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.

Volatile Market Good Time for Retirement Savings

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

This is a great time to maximize your retirement contributions.  Not only will you save money on taxes but you can buy stock mutual funds on sale.  The one year return on the S&P 500 is down about 8% and market volatility is likely to continue throughout the year.

Dollar cost averaging is a great way to invest during a volatile market and it is well suited for contributing to your retirement plans.  With dollar cost averaging you invest a set amount every month or quarter up to your annual contribution limit.  When the stock market is low you buy more shares and when the market is high you buy fewer shares.  You can take advantage of dips in the market and avoid buying too much at, inopportune times when the market is high.

Ideally, the goal is to maximize contributions to your tax advantaged retirement plans however, this isn’t always possible.  Prioritize by contributing to your employer’s 401k plan up to the match, if your employer matches your contributions.   Your next priority is usually to maximize contributions to your Roth and then resume contributions to your 401k, 403b, 457 or self-employment plan.   Contributions to traditional employer plans are made with before tax dollars and taxable at regular income tax rates when withdrawn.  Roth contributions are made with after tax dollars and are tax free when withdrawn in retirement.   Some employers have begun to offer a Roth option with their 401k or 403b plans.

For 2015 and 2016 the maximum you can contribute to an IRA is $5,500 plus a catch-up provision of $1,000, if you were 50 or older by the last day of the year.  You have until the due date of your return, not including extensions, to make a contribution – which is April 18 for 2015. There are income limits on who can contribute to a Roth IRA.  In 2015, eligibility to contribute to a Roth IRA phases out at a Modified Adjusted Income (MAGI) of $116,000 to $131,000 for single filers and $183,000 to $193,000 for joint filers.  In 2016 the phase out is $117,000 to $132,000 for single filers and $184,000 to $194,000 for joint filers.

Your 401k contribution limits for both 2015 and 2016 are $18,000 plus a catch-up provision of $6,000, if you were 50 or over by the end of the year.  If you are employed by a non-profit organization, contact your benefits office for contribution limits on your plan.

If you are self-employed maximize your Simple (Savings Investment Match Plan for Employees) or SEP (Simplified Employee Pension Plan) and if you don’t already have a plan consider starting one to help defer taxes until retirement.

Regardless of your situation take advantage of retirement plans to defer or reduce income taxes on your retirement savings.  Current market volatility may provide some good opportunities to help boost your retirement nest egg.

Give the Gift of Financial Wisdom this Christmas

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

This year, the best Christmas gift for your adult children may be the gift of financial wisdom. Unfortunately, most young adults successfully graduate from school without a practical understanding of personal finance.  Starting out with a solid foundation and some smart financial habits can help your children live a happier, more fulfilling life.

Upon graduation from school, young adults are starting with a blank slate.  They are probably accustomed to a frugal lifestyle that is more about friends and experiences than expensive cars and fancy restaurants.  Before they take on a host of new financial commitments, encourage them to establish a lifetime habit of living below their means and saving for the future.  Work with them to develop a budget, establish an emergency fund and save for the future.  Help them to avoid the common tendency to increase their expenses in lock step with their income.  They can experience more freedom and opportunity by living below their means and gradually increasing their standard of living.

Another concept that is not taught in school, is the difference between good and bad debt.  Help your children understand the danger of high interest rate credit cards and consumer debt.  Encourage them to limit the number of credit cards they use and to get in the habit of paying credit card balances in full every month.  Also explain the importance of establishing a good credit rating by paying their bills on time.  Help them understand that low interest, tax deductible mortgage debt can be useful where high interest credit card debt can be very detrimental to their financial security.

It’s also important for them to understand some basic investment concepts including the power of compounding.  For example, if they invest $100 per month for 30 years for a total investment of $36,000, in 30 years with a return of 6%, their money can grow to over $100,000 due to compounding.   They have the benefit of time! By investing early, they have tremendous opportunity to grow their money into a sizable nest egg by retirement.

