From online shopping to gifting devices, technology plays a huge role in the holidays, this Houston expert says. Getty Images

Like clockwork, the holidays are here again. Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday have all successfully come and gone, but yet, many of us are still left with presents to purchase and to-do lists to complete. Houstonians are expected to spend $1,562 this holiday season completing their holiday shopping. That is up three percent from last year.

While Houstonians expect to spend over $500 on gifts for loved ones, a whopping $606 will be spent on "experiences" and $421 on non-gift items such as clothing and home furnishings as they gear up for the holiday season with parties and houseguests.

What are Americans planning to buy this holiday season? Nationwide, 74 percent of Americans are expected to spend $97.1 billion on technology gifts this holiday season. According to a survey, the number one technology gift for this year is content-related gifts such as video games or streaming services. The days of buying discs or consulting the TV Guide are long gone. Americans are looking for ways to stream music, movies, and TV shows.

Other hot technology gadgets include smart speakers, smart phones, TVs, laptops, tablets, and wearables. Smart camera doorbells, which allow residents to see who is at their door, and smart lightbulbs, which enable lighting to be controlled remotely through the internet, continue to climb the gift-giving lists.

Technology is playing a significant role in how we make our purchases. Fifty-six percent of Americans are planning to buy their holiday items online, with only 36 percent obtaining gifts and other seasonal items in brick and mortar locations. Many of us are ordering gifts right from our smart phones.

All this spending on others, while thoughtful, is bound to get some of us in financial hot water. The key is to budget. Set a budget for each person you plan to shop for, such as family members, colleagues, friends, even for service providers such as your hairstylist. Once your budget is set, stick to it. I have found that using a spreadsheet to track expenses is helpful, or good old-fashioned pen and paper works well, too. You may be surprised how quickly your expenditures add up, even the small ones. Tracking is an excellent way to stay accountable to your budget.

Last year, the average consumer racked up over $1,000 in debt as part of their holiday shopping. By budgeting wisely, you can avoid debt. While credit cards are convenient, sometimes they make it a little too easy to spend more than planned. Not staying within your budget can give you quite a spending hangover in January. To combat credit card overuse, use cash whenever possible.

Additionally, limit your shopping days. The less you visit stores or malls, the less likely you are to be tempted. Moreover, purchasing online can help you stick to your budget, just be careful not to spend more than your budget allows. Another smart strategy to cut costs is to select items with free shipping over fast shipping.

With the holidays quickly approaching, ensure you are smart about your holiday spending. Technology is a fantastic and convenient avenue for shopping. And, our smart phones have provided us another avenue in which to compare prices and look for deals. Whichever channel you choose to shop — bricks and mortar or cybershopping — ensure you stick to smart spending.

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Dominic Cellitti is a financial adviser with the Wealth Management Division of Morgan Stanley in Houston.

It's National Retirement Security Week — and to celebrate, you need to start thinking about saving. Getty Images

Young professionals should focus on saving for retirement today, advises this Houston expert

Guest Column

National Retirement Security Week is upon us. In 2006, the United States Senate passed a resolution establishing the third week of October as a time to raise awareness about the importance of retirement savings and to encourage Americans to contribute to their retirement plans. The sponsors of the resolution hoped Americans would think about their retirement goals and assess their progress.

The Senate had good advice. Consider this: less than half of Americans have calculated how much money they will need to have in retirement. Additionally, the average person will spend a whopping 20 years in retirement. This data means you need to be proactive in your retirement planning, especially if you plan to retire early. Experts project that the average American will need 70 – 90 percent of their pre-retirement income to continue to live in their current standard of living. Even with well-funded savings, retirees will face challenges such as high costs of healthcare and the future of Medicare and Social Security.

For young investors

Research has shown that younger Americans, approximately ages 18 to 35, say the ideal time to retire is 60 years old. However, young professionals need to remember that the full retirement age for social security benefits is 67 years of age. Therefore, saving early in their career is key to attaining a livable retirement income.

Additionally, many young Americans are simply not saving for retirement at all. Data has demonstrated that two-thirds of Millennials have nothing saved. A rule of thumb is to continually save 10 to 15 percent of your income throughout your career for retirement. If you would like to retire at 60 years of age, you should be saving 20 percent or more.

First step: Start saving

Therefore, your first step should be starting to save today, and it should be a priority. By beginning to save as soon as possible, you benefit from the power of compound interest. Each year's investment gains build on the next year's gains. Ideally, you should begin saving for retirement in your early twenties at the beginning of your career. Saving early can reap big rewards later. However, if you are further along in your career and have not been saving, start now.

