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Stimulus checks, taxes, health care: these are the questions CFPs are hearing from their clients

A global pandemic, an upcoming election and no clear answers about a second stimulus check: We reached out to a handful of financial planners to learn what questions their clients are grappling with right now — and this is what they said.

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Editor's Note: APYs listed in this article are up-to-date as of the time of publication. They may fluctuate (up or down) as the Fed rate changes. CNBC will update as changes are made public.

While there's never any true certainty when it comes to managing money, it does help to have a plan. That's why working with a financial planner is a smart move, even for those just starting out.

In times of great uncertainty, financial planners can help you stay focused on goals, recommending as-needed adjustments along the way. And when things are good, financial planners help you make sure you're taking full advantage of soaring markets, ample job opportunities and (hopefully) growing savings.

Yet, as consumers across America grow more anxious due to the recession and ongoing coronavirus pandemic, keeping steady is arguably more important now than it was just nine months ago. Finding the right answers to your money questions, plus resources to help you weather the unknown, is sometimes just as important as making goals for the future.

We reached out to a handful of certified financial planners (CFPs) to learn what questions and concerns are nagging at their clients during this time.

Across the country, here are just some of the questions CFPs are hearing right now and, most importantly — their advice.

Shelly-Ann Eweka, CFP

Charlotte, North Carolina

What clients are asking: By choice or not, can I afford to retire early?

Eweka's advice: Crunch the numbers, and don't forget about health care.

With the economy so uncertain, employers are looking for ways to cut costs. This means that, ready or not, lots of people may get asked by their employer to retire early. The request may come with a severance package or other incentives like covering a portion of your health insurance costs. Meanwhile, millions fear getting laid off without any kind of incentive or support.

If you're concerned about job security, "really crunch the numbers," advises Shelly-Ann Eweka, director of central advice at TIAA. Even if your job is currently in good standing, look into what you would need if you were to retire right now.

"A huge discussion point is health care, Eweka explains. "If you're below age 65 (the age you can start Medicare), ask yourself 'What options do I have?'"

A provision called COBRA allows the employee to stay basically on the coverage they had with their employer, but the employee often has to pay the full premium, says Eweka. Then there's the health-care marketplace in your state: "Staying in the marketplace can be more affordable, but it depends on your income level and the state where you live."

It may be overwhelming, but it's worth doing the research to know all of your options for health insurance. "That needs to be answered first, period," says Eweka. 

Anora Gaudiano, CFP

New York City, NY

What clients are asking: What should I do if the market goes down because of the election?

Gaudiano's advice: Stick with your plan (or tweak it slightly). Avoid impulse decisions.

Whether you're concerned about your 401(k), IRA or other brokerage accounts, remember that investing is a long-term strategy. The market tends to be more volatile during periods of high stress and uncertainty, like election years and economic recessions, and less volatile in between.

But no matter what, the answer is often the same: "Most of the time, our answer is to stick with the plan," says Anora Gaudiano, a senior advisor associate at Wealthspire

Before you sell all of your shares and pull your assets out of the market, simply take this opportunity to do a gut check and see if your past decisions still make sense. Double-check your asset allocation, or how much you own in stocks versus bonds. Make sure the risk tolerance of your accounts matches the timeline for when you plan to use the money. (Learn more about investing for short- and long-term goals here.)

"Always check out asset allocation to make sure it's appropriate. Then stick to it," says Gaudiano. Over time, these periods of volatility are balanced out by periods of more stable, consistent growth. 

"We always assume the market will go down, whether it's during an election or a pandemic," Gaudiano says. "We can't always predict when it will happen, which is why we make portfolios that withstand it."

Alicia R. Hudnett Reiss, CFP

Washington, D.C.

What clients are asking: How do I start making a financial plan?

Hudnett Reiss' advice: Start with the basics.

"When people come to me, the question they are really trying to ask is: 'How do I start making a financial plan?'" says Alicia R. Hudnett Reiss of The Business of Your Life. "I answer that by starting with their specific financial goals and objectives."

The first step to making a financial plan is something called a cash-flow analysis. While it has a technical-sounding name, it's simply a way to look at how much you make versus how much you spend.

Start by making a list of all of your income every month. This includes salary, wages, tips, side hustle money, investment earnings/distributions, and/or government benefits. Then write down all of your expenses.

