The Independent Investor: Credit Freeze for Free
It just got cheaper to freeze your credit files, thanks to the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief and Consumer Protection Act. But should you do it?
The law, signed by President Trump back in May, only took effect this month. It requires the three major credit reporting bureaus — Equifax, Trans Union and Experian — to drop the fees to freeze your credit. Those fees ranged from $3 to $10 per person, times three credit bureaus, plus more charges to "thaw" your credit. Consumers can now also un-freeze their files, either temporarily or permanently, free of charge.
Thanks to a recent spate of credit breaches, Congress felt it needed to do something about the problem. Readers may recall last year's credit breach at Equifax and its aftermath. Hackers stole personal data, including Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses and even some driver's licenses from an estimated 143 million people in the U.S. Another 210,000 credit card accounts were also at risk. To make matters worse, the company knew about it, but kept quiet for some time before revealing it to the public. There had been a flurry of hearings, investigations and demands from both sides of the aisle to do something about it. Then there was the Yahoo breach in 2016, where over one billion users were impacted. Several banks, including Citibank as well as countless department stores, have reported hacking of information for millions more users. Thus, the new legislation.
So, what exactly is a credit freeze? It is a way to protect personal information from credit fraud and identity theft. Once you freeze your account, no one can get access to your credit files to open a new fraudulent account in your name. The downside is that you can't apply for new credit, either, unless you lift the freeze using a special PIN number.
But if you have ever had the misfortune of dealing with these credit bureaus, you know how time-consuming and complicated it is to change anything at all in your files. First, you need to be able to contact them. Sometimes the robo-answering service can keep you on the line for hours. You are required to repeat this excruciating task at all three agencies and you better have all your account numbers, credit card numbers and everything else handy and documented.
Remember, too, that if you need to apply for a loan, a credit card, set up electricity or phone service, rent an apartment, buy a house, obtain insurance, even apply for a new job, you can't — until you thaw your credit file. That will mean calling back all three companies, waiting in line, unlocking your credit, conducting your business, and then re-establishing the credit freeze. Putting up with these monumental delays may well be insurmountable for many.
You could, instead, take advantage of a credit lock, which works like a freeze and is offered by the credit bureaus. The companies market it as being more convenient since consumers can lock and unlock their credit files simply by using a smartphone application. Of course, they charge you a fee for it, as much as $20 a month, and that fee can be increased (and probably will be) in the future.
Fraud alerts could be the way to go. If you believe that your information may be in jeopardy, you can notify all three credit bureaus and they will then have to verify your identity before releasing information. Fraud alerts had expired after 90 days, but the new law requires them to remain in place for a full year.
Bottom line: if you are an actual victim of ID theft, a security freeze is critical. If you think you might become a victim of ID theft (your wallet was stolen or lost, as an example) a freeze might be worth considering. If so, do not lose your PIN number. If you do, it will cost money and mountains of your time to get a new one. And finally, if you are paranoid about identity theft, consider a fraud alert. Your credit information will still be available, but creditors must take reasonable steps to verify your identity before granting you credit.
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@theMarket: Record Highs and More to Come?
The Dow and the S&P 500 Indexes made record highs this week. That's right, we broke the levels of January and we closed out the week holding these new higher levels. So much for the bear's prediction of a 5-7 percent pullback.
Over two weeks ago, when I published my last column, I wrote that most of the Wall Street community was expecting a pullback. I warned readers "that when the pack is leaning one way, you should be looking the other way. I say stay invested, look beyond a month or two, and prosper by the end of the year."
OK, in hindsight, that was sage advice, but now what? You aren't paying me the big bucks to tell you about the past. Do we continue to move higher, or do we fail right here? I think stocks have some traction now that we have broken key resistance. We could move up to 3,020 or so on the S&P 500 Index before all is said and done.
There's plenty of reasons to hope for the best, despite that wall of worry I mentioned in my previous column. The tariff tiff between Trump and the rest of the world is slowly becoming old news. More and more economists and trade experts are coming to the same conclusion that I did over a month ago. When you add up all the tariffs and counter-tariffs, the economic impact is equivalent to a hill of beans.
An atmosphere that is long on rhetoric, but short on impact, equals higher stock prices, at least in the short run. And rather than reduce forecasts for economic growth, many economists are pushing up their growth estimates for both the U.S. and the world economy. The unemployment rate continues to decline here at home, and more and more workers feel confident enough in their job prospects to search for better-paying jobs.