Many employers offer 401(k) plans, allowing employees to save for retirement before taxes are taken out of their paycheck. If your company offers a 401(k) plan, ensure you are enrolled and contributing at least enough to receive the maximum matching contribution. In 2019, the IRS allows you to contribute up to $19,000, and for those 50 and over, you may contribute $25,000. While 401(k)s have many benefits, there are some restrictions. For example, the plan may require you to leave the money in for a minimum amount of time before you are entitled to your employer's matching contributions. To ensure you understand your employer's plan, consult the plan administrator.

Not all employers offer retirement plans. If that is your case, or you are self-employed, look into an IRA. These accounts are another smart way to save for retirement. IRAs are controlled by you, not your employer. You can choose either a Roth IRA or a Traditional IRA. The difference between the two varies on issues such as age restrictions, income limits, and tax breaks. For an IRA in 2019, you may contribute $6,000 per person, or $7,000 for those 50 and over. Similar to 401(k)s, IRAs can be set up by automatic deduction if you so choose.

No matter your industry or the season of your life, take the time this National Retirement Security Week to educate yourself on your saving options, focus on your retirement goals, and begin the action steps necessary to be able to retire securely.

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Marcellus Davis is a financial adviser with the Wealth Management Division of Morgan Stanley in Houston.

September is self care awareness month, and there are ways to encourage wellness in the workplace — no matter the size of the company. Tom Merton/Getty Images

How you can encourage wellness in the workplace ahead of self care month

guest column

September is self-care awareness month. The purpose of the awareness campaign is to remind Americans that it is necessary to mindfully and purposefully care for yourself. Not only can individuals take steps toward self-care, but employers can play a role, too. Many employers are focusing on employee wellness, including financial wellness, realizing that when their workforce is happy and healthy, productivity rises, and their business grows.

Many innovative companies today offer wellness benefits, such as in-office yoga, massages, and acupuncture. Additionally, some companies encourage outside fitness by reimbursing gym memberships, organizing sports leagues, and coordinating classes at boutique studios.

While physical fitness is key to a healthy workforce, so is mental health. Employers have been known to provide meditation and napping rooms within the office, team trips, and flexible PTO. A wise employer will insist their employees use their PTO to refresh and decompress before returning to work with a new vigor. Several tech companies have even made confidential health assessments available and made gaining access to mental professionals easier.

As part of their wellness benefits offerings, companies should encourage financial wellness for their employees. One common contributor to our physical and mental stress is our finances. An American Psychological Association survey found that 62 percent of Americans count money as a stressor. Additionally, a Morgan Stanley study found that 78 percent of employees who report high financial stress say that their financial stress is a distraction at work.

Financial self-care involves assessing a person's financial situation and how their money is fitting into their life. As an employer, you can help your employees find the right balance in their financial life and provide them with the tools to help with their financial wellness.

Start with reviewing the retirement plan available to your employees. If you do not have a retirement plan instituted already, you will find that setting up a 401(k) is relatively easy and relatively low cost. Plus, it provides your employees with the power of saving for their retirement. This year, the IRS allows employees to contribute up to $19,000 in pre-tax dollars, $25,000 if they are 50 or over.

In addition to offering them a savings vehicle, consider providing 401(k) matching funds. For example, you may match 50 cents for every dollar they contribute. Even if an employee is not contributing to their retirement plan, an employer can still contribute money to their employees' retirement funds as a benefit of employment. Generally speaking, the limit on total employer and employee contributions for 2019 is $56,000, or 100 percent of employee compensation, whichever is lower. What better way to help your employees mind their financial self-care than to actively help them save for a secure future?

As an employer, you may go beyond retirement plans and offer other financial self-care benefits such as help with emergency savings, financial coaching, and student loan repayment. Currently, only four percent of employers offer student loan repayment programs, but that number is growing as a popular benefit for recruitment and retainment. Under this benefit, an employer may pay down a portion of the employee's student debt over a period of time. Of note, there is no tax benefit for a debt repayment benefit, and the money is taxed as income.

This September, take the time to assess the benefits you are offering to employees. Do not forget to include financial wellness as part of your overall plan, benefiting your employees and your business.

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Claudia Mollerup-Madsen is vice president and a financial adviser with the Wealth Management Division of Morgan Stanley in Houston.

