Investing In The New Normal As Lockdowns Ease

Investing In The New Normal As Lockdowns Ease

I feel a certain optimism in the air. Slowly, lockdowns are easing on a state-by-state basis. Like everyone else, I have missed seeing my friends and eating at a favorite restaurant. I even miss going to my dentist. With caution, I will adapt to the new environment. All in time, I expect to get more comfortable to meander more freely in this new normal.

There is a new normal in investing with unusual swings not typically in previous markets. As an active investor for a long time, I have seen my share and felt the pain of market volatility. When I first started working for a brokerage firm, someone told me the most successful people on Wall Street have lost their job three times and bounce back. Rites of passages like these extend to investing in the market. Through experience, I have learned the nuances of the market. However, the financial markets have been difficult to define during the coronavirus even by the most experienced investors.

Are We In A Bear Or Bull Market?

The S&P 500 index peaked on February 19, 2020. Soon after, our bull market passed away at nine years old on March 12, replaced by the bear market when the index fell 26.7% to $2,480.64. That swing took less than a month, falling to what seems to be a trough on March 23, reflecting a very quick decline of almost 34%. Volatility continued onward. Stocks surged in April, providing the best one month record since 1987. By May 20th the market reclaimed a big chunk of the fall in stocks though it is still 12% below the February peak.

The question has been raised as to whether this is a bear market, bull market, or bear market rally? A bear market occurs when a stock or market declines in value by 20% or more from previous highs over weeks or months. On the other hand, a bull market is when the securities or the market have risen over 20% over time. Traditionally, this remains a bear market unless stocks returned to their February highs. For more Wall Street Jargon, read this related post.

Bear Market Rally

A bear market rally occurs during a bear market (I know, duh) when there are increases of at least 10% in prices of stocks, bonds, or indexes. Our latest bear market began for the Dow Jones Industrial Average on March 11th, followed by S& P 500 index the next day. The market continued to drop to its lowest level on March 23, 2020. From that trough, stocks rallied nearly 30% through May 20, 2020. To me, that appears to be the epitome of a bear market rally. Don’t take my word for it.

According to the Bank of America Global Research Fund Manager Survey, 68% of these professional investors called the latest market surge a bear market rally. Just 25% of those surveyed thought it was a new bull market. Typical bear markets last 1.4 years with stocks losing 36% on average.  However, we are not in normal times.

Investing should never be done in a vacuum. Traditionally, stocks go up in a good economy where low unemployment and price stability meaning low inflation. As a result of a relatively strong economy after the Great Recession, we had one of the longest bull markets. That doesn’t mean you can’t make money in a recession. You can but it is important to understand the different growth scenarios between a recession and a recovery.

Have A Working Knowledge Of The Economy

I have always recommended to new investors that they have a working knowledge of how the economy works and how it may impact the financial market.  The coronavirus virus created a health crisis leading to a severe financial downturn. Stay-at-home orders affected businesses and their employees. In recent weeks, a record number of people filed for unemployment insurance and have received stimulus checks. Small businesses have been shut, many permanently. The Federal Reserve initiated aggressive actions by lowering the federal funds rate to zero and adding liquidity to the markets.

What Kind of Recovery Will We Have

The future direction of the stock market relies on the health of our economy which is dismal currently. The important question is how fast will our recovery be. The fund managers surveyed above indicated that there is a 75% chance of a U-shaped or W-shaped recovery while just 10% still see a V-shaped recovery. Let me explain these important differences of these lettered recoveries.

A V-shaped recovery is a best-case scenario where the economy rebounds as quickly as the downturn was. This financial slump is event-driven by the COVID-19. The prospects are linked to finding a vaccine quickly to curb the effects of the virus. Hopes have been raised as the FDA has approved some trials more quickly for treatments and vaccines. As a result of these headlines (eg Moderna), the markets have been exuberant, rising on those days. However, the chances appear to be small for the desirable V-shaped recovery.

The U-shaped recovery points to either sideways growth or a lack of growth with unemployment remaining high for months or years before recovery. This is a more plausible scenario. The Great Recession was such a recovery that lasted four years.

Moving on to the W-shaped recovery which looks like two conjoined V-shapes. Technically that is what kind of recovery the W shaped is. It means the economy quickly recovers but then falls into a second period of decline. This may be possible if we get a second strong wave of the virus as some health professionals have suggested. I am not speaking of the L-shaped recovery as it is simply too pessimistic.

Can You Invest And Make Money In An Economic Downturn?

Does an economic downturn mean you cannot invest stocks? Not necessarily but you need a game plan.  I try to adapt to the market and what it is telling me.  Financial markets go through corrections, bull and bear markets. When the market plunged in March, there was no crystal ball telling me what to do. I felt fearful and resisted selling my stocks by reminding myself that I tend to buy-hold for the long term.

While I did sell a few losers (and one or two winners which I since regret), I recognized the panic I felt. It is a very common feeling and the reason why sharp market declines occur. Naturally, I avoided looking at my retirement investment accounts on the worst days. Instead, I read and listened to some of the pundits I respect.

Actual Losses

The problem with selling during economic downturns or market declines is that you will have actual rather than unrealized losses. Many times that is the worse time to sell your securities. Rather, it may be a good time to start buying stocks that are approaching bargain valuations. On the other hand, I have improved my discipline by trimming stocks that have risen 20%-25%. It is a good idea to at least trim some of your holdings in these kinds of markets if you are risk intolerant.

Looking back at the Great Recession in 2008-2009, and how the market reacted, you can easily see when you might have been able to make a lot of money in the stock market. It is always easier in hindsight to find that the trough or lowest point of the market was on March 9, 2009 and a good point to jump in with ready cash to buy stocks. Some smart investors did just that by looking for a bottoming of the market and for economic signs that the worst was over.

Take a look at our stock indices from peak to trough during the Great Recession:

Dates                                  S&P 500                      DJIA                  NASDAQ

10/09/07-Peak                   $1,565.15                 $14,164.53            $2,803. 91

03/09/09-Trough                $ 676.53                   $ 6,547.05             $1,268.64

Percentage %                        -56.8%                     -53.78%                 -54.75%

By mid-May 2009, the S&P 500 was up 30%, rising over 60% by year-end 2009. Although you can’t pick the exact bottom of the markets, you can go bargain shopping for stocks that have undergone corrections or are in bear territory. For example, tech stocks have been strong leaders in this market. The market is not linear for long meaning it does not go straight up or straight down. There are many opportunities to invest in the market but you need to do some research on your own.

