Words of Wisdom from Planners Around the Country

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

While recently attending the national conference of the Alliance of Comprehensive Planners, I interviewed dozens of fee-only, Certified Financial Planners.  I asked them to share the most important piece of advice that they can give to their clients.  The answers were not exciting or complicated but practical, common sense recommendations that are useful to most everyone.   The most common piece of advice, by an overwhelming margin, was to save more and spend less.  Below are the top ten most important financial steps you should take according to some of the finest financial planners in the industry.

  1. Live Below Your Means – Establish good spending habits early. Monitor your expenses for about three months and create a realistic spending plan that you can stick with.  Make intentional decisions to keep your spending well below your income and always maintain an emergency fund.
  2. Save at Least 10% of your Gross Income – Start saving as early as possible. Everyone should save at least 10% of their income.  If you are getting started later you may need to save closer to 15% to 20% of your income
  3. Look at the Big Picture – Take an integrated approach to your finances. Your financial life is a big puzzle with a lot of interlocking pieces.   Don’t make decisions in isolation.  Create a financial plan that serves as a roadmap to integrate all areas of your financial life including investments, taxes, insurance, retirement planning and estate planning.
  4. Be True to Yourself – Live, spend, and invest in accordance to your values and goals, not to impress or compete with others.
  5. Create a Realistic Investment Plan – Create a diversified investment plan that you will stick with during significant market fluctuations. Your portfolio needs to support your investment time horizon and the level of risk that you are comfortable with.
  6. Hire a Good Financial Planner – Managing your finances can be more complicated and time consuming than you realize. A financial planner can help you integrate all aspects of your financial life and can provide an objective perspective on your situation.
  7. Don’t Invest in Complex Insurance and Investment Products – Avoid insurance and investment vehicles that require a team of attorneys to understand. The words in small print are probably not in your best interest.
  8. Maximize Contributions to your 401k and Roth IRA – Fully utilize tax advantaged retirement plans and take advantage of an employer match where available.
  9. Don’t Let Family Members Derail Your Financial Plan – Don’t sabotage your financial security by paying for all of your child’s college education or by supporting adult children, parents, or siblings. You need to help yourself before you can be of assistance to others.
  10. Leverage Your Real Estate – Don’t be in a hurry to pay off a low interest mortgage on your personal residence. You can benefit from appreciation on your home with as little as 10% to 20% down.

Value Provided by Financial Advisor Can Exceed Fee

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Many things can trigger the decision to hire a financial planner.  You may need some direction on how to prioritize your spending and saving to better prepare for the future.  You may be too busy or uninterested in managing your own finances.   You may experience a sudden life change such as a marriage, divorce, inheritance or retirement.   Your situation may be getting complicated and you want a professional opinion or you lack the technical expertise to continue managing things on your own.

Although, you may need a financial planner you may be hesitant to pay the fee.   Fee-only planners can be compensated using a flat fee, a percentage of assets or an hourly rate.   The fee will typically be around 1% of assets for on-ongoing advice.   A recent Vanguard study may help put your mind at ease.   The study found that the added value provided by a fee-only planner can far exceed the cost.

In 2014 Vanguard published the results of a study they conducted on the value added by advisors.  The study found that financial advisors can add up to about 3% in net returns for their clients by focusing on a wealth management framework they refer to as Advisor’s Alpha©.  The study found that an advisor can add to a client’s net returns if their approach includes the following five principles: being an effective behavioral coach, applying an asset location strategy, employing cost effective investments, maintaining the proper allocation through rebalancing and implementing a spending strategy.  These are just a few of the practices and principles followed by most comprehensive fee-only planners.

The exact amount of added return will vary based on client circumstances and implementation.  It should not be viewed as an annual return but as an average over time.  The opportunity for the greatest value comes during periods of extreme market duress or euphoria.  Additionally, Vanguard found that paying a fee for advice using this framework can add significant value in comparison to what the investor had previously experienced with or without an advisor.

