MONEY Investing

6 Ways Newbie Landlords Can Protect Against Bad Tenants

Hoarder apartment
Alamy

Skip the hassle of dealing with deadbeat renters by adding these steps to your screening process.

One of the main components of being a successful real estate investor is finding good, qualified renters for your properties. There are few things more frustrating and cash flow draining than a renter who is always late on paying their bills or worse, a renter who never makes their payments.

Here are six easy tips for you to follow to protect yourself against deadbeat renters.

1. Before you rent your property, come up with a “perfect renter” profile.

To do this, first list the main selling points of your house from a renter’s point of view. What does the perfect renter do for a living? Do they have children? What would be the renter’s interests? Once you have your avatar built, then you can actively start marketing your property to the perfect client.

For example, if the main selling point of your house its school district, then you might want to let the local PTA group of the grade school, middle school, and high school know that your house is on the rental market. You might also want to put up flyers of your house on the school’s community board.

2. Perform background checks.

This might seem like a very logical thing to do, but you would be surprised at how many landlords never ask the prospective tenant for a background check. The one I use is Tenant Background Search. This service provides me with an eviction report, FICA score, and nationwide criminal background report — and the best part is that it costs around $25 per report.

3. Have a real estate attorney provide you with all legal documents.

Don’t be cheap and buy your rental agreements off the internet at one of these do it yourself websites. Many of these agreements have loopholes that allow the renter too much wiggle room. As my father always told me, “Prepare for the worst, and hope for the best.”

Related: 6 Reasons Landlords Should Thank Their Tenants This Holiday Season

To prepare for the worse, you should go into the agreement with the understanding that you might have to take legal action against the renter — so wouldn’t you feel more at ease knowing that your attorney provided the legal agreement?

4. Be upfront and honest with the renters before they rent.

I have one rental property here in Orlando that has joust windows. Now, these windows give the house a lot of character, and it does give the house a lot of appeal; however, these windows are not air tight, and the electricity bill can be quite expensive, especially in the summer months. I have always been very upfront with all the renters, and I even put this warning in the contractual agreement.

What is interesting is that I have had only one person who decided not to rent the house because of this language, and not one renter in the past 8 years has tried to get out of the rental agreement early due to the high monthly upkeep. On the flip side, the house next door has the same joust windows, and that house always seems to have a “for rent” sign in the yard. As a landlord it is always the best practice to be fair and upfront when dealing with your tenants.

5. Include routine maintenance in the monthly rental amount.

I had to learn this the hard way by having to re-sod the front yard to one of my houses because the tenants never cut the grass, and the yard was overrun with weeds. There is nothing that will hurt the value of a house more than poor curb appeal.

Related: Rent Payment Plans Can Benefit Both Tenant & Landlord: Here’s Why

To protect your investment, include the upkeep of the yard, spraying of weeds, trash removal service, etc. in the monthly amount. This way, you can pay to have someone other than the renter provide these services, and you can make sure they are done properly.

6. Make sure the renters provide their own insurance.

It is always a good idea to put in the agreement that the renters must provide their own renter’s insurance. This way, if something unfortunate happens, it does not back up on you. I also think it is a good idea to have the rental property or properties set up in an LLC; this way, your personal assets are protected should something happen unexpectedly at your rental property. If your accountant tells you an LLC is not advantageous for you, then I would get a million or two million dollar umbrella policy for extra protection.

Being a landlord is really not that hard — just be careful and treat people fairly. Word of mouth is the best marketing, and people want to rent from good landlords.

Read more from The Bigger Pockets Blog:
7 Smart Tips for Getting the Most Out of a Property Inspection
Offering Rent Specials to Tenants Can Be a Costly Mistake: Here’s Why
11 Things Landlords Should Be Doing Every Year…But Probably Aren’t

MONEY Warren Buffett

The One Stock Warren Buffett Is Most Likely to Sell in 2015

Warren Buffett
Bill Pugliano—Getty Images

Is Buffett ready to move on from his biggest "mistake" stock?

Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett has established himself as one of the greatest investors and capitalists of our time. His every move and every word is noted and analyzed, and for good reason: People can learn a lot about successful long-term investing through him.

However, even the Oracle of Omaha has made his share of mistakes, and we can learn from those, too. According to the company’s most recent 13-F filing, which discloses its positions in public companies at the end of each quarter, Buffett sold more shares of a company that he’s been gradually selling out of since 2009. Let’s take a closer look at this Berkshire holding. Chances are there’s something we can all learn from the story.

