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Reading between the lines

National Public Radio featured an interview with Michael Lewis on April 1 during which he offered some valuable investment advice. Lewis is arguably one of this era's top financial journalists after having started with the book "Liars' Poker" and "Moneyball" about the Oakland A's. While "The Big Short" is his account of the financial implosion, he will soon be dogging President Barack Obama's footsteps to produce an inside account of what it's like to walk in that man's shoes.

Staying the course can pay dividends

What you see isn't always what you get.

I designed the "Mother of All Thumbwheels" that calculates Social Security benefits and the degree to which we will under- or overshoot our retirement income need. It also illustrates how much we will have in our retirement plans in 10, 20 and 30 years given different monthly contribution levels. It shows, for instance, that $500 a month for 10 years will accumulate to $91,000 if it earns 8 percent over that period. At 12 percent, the same $500 grows to $114,000. In 20 years, the comparable numbers are $294,000 and $494,000 respectively.

Scare tactics used in debate over debt

In my freshman year of 1962, my college roommate pointed out that government debt is different from the money we owe other people. Government bonds amount to just money we owe to ourselves. Fifty years later, I'm in a business that has me explaining that when we borrow from our 401(k) accounts, it is just money we owe to ourselves. Every dime of interest we pay accumulates as part of our plan's annual earnings. The irony of 401(k) loans is that, for much of the past decade, they have been the best-performing asset in retirement plans.

Overview on good, bad of annuities

Annuities have traditionally been the Rodney Dangerfield of investment products. They get no respect from most of the financial media. Articles in Forbes and similar publications continually harp on the typically high fees charged on these products. Brokerage firms have been sued by clients in situations where brokers have sold annuities (for their tax shelter advantage) into investment vehicles that already enjoyed a tax shelter -- like IRA accounts. The average annuity product nationally charges an annual fee of slightly over 2.5 percent.

Don't get caught up in gloom, doom talk

During times like these, I dream about a financial news service that discusses only positive events taking place in the world's business community.

Way too many people have expressed concerns about problems ranging from a double-dip recession, turmoil in Europe, a spike in interest rates, a collapse of demand for U.S. government securities, and so on.

What this all overlooks is the basic resilience of the world economy and the fact that businesses and economies just keep going at one level or another -- like the Energizer Bunny.

Young adults should save for their future

Let me guess. Young adults home for the holidays probably sympathize with the Occupy Wall Street movement. Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course, but am I right?

For 13 years, this annual column just before the holidays is meant to offer some financial advice to younger people and to stimulate conversation during the commercials. The general good cheer brought about by the holidays can prompt family members to set aside baggage temporarily and really interact "in the present," so to speak. So, here are some discussion points.

Flex plans benefit 2-income families

This column is about the wisdom of signing up for your company's Section 125 flexible spending plan to save a lot of taxes in the coming year. These plans allow employees to save a ton of money by paying for all their health-related expenses with pre-tax dollars -- dollars that come right off the top of pay before taxes are calculated. Employers save money as well, since the check for half of the Social Security and Medicare we pay is written by the company.

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