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Wall Street Puppets Continue to Manipulate Washington

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A new bill was passed in the House this month that aimed at preventing Federal regulators from establishing new rules on Wall Street to increase accountability on the professionals that manage retirement savings.

The bill, titled the Retail Investor Protection Act, was created in response to the Department of Labor(DOL)’s recent efforts to change the definition of fiduciary standards as it is applied to financial advisors and stock brokers. The bill is designed to prevent the Department of Labor from creating new rules and regulations over Wall Street.

Fiduciary standards are commonly placed on white collar professionals, designed to ensure that the professional is always working to serve the best interest of the consumer, and not putting their own benefit first.

Much of the 2008 financial crisis was credited to mismanagement of funds and unethical practices by professionals within the big financial firms on Wall Street. The general consensus among Wall Street critics is that the financial industry professionals valued profiting from high fees and risky investments more than they valued the wellbeing of the everyday investor. As a result, many have called for stricter fiduciary standards over these individuals who manage investment assets.

Assistant Labor Secretary of the DOL, Phyllis Borzi, has taken the lead on bringing a stricter fiduciary standard to Wall Street. Since 2010, Borzi has been fighting to develop new rules on fiduciary standards for financial professionals. She has said that the measure will focus on protecting retirement savings from unethical management investments but not prohibit commissions for financial professionals. Her said goal is to hold investment advisors accountable.

“What I’m talking about is making sure the advice you give is primarily, overwhelmingly and undoubtedly the best plan for the client,” Ms. Borzi told an audience in September at a Financial Services Institute Inc. conference in Washington.

However, the mission to bring more accountability to Wall Street professionals went stale when the proposed fiduciary rules were withdrawn in 2010 after being met with much resistance from Wall Street. Bank lobbyists, and the politicians that favor big banks, were up in arms rejecting the attempts to make financial professionals more accountable for their decisions when managing savings accounts.

Since word got out that the DOL is set to reintroduce the 2010 proposed fiduciary rules in the coming months, there has been a return of forces that don’t want to see this regulation take effect, beginning with the campaigning of the Retail Investor Protection Act.

The Retail Investor Protection Act was proposed by U.S. Representative Ann Wagner in response to recent regulatory efforts by the DOL.

Representative Ann Wagner has been spearheading this legislation that will essentially handcuff the DOL, preventing them from establishing any new rules to govern Wall Street, unless the SEC first adopts the rules. The act also forces the SEC to jump through hoops before they can enforce new rules.

So why is Ann Wagner trying to make it even harder to keep up with regulations on an industry that has already gained a reputation for its greed and loose legislation?

A quick review of who helped put her in office shows that she may have a bit of bias when it comes to the battle between the everyday consumer and the big banks on Wall Street.

Below is a list of the top 5 contributors to Wagner’s 2013-2014 Campaign. 

 Wagner Fin Chart

This list shows Wagner’s top 5 contributor’s for her 2013-2014 campaign, by industry.

Wagner Fin Chart 2

 

Rep. Ann Wagner’s personal finances also show that she is heavily invested in securities with multiple big name firms on Wall Street.

Wagner is aggressively promoting her creation, the Retail Investor Protection Act, and because of her strong ties to Wall Street some are saying that this act is a perfect example of what the new proposed fiduciary rules are meant to prevent— conflicts of interest.

If Wagner’s bill passes the Senate it then moves onto the President for signing.

In the meantime, the proposed fiduciary rules have been delayed and are unlikely to take place in 2013. At the time of writing this article, it is unclear exactly when any new rules will actually take effect… if at all.

Can’t Retire?