Understanding the importance of diversification and the relationship between risk and return is also essential.  Encourage your kids to avoid putting all of their eggs in one basket and help them understand that getting a higher return requires taking more risk.  It’s best to invest in a variety of investment options with different levels of risk and return.  Caution them that anything that sounds too good to be true probably is.  There is no free lunch!

To augment the personal wisdom that you can share, consider buying your kids a book on personal finance for Christmas.  Some books to consider include The Richest Man in Babylon by George S. Clason, Coin by Judy McNary, The Young Couples Guide to Growing Rich Together by Jill Gianola and the Wealthy Barber by David Chilton.

Car Buying Tips

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Aside from a home, purchasing a vehicle will probably be your single largest expenditure, so it merits some serious consideration and in-depth research.  The decision on what to buy should include budget, practicality, safety, reliability and cost of ownership.  A vehicle is a very expensive depreciating asset. Unless you have a large disposable income it’s advisable to buy a practical car.  If your heart is set on a more extravagant sports car or luxury car consider buying an older model, used vehicle.   Cars have become a status symbol but there are plenty of less expensive ways to express your style and status – many of which are better long term investments.

Ideally, save your money to purchase a used car that is about 2 to 3 years old with cash.  The car will be greatly depreciated and you get a relatively new car for much less than a brand new car. If paying cash is unrealistic, work with your bank or credit union to get pre-approved for a loan.  This can give you a good idea of what you can afford.  As a general rule, your household budget on vehicle expenses should not exceed 20% of your take home pay.  This includes car payments, gas, insurance and maintenance.

Decide how much you want to spend and make a list of your must have features.  Conduct some on-line research to narrow down the range of possibilities.   The following websites can provide price quotes and information on the cars you are interested in – Edmunds.com, Truecar.com, KBB.com (Kelly Blue Book) and NADA.com.  Once you have settled on a couple of options do some further research to find the invoice price.  Generally the dealers actual cost is the invoice price, less about 3% to 5% for factory hold backs.

Now you’re ready to negotiate the purchase of your new car.   Get quotes from several dealers and make it clear that you want to focus on the total cost to buy the vehicle, with cash.  Don’t let them side track the conversation with discussions about monthly payments, trade-in deals and financing options where it is harder to decipher the true cost of the vehicle.  If purchasing a new car, inform the salesperson that you have done your homework and you have a good idea of what the dealer paid for the car.  They will try to focus on the MSRP (Manufacturers Suggested Retail Price).   Let them know you have quotes from other dealers and you are ready to buy a car for their cost (not the MSRP) plus a reasonable profit.

When buying a used car, you can get reasonable purchase prices on Edmunds.com and KBB.com.  You can probably get a better deal through a private seller than with a dealer.  Before signing the papers, get a vehicle history report form Carfax.com or Autocheck.com and have the car inspected by a good mechanic.

Avoiding the Stock Market Can be a Risky

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

You may be hesitant to invest in the stock market because it feels too risky.  However, consider the risk you are taking with your financial future by avoiding the stock market.  The primary reason to invest in the stock market is the potential for a much higher return, especially in low interest rate environments.  Most of us need the potential for long term growth provided by the stock market to meet our retirement needs.  If you invest all of your money in fixed income you may struggle just to keep up with inflation and you run the risk of outliving your money.

Historically, stock market returns have been almost double those earned by bonds.  According to the Ibbotson SBBI (stock, bonds, bills and inflation) report, between 1926 and 2014 the average annual return on Small Stock was 12.3%, Large Stock was 10.1%, Government Bonds was 5.5%, Treasury Bills was 3.5% and Inflation was 3%.  This illustrates that investing at least some of your portfolio in stock can provide a much greater opportunity than fixed income to meet your financial goals.