Vanguard’s framework places emphasis on relationship oriented services that encourage discipline and reason, in working with clients who may otherwise be undisciplined and reactionary.  Rather than focusing on short term performance there is a focus on sticking to the plan and avoiding emotional overreaction. Advisors, acting as behavior coaches, can help discourage clients from chasing returns and focus instead on asset allocation, rebalancing, cash flow management and tax-efficient investment strategies.

The study found that when advisors place emphasis on stewardship and a strong relationship with the client, investors were less likely to make decisions that hurt their returns and negatively impacted their ability to reach long term financial goals.  According to Vanguard “Although this wealth creation will not show up on any client statement, it is real and represents the difference in clients’ performance if they stay invested according to their plan as opposed to abandoning it.”

Financially Get a Jump Start on 2017

office pictures may 2012 002The beginning of a new year is a good time to evaluate your finances and take steps to improve your financial situation.  Start by reviewing your living expenses and comparing them to your income.  Are you living within your means and spending money in areas that are important to you?  Look for opportunities to prioritize your spending where you will get the most benefit and joy.

This is also a good time to calculate your net worth to see if it has increased over the previous year and evaluate progress toward your goals.  To calculate your net worth, add up the value of all of your assets including real estate, bank accounts, vehicles and investment accounts and subtract all outstanding debts including mortgages, credit card balances, car loans and student loans.

With a better understanding of your net worth and cash flow you are ready to set some financial goals.  Start with the low hanging fruit including paying off outstanding credit card balances and establishing an emergency fund.  Maintain an emergency fund equal to at least three months of expenses.   Once your credit cards are paid off you may want to focus on paying off other high interest debt.

After paying off debt and creating an emergency fund, it’s advisable to get in the habit of saving at least 10% of your income.   Saving 20% may be a better goal if you are running behind on saving for retirement.

Take advantage of opportunities to defer taxes by contributing to your company’s 401k.  If you are self- employed create a retirement plan or contribute to an IRA.  Take advantage of any match that your employer may provide for contributing to your retirement plan.  If you are already making retirement contributions, evaluate your ability to increase your contributions.  If you have recently turned 50 you may want to increase your contribution to take advantage catch-up provisions that raise the contribution limits for individuals over 50.

As the new year begins you also may want to evaluate your career situation.  Saving and investing is just part of the equation, your financial security is largely dependent on career choices.  Look for opportunities to enhance your career that may result in a higher salary or improved job satisfaction.  It may be time to ask for a raise or a promotion or to explore opportunities in a new field.  Consider taking some classes to sharpen your skills for your current job or to prepare you for a new more exciting career.

You may have additional goals such as buying a new home, contributing to your children’s college fund, remodeling your house, or taking a big vacation.  Strategically think about your priorities and what will bring you satisfaction.  Start the year with intention, identify some impactful financial goals and create a plan.  Formulate an action plan with specific steps to help you meet your goals.

Managing a Sudden Windfall

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

If you are fortunate enough to receive a significant windfall give yourself some time before making any major decisions.   A sudden influx of cash from an inheritance, winning the lottery, life insurance or the sale of a business can cause a major disruption in your life.    Over 50% of all windfalls are lost in a short period of time.  NBC news reported that more than 70% of all lottery winners exhausted their fortunes within 3 years.   You need some time to emotionally adjust to your situation and to create a plan.

You may experience a variety of new emotions and it’s important to avoid making decisions for the wrong reasons.  Some common emotions include guilt, loss of identity, isolation, anxiety, unworthiness, fear, intimidation and a lack of confidence.  It’s crucial to recognize and deal with these emotions before making big spending decisions that may hamper your long term financial security.  You also may feel pressure from friends and family.  Stand your ground and take the time needed to develop a well thought out plan.

You also want to carefully select a team of trusted advisors to help manage your windfall.  Most people will need a Certified Financial Planner, a Certified Public Accountant and an Estate Planning Attorney.  It’s essential to develop a financial plan, fully understand the tax implications of your windfall and put a new estate plan in place.

