Apr 1 2015

Understanding IRAs for Retirement Savings

By |April 1st, 2015|Blog, Personal Finance Tips|0 Comments|

IRAs, or Individual Retirement Arrangements, are important retirement savings vehicles. IRAs offer the potential for tax-advantaged saving, which is especially important for anyone without access to an employer-sponsored retirement plan.

In order to make IRAs easier to grasp, think of a book with a cover. The underlying investment is the book, while the IRA is the cover. The cover tells whoever looks at it what you would like them to know about the book inside, but it doesn’t change the book itself. In the case of investing, the cover is usually related to taxes. The type of “cover” you put on your investment tells the IRS how to treat it for tax purposes.

In an IRA, the “book” can be almost anything – the IRS excludes only collectibles and life insurance. Common choices are mutual funds, ETFs, stocks, or bonds. However, trustees are not required to offer every option, and your options will be limited to those offered by the institution you choose to invest with.

Traditional IRA

Anyone with income can invest in a Traditional IRA. Contributions to a Traditional IRA are tax-deductible, up to the limit set by the IRS. (For 2015, those limits are $5,500; $6,500 if you’re over age 50).

Qualified distributions from a Traditional IRA, are taxed as ordinary income, but money taken out before age 59 ½ will be subject to an additional 10% penalty on the full amount of the distribution. Traditional IRAs are also subject to RMDs, or Required Minimum Distributions, beginning at age 70 ½.

Depending on your income, your deduction limit may be lower if you or your spouse is covered by an employer retirement plan. For example, in 2015, a single person who is covered by an employer plan is eligible for a reduced deduction when income reaches $60,000, and no deduction at all once income reaches $70,000.

Roth IRA

The other type of IRA most people are familiar with is the Roth. Unlike Traditional IRAs, you may be not be able to contribute to a Roth IRA if your income is too high. You are eligible to contribute to a Roth IRA in 2015 if you are a single person making less than $131,000, or a married couple filing jointly making less than $193,000. (As you get close to the income limits, the deduction allowed begins to go down, so check the IRS website to determine your own eligibility.)

Contributions to a Roth IRA are made with after-tax dollars, and qualified distributions are tax-free. Additionally, contributions can generally be withdrawn without penalty at any time, which makes a Roth IRA more flexible than other retirement savings options. Earnings withdrawn before age 59 ½ are generally subject to income tax and a 10% penalty.

Unlike Traditional IRAs, Roth IRAs are not subject to distribution requirements during the lifetime of the account owner.

Additional Notes on Contributions and Distributions

There are a few other things to consider when looking at IRAs.

  • The limit of $5,500 ($6,500 for age 50+) for IRAs applies to both Traditional and Roth IRAs, so if you contribute to both in the same year, your total IRA contribution cannot exceed the limit.
  • IRA contributions made before April 15th may be allocated to the previous tax year. This can be especially important for those with variable income, if income is higher than anticipated in the first part of a given year.
  • If you exceed your contribution limit in either type of IRA, the excess amount will be subject to a 6% tax, so be sure to keep track.
  • There are circumstances where a qualified withdrawal may be taken before age 59 ½. These include, but are not limited to, certain medical expenses and the purchase of a first home.

Making the right choice

We’ve gone over some of the basics of Traditional and Roth IRAs, but making the choice can be a bit more complicated. As with all financial decisions, it’s best to deal with actual numbers. Use your current income, tax bracket, and assumed investment returns to perform a simple calculation. If that’s not your cup of tea, anticipate another post from me on this subject, where we’ll dive in to specific examples to help you determine the best course of action.

Mar 30 2015

Take care of today so you can dream about tomorrow

By |March 30th, 2015|Blog, Life, Personal Finance Tips|0 Comments|

It’s easy to feel inadequate when it comes to your retirement savings, especially since there is no lack of motivation to make you feel that way. Bloggers like me get to sound smart when we scare you with what is essentially basic math; investment companies get to come to your rescue with savings vehicles; and there is, of course, the inconvenient truth that many of us are lacking in actual savings.

This is not the normal sort of thing you’ll hear from me on this site, but I think it bears mentioning. Investing is a great thing, as long as you have the rest of your financial house in order.

The Set Up

It goes something like this: Responsible Rex graduates college with about $2 in student debt and begins saving 50% of his $80,000 starting salary, while Flighty Fran waits until she turns 50 to start saving 5% of her $30,000 salary. Responsible Rex retires with billions at 55, while Fran retires at 92 and moves into Rex’s basement (which he is renting out for extra retirement income so he can afford a nicer yacht.)

Some of us want to be Rex and others are afraid of being Fran, but either way, we swallow the story hook, line, and sinker and scramble to increase our retirement savings contribution and make it our number one priority. In the process, we may neglect the more foundational areas of personal finance.

Obvious Fact: Saving is Important

I write about investments, so (as you might imagine) I’m a huge fan of Retirement Saving. I would let Retirement Saving autograph my shirt at a concert, an honor previously reserved only for Bruce Springsteen (who has not yet taken me up on it, but I am persistent.) But the blazing neon sign of Retirement Saving can blind us to less visible figures like Budget and Emergency Fund, or even Retirement Saving’s archenemy, Consumer Debt.