First thing's first: Don't tell everyone. Jonathan Kitchen/Getty Images

What you need to know for when your startup hits the big time, according to this Houston expert

Money matters

If you have a successful tech startup, you may be working towards an exit plan where your vision and innovation is turned into liquidity. When a unique, innovative idea hits the big time, investors and other tech companies take notice, and some founders of startups discover themselves with sudden wealth.

Whether you take your company public or are eventually acquired by a much larger organization, you may find yourself looking at millions or billions of dollars one day. If this happens to you, there are crucial steps you should consider to help ensure you stay financially healthy for the long-term.

Keep your head down and do your homework.

First, be as quiet as possible about your new windfall. While selling your company may be public knowledge, keep conversations about your finances and situation minimal and confidential until you have a plan. The more hushed you keep your new financial situation, the less pressure you may have from others asking for favors and handouts.

Additionally, do your research before making any decisions. While you are coming to terms with your new wealth, search for the right team, including a financial adviser, attorney, and accountant, to help you set your goals, both long and short term. This may include tax efficiency and structure, such as trusts and family limited partnerships.

Research a potential advisers' philosophy, fees, and expertise. Have a background check run on anyone you hire, including their financial situation. Review your engagement letter and understand the small print. Be patient as you search for the right team — they are extremely important to your future.

Find an adviser you trust.

Part of your team should include a financial adviser who can be an invaluable resource during this time and into the future for many reasons.

First, he or she can help you identify potential present and future financial goals, plan for the next generation, and structure an income stream, which will ultimately help guide your money to survive you. You might find yourself in the unique position to make donations you have only dreamed of, and that, too, requires guidance.

A financial adviser can also help when friends and organizations are looking for financial contributions from you. Sudden wealth often leads to many changes which are hard to anticipate. Do not let your guard down. Family and friends can come out of the woodwork. Also, be aware of frivolous lawsuits and threats. Keep you and your family safe.

Don't go crazy.

Be disciplined in your spending. Some pro-athletes and lottery winners have filed for bankruptcy after blowing all of their wealth. Do not fall into this trap.

With the help of your financial adviser, you may decide to put your money where you cannot access it easily, such as a house or a 529 savings plan for your children's college. Or, you may decide to have your financial adviser help establish a salary for you each month so you can control your cash better.

After working hard to build a product or platform and the success of selling it for top dollar, ensure you are just as wise with your proceeds. Follow trusted advice from a well-vetted financial adviser and take your time to make major decisions. Trust your gut and enjoy the ride!

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Gail Stalarow is vice president and financial adviser with The Clarity Group in the Wealth Management Division of Morgan Stanley in Houston.

The Bayou City knows energy. Silicon Valley knows tech. But each can't only invest in what they know. Getty Images

Houston and Silicon Valley experts advise investing outside the box

Diversify or die

There's an adage in investing that you should only invest in what you know. Generally speaking, this is a good rule — if you do not understand a company product or have no experience with its industry, then investing in a specific company could be risky. Yet, there are times when it's necessary to get out of your comfort zone and try something new and adventurous. The challenge is determining how to do that.

We are financial advisors from Houston and San Francisco, and we frequently do just that — encourage our clients to explore investments out of their comfort zones.

In Houston, we understand energy. As of 2017, Texas accounted for 37 percent of the nation's crude oil production and 24 percent of its natural gas production. And as of January 2018, Texan oil refineries accounted for 31 percent of the nation's refining capacity — and that is just oil. In 2017, Texas lead the country in wind-generated electricity and generated a quarter of all wind power in the US. It is safe to say, we feel comfortable talking the language and investing in the energy industry. Whether it is machinery fabrication for upstream, construction of pipes for midstream, or refining downstream, some Texans are comfortable investing in these areas.

In San Francisco, we understand tech, whether it involves social media, silicon, or apps. We have five of the top 10 most prominent tech companies in the world. In 2018, the technology industry accounted for around 62 percent of all office leasing activity in San Francisco. The Bay Area also dominates venture capital investment, accounting for 45 percent of all capital investment in the U.S, in large part because of tech startups in the area.

Naturally, we see that some investors in our hometowns feel comfortable investing extensively in these two industries. Sometimes, these investments take the form of venture capital, other times they are individual stocks.

For Houstonians, allocating all of their investments to the energy industry carries too much risk should the energy industry falter. The same is true for San Francisco with venture capital and technology.

