All posts tagged The Frug recommends

Tax-Free Investing. The True Secret Behind Health Savings Accounts.

By Brad Beckstrom

Why would I waste a perfectly good Thursday morning writing about health insurance and health savings accounts? Well, politics has made paying for healthcare a national obsession.

There’s been a lot in the news recently about the spiraling costs of healthcare and Republican promises to cut the costs of health insurance for individuals and families. While no formal plan has been presented, one key component mentioned by both Republicans and Democrats is the Health Savings Account or HSA. The fact is, tax-advantaged HSAs have been around for years. In many ways they are also one of the best ways to save for retirement. I’ll explain why.

What is an HSA?

An HSA used in conjunction with a high deductible health insurance policy allows users to save and spend money tax-free to use for medical expenses. Contributions to an HSA can be made pre-tax directly from your paycheck or you can make contributions on your own that are 100% tax-deductible, up to $3300 for individuals and $6550 for families and, if you’re over 55, you can contribute $7550 per year. For example, a family in the 25% marginal tax bracket could save you over $1600 a year in taxes.

How does it work?

Once you have money in your account, you can then use it to pay for all types of medical expenses, including things like new glasses, prescription drugs, medical and dental visits, and any medical expenses not covered by your high deductible health plan. To be eligible, you need to have a health plan that qualifies as a high deductible plan. (Example a minimum deductible of $1300 for singles or $2600 for families). A high deductible plan means you will pay more out of pocket before meeting your deductible. The advantage is that the premiums on these plans are lower. Due to the high cost of health care, many employers are now offering only high deductible plans, or versions of it, as an option.  For entrepreneurs, these plans are also available through healthcare.gov and labeled as HSA or through most health insurance brokers at comparable rates.

Simplify the process

When I first started researching HSA’s,I felt they were a bit complex. I had to set up a pretax deduction from my paycheck, then set up a HSA account with a participating bank and assure that these pre-tax deductions were transferred into the account. Once the account was set up and funded however, I found it was easy to track medical expenses in Quicken or online using Mint.com or PersonalCapital.com.  Once a month I can pull up my non-reimbursable medical expenses then simply pay myself back from the HSA account. I don’t see a need to save paper copies of the bills as the transactions applied to my deductible are saved by our health insurance provider and they are documented in both the credit card bills and online tracking. The HSA bank account allows you to track reimbursements paper free. You’ll get a year-end statement showing the exact amount of all transactions.

Using an HSA like a turbocharged tax free retirement account.

What happens if I don’t use up my budget? Any leftover dollars stay in the HSA account and can be invested in index funds. This is the true secret behind an HSA account. Unlike an IRA or a 401K, the money in an HSA account is not taxed when you make withdrawals during retirement. After you turn 65, you can also withdraw the money tax-free for any purpose, making it an ideal bookend to a traditional retirement account. Here is a great graphic from The Mad Fientist showing the cash flow.

Setting it up.

Here are some steps you should take if you’re considering an HSA account.

  1. Don’t wait until open enrollment period start researching health savings accounts. Find out what your options are now. Healthcare costs in the US are skyrocketing, and many employers, entrepreneurs and government agencies are switching to high deductible plans. You don’t want to be stuck in one of these without an HSA account.
  2. Choose which financial institution you’ll use for your HSA account. I was able to quickly set mine up with Bank of America, making it easy to handle transfers between checking and my HSA account. Most HSA accounts offer bill pay and transfer features even if you don’t bank with them.
  3. Find out if pre-tax contributions can be made from your paycheck. This lowers your tax bill and gives you tax-free dollars to spend on health expenses you’re going to have anyway, even if it’s new pair of glasses or a root canal.
  4. Don’t get HSA plans mixed up with other types of savings accounts like HRAs or FSAs  the key difference is that you own the HSA account and the dollars don’t need to be used up by the end of the year. Make sure it’s specifically HSA approved.
  5. Max out your tax-free contribution whenever you can. This money grows tax-free in your HSA account until you use it. The HSA account is especially useful for individuals who have also maxed out their retirement contributions.
  6. Another key difference with HSAs is that they have investment options for your leftover funds. Check a balanced index fund and put your extra cash in there at the end of the year. Over time this will grow tax-free.
  7. Once you start using your HSA account, pay your providers directly then reimburse yourself from the HSA. Some HSA accounts include debit cards but I found it easier to use a credit card with points and then reimburse myself, which is allowed under the plan.
  8. HSAs are great for the self employed you save an additional 7.65% on (employer paid) social security and medicaid taxes.
  9. Check out this article with more info about turning your HSA into a souped up retirement account.
  10. Call your congressmen and let him know that 100% tax deductible, affordable health care, and HSA accounts, are a good thing that should be improved on, not eliminated.

 

I’d love to hear about your experience with HSAs. A quick disclaimer — Any concepts presented on this blog are simply opinions and should not be considered as professional investment advice.  As with most other things in life, you are solely responsible for your own choices, make them thoughtfully.