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With the baby boom generation approaching retirement, more people than ever are concerned that they will be unable to retire comfortably at age 65.  A Retirement Confidence Survey (RCS), conducted by the Employee Benefits Research Institute (EBRI), reflected American workers’ dwindling hopes to retire and maintain their current standard of living.  This lackluster confidence is a result of inadequate savings, disappearing pensions, and the predicted insolvency of the Social Security system\. Over the past two decades in which the EBRI has conducted these studies, pessimism about a comfortable retirement has increased significantly, with 27% of workers in 2011 saying they were “not at all confident” about their retirement – an increase of five percentage points from 2010.  This represents the highest level of pessimism in 20 years of the RCS.  Although these statistics may seem alarming, Jack VanDerhei, EBRI researcher and co-author of the report, sees this trend as positive.  “People are increasingly recognizing the level of savings realistically needed for a comfortable retirement,” says VanDerhei. “We know from previous surveys that far too many people had false confidence in the past … People’s expectations need to come closer to reality so they will save more and delay retirement until it is financially feasible.”

So what can you do if you are not feeling confident about your ability to retire comfortably?  Delaying retirement for a few years may be your best option.  The RCS showed that thirty-one percent of workers in 2011 said they believed they would need less than $250,000 to retire at 65 and live comfortably.  In reality, most people will need more savings than that to maintain their current standard of living. To figure out your needed savings level, there are a number of retirement savings calculators available online, like this one at http://www.choosetosave.org/ballpark/.  You should use a financial calculator first to determine what your needs will be in retirement.  If your savings are not enough to cover you for 10 or 20 years after you retire, you should consider remaining in the work force for a few more years to continue accumulating your nest egg.

Many people believe they can rely entirely on their Social Security benefits to finance their retirement and will retire as soon as they are eligible to receive them.  American workers generally retire in their early 60s, and can receive partial Social Security Benefits at age 62; but, the Social Security Administration offers full retirement benefits to those who reach “full retirement age.” As an example, for those who are born 1937 or earlier, your full retirement age is 65; for those who are born 1960 or after, your full retirement age is 67.  Keep in mind that the average person receiving full benefits gets about $30,000 per year or less from Social Security. For anyone with a higher income than that, it would be prudent to continue working for a few more years.  If you choose to retire at your earliest opportunity, you will have to stretch your savings much more than if you had waited a few years.  By staying in the workforce, you can supplement your Social Security benefit; but, that should not be your only income stream.  As the large number of baby boomers begin to retire, benefits are likely to decrease.  New Congressional estimates say the trust fund supporting Social Security can only pay out 75% or less of its normal benefit by 2017.

If you are able, remaining in the workforce can keep you active and help you feel productive, as well as allow you to accumulate more savings.  If you are just itching to retire, you may want to consider gradually cutting back your workload or getting a less stressful or physically demanding job instead.  Decreasing your work obligations could feel like a retirement of sorts, but will allow you to continue making income.  In any case, if you feel you are able to keep working, you should – Social Security tells us retirement begins at 65, but your career doesn’t have to end there. Use a retirement calculator to determine what your needs will be, and if your savings are a bit too thin to support you in your retirement, remain in the work force until you can live comfortably.  Your bank account will thank you.

Top 7 Bad Credit Card Charges

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It makes sense for a credit card company to base a card holder’s financial responsibility on their ability to make payments in a timely fashion. By keeping up with payments, credit card holders were once certain to keep a good, stable credit score. With the struggling economy, however, credit card companies are prying into your life more than ever before.  They are now studying where you swipe your card and what you swipe it for to judge if your spending is risky, or more importantly, if you are going to be able to pay the  bills you owe.  Credit card companies have found, by closely examining their customers’ credit card use, they are able to get a better read on customers’ financial stability.  Credit card companies are also diminishing your credit score based on charges they see as irresponsible or those that foreshadow financial problems. Credit card companies post red flags for charges that may indicate customers are being careless with their credit.  Below is a list of certain items you should think twice about before charging to your credit card.

1)       Traffic Tickets:  No one is perfect, but showing off a traffic ticket to your credit card company is not a smart move. Do not give your credit card company the idea you are irresponsible or you exhibit risky behavior on the road.  Traffic tickets have the effect of raising your insurance, making a credit card company think financial troubles may lie ahead.

2)      Tire Treads:  Also car-related, charging treads for your tires may alert your credit card company that you are looking for the easy fix.  If you have always bought new tires, but now decide to simply get treads to save money, your card company may assume you can no longer afford your former purchasing lifestyle.

