The editors at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance and Kiplinger’s forecasting have found a dozen things that will make 2009 more bearable. See if you agree, or disagree.
2009 Will Be a Great Time to Buy or Refinance a Home. The median home price nationally has fallen 20% since the housing market’s peak in July 2006, according to the National Association of Realtors. That’s especially good news for first-time home buyers or anyone who doesn’t have to sell a home before they buy, as well as patient buyers who can handle the time consuming process of buying a distressed property. In mid-December, the 30-year fixed rate fell to 5.17%, according to Freddie Mac. Mortgage money hasn’t been this cheap in nearly 40 years. Buyers who are having trouble coming up with a 10% to 20% down payment or who have dings in their credit record may be able to get Federal Housing Administration financing with as little as 3.5% down. And there may be help for people already in their homes.
Borrowers facing a reset on adjustable mortgages may get relief, since key indexes have dropped. And for those teetering near foreclosure, the Obama administration and new Congress will help more distressed homeowners keep their homes.
It’ll Be a Good Time to Buy Equities. Stocks will gyrate less wildly in 2009, but share prices won’t begin heading up steadily until the financial stimulus and credit easing get corporate investment and real estate moving. Then you’ll want to be in big, diversified, financially strong companies such as General Dynamics (GD), United Technologies (UTX) and Siemens (SI), or in mutual funds that specialize in them, such as Chase Growth (CHASX) or Fidelity Contrafund (FCNTX), which has just reopened. Janus Global Technology (JAGTX) could be a way to capitalize on slumping technology stocks.
It’s a buyer’s market for bonds, except for Treasuries. Even though debt of strong issuers such as Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) and Wal-Mart (WMT) has rallied some, their bonds are still priced to yield more than 5% (sometimes more than 7% if you look at bank bonds). For funds, stick with index funds such as Vanguard’s taxable total market fund (VBMFX). Municipals remain attractive because of tight supplies and exaggerated fears of default. A few always do, so stick to a broad-based, national tax free mutual fund, such as Vanguard’s total market tax-exempt fund (WTITX).
Not much savings to invest? One of the best ways to take advantage of beaten-down stock prices is through your retirement accounts — and limits have been raised on many types for 2009. You can contribute up to $16,500 to a 401(k) in 2009, $1,000 more than last year. And if you are 50 or older, you can contribute up to $22,000, up $1,500 from last year.
The Debt Binge Is Over. Let’s face it, Wall Street wasn’t the only one to go a little nuts with money that wasn’t theirs. Americans developed a serious bad habit of living beyond their means and jacking up their debt to do so. Out of sheer necessity and fear, many Americans have started cutting debt and actually setting money aside — after 15 years of a declining national savings rate that nearly reached zero. T. Rowe Price economist Alan Levenson estimates that personal savings jumped two percentage points in the fourth quarter and will rise another two points in 2009.
There’ll Be Less Sticker Shock for Consumers of All Stripes. Helped by a drop in grain and feed prices that will hold down the cost of meat, poultry, eggs and milk, groceries will rise about 2% — a far cry from the 7% increase in 2008. And if stores aren’t slashing prices on things, as they are televisions, GPS devices and small appliances, they’re adding value. Since computer prices, for example, have been ground down for a while, retailers are trying to boost sales by adding memory or other features for free. Then there are rare bargains in luxury goods, especially clothing. Even shoe designer Jimmy Choo has held 50%-off sales.
Costs for Some Medical Procedures Will Drop. Your kids need braces? Thinking about getting a nose job or other optional surgery? With many Americans avoiding even necessary medical care (cutting back on prescriptions, skipping doctor visits and the like), it’s no surprise that doctors who offer services not usually covered by insurance are suffering. Dr. Raymond George, president of the American Association of Orthodontists, says this is the worst he has seen business in 40 years. That will make haggling over price and stretching out payments easier and more common. LASIK eye surgeries are down 40%, and many eye centers are knocking 25% off. Plastic surgery procedures can be 10%-25% off — not to mention specials, such as adding a free antiwrinkle shot or laser treatment to your planned surgery. If bargains aren’t advertised by specific doctors, ask.