The Fed is still on course to raise rates again. And the bond market is going along with the moderate rate increases since the inflation data continues to remain under control. At some point, that scenario will change, but until it does, there appears to be a floor under equities.
There are negatives, however, and any one of them could throw a monkey wrench into the positive scenario that I have presented. At this point, the mid-term elections are less than two months away and it doesn't look good for Republicans. Recent polls indicate that the GOP could lose the House and there is even some talk of losing the Senate. If so, we could see a paralysis in government over the next two years.
President Trump's political problems seem to be escalating on a weekly, if not daily, basis. It appears that many of the President's closest allies have not only found themselves in hot water, but are now willing to provide evidence against him to save their own skin. These investigations have plagued Trump since the election. They appear to be occupying more and more of his time and energy. A situation that I suspect will only escalate if the Democrats gain additional power in Congress.
Historically, October has been the worst market month of the calendar. That doesn't mean a down market is a sure thing. There have been plenty of times in the recent past where old market adages have not worked. But even if we do get a pullback, I wouldn't sweat it. Stay invested and wait it out.
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The Independent Investor: Dogs and Their Cars
Pet ownership in America is well over 50 percent. Nine out of 10 of these owners view their pet as part of the family. As such, dollars spent on traditional pet ownership areas such as food, veterinary needs and boarding have expanded to include things like exercise and travel. For more and more Americans, that trend has grown to include what cars we purchase.
This hit home for me recently when my wife and I began discussing our next automobile purchase or lease. In times past, our decision may have been based on what vehicles provided the best fuel mileage or winter safety in snow and ice conditions. But this year, it was all about what car would be most appropriate for our 10-year-old Labrador retriever, Titus.
Over the years, from time to time, I have written about Titus while examining topics such as the growing cost of owning a pet to the reasons everyone should purchase pet insurance.
Now, Titus has reached an age (like his owners) where he is slowing down. Arthritis in both shoulders, a back operation last year, and just wear and tear from retrieving way too many balls has made it increasingly difficult for our guy to leap into the back of an SUV. It appears we are not alone.
Seventy-seven percent of dog owners say the option of having pet-friendly features available would impact their decision on which vehicle to purchase the next time they are in the market to buy a car. That number increases to 89 percent for millennials.
In a recent 2018 auto trends report published and conducted and published by Google, the internet company found that the average American was 36 times as likely to search for pet-related items like a dog car seat or dog hammocks than the average person in Germany, and 10 times more likely than the average person in Japan.
Back in the day, when you went on a road trip, Fido stayed at the kennel or with friends or relatives. Today, no road trip would be complete without man's best friend tucked safely in the back. Problem is that what constitutes safety for a Chihuahua may not be safe for a 90-pound Rottweiler. Popular wisdom says, "the larger the dog you have, the bigger the car you need."
So, we have an SUV outfitted with a metal grill that sections off the baggage area. The space has been fitted out with a nice dog bed, towels, leashes and Titus' favorite toys. Most dog-friendly cars offer roomy interiors, seats that fold down, and has low ride height so that dogs can get in and out easily.
Who among us can forget Subaru's successful marketing campaign and website for their Forester wagon? It was built around (you guessed it) an aging chocolate Lab, declaring that their car was "dog-tested." Subaru's Dog Tested Facebook page even provided driver's licenses for your pets.
Toyota and Nissan, among others, have also jumped on the band-wagon. Nissan rolled out a new concept car, the "Rogue Dogue," based on its popular Nissan Rogue model. Among canine-oriented amenities offered are: a removable pet partition, secured leash-attachments, padded walls and floors, a 360-degree dog shower and dryer (I kid you not), spill-proof water and food dispensers, slide away loading ramp, a canine first aid packet, storage drawers and waste bags.
Before you get your hopes up, the Rogue Dogue is only a project vehicle and as such is not on the market yet. At some point, if there is enough demand, Nissan might enable dealers to add these features on an aftermarket basis.
As for me, I am hoping that Nissan does roll out the Rogue Dogue by next year. It sounds like the perfect car for our family, that is, if Titus approves.
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The Independent Investor: How Prepared Are You to Sell Your Company?
If you are a small-business owner and are toying with the idea of someday selling your company, you should pay attention. Only one in five small businesses put up for sale result in a closing. How do you become one of those success stories?
Where I live and work, nestled in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts, there are relatively few large companies. We are over-populated with "Mom and Pop businesses." As such, I meet and talk to plenty of these enterprise owners daily. An overwhelming number of these entrepreneurs have saved little or nothing towards their retirement.
