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Thursday, February 26, 2009

Fashion Forward: Winter to spring -- you don't have to dress like the Easter Bunny, but add color

By Mitch Bram
Time once again to delve into tough wardrobe choices. Our query this month is as follows: "What colors are right for the change of seasons, currently, from winter to spring and what can I do to make sure I'm prepared?"

The first part to this question is often answered without even being asked. Buyers of larger retail chain stores and smaller boutiques are sure to pump up the vibrant colors as soon as the holiday season ends. Just take a walk through the mall, and you'll notice the shorts, open-toed shoes, sandals, and even bikinis start emerging while the snow is still falling.

Unfortunately the second part of the question is often left out in the cold (Pun intended!).

To face the question head on, more often than not lighter pastels and brighter colors start to emerge across the entire spectrum of the fashion world. Winter colors that tend to be bleak, cold, and boring are replaced by larger exciting patterns, stripes, checks, and some unusual textures. Suits, sport coats, blouses, pants, shoes, and just about every accessory offered by most clothing companies will surely get amped up in regards to color. Maybe even some slightly different styling options will emerge. The colors associated with the spring season are much like that of the fashion world as well -- yellows, greens, purples, and even pink tones resemble flowers, buds on trees, blades of grass, and the more constant sunshine.

Now I know what you're thinking, "Mitch wants me to dress like the Easter Bunny every day of the week!" Not true. It just means that you are allowed an added level of flexibility in your color palate.

If you're like me you have adopted some tighter spending habits these past few months. I understand that most folks don't feel like spending megabucks on new clothing right now. The good news is ... you don't have to!

Here is my best advice for the change of seasons: Take inventory of what you currently own, and then add just a few new items to the rotation this season. If you need help going though the closet, just give me a call. Not only will I help you match up great-looking outfits that you never thought were possible, I can also help you with any alterations (I charge what my tailor charges). And best of all, I don't charge a dime for my time and services!

Start off by identifying a solid base, such as a suit, coat, or pants that are in great condition. The best base colors in my opinion are medium-to-light grey, royal blue, and medium to lighter brown and tan earth-tones. These will go with a variety of spring and summer tones.

I look FORWARD (There's that intended pun again) to seeing you soon.

-- Bram is the director of sartorial splendor with Tom James Clothing in Madison. He'll be working toward building a more Fashion Forward Wisconsin by sharing his advice and expertise on the subject of proper dress. E-mail your fashion questions to info@wisbusiness.com or call Mitch directly at at 608-278-0391 or 608-712-6499.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Little-known reasons to love Roth IRAs

By Kevin McKinley
If the recent decline in your retirement plan savings accounts isn't enough to keep you up at night, try the following:

Income tax rates are likely to go higher while you're working, and remain there during your retirement. Social Security will be there for you in some form, but a good portion of that will be subject to those aforementioned taxes.

The simple solution to these problems is to just save more money for retirement. But that's easier written than done, especially if you're already maxing out your retirement contributions, or are concerned that you might need some of that money in an emergency.

Here's how a Roth IRA can defeat your retirement nightmares in one swoop—without necessarily locking up you money until you're (even) older and grayer.


As you may know, for the 2008 tax year full Roth IRA contributions can be made by anybody with earned income, and whose adjusted gross income is under $159,000 for married couples filing jointly ($101,000 for singles).

The maximum contribution is the lesser of your earnings, or $5,000 ($6,000 if you're over 50). Spouses without earned income can make similar contributions based on their partners' earnings.

There is no immediate tax deduction on deposits to Roth IRAs. But future earnings in the account are sheltered from taxes, and then withdrawals taken after age 59_ are tax free.

What you didn't know (or perhaps forgot)

In return for foregoing an upfront tax break, you receive a nifty benefit when using a Roth IRA: all contributions can be withdrawn at any time, for any reason, with no taxes or penalties whatsoever.

The good people at the IRS let you designate your withdrawal as the "contribution" portion of the account, until you've used up the amount you've deposited.

So if want to save for retirement, but are worried that you might need that money before you turn 59 1/2, you can take comfort in knowing that a large portion of your Roth IRA can be withdrawn at a moment's notice, and with no taxes or penalties.

Or, the Roth IRA can do double-duty saving for both retirement and college. If your retirement accounts are more than fully-funded when your kid graduates from high school, the contribution portion of the Roth IRA can be used to pay for higher education—again, free from penalties and taxes.

No taxes on Social Security

Social Security payments received in retirement are ostensibly tax-free. That is, unless you receive just a modest amount from other sources like interest, earnings, or IRA withdrawals (see www.ssa.gov for the figures).

Then either 50% or 85% of your Social Security income is taxable, and at your highest rate. But Roth IRA withdrawals are one of the few sources of income that aren't counted when determining if your Social Security payments are taxable.