Buffett’s big “mistake of commission”

Back in 2008, Buffett invested billions of dollars into major oil company ConocoPhillips CONOCOPHILLIPS INC. COP -1.1% . At the time, oil was at all-time high prices, and the world was at the doorstep of a major economic crisis. Here’s how Buffett himself described his decision in his 2008 letter to shareholders:

Last year I made a major mistake of commission (and maybe more; this one sticks out). Without urging from Charlie [Munger] or anyone else, I bought a large amount of ConocoPhillips stock when oil and gas prices were near their peak. I in no way anticipated the dramatic fall in energy prices that occurred in the last half of the year. I still believe the odds are good that oil sells far higher in the future than the current $40-$50 price. But so far I have been dead wrong. Even if prices should rise, moreover, the terrible timing of my purchase has cost Berkshire several billion dollars.

Here’s what ConocoPhillips’ stock has done since the quarter Buffett made the big buy:

5dcf081a12eff80d7213374518851f96

We are talking about five and a half years to recover, and at this stage, Berkshire’s holding in ConocoPhillips has fallen to only 472,000 shares from nearly 85 million at the peak in 2008. In all, Buffett invested more than $7 billion in the company, and he had sold almost half of that stake at a major loss by 2010.

Today’s ConocoPhillips is a different company

Berkshire did get some additional value from Buffett’s investment. In 2012, ConocoPhillips spun Phillips 66 PHILLIPS 66 PSX 0.44% out in a tax-free spinoff, and Berkshire ended up with more than 27 million shares of the midstream and petrochemicals giant.

Just last year, Buffett was able to work some more of his magic with those shares, trading around $1.4 billion worth of them back to Phillips 66 in exchange for Phillips Specialty Products, which Berkshire could then pair with its own chemical business, Lubrizol. The beauty of this transaction? Because it was an asset swap, it was tax-free for Berkshire, which would have paid hefty capital gains had it sold those Phillips 66 shares on the open market.

As for ConocoPhillips, Buffett invested in a fully integrated major oil company, while the spinoff turned it into an exploration and production company. Frankly, this major transition of the business is likely one of the major reasons behind Buffett’s years-long process of reducing Berkshire’s holdings in the company. It’s no longer the company he bought.

The bigger picture

Probably the most important lesson here? Even though the ConocoPhillips investment turned out to be a disaster for Berkshire, and I think Buffett will fully exit the investment in 2015, it’s just a drop in the bucket that is the Berkshire portfolio. As of the most recent 13F, the company held more than $107 billion in stocks, and the largest holdings are diversified across the financial, consumer goods, and tech sectors.

The company’s largest exposure to an oil company is ExxonMobil EXXONMOBIL CORPORATION XOM -0.65% , the largest of the integrated majors and, by most accounts, the best-run and most conservative with its capital. ExxonMobil makes up about 3.5% of the Berkshire stock portfolio.

The point? Billion-dollar mistakes sound big, but it’s all about the percentages. Berkshire’s portfolio is fairly concentrated, with about 83% invested in the 10 largest holdings, but it’s also a portfolio that gets new money on a regular basis.

Lessons learned

The first lesson is that no investor is infallible — we all make mistakes. There are two things that separate the best investors from the average:

  1. Do you learn from your mistakes and those of others?
  2. Do you focus on a workable investing process or get caught up in the short-term results?

Buffett didn’t let a billion-dollar mistake cause him to change a process that has proved effective for decades of market-crushing returns. If you’re going to follow Buffett, don’t mimic his moves. Develop a long-term process that’s focused on finding great companies. You’ll buy your share of flubs like ConocoPhillips in 2008, but getting a 10-bagger, like American Express AMERICAN EXPRESS COMPANY AXP -0.2% has been for Berkshire, will cover up plenty of mistakes.

Jason Hall owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway and American Express. The Motley Fool recommends American Express and Berkshire Hathaway and owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don’t all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Related Links

Read next: 7 Things You Can Learn From the Greatest Businessman of All Time

MONEY behavioral finance

A Financial Planner’s Most Important Job Isn’t What You Think It Is

holding hnads in comfort
PeopleImages.com—Getty Images

Helping people who are panicking about money is more important than a particular plan or a piece of investing advice.

In the past few years, many of us in the financial planning profession have been coming to terms with a difficult truth: Our clients’ long-term financial success is based less on the structure of their portfolios than it is on their ability to adapt their behaviors to changing economic times.

An increasing number of financial planners are awakening to the fact that our primary business is not producing financial plans or giving investment advice, but rather caring for and transforming the financial and emotional well-being of our clients. And at the very foundation of financial and emotional well-being lies one’s behavior.

I’ve come to understand this over my own three decades as a financial planner, so I was pleased to see the topic of investor behavior featured at a national gathering of the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors in Salt Lake City last May. One of the speakers was Nick Murray, a personal financial adviser, columnist, and author.

