Women and Money

How to Take Control of Your Spending This Year, Part 4: Budgeting and Tracking Your Spending

Budgeting and Tracking Your Spending

This article is part four of a four-part series to help you reduce your spending this year. In part three, you identified what triggers your overspending habit. This week, I’ll share tips and tricks for budgeting and tracking your spending.

Budgeting and tracking your spending can provide benefits beyond simply saving more money. It also allows you to invest more, pay off debt more quickly, and even retire earlier in some cases! Plus, it can offer a sense of control and accomplishment and reduce financial stress.

Setting a New Budget

Previously, you identified how much you spent in the last 12 months on your spending weakness. Now, it’s time to set a new budget for the next 12 months.

Of course, it’s helpful to choose your new spending goal within the context of a comprehensive cash flow and financial plan. However, to keep the task smaller and more doable, I suggest setting a budget of at least 25% less than you spent the previous year on your spending weakness.

For example, if you spent $10,000 last year, set a budget of $7,500 for the next 12 months. Reduce by a more significant percentage if you feel like your spending was way out of control last year!

Depending on your spending weakness, it may be helpful to set a monthly budget instead. For example, if clothing is your weakness and on average you spent $1000 a month last year, your new budget will be $750 a month. Setting a monthly spending limit rather than a yearly goal may help you stick your budget longer term.

Tracking Your Spending

Once you’ve decided on an amount, you need to create a system for tracking your spending.

You can accomplish this task either digitally or manually; the most important thing is that you do it on at least a monthly basis. If you wait until the end of the year, you lose the benefit of being able to modify your behavior if necessary.

One idea: Save all your receipts in a folder (online or physical). Then, at the end of each month, add them to a spreadsheet and subtract the total from your total budget. Another idea is to download an app like Mint or Goodbudget that tracks and categorizes your spending.

How to Stick to Your New Spending Plan

Budgeting and tracking your spending are indeed important steps. Yet it takes focus, patience, and perseverance to actually stick to your new spending plan.

In other words, changing your behavior is hard. To get your spending under control once and for all, you’ll need a set of tools and resources that support you in achieving your goal.

Here are a few ideas for changing your behavior and creating new, healthier habits:

  • Find a replacement activity for shopping. When you think about going to a store or hopping on the internet, read a book, call a friend, or watch a movie instead. Choose something pleasurable and stimulating that doesn’t cost money.
  • When you go to a store, be prepared. Make a list of what you want to buy and stick to it. This preparation will help you avoid impulse purchases.
  • Delay your purchase. Take a day or two to think about whether you need it.
  • Avoid peer pressure. Don’t shop with friends who encourage you to buy things you don’t want or need.
  • Don’t tempt yourself. Plan different routes when you are out and about to avoid your favorite stores and unsubscribe from email lists that entice you to spend money.
  • Find a new hobby that doesn’t involve spending a ton of money. For example, play a new sport, start a creative project, or learn to play a musical instrument or speak a new language.
  • Keep your goals front-of-mind. Add a sticky note to your laptop with your budget goal, or read books and articles or listen to podcasts or audio books about habits, conscious spending, and personal finance.
  • Practice self-awareness. When you are angry, tired, sad, or frustrated, go for a walk or meditate instead of shopping. Keep a journal about your experience and emotions while trying to change your behavior.
  • Repurpose your discretionary funds. Take some of your savings and donate to your favorite charity.
  • Hold yourself accountable. Tell your friends that you are trying to cut back on your spending and want their support, or hire a coach or financial advisor to help you reach your broader financial goals.
  • Visualize your future self. Think about what you’ll gain if you get your spending under control. Then, create a vision board depicting what you see and how you feel.

What Will Motivate You to Stop Overspending?

In addition to changing your behavior, you may need to adjust your mindset around spending altogether. Otherwise, it’s easy to slip back into bad habits.

One thing I’ve found helpful when trying to create a new habit is to identify my “why.” In other words, why is it so important to you to get your spending under control? What are you giving up by overspending? What’s the opportunity cost?

Some of you may want to retire early, but your current spending is keeping you from doing so. In effect, your spending habit may be keeping you from spending more time with your family, pursuing your lifelong dream of writing a novel, or just feeling more at ease on a daily basis.

Or maybe your why is to get out of credit card debt. Instead of putting hundreds or thousands of dollars each month towards your credit card balances, you could be contributing that amount to a retirement account, HSA, or donor-advised fund. You may also sleep better at night knowing you’re debt-free.

Take time to journal about what why you want to stop overspending and what it would feel like to get your spending under control. Then, ask yourself these questions: What would I do with the time and money I save? What could I accomplish instead? How would my attitude about myself change?

Budgeting and Tracking Your Spending for the Long Run

Lastly, people tend to be motivated by what they value. Ask yourself if your current spending aligns with your values. If not, this can be a powerful motivator when it comes to budgeting and tracking your spending.

If you aren’t sure what your values are or need some prompting, consider downloading The Happiness Spreadsheet. This free eBook is full of exercises to identify your values and align your spending with what matters most to you. It also has a list of other helpful resources to guide you in getting your spending under control.

If you’ve been following this blog series, I hope you now have a strong foundation to create healthier spending habits in 2023 and beyond. You may also find the other resources on my website helpful as you continue your personal finance journey.

Lastly, remember we’re in this together. Please feel free to connect with me, keep me posted on your progress, and ask questions.  

Good luck, and here’s to a prosperous 2023!

If you found this information interesting, please share it with a friend!

How to Take Control of Your Spending This Year, Part 3: What Triggers Your Overspending Habit?

What Triggers Your Overspending Habit?

This article is part three of a four-part series to help you reduce your spending this year. In part two, I took you through a simple exercise to help you identify your spending weakness. This week, we’re going to determine what triggers your overspending habit.

People overspend for many reasons, even when they know it’s detrimental to their finances. Unfortunately, overspending can become a habit. And habits only break if you want them to.

Breaking any pattern can be challenging, but you can change your behavior with persistence and a plan. Here’s your next step for getting your spending under control in 2023.  