Consider These 8 Tips When Investing:

 

1. Emergency Funds Are Essential

Invest with what you can afford to lose. You should not have to borrow to pay for your living expenses. If this coronavirus taught us anything, it is that having a large emergency fund for liquidity purposes is important. By a simple rule of thumb, having funds to pay 6 months of living expenses may be fine for some people and hardly enough for others. How much you need to have on hand is dependent on the type of job you have and your expenses.

If you are a tenured professor or have a job that you can do remotely, you may be less likely to lose your job as many have during the pandemic. Then 6 months of savings in your E-funds may be enough. On the other hand, if you have a job with unpredictable income, your comfort level may require a year or more of savings. I recommend your emergency funds be invested in a money market deposit account (MMDA) that is FDIC-insured and liquid.

Related Post: Why You Need An Emergency Fund And How To Invest It

2. Diversified Asset Portfolio

Some of your investments should be in safer securities such as money markets and Treasuries as suggested for your emergency fund. Safe stocks may include utilities, reliable dividend stocks of companies with good balance sheets. Avoid stocks with high debt meaning a high debt-to-equity ratio. In a poor economy, companies with a lot of debt may lack liquidity and face default or credit risk. Besides dividend stocks, it is a good idea to have some growth stocks represented by companies with strong competitive advantages. Besides stocks you should have some bonds in your portfolio. Also known as fixed income, their returns tend to be lower than stocks but less risky.

While real estate may be worthwhile in your portfolio for added diversification, I am concerned about this asset, particularly commercial real estate in urban areas. As a result of remote working, many companies are discussing plans to expand flexible work options. Many businesses may close facilities, no longer needing the office space they have. Also, permanent department store closings–JC Penny, Macy’s, Nordstrom,  Neiman Strauss, Victoria’s Secret, J. Crew–are increasing.

This trend has accelerated as a result of coronavirus. However,  the writing has been on the wall as e-Commerce has become more desirable. These closures adding to potentially less office space needed may result in lower values of buildings and real estate.

3. Asset Allocation

Your risk tolerance often differs depending on how close you are to retirement. Young investors have longer time horizons to invest and can absorb higher risk in their portfolios with greater allocations to stocks than bonds. Investors in their 40s-50s should consider a more balanced portfolio of stocks, bonds, and money market securities. We explain this in more detail in this post on the need for diversification and asset allocation.

Related Post: 10 Tips To Diversify Your Portfolio

Trends That Changed As A Result Of Covid-19

4. Suspended Dividends

Some companies have temporarily suspended their stock dividends during the crisis such as Disney, a reliably strong company. This is expected to be a temporary measure but there is a need to do research on stable and reliable companies that can afford their dividends. I would not be surprised to see more dividends suspended during this time of uncertainty.

5. Don’t Count On Stock BuyBacks In The Foreseeable Future

Stock buyback programs have been a positive for stock investors for a long time. For companies with a lot of cash on their balance sheet, buying back their shares in the open market has propped up some stocks by reducing their outstanding shares and buying stocks viewed as undervalued. However, these programs have likely been shelved for the foreseeable future. It had become a political hot potato in recent months as many companies (eg. airlines) had used their available cash to buy back shares. Now, as a result of coronavirus, those companies have lost significant business and have received bailouts premised on not using the funds for purchasing their stocks.

6. Survival of The Fittest

The virus outbreak has produced winners and losers that may not have been obvious pre-pandemic. Keep in mind that as lockdowns ease, the losers may become winners as businesses return.  Early on, companies relying on the travel and hotel businesses were experiencing loss of demand. Energy companies were impacted by a substantial drop in oil prices due to low demand. However this may change. Companies reliant on manufactured products from China were hurt in the initial outbreak in Wuhan.

Tech companies continue to be winners in this market especially those that participate in digital transformation. As a result of this new normal, many companies need to be better prepared to adapt their systems for future disruptions. Among areas of strong growth are companies that offer cloud offerings, disaster planning, remote working, or increased virtual living. Stocks that reflect these trends for working at home, distance learning, and remote health have been winners.

With disruption in supply, many companies benefited from being able to deliver products such as groceries, cleaning supplies, and services. The streaming companies such as Netflix and gaming companies (eg. Electronic Arts) benefited from us being at home more.

7. Earnings Visibility Is Low

Most companies have dropped their earnings guidance through the end of this year. Yet, the stock market has kept rising, seemingly not to care. As a former analyst, I must share that lack of forward-looking guidance is typically a reason for declines in a stock. I recall being on a conference call with a company whose stock I had a buy rating on. Management pulled guidance completely from analysts and investors. The pit in my stomach grew big. We all knew the stock was going to drop as it did the very next morning.

While it may appear that the market is not worried about this now, at some point the market may respond to this negatively. When companies lack visibility, investors usually sell the stock. This happened about a year ago to Ulta Beauty, a favorite stock of investors when certain changes were occurring in the cosmetics market, and their shares sold off significantly. Pre-pandemic, Ulta shares still hadn’t recovered its former high price.

8. Valuation Remains Important

Whether a stock is fairly prices, undervalued, or overvalued matters to investors. A common valuation for stocks is the earnings are price-earnings (P/E) ratio. This is calculated as price per share divided by forecasted earnings per share Typically, you want to be able to compare the stock’s P/E ratio to its historical multiple, to a market multiple and to its peers multiple. It is below those multiples, the stock may be considered to be cheap or a bargain.

Another valuation metric is the PEG or price/earnings to growth. The PEG ratio compares the stock’s P/E multiple to its earnings growth rate. Generally, a company with a higher growth rate should command a higher P/E multiple. If the P/E multiple is below the growth rate, the stock may be attractive to buy. Analysts publish their EPS estimates and price targets justifying their recommendations based on the company’s fundamentals and how it is valued in the market. If they find the stock is not reflecting the company’s fundamentals fairly, they can make changes to their buy or sell recommendations.

This is too simple an explanation for an important topic such as valuation. We will explain this more deeply in a future post. I want to point out that it is difficult to truly peg a value on stocks when companies have pulled guidance. I don’t fault the management for doing so in this kind of environment. They really have no choice in the near term as the timing of the economic recovery is so uncertain. At some point, this will matter to investors in this new normal.