Initially your financial plan should include establishing an emergency fund equal to about one year of expenses, paying off your high interest debt, and making sure your new found wealth is adequately protected.  A significant windfall will probably necessitate the purchase of more liability insurance.  Additionally, you should address any health concerns that you or your immediate family may have been neglecting.  Also consider reducing your overhead by purchasing a home or paying off your mortgage.  This is also a good time to take care of any maintenance and repairs that you have been putting off.

Once your immediate concerns are addressed, think about the future.  If you were unable to cover your living expenses prior to the windfall, make a plan to cover your monthly cash flow needs.  Next develop a retirement plan to make sure your expenses in retirement are covered.  Consider saving for your children’s college and setting aside money for major necessary expenditures such as vehicles and appliances.   If you are in an unrewarding career, consider going back to school to transition into something more fulfilling.

Once you have addressed all of your current and future financial needs feel free to spend on some discretionary items.  You may want to help a friend or family member who is in need, make a charitable contribution, start a business, or plan some vacations.   At this point you can spend some money on having fun.  Unfortunately too many people start with fun and quickly spend through their entire fortune.

Selecting the Right Asset Allocation – Part 2

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Your asset allocation is the basic structure of your investment portfolio defining the target percentage you want to hold in different categories of assets.   Start creating your asset allocation by deciding how much you want to invest in the two major categories, stock mutual funds and interest earning assets.  Next break your allocation down into more specific categories including cash, CDs, bonds, large cap stock, mid-cap stock, small cap stock, international stock, emerging markets stock and real estate.  Setting an appropriate, well diversified asset allocation helps you balance risk and return within your portfolio.  Your asset allocation may change over time as your financial circumstances change.  However, avoid changing your allocation too frequently based on short term fluctuations in the market.

The appropriate allocation depends on several factors including your age and investment time horizon, your financial goals, other risk factors in your life, your experience with investing and your emotional risk tolerance.  Regardless of your investment goals, you need to maintain an emergency fund of readily available funds equal to at least four months of expenses.

Your financial goals are a major determinant in setting your allocation.  Identify your major financial goals and when money is needed to support these goals.  Design an asset allocation to meet these goals.  Money needed in the short term should be held in safer, interest earning investments. The stock market should only be used for long term needs – generally at least five to seven years out.

You may be able to assume more risk in your portfolio if the timetable for your goals is flexible.  The timeframe for money to cover things like college education or your emergency fund may be firm but there may be some flexibility on when you take a major vacation, remodel your home or plan to retire.   Money needed for retirement is generally spent over twenty or thirty years.  You won’t need your entire nest egg on the first day.

Your allocation is also dependent on risks taken in other areas of your life.  For example, if you work in a volatile career with unpredictable earnings, own a small business or own rental property, you may want to reduce the risk in your investment portfolio. On the other hand, if you have a secure job and anticipate a generous pension, you may be comfortable taking more risk.

Regardless of your situation you need to feel emotionally comfortable with your allocation. If you are constantly worried about market fluctuations you may need a more conservative allocation.   Historically the stock market has trended upward, but there will be years with negative returns.  Create an allocation that gives you adequate emotional security to ride out swings in the stock market and helps you avoid selling when the market is down. If you are new to investing, start out slowly and test the water to see how you will react in a volatile market.

Selecting the Right Asset Allocation

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

When investing money, one of the first decisions to be made is your asset allocation.  Asset allocation is the division of your assets into different types of investments such as stock mutual funds, bonds, real estate or cash.  In order to maximize the return on your portfolio it’s crucial to maintain a well-diversified asset allocation.  According to many financial experts, asset allocation may be your single most important investment decision, more important than the specific investments or funds that you select.

There is no one size fits all; the right asset allocation is based on your unique situation which may change as your circumstances or perspective changes.  Some major factors to consider include investment time horizon, the need for liquidity, risk tolerance, risks taken in other areas of your life and how much risk is required to achieve your goals.