Figuring Out Your Triggers

Oftentimes, something else triggers our habits, such as an external stimulus, an emotion, or even another habit. If you tend to overspend, chances are something is triggering this habit.

You may or may not be aware of what triggers your overspending habit. If you don’t, take some time to reflect on and journal about when your overspending habit started, what triggered it, and what continues to activate it.

From my experience working with women clients, here are a few common scenarios:

  • They have a good income or resources but have unrealistic expectations about how much they can spend. This situation frequently happens with women who experience a “sudden-money” event, such as a large inheritance, bonus, a big raise, a new highly paid job, or a liquidity event. Once the spending starts, it’s hard to stop.
  • They use shopping to deal with negative emotions such as loneliness or anxiety— or shopping as “retail therapy” to numb themselves instead of confronting what is bothering them.
  • They’ve stopped keeping track of their spending, don’t have a budget, and have yet to learn how much they can afford to spend while still reaching their other goals.
  • Shopping, which started as a pleasurable pastime, has slowly become more like an addiction. The excitement of buying something new and better (online or in a store), and the camaraderie with friends and shop owners, all combine into a positive reinforcement loop that can get out of control.
  • A life-changing event happened, such as divorce, the death of a spouse, a new home or relocation, and they haven’t adjusted their spending to their new reality.

Taking Control of Your Overspending Habit

Contemplating and writing down your reasons for overspending can be a helpful step in getting your spending back in alignment with your financial goals. Take your time and dig in as deeply as possible to determine what triggers your overspending habit before going on to the next step.

In part four of this series, we’re going to take action by setting up a budget and a system for tracking your spending. In the meantime, I invite you to check out these free resources to help you better understand and take control of your personal finances.

If you found this information interesting, please share it with a friend!

How to Take Control of Your Spending This Year, Part 2: Identifying Your Spending Weakness

Identifying Your Spending Weakness

This article is part two of a four-part series to help you reduce your spending this year. In part one, I shared a simple hack to help you create healthier spending habits. This week, I’ll take you through an exercise to help you identify your spending weakness.

It’s common wisdom that the way to complete a big task is to break it down into smaller parts and then tackle each task one at a time. Otherwise, overwhelm can set in, and nothing gets done. I’ll suggest a similar approach to tackling the “big task” of overspending.

What Is Discretionary Spending?

We all spend money on a lot of things, necessary and discretionary. For this exercise, we’ll define discretionary spending as spending on items you could survive without if you wanted to.

Examples may include an extensive collection of clothing, art, household knick-knacks, jewelry, shoes, accessories, make-up, books, or electronics. Alternatively, you may overspend on discretionary experiences such as excessive travel, entertainment, or dining out.

First, Identify Your Biggest Spending Weakness

Your first task in cutting discretionary spending is to identify your biggest spending weakness. For example, if you feel shame (or at least discomfort) about the amount of money you spend on something, it’s likely your spending weakness.

Most of you know your spending weakness, so choosing will not be difficult. However, for those who need more clarification, analyzing your past expenses can help you find your answer.

I encourage you to choose only one spending category at a time to keep things simple. (Breaking down a big task into smaller tasks helps get things done, remember?) That way, you are more likely to make progress. Of course, if you want to, you can add more categories or items and follow the next steps for each.

Next, Calculate How Much You Spent Over the Last 12 Months

After identifying your spending weakness, the next step is to write down how much you spent over the last 12 months on this item. While you can estimate this dollar amount, it’s better to look at your credit card and checking account statements to determine your actual spending. Otherwise, it’s easy to rationalize and make excuses when you’re guessing.

Got your number? Congratulations. I know that confronting money issues is hard, especially if it brings up uncomfortable feelings like regret, remorse, or shame. So let the feelings happen, but then let them go. Thank yourself instead for starting this journey to get back on track.

Continuing Your Journey

In the next article, we’ll go through an exercise to help you discover what triggers your overspending.

In the meantime, I invite you to check out these free resources to help you better understand and take control of your personal finances.

If you found this information interesting, please share it with a friend!

How to Take Control of Your Spending This Year, Part 1: Reduce Your Spending by Creating Healthy Habits

Reduce Your Spending by Creating Healthy Habits

This article is the first in a four-part series to help you reduce your spending this year. I’ll be sharing the knowledge and experience I’ve gained over the last 20 years creating financial plans and guiding women to take control of their finances to help you develop healthier spending habits.

I know many people scoff at the idea of New Year’s resolutions. But I don’t. I believe it’s an opportunity to try and jump-start new habits.

Yes, you can start a new behavior in March or September, but something about a new year motivates me—and maybe you, too. Plus, it helps if the habit you’re trying to change causes you distress, so you’re motivated to work on it throughout the year.

For example, many people want to reduce their discretionary spending. They intuitively know that their spending is getting in the way of achieving their financial goals, but they don’t know what to do about it.

In part one of this series, I’m sharing the simple mindset shift that can help you reduce your spending once and for all.

January is an excellent month to begin a new spending plan.

You may have noticed that I’ve been using the word “habit” a lot. But what do habits have to do with spending?

Many of our behaviors become habits. Overspending or unconsciously spending is a habit, which is actually good news if you’re trying to reduce your spending.  

Many experts—for example, James Clear, who wrote the book Atomic Habits—have shared their wisdom and strategies for breaking bad habits and replacing them with new ones.  We’ll be leveraging the wealth of information available on this topic, as well as my own experience as a financial planner, to help you get control of your spending in 2023.

What does it take to develop new habits?

If you want to change your habits and reduce your spending this year, living in denial isn’t the answer. Your brain won’t like that. It will fight back too hard.

Instead, you’ll need to make thoughtful decisions about where to allocate your resources moving forward. Eventually, cutting back on spending will be something you want to do because you know it will get you to a better place.

Ready to reduce your spending? Let’s get started.

Each blog post in this series will focus on getting you to think and then take action. You will be writing, so get a pen and paper out, or boot up your laptop. By week four, you’ll have a new attitude and plan in place to help you reduce your spending and get back on track towards your financial goals.