“The dominant determinants of long-term, real-life, investment returns are not market behavior, but investment behavior,” Murray told us. “Put all your charts and graphs away and come out into the real world of behavior.”

This made me recall similar advice from a 2009 Financial Planning Association retreat, when Dr. Somnath Basu said, “Start shaking the dust off your psychology books from your college days. This is where [the financial planning profession] is going next.”

Most advisers will agree that, while meticulously constructed investment portfolios have a high probability of withstanding almost any economic storm, none of them can withstand the fatal blow of an owner who panics and sells out.

This is where financial advisers’ behavioral skills can often pay for themselves. Murray, who calls financial planners “behavior modifiers,” reminded us that we are “the antidote to panic.”

Murray said most advisers will try everything they can do to keep a client from turning a temporary decline into a permanent loss of capital. He wasn’t optimistic, however, that the natural tendency of investors to sell low and buy high will stop anytime soon.

His final advice was blunt. “Think of your clients who had beautifully designed and executed investment portfolios that would have carried them through three decades of retirement, who started calling you in 2008 wanting to junk it and go to cash. How many of these people have called you since then and tried to do it again?”

I myself could think of several.

“How many times have they gone out on the ledge and tried to jump, and how many times have you pulled them back in?” Murray asked.

By now I could see heads all over the room nodding.

Then he delivered a memorable line: “I am telling you as a friend, stop wasting your time on these people.” The heads stopped nodding. “Save your goodness and your talents for those who will accept help from you.”

I have certainly learned, often the hard way, that helping people who aren’t ready to change is futile. Yet I disagree to some extent with this part of Murray’s advice. If clients have gone out on the ledge more than once, but have called me and accepted my help in pulling them back in, then together we have succeeded in modifying their behavior.

This is a far different scenario from that of a panicked client who refuses help by ignoring a planner’s advice. If planners see our role as “antidotes to panic,” we need to realize that, for some clients, the antidote may have to be administered more than once.

———-

Rick Kahler, ChFC, is president of Kahler Financial Group, a fee-only financial planning firm. His work and research regarding the integration of financial planning and psychology has been featured or cited in scores of broadcast media, periodicals and books. He is a co-author of four books on financial planning and therapy. He is a faculty member at Golden Gate University and the president of the Financial Therapy Association.

MONEY Shopping

Controversial Abercrombie CEO Steps Down

Michael S. Jeffries, chairman and CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch.
Mark Lennihan—AP Michael S. Jeffries, former CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch.

The CEO who called his brand "exclusionary" and only for "cool kids" is retiring.

Michael Jeffries, CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch, is retiring effective immediately, the clothing retailer announced on Tuesday.

Jeffries, who made headlines with tone-deaf comments about the company’s business practices, was relieved of his duties as chairman in January after investors became dissatisfied with his leadership.

Abercrombie stock—which rose more than 6% on the news—is down more than 60% from its highs in 2006-2007 and down almost 20% in the last year.

Jeffries, who during his 20-year tenure with the company turned it into a trendy powerhouse with more than $1 billion in sales, took heat in recent years for failing to keep up with “fast fashion” brands like Forever 21 and Zara and falling out of favor with its primary teen demographic. But the now-former CEO also tarnished the brand through a series of poorly conceived public statements and business decisions that alienated potential customers.

In an infamous 2006 interview with Salon, Jeffries bragged:

In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. Candidly, we go after the cool kids… A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.

And:

That’s why we hire good-looking people in our stores. Because good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don’t market to anyone other than that.

That interview later resurfaced in 2013, along with news that Abercrombie was refusing to offer plus-size clothing, even as competitors like H&M began to make their sizing more inclusive. Together, the revelations caused renewed backlash against the brand.

According to the company’s announcement, a management team led by Executive Chairman Arthur Martinez will manage the company until a new CEO is appointed.

 

MONEY investing strategy

Warren Buffett Does Things That You Shouldn’t Try at Home

Berkshire Hathaway Chairman and CEO Warren Buffett talks to television journalists
Nati Harnik—AP

Not everything Buffett does can be easily replicated by ordinary investors.

Warren Buffett’s annual letters to the shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway are the single best road map for success in the stock market that have ever been written. But it’s important to appreciate that Buffett’s personal road to success has included some detours that aren’t suitable for the average investor.

The origins of Buffett’s philosophy

Generally speaking, Buffett’s core philosophy is to buy great companies at reasonable prices. To use his words, “It’s far better to buy a wonderful company at a fair price than a fair company at a wonderful price.”

Take one glance at Berkshire’s portfolio of common stocks, and it’s clear Buffett means what he says. Among banks, for instance, he has common stock positions in the three best lenders in the country: Wells Fargo, US Bancorp, and M&T Bank. These companies are in no way mediocre. They are the best of the best, the cream of the crop.

