Stacy’s Savvy Financial Advice

Stay Savvy with our founder Stacy Francis’ latest articles on financial planning, budgeting, debt management, investing, divorce, retirement planning, and more.

Stacy Francis founded Savvy Ladies in 2003 with the mission to educate women about their finances and empower them to make proactive choices. Inspired by her grandmother who stayed in an abusive relationship due to financial reasons, Stacy has been determined to never let another woman become powerless by financial instability.

Get the resources, knowledge, and tools you need to make smart and informed decisions about your money and your life.

In addition to being the Founder and Board Chair of Savvy Ladies, Stacy is the President, CEO of Francis Financial, Inc., a boutique wealth management and financial planning firm. A nationally recognized financial expert, she holds a CFP® from the New York University Center for Finance, Law, and Taxation, and is a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst® (CDFA®), a Divorce Financial Strategist™ as well as a Certified Estate & Trust Specialist (CES™).

Stacy has appeared on CNBC, NBC, PBS, CNN, Good Morning America, and many other TV & Financial News outlets. Stacy too is ofter sought out for her advice and can be found quoted in over 100 publications such as Investment News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today.  She shares her wisdom and expert financial advice here for you to learn and get savvy about your finances.

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STACY’S $AVVY ADVICE

Cash Crunch in Your Forties: Your Children’s Future or Your Own?

by Stacy Francis, CFP®, CDFA

This dreadful dilemma was the main topic of discussion at a recent Savvy Ladies event. And the economy being what it is, alas, it is one to which far too many of us can relate. We all want what’s best for our children, so what could possibly be more important than securing them a top-notch education? On the other hand, past big 4-0, retirement is no longer a hazy, distant concept but something very real, approaching at rocket speed. So when faced with job loss and financial hardship, how do we prioritize?

The answer is quite simple: stick to your retirement savings plan, and direct whatever’s left toward the college savings account. It may sound selfish, but the truth is, no one’s going to give you a scholarship or a favorable retirement loan. And not only do your children have time on their side, greatly enhancing their chances to pay back whatever balances they may accrue, but the less savings you have set aside for them, the more financial aid becomes available to them. Once your financial situation starts to improve, you can certainly lend them a hand.

Ask any child what he or she would prefer – a bit of student loans or an aging parent crashing on the couch for, say, fifteen years. I’d say chances are high he or she will opt for the student debt.

So stick to your retirement savings plan. Then help your children.

Use the Wallet-Half-Full Approach and Make Your Financial Dreams Come True

by Stacy Francis, CFP®, CDFA

The book “Unwinding the Clock. Ten Thoughts on Our Relationship to Time” sat on my bedside table for months after a friend gave it to me. This past weekend, I finally got around to reading it – and I liked it much more than I thought I would! My favorite chapter dealt with a feeling most people will recognize: not having enough time. Author Bodil Jonsson turns this around and points out that in a way, time is all we have. Time is a wonderful gift, enabling us to start families, build careers, have hobbies, learn new things, and travel the world. Instead of panicking about running out of time, why not tell ourselves that we have all the time in the world? After all, it is no less true.

The same approach can revolutionize your relationship to money. If you stress about the money in your account not being enough to fulfill all your financial obligations and desires, try turning this negative thought process around, instead viewing each dollar as an opportunity to get closer to your personal and financial goals. Rather than worrying about the financial milestones you will fail to meet, imagine how the twenty-dollar bill in your wallet could buy you a better lifestyle in your golden years, part of a college education for your child or a lavish dinner. This simple change of perspective won’t cost you a dime, and you’ll have a lot more fun securing your financial goals.

Spousal IRA 101

by Stacy Francis, CFP®, CDFA

A woman approached me after maternity yoga last night. My husband is stoked about this child, she told me, and when my maternity leave is up, he would like to be a stay-at-home dad for a couple of years. I already know this means he won’t be able to keep contributing toward his 401(k), but is there another way for him to keep up his retirement savings? 