Final Thoughts

This is an unusual time in our lives. Major changes have occurred as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. Investing in the new normal can be rewarding even in an economic downturn which brings uncertainty. Understanding some of these trends should help you with investing. Make sure to put some of the savings into your emergency funds, be diversified and disciplined.

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A Silver Lining To The Pandemic

A Silver Lining To The Pandemic

It has been hard to be optimistic as the coronavirus outbreak has devastated many families. We have been forced to change our ways of living in a hurry. Job losses are high and haven’t finished climbing. Small businesses are struggling or having to close. Difficulties vary by socioeconomic class with those of modest means hit the hardest. The gaps in broadband connectivity have become more apparent during the pandemic.

Yet, there may be a silver lining for us whether as individuals or society. In any disaster, silver linings may emerge from the gloom and doom. Find the brightest part of your day even during this crisis. We found 8 positive aspects that may have lasting benefits:

1. Saving Money

Many Americans have reduced their discretionary spending habits as our lifestyle has adapted to the coronavirus outbreak. We stopped going to restaurants, reduced our impulse shopping, and deferred purchases. Many people have paused gym memberships, canceled vacations, used far less gas, and saved on tolls. By not traveling to work daily, I have realized about $1,500 in savings just by working from home.

Lower Discretionary Spending

Retail sales in the US have dropped 16.4% in April. With lower retail sales, US credit card spending fell 40% during March and early April according to JP Morgan. These numbers are not a surprise. On the other hand, spending on essentials is up 20%. This coincides with our experience. By staying home, we probably saved about $1,500 exclusivity on r meals. I have cooked virtually every day for our family of four. Normally, we tend to eat out with friends or family several times a week. Naturally, our grocery bills are higher than during normal times. Overall, we spent less.  I know we are not alone in saving money. According to a Fidelity Market Sentiment study, Americans have lowered discretionary spending by 48% during COVID-19.

The CARES Act Has Provided More Benefits

The CARES Act and other government programs have provided more money for those experiencing financial hardships. For those who lost jobs, there were higher unemployment benefits and stimulus checks. The Act is allowing pauses on student debt and mortgage loans for a few months. Landlords and credit card providers have been more amenable to deferring or modifying their charges. With reduced driving, try to negotiate lower rates on car insurance. You may be able to get to reasonable discounts on other services.

Now maybe a golden opportunity to reset your financial priorities. Try to use some of the savings from reduced spending, added benefits, and pauses in debt for emergency purposes. Put some of these savings to work to reduce your debt. This pandemic took us all by surprise. Build up your emergency fund if you can. A large number (44%) of Americans are boosting their emergency funds.

2. Distance Learning Became More Widespread

The Covid-19 pandemic has proven to be a boon for distance learning as schools of every level were forced to close.  Over one-third of post-secondary students took at least one online class pre-pandemic according to NCES during 2018-2019. Roughly 65% of higher education students, including graduate levels, had not enrolled in any distance education. However, as students were sent home from campuses, online learning platforms were available in a variety of formats. Faculty took the lead in instituting technology to mirror the traditional classroom.

These platforms require two-way communications, content delivery, and permit instructors to assess student work. Formats such as Blackboard Collaborate, Zoom, and Webex supported those needs. Distance learning was a hasty move for many but a great alternative to losing the opportunity for education. As a professor at our community college, I prefer the traditional classroom. However, I was encouraged and motivated by my students’ adaptability to the situation. As a result, I wanted to help them as much as possible given the circumstances.

A Good Experience Given The Circumstances

I found some notable benefits using the online learning environment. The platform was flexible, providing for sharing materials like power points, videos, and other learning materials. Student interactivity would vary but even the shy spoke up more than previously. Learning online requires students to be more self-disciplined. Most students rose to the occasion. More students came on time and chatted more in class discussions. The experience can only improve with better planning for remote learning. With more time, faculty can develop more content conducive to the online platform.

Related Post: The Virtues of Online Learning: A Personal View

Our class met online synchronously. We didn’t have a choice when the coronavirus disrupted our traditional classroom. Synchronous learning means that online classes meet in real-time at a set time. A popular alternative to this is asynchronous online classes which do not occur at the same time. For undergraduate students, I prefer the synchronous mode which provides some structure like the meeting time

Expand Broadband Connectivity

It was easy to empathize with all college students. The abrupt departure from campuses during the middle of the term was frustrating. Many lost their work-study programs,  potential internships, and job interviews. That’s not all. Many students headed to homes lacking broadband connectivity and computers. Lacking the ability to connect to others exists for parts of our student population–Native Americans, rural and poor communities. Previously they depended on schools for their Internet and computer needs. However, even libraries were also closed when they returned home.

To expand connectivity to more people, the FCC has created “Keep Americans Connected.” Hundreds of major broadband providers, companies, and organizations have signed a pledge until June 30th to offset the coronavirus impact on Americans. They will:

  • waive any late fees incurred by residential or small business customers;
  • not terminate service to these customers because of their inability to pay bills due to the pandemic; and
  • open its Wi-Fi hotspots to anyone who needs them.

This will only be a short term measure to fill the broadband gaps that exist for many American communities.

3. Remote Working Became Essential

Prior to the pandemic, there was a lot of employer resistance to allowing employees to work from home. Like distance learning, the need to keep organizations running resulted in more people working from home. The latest Gallup poll reported that 62% of employed Americans say they have worked from home. This is a doubling of the previous rate since mid-March. Of those surveyed, nearly three out of five employees want to continue to do work remotely as lockdowns are removed. However, 41% prefer to return to their workplace.

Both employers and employees have found benefits, such as flexibility, independence, and better engagement. Remote work boosts productivity with employees being 35-40% more productive than at the office. Cost and time savings for the employees and organizations have been realized. Employers will want to continue some of the huge savings from reduced travel, hotels, conferences, car rentals, and meals out with clients. Employees may feel the same way about the inordinate amounts of time spent traveling away from home. Video conferencing appears to have worked well. Fewer face-to-face meetings may be the new normal.

Related Post: Coronavirus: A Tipping Point For Rising Flexible Work Options

4. Telehealth Usage Rises

Telemedicine has been viewed as a technology tool to provide greater health care access to vulnerable populations. However, usage has grown at a slow pace with only 9.6% of consumers using telehealth. Remote consultation is in lieu of a doctor’s office, urgent care, or emergency room according to a JD Power report in 2019. Younger people ages 18-to-24  have used telehealth the most (13.1%). On the other hand, seniors (5.3%) are the least likely to use the service than any other age group. Slow adoption was likely due to a lack of awareness and urgency.

