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My Family's Revolution: Financial Literacy and The Department of Gentle Nudges

"I'm just trying to be a light."

~ Tammy Faye Messner

DISCLAIMER: I am not an expert on investing, retirement planning or insurance and do not offer this information as professional advice. Please consult trained professionals for advice specific to your needs.

Dear Gentle Readers,

I've been so busy with family stuff and ranting about things that made me mad that I failed to keep you abreast of my family's revolution to become smarter than Wall Street. At our last family meeting, we just about finished our module on financial literacy, covering the basics of investing, retirement planning, and insurance. The funny thing is, although the meetings are informative (My niece, Single Parent Goddess, would say they're probably too informative, but since our last meeting got her reading the finance section of the newspaper, I beg to differ!), we eat very well (two types of lasagne, grilled portobello mushroom and red pepper sandwiches, sauteed zucchini, spaghetti, and lots of wine!), and we have our family sou-sou drawing (Black Man Not Blogging (BMNB) and I won the last payout -- woo hoo!), the part of our family meeting that is, in my opinion, the part most savored and awaited is what we call "The Department of Gentle Nudges," or an encouragement circle.

The Department of Gentle Nudges grew out of an experience BMNB had while living as a newly-minted attorney in Denver. He was active in his fraternity, and one of his older fraternity brothers kept encouraging him to buy a house, condo or townhome instead of renting. As BMNB put it, his fraternity brother didn't beat him over the head with this directive, but gave him "gentle nudges," occasionally reminding him that he was spending an equal or greater amount on rent than he would on a mortgage, with no tax deduction or equity to show for it. It was because of this fraternity brother that BMNB bought a townhome, which is now his own rental property. But it wasn't just the encouragement BMNB received; it was the manner in which he was encouraged -- gentle nudges.

When we decided to start holding these family meetings on financial literacy and other topics titled, "Something to Think About," BMNB and I decided that we would provide those same gentle nudges to the younger folks in our family to move in whatever direction they were already inclined to move. So at our first family meeting, we simply asked the younger members of our family, "What are you working on and how can we encourage you?" Well, after the young'uns told us the goals they were working on and what they needed encouragement with, they turned the table on US! They wanted to know what BMNB and I were working on and how they could encourage us! It made me realize this: Grown folks need encouragement, too. And not enough of us are getting it. So when we get to "The Department of Gentle Nudges" on our family meeting agenda, we go around the room and each of us proudly announces our goals and our struggles, we all brainstorm for ideas and solutions for each person, and we applaud each one of us for taking steps on the paths to our goals.

At this stage in my life, I, like the late Tammy Faye Messner, am just trying to be a light, to help someone see their own path that much more clearly. So many people encouraged me throughout my life that I feel I need to pay that encouragement forward. I see how just a few words of encouragement can give people that confidence and gentle nudge forward to do what they're afraid to do or don't think they can do.

Let me encourage you: If your family doesn't have a Department of Gentle Nudges, appoint yourself the chair of the department and get it started. Your words will mean the world to someone who is struggling or uncertain whether they can reach his or her goals.

Below are the materials about investing, retirement planning and insurance from our last "Something to Think About" family meeting that I promised I would share. Our next meeting will have a bonus module on estate planning and cover finding, getting and keeping the career you want. I hope you're following along with your family.

Here's to gentle nudges!


A Series of Family Talks

January 7, 2012
5:00 pm to 7:00 pm

I. Prayer and Call to Order

II. Purpose of “Something to Think About”
· Knowledge: Share What We Know (mistakes and all), Learn What We Don’t
· Encouragement: Helping Each Other Reach Our Goals
· Action: Holding Each Other Accountable for Taking Positive Steps Toward Our Goals

III. Five Goals for The Family
· Financial Literacy
· Home Ownership
· Having a Career
· Educating Our Kids to Prepare Them for College or a Vocation
· Multiple Streams of Income

IV. Topics to be Covered Today – Financial Literacy
· Investing
· Retirement Planning
· Insurance

V. Family Sou-Sou Drawing

VI. The Department of Gentle Nudges: Encouragement from Each Other to Achieve Our Goals

VII. Adjourn; Next Meeting: Saturday, February 4, 2012. Topics: Finding, getting, and keeping the career you want.

Something to Think About
A series of family meetings
Financial Literacy
Module 3: Investing

Disclaimer: We are not experts or role models with respect to investing. We’re only sharing what we know. You will need to do more research on your own for additional answers or clarification. This is a VERY basic discussion of investing.