More Tax Cuts Are Coming. Most of us won’t see much in raises from our employers, but take-home pay for many may go up some. The reason: Tax cuts of some sort are likely to be part of a coming stimulus package. A leading proposal is a payroll tax holiday that would suspend some Social Security (FICA) payments for individuals and perhaps employers. It would be aimed at lower- and middle-income workers, so those on the higher end of the salary scale would see just part of their pay shielded. For those of you who earned too much to qualify for tax rebates in early 2008 but saw your income drop during the year, you’ll get another crack at it when you file your 2008 returns.
It’s a Good Time to Travel. Business and pleasure travelers can get some big breaks. Hotels are having to drop prices or at least restrain increases for the first time in years. Many are tossing in free breakfasts and fitness center use. Cruise lines and resorts are offering big discount packages, too. The combination of poor business and lower fuel prices will make flying a little cheaper. Book far ahead — most airlines are cutting back flights, so seats may be scarce. Going abroad? The dollar recovered for a bit but slumped again, making most of Europe pretty pricey. But Britain’s pound has taken a drubbing, too. London, anyone?
There’s Plenty to Make Retirees Smile. Social Security beneficiaries get a 5.8% cost-of-living increase in 2009, the largest in more than 25 years, boosting the average monthly retirement benefit from $1,090 to $1,153. Almost as good for seniors, for the first time since 2000, the monthly Medicare Part B premium that is deducted from Social Security checks won’t rise. It stays at $96.40 (except for some higher-income seniors who pay a surcharge). And for those 70 1/2 or older who are lucky enough to not need to pull money from their IRAs or 401(k)s, they won’t have to. The requirement to take an annual minimum distribution in 2009 is being waived to give investments a chance to recover.
Relief Is Coming for the College-Bound and Their Parents. Last spring, families feared that the credit crunch would make it impossible to find a lender for their federal student loans for the 2008/09 academic year. Thanks to legislation that ensured financing for the loans, most students were able to get the money in time for fall classes. Congress has since extended the legislation to keep federal money flowing in the 2009/10 academic year. That should help families who need to supplement their college savings. Because they carry low fixed rates and flexible repayment terms, federal student loans constitute the best deals going when it comes to borrowing for college.
The Green Revolution Will Continue. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that prices of gasoline, home heating oil and other fuels will stay low forever. Let’s hope we learned that lesson the hard way in 2008. Smart folks will keep up with improved conservation habits. Toyota Prius sales may be down nearly 50% since gas prices dropped. But there is hope that carmakers will continue to develop new alternative fuel technology. This is also a great time to make your home more energy-efficient. First, many contractors are nearly begging for work, and prices of many alternative energy products have dropped. Second, after a one-year hiatus, Congress restored the tax credit for energy efficient home improvements in 2009 — a tax credit for 10% of the cost, up to a maximum $500, for such things as adding insulation or putting in high-efficiency or alternative energy air conditioners and furnaces. You can also claim a 30% credit for installing solar water heating equipment — and the previous $2,000 cap is now gone.
There’s Relief at the Pump — And on the Lot. The average price of gasoline will be lower in 2009 than it has been in four years. Although prices will creep up from averages below $1.70 a gallon now and peak during the summer driving season, there will be no breathtaking surges like those in 2008. The national average should top out around $2.15 a gallon and average about two bucks for the year versus $3.25 for 2008. Cars should be cheaper than this year, too. Dealers and manufacturers are desperate to make sales.
The Stars Are Aligning for Health Care Reform. After decades of stalemate, this may be the year that the logjam breaks. The idea of tackling a high-cost item such as health care in the midst of a nasty recession may seem preposterous, but the economic crisis may actually be the necessary spark for bipartisan cooperation. Obama’s argument that genuine recovery won’t be possible if the United States doesn’t find a way to restrain health care costs is beginning to take hold with many Democrats. And Republicans fear that health care will keep American workers and businesses at a disadvantage globally, since most other industrialized countries have a better handle on high costs.
The very best thing about 2009, however, is probably this: The recession should be over near the end of the year, and things will be looking far rosier as 2010 rolls around. So Happy New Year!