However, Buffett doesn’t always abide by his advice to only invest in top-shelf stocks. This isn’t because he’s intellectually inconsistent — a flip-flopper, if you will — but rather because he uses different strategies at different times.

By his own admission, Buffett’s approach to investing has been influenced most heavily by three people, each of whom approach the discipline from a slightly different angle. Benjamin Graham stood for buying cheap stocks somewhat irrespective of quality. Philip Fisher believed in buying great companies somewhat irrespective of price. And Charlie Munger adopted the hybrid approach of buying wonderful companies at reasonable prices.

Buffett’s decision to invest in a company could be grounded in any one of these philosophies, or in all of them combined. To complicate things further, he has also been known on occasion to enter into a variety of sophisticated transactions that only someone with his resources, knowledge, and expertise should contemplate.

Parsing Buffett’s bet on Bank of America

I say all of this because it’s easy to misconstrue the rationale behind Buffett’s decision to invest in a specific company. Take Berkshire’s position in Bank of America BANK OF AMERICA CORP. BAC -0.45% as an example. When Buffett wrote his latest letter to shareholders, the Charlotte, N.C.-based bank was Berkshire’s fifth-largest equity investment. You’d be excused for interpreting that as a ringing endorsement.

But Buffett’s decision to invest in Bank of America was not grounded in the philosophies of either Fisher or Munger, both of whom only condone investments in great companies. It was grounded instead in the philosophy of Graham, Buffett’s original mentor — who, it’s worth recalling, emphasized price over quality.

I would argue that the evidence for this is irrefutable. In the first case, Bank of America has proven time and again over the last few decades that it is not an elite bank. It has a bloated expense base — something Buffett despises. It overpays for acquisitions, some of which turned out to be complete disasters. And it’s horrible at the core competency of banking — namely, managing credit risk.

In the second case, the structure of Berkshire’s investment in Bank of America hardly suggests that Buffett holds it in the same high regard as he does, say, Wells Fargo. Keep in mind that Buffett did not buy common stock in Bank of America; he bought preferred stock, which carries significantly less risk but also offers little upside. To make up for this, Buffett demanded that Bank of America gratuitously include warrants to purchase 700 million shares of common stock at $7.14 per share — a total value of $5 billion — at any time before the middle of 2021.

To the uninitiated, it might seem like I’m splitting hairs here. After all, $5 billion is $5 billion. What difference does it make that Berkshire’s position consisted of $5 billion of preferred stock plus warrants, rather than a commensurate amount of common stock?

This is a rhetorical question, of course, because it matters a lot. Consider that Buffett will ultimately emerge with the same roughly 6.5% stake in Bank of America, regardless of how the deal was structured. But by structuring it in the manner that he did, the 84-year-old financier shifted all of the risk onto Bank of America’s shareholders. If its shares failed to recover, then so be it; Berkshire would still get its 6% interest payment on its $5 billion preferred stake. But if the share price improved, as it indeed has, then Berkshire would exercise its warrants, make a fortune, and markedly dilute the bank’s shareholders.

And in the third case, all you have to do is compare Buffett’s effusiveness regarding his initial position in Wells Fargo to his much more restrained remarks about his sizable investment in Bank of America.

Here’s Buffett in his 1990 shareholder letter talking about Wells Fargo:

With Wells Fargo, we think we have obtained the best managers in the business, Carl Reichardt and Paul Hazen. In many ways the combination of Carl and Paul reminds me of another — Tom Murphy and Dan Burke at Capital Cities/ABC. First, each pair is stronger than the sum of its parts because each partner understands, trusts, and admires the other. Second, both managerial teams pay able people well, but abhor having a bigger head count than is needed. Third, both attack costs as vigorously when profits are at record levels as when they are under pressure. Finally, both stick with what they understand and let their abilities, not their egos, determine what they attempt.

And here’s the extent of Buffett’s substantive comments about Bank of America in his 2011 letter:

At Bank of America, some huge mistakes were made by prior management. [CEO] Brian Moynihan has made excellent progress in cleaning these up, though the completion of that process will take a number of years. Concurrently, he is nurturing a huge and attractive underlying business that will endure long after today’s problems are forgotten.

If this were an awards presentation at a high school track meet, Bank of America would have earned a participation ribbon while Wells Fargo took home a 5-foot-tall, bedazzled trophy for first place. The point is that Buffett didn’t invest in Bank of America because he thought it was a great company along the lines of Wells Fargo. He invested in it because it was weak and vulnerable and he could write the terms of the deal in such a way that, short of financial Armageddon, Berkshire simply could not lose.

