by Brett Arends
Few things in life are guaranteed. When it comes to money, even fewer.
But these are nervous times. The stock market is swaying like a drunk debutante. The economy is wobbly. Who can trust anything any more? Most people are hard-pressed, nervous and unsure of what to do.
Relax. Here are 10 sure-fire money ideas.
1. Max that 401(k)
This is a slam dunk for you. Every dollar you invest saves you money on taxes because it comes off your taxable income. So Uncle Sam is effectively chipping in.
The money can then grow each year, free of any state or federal tax on the interest or capital gains (though when you withdraw your money in retirement it will be taxable income).
Even better: Many companies offer to chip in as well, up to a certain level, by matching contributions with money of their own.
2. Give up the vacation home
Sorry to be a spoilsport. But the finances just don't stack up. The math on most vacation homes -- unless it's dirt cheap, or so near that you go there most weekends -- is terrible. Most of the time we use them for a few weeks or months of the year. They cost money to buy. There are annual upkeep, maintenance, condo fees and taxes.
How much has the house risen in value since you bought it? How much do you expect it to rise? A home probably has to rise by maybe 7% a year, on average, to cover the costs. Sure, keep it if you want to and can afford to. But if you are looking for a quick financial win, this is one.
3. Put $5,000 into an individual retirement account or Roth IRA tax shelter
If you're over 50, put in $6,000. And make sure your spouse does too. IRAs are a great deal. A regular IRA works much like a 401(k) -- your contribution cuts your taxable income, and grows tax-free inside the shelter, but it's taxable income when you take it out. In a Roth, you contribute after-tax dollars, but then it's tax-free forever.
In the past, these were limited to those making less than, roughly, $100,000 to $160,000 a year, but as of this year there's a special deal. Anyone can contribute to a Roth, by contributing to a traditional IRA and then converting it to a Roth. You can also convert your IRA savings from previous years (Note: there will be tax to pay).
4. Pay off your credit-card debt
Haven't you heard? If you're still carrying a balance each month, this is a quick win. Eat macaroni and cheese for three months if you have to, but pay off those balances. You're probably paying at least 15% interest. You may be paying a lot more. You'd have to earn maybe 17% before tax on an investment just to keep pace. Boring? Nobody's making 17% these days. So pay off your credit-card debt and brag to all your friends that you just beat Wall Street.
5. Fire your banker
This isn't just good financial sense -- it's fun, too. If you're like most people, you're probably paying hundreds of dollars a year in account service fees, ATM charges for access to your own money and the like.
Banks need to sock you with these fees to pay for all their overpriced and useless overhead, like the expensive marketing campaigns and the executives. Fire them all. Chances are you have a local community bank, savings and loan, or credit union that will do the job of looking after your cash for a lot less. It's Uncle Sam, not the institution, that guarantees your money anyway.
6. Get your tax refund early
How? By not overpaying your taxes in the first place. Every year, millions of people cheer when they get a check back from Uncle Sam. But that just means they paid too much withholding tax during the year. So Uncle Sam got an interest-free loan. Good for him, not so good for you.
Go to your employer's payroll department and file a new W-4 form and raise your number of allowances. You'll see extra money in your paycheck straight away.
The average tax rebate is nearly $3,000, according to the Internal Revenue Service. The average credit-card balance? Also about $3,000, according the Federal Reserve. Borrowing from a bank at 15% and lending the money to Uncle Sam for free is no way to run your finances.
7. Buy inflation-protected bonds
Treasury inflation-protected securities, or TIPS, aren't sexy. They won't make you rich. But they're guaranteed -- twice over.
They're issued by the U.S. government, so they are guaranteed against default. And they are protected against inflation because coupons and principal will adjust to reflect it. Right now a long-term TIPS bond will guarantee you an interest rate of about 1.8% a year above inflation. (Note: Hold them in a tax-sheltered account as they are highly susceptible to taxes).
Dull, maybe. But a sure thing.
8. Buy a bread machine
You want a certain winner? If a $50 breadmaker saves you, say, $7 a week on buying bread, that's $350 year. The easiest dough you'll make. Modern breadmakers are, well, a piece of cake to operate. The return on investment: 600% in year one and 700% after that.
Wall Street's best year ever? Just 74%, in 1915. Ha. Amateurs.
9. Play hardball with your insurance company
Call competitors and ask them to quote you prices for your current house and auto policies. You'll be amazed at the differences. Prices for the same policy can vary as much as 50% between carriers. And there's little rhyme or reason to it.
While you're about it, ask about raising your deductibles too. This can be a quick win: Raising your deductible by $500 to $1,000 can cut hundreds off your annual premiums.
10. Get a freebie from a bank
Why not? You bailed them out. I'm not just talking about stopping in for a free lollipop or cup of coffee (though my local Bank of America brews an OK cup).
Sign up for a credit card with a big bonus -- like a free air ticket or weekend hotel stay. Use the card enough to qualify. Then cancel the card.
No, it's not quite that easy. You have to double-check the fine print first. You'll sit on hold for half an hour when you try to cancel. And if you did this too often it might affect your credit score. But where else can you get a free (or nearly free) air ticket?
Write to Brett Arends at firstname.lastname@example.org