Investing in the stock market is not without risk.  As with all investments, we must take on greater risk to earn a greater return.  However, there are many ways to help manage the volatility of the stock market.  Before investing in stocks make sure your financial affairs are in order.  Pay off your credit cards, establish an emergency fund and put money that will be needed over the next five years into less volatile fixed income investments.  The stock market is for long term investing.  It can provide the opportunity to earn higher long term returns but you can count on some volatility along the way.  By creating a buffer to cover short term needs you will be less likely overreact to fluctuations in the market and sell when the market is down.

You can also buffer stock market risk by creating a well-diversified portfolio comprised of mutual funds invested in stocks or bonds from a variety of different size companies, different industries and a variety of different geographies.  Investing in a single company can be very risky but investment in mutual funds can reduce this risk.  When investing in mutual funds your money is combined with that of other investors and invested, by a professional manager, into a large number of stocks or bonds.  Investing in a large number of companies enables you to spread out your risk.

Dollar cost averaging, where you automatically invest a set amount on a regular basis – usually monthly or quarterly, can also reduce risk.  Rather than investing a large amount all at once, when the market may be high, you gradually invest over time.  With dollar cost averaging you buy more shares when the market is low and fewer shares when the market is high.

Stock Market Investing Requires a Long Term Perspective

 

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

The recent volatility in the market has prompted some investors to question the future direction of the stock market.  Unfortunately, the stock market is impacted by so many factors that it is impossible to predict short term movements.  Over the long term, the stock market has always trended upwards but the path has been anything but smooth.   We could be on the tipping point before a major correction or at the beginning of a long bull market – we just don’t know. 

As a result of this uncertainty, it is impossible to effectively time the market.  Not only do you need to accurately predict when to sell but you also need to know when to re-enter the market.  Even if you select the right time to sell, there is a good chance you will be out of the market when it makes its next big move.  

To compound this issue, decisions to buy and sell are frequently driven by short term emotional reactions.   The fear of losing money can trigger us to make a sudden decision to sell, or the fear of missing an opportunity can cause a knee jerk reaction to buy.  We need to resist these very normal emotional reactions and maintain a long term focus.  The stock market should only be used for long term investing.  If you don’t need your money for at least five to ten years you are more likely to stay invested and ride out fluctuations in the market. 

If you lose your long term perspective, and react to short term emotional reactions, you can get caught up in a very detrimental cycle of buying high and selling low.  An example of a common cycle of market emotions begins when the market drops and you start getting nervous.   Over time you become increasingly fearful of losing money and end up selling your stock investments after the market has dropped considerably.   Then you sit on the sidelines for a while, waiting for the market to stabilize.  The market starts to rebound and you decide to jump back in after that market has gone back up.  Afraid of missing a great opportunity, you buy at the market peak.   This is a self-perpetuating cycle that can be very harmful to your long term investment returns.

To avoid the temptation to time the market and react to emotional triggers, keep a long term perspective.   Focus on what you can control.  Maintain a well-diversified portfolio that is in line with your long term goals and your investment risk tolerance.  Live within your means and maintain an emergency fund of at least four months of expenses.  Invest money that you will need in the short term into safer interest earning investments.   By limiting your stock market investments to long term money, you will be more likely to stay the course and meet your investment goals.

More to Rental Property Than Meets the Eye

 

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

With low interest rates and the fear of another drop in the stock market, many people are looking for alternative ways to earn investment income.  Many investors find the tangible nature of real estate appealing.  Although real estate may seem like the logical alternative to stocks and bonds, investment in real estate can be very complex, time consuming, and wrought with risk. 

Before buying, perform a realistic cash flow analysis on the income and expenses associated with the property you are considering.  Begin with start-up expenses associated with acquiring the property, including the down payment and any necessary improvements. Next tabulate the routine expenses that you will incur with a rental.  These may include mortgage payments, insurance, property taxes, home owner’s association dues, routine maintenance, and legal and accounting fees.  As a rule of thumb, maintenance and repairs run about 1-2% of the market value of your home, depending on the home’s condition.  Also consider an emergency fund to cover large unexpected repairs. 