3)      Bargain Stores Shopping Sprees:  Speaking of your former purchasing lifestyle, it may be true that in this tough economy you may be unable to afford the luxuries of your former “glory days.”  Stores like Wal-Mart and Dollar Tree have come in handy for people trying to shop smarter by getting everyday basic needs at a fraction of the cost; but, do not swipe your card in one of these stores.  If a credit card company starts seeing frequent charges to stores like these, they will worry your income is unsteady.

4)      Casino Chips:  Using your credit card in a casino, or worse, taking out cash advances at a casino, sends signals of impulsiveness and irresponsibility.  The same goes with charging lottery tickets on your card, which is allowed in 12 of 46 of our country’s lottery states, not mention online gambling websites.  No credit card company is going to extend credit to you if you gamble it away.

5)      Alcohol Purchases:  An alcohol purchase here and there may not hurt your image with your credit card company; but, frequent charges may warn of instability in your life. You would not want your card company to assume you are washing your financial worries away through frequent binges.

6)      Marriage Counseling/Therapy:  Marriage troubles can indicate actual or potential financial problems. You should not charge counseling sessions as they could make your credit company feel uneasy.

7)      Bills & Income Taxes:  Swiping a credit card for a monthly bill or for income taxes is a red flag to the credit card company that you have insufficient disposable income. Charging recurring expenses may show you lack money management skills.

 

Charging the seven items above may show your credit card company you are financially unstable.  Arguably, your credit card company is unjustifiably prying into your personal life and is making hasty judgments based on a card’s magnetic strip. Be that as it may, card companies are starting to see these charges as indicators of how they should determine your credit score.  So, be wise – steer clear of charging the above items on your credit card and pay in cash.

Phil Cannella Warns the Community about the “Grandparent Scam”

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If it wasn’t already clear that scammers are heartless, it becomes abundantly clear for victims of the “the grandparent scam.”

This scam usually starts with a phone call and a persuasive voice claiming to be the victim’s grandchild.  In some elaborate cases, the caller will impersonate the grandchild’s attorney, allowing the “grandchild” to speak briefly to the victim in an indistinguishable sobbing voice.  The grandchild is always in some kind of trouble, usually with the law, and begs for immediate financial assistance.

In most cases, the caller will say they have been arrested and need bail money. The caller often insists that the victim keep the situation a secret to avoid embarrassment. The victim is instructed to wire money to a specific address as soon as possible. The address for the money is almost always in a foreign country.  If the scheme is successful and these leeches taste blood, the victim can usually expect a few follow up calls asking for more money. You can be certain the victim’s money will not be used for the said reasons and it is safe to assume the recipient isn’t one to donate your money to charity either.  The money is completely gone! It is in the pockets of some heartless creature who respects nothing, not even the unconditional love between grandparent and grandchild.

According to Phil Cannella scams like these are the most heartbreaking to hear about.

“No one wants to lose money, but to be convinced their loved ones are in trouble is just too much!” says Phil Cannella.

As a leading advocate for the fair treatment of retirees, this heartless scheme gets under the skin of Phil Cannella.

“Scams that not only target seniors, but exploit their good nature and instinct to help their struggling loved ones for financial gain are disgusting,” said Phil Cannella.

Scams like this are important to be aware of. They show, that in the war against scammers, there are no boundaries and no rules these morally absent con-artists will set for themselves.

Phil Cannella’s Advice on “The Grandparent Scams”:

  • Do not answer private or blocked calls. If it is an important message they will leave a voicemail.
  • If the caller asks for money, hang up! If they claim to be a loved one, call that person directly or someone who may know of their whereabouts.
  • Do not act on emotion. Slow down. These scammers play into the fact that in such an emotional state you will act quickly before thinking about what you are doing.
  • Involve other people. The caller may request you not involve others in fear of embarrassment, but it is you who will be embarrassed when news gets out you’ve been scammed.
  • But the most important message from Phil Cannella SCAMS are SCAMS! Whether they work or not! Make sure you report scams even if you were able to avoid any actual losses. Scam prevention starts with YOU letting authorities know they exist.

