money paid out.
In continuing to tinker with the universe she built eight years after it ended, J.K. Rowling might be falling into the same trap as Star Wars’s George Lucas.
September 1st, 2015 marked a curious footnote in Harry Potter marginalia: According to the series’s elaborate timeline, rarely referenced in the books themselves, it was the day James S. Potter, Harry’s eldest son, started school at Hogwarts. It’s not an event directly written about in the books, nor one of particular importance, but their creator, J.K. Rowling, dutifully took to Twitter to announce what amounts to footnote details: that James was sorted into House Gryffindor, just like his father, to the disappointment of Teddy Lupin, Harry’s godson, apparently a Hufflepuff.
It’s not earth-shattering information that Harry’s kid would end up in the same house his father was in, and the Harry Potter series’s insistence on sorting all of its characters into four broad personality quadrants largely based on their family names has always struggled to stand up to scrutiny. Still, Rowling’s tweet prompted much garment-rending among the books’ devoted fans. Can a tweet really amount to a piece of canonical information for a book? There isn’t much harm in Rowling providing these little embellishments years after her books were published, but even idle tinkering can be a dangerous path to take, with the obvious example being the insistent tweaks wrought by George Lucas on his Star Wars series.
It’s not just Trump: With Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina on the rise, Republicans are loving outsiders and shunning politicians.
For the first time in a long time, Donald Trump isn’t the most interesting story in the 2016 presidential race. That's partly because his dominance in the Republican polls, while still surprising, is no longer novel and increasingly well explored and explained, but it’s also partly because what’s going on with the rest of the GOP field is far more interesting.
The brash Manhattan billionaire would seem to stand for values they despise—yet conservative Christian voters are flocking to his campaign.
Donald Trump is immodest, arrogant, foul-mouthed, money-obsessed, thrice-married, and until recently, pro-choice. By conventional standards, evangelical Christians should despise him. Yet somehow, the Manhattan billionaire has attracted their support.
According to the most recent polls, Trump is one of the top picks for president among evangelical Christians. One Washington Post poll even had him as the group’s favorite by a margin of six points. His first major rally in the Bible-Belt fortress town of Mobile, Alabama, drew an estimated 18,000 attendees. And on September 28, prominent televangelist Paula White will reportedly lead a delegation of evangelical leaders to meet with the mogul in Trump Tower.
Burning Man is underway in the Nevada desert, the migrant crisis grew in both scale and impact, new Star Wars toys went on sale worldwide, China marked the 70thanniversary of the end of World War II, Alaska’s Mt. McKinley was renamed Denali, and much more.
Burning Man is underway in the Nevada desert, the migrant crisis grew in both scale and impact, new Star Wars toys went on sale worldwide, China marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, Alaska’s Mt. McKinley was renamed Denali, a Kentucky county clerk was jailed for contempt of court while refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses, and much more.