Are you ready to get started? Great. In the next article, we’ll work on identifying your spending weaknesses.

In the meantime, I invite you to check out these free resources to help you better understand and take control of your personal finances.

If you found this information interesting, please share it with a friend!

Clean Energy Tax Credits: What to Know Before You Buy

Inflation Reduction Act & Clean Energy Tax Credits

The Inflation Reduction Act introduces several clean energy tax credits and rebates that may benefit environmentally conscious taxpayers.

As a California-based financial advisor who works primarily with women, I frequently have conversations with clients about socially and environmentally responsible investment strategies. But with the recent passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, many environmentally conscious investors are seeking new ways to put their values into action while potentially benefiting financially in the process.

If you’re considering making climate friendly upgrades to your home or vehicles, you may be eligible to claim thousands of dollars in potential tax credits and rebates. However, before purchasing a rooftop solar panel or electric vehicle, it’s important to understand the various clean energy incentives available—and how to use them to your advantage.

Clean Vehicle Credits

The Inflation Reduction Act extends the Clean Vehicle Credit through 2032. It also introduces new credits for purchasing used electric vehicles.

Specifically, if you buy a new electric vehicle (EV), you may be eligible for a tax credit worth up to $7,500. For a used EV, your tax credit may be worth 30% of the purchase price or $4,000, whichever is less. You may also qualify for additional incentives from state and local governments, depending on where you live.  The caveat is that the new credits don’t go into effect until 2023. So, if you’re planning to purchase a used electric vehicle, you’ll likely want to wait until after the new year to maximize your potential tax benefit. 

For new EV purchases, it’s a little more complicated. If you purchase a new EV in 2022, the Inflation Reduction Act stipulates that the final assembly of the vehicle must take place in North America. However, purchases of General Motors and Tesla car models aren’t eligible for a tax credit until 2023.

Car manufacturers must also meet two battery-related requirements for consumers to receive the full credit in 2023 and beyond. That means some EVs won’t immediately qualify for a tax break as manufacturers work to meet these rules.

Lastly, beginning in 2024, car buyers can transfer their tax credit to dealers at the point of sale. That way it directly reduces the purchase price. This can be particularly valuable for two reasons:

  • First, you won’t have to wait until you file your tax return to benefit financially.
  • In addition, transferring the credit to the dealer at the point of sale ensures you’ll receive the full benefit since the credit amount can’t exceed your tax liability. Meaning, if you owe $6,000 in taxes for the 2023 tax year and take the Clean Vehicle Credit worth $7,500, you lose the remaining $1,500.

Keep in mind there are new adjusted gross income (AGI) thresholds to be eligible for a new EV tax credit. In 2023, the AGI limit is $150,000 for single taxpayers and $300,000 for married couples filing jointly.  

Residential Clean Energy Credit

The Residential Energy Efficient Property Credit was previously set to expire at the end of 2023. Now the Residential Clean Energy Credit, the Inflation Reduction Act extends it through 2034 and increases the credit amount, with a percentage phaseout in the final two years.

The Residential Clean Energy Credit is a 30% tax credit that applies to installation of solar panels and other equipment that makes use of renewable energy through 2032. The percentage falls to 26% in 2033 and 22% in 2034.

In addition, the credit is retroactive to the beginning of 2022. That means if you install a solar panel or similar equipment this year, you can qualify for the 30% tax credit on your 2022 tax return.

Energy Efficient Home Improvement Credit

The Inflation Reduction Act also extends the Nonbusiness Energy Property Credit and renames it the Energy Efficient Home Improvement Credit.

This is a 30% tax credit on the cost of eligible home improvements, worth up to $1,200 per year (as opposed to the previous $500 lifetime limit). The annual cap jumps to $2,000 for heat pumps, heat pump water heaters, and biomass stoves and boilers. In addition, roofing will no longer qualify for a tax credit.

Specifically, the annual tax credit limits for qualifying improvements are as follows:

  • $150 for home energy audits
  • $250 for any exterior door (up to $500 total) that meet applicable Energy Star requirements
  • $600 for exterior windows and skylights that meet applicable Energy Star requirements
  • $600 for other energy property, including electric panels and certain related equipment

The enhanced credit is available for projects you complete between January 1, 2023 and December 31, 2033, with some exceptions. Any projects you finish in 2022 aren’t eligible for new incentives. However, if you incur costs in 2022 for a project that you complete in 2023, these costs can count towards your tax break.

Additional Financial Incentives for Investing in Clean Energy  

Finally, the Inflation Reduction Act creates two rebate programs to incentivize clean energy and efficiency projects. Unlike many clean energy tax credits, these rebates are offered at the point of sale. Thus, consumers can reap the financial benefit immediately.

The HOMES rebate is worth up to $8,000 for consumers who make energy efficient upgrades to their homes—for example, HVAC installations. Ultimately, the rebate amount depends on the amount of energy you save and household income.

Meanwhile, the High-Efficiency Electric Home Rebate Program offers taxpayers up to $14,000 for buying energy efficient electrical appliances. This rebate is only available to lower income households, and the rebate amount varies by appliance.

The timeline for these rebates to go into effect is less clear than the three tax credits mentioned above. Many experts believe they won’t be broadly available to taxpayers until the second half of 2023 as the Energy Department issues rules governing the programs.

How to Invest in Clean Energy Strategically

The Inflation Reduction Act creates a variety of financial incentives for taxpayers to invest in clean energy and energy-efficient projects. Those who take advantage of these clean energy tax credits and rebates can potentially save thousands on their taxes while doing their part to fight climate change.

However, to maximize these incentives, it’s important to time them correctly and use their constraints to your advantage. A trusted financial advisor like Curtis Financial Planning can help you incorporate these purchases and investments into your financial plan, so you can reap the greatest benefit. We invite you to connect with us to find out more.

If you found this information interesting, please share it with a friend!

How Will Student Loan Forgiveness Affect You?

