10 Tips for Financial Success

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Jane M. Young CFP, EA

1. Set Goals –
Review your personal values, develop a personal strategic plan, establish specific goals for the next three years and identify action steps for the coming year.

2. Understand Your Current Situation –
Review your actual expenses over the last year and develop a budget or a cash flow plan for the next 12 months. Compare your expenses and your income to better understand your cash flow situation. Are you’re spending habits aligned with your goals? Can or should you be saving more?

3. Have sufficient Liquidity –
Maintain an emergency fund equal to at least four months of expenses in a fully liquid account. Additionally, I recommend having a secondary emergency fund equal to another three months of expenses in semi-liquid investments. Increase your liquidity if you have above average volatility in your life due to job instability, rental properties or other risk factors.

4. Always save at least 10% of your income –
Regardless of whether you are saving to fund your emergency fund or retirement you should always pay yourself first by saving at least 10% of your income. Most of us need to be saving closer to 15% to meet our retirement needs.

5. Pay-off Credit Cards and Consumer Debt –
Learn the difference between bad debt (credit cards) and good debt (fixed-rate home mortgage). Avoid the bad debt and take advantage of the leveraging power of good debt.

6. Take Advantage of the Leveraging Power of Owning Your Home –
Once you have established an emergency fund and have paid off your bad debt start saving for a down payment to purchase your own home.

7. Fully Fund Your Retirement Accounts be a tax smart investor –
Participate in tax advantaged retirement programs for which you qualify. Maximize your Roth IRA and 401k contribution take full advantage of any company match on your 401k. If you are self-employed consider a SEP or Simple plan. Always select investment vehicles that provide the most beneficial tax solution while meeting your investment objectives.

8. Be an Investor, Not a Trader. Don’t time the market and don’t let emotions drive your investment decisions –
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 journalists or chase the latest investment trends. You can establish a defensive position by maintaining a well diversified portfolio custom tailored to your unique situation. Slow and steady wins the race!
“Far more money has been lost by investors in preparing for corrections, or anticipating corrections, than has been lost in the corrections themselves.”  -Peter Lynch, author and former mutual fund manager with Fidelity Investments

9. Don’t Invest in anything you don’t understand and be aware of high fees and penalties –
If it sounds too good to be true and you just can’t get your head around it, don’t invest in it! If you want to invest in complicated products, read the fine print. Be aware of commissions, fees and surrender charges. Be especially wary of products with a contingent deferred sales charge. There is no free lunch, if you are being promised 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.

10. Diversify, Diversify, Diversify – rebalance annually –
It is impossible to predict fluctuations in the market or to select the next great stock. However, you can hedge your bets by maintaining a well diversified portfolio. Establish an asset allocation that is aligned with your goals, investment timeframe and risk tolerance. You should have a good mix of fixed income and equity based investments. Your equity investments should be spread over a wide variety of large, small, domestic and international companies and industries. Re-balance your portfolio on an annual basis to stay diversified and weed out any underperforming investments.

To Convert or Not Convert – Looking Beyond the Roth IRA Conversion Calculator

Jane M. Young, CFP, EA

As I mentioned in the previous article on Roth IRAs, with a Roth IRA you pay income tax now and not upon distribution. With a traditional IRA you defer taxes today and pay income taxes upon deferral. When you convert a Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA you must pay regular income taxes on the amount that is converted. The advisability of converting to a Roth depends on the length of time you have until you take distributions, your tax rate today and your anticipated tax rate upon retirement and your projected return on your investments.

When you run your numbers through one of the numerous calculators available on the internet you may or may not see a big savings in doing a Roth Conversion. However, there are several other factors that may tilt the scale toward converting some of your money to a Roth.

• Income tax rates are currently very low and there is a general consensus that they will increase considerably by the time you start taking distributions. With a Roth conversion you pay the tax now at the lower rates and take tax free distributions when the tax rates are higher.

• The stock market is still down about 25% from where it was in August of 2008. There is a lot of cash sitting on the sidelines waiting to be invested once consumer confidence is restored. You can pay taxes on money in your traditional IRA while the share prices are low and take a tax free distribution from your Roth down the road when the market has rebounded.

• You may have a sizable portion of your portfolio in tax deferred retirement accounts on which you will have to take required minimum distributions (RMD). This could put you into a much higher tax bracket. By converting some of your traditional IRA into a Roth you can get some tax diversification on your portfolio. This will lower your RMD– because there is no RMD on a Roth IRA. Diversifying your portfolio between a traditional IRA and a Roth IRA enables you to take your distributions from the most appropriate pot of money in any given year.