Arriving at the appropriate asset allocation is largely a balance between risk and return.  If you want or need a higher return you will have to assume a higher level of risk.  If you have a long investment time horizon, you can take on more risk because you don’t need your money right away and you can ride out fluctuations in the market.  However, if you have a short time horizon you should minimize your risk so your money will be readily available.

If you want to minimize risk, invest in fixed income investments such as money market accounts, certificate of deposits, high quality bonds or short term bond funds.   If you are willing to take on more risk, with the expectation of getting higher returns, consider stock mutual funds.  Generally, avoid investing money needed in the next five years into the stock market.   However, the stock market is an excellent option for long term money.

Regardless of your situation, the best allocation is usually a combination of fixed income and stock mutual funds.  With a diversified portfolio you can take advantage of higher returns found in the stock market while buffering your risk and meeting short term needs with fixed income investments.

Once your target asset allocation is set, rebalance on annual basis to stay on target.   Rebalancing will automatically result in selling investments that are high and buying investments that are low.  Avoid changing your target allocation based on emotional reactions to short term market fluctuations.    Stick to your plan unless there are major changes in your circumstances.

If you are unsure where to start, a good rule of thumb is to subtract your age from 120 to arrive at the percentage you should invest in stock market.  In the past it was customary to subtract from 100 but this has increased as life expectancies and the time one spends in retirement have increased.   In the final analysis, select an asset allocation that meets your specific needs and gives you peace of mind.

Beneficiary Designations Trump Your Will

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

You really don’t want the state deciding how your money is distributed when you die, so be sure to specify how you would like your assets divided.  In Colorado this is most commonly accomplished through the use of a will or beneficiary designations, in more complicated situations a trust may also be used.

Virtually, any financial account can be divided using a beneficiary designation, but it is most commonly used with retirement accounts, life insurance policies and annuities.  Assets distributed through a beneficiary designation will pass to heirs outside of probate.  In addition to assets with a beneficiary designation, assets that are held in joint name or that are designated as “transfer upon death” (TOD) will also transfer outside of probate.

Beneficiary designations and TOD accounts supersede your will, so it is of upmost importance to keep your designations current.  This is especially important when there is a major change in your life such as a marriage, divorce, or death.  Beneficiary designations are legally binding and will be enforced regardless of any changes in your relationships.

You can also transfer your real estate using a beneficiary designation. According to Steve Ezell, a local Estate Planning Attorney, this type of transfer can be accomplished with a “Beneficiary Deed”.  A Beneficiary Deed does not go into effect until death so you will have full ownership of your home while alive and you home will transfer outside of probate.  In an effort to avoid probate, many people deed property to their children and themselves. However, this could create complications if you later decide to sell your home.  It could also affect your possible Medicaid eligibility. 

Probate is the process of legally distributing your assets upon death.  In Colorado, this is usually a relatively simple and inexpensive process.  According to the Colorado Bar Association, the Uniform Probate Code has dramatically simplified probate.   Currently, over 90% of Colorado estates are not court supervised allowing the personal representative to do most of the administration.

Most individuals need a will to control the disposition of everything in their probate estate, this excludes accounts in joint name, distributed by beneficiary or distributed by TOD.  If you want all of your financial assets distributed through your will, leave your beneficiary designations blank or list the estate as the beneficiary. 

When dividing your assets with beneficiary designations or a will, Steve Ezell suggests you consider the use of percentages rather than specific dollar values.  Over time, as you make changes to your various accounts, percentages can help you maintain the desired proportion of assets to be distributed to each heir.  Additionally, identify both primary and contingent beneficiaries, just in case your primary beneficiary dies before you. Should a primary beneficiary predecease you, you will need to specify if their share goes to the remaining beneficiaries or the deceased beneficiaries’ children.

Beneficiary designations and wills are both effective tools, if you utilize them and keep them current.

What to Do When You Lose Your Job

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Breathe – Losing a job seems like a huge catastrophe when it happens, but it could free you up to pursue new opportunities.  Most jobs are lost due to a reduction in workforce, over which you have no control.   Try to move through this transition with grace.  It’s not personal;  try to avoid becoming sad, angry or bitter.    This process is difficult for everyone involved, and the person letting you go may be in a position to hire you in the future.