If you follow in Buffett’s wake, proceed with caution

The lesson here is that if you’re going to follow Buffett into a stock, or if you’re going to cite his investment in a specific company to confirm or counter your opinion of it, then it would be well worth your time to investigate why he likely bought it in the first place. If he was under the influence of Graham’s philosophy, then you might not want to follow in his wake. But if Buffett was applying the philosophies of Fisher or Munger, then the company might indeed be worth a look.

MONEY retirement income

The Powerful (and Expensive) Allure of Guaranteed Retirement Income

141203_RET_Guaranteed
D. Hurst—Alamy

Workers may never regain their appetite for measured risk in the wake of the Great Recession, new research shows.

People have always loved a sure thing. But certainty has commanded a higher premium since the Great Recession. Five years into a recovery—and with stocks having tripled from the bottom—workers overwhelmingly say they prefer investments with a guarantee to those with higher growth potential and the possibility of losing value, new research shows.

Such is the lasting impact of a dramatic market downdraft. The S&P 500 plunged 53% in 2007-2009, among the sharpest declines in history. Housing collapsed as well. Yet the S&P 500 long ago regained all the ground it had lost. Housing has been recovering as well.

Still, in an Allianz poll of workers aged 18 to 55, 78% said they preferred lower certain returns than higher returns with risk. Specifically, they chose a hypothetical product with a 4% annual return and no risk of losing money over a product with an 8% annual return and the risk of losing money in a down market. Guarantees make retirees happy.

This reluctance to embrace risk, or at least the urge to dial it way back, may be appropriate for those on the cusp of retirement. But for the vast majority of workers, reaching retirement security without the superior long-term return of stocks would prove a tall order. Asked what would prevent them from putting new cash into a retirement savings account, 40% cited fear of market uncertainty and another 22% cited today’s low interest rates, suggesting that fixed income is the preferred investment of most workers. Here’s what workers would do with new cash, according to Allianz:

  • 39% would invest in a product that caps gains at 10% and limits losses to 10%.
  • 19% would invest in a product with 3% growth potential and no risk of loss.
  • 19% would invest in a savings account earning little or no interest.
  • 12% would hold their extra cash and wait for the market to correct before investing.
  • 11% would invest in a product with high growth potential and no protection from loss.

These results jibe with other findings in the poll, including the top two concerns of pre-retirees: fear of not being able to cover day-to-day expenses and outliving their money. These fears drive them to favor low-risk investments. One product line gaining favor is annuities. Some 41% in the poll said purchasing such an insurance product, locking in guaranteed lifetime income, was one of the smartest things they could do when they are five to 10 years away from retiring.

Lifetime income has become a hot topic. With the erosion of traditional pensions, Social Security is the only sure thing that most of today’s workers have in terms of a reliable income stream that will never run out. Against this backdrop, individuals have been more open to annuities and policymakers, asset managers and financial planners have been searching for ways to build annuities into employer-sponsored defined-contribution plans.

Doing so would address what may be our biggest need in the post defined-benefits world and one that workers want badly enough to forgo the stock market’s better long-run track record.

More from Money’s Ultimate Retirement Guide:

How do I know if buying an annuity is right for me?

What annuity payout options do I have?

How can I get rid of an annuity I no longer want?

MONEY stocks

The Stupidly Simple Reason That Apple Stock Is Overrated

Studio shot of letters A, B and C
Chris Hackett—Getty Images

New research suggests we're too busy — or lazy — to get all the way through the alphabet.

It may not surprise you to learn that our investing decisions are often the result of irrational behavior. But the findings of a new study suggest that many of our stock selections are systematically wrong-headed.

It turns out that the first letter of a company’s name exerts undue influence on our investing behavior. Specifically, stocks starting with letters in the beginning of the alphabet are valued higher and traded more often than late-alphabet stocks, according to a November paper from business school researchers at Seton Hall and Yeshiva University.

“Back when people used phone books, they were more likely to choose companies with names like ‘AAA Avocados’ or ‘Acme Pest Control’ than those later in the alphabet,” says Jesse Itzkowitz, a marketing professor at Yeshiva University’s Sy Syms School of Business. “The same is true today for retail investors reading through stock information they get from brokerages like Fidelity or TIAA-CREF.”

That’s because humans have a tendency to choose the first satisfactory option available, rather than taking extra time to make an optimal choice, says Itzkowitz.

The upshot of such “satisficing”? Stocks with early-alphabet names are traded 1.7% more often and are valued 6.1% higher by investors than late-alphabet companies, according to a measure that compares the underlying value of a business to its market price.