A smart question, and she should really give herself a pat on the shoulder for planning ahead. And yes, provided that she makes enough money and that they file a joint tax return, he can contribute toward a traditional or Roth IRA (income limits apply for Roth IRAs). Even if her employer does provide a retirement plan, she may also be able to contribute toward a traditional IRA (or a Roth, as long as her income is below certain limits).  

Putting her and her husband’s case into numbers, they are each eligible to contribute $5,000 toward a traditional IRA in 2009 ($6,000 if they are over 50), as long as she makes enough money to cover the contributions. If they prefer Roth IRAs, their joint adjusted gross income must be less than $176,000 (phase-out between $166,000 and $176,000).

Clear as mud, isn’t it?

Term or Whole Life Insurance – Which Is Right for You?

by Stacy Francis, CFP®, CDFA

I had breakfast with a new client this morning, at a cozy new bakery around the corner from my office. While the fruit and croissants couldn’t have been better, our conversation was anything but. My new client was- like so many people these days – in a bit of a tough spot financially, so last week he attempted to cash out on the whole life insurance policy he purchased three years ago. He had put almost $9,000 into it, surely, he would be able to withdraw something?

Before sharing his account of this transaction, allow me to explain the difference between term and whole life insurance. Put simply, a term insurance policy is acquired for a certain period of time, often with an option to renew. If the insured person dies before the end of the term, the beneficiary is paid the face value of the policy. A whole life insurance policy is usually for life, and it has both insurance and cash value components.

Now, back to my new client’s case.

The woman who sold him the policy informed him that if he wished to make a cash withdrawal, he would have to wait several years. Even then, he wouldn’t get much.

This type of scenario is far from uncommon. Most whole life insurance policies you need to hold for at least twelve to fifteen years if they are to generate decent returns – some of them never do. Other drawbacks with these types of insurance policies include hidden fees, high commissions (100% of the first year’s premium is not unusual), and that overall, they tend to be lousy investments. There are so many better ways to save for retirement!

So unless you have a very high net worth and intend to use the whole life insurance policy for estate planning purposes or a disabled child or parent, opt for term insurance. It is simpler, less expensive, and you are much better off investing your money elsewhere.

I Lost My Job – What About Health Insurance?

by Stacy Francis, CFP®, CDFA

I received an email from a Savvy Ladies member today; a heartbreaking tale of how she had been laid off, and was now trying to figure out how to survive – and feed her two small children, as she is a single mom. One of the expenses she worried about was medical. I think any parent can relate to this: with children around, unless you have the proper insurance coverage, medical expenses tend to run the gamut. For those of you in the process of losing your jobs, here’s how to keep this aspect of your finances under control.

First of all, if you are still employed, make the most out of your insurance plan while you have it. Get all your routine checkups out of the way. If you use medications, take out as much as your insurance provider will allow. If you have been putting off procedures, now’s the time to have them done.

Once you do lose your job, know that you have options. Under COBRA rules, in most cases, your company must allow you to keep your insurance coverage for eighteen months, as long as you pay the full premium. While this is great news indeed, there is one drawback. The full premium can be quite a bit higher than the monthly payment you are used to, depending on your insurance plan and how much your employer has been contributing. Do your research – shop around, and request other quotes. You may be able to find a cheaper deal on your own, especially if you are eligible for a state run insurance program.

Cheap and Expensive Cars to Insure

by Stacy Francis, CFP®, CDFA

When I bought my son a Scion Tc, a client told me over mid-morning mochas the other day, I didn’t anticipate that my insurance bill would skyrocket. I suppose I sort of assumed it wouldn’t make that much of a difference.

The key to staying clear of a situation like hers is to do your research before you buy. Overall, small, sporty, speedy cars mean higher insurance premiums – simply because they are involved in more accidents than bigger, chunkier, slower cars. Add a young driver to the equation (they are considered extra accident-prone) and your price tag will be hefty, regardless of what insurance provider you choose. Just for fun, below is a list of the five most expensive cars to insure – and the five cheapest.