Student Loan Forgiveness

After months of discussion and debate, President Biden announced on August 24, 2022 that many federal student loan borrowers will be eligible for some type of debt forgiveness. Those who didn’t receive a Pell Grant may be eligible for up to $10,000 in forgiveness. Meanwhile, Pell Grant recipients may see as much as $20,000 of debt forgiven.

President Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan comes as welcome news to many Americans drowning in debt. Yet many—voters and politicians alike—oppose the program.

In fact, many Republican leaders are threatening legal challenges in an effort to block the bill. If this happens, the plan’s future may be in jeopardy.

Nevertheless, borrowers who are eligible for student loan forgiveness should be prepared to take advantage of the program if and when it begins. Here’s what you need to know about Biden’s student loan forgiveness program, including how it works and how it may benefit you.

What’s Included in Biden’s Student Loan Debt Relief Plan?

The Student Loan Debt Relieve plan forgives $10,000 of student loan debt for federal student loan borrowers. In addition, borrows who received a Pell Grant may be eligible for up to $20,000 in student loan forgiveness.

The plan also includes:

  • An additional (and possibly final) extension on federal student loan payments until December 31, 2022
  • A push for borrowers who may be eligible for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Waiver (PSLF) to apply for the waiver before it expires on October 31, 2022
  • The creation of a new income-driven repayment plan (IDR) that would lower monthly payments and potentially reduce the time period required for loan forgiveness for eligible borrowers.

Who’s Eligible for Student Loan Forgiveness?

To be eligible for forgiveness, borrowers’ income levels must be under $125,000 for single borrowers and $250,000 for married couples and head of household filers. Borrowers may use their 2020 and 2021 tax returns to determine their income. They only need to meet the income requirements in one of these tax years.

In addition, only Federal loans funded by June 30, 2002 are eligible for forgiveness. This includes consolidated debt.

Federal loans for graduate school are also eligible for forgiveness, as are Parent Plus Loans. However, if a parent has more than one Parent Plus Loan for multiple children, they’re only eligible for total forgiveness up to $10,000.

Current students are also eligible for student loan forgiveness if they have debt. But if the student is a dependent of their parents, the parents’ income will determine eligibility for forgiveness.

Lastly, it’s important to emphasize that student loan forgiveness only applies to federal loans. Borrowers who refinanced their student loans with a private lender cannot take advantage of the program.

What Do Borrowers Need to Do?

Some parts of the student loan forgiveness plan will go into effect automatically. For example, many borrowers with IDR plans who have already recertified their income with the US Education Department will be eligible for loan forgiveness automatically.

Meanwhile, other aspects of the plan may require borrowers to take more action. One example applies to borrowers who made payments on their student loans since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Since the government paused federal student loan payments in March 2020, borrowers can request a refund of any payments they made after that date. This makes most sense if a borrower’s loan balance is less than $10,000, and a refund would allow those payments to be forgiven instead.

Is Student Loan Forgiveness Taxable?

Thanks to the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, most student debt discharged through 2025 will be tax-free—at least at the federal level. At the state level, income tax consequences will vary by state.

Currently, 13 states may treat forgiven student loan debt as taxable income. These states include Arkansas, Hawaii, Idaho, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

The Tax Foundation estimates that borrowers could incur anywhere from $300 to over $1,000 in state taxes, depending on where they live, if they receive the full $10,000 in student loan forgiveness. These figures could double for Pell Grant recipients, since they’re eligible to receive up to $20,000 in student loan forgiveness.

Planning Considerations for Those Who Haven’t Filed a 2021 Tax Return Yet

Indeed, most taxpayers have already filed their 2020 and 2021 tax returns. However, if you filed an extension for your 2021 return, there are a few strategies you may be able to leverage to help you qualify for student loan forgiveness.

  • First, consider contributing to an eligible retirement plan if you haven’t reached your contribution limit yet. This strategy makes sense is the contribution is enough to reduce your AGI to a level that’s eligible for forgiveness.
  • Income thresholds for married couples filing separately are still unclear. However, if the thresholds for single filers apply to married couples filing separately, you may want to see if changing your filing status will help you qualify for forgiveness.

As you consider these strategies, keep in mind that the extension deadline is October 17, 2022.

Student Loan Forgiveness: Next Steps

The forgiveness process will be relatively easy for most borrowers. For example, federal student loan borrowers already have income information on file with the US Department of Education. Thus, those who are eligible are likely to receive forgiveness automatically.

Of course, there are still many unknowns, including how a potential challenge by Republicans will affect student loan forgiveness. In any event, the official application should be available soon. The U.S. Department of Education sent out a notice recently that it could be available as soon as early October, 2022.  In the meantime, eligible borrowers can receive updates from the Department of Education by signing up here.

Lastly, a trusted financial advisor can help you better understand how student loan forgiveness may impact your financial plan. They can also help you identify other strategies to pay down your debt and reach your financial goals.

To learn more about how Curtis Financial Planning helps our clients take control of their finances, please explore our services and client onboarding process.

If you found this information interesting, please share it with a friend!

9 Things You May Not Know About Social Security Retirement Benefits

Social Security Benefits

On the face of it, Social Security benefits seem straightforward. You simply fill out some paperwork when you retire and start receiving your monthly amount.

Unfortunately, many people do just that. They may glance at their Social Security statement now and then but don’t put much thought into it beyond that. Meanwhile, others may assume they’re not entitled to benefits and leave money on the table.

The truth is many people don’t maximize their Social Security benefits, either because they don’t understand how the system works or they need the money before reaching their full retirement age. Once you’re aware of Social Security’s many nuances, you can use the system to your advantage.

Here are 9 things you probably didn’t know about Social Security benefits (but should):

#1: Reaching age 62 is significant when it comes to Social Security.

When it comes to claiming Social Security benefits, a variety of important things take place when you turn 62.

First, the Social Security Administration officially calculates your benefit amount when you reach age 62. That’s because 62 is the age you can begin claiming benefits if you choose. Up until this point, the benefit information on your Social Security statements is merely an estimate.

Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s always wise to start your benefits at age 62. In fact, by claiming your benefits at age 62 instead of when you reach full retirement age (currently, between age 66 and 67 depending what year you were born), you may decrease your monthly benefit amount by as much as 30%.

You’re also eligible for cost-of-living adjustments (COLA) beginning at age 62—even if you don’t claim your benefits right away. Since the Consumer Price Index determines COLA, eligibility can pay off in high-inflation years. For instance, some groups are estimating the increase will be as high as 10.8% in 2023 to account for rising price levels.  

#2: Your Social Security statement now shows you how much your benefits will increase each year by waiting to claim them.

Indeed, the Social Security Administration recently redesigned their statements to clearly show the differences in your benefit amount based on the year you start taking them. And you don’t have to wait until you’re eligible for Social Security to see what this means for you.

Check it out! Go to ssa.gov and set up an account, so you can view your Social Security benefits at any time.

#3: You must work at least 10 years (40 credits) to qualify for Social Security retirement benefits.

Once you’re eligible for Social Security benefits, your highest 35 years of indexed earnings determine your benefit amount. Index means that the SSA adjusts your actual earnings to account for changes in average wages over time. However, if you keep working after claiming your benefits and report higher wages, they will replace one or more lower-wage years with your higher earnings.

For example, many women leave the workforce or cut back their working hours to raise children and restart their careers later. Those later years of earnings will replace the zero or low-wage years, thus increasing the ultimate benefit amount. This can also apply to people who change jobs to start their own business or work for a start-up and take a temporary pay cut as a result.

#4: Your Full Retirement Age (FRA) is an important milestone.

Your full retirement age (FRA) is the age you’re eligible to receive your full Social Security retirement benefits. It’s important to note that full doesn’t necessarily mean maximum, however.

If you were born between 1943 and 1954, your FRA is 66. For those born between 1955 and 1960, FRA then gradually increases until it reaches 67. Anyone born in 1960 or later reaches their FRA at age 67.

Reaching your FRA is significant for several reasons:

  • Reaching your FRA does not mean you have to start taking benefits. You can delay your benefits until age 70.
  • Each month you delay taking benefits after reaching your FRA, your benefit increases. This is true until age 70. For example, if your FRA is 66, you can increase your benefit amount by as much as 32% if you wait until age 70 to claim your benefits. Your benefit amount at age 70 would also be roughly 77% higher than if you began claiming Social Security benefits at age 62.
  • If you claim your benefits before reaching your FRA and continue to work, you may be subject to the SSA’s Retirement Earnings Test. This may reduce or even eliminate your benefit temporarily. For example, the Social Security earnings limit is $1,630 per month or $19,560 per year in 2022 for anyone receiving benefits prior to reaching FRA. If you exceed these thresholds, you can expect the SSA to withhold $1 from your benefits check for every $2 you earn above the limit.

Remember: Everything about Social Security supports work. So, your benefit will continue to grow as you continue working and your earnings increase.

#5: Age 70 is another significant age when it comes to Social Security benefits.

You must start taking Social Security benefits by age 70. Delaying past age 70 will not increase your benefits. However, any cost-of-living adjustments will apply.  

If you work past age 70 and your earnings are higher than any of the previous 35 years used to calculate your benefit, your benefit will increase. Those higher earnings will replace a year where you didn’t earn as much.

#6: If you’re married, divorced, or widowed, it pays to understand your spousal benefits.

As with many government benefits, there are many rules when it comes to Social Security spousal benefits. The following flow charts may come in handy to determine your eligibility.

In the meantime, here are a few basics that are good to know:

  • A lower-earning spouse can collect a spousal benefit up to 50% of the higher earner’s FRA. Meanwhile, a widow or widower can collect up to 100% of the deceased spouse’s benefit.
  • Because a widow or widower can collect up to 100% of a deceased spouse benefit, it makes sense for the higher earner to max out their benefit by waiting until age 70 to claim.
  • It may pay to keep tabs on your ex-spouse if you were married for at least 10 years. A divorced spouse can file for a spousal benefit even if the ex-spouse has not yet claimed if both parties are at least 62 years old and have been divorced for more than two years.
  • If your ex-spouse dies, the picture changes. As the surviving ex-spouse, you can claim a survivor benefit as early as 60. You can also allow your own retirement benefit to grow until age 70. Alternatively, you can claim a reduced retirement benefit early. Then, you can switch to a higher survivor benefit at full retirement age.
  • If you’re married, you must wait until the higher earner files for benefits to claim benefits on their record.

#7: Benefits are taxable at the federal level and potentially at the state level.

In 2022, you must pay taxes on your Social Security benefits if you file a federal tax return as an individual and your taxable income exceeds $25,000 ($32,000 for married couples filing jointly). If your taxable income is between $25,000 and $34,000 ($32,000 and $44,000 if filing jointly), you’ll pay taxes on 50% of your benefit amount. For income levels above those thresholds, you’ll pay taxes on 85% of your benefit amount.

In addition, most states don’t tax Social Security benefits. However, some do, so be sure to check your state tax requirements.

#8: Beware of the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP)

If you also receive pension benefits based on earnings from jobs that Social Security doesn’t cover (and therefore aren’t subject to the Social Security payroll tax), the windfall elimination provision (WEP) may reduce your benefit amount. WEP reductions don’t appear on your Social Security statement. So, they can come as a surprise if you’re not aware of it.

#9: The Government Pension Offset (GPO) may affect your spousal benefits.

The Government Pension Offset (GPO) affects spouses, widows, and widowers with pensions from a federal, state, or local government job. It may reduce your Social Security benefits in some cases. Specifically, if you receive a pension from your government job and didn’t pay Social Security taxes while you had that job, the SSA will reduce your spousal benefits by two-thirds of the amount of your pension. There are exemptions, however.

To Maximize Your Social Security Benefits, Consider Working with a Financial Professional

Social Security is a complex topic that many people don’t fully understand. While the above list certainly isn’t exhaustive, hopefully it gives you a better understanding of how the system works. It may also give you a starting point to do your own research.