Screen Shot 2014-12-02 at 11.49.29 AM

 

Other than knowing that this tendency artificially boosts the stocks of early-ABCs companies like Apple (and presumably inflicts a penalty on Zynga, for instance), what’s the takeaway for investors who buy shares in individual companies?

For one, says Itzkowitz, be sure to sort through potential stock investments using valuation and fundamental metrics to narrow the options, rather than just reading through an alphabetical list.

“Human beings are able to expend only so much mental effort before making a decision, so it’s best to focus on a manageable quantity of information,” says Itzkowitz. (You can check out MONEY’s advice on choosing stocks and play around with a free stock screener like the one at finviz.com.)

Perhaps more importantly, recognize that we all have limitations, and can all act irrationally, when it comes to choosing stocks. That’s a case for letting professionals handle your money or—better yet—for investing in a passive index fund. That way you get you diversification without the risk of human error, since even experts make mistakes.

 

MONEY Financial Planning

7 Pre-New Year’s Financial Moves That Will Make You Richer in 2015

champagne bottle with $100 bill wrapped around it
iStock

Before you pop the champagne this December 31, get your financial house in order.

Didn’t 2014 just start? At least that’s the way it feels to me. Well, regardless of how things seem, the reality is the year is just about over. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make a big impact on your financial future before the big ball drops in Times Square.

You can still achieve some very important financial goals before Dec. 31.

1. Make a Plan to Get Out of Debt

You may not be able to get out of debt between now and the end of the holiday season but you can set yourself up now so you’ll be debt-free very soon. Of course the first step is to watch your spending over the holidays. Don’t overdo it. That only makes it harder to solve your debt situation.

Next, create a system to eliminate debt by first consolidating and refinancing to the lowest possible interest rate. Once you do that, put all the muscle (and money) you can towards paying off the highest cost debt you have and make the minimum payments towards other credit card balances. As you pay off your most expensive debt continue to keep your debt payments as high as possible towards the next highest-cost debt. Repeat this process until you are debt-free. Believe me it won’t take that long. But you won’t ever be done if you don’t start. Why not begin the process of lowering your cost of credit card debt today? (You can use this free calculator to see how long it will take to pay off your credit card debt. You can also check your credit scores for free to see how your debt is affecting your credit standing.)

2. Track Your Spending

Even if you aren’t in debt, it’s important to know what you spend on average each month. Once you know where the money is going, you can decide if you are spending it as wisely as possible or if you need to make some changes.

Many people think they know how much they spend on average but most of us underestimate our monthly nut by 20-30%. You can use a program, a spreadsheet or simply look at your bank statements and track your total withdrawals for the month. It doesn’t matter how you do it. But if you aren’t tracking your spending, I recommend you start doing so now.

What’s great about starting to track spending before the new year is that you get used to your system and if you use a program or spreadsheet, it will also simplify your tax reporting for next year. This is especially helpful if you do your own taxes.

3. Review Your Estate Plan

Things usually slow down at work during the holidays. That gives you time to get to important items you may have been putting off. Estate planning is one of those items that people often procrastinate on.

I’m not asking you to get your will or trust done by Dec. 31 (although you could). But at the very least do two things:

  1. Educate yourself about the difference between wills and trusts.
  2. Find a good estate planning attorney or legal service and start the process.

My parents completely ignored this topic. When they both died young and unexpectedly, it made it monumentally more painful, difficult and scary for my siblings and I. Don’t take chances. You can and should start taking care of your estate planning now.

4. Review Your Life Insurance

As long as we’re talking about estate planning, we might as well dust off your old life insurance policies and give them the old once over. Some people have outdated and overly expensive life insurance they no longer need. Others walk around woefully under-insured, exposing their loved ones to great risk that is completely avoidable.

Pull out your old policies today. Do you still need those policies? If not, cancel them. If you do need insurance, start comparison shopping to make sure you have the right coverage at the right price.

5. Start Investing

If you’ve been on the fence about investing it’s time to stop thinking and start doing. If you don’t know how to get started, there are plenty of great resources on the Web. You need to understand the basis, of course, but you don’t need a Ph.D. in economics before you leave the starting gate. Once you read up on the basics of investing, be prepared to start slow and learn as you go. You will be fine.

And remember: You don’t need a pile of dough in order to start investing. If you are a DIY investor, there are plenty of good online brokers who will open an account for as little as $500. Can you think of a good reason to wait until next year to start investing? I can’t either. Let’s go.

6. Maximize Your Retirement Contributions

Before year-end, make sure you have maximized allowable contributions to your retirement plan at work. Unless you are in debt, you want to take advantage of employer matching if at all possible. Even if there is no matching program at work, try to maximize your plan contributions. This will give you the benefit of tax deferral and a forced savings plan.