Carefully Review Your Severance Package – Make sure you fully understand and agree with the terms of your severance package.  Don’t hesitate to consult an attorney if you are unclear or disagree with the terms of your separation agreement

File for Unemployment – If you were laid off due to no fault of your own, you may be eligible for unemployment benefits.   Unemployment may not be available while you are covered by a severance package.

Review Your Budget – Review your expenses and cut-back on unnecessary expenses.  Develop a new spending plan that will help you cover expenses until you find a new job.   Hopefully, the combination of your emergency fund, severance pay and unemployment will cover your necessities until you find a new job.  To make ends meet, you may need to consider short term assignments or part time work.

Arrange for Health Insurance – Review options available through Cobra as well as insurance on your own.  If you are married, look at health insurance options through your spouse’s employer.

What’s Next?    You have just received the gift of freedom, to make a career change.  Do you want to continue in your current career or do you want to pursue something new?   How much training, education, time and money will it take to pursue your dream career?

 Update Your Resume and Start Job Hunting  – Update your resume and start looking for a new job.  Take advantage of services that may be offered by the outplacement firm hired by your previous employer.  If you decide to return to school, you may need to pursue a part time job while you re-tool.

Build and Nurture Your Network – Most jobs are found through word of mouth.  It’s essential to do a lot of networking.  Let all of your contacts know that you are job hunting and what you are looking for.  Actively maintain accounts on Facebook, Linked In and Twitter to help you with your job search.  It’s also advisable to have personal business cards made so potential employers can reach you more easily.

Use Your Time Wisely – Treat looking for a job as a job.   After a week or so, you should keep your days structured.  Spend your time working toward getting a new job, getting your life organized and taking care of your health.  This is a very stressful time, be sure to eat well and get plenty of exercise.

What is Financial Planning?

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

I’m sure you hear the term “Financial Planning” on a regular basis but you may not be sure what it really means.  Financial planning is an on-going, comprehensive process to manage your finances in order to meet your life goals.  The process includes evaluating where you are today, setting goals, developing an action plan to meet your goals and implementing the plan.  Once you have addressed all the areas of your financial plan you should go back and review them on a regular basis.

Financial planning should be comprehensive – covering all areas of your financial life.  The primary areas of your financial plan should include retirement planning, insurance planning, tax planning, estate planning and investment management.    Depending on your situation, your financial plan may also address areas such as budgeting and debt management, college funding, employee benefits, business planning and career planning.  Comprehensive Financial Planning is very thorough and can take a lot of time and energy to complete.  I recommend breaking it into bite size chucks that can be easily evaluated, understood and implemented over the course of time.  

You can work through the financial planning process with a comprehensive financial planner or you can tackle it on your own.  If you decide to hire a financial planner, I encourage you to work with Certified Financial Planner who has taken an oath to work on a fiduciary basis.  An advisor, who works as a fiduciary, takes an oath to put your interests first.

The first step of the financial planning process is to evaluate where you are today.  Tabulate how much money you are currently spending in comparison to your current income.  Calculate your current net worth (assets less liabilities).  Evaluate the state of your current financial situation.  What is keeps you up at night and what should be prioritized for immediate attention?

The next step is to devise a road map on where you would like to go.   Think about your values and set some long term strategic goals.  Using this information develop some financial goals that you would like to achieve.  Once you have identified some financial goals, a plan can be devised to help you achieve them.

Select the area you would like to address first.  Most of my clients start with retirement planning and investment management.  There is a lot of overlap between the different areas of financial planning but try to work through them in small manageable chunks.  Otherwise you may end up with a huge, overwhelming plan that never gets implemented.

Once you have worked through all of the areas in your financial plan you need to go back and revisit them on a regular basis.  Some areas like investments, taxes and retirement planning need to be reviewed annually where other areas like insurance and estate planning can be reviewed less frequently.  Keep in mind that financial planning is an on-going, life long process.