That was then. Things changed dramatically with COVID-19. The health crisis has created not just an awareness but an urgency for patients to turn to telemedicine. Remote consultation has been encouraged by medical professionals who themselves want to remain healthy. Hospitals and urgent care facilities have been overwhelmed and their health care workers have been spread thin by the crisis.

The American Medical Association has updated guidelines for telemedicine in practice to help physicians swiftly ramp up their capabilities to care for patients. During this crisis, states have allowed more flexibility and discretion related to HIPAA Privacy rules.

Those who provide telehealth services report that growth has skyrocketed. There is no doubt that the coronavirus produced a boon for the services given greater awareness and need. People who have non-coronavirus ailments have increasingly used video consultations with doctors rather than going to medical facilities. This growth trend is likely to continue beyond the crisis.

5. Virtual Living Provides Greater Inclusivity

With all of these remote offerings–distance learning, work-at-home, and telehealth–virtual living may provide more inclusivity. Vulnerable populations, such as the poor, ill, disabled, and senior communities, may be able to participate as never before. For many, physical attendance at colleges, work, churches, religious, and cultural institutions may be nearly impossible. On the other hand, increased virtual offerings will make cultural events and facilities more accessible and affordable to an expanded population. These offerings can be limited only by our imagination and include Shakespeare, theatre, dance, museums, opera, and concerts.

The disabled population often needs greater accommodation in the workplace. Increased remote working may provide more opportunities for those who can more easily work from home as technology platforms improve and expand. Virtual living will require better broadband connectivity for all.

6. Finding Environmental Benefits

As a result of the dramatic drop in train, plane, and automobile traveling (my favorite movie!), environmental benefits have been reported globally. An unprecedented decline in emissions has been reported due to reduced oil demand. For the first time in history, US crude prices per barrel dropped to below zero. Oil producers actually paid others to take their barrels away because they did not have enough storage available. Improvements in our environment with reduced pollution have been cited. National Resources Defense Council pointed to some people in India being able to actually see the Himalayas from afar due to less pollution.

As more people stayed home, noise pollution has been lessened. Appreciating nature and wildlife has been a benefit for humanity. The big question is how long will an improved environment remain? It should be for all time as some of us may be experiencing these beauties for the first time. Even China, among the most polluted countries, saw improvements. As a direct effect of coronavirus and the reduced driving and fewer factories in operation, China’s skies became clearer.  Levels of nitrogen dioxide, a pollutant caused by burning fossil fuels, were down as much as 30% over China according to NASA. It remains to be seen if these benefits last as economies open up globally and cars return to the road.

7. FDA’s Accelerated Time For Drug And Testing Approvals

The US Food and Drug Administration  (FDA) has been expediting its review process of diagnostic and antiviral drugs since the COVID-19 pandemic. It has been providing more flexibility to develop and offer tests to combat coronavirus. The FDA’s timeline has shortened as it works with test developers and laboratories. They are using a relaxed standard, Emergency Use Authority (EUA). The EUA allows tests to be made available based on less data.

The FDA has accelerated its drug approval process over the past four decades. Using the “Accelerated Approval” pathway established in 1992, drugs for serious or life-threatening conditions can get a green light from the FDA with less evidence. To some, this may mean weaker evidence and more risk.

However, not all drugs are going on the fast track. The coronavirus event is a perfect example of why the FDA’s accelerated approval process is needed. A 2018 MIT study reported that nearly 14% of all drugs in clinical trial eventually win approval from the FDA. If you ever had a loved one with metastasized cancer, you would know the importance of the faster process providing access to a new treatment to slow tumor growth.

8. Express Gratitude To Your Communities

This coronavirus pandemic has been a difficult event. It is not over yet. Staying home with our families within our town has shined a light on the importance of being part of the community. We recently moved from Manhattan to a small community. During the outbreak, I felt like I had one foot in two different communities. From the 7 pm daily banging of pots and pans for health care workers in NYC to the outpouring of communal concern for shuttered shopkeepers and restaurants, we all are expressing our gratitude for others in our lives.

Expressing gratitude has a number of benefits, all healthy. It certainly beats anger and frustration. Hopefully, this pandemic is a one-time event worthy of sharing with your children and grandchildren.

Final Thoughts

The coronavirus outbreak has been a hardship. However, silver linings can sometimes emerge out of such crises.  As a society, we were forced to go online for learning, work, and health care. The digital divide among certain communities have become more apparent. We need more broadband connectivity to level playing fields across the country. By staying home, we may have realized some savings that can be used to reduce debt and/or be put aside for emergency purposes. Due to the coronavirus, our environment appears to have improved at least temporarily. Finally, let us share our gratitude with so many who paid a higher price to keep us safe.

Thank you for reading! We appreciate you taking the time to do so. If you found value in this post, subscribe to our weekly newsletter and become part of our community.

Essential Estate Planning Documents You Need During The Pandemic

Essential Estate Planning Documents You Need During The Pandemic

“I want to leave my children enough they can do anything, but not so much that they do  nothing.”

Warren Buffett

The coronavirus outbreak has raised fears even among the ordinarily fearless. It is a health crisis of enormous proportions that has evolved into a significant financial crisis. Unemployment rates are at record highs, signaling a deep recession. Many families have done soul searching, recognizing the vulnerability of life. As a result of COVID19, many people have rushed into creating their estate plan. I can understand urgent feelings as you see high fatality numbers, including profiles where both husband and wife have succumbed.

However, think through your wishes. Only about 45% of Americans have executed an estate plan pre-pandemic. But many more plans probably need to be updated. The estate planning process does not have to be a bad experience. We will discuss the essential documents you need.

Estate planning documents should reflect your family and your financial situation. Recognize that you will make changes as you move through your life cycle. Young married couples with small children are in a different scenario than a retiring couple or a single parent with grown children. Review your plans periodically to ensure that it reflects your wishes for the proper distribution of assets.