Call your HR department today to find out if you can bump up your retirement plan contributions for the year.

7. Get in Front of Your Finances

You have an amazing opportunity right now. Make sure you are on top of your financial game now, next year and beyond. Take out a calendar right now and schedule when you are going to begin and follow through on the items on this list.

Look at your calendar for the next seven days. When are you going to:

  1. Inquire about refinancing your debt?
  2. Set up your spending tracking system?
  3. Start asking for estate planner referrals?
  4. Review your life insurance?
  5. Set up your investment account?
  6. Call HR and make sure to bump up your retirement contributions to max out for the year?

Taken all together, the list above might seem overwhelming. But if you do one task each day, you can really change your financial life this week. Each task above will take you between 15 minutes to three hours to complete. Are you going to do one item each day this week? How will you feel once you’ve begun? Or are you going to wait until “after the holidays”?

More from Credit.com

This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

MONEY alternative assets

Lending Club’s $4 Billion IPO Puts Peer-to-Peer Lending in the Mainstream

IOU note
Getty Images

Lending Club priced its IPO on Monday, putting it in the ranks of the biggest public offerings ever for an Internet company. Here's what you need to know about peer-to-peer lending.

UPDATE: On Monday, peer-to-peer lending company Lending Club announced it would be pricing its upcoming IPO at $10 to $12 a share in an effort to raise as much as $692 million. (Click here to read the filing.) At the midpoint of the range, that would value the company at around $4 billion. Now that P2P lending has firmly entered the mainstream (and then some), it’s worth looking again at the advice we published in August, when Lending Club filed to go public, on how P2P lending works and how best to use Lending Club and similar services.

Your bank makes money off borrowers. Now you have the opportunity to do the same. One of today’s hottest investments, peer-to-peer lending, involves making loans to strangers over the Internet and counting on them to pay you back with interest. The concept may be a bit wacky, but the returns reported by sites specializing in this transaction—from 7% to 14%—are nothing to scoff at.

Investors aren’t laughing either. Lending Club, one of the leading peer-to-peer lending companies, filed to go public on Wednesday. The New York Times reports the company is seeking $500 million as a preliminary fundraising target and may choose to increase that figure.

Such lofty ambitions should be no surprise, considering that the two biggest P2P sites are growing like gangbusters. With Wall Street firms and pension funds pouring in money as well, Lending Club issued more than $2 billion of loans in 2013, and nearly tripled its business over the prior year. In July, Prosper originated $153.8 million in loans, representing a year-over-year increase of over 400%. The company recently passed $1 billion in total lending. “A few years ago I would have laughed at the idea that these sites would revolutionize banking,” says Curtis Arnold, co-author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Person to Person Lending. “They haven’t yet, but I’m not laughing anymore.”

Here’s what to know before opening your wallet.

How P2P Works

To start investing, you simply transfer money to an account on one of the sites, then pick loans to fund. When Prosper launched in 2006, borrowers were urged to write in personal stories. Nowadays the process is more formal: Lenders mainly use matching tools to select loans—either one by one or in a bundle—based on criteria like credit rating or desired return. (Most borrowers are looking to refi credit-card debt anyway.) Loans are in three- and five-year terms. And the sites both use a default investment of $25, though you can opt to fund more of any given loan. Pricing is based on risk, so loans to borrowers with the worst credit offer the best interest rates.

Once a loan is fully funded, you’ll get monthly payments in your account—principal plus interest, less a 1% fee. Keep in mind that interest is taxable at your income tax rate, though you can opt to direct the money to an IRA to defer taxes.

A few hurdles: First, not every state permits individuals to lend. Lending Club is open to lenders in 26 states; Prosper is in 30 states plus D.C. Even if you are able to participate, you might have trouble finding loans because of the recent influx of institutional investors. “Depending on how much you’re looking to invest and how specific you are about the characteristics, it can take up to a few weeks to deploy money in my experience,” says Marc Prosser, publisher of LearnBonds.com and a Lending Club investor.

What Risks You Face

For the average-risk loan on Lending Club, returns in late 2013 averaged 8% to 9%, with a default rate of 2% to 4% since 2009. By contrast, junk bonds, which have had similar default rates, are yielding 5.7%. But P2P default rates apply only to the past few years, when the economy has been on an upswing; should it falter, the percentage of defaults could rise dramatically. In 2009, for example, Prosper’s default rate hit almost 30% (though its rate is now similar to Lending Club’s). Moreover, adds Colorado Springs financial planner Allan Roth, “a peer loan is unsecured. If it defaults, your money is gone.”

How to Do It Right

Spread your bets. Lending Club and Prosper both urge investors to diversify as much as possible.