Home Health Care for Retirees

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For some retirees, nursing home care is simply out of the question, due to financial restraints or specific health problems.  For these retirees, there are other options for long term care which may be more affordable, or may be a better fit to the retiree’s lifestyle.  Home health care is one of these options.

 

With home health care, a retiree can stay in his or her home while having licensed skilled care technicians check in daily.  Most modern long term care insurance policies include provisions that allow in-home care.  While traditional long term care insurance often did not offer coverage for this type of care, most modern policies include a rider (an attachment, schedule, amendment, or other writing that is added to a document in order to modify it) that covers home health care.

Options for Retirees Who Don’t Qualify for Long Term Care Insurance

Some retirees (especially those who have pre-existing conditions) may find it difficult to qualify for Long Term Care Insurance, including Home Health Care.  For those who don’t qualify, there are other options like Home Care services.

Home Care is a lower cost alternative to both nursing home care and traditional in-home care.  Anyone in need of care can sign up for membership with a Home Care Service and pay a monthly, semi-annual, or yearly fee to receive care for 25 hours each week in their own home.  Most of these companies provide varying levels of service which range from $1,500 annually to about $5,000.  Compared to the $75,000 or more required each year for nursing home care, Home Care can be very affordable.  It also often comes packaged with a discount medical plan, which could save you money compared to Medicare or Private Health Plans.

Home Care should not be confused with Home Health Care.  The difference is that Home Health Care is provided by licensed doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals; while Home Care (also called non-medical care or custodial care) is provided by caregivers who are not licensed as medical professionals.  There are many companies that provide Home Care services, and some provide better care than others.  First Senior Financial Group’s educators can help you find a reputable, reliable Home Care provider in your area so you can be sure your care is being provided by the most highly skilled unlicensed professionals.

Tiptoeing through the Medicare mine field!

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Americans in their retired years need and deserve the peace of mind of knowing they can receive quality medical care without taking large sums out of pocket. The federal government offers just such a safety-net: Medicare. Put most simply, Medicare is health insurance for those 65 or over, and it’s funded chiefly through payroll taxes while you’re still employed. President Lyndon Johnson signed the plan into law in July 1965.

Those 65 or over can sign up with Medicare as a sole, joint or back-up insurance plan. The effective date of coverage is the first day of the month in which you turn 65. You must enroll in Medicare in order to be covered.

Medicare consists of four parts. Part A pays for hospital bills. Part B is optional coverage that pays for doctor visits and other medical services; most subscribers will pay $96.40 or 115.40 monthly, depending on their circumstances. Part C is another extra-cost option; it includes so-called “Medicare advantage plans” plans, offered by private insurance companies. Part C generally encompasses Parts A and B (often at an enhanced level of coverage), as well as Part D, which features private plans that supplement the prescription drug coverages in A and B. Clearly this gets complicated, so call 1-800-MEDICARE to discuss your specific situation. The “Medicare & You” handbook is another excellent resource, usually updated each year. Check out the 2011 edition at http://www.medicare.gov/publications/pubs/pdf/10050.pdf.

While Medicare may be a godsend, it can also be a mine field. Educating yourself on the ins and outs of this unique program can prevent you from being denied coverage when you need it most. Following are some of the most common misconceptions about Medicare.

  • Medicare does not provide family coverage. You can be covered on an individual basis only.
  • It’s true that basic Medicare cannot deny you coverage, and that you cannot face higher premiums for being sicker than the average person—but many pre-retirees do not realize that recipients still must pay premiums, co-pays and deductibles. Therefore, chronic illness can still be devastating.
  • Your monthly Part B premium may be higher than $115.40 if you are single and earn more than $85,000, or married and earn more than $170,000 together with your spouse.
  • If you snooze, you lose! Those who decline to sign up for Plan B during their initial eligibility period may be socked with a permanent increase of 10% for each 12-month period in which they remained uncovered. Their premium will never drop to the rate most others pay!
  • Plain-vanilla Medicare does not offer the same menu of services, at the same levels of coverage, as a private health-insurance plan.
  • In any case, traditional Medicare does not cover routine dental care, eyeglasses, hearing aids, custodial long-term care, and health care outside the United States.
  • A Part C “Medicare Advantage Plan” typically restricts you to certain doctor and hospital networks. You may not be able to continue using your current family doctor or specialists.