Keep Your Family’s Best Interests At Heart

Most of us want to avoid litigation, especially over an estate. Having a plan helps you do that. The best time to think about your plan is when you don’t have a compelling reason to do. Keep your family’s best interests at heart with a well-developed estate plan. By creating your estate plan you will have control over your asset distribution during your lifetime to your loved ones. Start discussions with your attorney, tax accountant, and financial advisor. Through frank discussions, your goal is to put together the most beneficial plan for your situation.

You don’t need an estate plan to transfer a significant portion of your assets to intended heirs. Help your family avoid the often painful and lengthy probate court procedures. Most young people may have fewer assets to transfer when they are young. As they reach successful milestones in life, they may have more assets to transfer to loved ones. Know how to create your estate plan with the essential documents you may need now or in the future. When building your wealth, consider determining how you will eventually distribute your assets.

Related Post: Guide To Estate Planning In 6 Steps

What Are The Key Parts Of Your Estate Plan?

  1.  Beneficiary Designations 
  2. The Will and Letter of Instructions
  3. Revocable Trusts
  4. Durable Power of Attorney For Financial Affairs
  5. Advance Medical Directives: Durable Power of Attorney For Health Care, Living Wills, and HIPAA Authorization

1. Designate Beneficiaries For Your Nonprobate Property

A significant portion of your assets is non-probate property. These assets can be transferred to your designated beneficiaries by contracts. You can do this quickly, and it doesn’t require an attorney. Probate property or testamentary assets pass to your heirs through your will, which we will discuss further below.

Non-probate property is assets conveyed outside the will. For many of us, these assets are the bulk of our estate. They will automatically transfer to your designated beneficiary upon your death. Typically, this can happen before your estate goes through probate court. One of the most important assets you will need to address is your homeownership unless you rent only. Trusts are a particular form of a contract we address later.

Your non-probate property will be transferred to survivors by contract based on your designated beneficiary. As you opened your accounts that contain your assets, you likely filled out a beneficiary designation form.  A beneficiary is a person or organization designated to receive a benefit selected by the asset owner. You can also choose a contingent or secondary beneficiary in case the first-named recipient has died.  Make sure to name beneficiaries for all of the assets that you can. Review your designated beneficiaries periodically.

The  non-probate assets that you may transfer by contract are:

  • retirement accounts, including 401(k) plans,
  • IRAs, Roth IRAs, Keogh, and  pension plans,
  • payable-on-death clauses in bank and credit accounts, investment portfolio(s),
  • life insurance and  disability insurance policies or
  • by owning accounts with another person, usually a family member, through rights of survivorship.

These assets are generally transferred directly to those beneficiaries that were designated by you. All they will usually need is an original “raised seal” death certificate.

Modify Beneficiary Designations As Needed

Change your beneficiaries as you go through life. Refresh your beneficiaries by naming your family members if you are now married with kids. Often, life changes such as a divorce, remarriage, or the passing of a loved one, we want to update our beneficiaries. To understand the importance of designated beneficiaries, please read here.

Joint ownership with rights of survivorship

Husbands and wives (or parents and children) may have joint ownership of assets. These assets are called joint tenancy with the right of survivorship.

Property ownership, once designated, enables transfers. These assets can include bank accounts, investment accounts, cars, and home(s). Upon the death of one owner, the surviving owner(s) will receive this property by operation of law rather than through the will. Payable at death contract designation may be used by two unmarried siblings to allow each to name the other to receive funds upon their death. To access the funds, such as a savings account, the surviving sibling only needs to present the bank’s death certificate with ID.

The transfer of non-probate assets to your designated beneficiaries is not complicated. Once heirs hand over the death certificate, the bank can transfer funds or property to the heirs in a day. These assets do not pass through the will or go through the probate process.

2. “Last Will and Testament”

 

The will is central to most estate plans. Increasingly most of your assets pass outside probate. Non-probate assets pass by contract either through designated beneficiaries or trusts. Property in trusts passes to those beneficiaries named in the trust. That said, the will remains important in distributing probate property, the rest of the estate. The will directs how to distribute probate assets only you own upon an individual’s death. There is a lot of formality in executing a will.

The individual making the will is called the testator. He or she determines how to distribute his or her remaining assets after death. At least two disinterested witnesses are required to sign the will when the testator signs the will.

The testator will appoint a personal representative, commonly called an executor. The executor, as a fiduciary, will have the powers necessary to fulfill your wishes. Without a will, your state’s intestacy laws will dictate the distribution of your assets.

A Trustworthy Executor Is Better Than Co-Executors

People may opt for co-executors, such as a  spouse and an adult child. The testator believes these individuals can work together. However, relatives and friends are not great choices to perform the executor’s duties. Choose one trustworthy executor. While co-executors may sound harmless, acting in unison, in reality, can be more difficult. Executors may be called on to pay off debts, consolidate and liquidate assets, file income and estate tax returns. They may need to get the court’s permission to distribute the remaining assets’ balance, including money.

Spouses have legal rights to each other’s estates.

State laws presume that married couples share their fortunes equally.

Sharing your property with your spouse is a right called “the partnership theory of marriage rights.” Property acquired during the marriage and titled in the name of one partner becomes property of both spouses typically. The exception is property acquired via gift or inheritance. Any spousal rights to claim an inheritance from the other spouse under the law are void upon divorce. The estate assumes the debts of one spouse, not the executor’s liabilities or the beneficiaries.

There are nine community property states. Here, property refers to all the money, assets, debt acquired during the marriage. As such, in these states, this property is legally part of both spouses’ joint property. The rights of husbands and wives are equally protected.

What A Will Should Address:

  • Decide what property to distribute, including personal property that has sentimental value.
  • Determine who will inherit the assets.
  • Designate a trustee and guardian to manage assets if there are children under 18 who may be beneficiaries. The trustee and guardian can be the same person(s).
  • Handle digital assets by designating proper access to family members. Make sure that you account for your digital assets, which we fully address in this post.

For your will to be effective and valid, it must be signed under your state’s law.

Generally, a will must be in writing, signed before a minimum of two witnesses who can attest to your mental capacity and soundness at the time of signing the will.

A Valid Will 

Challenge-proof your will guided by your attorney. The will becomes effective upon the death of the testator. Up until that time, the testator can change a will. The original (not copied) version of the last will should be kept intact. Store this unaltered version in a safe deposit box or safe place.

