Eleven ways to stay sane in a crazy market

Eleven ways to stay sane in a crazy marketKeeping your cool can be hard to do when the market goes on one of its periodic roller-coaster rides. It’s useful to have strategies in place that prepare you both financially and psychologically to handle market volatility. Here are 11 ways to help keep yourself from making hasty decisions that could have a long-term impact on your ability to achieve your financial goals.

1. Have a game plan

Having predetermined guidelines that recognize the potential for turbulent times can help prevent emotion from dictating your decisions. For example, you might take a core-andsatellite approach, combining the use of buy-and-hold principles for the bulk of your portfolio with tactical investing based on a shorter-term market outlook. You also can use diversification to try to offset the risks of certain holdings with those of others. Diversification may not ensure a profit or guarantee against a loss, but it can help you understand and balance your risk in advance. And if you’re an active investor, a trading discipline can help you stick to a long-term strategy. For example, you might determine in advance that you will take profits when a security or index rises by a certain percentage, and buy when it has fallen by a set percentage.

2. Know what you own and why you own it

When the market goes off the tracks, knowing why you originally made a specific investment can help you evaluate whether your reasons still hold, regardless of what the overall market is doing. Understanding how a specific holding fits in your portfolio also can help you consider whether a lower price might actually represent a buying opportunity.

And if you don’t understand why a security is in your portfolio, find out. That knowledge can be important, especially if you’re considering replacing your current holding with another investment.

3. Remember that everything’s relative

Most of the variance in the returns of different portfolios can generally be attributed to their asset allocations. If you’ve got a well-diversified portfolio that includes multiple asset classes, it could be useful to compare its overall performance to relevant benchmarks. If you find that your investments are performing in line with those benchmarks, that realization might help you feel better about your overall strategy.

Even a diversified portfolio is no guarantee that you won’t suffer losses, of course. But diversification means that just because the S&P 500 might have dropped 10% or 20% doesn’t necessarily mean your overall portfolio is down by the same amount.

4. Tell yourself that this too shall pass

The financial markets are historically cyclical. Even if you wish you had sold at what turned out to be a market peak, or regret having sat out a buying opportunity, you may well get another chance at some point. Even if you’re considering changes, a volatile market can be an inopportune time to turn your portfolio inside out. A well-thought-out asset allocation is still the basis of good investment planning.

5. Be willing to learn from your mistakes

Anyone can look good during bull markets; smart investors are produced by the inevitable rough patches. Even the best aren’t right all the time. If an earlier choice now seems rash, sometimes the best strategy is to take a tax loss, learn from the experience, and apply the lesson to future decisions. Expert help can prepare you and your portfolio to both weather and take advantage of the market’s ups and downs.

Words to ponder

“Investors should remember that excitement and expenses are their enemies. And if they insist on trying to time their participation in equities, they should try to be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful.”
–Warren Buffett

“Most of the time common stocks are subject to irrational and excessive price fluctuations in both directions as the consequence of the ingrained tendency of most people to speculate or gamble…to give way to hope, fear and greed.”
–Benjamin Graham

“In this business if you’re good, you’re right six times out of ten. You’re never going to be right nine times out of ten.”
–Peter Lynch

6. Consider playing defense

During volatile periods in the stock market, many investors reexamine their allocation to such defensive sectors as consumer staples or utilities (though like all stocks, those sectors involve their own risks, and are not necessarily immune from overall market movements). Dividends also can help cushion the impact of price swings. According to Standard and Poor’s, dividend income has represented roughly one-third of the monthly total return on the S&P 500 since 1926, ranging from a high of 53% during the 1940s to a low of 14% in the 1990s, when investors focused on growth.

7. Stay on course by continuing to save

Even if the value of your holdings fluctuates, regularly adding to an account designed for a long-term goal may cushion the emotional impact of market swings. If losses are offset even in part by new savings, your bottom-line number might not be quite so discouraging.

If you’re using dollar-cost averaging– investing a specific amount regularly regardless of fluctuating price levels– you may be getting a bargain by buying when prices are down. However, dollarcost averaging can’t guarantee a profit or protect against a loss. Also, consider your ability to continue purchases through market slumps; systematic investing doesn’t work if you stop when prices are down.