I. First Things First: What is investing and why do we need to do it?

o Investing is nothing more than spending money on things that will more than likely grow in value, called assets. Think of it as “money farming.”

o We need to invest because we need our money to increase in value faster than it would if we left it in a savings account to collect interest or stored it under a mattress. Typical goals to invest for include retirement, paying for your children’s college educations, or leaving an estate to your family or to a cause about which you’re passionate. With pensions slowly being eliminated in favor of 401(k) and 403(b) accounts and college tuition rising faster than the rate of inflation, most people will have to learn to invest in order to be able to retire comfortably or send their children to college.

o What it is not: Investing is NOT gambling. Investments should be made with investigation and appreciation of the risk of purchasing any asset. Few assets are risk-free, though some are virtually risk-free.

II. Types of Investments – What Kinds of Assets Can We Buy? Some Examples

· Stock. Stocks are ownership interests in companies that are owned by the public. They’re also called “equities.” Stock can be purchased from one company or from a variety of companies. They can also be purchased through a mutual fund or an exchange-traded fund (ETF), in which you buy shares of the fund and the fund takes your money and the money of other investors and buys stock in different companies.
· There are two types of stock: Common stock and preferred stock.
i. Common stock gives the owner the right to vote on how the company is run, but it gives the owner a lower priority in the payment of dividends (a portion of the company’s profits) and in liquidation of the company if it goes bankrupt. Common stock tends to have a price that is more volatile than preferred stock.

ii. Preferred stock gives the owner no voting rights, but it gives the owner higher priority in receiving dividends and high priority in payment of the company’s assets if the company goes bankrupt. It also has a less volatile price.

· Bonds. Bonds are basically an IOU. In exchange for purchasing a bond, the bond issuer owes you not only the amount that you paid for the bond but interest payments as well. There are two basic types of bonds:

· Government bonds. These are bonds issued by governments, including the federal government (e.g., U.S. Treasury bonds), state and local governments, and foreign governments. Government bonds issued by governments in the U.S., especially U.S. Treasury bonds and state and local government bonds, are usually one of the safest investments because governments rarely default on bond payments and governments rarely go bankrupt. Plus, many municipal bonds are tax-free. The safety of foreign bonds depends on the individual foreign government issuing them.

· Corporate bonds. These are bonds issued by corporations. In the event that a corporation dissolves or becomes bankrupt, bondholders are among the first to be paid.

· Bonds can be purchased in mutual funds or exchange-traded funds, too.

· Certificates of Deposit. These are issued by banks and entitle the purchaser to the amount of the certificate plus interest.

· Mutual Funds and Exchange-Traded Funds. These are pools of money from investors that are used to invest in stocks, bonds, commodities, or anything the fund manager wants to invest in. They can be very broad, such as an index fund, which invests in all of the stocks of a particular stock index, like the S & P 500, or very narrow, like a fund that invests only in stocks of businesses in a particular industry (energy stocks, health care stocks), stocks of businesses from particular countries or areas (China, Africa), or specific types of investments (bond funds). The difference between mutual funds and exchange-traded funds is that the value of shares in mutual funds are determined once daily, while the value of exchange-traded funds are determined all day long because they are bought and sold in real time in the stock market.

· Money market funds. These are types of mutual funds that are invested in short-term bonds and are designed to be worth $ 1 per share at all times so the investor never loses money. However, because they are less risky, they usually don’t pay more than $1 per share.

· Commodities. Commodities include tangible items like metals (e.g., gold, silver) or futures (e.g., agricultural products, oil) that you buy in order to sell later at a higher price.

· Annuities. An annuity is a contract for a larger payment or stream of payments at a later date. They are usually sold by insurance companies, and you pay the issue a lump sum of money up front. At a later date, the insurance company pays you a larger payment or a stream of payments for a period of time.

· Real estate. Many people like to diversify their investments by holding real estate, either by buying individual properties to rent out or renovate and sell at a higher price, or through real estate investment trusts (REITs), by which investors pool their money to buy many properties. Investors can invest in REITS through mutual funds or exchange-traded funds.