Therefore, we encourage investors to diversify their portfolios by placing funds in multiple vehicles and equities with the knowledge that different industries will react differently to market ups and downs. While there is never a guarantee of the outcome, diversification is one of many factors critical to long-term investment success.

For Houstonians and San Franciscans, there are other industries we understand in which we can invest. For example, Houston boasts the largest medical center in the world with roughly 361,000 people employed in the healthcare industry. While San Francisco employs roughly 277,500 in tourism. If you're looking to diversify your portfolio, look around to see the opportunities in which other people are investing. You may be surprised about what you learn, and ultimately how comfortable you can become investing in industries you may be unfamiliar.

We do not recommend ever investing in a product or industry that you have no understanding of at all. However, if you have excitement about an investment opportunity and feel there is potential for growth to your portfolio, your investment may prove fruitful in the future. Still, please seek out a financial advisor to help.

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Joseph Radzwill is senior vice president and financial adviser with the Wealth Management Division of Morgan Stanley in Houston. Victoria Bailey is a financial adviser with the Wealth Management Division of Morgan Stanley in San Francisco.

Think about the power of impact investing this Earth Day. Getty Images

Impact investing is shaping the future of the world, says this Houston expert

Earth day

For almost 50 years, Earth Day has been recognized as the largest civic-focused day of action in the world. Since April 22, 1970, Americans have sought out ways to be stewards of the environment through planting trees, riding a bike to work, or cleaning up a community garden. While these actions are admirable, other strategies and tools are also available that can have a positive impact on the environment.

Investors are getting behind companies that put environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors as priorities in their operations. According to a 2018 survey by the Morgan Stanley Institute for Sustainable Investing and Morgan Stanley Investment Management, 84 percent of respondents are considering or currently pursuing ESG investing.

ESG policies may include issues such as safety policies, human rights, and climate change. These policies may not be part of the traditional financial analysis but can still have financial applications. Investors have the opportunity to financially support and affect change in companies that are taking the lead on ESG policies. This is impact investing. With impact investing, companies and individuals can shape the future with money that is already slated to be invested.

According to the Morgan Stanley survey mentioned above, more than $22.8 trillion is invested sustainably. As the impact investing movement continues to grow, we are seeing an increase in funds dedicated to social and environmental change. According to the 2018 survey, 77 percent of asset owners believe they have a responsibility to address sustainability through investing. And, 31 percent of the respondents said climate change is their leading focus.

If you are interested in incorporating impact investing into your portfolio, the first step is to choose your social and environmental investment criteria. In honor of Earth Day, you may be interested in focusing on green investing in industries or causes such as clean water and alternative energy. Or, you may be interested in investing in corporations that have made strides in environmental sustainability and clean technology.

Next, determine the best way for you to invest. Whether by debt, equity, or assets, impact investing can involve making the kinds of investment decisions that regular investors are generally making anyway, such as buying stocks and bonds in Fortune 500 companies or broadly diversified mutual funds. According to respondents in the Morgan Stanley survey, public equities and real assets, such as infrastructure and real estate, are the most attractive asset classes for sustainable investing.

A common concern with impact investing is whether investing with a strong focus on ESG will give investors a rate of return needed to meet their investment goals (i.e. retirement, college savings). According to a study by the Global Impact Investing Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping break down barriers to impact investing, 82 percent of respondents said their investments made an impact and 76 percent were pleased with the financial performance. Additionally, another 15 percent reported outperformance across each of these dimensions.

As investors are pursuing ESG practices and investments, a large number of companies are continuing to incorporate measures such as water and energy conservation into their ESG policies. Corporate boards and investors are incentivizing their CEOs to provide high-quality, diverse workplaces that lead to greater employee satisfaction, retention, and productivity while having a social and environmental impact. Whether investing in organizations or corporations, impact investing provides a way for investors to tackle big problems with their money. This Earth Day, on Monday, April 22, you can identify investments that can help you achieve your financial goals as well as satisfying your desire to have an impact.

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Dominic Cellitti is a financial adviser with the wealth management division of Morgan Stanley in Houston.

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Houston-based health tech startup is revolutionizing patient selection for clinical trials

working smarter

On many occasions in her early career, Dr. Arti Bhosale, co-founder and CEO of Sieve Health, found herself frustrated with having to manually sift through thousands of digital files.

The documents, each containing the medical records of a patient seeking advanced treatment through a clinical trial, were always there to review — and there were always more to read.

