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Matt Bell

Matt Bell

Managing Editor

Matt joined SMI in 2012. He assists with SMI’s content strategy and writes many of the company’s articles. Matt is the author of four personal finance books: “Money, Purpose, Joy,” “Money Strategies for Tough Times,” Money and Marriage,” and “The Grad’s Guide to Money.” He does some outside speaking as well at churches, universities, conferences, and retreats.

Prior to joining SMI, Matt was an independent biblical money management writer and speaker. He has been involved in stewardship ministry since 1990 when he began serving in the Good $ense ministry at Willowcreek Community Church.

Matt earned an undergraduate degree in Journalism from Northern Illinois University and a graduate degree in Interdisciplinary Studies from DePaul University, where he wrote a thesis about the history and impact of our consumer culture.

Matt and his wife, Jude, have three children at home. 

Most Recent Articles

Money Roundup: Presidential Power Over the Economy, How Investors Should View the Future, and More

This week’s picks for the best investing and personal finance articles from around the web.

Presidents have less power over the economy than you might think (NY Times). Economic cycles don’t begin or end on inauguration day.

Winging it is no way to plan for retirement (CBS Money Watch). For all SMI members who have been waiting for the new and improved version of our online retirement planner, your wait is almost over. Stay tuned next week.

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Making Your Own ‘What To Do If…’ Plan

In the January issue of the SMI newsletter, we ran an article that recommended taking a “fiscal health day.” The idea is to take a day off from work to catch up on your financial chores and tackle all of those money-related to-do items that have been piling up.

One of the recommended items was to fill out a “here’s-what you-need-to-know-about-our-finances-if-I-die” form. Since the article was published, we’ve received many e-mails from people who wanted to know where they can find such a form.

Unfortunately, we don’t have a ready-made form designed for that purpose. And even referring to it as a form is a bit of a misnomer. It’s about organizing your financial life so that your spouse could take care of your household’s financial affairs if you were no longer around.  

While we don’t have a form you can just print and fill out, we can point you to some resources that will help guide you in this process.

Recommended Resources

First, go through the Set Your House in Order small group study, which is available from the ministry of Compass—Finances God’s Way. I highly recommend it.

The study walks you through the process of making sure you have the proper estate planning and other essential documents in place and then making sure your financial life is well organized and accessible to your spouse. But it’s more than that. It’s a Bible study that helps you take a more fully biblical approach to managing money and then leads you through the process setting your house in order.

Second, to make sure you’ve covered everything, you may also want to get a copy of the My Family Record Book. It’s an exhaustive reference to all of the many items to think about organizing for the benefit of your surviving spouse. It’s so detailed that you may find yourself thinking it goes too far, but I found it to be a helpful added resource.

Here’s at least a partial list of the documents or information to gather in one place:

  • Wills, trust, power-of-attorney documents, living will
  • Bank/credit union accounts
  • Investment accounts
  • Life insurance policies
  • Other insurance policies
  • Home and vehicle titles
  • Ministry and other charitable organizations you support
  • Bills
  • Safe deposit box (where is it, what’s in it, and where is the key?)
  • Social Security (login information and most recent estimated benefits)
  • Name and contact info for any financial professionals you work with (financial advisor, lawyer, accountant)
  • Name and contact info for medical professionals (doctor, dentist).
  • Master list of user names and passwords for online accounts
  • Name and contact info for trusted service providers (plumber, electrician, heating/air conditioning company, handyman, painter, lawn care company, mechanic)
  • Funeral wishes

Helpful added information

My wife and I now have file folders containing information about all of the above that pertain to us. In addition, I’m in the process of adding summary sheets to each folder. For example, in the life insurance folder, there will be a list of policies, policy numbers, death benefits, expiration dates (for term policies), beneficiaries, and even recommendations for investing the proceeds.

For bills, I’m listing those that need to be paid each month, as well as those that are due at other intervals, due dates, and how they are paid (automatically, online).

With the list of service providers, I’m including notes about how often to have various items maintained.

Just going through this process will likely spur you to take other action, such as making sure your beneficiary designations are as they should be, consolidating some accounts, and reviewing your insurance coverage.

To some degree, this is a project that will always be in process. Information will need to be updated anytime you open or close an account.

What else have you done to prepare your spouse to handle your household’s finances after your death?

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Money Roundup: More Important Than Dow 20,000, How Market Crashes Happen, and More

This week’s picks for the best investing and personal finance articles from around the web.

Bill Gross: There’s a level way more important than Dow 20,000 (Business Insider). Why the 10-year Treasury yield may matter more.

How to fund a long retirement (MarketWatch). A new study suggests the best ways to manage the greatest risks.

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Do You Know What’s in YOUR Portfolio?