Managing rental real estate can be very time consuming.  Seriously think about whether you want to manage the rental yourself or you want to hire a property manager.  Do you have the time and the desire to manage the property? If you do it yourself, you will need to market the property, evaluate potential renters, maintain the property, respond to tenant issues, collect rent payments and potentially evict tenants.   You also may want to learn about fair housing laws, code requirements, lease agreements, escrow requirements, and eviction procedures.  If you don’t have the time or the temperament to manage the property, consider hiring a property manager.  Property management fees usually run about 10-12% of rental income.

Some additional risks to consider when renting property include the possibility of major damage inflicted by a tenant, drawn out eviction processes, and law suits for negligence and safety issues.

After evaluating your expenses, do some income projections.  Research rents paid for similar properties in your target neighborhood.   Be sure to incorporate a reasonable vacancy rate.  According to the Colorado Division of Housing, the average vacancy rate in Colorado Springs has been about 6%, for the last 4 quarters.

Include the tax benefit of deducting depreciation into your analysis.  To calculate annual depreciation, divide the initial value of your rental home, not including land, by 27.5.  Unfortunately, you will probably have to recapture (repay to the IRS) this deduction upon sale of the property at a maximum rate of 25%.

Subtract your projected expenses from your projected income to determine your net profit.  Will the net profit you expect to gain from the property compensate you for your capital, time and risk?  In addition to the profit from rental income, be sure to factor appreciation of your property into your analysis.  Additionally, if you have a mortgage, your equity will increase every year as you pay off your mortgage.

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.

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.

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%.

 

 

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.

 

Mutual Funds May be Your Best Option

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jane M. Young

Generally the typical investor is better off investing in stock mutual funds than in individual stocks. A mutual fund is an investment vehicle where money from a large number of investors is pooled together and invested by a professional manager or management team.  Mutual fund managers invest this pool of money in accordance with a predefined set of goals and guidelines.

One of the primary benefits of investing in stock mutual funds is the ability to diversify across a large number of different stocks.  With mutual funds, you don’t need a fortune to invest in a broad spectrum of stocks issued by large and small companies from a variety of different industries and geographies.  Diversification with mutual funds reduces risk by providing a buffer against extreme swings in the prices of individual stocks.   You are less likely to lose a lot of money if an individual stock plummets. Unfortunately, you are also less likely to experience a huge gain if an individual stock skyrockets.

Another benefit of stock mutual funds over individual stocks is that less time and knowledge is required to create and monitor a portfolio.  Most individual investors do not have the time, expertise, or resources to select and monitor individual stocks.  Mutual funds hire hundreds of analysts to research and monitor companies, industries and market trends.   It is very difficult for an individual to achieve this level of knowledge and understanding across a broad spectrum of companies.  Mutual fund managers have the resources to easily move in and out of companies and industries as investment factors change.

Most individual investors appreciate the convenience of selecting and monitoring a diversified portfolio of mutual funds over the arduous task of selecting a large number of individual stocks.   Stock mutual funds are a good option for your serious money.  However, if you really want to play the market and invest in individual stocks, use money that you can afford to lose.

For diehard stock investors, there are some advantages to investing in individual stocks.  Many stock mutual funds charge an annual management fee of between .50% and 1% (.25% for index funds).  With individual stocks, there is a cost to buy and sell the stock but there is no annual management fee associated with holding stock.

Another advantage of individual stocks is greater control over when capital gains are recognized within a non- retirement account.  When you own an individual stock, capital gains are not recognized until the stock is sold.   In a high income year, you can delay selling your stock, and recognizing the gain, to a year when it would be more tax efficient.   On the other hand, when you invest in a stock mutual fund you have no control over capital gains on stock sold within the fund.  Capital gains must be paid on sales within the mutual fund, before you actually sell the fund.  Mutual funds are not taxable entities, therefore all gains flow through to the end investor.