In addition, consider working with a trusted financial advisor, who can help you maximize your Social Security benefits. A financial advisor can also help you develop a comprehensive financial plan for your future, so you can retire on your terms.

To learn more about how Curtis Financial Planning helps self-made women and female-led households secure their financial future, please start here.

If you found this information interesting, please share it with a friend!

3 Tips for Successfully Navigating Gray Divorce as a Woman

3 Tips for Successfully Navigating Gray Divorce as a Woman

Women tend to face a variety of unique financial challenges when separating from a partner. When it comes to successfully navigating gray divorce, preparation and the right team of advisors are key.

Divorce over age 50—commonly referred to as “gray divorce”—is becoming increasingly common in the United States. Although the overall divorce rate has been declining since the 1990s, there’s been an upward trend in gray divorces over the same period, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

No one gets married with the intention of divorcing. Yet the reality is that divorce happens—and it happens more often than we’d like to admit. And while divorce can be devastating at any age, the financial consequences for those who divorce later in life tend to be far worse for women than for men.

If you’re a woman navigating gray divorce, protecting yourself financially is critical. Here are a few tips to help you obtain an equitable settlement and maintain your financial independence post-divorce.

When it comes to navigating gray divorce, consider the following tips:

#1: Get Organized

Data shows that the average person spends two years thinking about divorce before taking action. If you’re considering divorce, be sure to familiarize yourself with the household finances. This is especially important if you’ve let your spouse take the lead for most of your adult life.

On the other hand, if your spouse is considering divorce, you may not have ample time to prepare. But if you sense any shift in your marriage, getting financially organized can’t hurt—even if divorce never comes to fruition. Indeed, researchers estimate that 90% of all women will be solely responsible for their household finances at some point in their lives.

Here are a few organizational tips for navigating gray divorce and taking charge of your financial life:

  • Keep a record of all financial accounts, property, and other assets owned by you and your partner. You should also classify all assets as separate or marital property.
  • Be sure to save copies of all corresponding documents so they’re readily available if you need them.
  • Do your best to locate all estate planning documents, prepaid funeral arrangements, and premarital agreements, if applicable.  

Other examples of information you may need during the divorce process may include:

  • Personal balance sheet/financial statements
  • Inventory of joint and separate property
  • Bank and investment account statements
  • Real estate deeds
  • Mortgage/loan documents
  • Credit card statements
  • Wills/trusts
  • Insurance policies

In addition, keep track of your login credentials for online access to all relevant financial accounts and information. Creating an organizational system in advance can help make the process easier for you and your team of advisors if you find yourself navigating gray divorce.

#2: Assemble Your Team of Experts

Once divorce is on the table, you’ll want to begin assembling a team of legal and financial experts. Many people immediately tap their network for help once navigating gray divorce becomes their reality. However, taking your time to carefully select a team of experts can ultimately save you time, money, and unnecessary stress.

As you assemble your team of advisors, consider the following specialists:

  • A divorce attorney or mediator to help you navigate the legal aspects of divorce and advocate on your behalf.
  • A Certified Divorce Financial Analyst (CDFA) who can help you gather and document household financial details, as well as determine a fair division of assets.
  • An estate planning attorney, especially if you have young children. You’ll need to recreate all relevant estate planning documents after you divorce.
  • A divorce coach or therapist to help you navigate the emotional aspects of divorce.

If you don’t have recent appraisals for real estate and other highly valued property, be sure to obtain your own professional appraisals. In addition, consider adding a financial planner or tax professional to your team to help you determine the tax consequences of various settlement scenarios.

Finally, beware of the unpleasant possibility that your partner may try to hide assets from you during the divorce process. Finding hidden assets can be challenging, but it’s not impossible.

If there’s no obvious paper trail, past tax returns can be a helpful place to start. Alternatively, if you suspect your partner may be hiding a substantial amount of money or property from you, you may want to consider hiring a professional who specializes in asset search and investigation. 

#3: Choose Your Divorce Process

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to divorce. The best approach typically depends on your family dynamics, as well as your personal and financial circumstances. Nevertheless, you typically have four options when it comes to navigating gray divorce.

  • Do It Yourself. With this approach, you and your spouse work out the details of your divorce without the assistance of legal advisors and other experts. A DIY approach may save you time and legal fees if you and your spouse are divorcing amicably. However, you may also leave yourself open to an unfair settlement, since you don’t know what you don’t know.
  • Traditional Representation. You can retain an attorney for the length of your divorce or hire a consulting attorney to assist you when necessary. With either option, you’re at the mercy of the law and the court system. This can be time-consuming and expensive. But it can also protect you if the divorce is complicated and/or contentious.
  • Mediation. With this approach, you have a neutral facilitator—typically an attorney who specializes in family law. Their only role is to listen and make sure both parties are heard. That means they can’t advise on financial matters related to navigating gray divorce. This may be problematic if there’s a power imbalance or one party isn’t acting in good faith.
  • Collaboration. Rather than a winner versus loser approach to divorce, collaboration aims to troubleshoot and problem-solve. Importantly, both parties and their attorneys agree not to litigate. Instead, the teams bring in whoever is needed to help make the process run as smoothly as possible. If either party goes back on their agreement, the party who litigates must find new counsel.

A Trusted Advisor Can Help You Take Ownership of Your Finances After Navigating Gray Divorce

Unfortunately, navigating gray divorce doesn’t end once the divorce proceedings conclude. As you adjust to your new life, it’s important to take ownership of your finances so you can thrive independently.

It’s possible that your divorce settlement may be all you need to sustain your lifestyle post-divorce. Nevertheless, you’ll want to develop a personal budget and long-term financial plan that reflect your new circumstances.

Additional post-divorce considerations may include:

  • Social Security benefits. If you’re divorced but your marriage lasted at least 10 years, you can still collect benefits on your ex-spouse’s record. This is true even if they have remarried, but not if you remarry.
  • Insurance needs. The two primary types of insurance that typically come into play during a divorce are health insurance and life insurance. Be sure to revisit your policies and ensure you have proper coverage post-divorce.

