Protect Your Family Against a Loss of Income

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

In addition to an emergency fund for unexpected short term expenses, you need to protect yourself and your family from a long term loss of income.  If you have a spouse or children who are dependent on your income, you should consider term life insurance and long term disability to provide them with income should you die or become disabled.  If you have no dependents, you should consider long term disability to cover your own living expenses if you become unable to work.  

Although, life insurance can be a dirty word, low cost level term insurance is relatively inexpensive and provides an important safeguard for those who are dependent on your income.  Some common reasons to buy life insurance are to replace income, pay-off a mortgage, and to put your children through college.  The most economical way to meet these needs is through the use of level term insurance.  The amount of insurance you need depends on your objectives for getting insurance.   The term of the insurance should be based on the timeframe during which you need to replace income or pay for other major expenses.   When you buy level term insurance, you have a guaranteed level premium and a guaranteed death benefit, assuming you pay your premiums on time. Unlike whole life insurance, term insurance is pure insurance, there is no investment element.  Once the term has expired there is no residual value. 

It is common to buy level term insurance to cover 20 or 30 years until such time the kids have made it through college or your home is close to being paid off.  To save money, you may consider purchasing several policies with different terms and different objectives. For example, if your mortgage will be paid off in ten years, your kids will be out of college in 20 years and you want to provide your spouse with income replacement for 30 years, buy three policies with terms that correspond with the timeframes of your objectives.

Many people buy life insurance but few people have long term disability insurance.  No one lives forever, but during your prime earning years the probability of becoming disabled is higher than that of dying.  According to the Social Security Administration, over 1 in 4 people who are currently 20 years old will become disabled before age 67.   About 69% of all private sector employees have no long term disability insurance.  If you have loved ones who are dependent on your income, you should consider buying long term disability insurance.

When shopping for life insurance and long term disability shop and compare prices. Do your research and get quotes from several companies with low fees and commissions.  Consider working with insurance brokers who work with a variety of different insurance companies.  They can provide you with information on premiums from several insurance companies along with the companies’ financial strength rating.

Investing in a Volatile Market

 

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Here are some things you should keep in mind when investing in the stock market; the market will fluctuate, there will be years with negative returns, the stock market is for long term investing, and the media and prognosticators will greatly exaggerate negative information to create news and get attention.  If you keep this in mind, you can dramatically improve your long term investment returns and sleep better at night.  Based on numerous studies conducted by DALBAR, the average investor earns several percentage points below the market average due to market timing and emotional reactions to market fluctuations.  It’s how we are wired.  When the market goes up, we feel good and we want don’t want to miss out on the opportunity to make money.  As a result, we buy stock when the market is at its peak.  On the flip side, when the market drops we worry about losing money, and sell when the market is at the bottom.  It’s hard to make money in this cycle of buying high and selling low.  When investing in the stock market, try to avoid overreacting to the inevitable short term fluctuations in the market.

Other factors that can help you ride out dramatic fluctuations in the market include establishing a solid financial foundation and maintaining an asset allocation that meets your investment timeframe.  Establish a solid financial foundation by living within your means, minimizing the use of credit, and maintaining an emergency fund of 3 to 6 months of expenses.  A strong foundation helps you avoid pulling money out of the stock market at inopportune times should an emergency arise. 

Once you have established a strong financial foundation you can start investing in the stock market.  One key to success with stock market investing is establishing an asset allocation that’s in line with the timeframe in which you will need money.  Money that is needed in the short term should not be invested it the stock market.  As a general rule, do not invest any money needed within the next five years in the stock market.  Over long periods of time the stock market has trended upward, but in the short term there have been periods with substantial drops.  Give yourself time to ride out the natural fluctuations in the market.  

Additionally, it is important to diversify your money across a wide variety of investments.  You can reduce the amount of risk you take by diversifying across different companies, municipalities, industries, and countries.  When one type of investment is doing poorly, another may be doing well.  This helps to buffer the losses you may experience in your portfolio.  An excellent way to diversify is through the use of a variety of different types of mutual funds.  Mutual funds pool your money with money from others to invest in a large number of companies or government entities based on a predefined investment objective.

Pay Down Debt or Save and Invest?

