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.
Also notable about this brazen show of might is that the missiles traveled through two countries, Iran and Iraq, before hitting their 11 targets in Syria. This means that both countries either gave their permission or simply didn’t confront Putin about the use of their airspace on his birthday.
A new report details a black market in nuclear materials.
On Wednesday, the Associated Press published a horrifying report about criminal networks in the former Soviet Union trying to sell “radioactive material to Middle Eastern extremists.” At the center of these cases, of which the AP learned of four in the past five years, was a “thriving black market in nuclear materials” in a “tiny and impoverished Eastern European country”: Moldova.
It’s a new iteration of an old problem with a familiar geography. The breakup of the Soviet Union left a superpower’s worth of nuclear weapons scattered across several countries without a superpower’s capacity to keep track of them. When Harvard’s Graham Allison flagged this problem in 1996, he wrote that the collapse of Russia’s “command-and-control society” left nothing secure. To wit:
It leaves people bed-bound and drives some to suicide, but there's little research money devoted to the disease. Now, change is coming, thanks to the patients themselves.
This past July, Brian Vastag, a former science reporter, placed an op-ed with his former employer, the Washington Post. It was an open letter to the National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins, a man Vastag had formerly used as a source on his beat.
“I’ve been felled by the most forlorn of orphan illnesses,” Vastag wrote. “At 43, my productive life may well be over.”
There was no cure for his disease, known by some as chronic fatigue syndrome, Vastag wrote, and little NIH funding available to search for one. Would Collins step up and change that?
“As the leader of our nation’s medical research enterprise, you have a decision to make,” he wrote. “Do you want the NIH to be part of these solutions, or will the nation’s medical research agency continue to be part of the problem?”
“If the office is going to become a collection of employees not working together, it essentially becomes no different than a coffee shop.”
There’s plenty of research out there on the benefits of remote and flexible work. It’s been shown to lead to increased productivity, and has an undeniable benefit for work-life balance. But what does it do to everyone back at the office?
In a 2013 memo to workers explaining why the company was eliminating policies that allowed remote work, Jackie Reses, Yahoo’s head of human resources,argued that some of the “best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussion,” and that actual presence in the office encourages better collaboration and communication.
Somewhere in Europe, a man who goes by the name “Mikro” spends his days and nights targeting Islamic State supporters on Twitter.
In August 2014, a Twitter account affiliated with Anonymous, the hacker-crusader collective, declared “full-scale cyber war” against ISIS: “Welcome to Operation Ice #ISIS, where #Anonymous will do it’s [sic] part in combating #ISIS’s influence in social media and shut them down.”
In July, I traveled to a gloomy European capital city to meet one of the “cyber warriors” behind this operation. Online, he goes by the pseudonym Mikro. He is vigilant, bordering on paranoid, about hiding his actual identity, on account of all the death threats he has received. But a few months after I initiated a relationship with him on Twitter, Mikro allowed me to visit him in the apartment he shares with his girlfriend and two Rottweilers. He works alone from his chaotic living room, using an old, battered computer—not the state-of-the-art setup I had envisaged. On an average day, he told me, he spends up to 16 hours fixed to his sofa. He starts around noon, just after he wakes up, and works late into the night and early morning.
Forget the Common Core, Finland’s youngsters are in charge of determining what happens in the classroom.
“The changes to kindergarten make me sick,” a veteran teacher in Arkansas recently admitted to me. “Think about what you did in first grade—that’s what my 5-year-old babies are expected to do.”
The difference between first grade and kindergarten may not seem like much, but what I remember about my first-grade experience in the mid-90s doesn’t match the kindergarten she described in her email: three and a half hours of daily literacy instruction, an hour and a half of daily math instruction, 20 minutes of daily “physical activity time” (officially banned from being called “recess”) and two 56-question standardized tests in literacy and math—on the fourth week of school.
That American friend—who teaches 20 students without an aide—has fought to integrate 30 minutes of “station time” into the literacy block, which includes “blocks, science, magnetic letters, play dough with letter stamps to practice words, books, and storytelling.” But the most controversial area of her classroom isn’t the blocks nor the stamps: Rather, it’s the “house station with dolls and toy food”—items her district tried to remove last year. The implication was clear: There’s no time for play in kindergarten anymore.
National Geographic Magazine has opened its annual photo contest, with the deadline for submissions coming up on November 16, 2015.
National Geographic Magazine has opened its annual photo contest, with the deadline for submissions coming up on November 16, 2015. The Grand Prize Winner will receive $10,000 and a trip to National Geographic headquarters to participate in its annual photography seminar. The kind folks at National Geographic were once again kind enough to let me choose among the contest entries so far for display here. Captions written by the individual photographers.
Why Americans tend more and more to want inexperienced presidential candidates
The presidency, it’s often said, is a job for which everyone arrives unprepared. But just how unprepared is unprepared enough?
Political handicappers weigh presidential candidates’ partisanship, ideology, money, endorsements, consultants, and, of course, experience. Yet they too rarely consider an element of growing importance to voters: freshness. Increasingly, American voters view being qualified for the presidency as a disqualification.
In 2003, I announced in National Journal the 14-Year Rule. The rule was actually discovered by a presidential speechwriter named John McConnell, but because his job required him to keep his name out of print, I graciously stepped up to take credit. It is well known that to be elected president, you pretty much have to have been a governor or a U.S. senator. What McConnell had figured out was this: No one gets elected president who needs longer than 14 years to get from his or her first gubernatorial or Senate victory to either the presidency or the vice presidency.* Surprised, I scoured the history books and found that the rule works astonishingly well going back to the early 20th century, when the modern era of presidential electioneering began.
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.
Even in big cities like Tokyo, small children take the subway and run errands by themselves. The reason has a lot to do with group dynamics.
It’s a common sight on Japanese mass transit: Children troop through train cars, singly or in small groups, looking for seats.
They wear knee socks, polished patent-leather shoes, and plaid jumpers, with wide-brimmed hats fastened under the chin and train passes pinned to their backpacks. The kids are as young as 6 or 7, on their way to and from school, and there is nary a guardian in sight.
A popular television show called Hajimete no Otsukai, or My First Errand, features children as young as two or three being sent out to do a task for their family. As they tentatively make their way to the greengrocer or bakery, their progress is secretly filmed by a camera crew. The show has been running for more than 25 years.