BenefitsCheckUp is a free service of the National Council on Aging. Many adults over 55 need help paying for prescription drugs, health care, utilities, and other basic needs. There are over 2,000 federal, state and private benefits programs available to help those living in the USA. But many people don’t know these programs exist or how they can apply.
BenefitsCheckUp asks a series of questions to help identify benefits that could save you money and cover the costs of everyday expenses in areas such as:
- Health care
- Employment Training
While the National Council on Aging is focused on benefits for older people the service actually finds many sources that are not dependent on age.
If you complete the overall questionnaire it is fairly long (about 30 questions) but still can be completed in 10 minutes. Also you can target your request (say to health care) and have a shorter questionnaire. They will provide links and contact information to various programs you may qualify for based on your answers.
Finding new business and retaining existing customers is needed to sustain and grow a business. Gathering good customer data is important to helping increase sales.
Gathering customer data
Collecting customer data requires some effort- but it doesn’t have to be expensive. Here are some great sources you can use to collect data:
- Website Analytics: Your website may be the most common way customers interact with your business. Google Analytics, Piwik and other web site tracking software can provide a tremendous amount of detail about your website results. You can see which pages of your website generate the most traffic and can adjust your site’s design based on data to build your customer traffic.
- One of the most important measures of customer experience is repeat business. Gathering data on customer retention is a valuable measure of how successful the business is at meeting and exceeding customer expectations. In order to help improve that performance one valuable tool is to ask the simple question: “What one thing could we do better?” The questions is simple; creating a management system that takes that data and uses it to continually improve your value to customers is not nearly so easy.
- Gathering data on the experience your customers have is also important. There are many obvious frustration points customers face that any business should be able to identify. How easily can someone find an email address to contact your company? How quickly are matters resolved by email? Do you force customers to fight their way through phone menus instead of letting them talk to a person? How many customers hang up while being forced to waste their time fighting through your companies phone system? This is just a few examples, getting 10 such ideas for your company shouldn’t be hard.
Many companies instead of having measures customers care about, only have measures accountants care about – such as how much your phone center costs to run. That is fine, but you likely will waste most of your time worrying about collecting customer data if your organization isn’t interested about what the customer experiences. Those companies just are interested in taking as much money from customers as they can without concern for customers. In that case don’t bother pretending you care about customers, it is just a waste of time. Instead just focus on what your business model is and hope no company comes along that has a business model to treat customers well.
- Surveys can collect data from customers but the danger of relying on expressed desires rather than actions must always be remembered. SurveyMonkey is an easy to use tool that makes this process simple. You can create a short survey for free, then place the survey link on your website.
- Ad Responses: Online ads allow companies to easily collect data on customer responses. You can run several types of online ads, and see which ad generates the most clicks to your company website.
Use all of these tools to gather useful data while always remembering that customer data is only a proxy for understanding customers, and there is a gap between what is measured and reality.
Storing customer data
Because you use this data to meet your customer’s needs, the information is extremely valuable. Many businesses use internet security software to protect customer data. Every week it seems there is another high profile leak of customer data from hacked company servers. It is very important to isolate sensitive data and use cloud security system to reduce the risk of data loss.
Many companies use personas to target different customer segments they aim to capture. A business can use customer data to create an ideal customer ideal customer for specific products or services. And personas can help you target your web site to meet the differing needs of various target customers.
Using data to improve your organization’s performance is powerful. But the power is mainly from designing a management system that uses that data effectively. That is much harder than collecting data in the first place. Our management blog discusses how to use data to manage most effectively.
Hedge funds seek to pay the managers extremely well and claim to justify enormous paydays with claims of superior returns. Markets provide lots of volatility from which lots of different performances will result. Claiming the random variation that resulted in the superior performance of there portfolio as evidence the deserve to take huge payments for themselves from the current returns is not sensible. But plenty of rich people fall for it.
As I have written before: Avoiding Hedge Fund Investments is One of the Benefits of Being in the 99%.
This is pretty well understood by most knowledgeable investors, financial planners and investing experts. But funds that charge huge fees continue to get away with it. If you are smart you will avoid them. A few simple investing rules get you well into the top 10% of investors
- seek low fees
- diversify – pay attention to risk of portfolio overall
- limit trading (low turnover)
- use tax advantage accounts wisely (in the USA 401(k)s and IRAs)
From a personal finance perspective, saving money is a key. Most people fail at being decent investors before they even get a chance to invest by spending more than they can afford and failing to save, and even worse going into debt (other than to some extent for college education and house). Consistently putting aside 10-20% of your income and investing wisely will put you in good shape over the long term.