Most expensive:

  1. Cadillac Escalade EXT 4WD
  2. Subaru Impreza WRX 4WD
  3. Hyundai Tiburon
  4. Mitsubishi Lancer
  5. Scion Tc (my client near died when I showed her this)

Cheapest:

  1. Ford Five Hundred 4WD (now called the Ford Taurus)
  2. Buick Rendezvous 4WD
  3. Buick Lucerne/Buick Rainier4 WD/ Honda Odyssey
  4. Ford Freestyle 4 WD/Subaru Outback 4 WD
  5. Buick Rendezvous/Honda Odyssey

So if cheap insurance is important to you, instead of the sports car, buy your teen a Buick! I know that my brother got a Trans Am when he was 16 and only 6 month later got a ticket for speeding at 40 mph over the limit! Yes that is right. The car went as did all future speeding tickets and by giving him a 10 year old clunker so did the high auto insurance bills.

Collecting Unemployment

by Stacy Francis, CFP®, CDFA

A friend called me up this morning. I can’t quite believe this, she said, a tremble to her voice, but I was just laid off. Even worse, during the past five months my husband and I have barely been scraping by, so we’ve used up most of our emergency cash. I never thought it would come to this, but do you think I am eligible for unemployment?

This is a complex question, as both eligibility and benefits differ depending on what state you live in. In Pennsylvania, for instance, 58% of unemployed receive benefits, whereas in Arizona, this number is only 29%. That amounts vary by state should come as no surprise, considering that living expenses are so much higher in some places than others. In Mississippi, for instance, where living expenses are comparatively low, unemployed have to make do with an average of $210 per week, whereas in the more expensive state Massachusetts, average unemployment benefits add up to $384, almost twice as much.

Different states also have different cultures when it comes to handing out the money. Some states will do everything in their power to turn applicants down, while others take a more empathetic approach.

Fortunately, my friend lives in Connecticut, a state with both relatively high average weekly benefits ($311) and a high rate of recipients (45%), so her chances are good. But with the highest number of unemployed in 26 years and many offices managing these benefits short staffed, she may have to wait a while for her first check. I told her to file for her benefits immediately.

Limiting Damage if You Have to Raid Your Retirement Savings

by Stacy Francis, CFP®, CDFA

No matter how hard we try to focus on the positives and maintain an optimistic outlook on the future, no doubt things are getting ugly out there. This really dawned on me while reading a report from a recent out-of-state Savvy Ladies meeting. The main topic of discussion was IRAs – and not how to maximize contributions to them, but how to pull money out of them to cover living expenses.

As a general rule, pulling cash out of your IRA should be your very last resort. Not only does it jeopardize your retirement, but it is one of the least tax efficient ways to free up money, as such distributions are taxed according to your current bracket plus a possible 10% penalty tax. You also miss out on immense potential yields, as the money would have grown tax-deferred or tax free in the case of Roth IRAs for many years, had you left it in your IRA.

Still, these are tough times, and tough times call for desperate measures. If you have no other choice but to pull money out of your retirement account, at least keep the following in mind:

  1. You can loan money from your IRA without any tax consequences, as long as you reinvest the amount in full within 60 days. If you expect that your situation will be resolved shortly, this may be a viable option.
  2. If you have a 401(k), you can take out a loan against it, without a penalty. Note, though, that if you quit or are involuntarily terminated, you must pay back the balance in full or your transaction will be treated as a distribution.
  3. Also if you have a 401(k), under certain circumstances, you may be eligible for a hardship distribution.
  4. You may be able to take a distribution from your IRA without facing the 10% penalty tax (although you will still be charged according to your current bracket) to cover medical expenses adding up to more than 7.5% of your income or to buy your first home.