Asset allocation is one of the most boring topics on earth. Bring it up in polite conversation or in front of a group of workshop participants and it won’t be long before eyes glaze and an epidemic of yawning breaks out.

That’s too bad because it’s also one of the most important — and misunderstood — topics for successful investing.

Your most important investing decision

Asset allocation is easy enough to define. It refers to how your portfolio is divvied up among asset classes, particularly stocks and bonds. Determining your optimal asset allocation has mostly to do with your investment time frame and your risk tolerance.

Numerous academic studies have come to a very counterintuitive conclusion: Making sure your portfolio is allocated properly—meaning, it contains the proper mix of stocks and bonds for someone of your age and with your comfort level with risk—is more important to your investing success than the actual investments in your portfolio.

But here’s the kicker. According to a study by Prudential Investments, 42 percent of investors don’t know how their portfolios are allocated. And my guess is the actual percentage is even higher, given how few people seem to know what asset allocation means.

So, here’s my question: Do you know how your portfolio is allocated? Could you describe its asset allocation in a brief conversation?

Is your portfolio off target?

If your only investment is a target-date fund held in a 401(k) plan, you may have just trusted that the fund is right for you since you chose one designed for people with the year of your intended retirement in mind. However, not all target-date funds are designed the same way.

For example, the Fidelity Freedom 2035 Fund, designed for someone who plans to retire in or around the year 2035, has an asset allocation that’s 95% stocks and 5% bonds. By contrast, the Vanguard Target Retirement 2035 Fund has an asset allocation that’s 80% stocks and 20% bonds. Both funds have the same time frame in mind, but they are designed very differently.

It would be wise to determine your optimal asset allocation and then see how your target-date fund of choice lines up. SMI members can determine their optimal asset allocation via our proprietary process. Non-members may want to use Vanguard’s free questionnaire.

You may be better served by making your choice based on a review of the asset allocations of the funds available to you rather than the year that’s part of their name.

Allocating across multiple accounts and strategies

For SMI members, three of our strategies — Fund Upgrading, Just-the-Basics, and Sector Rotation — require that you know your optimal asset allocation since each one requires continuous exposure to the stock market. Our fourth strategy, Dynamic Asset Allocation, does not, since it will move you completely out of stocks if the strategy’s mechanical signals indicate it would be advantageous to do so.

As we’ve counseled before, if you have multiple accounts, it would be wise to treat them as parts of a single portfolio, making asset allocation decisions based on that big picture view rather than trying to optimize the asset allocation account by account.

If you are using multiple SMI strategies, including DAA, our standard recommendation is to apply your optimal asset allocation to the portion of your portfolio you are managing with Fund Upgrading and/or Sector Rotation. This is described in more detail in our article, Taking a One-Portfolio Approach to Your Investments.

Or, you could factor in the degree to which DAA lowers the risk of your overall portfolio, which may lead you to take a more aggressive asset allocation approach with the Fund Upgrading portion of your portfolio. This idea is expanded on in our article, Higher Returns With Less Risk: The Best Combinations of SMI’s Most Popular Strategies.

Ultimately, how you decide to apply the principles of asset allocation to your portfolio is up to you. Their application will likely vary from one SMI member to another. The important thing is that you are knowledgeable and proactive about making this decision.

How intentional have you been in designing your portfolio around your optimal asset allocation? How quickly and easily could you describe your portfolio’s design? 

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Money Roundup: An Anti-Forecaster Looks Ahead, Naming Beneficiaries Wisely, and More

This week’s picks for the best investing and personal finance articles from around the web.

What history tells us about your investments in 2017 (Washington Post). What an anti-forecaster sees when he looks at the year ahead.

The American retirement dream is not dead… yet (CNBC). A look at the not-so-rosy retirement picture, and how you can improve yours.

Why you should think ‘smile’ when planning your retirement spending path (Financial Post). Your spending may not decline in retirement as much as you assume, but there are a lot of moving parts in this equation.

The problem with this Boomer ‘retirement plan’ (CBS Money Watch). Turning the hope of working in your later years into a plan.

Baby Boomers and student debt — the problem no one is talking about (MarketWatch). Parents, beware of Parent PLUS loans and co-signing for a loan for your child.

And from the blogosphere…

Choosing an IRA beneficiary? Choose wisely… (Independent Thought). Bonus related article: This money-saving IRA strategy could be toast next year (CNBC).

How pensions and Social Security affect asset allocation (Oblivious Investor). Should you treat them like bonds? We’ve weighed in on this topic as well.

How to sell finance books like Harry Dent (A Wealth of Common Sense). Dramatic, specific market predictions are very good at separating people from their money.

The hidden dangers of leaving an inheritance without proper planning (Financial Independence Hub). Food for thought for anyone who’d like to leave something behind.

Five economics terms we all should use (Bloomberg). I’m not sure the word “endogeneity” is going to make it into people’s everyday conversations anytime soon, but more people would benefit from understanding what it means.

