Financial Planners and Other Mysteries of Life

I am noticing a growing trend in my mailbox—readers in search of financial planners or advisors. Or assistants. The problem is that when taken in the message’s context it’s pretty clear that not everyone means the same thing when they refer to a financial “planneradvisorassistanthelper”

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One reader wanted to know where to find a “financial planner” who would just take her paycheck, pay all of her bills, invest for her retirement, give her an allowance, balance her checkbook and not charge her very much. (We’d all like one of those, right?)

Then, there are times when the context lets me know that a desperate reader looking for a “financial planner” really needs a reputable credit counseling organization that offers debt management.

And so, in an effort to clarify and perhaps educate, here’s the low down on financial planners.

General. Anyone can call himself or herself a financial planner. If you are ready to seek the services of a financial planner, and to avoid an amateur, you want one who has earned the special credentials of Chartered Financial Consultant (ChFC) or Certified Financial Planner (CFP).

Cooking with Coffee

I must admit that I am not a fan of the fancy flavored instant coffee mixes. But as an ingredient in a great dessert? Oh, yes. And what better way to use leftover strong brewed coffee than in fabulous baked beans for your next barbecue or big family gather!

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Midnight Bliss Chocolate Cake

  • 1 pkg. (2-layer size) chocolate cake mix, any variety
  • 1 pkg. (4-serving size) chocolate instant pudding & pie filling
  • 1/2 cup flavored instant coffee, any flavor
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 container (8 oz.) sour cream
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 pkg. (8 squares) semi-sweet baking chocolate, chopped
  • Powdered sugar for garnish
  • Preheat oven to 350 F. Lightly grease a 12-cup Bundt pan or 10-inch tube pan.

Beat all ingredients except chopped chocolate in large bowl with electric mixer on low speed just until moistened, scraping sides of bowl frequently. Beat on medium speed 2 minutes or until well blended. Stir in chopped chocolate. Spoon batter into prepared pan.

Bake at 350F for 50 minutes to 1 hour or until toothpick inserted near center comes out clean. Cool in pan 10 minutes on wire rack. Loosen cake from side of pan with spatula or knife. Invert cake onto rack; gently remove pan. Cool completely on wire rack. Garnish with a light sprinkling of powdered sugar just before serving, if desired. Cut into 18 slices to serve.

In Search of a Discount on Love

Dear Mary: I work hard every day and don’t have the energy to get out in the evenings. I spend my free time with longtime friends, so I don’t meet single men. I know several people who have found partners online. I’m determined to find a man for myself before the end of 2014. Online dating services may be the way. Are there coupons online for special deals? B.F.

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Dear B. F.: There sure are. Google “Online Dating Coupons” and you’ll turn up a love boat load of online coupon codes for any number of dating sites. Just be careful out there, hear?

Dear Mary: We are better off than most. We have no credit-card debt, we have cash stashed away in a safe in our house and we have about $5,000 in savings. Our 401(k) accounts and Roth IRAs have a total current value of about $50,000. My husband is 41 and I’m 35. We have two kids and college 529 college savings plans for them. Our mortgage is our biggest payment. Should we pay down our mortgage with extra income or put the extra money into our retirement accounts? Peggy

Dear Peggy: My suggestion is that you need to grow your Contingency Fund (emergency fund) first. You need at least enough money in that account to live without any income for six months. That’s probably more than $5,000. I’m thinking at least $20,000. Am I right? Once your CF is fully funded, it’s a tossup on whether you should aggressively invest in paying off your mortgage or invest in the market to build wealth for retirement. I’m sure we could find plenty of experts to argue both options. Personally, I’m really big on achieving 100 percent equity in a home. That means you own it outright, which guarantees you a rent-free retirement. Given the state of the economy and uncertainty in so many areas, that kind of security sounds really good to me.

If the Shoe Fits, Get it Fixed

To some people a cobbler is a lovely fruit dessert, best served warm. To others it is a shoemaker who repairs shoes—an almost forgotten trade.

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Suddenly, shoe repair is coming back. Big time. 