Despite the tediousness of prescreening, which could take years, the idea of missing a patient and not giving them the opportunity to go through a potentially life-altering trial is what kept her going. The one she didn’t read could have slipped through the cracks and potentially not given someone care they needed.

“Those stories have stayed with me,” she says. “That’s why we developed Sieve.”

When standard health care is not an option, advances in medical treatment could be offered through clinical trials. But matching patients to those trials is one of the longest standing problems in the health care industry. Now with the use of new technology as of 2018, the solution to the bottleneck may be a new automated approach.

“Across the globe, more than 30 percent of clinical trials shut down as a result of not enrolling enough patients,” says Bhosale. “The remaining 80 percent never end up reaching their target enrollment and are shut down by the FDA.”

In 2020, Bhosale and her team developed Sieve Health, an AI cloud-based SaaS platform designed to automate and accelerate matching patients with clinical trials and increase access to clinical trials.

Sieve’s main goal is to reduce the administrative burden involved in matching enrollments, which in turn will accelerate the trial execution. They provide the matching for physicians, study sponsors and research sites to enhance operations for faster enrollment of the trials.

The technology mimics but automates the traditional enrollment process — reading medical notes and reviewing in the same way a human would.

“I would have loved to use something like this when I was on the front lines,” Bhosale says, who worked in clinical research for over 12 years. “Can you imagine going through 10,000 records manually? Some of the bigger hospitals have upwards of 100,000 records and you still have to manually review those charts to make sure that the patient is eligible for the trial. That process is called prescreening. It is painful.”

Because physicians wear many hats and have many clinical efforts on their plates, research tends to fall to the bottom of the to-do list. Finding 10-20 patients can take the research team on average 15-20 months to find those people — five of which end up unenrolling, she says.

“We have designed the platform so that the magic can happen in the background, and it allows the physician and research team to get a jumpstart,” she says.” They don’t have to worry about reviewing 10,000 records — they know what their efforts are going to be and will ensure that the entire database has been scanned.”

With Sieve, the team was able to help some commercial pilot programs have a curated data pool for their trials – cutting the administrative burden and time spent searching to less than a week.

Sieve is in early-stage start up mode and the commercial platform has been rolled out. Currently, the team is conducting commercial projects with different research sites and hospitals.

“Our focus now is seeing how many providers we can connect into this,” she says. “There’s a bigger pool out there who want to participate in research but don’t know where to start. That’s where Sieve is stepping in and enabling them to do this — partnering with those and other groups in the ecosystem to bring trials to wherever the physicians and the patients are.”

Arti Bhosale is the co-founder and CEO of Sieve Health. Photo courtesy of Sieve

Houston nonprofit unveils new and improved bayou cleaning vessel

litter free

For over 20 years, a nonprofit organization has hired people to clean 14 miles of bayou in Houston. And with a newly updated innovative boat, keeping Buffalo Bayou clean just got a lot more efficient.

Buffalo Bayou Partnership unveils its newest version of the Bayou-Vac this week, and it's expected to be fully operational this month. BBP Board Member Mike Garver designed both the initial model of the custom-designed and fabricated boat as well as the 2022 version. BBP's Clean & Green team — using Garver's boat — has removed around 2,000 cubic yards of trash annually, which is the equivalent of about 167 commercial dump trucks. The new and improved version is expected to make an even bigger impact.

“The Bayou-Vac is a game changer for our program,” says BBP field operations manager, Robby Robinson, in a news release. “Once up and running, we foresee being able to gain an entire workday worth of time for every offload, making us twice as efficient at clearing trash from the bayou.”

Keeping the bayou clean is important, since the water — and whatever trash its carrying — runs off into Galveston Bay, and ultimately, the Gulf of Mexico. The improvements made to the Bayou-Vac include removable dumpsters that can be easily swapped out, slid off, and attached to a dump truck. The older model included workers having to manually handle trash and debris and a secondary, land-based vacuum used to suck out the trash from onboard.

Additionally, the Bayou-Vac now has a moveable, hydraulic arm attached to the bow of the vessel that can support the weight of the 16-foot vacuum hose. Again, this task was something done manually on the previous model of the Bayou-Vac.

“BBP deeply appreciates the ingenuity of our board member Mike Garver and the generosity of Sis and Hasty Johnson and the Kinder Foundation, the funders of the new Bayou-Vac,” BBP President Anne Olson says in the release. “We also thank the Harris County Flood Control District and Port Houston for their longtime support of BBP’s Clean & Green Program.”