Six tips to help you build wealth, reduce debt and stay sane in 2014:
1. Find out where your retirement savings stand
At the heart of the debate over expanding the Canada Pension Plan is concern that people aren't saving enough for retirement. See whether you're in that group. Gather up all your registered retirement savings plan and tax-free savings account statements to see what you have. Then, find out how much CPP you're in line to receive. Maximum CPP and Old Age Security payments – combined – were worth roughly $18,700 this year.
Next, add any pension income you have and use an online calculator like the one offered by Globeinvestor.com to see how far your money might go. If you have a financial planner, then all this should have been done for you.
2. Talk to your retirement-age parents about their finances and estate planning
There's a combination of factors that make it more important than ever for us to keep an eye on the finances of seniors. They're taking on debt at a faster rate than any other demographic, and they're declaring bankruptcy at rising rates. Also, in living longer, they are increasingly coping with dementia issues.
Look for signs of financial stress – unpaid bills lying around, calls from collection agencies, credit card statements showing a pattern of minimum monthly payments and use of credit cards to buy staples. Also, make sure your parents have set up a financial power of attorney for financial affairs, as well as for health care. Both these documents appoint an individual to act on someone's behalf.
3. As the new Aeroplan switchover unfolds, play hard to get.
Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, Toronto-Dominion Bank and Aimia Canada got together this year to re-arrange which banks will get to offer premium travel reward credit cards linked to the popular Aeroplan program. Cardholders, frustrated over the lack of communication from all parties, should find out shortly whether they're staying with CIBC or moving to TD. Unless CIBC and TD try to buy your loyalty with special bonuses, use the switchover as an opportunity to explore other travel reward cards.
Two ways to find top travel reward card options are the RewardsCanada website and this feature by MoneySense. Also consider a cashback card, where your rewards come in the form of real money, not points and miles.
4. Think twice about using a big bank for your next mortgage
The most telling symbols of big-bank greed today are the penalties they apply when clients break a mortgage. As noted in a recent column , these penalties are brutal. They could easily cost you the same amount as a good used car.
I've used a lot of ink over the years telling people how important it is to get the lowest mortgage rate. But mortgage penalties are a close second on the list of reasons to choose a lender. About seven in 10 people with five-year mortgages make changes to them before maturity, though not necessarily to pay them out in full.
Fortunately, the alternative lenders that compete with the banks are not nearly as aggressive with mortgage penalties. And they offer the lowest rates.
5. The stock markets are up, but there's a better option if you're sitting on cash
Even after a great five-year stretch for stocks, there's still a lot of money sitting in safety-first investments that earn little or nothing. Now, with registered retirement savings plan season ahead, Canadians are going to see all kinds of investing hype designed to get their money out of savings accounts and into mutual funds and other investments.
If you've got a lot of cash and are tempted to dive into the markets at this late date, reconsider. A better use for the money would be to pay down credit cards and lines of credit. Stocks could easily take a breather after their recent run, and the bond market looks uninviting. Debt repayment is the sure-thing investment.
6. Forget the lottery win
People sometimes say in surveys paid for by financial companies that they're relying on a lottery win to fund their retirement. I think they're kidding around. But I also wonder if there isn't a lottery-win mentality behind some of our biggest financial decisions.
The way some people are stretching their spending and borrowing to the limit suggests they expect some sort of good fortune to help them get ahead at some point. But there are few big wins in today's economy. You can't count on bonuses, big raises, or permanent jobs that replace temporary or contract positions. Limit yourself to taking on financial obligations you can easily manage in a slow-growth world.