Variable Annuities May Not Be Your Best Option

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA


A variable annuity is an investment contract with an insurance company where you invest money into your choice of a variety of sub-accounts. Sub-accounts are similar to mutual funds, where money from a large number of investors is pooled and invested in accordance with specific investment objectives. Like mutual funds, sub-accounts may invest in different categories of stock or interest earning investments.
One characteristic of a variable annuity is the tax deferral of gains until the funds are withdrawn. However, upon distribution the gains are taxable at regular income tax rates, as opposed to capital gains rates that may be available for mutual funds. Additionally, there is no step-up in basis upon death for assets held in variable annuities.
Variable annuities are generally more appropriate for non-retirement accounts because gains within a retirement account are already tax deferred. Traditional retirement accounts and Roth IRAs meet the tax deferral needs for most investors. However, in some cases a variable annuity may be attractive to a high income investor who has maximized his traditional retirement options and needs additional opportunities for tax deferral. This is especially true for an investor who is currently in a high tax bracket and expects to be in a lower tax bracket in retirement.
When investing in variable annuities, with non-retirement money, there is no requirement to take a Required Minimum Distribution at 70 ½. However, there is generally a 10% penalty on withdrawals made before 59 1/2. Trades can be made within a variable annuity account without immediate tax consequences. The entire gain will be taxable upon withdrawal. There is no annual contribution limit for variable annuities, and you can make non-taxable transfers between annuity companies using a 1035 exchange. However, you may have to pay a surrender charge if you have held the annuity for less than seven to ten years, and you purchased it from a commissioned adviser. Before buying an annuity, read the fine print to fully understand all of the fees and penalties associated with the product. Most variable annuities have early withdrawal penalties and a higher expense structure than mutual funds.
A variable annuity may be an option for someone who wants to purchase an insurance policy to buffer the risk of losing money in the market. For many investors, due to the long term growth in the stock market, this guarantee may be come at too high a price. Some investors are willing to pay additional fees in exchange for the peace of mind that a guaranteed withdrawal benefit can provide. Guaranteed minimum withdrawal benefits (GMWB) can be very complex and have some significant restrictions. Additionally, some products offer a guaranteed death benefit for an extra fee. Read the contract carefully and make sure you understand the product before you buy.
Due to the high costs, lack of flexibility, complexity and unfavorable tax treatment variable annuities are not beneficial for many investors.

Tips to Acheive Financial Fitness

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA


The first step toward financial fitness is to understand your current situation and live within your means. Review your actual expenses on an annual basis and categorize your expenses as necessary or discretionary. Compare your expenses to your income and develop a budget to ensure you are living within your means and saving for the future. The next step is to pay off high interest credit cards and personal debts. Once you have paid off your credit cards, create and maintain an emergency fund equal to about four months of expenses, including expenses for the current month. Your emergency funds should be readily accessible in a checking, savings or money market account.
Now it’s time to look toward the future. Get in the habit of always saving at least 10% to 15% of your gross income. Think about your goals and what you want to accomplish. If you don’t own a home, you may want to save for a down payment. When you purchase a home make sure you can easily make the payments while contributing toward retirement. Generally, your mortgage expense should be at or below 25% of your take home pay.
Contribute money into retirement plans, for which you qualify. Make contributions to your 401k plan, at least up to the employer match and maximize your Roth IRA. If you are self-employed, consider a SEP or a Simple plan. If you have children and want to contribute to their college expenses, consider a 529 college savings plan. Do not contribute so much toward your children’s college fund that you sacrifice your own retirement.
As you save for retirement, be an investor not a trader. Investing in the stock market is a long term endeavor, forecasting the short-term movement of the stock market is fruitless. Avoid emotional reactions to headlines and short term events. Don’t overreact to sensationalistic stories or chase the latest investment trends. Establish a defensive position by maintaining a well-diversified portfolio, custom designed for your unique situation. Slow and steady wins the race!
Don’t invest in anything that you don’t understand or that sounds too good to be true. If you really want to invest in complicated products, read the fine print. Be especially aware of high commissions, fees, and surrender charges. There is no free lunch; if you are being offered above market returns, there is probably a catch. Keep in mind that contracts are written to protect the insurance or investment company, not the investor.
It is impossible to predict fluctuations in the market or to select the next great stock. However, you can hedge your bets with a well-diversified portfolio. Establish an asset allocation that is aligned with your goals, investment timeframe, and risk tolerance. Your portfolio should contain a mix of fixed income and stock based investments across a wide variety of companies and industries. Rebalance your portfolio on an annual basis to stay diversified.