Are Your Bonds Safe?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jane M. Young

Let’s compare some differences between stocks and bonds.  When you buy a bond you are essentially lending money to a corporation or government entity for a set period of time in exchange for a specified rate of interest.  When you invest in the stock market you assume an ownership position in the company whose stock you are purchasing.  As a result, the value of your investment will fluctuate based on the profit or loss of the underlying company.  With the purchase of a bond the value of your investment hould not fluctuate based on the financial performance of the issuer, assuming it remains solvent.  You will continue to receive interest payments according to the original terms of the agreement until the bond matures.  Upon maturity the amount of your original investment (principal) will be returned to you along with any interest that is due.   As a general rule, stocks are inherently more risky than bonds, therefore investors expect to receive a higher return.

Bonds may appear to be safe but they are not without risk. Currently, there is some risk associated with low interest rates that may not keep up with inflation.  This is especially true with many government bonds. Two additional risks typically associated with bonds include default risk and interest rate risk.

Default risk is the risk that the issuer goes bankrupt and is unable to return your principal.  Most bond issuers are assigned a rating to help investors assess the potential default risk of a bond.   Generally, investors are compensated with higher interest rates when taking a risk on lower rated bonds and receive lower interest rates on higher rated bonds.

Interest rate risk is based on the inverse relationship between interest rates and the value of a bond.  When interest rates increase the value of a bond will decrease and when interest rates decrease the value of a bond will increase. If you hold an individual bond until maturity your entire principal should be returned to you.  You have the control to keep the bond until maturity and avoid a loss.  However, if you need to sell before maturity you may lose some principal. The loss of principal is greater for longer term bonds.  This needs to be weighed against the benefit of a higher interest rate paid on longer term bonds.

Bond mutual funds can provide diversification and reduced default risk because your money is pooled with hundreds of other investors and invested in bonds from a large number of different entities.  If one or two entities within the mutual fund go bankrupt there will be minimal impact on each individual investor.  However, with mutual funds you have less control over interest rate risk.  When interest rates increase, bond fund managers often experience a high rate of withdrawals forcing them to sell bonds at an inopportune time.  This usually results in a loss of principal, the severity of which is greater for longer term bond funds.

Stay The Course! Ten Steps to Help You Through Uncertain Financial Times

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Jane M. Young, CFP, EA

1. Don’t react emotionally! This will result in a constant cycle of buying high and selling low. Once you sell, you lock in your losses. Stay the course and focus on what you can control.

2. Make sure you have an emergency fund of three to six months of expenses.

3. Evaluate your asset allocation to be sure it is consistent with the timeframe in which you need to withdraw money. The stock market is a long term investment; you should never have short term money in the stock market. Make adjustments to your allocation based on your long term goals and need for liquidity not on fear.

4. Maintain a well diversified portfolio.

5. Pay-off credit cards and high interest consumer debt. Be wary of variable rate loans, lines of credit and mortgages. The downgrade in the U.S. credit rating could hasten an increase in interest rates.

6. Get your personal finances in order. It’s always a good idea to understand your spending and keep expenses in line with your income and financial goals. This is a good time to tighten your belt to be prepared for unexpected emergencies.

7. Use dollar cost averaging to invest new money into the stock market. Volatility in the stock market creates great buying opportunities.

8. Don’t get caught up in the media hype. They are in the business to sell newspapers, magazines and television commercials. Avoid the new hot asset class they are trying to promote this week. Sound investment advice is boring and doesn’t sell newspapers.

9. Take steps to secure or improve your income stream. Are you performing up to speed at work? Are you getting along with co-workers? Should you take some classes to keep your skills current? Are you underemployed or under paid for your education and experience? Consider a second job to pay down excess debt.

10. Stay calm, be patient and focus on making sure your financial plan meets your long term goals and objectives. Stay the course, this too shall pass.

O’Connor: Investors urged not to panic as U.S. default looms

Last Updated: July 27. 2011 1:00AM

Brian J. O’Connor

O’Connor: Investors urged not to panic as U.S. default looms

Many doubt leaders, in the end, will fail to act, trigger default

With the deadline to raise the federal debt ceiling drawing closer by the day — and the risk that the U.S. could default on its sovereign debt growing — individual financial planners are fielding lots of calls from worried investors.