We’d love to hear your responses to any of the above. To weigh in, just meet us in the comments section.

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Money Roundup: The Year Market Forecasters REALLY Got It Wrong, Less is More, and Other Articles

This week’s picks for the best investing and personal finance articles from around the web—a couple of days early this week since we'll have strategy updates on Friday.

The big lesson from 2016 for your retirement planning (Time). 2016 saw the folly of forecasting taken to a whole new level.

Big retirement savings mistake that workers should stop making (Investor’s Business Daily). Fear of the stock market is leading many investors to leave money on the table.

Is early retirement great? For some, it’s hard work to have fun (NY Times). For some, having plenty of money and free time can add up to quite a dilemma.

Whatever happened to that old 401(k)? (Wall Street Journal). It’s one thing to forget where you left your car keys. It’s another to forget about a retirement account, and yet many people do.

Worried about your finances? Let your priorities guide you (Washington Post). Aligning your financial direction with your values.  

And from the blogosphere…

The power of doing nothing (Trader Feed). Investors should learn from architect Mies van der Rohe: less really is more.

Financial independence is not the holy grail (White Coat Investor). Are people striving for the wrong goal?

Do you need an emergency fund in retirement? (McLean). You may not need to protect against job loss, but there are still plenty of costly things that can go wrong.

Six ways seniors can save on car insurance (The Simple Dollar). Aging can bring an increase in accidents, which can mean higher premiums. But there are still ways for older drivers to score discounts on their insurance.

The best films of 2016 (for behavioral economists). (Bloomberg View). A fun one to end on — financial biases on the big screen.

We’d love to hear your responses to any of the above. To weigh in, just meet us in the comments section.
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Money Roundup: The Folly of Forecasting, Investing Fast and Slow, and More

This week’s picks for the best investing and personal finance articles from around the web.

Wall Street’s annual stock forecasts: Bullish and often wrong (NY Times). “They are much worse than random chance alone would predict.”

9 retirement decisions that can change your future (MarketWatch). A good checklist for those nearing retirement.

For many seniors, student debt eats into Social Security (CBS Money Watch). Be careful about how you pay for that mid-career return to school.

How to avoid a 50 percent hit on your retirement savings (CNBC). If you haven’t taken your RMDs yet, the clock is ticking.

Only OTHER people lose their financial independence (Fidelity). Survey finds an important new form of financial denial.

And from the blogosphere…

Investing fast and slow (Vanguard Blog). If you have a lump sum to invest, is it best to invest it all at once or little by little?

Overcoming a late start to saving for retirement (A Wealth of Common Sense). The good news is there’s still hope, and you have more control than you may think.

Avoiding the cycle of fear and greed (Behavior Gap). Why investors are often the greatest threat to their own investing success.

A really useful engine (Jonathan Clements). Thoughts on finding meaning in our work, and in retirement.

The light of the world (Matt About Money). We could all probably use this reminder.

We’d love to hear your responses to any of the above. To weigh in, just meet us in the comments section.

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Enhanced Just-the-Basics Update: Q1 2017 — and More

For those following our Enhanced Just-the-Basics (EJtB) strategy, first quarter 2017 recommended fund selections are now available. Be sure to read this entire article as an important strategy update follows the latest recommendations.

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How Federal Government Workers Can Make The Most Of Their Thrift Savings Plan Options

The Thrift Savings Plan (TSP), the U.S. government’s 401(k)-type retirement plan for federal workers, has undergone an important change since SMI last wrote about it. We’ll get to that change in a moment, but first a little background.

Generous benefits

The TSP is one of the world’s largest defined-contribution retirement plans, with approximately 4.8 million participants and more than $458 billion in assets. Participation is open to active employees of the Federal Employees’ Retirement System (FERS), the Civilian Service Retirement System (CSRS), the uniformed services, and certain other categories of civilian government service.

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Getting In Shape In 2017 With A ‘Fiscal Health Day’

Several years ago, when New York Times personal-finance writer Ron Lieber was furloughed for a few days, he responded in true personal-finance expert fashion. By devoting one of his unpaid days off to taking care of a list of financial chores he had been meaning to get to some day, he turned what looked like a pay cut into profit.

In a subsequent “Your Money” column in the Times, Lieber related the results of his fiscal health day: “Financially, the total of my savings and new earnings [from what I was able to accomplish] will net out to about $2,000 annually after taxes,” he wrote. The reward turned out to be so great that Lieber decided to make it an annual tradition. “I got enough done that I now plan to take a fiscal health day at least once a year…on a weekday when all phone lines and financial institutions are open.”

Here are some of the things that were on Lieber’s list for his first fiscal health day—along with related comments plus a few footnotes to previous SMI articles on these topics:

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