Then, subtract your expenses from your income. What's left is your starting point. Ideally, you should have some money left over, but if you're in the red or negative, then your first step is to look for ways to either trim expenses or make more money. 

If you have money left over, you have some choices about what to do with it. Because we're in recession, it's a good time to save any extra cash for an emergency fund. In fact, many financial planners advise including a line item for savings in your expenses list from the start so it's always built in to your budget.

To start saving, look for an account that charges no monthly fees and has no minimum balance requirements. Synchrony Bank High Yield Savings account fits this description and helps you earn more interest with a fairly strong 4.50% APY.

The next steps after your cash flow analysis is to look at paying off debt, saving for retirement, start investing, learning about tax strategies and finally, estate planning.

Don't try to tackle it all at once. The best financial plans result from knowing yourself well, so spend a little bit of time learning about yourself and your spending habits through your cash flow analysis.

Brandon Renfro, CFP

Marshall, TX

What clients are asking: Will taxes go up because of the stimulus package?

Renfro's advice: Taxes fluctuate over time, but you can prepare now if you're worried.

Keep in mind you won't have to pay direct taxes on the stimulus check, but government spending does come from taxes. On a more macro level, consumers are concerned about rising taxes in the future, says Texas-based financial planner Brandon Renfro.

"I think that's a valid concern," Renfro says. Like the prime rateinterest rates and APY, taxes go up and down depending on economic and political conditions.

What we do know, argues Renfro, is that capital gain tax rates are currently at a historic low. This may be good for those selling assets in their investment portfolios right now. But people who have a traditional retirement account (either an IRA or 401(k)), may want to consider spreading out their retirement funds to prepare for the possibility of higher taxes in the future.

Renfro recommends opening a Roth IRA or Roth 401(k) in addition to a traditional retirement fund. With a Roth account, you invest your money after you pay income taxes on it. This gives you the benefit of tax-free withdrawals in the future. You pay neither income tax nor capital gains taxes when you tap into your Roth accounts one day.

If you expect to be in a higher tax bracket when you retire than you are today, a Roth account is "the best planning strategy we have," says Renfro. "While it doesn't guarantee complete protection from rising tax rates, it's likely the best mitigation tool against those unknown tax changes."

Mark Reyes, CFP

Los Angeles

What clients are asking: What do I do to pay off credit card debt and student loans at the same time?

Reyes' advice: Calculate your debt-to-income ratio, then make a payoff plan.

If you're juggling a few different kinds of debt — from high-interest credit card debt to student loans, not to mention a mortgage or car loan — it's tough to know where to begin.

The first step is to see just how much room your debt takes up in your budget. Similar to a cash flow analysis, Albert CFP Mark Reyes encourages the app's users to calculate their debt-to-income ratio.

It's pretty simple: Look at how much your debt costs you every month compared to your income. If you earn $4,000 per month before taxes and the payments on your debt cost $500 per month, then your debt-to-income ratio is $500 / $4,000 x 100 = 12.5%.

But of course, there's also your housing and utility payments to consider, which lenders often include in your debt-to-income calculation. After adding these costs into your calculation, you may be surprised to see how much of your income can easily be eaten up every month.

The lower your debt-to-income ratio, says Reyes, the healthier your financial situation will be. "Anything above 30% is kind of alarming," he tells CNBC Select

However, with Americans' revolving debt balance at around $996 billion, it's not necessarily unusual.

The highest debt-to-income ratio you can have and still qualify for a mortgage is 43%, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). Yet, if you can bring it down, you'll have more resources to allocate toward paying off loans and credit cards, plus have fun.

You want to get rid of what Reyes calls "toxic debt" first. That means debt with high interest rates. With toxic debt, you wind up paying lots of money just to stay in debt, and it can be hard to find an end in sight.

Once your toxic debt is under control, prioritize your expenses according to the popular 50/30/20 rule, advises Reyes. Spend 50% on your needs (housing, food, utilities), 30% on your wants (travel, entertainment and fun), and put 20% toward saving and/or chipping way at debt.

Learn more: How much cash should you keep in your savings and checking account? A financial planner weighs in

Information about Synchrony Bank High Yield Savings has been collected independently by CNBC and has not been reviewed or provided by the bank prior to publication.

Editorial Note: Opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the Select editorial staff’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any third party.
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