Money-minded gifts that pay dividends

Michelle Singletary
Columnist December 13, 2013

Christmas is upon us, and I still haven’t bought anything.

I just haven’t mustered the energy to shop. And I’m not alone. A survey conducted Dec. 3-5 by RetailMeNot found that 87 percent of consumers had holiday shopping to do.

Michelle Singletary writes the nationally syndicated personal finance column, “The Color of Money.” View Archive

Maybe you haven’t finished your shopping because you don’t know what to buy folks. Perhaps I can help. How about a money-minded gift?

Give cash. Cash is king, and it’s really supreme when used to help pay someone’s bill. Times are still pretty tough for a lot of people. So rather than give them something they don’t need, help them get out of debt, catch up on an overdue bill or get ahead of one.

Be careful with this gift idea. You don’t want to support a pattern of bad financial management. But you can help an otherwise financially responsible close friend or family member who has experienced a hardship. You also need to be careful not to offend. People can be prideful.

Create a gift certificate offering specific help with something. Offer to pay a cable bill or utilities for a month. Put that on the certificate. Regiftable.com allows you to personalize a certificate with five nice themes. (Click on the link “Don’t Want to Regift.”) Write a letter expressing your desire to help them not with a handout but a hand up. If you can, when the certificate is redeemed, pay the bill directly.

Give knowledge. Reading is fundamental and essential to understanding personal finance. Give someone a subscription to a magazine that can literally enrich his or her life. They may not jump for joy. But you don’t know how many times I’ve heard someone say, “I have no idea how to invest.”

I read Black Enterprise, Money magazine (published by Time) and Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine. I would be thrilled to get a subscription to Consumer Reports. My husband and I consistently consult Consumer Reports before buying a lot of things — a car, household appliances or any electronics. But the magazine provides so much more than product reviews. The writers provide unbiased analysis of so many personal-finance issues.

If you’re giving a magazine subscription, get the current issue of the magazine and include a note that you are providing a year’s subscription. If you don’t think people will read the hard copy of a magazine or don’t want them piling up on their tables, get them a digital subscription. Many publications provide both hard copies and access to their digital editions.

Give a session with a financial adviser. A full-fledged financial plan by an adviser can be costly. But you can arrange to pay for a session with a fee-only planner who charges a flat hourly rate. You want to give a sales-pitch-free session that will give someone a financial check-up.

“This gift can mean the difference between a person having a lifetime of financial problems and becoming a good steward of their finances,” said Ernest Burley, a Maryland-based certified financial planner who works with clients around the country. Burley’s lowest and most basic session is $250 for two hours. “But I never cut people off, so they often go longer. It includes a total review of a person’s financial situation with recommendations, plus a cash flow worksheet.”

You can also search for a fee-only planner through the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (napfa.org). Ask if the planner offers gift certificates.

Kiplinger’s (one of my gift ideas) had a feature focusing on a few sites where you can get online financial advice. I particularly like the suggestion for Smart401k.com, which works with people by phone, e-mail or online to help figure out how to invest in their employer- sponsored retirement plans such as a 401(k) or the federal Thrift Savings Plan. The service will look at your workplace investment choices and recommend which funds you should invest in and how much money you should allocate to each one. With a yearly membership, people get a quarterly update of the recommendations. A yearly membership is $199.95. But you can also get a quarterly membership for $59 and let the person try out the service. You can buy a Smart401k gift certificate.

I fully admit, my gift ideas aren’t likely to result in the usual glee people show when they open a present. What I’ve recommended is akin to the socks or pajamas you got as a child. But if you’re patient, you’ll get your praise later.

Readers may write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or singletarym@washpost.com. Personal responses may not be possible, and comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless otherwise requested. To read previous Color of Money columns, go to postbusiness.com.

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