· Tax lien certificates. Tax lien certificates are certificates bought to pay off a property tax lien on someone else’s property in exchange for interest or ownership of the property. If the property owner pays off the property tax lien and interest, the purchaser of the tax lien certificate for that property receives the payment plus interest. If the property owner fails to pay off the tax lien within a certain amount of time, the purchaser of the tax lien certificate gets the property if he pays off any remaining unpaid property taxes.

· Businesses. Some consider outright ownership of a business an investment. A business can pay you profits, and assuming it increases in value, it can be sold for a profit.

III. Basics To Know About Investing

· What You Invest in Will Depend on Your Age and Tolerance for Risk

o We invest differently depending on our age. Younger people typically invest in riskier investments with a higher payoff (e.g., stocks), because they have time to recover any losses and to allow their investments to increase in value over time. As you age, your investment goal should be to conserve any gains you’ve made by decreasing the amount of riskier investments you have and increasing the amount of less risky investments you have, such as bonds.

o We invest differently depending on our tolerance for risk. Risk-averse investors are going to invest in things that are safer but less profitable, e.g., bonds. Investors who can tolerate a greater degree of risk might have more of their money invested in riskier investments like stocks.

· Investors Reduce Risk by Diversifying

o This gets back to the age-old saying of our grandparents, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” Similarly, to reduce risk, don’t put all your investment money in one type of investment. Investors typically put their money into many investments in order to counteract the volatility in any one kind of investment. This is called “diversification.”

· Note: Noted investor Warren Buffett says, “Diversification is for those who don’t know what they’re doing.” The average investor doesn’t have the expertise Warren Buffett has.

· Investors Have a Goal and a Time Horizon for That Goal. Investors are usually investing for a short-term goal that they need to reach within a year or a few years (down payment for a house), or a long-term goal that they need to reach in many years (retirement, children’s education). How long your time horizon is will determine what kind investments you buy. If your time horizon is short and your goal is closer in time, you will probably seek investments that are less risky investments because you don’t have time to make up any losses (money market funds, certificates of deposit, bonds). If your time horizon is longer, you’ll probably seek riskier investments with the potential for a higher payoff in the long run (stocks, stock mutual funds).

· Investors Invest with the Goal of Reducing Taxes on Their Profits (Capital Gains Taxes). Investors try to reduce the amount of taxes they pay on their investments by cashing them out when they are in a lower tax bracket (retirement), buying investments that aren’t taxed (municipal bonds), or buying investments through accounts that defer taxes on profits until the profits are withdrawn (e.g., 401(k) accounts, Individual Retirement Accounts)

· Investors Reduce the Risks of Buying Stocks or Riskier Investments by Investing Regularly Over Time (Dollar Cost Averaging). Few of us are so knowledgeable about when the stock market is going to go up or down. Instead of trying to “time the market,” investors typically invest a fixed amount regularly in the stock market so that the costs of the stocks will average out over time. This is called “Dollar Cost Averaging.”

IV. How To Start Investing

· Should You Pay Off Debts First? Some financial advice websites, like The Motley Fool (, advise that you pay off your high interest debts before you begin investing, since the interest you’re paying on the debt is probably higher than the interest you will receive on any investment. I disagree. I think you should begin investing through tax-deferred retirement accounts (401(k), 403(b), IRA, etc.), while you are paying off your debts. It takes a long time horizon for the value of your retirement accounts to grow, and through the compounding of interest, increase in value over time, employer contribution of matching funds to your 401(k) or 403(b), and withdrawing the funds when you’ve retired and are probably in a lower tax bracket, the benefit of investing through tax-deferred retirement accounts later on may outweigh paying off all your high-interest debt first.

· How to Buy Stocks, Bonds, Mutual Funds and Exchange-Traded Funds

o Set up a brokerage account for your 401(k) or 403(b) retirement account. (Remember, you want to invest through tax-free or tax-deferred accounts first.) Some employers allow you to set up a brokerage account through a stock brokerage account to invest your 401(k) or 403(b) holdings. For example, the State of California allows its employees to set up a brokerage account with Charles Schwab ( to invest the holdings in their 401(k) accounts above a $2,500 minimum that must be maintained in the State’s Savings Plus Plan (

o Set up an Individual Retirement Account (IRA) with an online brokerage house. Most online brokerage houses (eTrade, ScottTrade, Charles Schwab) will allow you to set up an individual retirement account and buy and trade stocks, bonds and mutual funds with the money you deposit in your IRA. Like a 401(k) or 403(b) account, the money that grows in your IRA is not taxed until you withdraw it, either upon retirement, when you should be in a lower tax bracket, or if you withdraw it in an emergency (and it will be heavily taxed.