Delaying when you start collecting Social Security benefits in the USA can enhance your personal financial situation. You may start collecting benefits at 62, but each year you delay collecting increases your payment by 5% to 8% (see below). If you retire before your “normal social security retirement age” (see below) your payments are reduced from the calculated monthly payment (which is based on your earnings and the number of years you paid into the social security fund). If you delay past that age you get a 8% bonus added to your monthly payment for each year you delay.
The correct decision depends on your personal financial situation and your life expectancy. The social security payment increases are based on life expectancy for the entire population but if your life expectancy is significantly different that can change what option makes sense for you. If you live a short time you won’t make up for missing payments (the time while you delayed taking payments) with the increased monthly payment amount.
The “normal social security retirement age” is set in law and depends on when you were born. If you were born prior to 1938 it is 65 and if you are born after 1959 it is 67 (in between those dates it slowly increases. Those born in 1959 will reach the normal social security retirement age of 67 in 2026.
The social security retirement age has fallen far behind demographic trends – which is why social security deductions are so large today (it used to be social security payments for the vast majority of people did not last long at all – they died fairly quickly, that is no longer the case). The way to cope with this is either delay the retirement ago or increase the deductions. The USA has primarily increased the deductions, with a tiny adjustment of the retirement age (increasing it only 2 years over several decades). We would be better off if they moved back the normal retirement age at least another 3 to 5 years (for the payment portion – given the broken health care system in the USA retaining medicare ages as they are is wise).
In the case of early retirement, a benefit is reduced 5/9 of one percent for each month (6.7% annually) before normal retirement age, up to 36 months. If the number of months exceeds 36, then the benefit is further reduced 5/12 of one percent per month (5% annually).
For delaying your payments after you have reached normal social security retirement age increases payments by 8% annually (there were lower amounts earlier but for people deciding today that is the figure to use).
Lets take a quick look at a simple example:
Dylan Grice suggests the Cockroach Portfolio: 25% cash; 25% government bonds; 25% equities; and 25% gold. What we can learn from the cockroach
Government bonds protect against deflation (provided your money’s invested in solid government bonds and not trash). Equities offer capital growth and income. And gold, as we know, protects against currency depreciation, inflation, and financial collapse. It’s vitally important to maintain holdings in each, in my opinion.
The beauty of a ‘static’ allocation across these four asset classes is that it removes emotion from the investment process.
I don’t really agree with this but I think it is an interesting read. And I do agree the standard stock/bond/cash portfolio model is not good enough.
I would rather own real estate than gold. I doubt I would ever have more than 5% gold and only would suggest that if someone was really rich (so had money to put everywhere). Even then I imagine I would balance it with investments in other commodities.
One of the many problems with “stock” allocations is that doesn’t tell you enough. I think global exposure is wise (to some extent S&P 500 does this as many of those companies have huge international exposure – still I would go beyond that). Also I would be willing to take some stock in commodities type companies (oil and gas, mining, real estate, forests…) as a different bucket than “stocks” even though they are stocks.
And given the super low interest rates I see dividend paying stocks as an alternative to bonds.
The Cockroach Portfolio does suggest only government bonds (and is meant for the USA where those bonds are fairly sensible I think) but in the age of the internet many of my readers are global. It may well not make sense to have a huge portion of your portfolio in many countries bonds. And outside the USA I wouldn’t have such a large portion in USA bonds. And they don’t address the average maturity (at least in this article) – I would avoid longer maturities given the super low rates now. If rates were higher I would get some long term bonds.
These adjustments mean I don’t have as simple a suggestion as the cockroach portfolio. But I think that is sensible. There is no one portfolio that makes sense. What portfolio is wise depends on many things.
There are many asset allocation strategies; which often are pretty similar. In general they oversimplify the situation (so an investor needs to study and adjust them to their situation – though most don’t do this, which is a problem). In general, I think asset allocation suggestions are too heavily weighted on bonds, and that is even more true today in the current environment – of could that is just my opinion.
I ran across this suggested allocation in Eyewitness to a Wall Street mugging which I think has several good values.
- It focuses on low fee, market index funds. Fees are incredibly important in determining long term investment success
- It has lower bond allocation than normal
- It has more international exposure than many – which I think is wise (this suggested portfolio is for those in the USA, USA portion should be lowered for others)
- It includes real estate (some suggested allocations miss this entirely)
In my opinion this allocation should be adjusted as you get closer to retirement (put a bit more into more stable, income producing investments).
My personal preference is to use high quality dividend stocks in the current interest rate environment. I would buy them myself which does require a bit more work than once a year rebalancing that the lazy golfer portfolio allows.
I would also include 10% for Vanguard emerging markets fund (VWO) (for sake of a rule of thumb reduce Inflation Protected Securities Fund to 10% if you are more than 10 years from retirement, when between 10 and 1 year from retirement put Inflation Protected Securities Fund at 15% and Total Stock Market Index Fund at 35%, when 1 year from retirement or retired lower emerging market to 5% and put 5% in money market.
