Personal finance is, meant to be personal, private, not something you necessarily wish to share a lot of information about with members of your social support network who help you with paperwork, or even your children. The good news is that these days, with just a bit of technological knowhow, you can handle all but the most complex of your banking, retirement planning, portfolio management, and other personal finance tasks yourself.
Recently, under the sponsorship of J.P. Morgan Chase, the American Foundation for the Blind undertook a multi-month evaluation of the current state of online and mobile accessibility for a variety of personal finance institutions. In the January 2016 issue of AccessWorld we outlined our findings in Spotlight on Personal Finance Accessibility.
Overall, we discovered that the state of accessibility for personal finance websites and mobile apps has improved dramatically over the past five to ten years, and, more importantly, it is still improving. Read on to learn how, as a person with a visual impairment, these findings affect you and your access to financial resources and information.
These days nearly every bank and credit card company offers monthly statements in accessible format: large print, braille, even recorded audio files sent on a disk. Most also offer special toll-free phone numbers where you can use your phone's dial pad to access balance and transaction information. And the next time you visit your bank's ATM you will likely discover it has an audio jack where you can plug in a set of headphones to you use voice guidance to withdraw cash, transfer funds between your accounts, and complete other banking transactions without sighted help.
Using these resources, it's possible to keep up with your balances and spending. But if you are the sort of person who used to update your checkbook registry on a daily basis and kept all of your credit card receipts in a folder to reconcile against your monthly statements, you may be interested in a software package called Money Talks, a talking banking and credit card registry program from the American Printing House for the Blind. Even better—these days any bank worth keeping your money in offers a website, a mobile app, or both, where you can accessibly review a list of your latest transactions and check balances. But that's just the start. Gone are the days when you had to fetch a printed bill from your mailbox, write a check, and then find a stamp for the return envelope. Today you can pay all of your bills from your computer or on your smartphone using online bill pay, and the process is usually quite accessible and easy to accomplish. It's even easier when you have most of your mortgage, utility, telephone, and other bills delivered straight to your bank in eBill format, or sent to your inbox with an auto-pay option using either your bank's bill payment system or a credit card.
Guarding Your Nest Egg
You probably already have your Social Security and pension checks automatically deposited, saving you a trip to the bank. But if you have an IRA account, a 401(k) plan, or significant savings and other investments including stocks and bonds, you may feel your visual impairment has limited your ability to actively manage your nest egg. After all, how can you research a mutual fund or a municipal bond so you can make choices yourself? How can you place a trade without calling your high-price full-service broker, or make a financial plan that will help ensure your money will last your lifetime?
The answer is simple: you can. It's possible to accomplish nearly any wealth management task to which you set your mind, thanks to the Internet and screen access technologies.
Keeping up with the State of the Economy
Along with Talking Books, the National Library Service also offers a number of recorded periodicals. These include general interest, mass-market magazines such as People, Sports Illustrated, and Good Housekeeping. Their catalog also includes Money, Kiplinger's Personal Finance, The Economist, and Consumer Reports, which often covers matters financial. Even if you've never given much thought to those retirement accounts—especially if you've not given it much thought—it is probably time to educate yourself in the ways of the financial world. You can get any or all of these magazines on subscription from your regional library and play them on your NLS Digital Book Player, or download the issues as they are produced and listen to them on your mobile device. While you're at it, ask your regional library to send you a few recorded books that cover personal finance topics, such as The Road to Wealth: A Comprehensive Guide to Your Money, by Suze Orman; Don't Mess with My Money: The Dolans' No-nonsense Lifetime Money Plan, by Ken and Daria Dolan; and The Veteran's Survival Guide: How to File and Collect on VA Claims, by John Roche. See the AFB technology guide Using Technology for Reading: Solutions for People with Visual Impairments and Blindness to learn how to get started with NLS Talking Books.
Newsline subscribers also enjoy free access to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, and selections from Investor's Business Daily. Bookshare members can choose from hundreds of books covering everything from money management to advanced trading strategies. You can learn more about Bookshare by going directly to the site at Bookshare.org to sign up.
Managing your Retirement Assets
If you are still working, it's likely you are still making contributions to your IRA or 401(k) plan. You receive quarterly statements detailing your plan's balance, profit/loss, and a listing of all the investments you have, along with performance statistics. You can also retrieve this information anytime you wish via a toll free number. But it can be tricky to use a phone call to help select a new investment, or to identify one that has run its course and should be sold.
Like banks, the financial institution that administers your IRA or 401(k) has likely improved their website accessibility dramatically over the past few years. If you tried accessing your retirement accounts before and were disappointed, it's definitely worth another go. Many large financial institutions, such as Fidelity, offer mobile apps. Ask your plan's administrator if they offer an accessible app.