§ I have a Roth IRA account with eTrade, but there’s not much in it.

§ I have a regular IRA with Sharebuilder/ING, and it also doesn’t have much in it.

o Buy stock through a dividend reinvestment program (DRIP). Dividend Reinvestment Programs, or DRIPs, allow investors to buy shares of stock directly from a company and have the dividends directly reinvested into buying more shares of the same stocks. Some brokerage accounts also allow for the reinvestment of dividends into more shares of stock. My Charles Schwab account allows me to reinvest all my dividends from General Electric back into buying more shares of General Electric. DRIPs are also a low-cost way to get started investing. However, they should be an option you use after you have exhausted investing through your tax-deferred options (401(k), 403(b), or IRA accounts for example). For more information on DRIPs, visit DRIP Central,

o Set up an individual brokerage account with an online brokerage house or a DRIP program. This should be your last resort after you have exhausted investing through your tax-deferred options (401(k), 403(b), or IRA accounts), because you will be taxed on your profits on a regular basis.

o Buy one share of stock and give it to your children. To get your children interested in investing, buy them one share of stock in a company that sells something of interest to them (e.g., Disney, Nike, Electronic Arts, Nintendo). At One Share, you can buy one share of stock, receive a framed stock certificate, and give it to your child. For more information, visit

V. Consider getting a financial planner

If you don’t have the time or the inclination to learn about investing, consider hiring a financial planner. A financial planner can provide you advice on how to invest given your age, your goals, and your tolerance for risk. Financial planners are paid in many ways: 1) A percentage of your entire investment portfolio; 2) a flat rate; or 3) by commissions on investment products they sell you. Never hire a financial planner who is paid by commissions because they have an inherent conflict of interest – trying to get you to buy stuff that may or may not be in your best financial interest.

VI. Consider starting a family investment club

During the early ‘90s, my family had an investment club, and we learned a lot about buying stock. It was almost like a sou-sou – we put in a set amount each month for investment, we took turns researching stocks for investment, and we bought and sold stocks through the Morgan Stanley brokerage firm (this was before brokerage firms were mainly online). Most of what I know about researching stocks I learned from my family investment club. A family investment club is also a good way to get kids excited about investing.

VII. Resources (A Partial List)
· Online
o The Motley Fool (
o DRIP Central (
o Charles Schwab (
o eTrade (
o Investopedia (
o MSN Money (
o Yahoo! Finance (
o Suze Orman (
o Michelle Singletary (
o Kiplinger (
o Black Enterprise (
o Robert Kiyosaki (
o David Bach (
o Forbes (

· Books and Magazines (There are way too many to name, so I’ll keep it short. Browse the personal finance section at your local library or book store.
o Eric Tyson, “Personal Finance for Dummies”
o Kiplinger
o Forbes
o Black Enterprise

Something to Think About
A series of family meetings
Financial Literacy
Module 4: Retirement Planning

Disclaimer: We are not experts or role models with respect to retirement planning. We’re only sharing what we know. You will need to do more research on your own for additional answers or clarification.

I. First Things First: Why plan for retirement?

· At some point in your life, you will either not want to work or will be unable to work. Retirement planning ensures that you have a stream or streams of income to support yourself when you no longer want to work or can’t work.

· The goal of retirement planning is simple: Plan to not run out of money before you die.

II. What Does a Good Retirement Plan Consist Of? A Three-Legged (or Four-Legged) Stool

The old saying about retirement is that it is a “three-legged stool.” That means it rests on three (or these days, four) legs, which are:

· Social Security income
· Pension or 401(k)/403(b) income (or both if your employer provides them)
· Tax-deferred investment income (from an Individual Retirement Account (IRA) or some form thereof; and
· In some cases, non-taxed deferred investments, such as your savings and/or investments you hold outside of an IRA or 401(k) or 403(b) account
· A good retirement plan uses all three (or four) sources (or legs) of income to maintain a standard of living you’ve already decided upon in advance based on what you want or think you’ll need in order to retire.
· Don’t assume that any one “leg” of the stool – Social Security, pension, etc. – will provide you with enough to retire on.