Don’t Let Financial Scare Tactics Steer You Off Course

 

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

It’s a formidable task to sort through the barrage of financial information from all the various media sources.  It can be difficult to separate fact from fiction.  Information is often slanted when a reporter or writer has a subtle personal or political bias.  Even heavily biased information can appear objective if the messenger has a strong belief that their story is factual.   While it’s always necessary to filter information for personal bias, financial messages designed to intentionally mislead can be especially harmful.  We are constantly bombarded by advertisements and headlines that deliberately twist the facts to scare us and encourage us to buy products or services.

All of this may sound obvious; we should be smart enough to recognize when someone is trying to sell us something or trying to pull something over on us.  However, we have to be diligent to differentiate between legitimate news and sensationalism.  Producers and editors of financial magazines, television shows, and newsletters use exciting headlines to increase circulation and keep people tuned in.   It is common for the media to exaggerate negative information to generate an emotional reaction.  As an investor, you need to keep dramatic headlines in perspective and avoid changing course based on media hype.

A more sinister scare tactic is the threat of impending doom used by some unscrupulous people to sell products such as gold, variable annuities, and financial newsletters. Recently several gold dealers have been running compelling marketing campaigns to convince you that the financial world is on the brink of disaster.  They use well known actors with an authoritative flare to scare you into believing your only salvation is gold. Depending on your situation, it may be logical for you to have some amount of gold in your portfolio.  However, you don’t need to convert your entire portfolio to gold just because a few gold dealers imply they have exclusive access to top secret information predicting imminent financial demise.

You should also be on the alert for unethical firms who use scare tactics to sell variable annuities and financial newsletters.  Some unscrupulous salespeople try to scare people into making inappropriate purchases in variable annuities by preying on their need for security.  A variable annuity may be a good option, but don’t be tricked into buying something you don’t want or need due to exaggerated threats about a pending financial disaster.  Additionally, I have recently observed a newsletter editor greatly exaggerate the impact of recent legislation to encourage people to buy his newsletter.

Appealing to our sense of fear is an age old sales gimmick.  Be on your guard, marketing campaigns have become very sophisticated.  Before making any changes, fully understand what you are buying and make sure it fits into your overall financial plan.  Avoid emotional reactions to media hype and salespeople claiming to predict the future in order to sell their products.

Tax Implications of Gifting to Children

 

 

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Many of you have worked hard and have saved all your life to achieve financial security and a comfortable nest egg.  However, due to current economic conditions your children may be struggling to pay their bills, buy their first home, or start saving for retirement.  You may want to help them right now, when they really need it, but you aren’t sure about the tax consequences.  There is good news! Over the last few years, the tax consequences to gifting have become much less onerous.  

Taxation on gifts is regulated as part of a combined gift and estate tax.  In 2014 everyone has a lifetime combined estate and gift tax exemption of $5.34 million.  If you are married, you have a combined exemption of $10.68 million dollars.  

Additionally, you can annually gift up to $14,000 to any number of recipients without chipping away at your lifetime exclusion of $5.34 million.  Generally, gifts to your spouse or a qualified charity are not subject to gift and estate tax.  If you exceed the annual gift limit of $14,000 to a single individual, you are required to file a gift tax return (Form 709) to report your gift.  However, you will not owe any taxes until you exceed your lifetime exclusion of $5.34 million.  Once the combined exclusion of $5.34 is exceeded, tax is imposed on the person gifting or transferring the assets, not the recipient.

You may want to make gifts to various friends or family members to help them through a rough patch or you may want to reduce your net worth to avoid or minimize estate tax.  By gifting up to $14,000 per year to several different individuals, you can reduce the amount of money that may ultimately be subject to estate tax.  For example, if you are married and have married children with a total of five children, both you and your spouse can each give $14,000 to each child, $14,000 to their spouses and $14,000 to each one of your grandchildren – every year.   This comes to a total of $252,000 in gifts per year that can be legally removed from you estate and avoid estate taxation.