 

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

The decision to pay off debt or save and invest money is a common dilemma.  The best solution largely depends on the type of debt you are dealing with and the interest rate that you are paying.  Not all debt is created equal; high interest rate, non-deductible debt, like credit card debt and consumer financing, is generally a bad use of debt. On the other hand, low interest, tax deductible debt such as a mortgage or a home equity loan is generally a more favorable use of debt.  Financially, it’s usually wise to own your home and few of us can afford to pay cash. 

If you have a lot of consumer debt or a large credit card balance with a high interest rate, you are probably spending a substantial sum just to cover the interest.  You need to pay more than your minimum payment to start working down the debt.  It’s important to pay down debt, but you also need to maintain some liquidity to cover unexpected expenses.  There is no magic formula for how much of your available cash should be used to pay down debt and how much should go toward building your emergency fund.  Everyone needs an emergency fund, and I generally I recommend maintaining an emergency fund equal to about four months of expenses.  However, if you are drowning in credit card debt consider using half of your money to pay down debt and the other half to build up an emergency fund until you have around $2,000.  Continue along this path a while longer, if you want to build a larger emergency fund.

 Without an emergency fund you could fall into a never ending debt spiral.   If you don’t have an emergency fund, you may be forced to run up credit card debt again when the inevitable emergency arises.    

As you make progress toward paying off debt, you may wonder if you should invest some money for retirement or your other financial goals.  Generally, you should prioritize paying down debt if the after tax interest rate on your debt is higher than your expected after tax investment return.  When considering the possibility of investing some of your funds, factor in the risk associated with investing your money.   Investing is subject to fluctuations in the market, but there is no market risk associated with the interest you save by paying down debt.

 Additional factors that may enter into the decision to invest some of your money include the opportunity to get an employer match on a 401k contribution and the potential tax deduction you could receive from contributing to a retirement plan.

Finally, if you pay down your high interest debt and you want to pay your mortgage off early, consider the impact this could have on your tax deductions.  You also need to weigh this against the return you could earn, if the money is invested.

Investment Risk Comes in Many Forms

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

One of the first steps when investing money is evaluating your tolerance for risk.  The amount of return you can earn is heavily dependent on how much risk you are willing to take.   We generally associate investment risk with market risk, or the possibility of losing money due to fluctuations in the stock market.   The stock market is volatile and can be a high risk investment if you have a short time horizon.  However, over long periods of time, the stock market has trended upward.  It’s important to consider your tolerance for stock market risk when building your portfolio.  However, the risk of losing money due to a drop in the stock market is only one of many risks that can adversely impact your financial security.

Although fixed income investments are generally considered safer than the stock market, they are not without risk.  Fixed income investments can include CD’s, bonds, bond funds and cash accounts such as money market or savings accounts.  The most common types of risk associated with fixed income investments are interest rate risk and default risk.

Interest rate risk is the possibility of your bonds dropping in value when interest rates increase.  When interest rates increase, the value of an existing bond decreases to compensate for higher interest rates available on the market.  Generally, if you buy and hold an individual bond till maturity, you will get back the full face value plus any interest that was earned.   However, when you own a bond fund,  you don’t have control over when bonds within the fund are sold.  When interest rates rise, bond managers may be forced to sell bonds at inopportune times due to the large number of withdrawals.

Individual bonds have less interest rate risk than bond funds, but they have a higher degree of default risk.  Default risk is the possibility of losing your principal if the bond issuer becomes insolvent.  Bond funds are able to reduce the default risk by pooling your money with others and investing in a large number of different companies or municipalities.

 Treasury bonds and FDIC insured CD’s provide what is generally considered a risk free rate.  If held to maturity, there is very little chance of losing principal.  Your investment is insured by the Federal government against default risk, and you have control over when you sell.  The primary downfall with this type of investment is the extremely low rate of return.

Investing too much in extremely safe, low earning investments often results in inflation risk.  Money placed in “safe” investments with a low rate of return can’t keep up with inflation, resulting in a negative real return.   You also lose the opportunity to earn a reasonable rate of return needed to grow your retirement account.   It’s all about balance; you need to take some market risk to build and maintain your retirement account and stay ahead of inflation.