Lastly, if you haven’t worked with a financial planner in the past—or your partner took the lead in the family finances—consider engaging a trusted financial advisor. Your advisor can help you take control of your finances, identify your blind spots, and secure your future.

If you’re navigating gray divorce and looking for a financial partner to help you maintain your financial independence and make smart decisions for your future, Curtis Financial Planning may be able to help. To see if we’re a good fit, please start here.

If you found this information interesting, please share it with a friend!

The Complete Guide to Buying a New Car as a Solo Woman

Buying a New Car As a Solo Woman

The world continues to evolve in many ways. However, when it comes to buying a new car, it often feels like stepping into a time machine—especially if you’re a solo woman.

Data shows that women buy 62% of new cars in the United States and influence 85% of all car purchases. Yet many car dealers are still ripe to take advantage of female shoppers, at least according to the numbers. In fact, one Yale study has repeatedly found that car dealers offer higher list prices to women than men, by about $200 on average.

Indeed, there are likely many reasons for this discrepancy. Still, one way to ensure you get the best deal when buying a new car is to prepare accordingly before signing the papers.

Luckily, my husband Rob handles all car purchases in our household. Because even though I’m financially savvy, I know what I don’t know when it comes to cars. However, I remember many frustrating experiences buying a new car as a solo woman. I hope this article helps the next time you’re in the market for a new vehicle.

Tip #1: Do Your Homework

Kelley Blue Book reports that women are twice as likely as men to be undecided on new vehicle type. Unfortunately, walking into a car dealership with no plan in place leaves you open to potentially unsavory sales tactics.

To avoid making a purchase that you may not be happy with in the long run, be sure to do your research ahead of time. Websites like Edmunds.com, Kelley Blue Book, and Car and Driver provide in-depth information on pricing, safety, and other features. You can also read reviews to understand how certain cars measure up against others.

In addition, visit the dealership’s website ahead of time to familiarize yourself with what they have in stock and the respective sticker prices. That way if the dealer directs you to the most expensive version of a particular vehicle, you know if there are more affordable versions available.

Lastly, once you know which cars you’re interested in, go directly to the corporate website—for example, Acura.com or Ford.com—to see what deals they’re currently offering. Many times, brands will offer incentives that can reduce your final price significantly.

These steps may seem tedious, and it may not excite you to research cars online. However, the more information you have ahead of time, the better deal you’re likely to receive when buying a new car as a solo woman.

Tip #2: Know What You Can and Can’t Negotiate

Depending on the market environment, you may have limited room to negotiate the final price of your vehicle. Even so, it’s helpful to know what you can negotiate when buying a car as a solo woman, as well as what’s set in stone.

First, know that the MSRP—the Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price—is just that: a suggestion. As independent franchises, car dealers have the latitude to sell the cars on their lot for any price they choose. In other words, the MSRP should be the starting point for your negotiations.

To better understand your ability to haggle the MSRP, you should also know the dealer’s invoice price and the car’s market value. The invoice price is how much the dealer paid the manufacturer for that vehicle. While you can ask the sales manager for the invoice price, websites like Consumer Reports may provide more straightforward information. In addition, Edmunds.com and KBB.com can show you what other people in your area have paid for similar cars recently to help you determine the fair market value.

So, what can’t you negotiate? Taxes and registration fees are non-negotiable when buying a new car. In addition, dealers won’t negotiate the cost of transporting the vehicle from the factory to the dealership. But beware of dealers attempting to add a second freight charge to the final price of the vehicle. This fee should be negotiated down or eliminated—and may be a sign that you don’t want to do business with that dealership.

Finally, keep in mind that some dealers are moving towards “no-haggle” pricing, especially if you’re looking at a used or certified pre-owned car. If this is the case, typically your only room for negotiation is on your trade-in value, financing terms, and the price of any add-ons.

Tip #3: Know What Your Trade-In Is Worth

If you plan to trade in your current vehicle when buying a new one, doing your research ahead of time is essential. Many dealers will assume you don’t know what your vehicle is worth and intentionally try to low-ball you on price. They may also try to tell you your car is in worse condition than it is.

When buying a car as a solo woman, don’t begin any negotiations until you know what your trade-in is worth. A good place to start is KBB’s “My Car’s Value” tool. Simply enter your VIN or make and model and answer a few questions about features and overall condition. KBB will then quote you a private sale price, trade-in price, and instant cash offer. Typically, the price you can realistically get for your trade-in falls somewhere between the trade-in price and instant cash offer (assuming the information you enter is accurate).

However, in certain cases you can get a better offer for your car than the Kelley Blue Book value. Therefore, it’s also helpful to check online dealers like Carvana and CarMax. Carvana gives you what they call a “real offer” for your car in less than two minutes. CarMax will also give you an instant offer online.

These three resources will give you a pretty good idea of what you can reasonably get for your trade-in. Once you have a quote from each, be sure to take screenshots or print them out so you can show the dealer what others are offering for your vehicle if necessary.

Tip #4: Understand Your Financing Costs

Unless you plan to pay in cash, you’ll likely need to finance the cost of your new vehicle. Unfortunately, the financing discussion can be one of the most confusing aspects of buying a new car as a solo woman if you don’t prepare ahead of time.  

One of the best ways to prepare is to know your current credit score. Most credit bureaus and credit card companies let you check your primary FICO® Score for free. You also have a separate FICO® Auto Score, which dealers use to determine your creditworthiness.

If your overall credit score is strong and you’ve diligently paid your car notes in the past, your Auto Score is probably fine. However, if you’re nervous, you should also check this score before buying a new car.

Once you know your credit score, you’ll have a better idea of the interest rate you can expect on your car loan. If your credit score is strong (typically above 700), you’re likely to qualify for any dealer financing promotions. In many cases, the promotional rate is more attractive than what you’ll pay for a third-party auto loan.