III. Try to Figure Out How Much You’ll Need to Retire. Figuring out how much you’ll need to retire is difficult, but there are many online retirement calculators that can help you get a broad estimate. However, to get a best estimate, you should probably consult a financial planner. Here are some beginning steps to help you figure it out.

· The first thing you need to consider is the amount of income you’re going to want.
· The second thing to consider is how much income you’re going to expect from Social Security, your pension, your 401(k)/403(b), and your IRA.
· With those numbers, you can determine how much you’re going to have to save to generate the amount of income you want in retirement.

· How much income are you going to want in retirement?

o Look at how much you spend now and what you spend it on. When you retire, many work-related expenses such as gas, bus fare, dry cleaning and union dues will disappear. Even subtracting for those expenses, are you going to want to maintain the lifestyle you currently have, or are you willing to downshift, i.e., reduce your expenses? If you eat out four times a month now, are you going to want to do that when you retire? If you travel now, are you going to want to travel in retirement? What is the annual amount of income you would need to pay the expenses you will take or maintain into retirement?

o Take into consideration other expenses that will come with retirement. Although work-related expenses will disappear, health care-related expenses will increase, such as prescription drug co-pays, health insurance deductibles, and long-term care costs. If you already have prescription drug co-pays or health insurance deductibles, use those as a basis for estimating what you have to pay in the future.

o Consider whether you will be taking debt into retirement. The typical retirement goal is to enter into retirement debt-free. By entering into retirement debt-free (for example, paying off your mortgage, your cars, your credit cards, and any other debts), you reduce the amount you’ll need to live on in retirement. If you can’t, you need to know how much monthly debt you’ll be carrying into retirement and for how long (e.g., how long it will take you to pay off your house, car, etc.)

o Consider inflation. With inflation, the value of money goes down over time. What $60,000 a year buys in 2012 will be more than what $60,000 a year buys in 2022. According to, the average inflation rate in the United States since 1913 is 3.24% per year. In other words, your money will have to increase in value by an average of 3.24% per year just to maintain its value. Many of the online retirement calculators can estimate this.

o Consider interest. Again, the online calculators can generate an estimate of the interest that might be paid on your investments.

· How much income can you expect to receive from Social Security, your pension, your 401(k)/403(b), and your IRA?

o Social Security sends out regular statement telling you how much you can expect to collect depending on when you retire if you already have even quarters of contributions (40) to qualify. That might change if you are married. Contact the Social Security Administration to get an estimate of what your Social Security payments will be.

o Find out what your pension formula is. For example, the pension formula for many CalPERS members is 2% at 55, which means you can expect to receive at least 2% of your salary for every year of service if you retire after the age of 55. For example, if you’re sixty, earning $75,000 a year, and you have 20 years of service, you would receive at least $30,000 a year in pension under this formula ($75,000 x .02 x 20 = $30,000).

o Estimate how much income your 401(k)/403(b) will generate given your current contributions and rate of growth and the maximum you can withdraw during retirement. This is something an online retirement calculator can do.

o Estimate how much income your IRA will generate.

o How much do you have currently saved?

With these numbers, you can use a number of online retirement calculators to get a broad estimate of the gap between the income you want to receive and the income you’re scheduled to receive through Social Security, your pension, your 401(k)/403(b), your IRA, and other assets. Again, you would be well-advised to consult a financial planner. Here are some online retirement calculator websites:

· Mass Mutual Retirement Calculators
· CNN Money
· MSN Money
· Kiplinger
· Prudential

IV. Take Action. The problem with retirement planning is that when people figure out how far behind they are on retirement planning, they do nothing to close the gap or decrease their standard of living. Anything you do to increase your retirement income now will be less you’ll have to do later. The first step is taking steps to create the retirement income you’ll want.
· It’s never too early to start saving for retirement. You can open an IRA for your kids! The earlier you start saving and investing for retirement, the easier it will be. The more time you have ahead of you, the easier it is.