Helpful hint: If you feel you have a specific problem that can’t be addressed by calling the routine Medicare number above, try the Medicare Rights Center at 1-800-333-4114.

Warning: Social Security Scams

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With 55 million people receiving Social Security in our country, it is not unimaginable that crooks are out to scam retirees and their families from their Social Security money.  This month, AARP.com has published an article titled “Watch Out for Social Security Scams.”  Explained below are ways Social Security recipients can avoid scammers’ traps.

First, a Social Security Administration (SSA) employee will never contact you by e-mail; therefore, it is an automatic red-flag if you are getting e-mails regarding your social security benefits.

If you are contacted by phone or letter by an SSA Rep, they may be contacting you if you have previously asked to update your records.  If someone is on the other line or writing to you stating that the SSA is updating their records, and they will need your Social Security number, birth date, mother’s maiden name, bank account number, etc., you can be sure someone is trying to steal your identity.  AARP suggests getting in touch with the SSA yourself at 1-800-772-1213 or by visiting a local office to confirm the person contacting you, the number they’ve used to contact you, or the letter they’ve sent you are legitimate.

The AARP also warns Social Security recipients to be wary of anyone who contacts them, says they are an SSA Rep, and offers a bigger Social Security check in exchange for a “filing fee.” SSA employees are not allowed to charge filing fees and representatives may face prosecution if they even try.  If you believe you are eligible for a higher benefit check, then file an appeal on your own.  You may hire someone to help you with the complicated process, but an SSA representative may not ever be involved.  To better understand the appeals process, or if you have any questions about your Social Security, call 1-800-325-0778 to speak with a representative or to find an SSA office near you.

Lastly, do not be deceived if a scam artist contacts you saying you have some sort of special tax refund coming your way.  They may say you are able to claim a lump sum of what you are “owed,” based on the lack of Social Security funds or the stagnation in the Cost-of-Living-Adjustment the past two years. If the refund sounds too good to be true, it likely is—the lump sum will never be sent to you.  The reality of it is that con-artists of this type have been known to create phony IRS tax return forms to trick victims into divulging personal information, including their banking data.  Know that there is no such “tax credit” or “refund” in federal tax law.

With Social Security being a major topic in the news, and a popular topic among its 55 million recipients, it is easy to see how it has become a new scamming avenue for crooks.  Know how to keep your Social Security payments safe by following the advice listed and never give out personal information to an unreliable source.

5 Retirement Myths

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Those of us preparing for retirement may find our heads spinning with the deluge of advice received from friends, family, co-workers, and financial planners.  And with millions of Baby Boomers approaching retirement age, it is important to sort through this advice and develop a solid plan to move forward.  William Lynott of bankrate.com interviewed professionals from the financial industry and has developed a list of what he believes are the most common myths about retirement.  These tips could help you decide on the best way to proceed with your retirement planning:

  1. One million dollars will be enough.
  2. With an ever-increasing cost of living, one million dollars does not go too far nowadays.  In the past, this figure has provided a comfortable retirement, but financial professionals are now warning against under-saving.  You may want to plan on adding a bit more to your nest egg before you retire.

  3. You’ll spend less money after you retire.
  4. Many people may plan on tightening their purse strings after they retire, but they may not always be willing to do so when the time actually comes.  Early in retirement, you may have a desire to enjoy the time off with activities such as traveling, pursuing hobbies, and spending time with family.  All this can add up to a lot of money spent on plane tickets, meals, and anything related to your chosen hobby.  You may want to plan for an initial period of increased spending, or try to be frugal and save money for later in retirement, when you may need it for medical bills or other expenses.