On the other hand, if the dealer isn’t offering any financing incentives, you may want to research your bank or financial institution’s auto loan terms and see if you qualify. Having this information ahead of time will better prepare you to negotiate with the dealer and avoid overpaying for your new car.

Tip #5: Avoid Common Negotiation Pitfalls

When buying a car as a solo woman, the sad truth is that the dealer will try to take advantage of any knowledge gaps. For example, when negotiating price, they’ll likely ask you what you want your monthly payment to be.

Don’t share this number with them! Only negotiate the final price of the vehicle. You can also try to improve your financing terms, but only do this once you’re satisfied with the final price of the car.

It’s fine—and even advisable—to determine what your budget is ahead of time. However, sharing this number with the dealer allows them to manipulate the other terms of the transaction in their favor while still meeting the upper end of your monthly budget. For instance, they may quote you a higher price but stretch your loan term out six or seven years to lower the monthly payment.

Alternatively, they may try to push you into a lease by offering you a lower monthly payment. And while in some cases a lease may make sense for your budget and lifestyle, you should only lease a car if this is your intention. Otherwise, you’re locking yourself into a contract and have no asset to sell if your plans or financial circumstances change.

Secondly, the dealer will likely try to sell you gap insurance and a pre-paid maintenance plan. You don’t need to buy either of these, no matter what they tell you!

Instead, check with your insurance company to see if your auto insurance includes gap coverage. If not, you can likely add it at a very low cost.

Additionally, a pre-paid maintenance plan may make sense in certain cases. But trying to do the math on the spot is nearly impossible. Bottom line: don’t let the dealer pressure you into something you’re not sure about.

Tip #6: Be Ready to Walk Away When Buying a New Car as a Solo Woman

Of course, the first rule of any negotiation is to be ready to walk away. If you’re not completely happy with the terms of the transaction or the vehicle, don’t sign the papers. In many cases, taking a break from the negotiation gives you more leverage to ask for what you really want. It also gives you more time to research your options in the meantime.

Buying a car as a solo woman can be a stressful and frustrating experience. Yet the more information you arm yourself with ahead of time, the more empowered you’ll be to buy it on your terms.

Curtis Financial Planning specializes in helping independent women thrive today and plan for tomorrow. If we can help you take control of your personal finances, please get in touch.

If you found this information interesting, please share it with a friend!

5 Inspiring Statistics About Women and Investing

Women and Investing

As a financial advisor who works primarily with women, I’m all too aware of the gender investment gap. Not only are women paid less than men on average (and therefore have less money to invest), but many women aren’t confident in their investment abilities. Unfortunately, this can result in lower returns—a contributing factor to the retirement savings shortfall.

That’s the bad news. The good news – there’s evidence that this gap may be closing. Fidelity recently released its 2021 Women and Investing Study, which provides some interesting insights into women’s attitudes and behaviors about investing. The study’s key finding: more women than ever are taking a seat at the investing table.

Here are five inspiring statistics about women and investing that may make you feel more optimistic about your financial future:

#1: 67% of women are now investing outside of retirement compared to just 44% in 2018.

When it comes to closing the gender investment gap, younger women seem to be leading the charge. Indeed, 71% of Millennial women invest outside of retirement, according to Fidelity. But, the numbers are encouraging among older generations as well. Two-thirds (67%) of Gen X women and 62% of Baby Boomers say they invest outside of retirement.

So, what’s holding women back from closing the gap completely? According to Fidelity, 70% of women say they need to know more about picking individual stocks. In addition, 65% of women said they’d be more likely to invest or would invest more if they had clear steps to do so.

#2: When women invest, we see better results than men do.

Based on an analysis of more than 5 million Fidelity customers over the last ten years, women outperformed their male counterparts by 0.4% annually, on average. According to a recent CNBC article, there are many reasons women tend to be better investors than men.

For one thing, women trade less, which helps avoid unnecessary fees and many of the pitfalls associated with market timing. In addition, women tend to invest more consistently, meaning we like to have a strategy in place and follow it. Interestingly, none of these reasons has anything to do with knowing how to pick the right stocks. Instead, they require discipline.

#3: 9-in-10 women plan to take steps within the next 12 months to help their money work harder to grow.

Nearly 70% of women surveyed said they wish they had started investing their extra savings earlier. On the bright side, 90% of women say they plan to take steps to remedy this situation in the next 12 months. Specifically, their goals include:

  • Improving their financial literacy.
  • Creating a financial plan.
  • Reaching out to a financial professional.
  • Investing more of their savings.

#4: 64% of women would like to be more active in their finances, including investment decisions.

Perhaps some of the good money habits we developed during the pandemic contribute to these inspiring statistics about women and investing. For example, half of the women surveyed said they have been more interested in investing since the start of the pandemic. And 42% of women say they have more money to invest than they did pre-pandemic.

However, despite women wanting to invest more, the vast majority still don’t feel confident when it comes to long-term planning and investing for the future. Only 19% of women feel confident selecting investments that align with their goals. Meanwhile, only 31% feel confident planning for financial needs in retirement. (If this sounds like you, here are 5 Ways to Boost Your Financial Confidence.)

#5: 71% of women said they felt more confident once they set up a financial plan.

An overwhelming theme throughout the Fidelity study is that women feel better when they have a financial plan. Yet, though interest in investing is on the rise, less than half of women say they would know what to do if they had $25,000 to invest in the stock market today.

Unfortunately, this lack of confidence goes beyond women’s financial lives. More than a third of women said their financial situation keeps them up at night at least once a month. The primary culprit? Their long-term finances.

If these statistics about women and investing have inspired you to take the first step towards securing your financial future, a trusted advisor can help.

If your finances are keeping you up at night or you simply want a clear path towards your financial future, working with a trusted financial partner can help. In fact, 86% of women agree that having their investments managed by professionals makes life less stressful, according to Fidelity.

Curtis Financial Planning can help you develop a plan for your future and align your investments with your goals and values. To get started, please schedule a call.

If you found this information interesting, please share it with a friend!
Curtis Financial Planning