So a retiree can theoretically pull a million dollars out of his Roth IRA in a single year, and as long as he has no other income other than Social Security, his federal tax bill will be zero.

You decide when to take the money

The IRS requires you to begin withdrawing (and paying taxes on) money from your IRA after you turn 70 1/2, and the percentage required to be withdrawn rises for as long as you live.

But Roth IRAs have no mandatory distribution age. So not only will you avoid taxes on any withdrawals, but you can take the money out when it suits you best—if you take it out at all.

Act now

For 2008's tax year, Roth IRA contributions have to be made by this April 15th—so don't sleep on getting money in the accounts while you can. And while you're at it, make a contribution for 2009, as well.

And if you think the Roth IRA is the solution to your retirement anxiety, wait until next month, when you'll find out why now is a great time to consider converting some or all of your IRA to a Roth IRA.

-- McKinley bought his first share of stock at the age of 14, and began working for an investment firm at 17. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in economics and history in 1988, he became one of the youngest licensed financial advisors in the country. He is now a Certified Financial Planner practitioner, and owner of McKinley Money LLC, a registered investment advisor in Eau Claire, Wisconsin that provides fee-based financial planning and investment management to individuals and families. Read McKinley's complete bio


Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Conference ponders potential for big changes in state budgeting

By Jennifer Sereno
Against the backdrop of a looming state budget deficit, participants at a daylong conference on solutions wavered between hope that a federal stimulus package will stave off the worst of the crisis and a sense of resignation that major changes are needed to resolve Wisconsin's long-term fiscal challenges.

"For years, we've had a structural deficit in Wisconsin," said Adam Payne, president of the Wisconsin County Executives and Administrators Association. Meanwhile, the state's overall economic performance has lagged the rest of the nation and its balance sheet has weakened, with the state's unrestricted net assets falling to a negative $8.2 billion.

"That's unacceptable." Payne said. "That's embarrassing. We've got to change our approach and our culture."

Where to start? Some 150 participants at conference organized by the Wisconsin Way project addressed ideas centered on economic development, tax reform and government management and spending.

The event, held at the Concourse Hotel in Madison, featured speakers including Gov. Jim Doyle, business executives, local elected officials, educators, state legislators, academics and policy analysts among others.

Todd Berry, president of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance set the stage for participants by detailing the state's economic challenges -- including a budget deficit now estimated at $5.7 billion.

"There is no mistaking that the average wage per worker is much lower (in Wisconsin) than the rest of the country and heading in the wrong direction," Berry said. "Debt has grown -- our debt service burden as a state at all levels of government combined has moved us into the top 10."

Meanwhile, school aids and Medicaid expenditures together total about 60 percent of the state budget and don't leave much room for cuts without direct effects on K-12 public education and access to health care, Berry said. When spending on corrections, shared revenue for local units of government and the UW-System is added in, the total reaches 80 percent of the state's expenditures.

While several speakers urged aggressive action to eliminate some programs and bring spending in line with state residents' ability to pay, many also said they supported altering the state's tax structure to encourage economic growth, entrepreneurship and research and development activities.

John Torinus, president and CEO of Serigraph, said state tax policy changes to encourage business investment, entrepreneurship and research and development are in the state's long-term interest. Torinus said the concept of a human TIF offers a policy option in which the state could provide tuition incentives to encourage higher education. The tuition incentives could be funded with bonds issued against the projected higher incomes that college educated students earn upon graduation.

Several speakers including Gov. Jim Doyle and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Libby Burmaster raised prospects that money from the proposed federal stimulus package could be used to help ease Wisconsin through painful structural reforms in a way that would foster future growth. For example, certain infrastructure projects could actually help increase the state's capacity for commerce, while stimulus money targeted toward education also could produce long-term economic benefits.

For example, Burmaster said, it may be possible to use some money for learning programs that provide students with the technical skills and flexibility to pursue whatever jobs the economy does create – such the many high-paying welding jobs now open in southeastern Wisconsin.

"We have a great opportunity," Burmaster said. "We need to come together regionally and put this money to work for all of us."

Organizers of the Wisconsin Way effort are the Wisconsin Counties Association, Wisconsin Education Association Council, Wisconsin Realtors Association, Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association, Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin, Wood Communications Group and League of Wisconsin Municipalities. Conference co-hosts included Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, Wisconsin Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, Competitive Wisconsin, Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups and the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators.

The Wisconsin Way project has spent two years researching the state's long-term needs and engaging thousands of citizens in an ongoing discussion about improving Wisconsin's tax system while ensuring quality government services and fostering job creation. The process generated a Draft Blueprint for Change that will be the focal point for another round of public engagement and discussion during the first half of 2009 and will ultimately lead to a final Blueprint for Change in late summer or early fall of 2009. -- Sereno, former business editor of the Wisconsin State Journal, is a senior manager at Wood Communications Group in Madison. E-mail jenny.sereno@wcgpr.com or call (608) 770-8084.


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