Instead, they believe that at some point, someone would swoop in and buy their business, guaranteeing a financially secure retirement. Despite taking a hardline approach to the realities of running a business, most owners do not have a realistic sense of how to sell a business. The two are completely different animals.
I recently got an education in the difference by reading a book written by Allen P. Harris (owner of Berkshire Money Management where the columnist works) titled "Built It, Sell It, Profit." It's a slim book, well-written in layman's terms, which I suggest you pick up. In it, Harris addresses the big questions that need to be answered if you have even a hope and a prayer of selling your business.
The first question to ask is "What should I be doing today to build my business toward "maximum value?"
Harris would tell you that you will need to begin planning that sale for at least three to five years ahead of time. The things that you overlook in your day-to-day running of the business won't be overlooked by a potential buyer. Think of it in the same way you would approach getting in shape at the gym. You need a plan, and to figure out how the machines work and which ones to use.
In your firm, you will need to start documenting your workflows, your business procedures, hire the employees that will be needed, and in general, clean up your act before showing your business to any potential buyers.
"Think big," says Harris, "Strategic planning is a process of setting bold, long-range goals and then working backward to determine the steps needed to get there."
Another important question to ask is what your business is worth? You may know how much money you put into it, how much that new roof cost, or that line of trucks outside on the newly-paved blacktop but how much will a potential buyer be willing to pay for all that? Not to mention putting a value on the blood, sweat and tears you have invested in it over the years.
Most businesses need an independent valuation by an expert who can compare your firm to others in the same business. That's going to cost you and more than likely you won't take kindly to the answers. Unfortunately, most owners think their business is worth far more than it is.
The burning question I hear more than any other, is "If I were to decide to sell my business, would I get enough money so that I would be able to maintain my lifestyle and take the next step in life?" We will discuss that answer, as well as raise several other issues you might want to consider.
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The Independent Investor: Should You Bury Yourself?
In today's world, the idea that you should prepay, or at least set aside some money to cover your funeral expenses is gaining traction. Given the escalating costs of paying for a loved one's funeral, it is no surprise.
Most of us don't want to face it, let alone discuss it. In some quarters, it is "bad mojo" to consider planning for your death, so pardon me for bringing up such a squeamish (some might say ghoulish) subject. But as your fiduciary in all things financial, I feel obligated to discuss prepaid funeral expenses.
This year, I was introduced to this concept when my Mom died. She was 93 years old, bless her soul, and had a good life. Independent to the end, she secretly arranged for her own funeral expenses in 2000 along with specific instructions on what should happen at her passing. She wanted no fuss, no bother. Her remains were cremated, and everything was signed, sealed and delivered before I could make the five-hour trip to her home in Pennsylvania.
My mother turned out to be an astute investor when it came to her death. Funeral expenses during that time (2000-2018) increased by 75.74 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Her arrangement to prepay her expenses protected her from rising costs and provided a convenient and stress-free experience for me and the rest of the family.
However, there are pros and cons of pre-paying for your funeral. A prepaid funeral plan is an arrangement between you and a funeral home in which you make an upfront payment to the funeral home today. The agreement should state that the funeral home will administer funeral services in the future in return and cover all the costs. These funeral costs usually run somewhere between $10,000-$15,000 for basic services. They usually do not pay for cash expenses such as fees charged by the clergy or other services.
If you go this route, make sure the services and costs you specify are guaranteed in the contract. Watch out for terms such as additional payments for "final expense funding." It usually means that your beneficiaries will be required to pay any cost overruns.
There are other risks you take as well. For example, the funeral home may go out of business. What happens to your contract at that point? Have arrangements been made for another entity to take over your contract? What happens if you decide to move for example? Can your plan be transferred to another funeral home in a different state? Can you get your money back if you change your mind? Make sure that all of these "what ifs" are spelled out.
Some experts argue that there are better ways to pay ahead for your funeral. You could buy a life insurance policy with the proceeds earmarked for funeral expenses. Some suggest that you could also set up your own burial trust fund. It's called a "Totten trust" and is simply a regular bank account with a designated "pay on death" inheritor.
In this case, you open the account at your local bank or credit union. The money earns interest, you can close it at any time if you want, and could transfer the balance to a different bank if you want. When you die, the beneficiary collects the account balance and pays for the funeral.
Granted, prepaying your expenses via a funeral home is convenient and can insulate your costs from inflation if it is done right. Ask your financial planner what she thinks at your next meeting. It could not only provide you peace of mind but could also be a great gift to your beneficiaries.
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