 A Letter Of Instructions

Write a letter of last instructions, separate from your will. Such a letter may provide your preferences regarding funeral/burial arrangements and who speaks at your funeral. It should also provide contact information for family, friends, and colleagues. This letter may mention items that weren’t part of your will. However, the letter may consist of essential items for you to let your surviving family members know about. If your instructions conflict with the will’s directions, the will trumps the information in this letter.

Leaving Guidance For Family Is Helpful

Organize financial information, important papers (e.g., a memoir), and provide its location to your family. While the letter doesn’t have the legal force of the will it may amount to personal information that family could use to clarify your intentions.

3. Revocable Trusts

Trusts have additional features not found in wills.

Most people are familiar with a will and know it is the first place to handle probate property. However, trusts are increasingly more common in estate planning. Use trusts when you have a more complex estate, have less liquid assets, and desire privacy. Unlike wills, trusts avoid probates. Trusts provide different features that aren’t in wills.

A revocable trust is for protecting and managing a person’s assets before death, as “living trusts.” The person who created the trust (the grantor) maintains the right to change its terms. They may also cancel the trust for any reason during their lifetime. These instruments can take effect while the grantor is alive. These are called revocable living trusts, and the grantor is often the trustee.  However, if the grantor cannot serve because of becoming incapacitated, an attorney can name a new trustee. If so, the new trustee may need a HIPAA release. (see below).

If preferred, the grantor can make a trust irrevocable, meaning the grantor can make no changes.

Other Trusts:

Irrevocable Charitable Remainder Trust (CRT)

If you have significantly appreciated assets, you may want to set up a charitable remainder trust (CRT). A CRT is an irrevocable trust that generates a potential income stream for you, as the donor to the CRT or other beneficiaries. The remainder of the donated assets goes to your favorite charities. Distribution of these assets occurs upon your death or the death of your designated beneficiaries. There are several benefits, notable income tax deductions while preserving the value of your assets. You can read more about it here.

Donating assets to a Charity

CRTs are tax-exempt irrevocable trusts that reduce the taxable income of the donor during their lifetime. The donated assets go into the trust. Income is distributed from the assets to you and your spouse or other beneficiaries for a timeframe or life. The charity you designate will receive the CRT assets when you and/or your spouse or designated beneficiaries die.

Testamentary Trusts

A testamentary trust is a trust specified in the will and goes into effect after the grantor’s death.. These trusts can allocate money or assets after the grantor’s passing and provide income to surviving spouse and children.

4. Durable Power of Attorney For Financial Matters

A durable power of attorney designates the person(s) as an agent or “attorney in fact.” Their role is to make financial and legal decisions when you are incapacitated and are unable to do so. Mental incapacity may occur through illness, an accident, or dementia. That incapacity can be temporary or permanent. A financial agent makes financial decisions. This agent is essential when families are fighting over the handling of money. Without an agent, there may be a greater need to have a guardian or conservator appointed by the courts.

This document stays in effect as long as you live unless you explicitly revoke it. Having authority provides the agent with access and control to assets. It may list specific financial institutions (e.g., brokerage firms and banks) and account numbers. Power may explicitly grant the agent the ability to make gifts.

Under this power of attorney, the agent can carry out contract obligations, sell, buy, or close title to real property in your name. Additionally, they may conduct banking or other transactions. Every state has its requirements for ensuring valid powers of attorney. These powers must be “durable” which means that the agent’s authority survives any grantor’s incapacity or disability. These powers are too significant to use a form online. You need to designate someone trustworthy.

5. Advanced Medical Directives

All parts of the estate plan are critical in addressing a person’s wishes. However, advance medical directives are of prime importance.  Advance medical directives provide medical guidelines for treatment preferences, either for temporary or end-of-life planning purposes.

COVID-19 Factor

These directives have become even more urgent as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Many people require ventilators or medically induced comas before recovering from the virus. As such, directives are essential when the patient cannot make medical decisions. There are many severe medical conditions such as coma, dementia, or brain death, where the directives are essential.

There are three main advance medical documents to prepare: living wills, medical power of attorney (or health care proxy), and HIPAA Authorization release.

Living Wills

Writing a living will enable a person to express their wishes regarding types of medical treatment. Your designated agent would seek the level of desired care when you can no longer express your wishes. This process provides informed consent. A living will is a written legal document separate from your will made in consultation with your attorney and signed by you. This medical directive can help reduce ambiguities during difficult times. For example, you may not want to be on feeding tubes or kept alive unnecessarily, but it should be in this document.

California became the first state to recognize living wills legally. However, it was the legal battle of Terri Schiavo in 2005  that spurred the use of living wills. As a result of Schiavo and the right-to-die movement, living wills became an important document. The Mayo Clinic recommends that you address several possible end-of-life care decisions in your living will. By talking to your physician, you can get a better idea of what possible medical decisions you may need to consider in this list.

Health Care Proxy or  Durable Power Of Attorney For Health Care

This document is similar to the durable power of attorney for financial affairs. Here, an individual designates another person as an agent to make health care decisions on your behalf. That agent stands in your shoes if you are unable to make your wishes known. That person as an agent or attorney-in-fact has the same rights to request or refuse treatment that the individual would have if they could do so.

This instrument is crucial when caring for a person with dementia, Alzheimer’s Disease, or another limited mental capacity. Use this durable power of attorney to appoint someone you trust as your agent,  do certain things, and take actions in your name if you cannot do so. You may need to consult with an attorney in your state, and terminology differs regarding the durable power of attorney for making medical decisions.

During This Coronavirus Pandemic, There Is More To Consider

Each state may have different legal formalities. Check with your state as to whether you need witnesses or a notary. During the pandemic, some formalities have become complicated with social distancing. If the notary rules provide that the document must be signed “in the presence of the notary,” this may prove difficult. In some states like New York, Governor Cuomo signed an executive order on March 20, 2020, allowing notarization utilizing audiovisual technology. We can more easily communicate with attorneys or professionals with companies like Zoom or Cisco’s Webex.

When considering these advanced medical directives, you can change these documents at any time. You can specifically reference coronavirus within your document or as an addendum if you become infected with the virus. For some guidance, The Conversation Project has some good resources in this area.

HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) Authorization

HIPAA protects an adult’s medical information from being released to third parties without the patient’s consent. Without a valid HIPAA authorization on file, the medical providers cannot legally discuss the patient’s medical information with family members.  Medical practitioners are barred from even speaking with the spouse without a release.