For more information on Roth IRAs and the new tax laws for 2010 please review the articles previously posted under Roth IRAs.

The Possibility of Becoming a Widow Should be Part of Every Married Woman’s Financial Plan

Jane M. Young CFP, EA

I know this is a subject we don’t want to think about but the reality is most wives will out live their husbands. We plot and we plan all kinds of cash flow scenarios for couples to live happily ever after until they fall gently asleep in each others arms at age 100. That would be nice but life isn’t quite so predictable. Therefore as a wife, you should plan to out live your husband. This includes being ready to handle all of the arrangements and paperwork that must be handled upon death as well as long term planning for your financial needs. Below is a list of issues that should be addressed before you become a widow.

 • Select an Estate Planning Attorney who you trust and are comfortable with to draft a will and help you through the process of settling your husband’s estate.
• Draft a will and a Health Power of Attorney.
• Discuss end of life plans with each other.
• Review the beneficiary designations on IRAs, 401ks, and life insurance policies.
• Organize your financial papers so you know what you have, where you have it and who your contact is.
• Take an active role in managing your finances.
• If you are uncomfortable with finances, take some classes and read some books to educate yourself.
• If you choose to work with a Financial Planner take the time to select someone who you trust and feel comfortable with – especially when you are alone. The National Association of Personal Financial Advisors provides some good guidelines on selecting a financial planner at www.Napfa.org.
• Run some retirement planning scenarios as a widow – will you have enough money to cover your expenses if you husband predeceases you? Are you still entitled to his pension or will you receive a decreased payout?
• Does your cash flow fall short of what you need? Consider buying some term life insurance? Consider adjusting your work situation to save more money?
• What happens if one of you needs long term care? Can you cover the expense or should you consider long term care insurance?
• What happens to your health insurance when your husband dies? How much time do you have to secure health insurance in your name?   Are you entitled to Cobra?
• Establish credit in your name, get your own credit card.
• Do you have adequate emergency reserves to cover funeral expenses and several months of expenses?

The loss of a spouse is extremely difficult. Most widows feel like they are in fog for the first year. The last thing on your mind will be money but some issues will need to be addressed. Make it easier on yourself and plan ahead.

Roth IRAs – Part II – The Major Differences Between a Roth IRA and a Traditional IRA

Jane M. Young, CFP, EA

The primary difference between a Traditional IRA and a Roth IRA is when you pay income tax. A traditional IRA and a traditional retirement plan are funded with pre-tax dollars and you pay taxes on your withdrawals. A Roth IRA is funded with after tax dollars and you don’t pay taxes on your withdrawals. The decision to buy a Roth or a Traditional IRA is largely based on your current and future tax rates, your investment timeframe and your investment goals. The Roth IRA is usually the more advantageous of the two options but it depends on your individual situation.

Traditional IRA: (tax me later)

• Funded with pre-tax dollars therefore it provides a current tax deduction
• Earnings are tax deferred
• Distributions taxed at regular income tax rates, penalty if withdrawn before 59 1/2
• Required minimum distributions must be taken beginning at age 70 1/2
• Income limit on contributions begins at, if participant is in a retirement plan, $89,000 MFJ and $55,000 if single.
• Annual contribution limit is $5000 if under 50 and $6000 if over 50
• Many IRAs are created as a result of a rollover from a company retirement plan such as a 401k – very similar in tax structure.

Roth IRA: (tax me now)

• Funded with after tax dollars, does not provide a current tax deduction
• Earnings tax exempt (after five years or 59 ½)
• Contributions can be withdrawn penalty and tax free
• Earnings can be withdrawn tax free after five years or 59 1/2
• No required minimum distribution
• Income limit on contribution begins at $166,000 MFJ and $105,000 if single
• Annual contribution limit is $5000 if under 50 and $6000 if over 50

Part III of this series will address the pros and cons of converting a Roth IRA to a Traditional IRA.

Start Planning Now! Income Limits on Roth IRA Conversions to be Lifted in 2010 – Part 1

Jane M. Young, CFP, EA

Beginning in January 2010 the income limit of $100,000 AGI (adjusted gross income) on converting a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA will be lifted. This is a huge opportunity for many who have been unable to contribute to a Roth or convert to a Roth due to income restrictions. Normally, when one converts a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA the amount converted is added to gross income in the year of conversion. However, for conversions made in 2010 the government is allowing you to spread out the payment of taxes over the 2011 and 2012 tax years.