The Difference Between an Roth IRA and a Traditional IRA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA


One of the biggest decisions associated with saving for retirement is choosing between a Roth IRA and a Traditional IRA. The primary difference between the two IRAs is when you pay income tax. A traditional IRA is usually funded with pre-tax dollars providing you with a current tax deduction. Your money grows tax deferred, but you have to pay regular income tax upon distribution. A Roth IRA is funded with after tax dollars, and does not provide a current tax deduction. Generally, a Roth IRA grows tax free and you don’t have to pay taxes on distributions. In 2013 you can contribute up to a total of $5,500 per year plus a $1,000 catch-up contribution if you are over 50. You can make a contribution into a combination of a Roth and a Traditional IRA as long as you don’t exceed the limit. You also have until your filing date, usually April 15th, to make a contribution for the previous year. New contributions must come from earned income.
There are some income restrictions on IRA contributions. In 2013, your eligibility to contribute to a Roth IRA begins to phase-out at a modified adjusted gross income of $112,000 if you file single and $178,000 if you file married filing jointly. With a traditional IRA, there are no limits on contributions based on income. However, if you are eligible for a retirement plan through your employer, there are restrictions on the amount you can earn and still be eligible for a tax deductible IRA. In 2013 your eligibility for a deductible IRA begins to phase out at $59,000 if you are single and at $95,000 if you file married filing jointly.
Generally, you cannot take distributions from a traditional IRA before age 59 ½ without a 10% penalty. Contributions to a Roth IRA can be withdrawn anytime, tax free. Earnings may be withdrawn tax free after you reach age 59 ½ and your money has been invested for at least five years. There are some exceptions to the early withdrawal penalties. You must start taking required minimum distributions on Traditional IRAs upon reaching 70 ½. Roth IRAs are not subject to required minimum distributions.
The decision on the type of IRA is based largely on your current tax rate, your anticipated tax rate in retirement, your investment timeframe, and your investment goals. A Roth IRA may be your best choice if you are currently in a low income tax bracket and anticipate being in a higher bracket in retirement. A Roth IRA may also be a good option if you already have a lot of money in a traditional IRA or 401k, and you are looking for some tax diversification. A Roth IRA can be a good option if you are not eligible for a deductible IRA but your income is low enough to qualify for a Roth IRA.

There is More to Retirement Than the Money

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Are you concerned that you don’t have the financial means to fully retire anytime soon? That may not be such a bad thing. There is much more to retirement than reaching some magic number where you will be able to cover your living expenses. Your personal identity may be closely aligned with your career. Personal identity plays a huge role in your self-esteem and happiness. Your sense of accomplishment and purpose can also be tied to your work. The structure, responsibility and expectations from your job give you a sense of purpose and help you feel appreciated. Retirement may have a dramatic impact on your personal identity and sense of relevance. Make a plan to transition into your retirement adventure with a new sense of direction and purpose.
Many of your relationships are connected to your career. Relationships with colleagues, clients, co-workers and suppliers account for a lot of your social interactions. These are people with whom you have a common understanding and intertwined social connections. Think about the impact retirement may have on these connections. How will you replace this sense of community and nurture these relationships after retirement?
Another consideration in retirement is keeping your mind stimulated. At work our minds are fully engaged as we juggle several different tasks at once. This may be exhausting, but it keeps our minds stimulated and energized. A study conducted by the Rand Center for the Study of Aging and the University of Michigan found that early retirement can have a significant negative impact on the cognitive ability of people in their early 60’s. The study concluded that people need to stay active to preserve their memories and reasoning abilities. As you transition into retirement, be sure stay mentally active and engaged.
You may be looking forward to retirement in anticipation of doing all the fun things you currently have no time for. Retirees frequently enter retirement with tremendous enthusiasm and fill their first few years with exciting trips and activities. However, after a while you tire of these activities, the activities lack the substance to make you feel truly fulfilled. You start missing the sense of affirmation, self- identity and purpose you found in your job. You have time to engage in fun activities every day, but it’s just not enough, you aren’t fully satisfied.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Before you jump into retirement, give some serious thought about what you will do in retirement. How will you stay socially and emotionally engaged in a way that is truly meaningful and rewarding? Engage in activities that will feed your self-esteem. Consider a new, part-time career, set some fitness goals, engage in volunteer activities, or take up a meaningful hobby. Decide how you will develop new social networks. Once you are retired, what will you say and how will you feel when someone asks – What do you do?