Depending on your other assets this portfolio should be adjusted (large real estate holdings [large net value on personal home, investment real estate…] can mean less real estate in this portfolio, 401k holdings may mean you want to tweak this [TIAA CREF has a very good real estate fund, if you have access to it you might make real estate a high value in your 401k and then adjust your lazy portfolio], large pension means you can lower income producing assets, how close you are to retirement, etc.).
The Lazy Golfer Portfolio (Annually rebalance the fund on your birthday and ignore Wall Street for the remaining 364 days of the year) contains 5 Vanguard index funds
- 40% Total Stock Market Index Fund (VTSMX)
- 20% Total International Stock Index Fund (VGTSX)
- 20% Inflation Protected Securities Fund (VIPSX)
- 10% Total Bond Market Index Fund (VBMFX)
- 10% REIT Index Fund (VGSIX)
Related: Retirement Planning, Looking at Asset Allocation – Lazy Portfolio Results – Investment Risk Matters Most as Part of a Portfolio, Rather than in Isolation – Starting Retirement Account Allocations for Someone Under 40 – Taking a Look at Some Dividend Aristocrats
Determining exactly what needs to be saved for retirement is tricky. Basically it is something that needs to be adjusted based on how things go (savings accumulated, saving rate, planned retirement date, investing returns, predicted investing returns, government policy, tax rates, etc.). The simple idea is start by saving 15% of salary by the time you are 30. Then adjust over time. If you start earlier maybe you can get by with 12%…
How Much to Save for Retirement is a very good report by the Boston College center for retirement research. They look at the percent of income replacement social security (for those in the USA) provides. This amount varies greatly depending on your income and retirement (date you start drawing social security payments).
Low earners ($20,000) that retire at 65 have 49% of income replaced by social security. Waiting only 2 years, to 67, the replacement amount increases to 55%. For medium earners ($50,000) 36% and 41% of income is replaced. And for high earners ($90,000) 30% an 34%.
Starting savings early make a huge difference. Starting retirement savings at age 25 requires about 1/3 the percentage of income be saved as starting at 45. So you can save for example 7% from age 25 to 70 or 18% from age 45 to 70. Retiring at 62 versus 70 also carries a cost of about 3 times as great savings required each year. So retiring at 62 would require an impossible 65% if you didn’t start saving until 45. But these numbers are affected by many things (the higher your income the less social security helps so the higher percentages you need to save and many other factors play a role).
Starting to save early is a huge key. Delaying retirement makes a big difference but it is not nearly as much in your control. You can plan on doing that but need to understand that you cannot assume you will get to set the date (either because finding a job you can do and pays what you wish is not easy or you are not healthy enough to work full time).
If you don’t have social security (those outside the USA – some countries have their versions but some don’t offer anything) you need to save more. A good strategy is to start saving for retirement in your twenties. As you get raises increase your percentage. So if you started at 6% (maybe 4% from you and a 2% match, but in any event 6% total) each time you get a raise increase your percentage 100 basis points (1 percentage point).
If you started at 27 at 6% and got a raise each year for 9 years you would then be at 15% by age 36. Then you could start looking at how you were going and make some guesstimates about the future. Maybe you could stabilize at 15% or maybe you could keep increasing the amount. If you can save more early (start at 8% or increase by 150 or 200% basis points a year) that is even better. Building up savings early provides a cushion for coping with negative shocks (being unemployed for a year, losing your job and having to take a new job earning 25% less, very bad decade of investing returns, etc.).
Investing wisely makes a big difference also. The key for retirement savings is safety first, especially as you move closer to retirement. But you need to think of investment safety as an overall portfolio. The safest portfolio is well balanced not a portfolio consisting of just an investment people think of as safe by itself.
Related: Retirement Planning, Investing Asset Considerations – Saving for Retirement Must Be a Personal Finance Priority – Investment Risk Matters Most as Part of a Portfolio, Rather than in Isolation
I’m really too lazy for any ongoing budgeting. This is the model I have used: write down your big expense (rent, car payment, required student loan payment…). Get the total take home pay each month subtract your big expenses. If that is negative you better do something else (make more money, get rid of big expenses).
Big monthly expenses:
- Rent: $900
- Car payment + insurance: $300
- Cash (miscellaneous spending food, gas, cloths, books…): $450
- Utilities+ (heat, electricity, phone, internet…): $250
Take home pay: $2,800.
That leaves $900/month ($2,800 – $1,900). Decide how to allocate that – toward your IRA, saving to buy a house or take a vacation, eating out (above what was allocated above for cash), pay off debt (if you have it…), build up an emergency fund, save to buy a new MacBook Pro with Retina display…
If I decided to allocate $300 to my IRA (or increase my 401k) I would just set that up automatically each month. Then say I decided to put $400 toward other savings I would have that go to my savings account each month. And I decided I could use the $200 to pamper myself I just leave that in my checking account and what is in checking is what I have to spend.