  5. Social Security will take care of you.
  6. Social Security checks were never meant to be the only source of income for retirees, but many people are banking on the system to provide for them when they stop working.  It is important to realize that the average Social Security recipient makes less than $30,000 annually from the program.  Most people would agree this sum would not provide a comfortable lifestyle, especially for those with medical problems.  Even with cost-of-living adjustments, Social Security will not be able to cover everything you need in retirement, so you should plan on having other sources of income.

  7. Put all your money in bonds and CDs.
  8. These types of investments are considered to be safe by the majority of people, but they may not be considering other factors like inflation.  With today’s rock bottom interest rates, your bonds and CDs may not be able to keep up with inflation.

  9. Medicare is all you need in retirement.

While this program does cover a great deal of medical expenses incurred by retirees, it does not cover everything.  For example, Medicare provides nothing for assisted living or nursing home stays, something many retirees will need later in their retired years.  You may need a Medicare supplement policy to fill in the coverage gaps.  Unfortunately, these plans can be expensive, so it is a good idea to set aside a bit extra.

This list may seem to be full of grim facts, but it is not intended to frighten you.  Retirement is something we prepare for our entire working lives and we must realize that not every bit of advice should be taken to heart.  The economic situation in America is rapidly changing, so the old axioms may no longer hold water.  Make sure you speak to a financial planner to make sure you’re getting the most current information so you will have the best possible chance of retiring comfortably.

4 IRA Strategies to Save You Money

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IRAs are a great way for anyone to save money for retirement. With the current state of the economy, many people may be tempted to withdraw early from their retirement accounts. What they may not know is that doing so could cost them a lot of money, leaving them in a worse spot than they were previously. This and other mistakes cost retirees millions every year, but they can be avoided, if you know your IRA laws, and if you have a strategy that will allow you to get the most out of those laws.

IRA Age1.      Make sure you are 59½ before withdrawing.

This affects those people who want to withdraw early from their retirement accounts.  Know that withdrawing early is a bad idea, unless you need the funds to deal with some kind of emergency (some exceptions are available, including hardship withdrawals and an exception to withdraw up to $10,000 if you are a first-time homebuyer).  Most people approaching retirement age know that they will be hit with a 10% penalty if they withdraw funds from their IRA before reaching age 59½.  Although it is possible to avoid this penalty using the exceptions mentioned above, but it’s better to just wait a bit longer.  You should also know that the IRS is very specific about the 59½ year cutoff, up to the day.  So if you try to withdraw 181 days after your birthday, you will be in for a big surprise around tax time (in the form of that 10% penalty).

Money Market Accounts

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What is a Money Market Account?

A money market account works a lot like a traditional savings account, with a few restrictions.  Banks and Credit Unions offer these accounts to give themselves more freedom to use your money in exchange for a higher interest rate.  So while a typical savings account will get less than 1% interest these days, a money market account can gain more than 1%, making it a great place to park your money in the short term.

Restrictions on Money Market Accounts

Money Markets have a few restrictions you may not generally find in a savings account.  The first is a minimum balance.  These vary from institution to institution but can range from as low as $1,000 to as high as $25,000 or more.  If you do not meet your minimum balance obligation, you will be charged a fee.  Also, since money markets are considered savings accounts rather than transaction accounts, they must comply with regulations limiting the number of withdrawal transaction to third parties.  This is a monthly limit, and is designed to prevent you from using the money market account for daily transactions.

Benefits of a Money Market Account

  • Money markets are FDIC insured, protecting the money in the account up to $250,000.
  • They allow you to write checks on the account, although this is limited to around three per month.
  • In exchange for limiting access to your own money, banks will give you a higher interest rate.

Downsides of a Money Market Account

  • Liquidity of your money is less than it would be with a traditional savings account (although it is more liquid than it would be with a Certificate of Deposit).
  • Transactions are limited to six or less per month.
  • Minimum balances can be high, making money markets less than ideal for paying daily expenses.

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