Sales of luxury goods are down, but it’s a flush time for people who repair them. High-end cobblers, tailors and jewelers have seen a spike in repair business from frugal customers, thanks to a trend toward fixing goods rather than replacing them. We’re quickly moving from a disposable society to one that’s learning to mend and repair.

Shoe repair shops nationwide, of which there are only about 7,500 remaining—down by half from a decade ago, are reporting a 20 to 45 percent surge in business. Things are beginning to shift as consumers are learning to make do. And for many, that means getting shoes that fit, fixed.

So You Are Not Quite Ready to Live in a Cave

Would you walk into Home Depot carrying a big sign with your name, email address, your Social Security number, the name of your bank, account number and the amount of your last deposit? Probably not.

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Yet, that is a fairly accurate picture of what happened recently when Home Depot suffered a catastrophic data breach. The company tried to assure everyone through the media that there was really no harm done because the stolen data did not include PINs. Security expert Brian Krebs doesn’t agree. He says HD customers have a lot to worry about.

Thieves rely on the banks’ “I forgot my PIN code” service. They call in and as long as they have some information like your bank account number, phone number or last four digits of your Social Security number, they can pretend to be you and get a new PIN on the spot. Presto! Now they can drain your bank account from anywhere in the world.

Krebs says this is not just a theory. Thieves have, in fact, done exactly as outlined above stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from unsuspecting HD customers by reaching into their accounts right through that little slot in an ATM.

Home Depot customers are not alone. Many large retailers have suffered similar customer breaches over the past months and there’s credible evidence this information is now for sale on the Internet. Yikes!

Keep Your Money and Your Attitude in the Black

When I am not writing about personal finance and consumer debt, I knit. Something about the gentle rhythm of yarn and needle calms my spirit and unwinds my brain.

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I have managed to finish a few projects, not because I’m a great knitter but because I can tink almost as well as I knit (knit spelled backwards is tearing out). Because all knitters make mistakes, tinking is a required skill for those who take the craft seriously. It doesn’t take too many oversized sweaters or undersized hats to figure out that the smallest error at the beginning of a project can produce disastrous results if not found and corrected.

Money is a lot like knitting. By some miracle, all knitting consists of just two stitches: knit and purl. Likewise, with money you have two options: spend or save. And who among us can say they have never made a financial error? We all make mistakes but the secret to staying out of the red is correcting the little mistakes before they lead to disastrous results.

Every Busy Cook Needs This Go-To Recipe

I may be the only person in the world for whom this has happened, but I doubt it. On a whim, I invite a bunch of friends over for Sunday Dinner. Or the phone rings and just like that I need to get a meal on the table in a big hurry because company is on their way

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Those are the occasions that I run to an amazing recipe that is easy to prepare, delicious to eat and quite impressive, too. Think: Italian restaurant in a pan. While it’s in the oven I make a big salad and we’re good to go.

This is a recipe that kids love as well as adults. It’s just amazing and I bless the day that the folks at Pillsbury came up with the idea. I, of course, have tweaked the recipe bit, but I give credit where credit is due.

Because life is uncertain, you will always find a bag of Italian meatballs from Costco and several loaves of Italian bread in my freezer, a big jar of marinara sauce in my grocery stockpile and cheese in the fridge.

How to Turn Your Electronic Stuff Into Cash

Trade in your phone. The average American gets a new mobile phone every 12 months. It’s a good bet you’ve got some old phones and other mobile devices lying around. Trade them in for cash at sites like Gazelle.com. Just input the brand and model to see what these buyers are willing to pay.

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Gazelle.com offered one of my staffers $170 for his iPhone 5, 64gb in good condition. Amazing? Max thinks so!

The thing we like about Gazelle is that it is so easy to get an offer to sell a cellphone, iPad/tablet, Apple computer or iPod. Takes only a couple of steps online to get a trade-in price and shipping the device to them is free.

Gazelle offers multiple ways to earn money through a check, PayPal, or Amazon.com gift card. It is worth noting that selecting the Amazon Gift Card option will get you a 10 percent bonus over the quoted value. 

With expectations that the iPhone 6 is about to be released, lots of similar online buyers will be vying for your business. So far, my experience is that Gazelle.com offers the best service and trade-in offers. But more than that, Gazelle is highly reputable, which counts for a lot.