If you have already retired, or are about to, you may choose to transfer your 401(k) assets to a different institution, since many employers encourage a move, or even begin charging an annual fee to administer your account. Consult your current bank or IRA administrator. They can perform what is known as a rollover, which is a tax free way to move your retirement funds. As with banking, many of these institutions go to great lengths to accommodate their blind and low-vision customers. For example, Wells Fargo offers an accessible 401(k) website.
If you combine all of your retirement accounts at the same place you bank there's an added benefit: the ability to easily transfer funds from your retirement account into your bill paying account.
Both versions are fairly accessible, and after entering your various accounts and real estate holdings you can get an updated "at a glance" financial summary of your account balances and your net worth anytime. The app also categorizes your various checking, ATM, and credit card purchases to help you monitor your spending habits.
What if you are retired and wish to take a more proactive role in managing your various retirement and non-retirement investments? If you are using a full-service broker, those commissions can be pretty steep. Of course you are paying for the convenience of a broker who's a phone call away and the research and advice he or she can provide. If you feel you can do a better job yourself, or if you simply want to take a small portion of your nest egg and do your own due diligence, a discount broker may be just the ticket. And these days just because the commissions are discounted, it doesn't mean the service is less than full.
We described brokerage online and mobile accessibility in depth. In this article we will describe the features of two online brokers, Schwab and Scottrade, which may be of particular interest to those with visual impairments.
- Both Schwab and Scottrade offer websites where the needs of a screen reader or screen magnification users have been identified and accommodated with helpful screen tips, heading navigation, and labeled form fields. Both brokerages also offer accessible mobile apps and touch tone telephone trading. Most accounts can be opened accessibly and completely online using an eSignature at the Schwab website. Scottrade new account forms must be printed, signed, and mailed in, and currently you will likely need sighted assistance to complete them. Commissions at Schwab start at $9 per trade, Scottrade starts at $7.
- In addition to an accessible web interface, both Schwab and Scottrade also offer a network of local branch offices, where you can establish an in-person or telephone relationship with individual representatives who will come to know your particular issues if you have an accessibility or other technical issue. Neither charges to open or maintain an IRA or rollover 401(k) account. On the contrary, you will likely be offered a number of free trades or cash incentives to rollover an existing retirement account.
- Both Schwab and Scottrade offer banking services, including bill pay. If you receive regular dividends or bond coupon payments you can have them automatically transferred into the bank account to pay your various bills. You can also set up the transfer of funds into and out of your various accounts to a different brokerage or bank, accessibly and free of charge.
- Each of these brokerages offer hundreds, if not thousands, of mutual funds which incur no transaction charges. This is handy if you wish to maintain the same portfolio you held in your prior account.
- Both of these discount brokerages offer accessible real time quotes, historic price and volume information you can download in text format, and various stock and mutual fund screeners. Company overviews, SEC filings, dividend history, and company headlines and press releases can also be read in text format using a screen reader or magnifier.
Advanced Research and Financial Education
If you want to keep an eagle eye on your stock holdings, there are ways to do this accessibly. Start out at the company's website. Look for an "Investors" link near the bottom of the page. AT&T stockholders, for example, can find a treasure trove of press releases, quarterly conference calls, and lots more on their Investor's Relations webpage.
If you're new to managing your own investments, Investopedia is a mostly accessible place to get started with your financial education. Yahoo Finance is a resource used by everyone from the novice investor to seasoned traders. There you can create one or more model portfolios and gain quick access to everything from company profiles and analyst ratings to the latest headlines and insider trades. The Yahoo website and mobile apps are extremely accessible, due in large part to the efforts of a dedicated accessibility team. (Warning: Yahoo Finance hosts a user message board for each listed security. These posts are anonymous, so take anything you read there with a five-pound block of salt.)
Hopefully, this article has left you feeling just a bit more empowered when it comes to handling your personal finances using access technologies. Some of the resources we've discussed are sight-impaired specific, including as the NLS Library Talking Book program, Newsline and Bookshare. Others are standard resources used by the general population—banks, brokerages, and a wealth of education and research resources—that can be accessed despite your level of vision. And there are more springing up all the time.
Some of the latest offerings include Simple, an online bank with automatic budgeting features; Wealthfront, an automated investment service that creates and manages custom portfolios for even small net-worth investors; and Robin Hood, a service that offers free stock trades. In the coming months we'll be evaluating these and other services to see how they stack up in regard to both features and accessibility. So keep coming back. We think it will be a valuable investment of your time.
- An Introduction to Accessible QuickBooks by Intuit and My Blind Spot by Aaron Preece
- Banking on a Plan for Inclusion at JPMorgan Chase by Deborah Kendrick
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