 

The Frug

 

Follow me on Twitter Facebook Flickr Instagram

 

Stop filling your mind with random stuff. It’s time to go on a high-quality, low information diet.

knowledge Tree

By Brad Beckstrom

I thought I had this all figured out. A few years ago, I decided to get on a high quality low information diet. I would avoid traditional news sites and only follow a small group of highly trusted writers, using a RSS feed reader. I would update and pare back this list regularly and categorize the writers I followed by interest. The feed reader I use is called Feedly and allows me to group my favorite writers into categories like business, family, personal development, photography, comedy, sports etc. The feed reader is very effective at stripping out distractions, especially all of that click bait, and fake news, you see at the bottom of many websites, even on many major news and network websites. My plan worked well. Each evening my feed reader presented me with a personally curated news stream from a group of writers I trust with very little distraction. No clickbait, no banner ads, no fake news.

Then two things happened. Apple launched an app called “News” that I started playing with after a recent iPhone upgrade. Then the election cycle began. This news app is comes set up like a feed reader for the big news sites. I found myself following multiple networks, major newspapers. Any spare moment I had, standing in line, having some lunch, I started filling up with this news app. Then I felt I needed to share things on Facebook or Twitter which led me to click on more stories shared by friends. There was so much garbage out there about both candidates, I’d quickly spiraled into a news consumption addiction. I’d gone from high quality, low information to just information and way too much of it. Not only did my other feed reader start to fill up with unread articles, I also found myself thinking less about what I wanted to create.  I was too busy absorbing all of the news to think about much else. As a dieter might say, I fell off the wagon.

It’s Over

The election is now over, so it should be easy for me to walk away from all those network news sites, walk away from all of the name-calling and breaking stories and move on. Unfortunately it will be hard, and I think many people won’t walk away at all. They will want to be up-to-date on the latest political shit show playing out in Washington DC. Others will want to follow all of this news as they feel some responsibility, sense of urgency, to know what is going on as it may impact their jobs, family, their daily life. What’s the harm anyway?  You’re just filling up some dead time by looking at your phone.

I believe there is harm. You have to look at what you’re missing by spending so much time keeping up with so-called “news”. You’re filling your brain with a lot of fleeting stuff ( I could insert 100 examples here from Twitter alone) that you have absolutely no control over, and has very little impact on what’s important to your daily life.

newsman

Change the way you consume information

For me this doesn’t mean shutting out traditional news entirely. It means immediately changing the way I’ve been consuming news and going back to what works. So, what do I mean by a high quality low information diet?  Everyone’s different so what may be high quality to me may be garbage to someone else. The good news here is that we can use the same technology that’s been bombarding us with click bait, fake news, sensationalism to filter those exact things. Here are six high-tech ways I’m doing that and two very low-tech ways.

  1. Use a good quality RSS feed reader. Basically, the way a feed reader works allows you to follow trusted blogs, specific topics, and writers that are credible. Instead of typing “CNN” or clicking on FoxNews in your browser, you can take a few minutes to follow feeds from sources that you know are legit and won’t fill up your screen with clickbait and banners next to every article. I use Feedly. My feed updates on my phone in a browser or on iPad. All of them stay in sync and I don’t miss a thing from my favorite writers like Seth Godin or James Altucher.
  2. If you’re more visual, and like a magazine style presentation on your tablet, I recommend flipboard.  You can follow the same feeds as on other apps. It syncs across devices and is especially great on tablets.
  3. Once you setup your feed, don’t follow the major news sites. This will simply just fill up your screen with all of the random latest news stories that you want to cut back on.
  4. Update your feed readers regularly, cleaning out blogs, topics, and writers you used to follow that no longer interest you.  If you’re on your iPhone a lot and still want to use Apple News or Google News just simply delete the major sites that come preloaded and add your favorite writers, bloggers, or reporters. Just like on Feedly.
  5. Turn off any breaking news notifications on your mobile device. These all lead to the “hot stories” and are a big part of the news addiction distraction. Just because Google adds newsfeeds to your smartphone home screen doesn’t mean you can’t turn it off.
  6. Stop listening to network, commercial talk radio and start streaming or downloading podcasts.
  7. Cash in some left over frequent flyer points for a few good magazines. Believe it or not high-quality magazines like Fortune, Wired, and Fast Company still use fact checkers. A well-written article that’s going to press gets more eyes in front of it than something that is rushed out online as a “breaking story”.
  8. Rediscover the Sunday paper and a hot cup of coffee. If I added up all the time I spent checking CNN and other sites during the election cycle, I could probably free up four hours a week. Use a fraction of that time to learn about what’s going on in your local area as well as get a summary of world events that have at least been vetted by an editorial staff. If there’s a writer you really like, you can follow them in your feed instead of following the whole newspaper, as many people are tempted to do with major news sites.

The most important thing here is to change how you consume “news”. End your need to have the latest information. Wait for quality. Try going on a major news diet, just start following a few writers that look interesting in your feed readers search results, then grow from there.  If anything big happens, trust me, the Internet will make sure you hear about it. The rest of it can wait while you get on with your life.