8. Use cash to help manage your mindset

Cash can be the financial equivalent of taking deep breaths to relax. It can enhance your ability to make thoughtful decisions instead of impulsive ones. If you’ve established an appropriate asset allocation, you should have resources on hand to prevent having to sell stocks to meet ordinary expenses or, if you’ve used leverage, a margin call. Having a cash cushion coupled with a disciplined investing strategy can change your perspective on market volatility. Knowing that you’re positioned to take advantage of a downturn by picking up bargains may increase your ability to be patient.

9. Remember your road map

Solid asset allocation is the basis of sound investing. One of the reasons a diversified portfolio is so important is that strong performance of some investments may help offset poor performance by others. Even with an appropriate asset allocation, some parts of a portfolio may struggle at any given time. Timing the market can be challenging under the best of circumstances; wildly volatile markets can magnify the impact of making a wrong decision just as the market is about to move in an unexpected direction, either up or down. Make sure your asset allocation is appropriate before making drastic changes.

10. Look in the rear-view mirror

If you’re investing long-term, sometimes it helps to take a look back and see how far you’ve come. If your portfolio is down this year, it can be easy to forget any progress you may already have made over the years. Though past performance is no guarantee of future returns, of course, the stock market’s long-term direction has historically been up. With stocks, it’s important to remember that having an investing strategy is only half the battle; the other half is being able to stick to it. Even if you’re able to avoid losses by being out of the market, will you know when to get back in? If patience has helped you build a nest egg, it just might be useful now, too.

11. Take it easy

Eleven ways to stay sane in a crazy marketIf you feel you need to make changes in your portfolio, there are ways to do so short of a total makeover. You could test the waters by redirecting a small percentage of one asset class into another. You could put any new money into investments you feel are wellpositioned for the future but leave the rest as is. You could set a stop-loss order to prevent an investment from falling below a certain level, or have an informal threshold below which you will not allow an investment to fall before selling. Even if you need or want to adjust your portfolio during a period of turmoil, those changes can–and probably should–happen in gradual steps. Taking gradual steps is one way to spread your risk over time as well as over a variety of asset classes.

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Do not miss medical tax deductions

There are plenty of horror stories about uncovered medical expenses these days, and the truly horrifying part is that many of them belong to people who actually have health insurance. But anytime you or a family member is facing a health crisis or an unusual medical-related expense, it’s best to check to see if you might get a break from Uncle Sam.

A tax professional and a financial planner should be consulted to determine whether there are any tax issues or any ways to defer cost or save money at any part of the process. The Internal Revenue Service lets you deduct medical costs as long as they are more than 7.5 percent of your adjusted gross income (AGI). That means if your AGI is $50,000, you can deduct only those unreimbursed expenses that exceed $3,750.

Getting there requires some planning, which is why it’s so important to gather up every dime of unreimbursed medical, dental and vision care expenses and review it carefully.

Here are things people often miss:

Medically related travel: The IRS evaluates the standard cents-per-mile allowance each year for travel to and from medical treatments. Between Jan. 1-June 30, that rate was 19 cents a mile. Between July 1 and Dec. 31, the rate will rocket to 27 cents a mile.

Insurance payments from already taxed income: This includes the cost of long-term care insurance, up to certain limits based on your age.

Uninsured medical treatments: This includes what you spend for an extra pair of eyeglasses or set of contact lenses, false teeth, hearing aids or artificial limbs.

Rehab treatment: What you pay for alcohol or drug-abuse treatments can be noted on Schedule A.

Weight-loss to smoking cessation: If a doctor prescribes it, you’ll be able to deduct it.

Laser vision correction surgery: May be an allowable expense to deduct on your current taxes.

Doctor-recommended equipment and related expenses: If your doctor tells you that you need a humidifier installed on your heating and air conditioning system to help your breathing problems, you might be able to deduct all or part of the cost for the device as well as the additional energy costs to run it.

Some medical education costs: If you, your spouse or child have a chronic medical condition and you attend a conference to learn more about it, you can count admission and transportation expenses as a deduction, but not meals and lodging.