An Expert’s Guide to Family Budgeting

by Stacy Francis, CFP®, CDFA

“I’m a CEO”, explained the new client with whom I had lunch yesterday, “yet I feel as though I have no control whatsoever over my family’s spending. I never have any money left to invest, store and credit card bills grow larger each month, and my children demand more and more expensive clothes. I’m completely overwhelmed – and exhausted.”

I have heard similar stories many times before, so I was able to ensure her that there’s an easy fix to her problem. She simply needs to manage her household budget the same way she manages her company’s budget! These days, many women possess exceptional organizational skills that make them extremely successful in the corporate world. What many don’t know is that these skills are just as useful at home with their personal finances.

How to Create a Family Budget

If my new client’s situation hits a bit too close to home, follow these four easy tips to get your family budget under control:

  1. Review spending history. Before you start to make changes, make sure you know where the money is going. To many, seeing their spending habits on paper is a big shock!
  2. Listen to your employees – in this case your family members. Strategize together on how to save up for expensive items like vacations, and review budgets as well as ideas for how to make them work.
  3. Make the budget public, leaving as little room as possible for doubt and misunderstandings. The budget should include both goals and ideas for how to make them a reality.
  4. Review your progress frequently. Gather your family once per month to review the parts of the budget that are working out – and the ones that aren’t. If needed, solicit ideas for troubleshooting. Your spouse and children are much more likely to make an effort to stick to the budget if they were part of creating it!

Download our free budgeting worksheet.

How to Keep Your Kids’ Expenses Down

I met with a group of new mothers last week, who were eager to sort out their budgets now that two had become three. They all had a good understanding of the types of costs involved, but like many new parents, had underestimated the dollar amounts.

The great news is that kids’ expenses is an area where an ounce of attention really can make all the difference – translation: several hundred dollars per month. So whether your child is a newborn, toddler, grade schooler or teenager, below are a few tips on how to keep staples spending under control, so that you’ll have more money for the fun stuff!

  1. Brown bags. If you are consistent and make your children lunch-to-go every day, they won’t even know fast food is an option. You’ll have more money – and they’ll be healthier.
  2. Vintage. It’s very fashionable these days! When your children are growing quickly, while there’s no need to deny yourself the occasional splurge, buy the majority of their clothes in vintage stores. When they have outgrown them, resell. You’ll be saving the planet, too!
  3. Outlets. For many teens, the world centers around labels. Fortunately, you can find many of them at 25-75% off in outlet stores – and sometimes online.
  4. Tax credits. When shopping for the right child-care program, be sure to make the most out of the tax breaks granted to you by Uncle Sam.
  5. The fifty-fifty deal. If you have trouble paying for college, consider having your child do the first year or two of core classes at a community college before heading off to university.
  6. Score free entertainment. For the creative parent, fun free-of-charge activities abound. Libraries are excellent resources, as is the great outdoors!

READ ALSO: Instead of Spending, Teenagers Can Turn to Saving

How to Make Your Family Budget Last

Every January and February, thousands of people swear that this is the year they will start cooking at home instead of hitting up restaurants and drive-thrus. All these people stuff their grocery store carts during January and February. As the year proceeds, sales dwindle as gradually, they revert to TGI Friday’s and Panda Express.

January is often the busiest month for me as well. It is prime time for new clients to look me up, after making the resolution to get their finances under control, once and for all. But as opposed to the grocery store’s customers, most of my clients are able to stick to the goals and budgets they set for themselves. Why? Because we talk about the importance of being realistic.

Rather than setting huge, abstract goals like “I’m never going to eat out again” or “I’m going to retire a millionaire” or “my children will not have to take on any student debt,” we break the aspirations down into small, manageable pieces. If, for instance, your goal is that your children won’t have to take out any student loans, open savings accounts for them and start to contribute $20 per week. If you want to save on dinners, instead of opting never to eat out again, let your children cook twice per week and add the money you save to the family vacation budget.

I usually recommend 4-5 small changes per year, as long as everyone in the family is onboard. Next year, when these changes have become habits, you can implement another 4-5 – and just like that, you are on your way to healthier family finances.

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