V. Resources
Some sample resources include:
· Online
o David Bach

· Books
o David Bach, “Start Late, Finish Rich”
o Eric Tyson, “Personal Finance for Dummies”
o Michael K. Farr, “A Million Is Not Enough: How to Retire with the Money You’ll Need”
o Terry Savage, “The Savage Number: How Much Money Do You Need to Retire”

Something to Think About
A series of family meetings
Financial Literacy
Module 5: Insurance

Disclaimer: We are not experts or role models with respect to insurance. We’re only sharing what we know. You will need to do more research on your own for additional answers or clarification. This is a VERY basic discussion.

I. First Things First: Why buy insurance?

· Insurance protects hard-to-replace assets against loss and damage, including people.

II. What Kind of Insurance Should You Have? Consider the Following:

· Health Insurance – to pay for health care costs.
o PPO (Preferred Provider Organization)
o POS (Point of Service) Plan
o HMO (Health Maintenance Organization)
o Medicare/Medicaid, and Medigap
· Life Insurance - To replace your income for your family if you die
o Term
o Cash Value (Whole Life, Universal Life, Variable Life)
· Car Insurance – To pay for damage to your car, damage your car causes, and damage to passengers in your car
· Homeowner’s Insurance or Renter’s Insurance – To pay for damage to the contents of your home or rental and to pay for damage to your home
· Long-Term Disability Insurance -- In case you become disabled and can no longer work
· Long-Term Care Insurance – To pay for the costs to be in a long-term care facility when you’re old
· Mortgage Protection Insurance – To pay for your mortgage in the event you can’t (not to be confused with Private Mortgage Insurance (PMI), which pays off your loan in case you default)
· Flood Insurance – To pay for damage to your home caused by flood, which is usually not covered by homeowner’s insurance
· Earthquake Insurance – To pay for damage to your home caused by earthquakes, which is usually not covered by homeowner’s insurance.

III. What You Need to Know When Buying Insurance
· Compare! Compare policies from different companies for the same amounts and types of coverage, the amount of the deductible, and the premiums charged for each.
· Read the policy carefully and ask the insurance agent or broker to explain any terms you don’t understand
· Review your policies annually and shop around for better rates.
· Make your insurance agent or broker explain exactly what your policy covers and doesn’t cover.

IV. Details on Health, Life, and Car Insurance

· Health Insurance
o HMO – Health Maintenance Organization health insurance requires you to use the doctors in the organization and receive referrals to specialists. You have fewer choices but usually lower costs. An example of an HMO is KaiserPermanente

o PPO – Preferred Provider Organization health insurance allows you to see doctors within the organization’s network or pay more to see doctors outside of the network. It is less restrictive than an HMO plan but may cost more.

o POS – Point of Service health insurance works much the same as PPO plans, but they typically require you to get a referral to see specialists, much like an HMO.

o Medicare – Medicare covers the following groups (from the Medicare website,

· People over the age of 65
· People under the age of 65 with certain disabilities
· People of any age with end-stage renal disease (kidney disease requiring dialysis or kidney transplant)
· Medicare provides different types of coverage depending on the type of Medicare plan. Consult for more information.

o Medicaid – Medicaid is a federal and state program that provides health insurance to the poor.
o Medigap – private health insurance to cover what Medicare doesn’t cover

· Life Insurance
o Term Insurance – Term life insurance provides coverage for a certain length of time and ends. It is usually cheaper than whole life.
o Cash Value Insurance – A continuous policy that has a cash value that increases over time that can be cashed out prior to death or borrowed against. The premiums are higher than for term insurance.

· Car Insurance – Car insurance coverages include (from
o Bodily injury coverage (in case you injure someone)
o Property damage coverage (in case you damage someone’s property)
o Medical payments or personal injury protection (in case you injure yourself or a passenger in your car)
o Collision (pays for damage to your car in case of collision)
o Comprehensive (pays for damage to your car caused by things other than collision, like falling trees)
o Uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage (pays for damage to you or your car if you’re hit by an uninsured or underinsured driver)
o Extras, like roadside assistance

V. Where to Buy Insurance

· Agents who work for a particular company
· Brokers who sell insurance from a variety of insurance companies
· Online directly from insurance companies

VI. Resources


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