A failure to raise the debt ceiling that prompts a U.S. default would cause stock and bond prices to plummet, interest rates to rise, credit for mortgages, cars and other debt to pucker up, and knock the wobbly economic recovery flat on its face. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke himself has warned that letting the federal government run out of money would be “catastrophic.”

Nonetheless, advisers say individual investors should stick to their investment strategies for three good reasons:

First, most planners doubt that even the kinds of people who get elected to Congress these days will really allow the U.S. to default on its debt.

Second, in the case of a cataclysmic financial disaster, the traditional safe havens, such as U.S. Treasuries and even greenbacks, would take a hit.

And third, most individual investors just bungle it when they try to time when to enter and exit the stock market. “You’ve got to know when to sell but when to buy back in, too,” says Lyle Wolberg, a certified financial planner with Telemus Capital Partners in Southfield. “So you’ve got to be right twice. And that’s hard to do.”

Financial experts all agree that a U.S. debt default would be a serious, serious issue. But would it be as big as the worst global crash since the Great Depression? After all, the Dow Jones index has recovered nearly 90 percent of its record high from late 2007, at the peak of the real estate bubble. So unless you’re sure a possible U.S. default would create another great recession, it may not be worth the cost and worry to start rearranging your investments.

And even if it is, a well-structured investment portfolio already is positioned to ride out those kinds of losses.

“The diversification we’ve had in place is to address all these issues, so there really are no moves to make,” says Bill Mack, a certified financial planner who runs William Mack & Associates in Troy. “If you’re in inappropriate investments now, especially if you’re too heavy into equities, I’d be concerned. But this is a short-term event and your portfolio should be geared toward long-term objectives.”

With bonds, stocks and even U.S. Treasuries taking a hit in a default, investors really don’t have many places to run. Some analysts have suggested Swiss francs, an investment that’s well beyond the means and expertise of most folks trying to protect a 401(k) or Individual Retirement Account. Other strategies — from the popular but very risky choice of gold, to moving from long-term to short-term bonds or switching to high-dividend-yielding blue-chip stocks — are common suggestions.

But those strategies have been in place for more than year now, as investors anticipated rising interest rates, more inflation or looked for safe income to replace low-yield Treasuries.

“There isn’t a whole lot you can do that hasn’t been covered by the markets,” says Karen Norman, a certified financial planner with Norman Financial Planning in Troy. “Positioning yourself other than running for cash is tremendously difficult.”

Even cash would lose some value as the dollar would decline after a default, making it more expensive to buy imported goods, including gasoline. The advantage would be that a switch to cash now would leave an investor positioned to go bargain-hunting when stocks slide after a default. But individual investors who make regular contributions to a 401(k) or IRA already buy more shares with every deduction from their paychecks or automated payment from the checking accounts, so they’re already positioned to buy low once stocks hit the skids, just as they’ve done throughout the entire downturn.

The reason to go to cash now, says Nina Preston, a certified financial planner with the Society for Lifetime Planning in Troy, is if you need a stable stash to cover your short-term income requirements, such as retirees who are counseled to hold three to five years worth of needed income in cash or equivalents. But if you need to do that, you’re already holding too much stock.

“If you need to flee to cash,” Preston says, “you should have been in cash to start with.”

The final drawback to moving your money around — even to cash — is that you’ll probably do the wrong thing, warns Mack.

“If people are adamant about going to cash, if they feel it in their bones that the world is coming to an end, at what point do they say, ‘It’s time to get back in?'” he asks. “Don’t tell me its when you feel better because that’s too late. It just doesn’t work to follow your gut feelings.”

The bottom line is that investors need a strategy that lets them ride out short-term economic woes, even if they’re self-inflicted by our own leaders.