According John Buckley, a nationally recognized Estate and Business Planning Attorney, gifts that are used for most education and medical expenses are not subject to the $14,000 annual gift tax limit.  Direct payment must be made to the educational institution or medical provider and not to the recipient. This is a huge benefit since many gifts are given to cover education expenses. 

Gifting can be a great way to minimize estate tax if you have a large net worth.  However, most of us save just enough to cover our retirement needs.  The desire to help family and friends is very natural, but avoid the temptation to gift money, especially to children, at the expense of your own financial security and retirement.

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.

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.

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?

How to Pick an IRA That’s Right for You (via Credit.com)

One of the most common questions I hear from clients is whether they should invest in a traditional IRA or a Roth IRA. Let’s start with an understanding of the difference between the two. The biggest difference between a traditional IRA and a Roth IRA is when you pay taxes. I like to think of it…


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The Widow’s Guide to Social Security Benefits

The Widow’s Guide to Social Security Benefits (via Credit.com)

As a Certified Financial Planner™, I work with a lot of widows trying to navigate the tricky world of Social Security benefits after their spouse passes away. Social Security provides you, as a widow, with a choice between your own Social Security benefit based on your work history, and a survivor…

Understanding Mutual Fund Fees

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Jane M. Young, CFP, EA

When investing in mutual funds it is important to be aware of the associated fees.  High fees can significantly impact your total investment return.   All mutual funds have operating expenses and some have sales fees, commonly known as a load. When you invest in mutual funds you have a choice between load and no-load funds.   A mutual fund load is basically a commission charged to the investor to compensate the broker or sales person.   As the name implies, no-load funds do not charge a sales fee.

The first type of load fund is an A share fund, where you pay a front end sales charge plus a small annual 12b-1 fee.   A 12b-1 fee is a distribution fee that covers marketing, advertising and distribution costs.  The typical front-end load is around 5%, but can go as high as 8.5%.  Class A shares offer breakpoints that provide you with a discount on the sales load when you purchase larger quantities or commit to making regular purchases.  The 12b-1 fee associated with most A shares is generally about .25% annually.

The second type of load fund is a B share, where you pay an annual fee of around 1% plus a contingent deferred sales charge (CDSC), if you sell before a specified date. The CDSC usually begins with a fee of 5% that gradually decreases over five years.  After five years or so the fund converts to an A share fund.  The actual percentages and timeframes may vary between fund families.  Most mutual fund companies have stopped offering B share funds because they are usually the most expensive option for the investor and the least profitable option for the mutual fund company.

The third type of load fund is a C share that charges a level annual load, usually around 1%.  This is on-going fee that is deducted from the mutual fund assets on an annual basis.

Generally, any given mutual fund can offer more than one share class to investors.  There is no difference in the underlying fund.  The only difference is in the fees and expenses that the investor pays.

All load and no-load mutual funds charge fees associated with the operation of the fund.  The most significant of these expenses is usually the management fee which pays for the actual management of the portfolio.  Other operations related fees may include administrative expenses, transaction fees, custody expenses, legal expenses, transfer agent fees, and 12b-1 fees.

These annual fees are combined and calculated as a percentage of fund assets to arrive at the fund’s expense ratio.  The expense ratio is an annualized fee charged to all shareholders.  The expense ratio includes the fund’s operating expenses, management fees, on-going asset based loads(C shares) and 12b-1 fees.  The expense ratio does not include front-end loads and CDSCs.   According to Morningstar the average mutual fund expense ratio is .75%.

 

 

Selling Home May be Better Option Than Renting

 

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Jane M. Young CFP, EA

 

It’s time to move but you hate to sell your house when the market is down.  Maybe you should rent your house for a few years? Or, on second thought, maybe not.

There are many factors to consider before deciding to rent your home.  Do you have the temperament and the time to be a landlord?  Are you comfortable with the idea of having someone else living in your home?  Do you want to manage the rental yourself or do you plan to hire a property manager?  If you manage the property yourself do you have time to learn about fair housing laws, code requirements, lease agreements, escrow requirements and eviction procedures?  Who will take care of repairs and maintenance and are you ready for tenant calls in the middle of the night?  If this sounds a bit daunting, a property manager may be your best option.  A property manager will cost you about 10% of the rent.  Be sure to include this in your cash flow analysis.

