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  • The Household Control Journal – Baby Step #2: Organize the Information

    Last spring, I mentioned that I was putting together a Household Control Journal that lists all the things I handle on a day-to-day that my husband would need to know if anything happened to me. The information includes the institutions where we bank or invest and the corresponding account information, insurance policies, important contact information like our doctors, and so on.

    I recently added a list of details that my husband might or might not know, but that are frequently used to verify identity – you’ve probably answered questions like What is the name of the street you grew up on?, What make was your first car?, and so on. I want to make sure my husband can access accounts that have registered my information, even if I’m not around.

    It’s taken me pretty much a whole year to gather all of the pertinent data, but I think our Control Journal now contains all of the important information my husband would need. The journal will need regular updating, but I am quite happy to have the list done.

    So Step #2 is organizing the information in a way that not only makes sense to me, but more importantly, to my husband. I put the information is a simple Word document, and divided it into categories that seemed logical. The nice thing is that the document is searchable, so even if my logic doesn’t necessarily make sense to my husband, he should be able to find what he’s looking for.

    The data is on a flash drive so the information is easily accessible to him at anytime. I’m also going to scan important documents like birth certificates and our marriage certificate, and put those jpgs on the flash drive as well. The flash drive will serve double duty in an emergency, if we ever have to flee our home with minimal belongings. And, I’m considering a hard copy version for just in case. I’m not sure in case of what, but I tend to be overcautious with these types of situations.

    The most important thing, of course, is that whoever handles the finances in a family makes the information available to another responsible adult so that if the unthinkable happens, the survivor isn’t left trying to dig up account numbers and passwords or worse, unable to access their money, all during an already-traumatic time.

    Do you have a Household Control Journal, or something similar? If so, did you include anything else in it?

    The Household Control Journal – Baby Step #1: Gather as you go

    I first learned the concept of a “control journal” from Flylady, who recommends making one for your daily routines to help get you and your home organized. I haven’t made one of those yet, but I’ve started making a different kind – one that has all the information my husband would need if something happened to me.

    Since I’m the “Chief Family Officer,” it probably comes as no surprise that I manage most of our household. I pay the bills, manage our investments, register the kids for their activities, and so on. My husband is well aware of all aspects – that is to say, he knows we have various accounts, but doesn’t know the various passwords and logins I’ve set up.

    So a household control journal is my way of organizing all of this information – bank accounts, bills, investments, school stuff, activities and anything else my husband would have to hunt for if the unthinkable happened.

    It’s an overwhelming project, and one I’ve put off for a long time because of that. So I’m starting with baby steps (another Flylady concept), and a very doable first task: Gather information as it crosses my desk or desktop.

    As I file bills, or log in to pay them online, I enter the relevant information into a word processor document on my computer. A spreadsheet might be better but it’s more complicated to set up. We’ll see how it goes – I may end up transferring the info to a spreadsheet later, but for now, the simple text document is working. At least I’m making some progress on my control journal. My goal is to have it done by the end of the year, and then I will update it annually.

    And hopefully, we’ll never actually need it.

    Daily Worth
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    Financial Planning for a Special Needs Child

    One of my closest friends has a young son who has been diagnosed as high-functioning autistic. He’s the sweetest, happiest kid, and I’ve agonized with her as she’s struggled to get him the services he needs, especially from our school district.

    So when MassMutual told me that over the next 10 to 15 years, an estimated 800,000 children with autism will age out of their school systems, it hit pretty close to home. MassMutual has sponsored a PBS documentary called Autism: Coming of Age, which is produced by award-winning filmmaker Catherine Sager and provides an inside look at the lives of three adults with autism and their families, and also includes expert commentary from advocates and state government officials who detail the long-term challenges of providing quality care to adults with autism.

    When I was asked if I wanted to interview Joanne Gruszkos, the director of MassMutual’s SpecialCare program, I had just one question: What are the top five things a family should do to plan for their special needs child? Here’s her response:

    1. Establish or review your child’s Individual Education Plan (IEP). The IEP states where a student is currently and where the student is going, academically, emotionally, behaviorally, socially and cognitively. To help your child reach full potential, the IEP should do more. Work with his or her teacher to set specific goals for your student. Make sure the goals are limited in focus and “SMART”(specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic and timely). {Ed. note: In theory this sounds great, but it depends so much on the people you are forced to deal with. My friend has tried hard, mostly unsuccessfully, to achieve this kind of relationship with her son’s teacher and the school administration.}

    2. Write a letter of intent. A letter of intent familiarizes other people with the person with special needs and expresses your expectations. You can request a free Word document Letter of Intent template at www.massmutual.com/specialcare.

    3. Establish a Supplemental Special Needs Trust (SSNT). As little as $2,000 in assets can disqualify an individual from many governmental programs. Assets in an SSNT, if properly drafted, do not count against this $2,000 limit, making it an effective vehicle for enhancing the lifestyle of the person with special needs.

    4. Coordinate your will and beneficiary arrangement. It’s important for both parents to have wills and for the wills to coordinate with other planning documents, such as the child’s trust. You should seek out an attorney who is familiar with SSNTs and your state’s intestacy laws. It’s important for parents of special needs children to have wills that are coordinated with other planning documents, such as a child’s trust.

