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Plan Well, Retire Well

Saving and investing your money

What is the State of Your Economy?

This week I attended the Smart Women Smart Money Conference hosted by the Illinois State Treasurer's Office. There were numerous workshops going on including one by our own Karen Chan. To my surprise, my next door neighbor, Shundrawn Thomas, President of Northern Trust Securities, did a presentation on the State of the Economy. I decided to sit in on his session. He provided historical data, information on the current status and future outlook of our economy. I would classify his presentation as a lesson in macroeconomics, the study of the overall economy. Today, I want to speak with you about microeconomics, your personal economy.

By now, you have probably been overwhelmed with quarterly statements from your retirement and investment plans, your Social Security statement, your annual employee benefits enrollment booklet, and maybe even your Notice of Proposed Assessed Valuation from your county assessor's office. This is a great time to re-evaluate your personal economy. Are you financials in order? Is your economy in a recession? Let's look at your mail one piece at a time to see how things are going.

Quarterly statements

First of all, if you don't have any, that might be a problem. See Social Security section below. Otherwise, look at your statements. Generally, you will have performance data for the current quarter and year to date information. If you are not happy with your investment performance, consider rebalancing your portfolio. For more information on rebalancing, check out our website at Plan Well Retire Well. Are you saving enough? Do you have more month than money? Explore the Extension website to find out ways to get more for your money.

Social Security statements

Your Social Security statement was sent out recently. The two components that your need to review for accuracy are the estimated benefits and earnings record sections of the statement. The estimated benefits section provides vital information on your estimated benefits at retirement, disability, and death. You should verify your birthdate on file, estimated taxable earnings for 2008, and the last four digits of your social security. The earnings record is a running record of your earnings each year since you started working. It is important to verify this information for accuracy; benefits are determined based on this information. Note: if you had more than one job or had self-employment income in addition to regular income, your earnings for the year would be the total of both jobs. Will the estimated benefits be enough?

If you are depending on Social Security to get by in your golden years, think again. In case you didn't read ALL of your Social Security statement, one of the women in our workshop reminded us that on the front page of the statement, Social Security states that "in 2016 we will begin paying more in benefits than we collect in taxes. Without changes, by 2037 the Social Security Trust Fund will be exhausted." This statement explicitly says that someone's personal economy will likely turn into a depression if additional retirement resources are unavailable. Therefore, if you are not currently participating in your company's retirement plan, now is the time to join. If you are self-employed establish your own retirement plan, there are several to choose from. If you don't have an IRA, consider opening one. The more income options you have at retirement, the better off you'll be. To view your statement or apply for benefits, visit the Social Security website.

Property Tax Assessments

Your county assessor normally assesses your property every three years. This year, due to massive foreclosures and the plunge in the real estate market, many assessor offices are providing special assessments to adjust property values to reflect our current market. However, once you receive your notice, if you disagree with the assessed valuation proposed on your property, you have a small window of opportunity to appeal. In many cases your appeal can be filed online at the county assessor's website. You will need the property index number (PIN) of your property and likely other similar properties in the area that fall into your same property class. The deadline to appeal normally appears on the statement.

Employee Benefits Package

Sometime this month, you have likely received your open enrollment forms. Besides retirement accounts, this is a great way to reduce taxable income and protect your family against unexpected loss. Usually, you will be asked to choose between an HMO and PPO plan of one or more providers for health insurance. The HMO is normally more economical, while the PPO ordinarily offers more flexibility. Which plan you choose, depends on your family's specific needs.

Basic life, supplemental life and accidental death and dismemberment insurance plans are offered as well. Most companies provide basic life coverage equal to your annual salary for free. However, you can purchase additional (supplemental) life insurance coverage for up to several times your annual pay at relatively low group insurance rates. Check your current insurance needs. If something happened to you, would your family be able to survive on what's left? If not, in addition to private insurance, consider coverage with your employer.

Finally, are you taking advantage of your employer's flexible spending accounts? Many employers offer pre-tax withdrawals from your paycheck to set aside to cover health and child care costs. Some may even offer reimbursement accounts for transportation, which includes parking, tolls, and bus and train fares. Participation in these programs provides a reduction in your taxable income, and thus a tax savings to you throughout the year.

So, before your enrollment period ends, see which benefits will be to YOUR benefit.

Final Thoughts about Your Economy

Like the broader economy, your household economy is made up of more than just a few things. You have budgets consisting of income and expenses, savings, and many other factors to consider. However, I wanted to highlight some of the things that get overlooked or placed on the back burner because you feel that other matters are "more important." In retrospect, had we paid more attention to the "less important" contributing factors, our economy would have likely been a lot better off today. So, open your mail. You'd be surprised at how little things like verifying information or making slight changes in coverage can make a big difference on your long term outlook. Our economy will eventually turn around. Make sure you are prepared when it does.

Until we talk again,

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