Why should you care about this now, prior to 2010? There are several things you can do to prepare for this opportunity. This is a great time to fund your traditional IRA, non-deductible traditional IRA or your 401k plan, if you are planning to retire or change companies soon, in anticipation of converting it to a Roth in 2010. You will need cash to pay the taxes associated with converting to a Roth IRA, so you should be incorporating this additional need for liquidity into your financial planning today.

This is the first in a series of postings on Roth IRAs and Roth IRA conversions.

Three Significant Changes to Your Retirement Plans in 2009 and 2010

Jane M. Young, CFP, EA

1. No required minimum distribution in 2009 for IRA, 401k, 403b, 457b, 401k and profit sharing plans. This does not apply to annuitized defined benefit plans.

2. If you are older than 70 ½, in 2009 you can make charitable gifts from your IRA without the payment being included in your adjusted gross income. The distribution must be a “qualified charitable distribution”, which means it must be made directly from the IRA owner to the charitable institution. This is especially beneficial if you claim a standard deduction and were unable to deduct charitable contributions by itemizing.

3. Beginning in 2010 individuals earning over $100,000 in modified adjusted gross income will be able to convert traditional IRAs to Roth IRAs. Modified adjusted gross income is the bottom line on the first page of the 1040 tax form. Income from a conversion in 2010 may be reported equally over 2011 and 2012.

While there are many benefits to converting from a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA the conversion will increase your adjusted gross income (AGI) which can have some unintended consequences. An increase in AGI may impact the taxability of your social security, phase-outs on itemized deductions, education and your tax bracket.

I will write more about Roth IRA conversions in a future blog.

Finding Peace of Mind in Turbulent Times

 Jane M. Young, CFP, EA

 

                                         

1. Don’t lose sight of your investment timeframe.  You’ve heard it time and time again but stock is a long term investment.  So, don’t let the current drop in the stock market cause you to make drastic changes to money you won’t need for 10, 15 or 20 years.   If you don’t need your money for 5 to 10 years stop worrying about it, the market will recover.   If you are in or approaching retirement, you should have put aside the money you will need in the short term.   Use this for your immediate needs.   Down the road in 5 or 10 years when you need to tap into your stock mutual funds they should be back to reasonable levels.   Don’t lose sleep about the level of your investments 10 years from now.

 

2. Every financial crisis feels like the end of the world while we are in it.  If you were to look at the headlines during any one of the past financial downturns you couldn’t differentiate them from today.   Every time we go through a financial crisis whether it’s the savings and loan crisis in the 80’s or the dot.com crisis the message is the same.  This time it’s different, things will never be the same, the sky is falling and so forth.   Everything isn’t rosy, but we will recover from this.  We need to avoid making decisions based on emotion and fear.  The media is in the business to sell papers or increase viewers.  They are going to sensationalize our economic situation.  Good news does not provide high ratings.    Take a deep breath, hug your kids, walk your dog, live your life and stay the course with your portfolio – this too shall pass.

 

3. Don’t pass up a once in a lifetime opportunity to invest in stock at exceptionally low values.  Sure it has been exceptionally painful to watch the stock portion of our portfolios drop by 40% but what a great opportunity we have.   If you have a long time horizon now is a great time to invest in the stock market.  I encourage you to invest a set amount of money into a diversified set of stock mutual funds every month (dollar cost averaging).   Investing in your company 401k or a Roth IRA is a great way to make systematic investments.   Now is the time to invest, not to sit on the sidelines.  It is always darkest before the dawn.  Remember, the stock market is counterintuitive – you feel like selling when you should be buying and you feel like buying when you should be selling.  Therefore, right now we should be buying!!!   When you feel it is safe to buy again it will be too late.

 

4.  Choose your battles and focus on what you can control.  You can’t control the fluctuations in the stock market or where the market is headed.  However, you can better prepare yourself for a weak economy.  Maybe now is the time to cut your personal spending and build up your emergency fund.  Evaluate how to reduce your expenses and pay off debt. Make sure your skills are current and relevant.  Build and strengthen your network now before you really need it.  If you are approaching retirement, and the market has set you back, evaluate alternatives and contingency plans.   Take advantage of opportunities available to you – buy stock mutual funds at low values,  re-finance your home at a low interest rate, convert your traditional IRA to a Roth and sell those especially weak stocks to harvest tax losses.

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