I just don’t spend more than that. Just like when I was in college I had little spending money. I could spend that. I couldn’t spend any more, I didn’t have it. If I were to go over (I never did), but if I were to have (say my credit card bill exceeded my checking account balance), I would have had to reduce my cash the next month. I reality I would have something like $2,000 extra in the checking account so no bills would be a problem (and just view $2,000 as 0).
In 6 months see where things stand. Is it really working? Did you mess up and forget some expenses… If you need to adjust, do so. Re-examine every 6 months (or every year, if you are doing pretty well).
Take a portion of each raise (50% maybe) and devote it to personal finance goals (paying off debt, retirement savings, building up emergency fund, saving for big purcahse, investing, give more to charity…); don’t just use it to increase spending. Use no more than half (or whatever level you set) of the raise to increase your current spending.
Trying to create significant supplementary income is not easy. There are lots of people selling get rich quick schemes and ways to earn big money for little effort. But those schemes don’t offer what they claim (they just don’t work for any, but a few people).
In trying to figure out a good way to create another income stream I thought of the idea of consulting over the internet in very small chunks of time. I explored the options to be a consultant that way and they were not good. But the idea seemed excellent to me and I worked with a friend to develop the idea of us creating such a online service. The potential was great I think. The end service would provide value to those seeking answers and those providing consultation (and to us).
We did get a domain and plan out the service and begin coding the application but didn’t progress very far. It was still a great idea and something I planned to consider if I had a bit more time. Well there is now an offering that appears to actually be fairly decent (on first glance): Minute Box.
Minute Box allows you several of the things we planned on offering (but not all of them – at least not yet). You can register as an expert and then be available for those wanting advice. You sign in when you are available to answer questions (and people can send you a note while you are offline). You set your rate. Essentially IM is used for consultation and the billing is taken care of by Minute Box.
One of the keys is matching people to experts well. Minute Box does one thing we planned on doing, which is to emphasize the experts tapping those that already value their advice. This would work very well for bloggers and those with an online presence and reputation.
I signed up and created my expert account, so if you want to get some advice from me you can get consulting by the minute from John Hunter.
I think this consulting by the minute model is a great way to create a secondary income stream for those that have a positive online reputation. You can adjust your pay to manage demand. If you have a free week and want to make some extra income you can reduce your rate and offer your readers a special discount. This is potentially a great way to capitalize on your expertise. I haven’t had much experience with Minute Box yet so it isn’t certain they are the answer (but I haven’t seen any other solution that is very good). And no matter the service provider used, I believe the internet enabled micro consulting is a great way to provide some extra income and make your personal finances more robust.
The range of advice you can offer is huge. For nearly anything there are people that need advice: how to cook thanksgiving dinner, helping a child with math homework, fashion advice, editing a resume, which mortgage offer is better in a specific situation, fixing a bug in a WordPress blog, what are good plants for a shady area… The list is nearly endless.
I wish I had been able to create a web site to facilitate this process. I believe the potential is huge. That is why I was so interested in making this idea work. It is the only web business I have seriously considered (and even started). I have numerous web sites but they involve providing content online not any software as service businesses.
Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce has produced a new report looking at the value of different college degrees in the USA. I have seen a great increase in discussions of the “bubble” in education. Those articles often say a college degree doesn’t assure the success it used to. The data I review seems to show extremely large benefits for those with a college degree (higher salaries but, much more importantly, in my opinion, they also have much lower unemployment rates).
Those benefits are greatest for several majors including science, math and engineering. The problem I see is not so much that significant benefits are lacking for college degrees but the huge increases in costs of getting a degree are so large that for some majors the cost is just so large that even with the benefits it is arguable whether it is worth the cost (while a few decades ago the benefits were universal and so large the economic benefit was not debatable).
The authors of the report found that all undergraduate majors are worthwhile, even taking into account the cost of college and lost earnings. However, the lifetime advantage ranges from $1,090,000 for Engineering majors to $241,000 for Education majors. As I have written frequently on the Curious Cat Science and Engineering blog, engineering degrees are very financially rewarding.
The top 10 majors with the highest median earnings for new graduates are:
- Petroleum Engineer ($120,000)
- Pharmacy/pharmaceutical Sciences and Administration ($105,000)
- Mathematics and Computer Sciences ($98,000)
- Aerospace Engineering ($87,000)
- Chemical Engineering ($86,000)
- Electrical Engineering ($85,000)
- Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering ($82,000)
- Mechanical Engineering, Metallurgical Engineering and Mining and Mineral Engineering (each with median earnings of $80,000)