“We’ve looked ahead and positioned ourselves the best way we can,” Norman says. “Now we need these folks in Washington to do their duty. That’s what we’re paying them to do.”

Which means that your best investment option is a very easy one — picking up the phone and placing a call to your congressman or congresswoman.

boconnor@detnews.com

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Solve the Deficit Problem by Cutting Government Spending – You Don’t Stop the Spending by Refusing to Increase the Debt Ceiling

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Jane M. Young, CFP, EA

A few clients and friends have asked me if they should be making changes to their investment allocations based on the uncertainty around raising the debt ceiling. While we don’t want to bury our heads in the sand we should not over react to something that probably won’t come to pass. In my opinion the political stakes are way too high for all parties concerned to allow the U.S. to default on its obligations. At the moment everyone is playing chicken but at the end of the day, neither party can afford the political fallout that would result in a failure to raise the debt ceiling. This does present a great opportunity for the media to get attention with sensationalistic, doomsday headlines to help them sell newspapers or television spots. This is also a great opportunity for political posturing on the part of both Democrats and Republicans. It is my projection that on August 2nd we will still have a huge deficit problem and a higher debt ceiling.

The debt ceiling is an indication of a much bigger problem with federal government spending. The problem is not solved by changing the debt ceiling; the problem was created when congress approved spending resulting in the need to raise the debt ceiling. Failure to raise the debt ceiling is like trying to close the barn door after the horse has gotten out. Refusing to raise the debt ceiling is a meaningless gesture, with regard to our deficit. However, it carries a catastrophic impact on the perceived safety of U.S. debt which would ripple down through all aspects of our financial lives. This is clearly not an acceptable course of action. The real issue is getting a handle on government spending and the deficit which will require major reforms to Social Security and Medicare. Our economy and prosperity are being held back by a looming black cloud caused by fear and uncertainty with regard government spending and the federal deficit.

What You Should Be Doing Now!

Jane M. Young CFP, EA

1. Start by re-evaluating your monthly expenses to determine how much money you need for necessary expenses. Then determine how much you have remaining after you cover these expenses.

2. During difficult economic times, like the present, most people should maintain an emergency fund of at least 6 months of expenses. If you have an exceptionally secure job you may be able to drop it down to 3 months. Always be sure to sure to maintain an adequate emergency fund.

3. Once your emergency fund is established pay off any high interest credit cards.

4. Put aside money for special one time expenses such as a new roof, a new car or a down payment on a house. If you don’t own your own home give some serious consideration to saving up to buy one. Decide how much you want to save on a monthly basis and start a systematic savings plan.

5. Now you can start investing! Determine how much you can afford to invest on a monthly basis. Most people should start by investing in their company retirement plan up to the level that the company will match. If you can afford to invest beyond the level of your company match, invest up to the maximum allowed in a Roth IRA. This should be done on a monthly basis to take advantage of dollar cost averaging – investing the same amount every month. The 2009 contribution limit for a Roth IRA is $5,000 if you are under 50 and $6000 if you are over 50. There is an income limit on your eligibility to contribute to a Roth IRA based on your adjusted gross income. For 2009, your eligibility to contribute begins to phase-out at $166,000, if you are married filing jointly and $105,000 if you are single.

If you still have money to invest after maximizing your Roth IRA, resume contributing to your company retirement plan up to the maximum amount. The maximum contribution limit for a 401k in 2009 is $16,500 if you are under 50 and $22,000 if you are over 50.

Invest your money in a diversified set of mutual funds. Establish an asset allocation consistent with your timeframe and risk tolerance. For most individuals this will vary from 50% to 80% in stock mutual funds, with the balance in fixed income investments. The market is still priced very low and it is a great time to buy stock mutual funds. However, the market will be very volatile over the next 6 – 9 months. Dollar cost averaging into your retirement plans will help you take advantage of this volatility.

This is very general advice and everyone’s situation is unique. Treat this advice as a general guideline and adapt it to your own situation or consult a Certified Financial Planner for guidance.