The Frug

 

Follow me on Twitter Facebook Flickr Instagram

 

11 Big Life Things I’m Sharing With My Son Before He Leaves For College.

Followed by a 11 things I really wish I knew my freshman year. 

U_of_South_Carolina_Horseshoe

By Brad Beckstrom

I came of age and entered the working world in the 80s and 90s when self-help books, CDs, and personal improvement seminars were all the rage. Classics like The 7 Habits, What Color is your Parachute? And many others from authors like Napoleon Hill, Tony Robbins that are still popular today. They were full of exercises and to do lists, charts and graphs, but what I really remember where the quotes, many of them decades or even centuries old. The ones that lasted. The knowledge these writers returned to again and again.

Self-help books are full of knowledge from a diverse group. Here  I’ve quoted Maya Angelou, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bruce Lee, Frank Zappa, Calvin Coolidge, Joe Strummer, St. Augustine, and Marcus Aurelius.

SC 2

It was the quotes, the short sentences with powerful meaning  that connect, that I would highlight or write down. When things got difficult, I could go back and look at some of these words that writers, artists or leaders I admire have said. I’ve tried to incorporate them into core principles and a life philosophy. Some of them are pieces and parts of other quotes that spoke to me, so I decided to share them with my sons. My oldest is leaving for college and the youngest is beginning high school. I believe I’ve tried to live these, but just in case. After all we live 3 miles from Washington, DC, a city full of self-serving politicians, spin doctors and general corporate obfuscation. Today, standing for basic set principles can help one rise above the fray.

11 Big Life Things Read more…

Are GPS apps rendering part of your brain inactive?

How to vastly improve your experience with maps and keep your head from getting lost in the map on your smartphone.

By Brad Beckstrom

640px-Claudius_Ptolemy-_The_World

Cartography –  The study and practice of making maps.

maps thefrug

Remember paper maps? I’m talking about the big unfolding kind they used to give you at tourism offices, AAA or full-service gas stations. How about the slick plastic coated ones that you could access with one hand on the steering wheel trying to navigate in a city like Rome or Washington, DC? Or the jumbo 50 page city or county map books they used to sell at office supply and convenience stores for about 18 bucks, still popular with some realtors and salespeople who work in remote areas or haven’t jumped on the smartphone bandwagon yet. Or the mother of them all, The Rand McNally Road Atlas hundreds of pages just waiting to be explored. I always had a thing for maps. I was always up for exploring out-of-the-way places, and maps helped me get there.

The frug globe

When my boys were younger, we used to play a game called “spin the globe”, wherever you land, you have to go there. I remember once my oldest son spun the globe and landed on Yakutsk, Russia generally considered to be the coldest inhabited city on earth with average temperatures of -58°F. He immediately added the city to the weather app on his phone and kept an eye on the place, occasionally sharing the sometimes ridiculous low temperatures. I don’t think I’ll ever see Yakutsk but I have a feeling he might.

Once GPS came along I knew I was hooked. (Finally an answer for my lack of direction in life.)   I played around with some of the earliest handheld GPS units, the kind where you had to load a CD onto your computer then somehow transfer maps to the GPS unit. These early units were popular with boaters because it’s very important to know where you’re going on the water. You also need to know about a third dimension, the depth of the water so you don’t end up on a sand barge, as I occasionally did.  At least I can blame the fricking GPS unit versus my lack of preparation with paper navigation charts. Read more…

If you’re traveling on a budget, plan a trip to a 4 star resort on a Greek Island.

IMG_8950 (1)

By Brad Beckstrom

Wait, The Frug hanging out at a four-star resort in the Greek Islands? That doesn’t sound very frugal. The fact is, it’s never been more frugal. This has a lot to do with the strength of the US dollar versus the Euro which is regularly hitting 10 year lows, but it has more to do with Greek  hospitality and choosing the right time and the right island to visit.

Location, Location, Location

While I was researching Greece, I was a bit disappointed to see pictures of summer crowds in places like Santorini and Mykonos. One website even included photos titled “perception” and “reality” showing a photo of beautiful whitewashed houses and windmills on Santorini next to a photo of the same spot, covered in tourists, with every alleyway bursting at the seams with dreaded shoppers and selfie stick wavers.

From the start, I wanted to avoid the crowds. That was going to be tough as our kids weren’t getting out of school til late June and, like many other families. we’d all be hitting the highways and airports about the same time. The strategy we came up with was to visit a few Greek islands that most Americans have never heard of, Paros and Antiparos.  We talked to some Greek insiders including a celebrity chef my 14-year-old son had been chatting up on Twitter and got the scoop on these two islands. They’re in the same Cyclades chain of islands with Santorini and Mykonos, but because Paros is a ferry hub, it’s often the first stop coming and going on the ferry from Athens. This would be our destination.

IMG_8958

Timing

The other key element in our plan was timing. Read more…