Stick to higher quality. Should the economy turn, the lowest-grade loans will likely see the largest spike in defaults, so it’s better to stay in the middle to upper range—lower A to C on the sites’ rating scales. (The highest A loans often don’t pay much more than safer options.)

Stay small. Until P2P lending is more time-tested, says Roth, it’s best to limit your investment to less than 5% of your total portfolio. “Don’t bank the future of your family on this,” he adds.

MONEY mutual funds

Why Mutual Fund Managers Are Having a Bad Year

140618_money_gen_9
iStock

Eighty-five percent of stock-pickers at large-cap funds are trailing their benchmark indexes — likely their worst performance in three decades.

Stock-picking fund managers are testing their investors’ patience with some of the worst investment returns in decades.

With bad bets on financial shares, missed opportunities in technology stocks and too much cash on the sidelines, roughly 85% of active large-cap stock funds have lagged their benchmark indexes through Nov. 25 this year, according to an analysis by Lipper, a Thomson Reuters research unit. It is likely their worst comparative showing in 30 years, Lipper said.

Some long-term advocates of active management may be turned off by the results, especially considering the funds’ higher fees. Through Oct. 31, index stock funds and exchange traded funds have pulled in $206.2 billion in net deposits.

Actively managed funds, a much larger universe, took in a much smaller $35.6 billion, sharply down from the $162 billion taken in during 2013, their first year of net inflows since 2007.

Jeff Tjornehoj, head of Lipper Americas Research, said investors will have to decide if they have the stomach to stick with active funds in hopes of better results in the future.

“A year like this sorts out what kind of investor you are,” he said.

Even long-time standout managers like Bill Nygren of the $17.8 billion Oakmark Fund and Jason Subotky of the $14.2 billion Yacktman Fund are lagging, at a time when advisers are growing more focused on fees.

The Oakmark fund, which is up 11.8% this year through Nov. 25, charges 0.95% of assets in annual fees, compared with 0.09% for the SPDR S&P 500 exchange traded fund, which mimics the S&P 500 and is up almost 14% this year, according to Morningstar. The Yacktman fund is up 10.2% over the same period and charges 0.74% of assets in annual fees.

The pay-for-active-performance camp argues that talented managers are worth paying for and will beat the market over investment cycles.

Rob Brown, chief investment strategist for United Capital, which has $11 billion under management and keeps about two thirds of its mutual fund holdings in active funds, estimates that good managers can add an extra 1% to returns over time compared with an index-only strategy.

Indeed, the top active managers have delivered. For example, $10,000 invested in the Yacktman Fund on Nov. 23, 2004, would have been worth $27,844 on Nov. 25 of this year; the same amount invested in the S&P 500 would be worth $21,649, according to Lipper.

Even so, active funds as a group tend to lag broad market indexes, though this year’s underperformance is extreme. In the rout of 2008, when the S&P 500 fell 38%, more than half of the active large cap stock funds had declines that were greater than those of their benchmarks, Lipper found. The last time when more than half of active large cap stock managers beat their index was 2009, when the S&P 500 was up 26%. That year, 55% of these managers beat their benchmarks.

Unusually Bad Bets

In 2014, some recurring bad market bets were made by various active managers. Holding too much cash was one.

Yacktman’s Subotky said high stock prices made him skeptical of buying new shares, leaving him with 17% of the fund’s holdings in cash while share prices have continued to rise. He cautioned investors to have patience.

“Our goal is never to capture every last drop of a roaring bull market,” Subotky said

Oakmark’s Nygren cited his light weighting of hot Apple shares and heavy holdings of underperforming financials, but said his record should be judged over time. “Very short-term performance comparisons, good or bad, may bear little resemblance to long term results,” he said.

Shares of Apple, the world’s most valuable publicly traded company, are up 48% year to date. As of Sept. 30, Apple stock made up 1.75% of Oakmark’s assets, compared with 3.69% of the SPDR S&P 500 ETF.

Investors added $3.9 billion to Nygren’s fund through Nov. 19, Lipper said.

Still, some managers risk losing their faithful.

“We have been very much believers in active management, but a number of our active managers have let us down this year, and we are rethinking our strategy,” said Martin Hopkins, president of an investment management firm in Annapolis, Md. that has $4 million in the Yacktman Fund.

Derek Holman of EP Wealth Advisors, in Torrance, Calif., which manages about $1.8 billion, said his firm recently moved $130 million from a pair of active large cap funds into ETFs, saying it would save clients about $650,000 in fees per year.

Holman said his firm still uses active funds for areas like small-cap investing, but it is getting harder for fund managers to gain special insights about large companies.

For those managers, he said, “it’s getting harder to stand out.”

Your browser is out of date. Please update your browser at http://update.microsoft.com