Before renting your home do a realistic cash flow analysis.   Add up your projected expenses and deduct them from your projected rental income to see if renting will result in a profit or a loss.  If you project a loss, does your projected appreciation on the home while it’s rented compensate you for the time and money it will cost you? Do you have funds to cover a negative cash flow?  Your expenses may include your mortgage payment, property taxes, insurance, home owner’s association dues, maintenance and repairs, legal and accounting fees and property management fees.  A rule of thumb for maintenance and repairs is about 1 – 2% of the market value of your home, depending on the home’s condition.   You may need to spend money up front to attract good quality tenants.

When calculating your rental income, you need to decrease your projected rental income by about 8% to allow for vacancies.  In Colorado the average rental vacancy rate has been around 7-9 percent over the last five years, based on U.S. Census data.  When a renter moves or is evicted it can take several months to get a new renter in place.

If you rent you can take a tax deduction for depreciation against your rental income.  To calculate your annual depreciation, take the value of your home, on the date you begin renting, less the value of land and divide it by 27.5.  Unfortunately, this is just a temporary gift from the IRS.  When your home is sold you must recapture all of the depreciation at 25%.

Other potential drawbacks to renting your home include the possibility of major damage inflicted by a tenant, drawn out eviction processes, negligence or safety lawsuits and costly maintenance issues.

An additional consideration, if you have a capital gain on your home, is the loss of the capital gain exemption of $250,000 for individuals and $500,000 for a couple if you haven’t lived in your home for 2 or the last 5 years.

Stock Can Be a Good Option in Retirement

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jane M. Young

As we approach retirement, there is a common misconception that we need to abruptly transition our portfolios completely out of the stock market to be fully invested in fixed income investments.   One reason to avoid a sudden shift to fixed income is that retirement is fluid; it is not a permanent decision. Most people will and should gradually transition into retirement.  Traditional retirement is becoming less common because life expectancies are increasing and fewer people are receiving pensions. Most people will go in and out of retirement several times.  After many years we may leave a traditional career field for some well-deserved rest and relaxation.  However, after a few years of leisure we may miss the sense of purpose, accomplishment, and identity gained from working.  As a result, we may return to work in a new career field, do some consulting in an area where we had past experience or work part-time in a coffee shop.

Another problem with a drastic shift to fixed income is that we don’t need our entire retirement nest egg on the day we reach retirement.   The typical retirement age is around 65, based on current Social Security data, the average retiree will live for another twenty years. A small portion of our portfolio may be needed upon reaching retirement but a large percentage won’t be needed for many years.   It is important to keep long term money in a diversified portfolio, including stock mutual funds, to provide growth and inflation protection.   A reasonable rate of growth in our portfolio is usually needed to meet our goals. Inflation can take a huge bite out of the purchasing power of our portfolios over twenty years or more.   Historically, fixed income investments have just barely kept up with inflation while stock market investments have provided a nice hedge against inflation.

We need to think in terms of segregating our portfolios into imaginary buckets based on the timeframes in which money will be needed.  Money that is needed in the next few years should be safe and readily available.  Money that isn’t needed for many years can stay in a diversified portfolio based on personal risk tolerance.  Portfolios should be rebalanced on an annual basis to be sure there is easy access to money needed in the short term.

A final myth with regard to investing in retirement is that money needed to cover your retirement expenses must come from interest earning investments.  Sure, money needed in the short term needs to be kept in safe, fixed income investments to avoid selling stock when the market is down.  However, this doesn’t mean that we have to cover all of our retirement income needs with interest earning investments.  There may be several good reasons to cover retirement expenses by selling stock.   When the stock market is up it may be wise to harvest some gains or do some rebalancing.  At other times there may be tax benefits to selling stock.

 

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