Medical providers will avoid facing family members rather than face serious sanctions and penalties without a release. Close family members may have vital information such as medications or allergies about the patient. HIPAA doesn’t bar this communication, but it can cloud the essential two-way communication with family.  A HIPAA Authorization release is relatively easy to get and essential in uncertain times with coronavirus outbreak. Here is an example of New York State’s release.

Your agent with a durable power of attorney for health care along with family members, should get the release. This way, they may have access to your medical records and essential health care information.

In light of the COVID-19 outbreak, there is a HIPAA waiver of specific provisions as of March 15, 2020. Expressly, the US Department of Health and Human Services waived sanctions and penalties arising from a hospital’s noncompliance of HIPAA Privacy rule. Waivers are designed to lessen the burden on hospitals during the pandemic health crisis.

Final Thoughts

Estate planning decision-making can be difficult. However, it provides peace of mind by reducing some of the uncertainty that may arise for your family. Estate planning is in your family’s best interests. We all should consider having a plan in light of the coronavirus outbreak. 

Protecting your assets and having a plan to distribute them to loved ones should reduce potential angst. Engage an accountant to help you realize tax efficiencies.

Have you started thinking about estate planning? It is usually easier to do when you have no urgent reason to do so but are thinking of your family’s best interest. This guide is designed to get you started thinking about your plan but you need careful consideration and professional guidance.

Thank you for reading our post. If you found this of value please subscribe to our blog and get our weekly newsletter. Please share any thoughts or comments you may have. We would love to hear from you!

 

 

8 Ways To Get More Money You May Be Entitled To During The Pandemic

8 Ways To Get More Money You May Be Entitled To During The Pandemic

As unemployment claims filed since mid-March totalled a staggering 30.3 million people, stocks racked up their best performance up nearly 13% in April since 1987.

How can this be?

4 Reasons:

1. There is an inverse or opposite relationship between the level of unemployment and forward stock returns. That is, the best returns historically come after periods of high unemployment. Charlie Bilello has done superb work in this area. Stocks tend to be forward looking indicators.

2. Stocks still remain a good place to invest given their higher growth profile over the long term. In comparison to stocks, money market securities and bonds are safer but will provide very modest returns. As the economic outlook looks anything but clear, investors should remain diversified with these asset classes as the worst is probably yet to come.

3. The Fed recognized the need to provide substantial liquidity to our financial markets. As such, it has been using its full range of tools. They have brought interest rates to zero, made asset purchases and launched a variety of programs to get money to households and businesses.Their action has provided confidence to the markets even as unemployment is rising quickly and our GDP could drop by over 20% in the second quarter according to these forecasts.

4.  Stimulus packages, the largest of which is The Cares Act at $2.2 trillion has something for many in need. How funding was distributed has been questioned, falling short for apparent goals.

As a result of the coronavirus, there have been new rules and guidance in a number of areas designed to help our financial situation. Read on as there may be something for you that you are entitled to.

8 Ways To Improve Your Financial Situation Due To the Pandemic:

  • More people eligible to get unemployment benefits.
  • Student loan pauses will help.
  • Mortgage loans options are available.
  • Access to free Weekly Credit Reports.
  • Lower car insurance and home insurance for savings.
  •  Electric bill cuts for reduced costs

 

1. More People Are Entitled To Unemployment Insurance Benefits

Normal rules for unemployment insurance benefits have been expanded due to the pandemic. The Cares Act provided more relief for people who are filing for unemployment. Specifically, people will receive an additional $600 per week in unemployment benefits from the federal government until July 31st. The $600 check is granted  irrespective of which state you are applying to. This amount is on top of your state’s payments which are extended up to 39 weeks from the standard 26 weeks.

To put that into perspective, the weekly average employment benefits from state coffers were $371.88 at the end of 2019. Those filing in Mississippi receive the lowest weekly amount of $213 compared to Massachusetts where the state is cutting weekly checks of $546. Against that backdrop, the additional $600 is generous. The typical one week waiting person has been dropped. This extra money can help you save money and pay bills.

Filing For Benefits Has Been Difficult

Not everyone who has filed for unemployment insurance has received money yet. According to an Economic Policy Institute survey, the official count of unemployment claims filings may be significantly understated. For every 10 people who said they successfully filed for unemployment benefits during the previous four weeks, up to four people tried to apply but could not get through to the system. As many as 14 million more people could have applied had the process been easier to manage.

Back in March, we were impressed that millions of people were successful in making their claims. Clearly, glitches occurred after having low unemployment rates for so long. This should have been expected. If you applied previously but didn’t get through, try again. Getting unemployment benefits has never been an easy process but you are entitled to these funds.

New Jobless Applicants Allowed

Tradtionally, part-time workers, independent contractors, self-employed, freelancers and gig workers were barred from receiving unemployment benefits. They account for about one-third of our workforce, numbering 57 million people. As part of the CARES Act, the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program provides benefits if these people lost their jobs or livelihood as a result of the virus. Each state has their own income and other limitations you need to review.

This group of workers are eligible to receive half of the average unemployment benefit in their states plus the extra $600 per week through July 31st. The process has run into some roadblocks. While the intention was to help those who cannot work during the pandemic because of lockdown orders, the reality has proven more difficult.  Non-traditional workers such as part-timers generally haven’t been able to collect benefits. State systems weren’t designed to handle these claims. The systems have been deluged, with a resultant slowdown of an already taxed process. Be patient, re-apply if need be. You will receive what you are owed retroactively to mid-March.

College Students May Be Eligible

Generally, college students are not eligible for for unemployment benefits. However, financial relief may be available for students who were impacted by the coronavirus outbreak. If they were working while enrolled in college and their part-time or full-time work ended because either their campus shut down or their employer closed, they may be able to file for unemployment insurance. Many students turn to a variety of  programs associated Federal Work-Study or federal loans at on-campus or off-campus facilities to earn money to alleviate the high cost of their education. You may be entitled to receive paychecks or a lump sum amount for up to one year.

If you had a job rescinded as a result of the pandemic, whether you are a college senior or not, you may be eligible for jobless benefits. You will likely need to provide documentation.