If you’re self-employed: You may deduct, as an adjustment to gross income, the full cost paid for medical insurance for you, your spouse and your dependents.

Lodging for out-of-town treatment: When accompanying a minor dependent to out-of-town medical treatment, hotel bills may be partially deductible.

Here are some less common expenses to watch:

Medically necessary home improvements or equipment: If you do a home improvement or bring in special equipment that’s considered medically necessary for you, your spouse or your dependents, you’ll be able to deduct the cost. These may include special entrance/exit ramps to your house, widening doorways, modifying kitchens or bathrooms, or adding a chairlift for the physically disabled. Because these improvements are not expected to add to the market value of the home, they are considered fully deductible. If the improvement increases the value of your home, only the amount of the expense that exceeds the increase in the property value of your home is deductible.

Nursing services: If you are paying out-of-pocket for a home-based nurse, these expenses may be deductible.

Lead paint removal: Lead paint is dangerous, and the money needed to remove the paint from a home is deductible.

New baby on the way

Your parents might have mentioned at least a couple of times while you were growing up how wonderful and expensive you were. The bottom line? Bringing a child up is a tremendous financial responsibility, and it’s better to plan in advance than deal with a surprise down the line.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture compiles an annual survey on what it costs to raise a child from birth through age 17. In 2007, in the lowest income group, expenses ranged from a total of $7,830 to $8,830 for a two-child, husband-wife household to between $15,980 to $17,500 for families in the highest income group. Once again, those are the latest annual figures – so if you held spending unrealistically static for the next 17 years, the cost of raising a child in the lowest income group would range from $133,110 to $150,110 adjusted for inflation. In the highest income group, that range would be between $271,660 to $297,500.

Note that we haven’t begun to discuss college yet. Across the United States, the average tuition and fees at four-year private institutions in 2007-2008 was $23,712, representing a 6.3 percent increase of more than $1,400 over 2006-2007, according to College Board’s 2007-2008 Annual Survey of Colleges. At public four-year colleges, the average in-state tuition and fees averaged $6,185, a 6.6 percent increase.

All parenthood comes at a price. But with the help of a financial planner you can create a strategy to afford kids from birth through college. Here are some key points in that process:

Create or review your financial plan: A financial plan is a written set of goals, strategies and a timeline for accomplishing those goals. For many individuals, it may be the first time they seriously examine their financial future in such black-and-white terms. But it starts with the basics – determining how much you really have in savings, debt, insurance and investments. Your financial planner can also help you understand how much the additional costs of raising a child, including the startup costs of birth or adoption will affect all those numbers. A financial plan should be reviewed with every major change in life, and having kids is certainly one of those landmark events.

Get rid of your high-interest debt: A major decision like having a child is a good reason to take a “clean slate” approach to debt. Before you can build a reserve fund, it’s wisest to pay off your credit cards first.

Make sure you have a will: If you die without a will, you won’t have a clear path of guardianship for your child, nor will your assets be properly directed to support that child. Any good adoption attorney will insist that you develop and file a will as part of the adoption process.

Check your insurance options: In today’s health insurance environment, the addition of a child to a policy can bring tremendous additional cost – sometimes without the guarantee of the best coverage. Check with your employer or your independent insurance provider to make sure you have the best coverage for what you can afford. Also look into medical savings accounts with your financial planner if you decide to take a high-deductible policy to keep premiums low.

Know your tax advantages: If you’re adopting, you can get some tax relief. In tax year 2008, parents will be entitled to a one-time tax credit of $11,650 per eligible child. There are income limits – the credit disappears for individuals with modified adjusted gross income of between $174,730 for individuals and $214,730 for couples.

Ask what your employer can do for you: If you’re working at a family friendly company, it’s often considerably easier to apply for leaves of absence or work schedules that make more sense when you’ve got a young child at home. Some companies may offer to reimburse some portion of their workers’ adoption expenses.

Build your reserve fund: When a baby, toddler or older child comes into the house, money flies out the door at a velocity most childless people have never seen. Children always cost money and sometimes unpredictably so, but it pays to build your savings before they arrive so you won’t overuse your credit cards. Also, it’s possible that a birth mother’s health may take a turn during the pregnancy, so that’s an expense that needs to be anticipated.