    5. Choose guardians, caregivers and trustees carefully. It’s very important to select the right people for these jobs and advise them of your selection. A great caregiver (guardian) might be a terrible money manager (trustee) and vice versa. The co-trustee or “committee” approach is often utilized when the responsibility of care and/or oversight is too much for one person alone.

    Visit www.massmutual.com/specialcare/resources for free educational materials, resource guides and website links for additional information.

    Putting a Price Tag on My Dream Vacation

    Last week, I shared my revised dream vacation: a Disney Cruise to Alaska. The prices for the cruise (first sailing in 2011) came out yesterday. The rock bottom price is just over $5,300. Add in airfare and other costs for us to get to the departing port of Vancouver and my low-end guesstimate of $6,000 is looking overly optimistic.

    One thing I hadn’t considered in deciding that 2011 would be too early for us was that if the Alaskan cruise isn’t popular enough, Disney might discontinue them before we get a chance to go. That possibility is disheartening, but it’s not enough to make me rush into something we’re not ready for.

    However, I have started researching the types of discounts available to see what I might realistically expect to pay. Right now, there are some “kids sail free” deals, which would take $1800 off the price tag. Obviously, that would be awesome. But I don’t expect to see a deal like that for a while, since I’m guessing Disney will want to evaluate the popularity of the Alaska option without offering any major incentives.

    During my research, I found a nice summary of how Disney Cruise fares work and suggestions on saving money. The article helped me understand some of the lingo when looking at the Disney booking site. It also made me realize that (1) it really is best to book early; (2) using an experienced travel agent can have significant advantages; and (3) I’ll have to plan for cruise insurance.

    I think the bottom line here is that unless something changes dramatically in the next couple of years, we won’t be taking this vacation until Alex is closer to being 10 rather than 5. The cost is just too high to justify when there are so many other financial priorities – things like paying off the mortgage and sending the kids to private school if we decide that would be best.

    But, by saving a nominal amount every month in a specially designated account, we might be able to take our Disney cruise to Alaska in five years or so without suffering any financial pain at all.

    Happiness = Matching your goals & your actions

    It seems like everyone I know is complaining about their financial picture these days. I sympathize because I know that our financial picture is better than most, but we’re still tightening our belts because it seems some kind of income reduction is on the horizon.

    Meanwhile, I want to make an observation that applies not just to finances but to life in general: the happiest people are the ones whose words and actions match.

    Finances are an easy way to illustrate what I mean. I have a friend who makes decent money but has a hefty mortgage, so money is always tight. He complains about not having enough money, but doesn’t do anything about finding a second or third source of income. He says he’s trying to bring in more money by doing some tutoring, but he actually spends his time on other, non-income-generating hobbies. And when someone suggested he stop some of his extracurricular activities so he would have more time to spend on tutoring, he simply shrugged it off. I can’t help but wonder sometimes if he likes being miserable.

    On the flip side, I have a friend who’s lost her job but is balancing finding a new job with arranging educational services for her preschooler, who was recently diagnosed as having high-functioning autism. She says her family needs her to work, and she’s working hard to find something new. She diligently completed the requirements for getting unemployment benefits, despite having to deal with a mind-numbing bureaucracy and an insanely rude employee who brought her to tears. She vented to me about that, but not in a self-pitying way. Meanwhile, she found a job but two days before she was to start, she was told they couldn’t hire her after all. So she’s looking again, and is optimistic that she’ll be able to find something soon.

    Needless to say, she’s a happier person than my other friend, who seems to want something other than what he says.

    I go back to something I’ve said before: To achieve financial success, you have to be honest about your priorities.

    What are my male friend’s true priorities? I don’t really know. But I know he’s not going to be happy until his words start to match up with his actions.

    Do you really value financial security?

    Here’s a hypothetical: Finances are tight but your cell phone is broken. You call your service provider and they tell you, “Oh yeah, that phone is known for always breaking. But good news! It’s under warranty so we’ll send you a new one for free.”

    Assume for purposes of this exercise that your livelihood does not require a reliable cell phone. Do you respond:
    (A) “Great – send it ASAP!” or
    (B) “Gosh, I can’t live with an unreliable cell phone for even a minute even if I only use it socially. Let me spend money on a new one instead.”

    Not surprisingly, I would choose (A), especially if each new phone came with its own (new) warranty, so that if the new phone broke, I’d simply get yet another replacement for free. Obviously, it would be a hassle, but if money is truly tight, I can live without my phone for a few days. And I might not have to, since I could (probably) get a replacement at my service provider’s store.

    Do you know anyone who would choose (B)? I do.

    And I just don’t get it. I mean, I understand that a cell phone is important, but if I’m worried about being able to pay my bills, I’m not choosing to spend money on a new cell phone when I don’t have to.

    When I was reflecting on my friend’s choice, I realized that it all comes down to priorities. And some people value other things over financial security, stability and independence. It may be status, or it may be safety. It may simply be denial – a sense of “I’m worth it, no matter what my true financial state.”

    Since it’s a new year, when people traditionally establish goals for the next twelve months, I ask you:

    Is financial security truly a priority? And if so, do you act in accordance with that priority?