Related Post: A Letter To College Students During The Pandemic

Related Post: Why Unemployment Matters

2. Stimulus Checks For You

Most Americans are eligible for a one time stimulus check of up to $1,200 as an individual, with married couples getting up to $2,400 depending on your income. Families with children are eligible to get an additional $500 per child under age 17 years. According to the CARES Act rules, to qualify for the full amounts of $1,200 or $2,400, your adjusted gross income (AGI) must be $75,000 per individual, $112,500 for heads of household or $150,000 per married couple. If you earn more than these amounts, you will receive reduced payments. You won’t receive any payments if you make more than $99,000 for individuals, $136,500 for heads of household and $198,000. Some people are experiencing delays in receiving stimulus checks.

Independent students can get a $1,200 stimulus check (or $2,400 if a married couple) so long as their parents do not claim them as a dependent and their AGI is $75,000 or lower. The CARE Act indicates that those with student loans in default will receive the full stimulus amount rather than a tax refund offset. Students may appeal for emergency financial aid programs through their colleges if more help is needed.

The Adjusted Gross Income Calculation

Adjusted gross income appears on your Form 1040. To calculate AGI, begin with gross income. This amount adds up all your taxable income you report for income tax purposes. That can can be your salary or wages from your job, stock or bond interest income and any rental income if you have any property. Those who are self-employed report their business income less self-employment taxes. If you receive bonuses, tips and such income, add this to the gross income. From this total gross income deduct related expenses and the result is your AGI.

3. Student Loan Pauses

If you are carrying student loans there may be some good news for you. A major part of the $ 2.2 Trillion CARE Act is devoted to easing the student loan payments you owe from its effective date of March 13, 2020 until September 30, 2020. While temporary, Congress may keep some of these beneficial provisions longer or even make them permanent.

Among its major provisions related to student loans are:

  • Suspension of involuntary collections of student loan debt, including wage and social security garnishments and tax refund offsets.
  • Federal loans will suspend payments automatically on Direct loans and Federal Family Education Loans (FFEL) which account for 88% of federal loans.
  • No interest will accrue during the six month period. Paused payments will count toward requirements for Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF)  programs and income-driven repayment plans.
  • There will be no impact to your credit report as suspended payments will be reported by the US Department of Education to the national credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) as if they were on-time payments.
  • Expands IRS tax code section 127 to allow employers to reimburse up to $5,250 for most student loan payments which can be excluded from taxable income. SHRM says 8% of US organizations offer this terrific employee perk. More companies may jump on this bandwagon to help employees with these payments in the future.

These changes are automatic. This means you do not have to contact your student loan servicer. That said, if you are unsure, I think it is a good idea to inquire if your loan is covered.

4. Options For Mortgage Payments Relief

If you are not having trouble paying your mortgage, skip ahead to the next section. However, for those having some financial difficulties paying your monthly mortgage, there may  some relief. For a short time, you may be able to skip all or part of the loan due. The CARES Act covers federally backed mortgaged for 60 days after its passage. During that time neither your lender or loan servicer may foreclose on your home. If you are facing financial hardship due to COVID-19, you have right to forbearance for up to 180 days.

If your mortgage is not a federal loan, check with your respective servicer or lender as to what they allow and for what timeframe. Keep in mind that this relief is not designed to forgive or erase your debt. However, it may provide a reprieve for a temporary time without interest accruing.

5. Free Weekly Credit Reports Until April 2021

Normally, you can get your credit report free one time per year from each of the three credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. This means that you can review your credit reports every four months. Reviewing your credit report regularly is important. Many consider your creditworthiness before renting to you, making a loan, providing utilities or even a job. You can now receive your credit report free on a weekly basis through April 2021 from AnnualCreditReport.com.

If you are having financial hardships, reach out to your lenders. They are being encouraged to consider temporarily lowering your interest rate, payment amounts or pause your payments for a period of time. This is probably a good time to seek flexibility. Lenders can be forgiving about late payments, collections and forbearance. Creditors will look at your case individually.

Related Post: 6 Ways To Raise Your Credit Score

Remember to stay vigilant when you are reviewing your credit report for errors or signs of fraud. You can find common errors found on your credit report and how to fix it on the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau checklist. In times like these, fraud tends to rises as it did during the Great Recession. If you spot a scam or feel something isn’t right, the Federal Trade Commission provides instructions to help you.

6. Negotiate For Lower Car Insurance

During the pandemic, you probably have not been driving as much because you have been encouraged to stay home. With more than 90% having been affected by idle cars in their driveways, people have called their providers to find out about lowered prices and options.  Many auto insurance providers have been quite vocal publicly with providing their customers with discounts. If you haven’t called your company, reach out to them for more information. By the way, don’t cancel your plan or switch at this time.

Many auto providers have showcased their ads and willingness to give back some amount to their customers or give the discounts for the reduced driving (eg. 10%-15%). These savings are valuable if even for the short term. Look at parts of your auto insurance for potential reductions in liability coverage for bodily harm and property damage, personal injury protection, collision, theft and vandalism.

7. Home Insurance Costs May Be Reduced

While you are in negotiation mode, call your home insurance providers to see if there is any flexibility to lower your rates. The rationale for asking for a break is that you and your family are at home more (certainly your dogs have noticed) and there is likely less burglaries in your neighborhood or damage to your home. For example, you may need less personal liability coverage for slip and falls in your home as you probably aren’t getting any visitors these days. Any money saved can be helpful.

Life insurance providers may not necessarily be giving breaks on their policies due to the virus. In fact, you may face greater scrutiny if you are a new applicants buying life insurance. As usual, roviders will want you to provide a statement of good health from your doctor who may be difficult to schedule now. However, providers may have increased concerns related to your future overseas travel plans. They will be more cautious of those seeking new life insurance policies. You may be subject to sharing where you have been and where do you travel overseas for work.

Related Post: 8 Types of Insurance We Need

8. Lower Electric Bills

Check with your fuel provider for price reductions. Oil and gas prices have dropped significantly in recent weeks so you may be entitled to some money back. From an economic point of view, there has less global demand for fuel. Also, we are driving significantly less with reduced commuting to work, school, and vacations. As a result, electric bills should be less and appropriately brought down. Reach out to your provider to see what they can do. Many providers have proactively dropped their rates, depending on the type of plan you have.

Final Thoughts

These are difficult times and easy to be overwhelmed. You may have been affected by a loss of a job or had to close your business. There may benefits you are entitled to that were not offered in the past. Ask for help from lenders and providers in the way of lower rates or more time to pay bills. This may be a better time to ask for flexibility but you need to take the first step and inquire. Accessing money you are entitled to can add to your savings and your ability to pay bills on time.

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