I am not a fan of being scared into doing anything, no matter how inherently sensible it seems. It isn’t necessarily smart to rush headlong into Investment Land if you haven’t spent enough time in the Kingdom of Basic Needs. Don’t be so worried about tomorrow that you fail to take care of today.

The Pyramid of Financial Needs

Retirement saving is a big topic these days, and for good reason.  But it's important to make sure you have the basics covered first.

Arguably, the most common visual for the hierarchy of financial needs is a pyramid (because pyramids are structurally hierarchical. It makes sense.) The base of the pyramid is cash management.

Quite simply, cash is first because it will determine your success at every other level of the pyramid. It’s impressive to be saving 30% of your income for retirement. It is less so if you’re racking up debt at the same pace. For some of us, keeping this level in order comes naturally, but most of us have to work at it. If you are in the former category, try to keep the smugness to a minimum. It’s annoying. If you are in the latter, accept it and move on. There are worse things in life.

Most immediately, successful cash management means that you have the funds to protect yourself from risk. When most of us think of risk, we immediately think of insurance. And there is definitely insurance at this level – life, health, disability, property, and casualty insurance are some major categories, with additional liability for some of us if circumstances warrant. Another piece I put at this level is your emergency fund. (Others may argue that the emergency fund belongs with cash. I’m fine with that as long as you have one.)

Once you’ve put a harness on your spending and protected yourself from the unexpected, you are ready to begin saving for your future.

Unless…

Now that I’ve laid out this neat, logical plan, I’m going to mess it up with a few exceptions to the general order of things. First is 401(k). Responsible Rex may be annoying, but he’s not entirely misguided. If your employer offers a 401(k), go ahead and sign up. If your employer matches your contributions, then contribute at least to the match. Why? Because it’s FREE MONEY.

Another area where you might consider jumping levels is life insurance, if you have dependents who will not be able to fend for themselves in the event of your demise.  None of us is guaranteed tomorrow, so regardless of where you are on your climb, make life insurance a priority.

Today vs. Tomorrow

To quote a character from my daughter’s current favorite movie (and the inspiration for this particular post), Seymour S. Sassafrass, “It’s important to dream about tomorrow, but you have to take care of today. It’s a classic today/tomorrow problem.”

Mar 30 2015

Weddings – How to Keep Costs Down to a Minimum

By |March 30th, 2015|General Personal Finance|0 Comments|

Your wedding ranks up there as one of the most important days of your life, so it’s worth splurging on. However, it’s not uncommon for weddings to cost as much as a college education these days. Between the venue, catering, flower arrangements, photography, and dress, the little things quickly add up. So how do you plan the day of your dreams on a budget, without it feeling cheap? It’s all in the details. Keep these handy tips in mind as you start planning.

weddings

Image Source: Pixabay

  1. Carefully curate your guest list.

It’s only natural that you want to shout your love from the rooftops and celebrate it with several hundred of your best friends and distant relatives. But remember: the bigger the wedding, the bigger the bill. Don’t give in to feelings of obligation. If you want to keep your wedding small and intimate, do so without guilt!

  1. Have an outdoor wedding.

For most weddings, the largest cost will be the venue. If you do decide to rent out that elegant mansion, plan your wedding in an off-season when rates are lower. Otherwise, consider using nature’s own elegant backdrops. Public parks, beaches, or even your own backyard could provide scenic views for exchanging vows.

  1. Arrange your own catering.

After sorting out the venue, catering is usually the next biggest expense for a wedding. This can be tricky if you’ve shelled out for a proper venue, because they may have their own onsite catering that you’ll then also need to pay for. If you’re able to, try arranging your own catering. This will nearly always be cheaper, and allows you to either ask your own family for help or use a smaller, family-owned restaurant. Smaller restaurants are usually willing to work with you on a great rate, because catering weddings is great publicity for them as well. This way, you can still provide a meal to remember at a price you can afford.

  1. BYOB

Bringing your own beer and wine can keep costs down as well. Ask your venue about corkage fees first though! If you provide your own booze, shop around to find the best prices and buy in bulk for discounts. Don’t provide an open bar if you can’t afford it – cash bars are perfectly reasonable.

  1. Use friend or student photographers and musicians.

Do you have talented friends? Ask them about providing musical entertainment and photography duties. Another option to cut costs is to turn to your local art school. Student musicians and photographers trying to build their portfolio will be happy to work for lower rates. Just be sure to look carefully at their existing work first to be sure you’ll be happy with the quality.

  1. Shop early for clothing and accessories.

Tuxedos, bridesmaid dresses, and rings are all areas that you don’t want to skimp on. This is one day when you definitely want to look and feel your best! But shopping early and hunting with an eagle eye for sales can save you cash. Browse online on sites like Vashi for engagement rings to get a feel for prices in advance. For tuxedos, try renting them for the full wedding party together to take advantage of group discounts. When it comes to the dress, keep an eye out for sales and don’t overlook department store ranges which can rival designers in terms of quality. Vintage and charity shops may also be worth a look for all of the above – you may luck out!

Mar 30 2015

A Guide to Obtaining Secured Loans

By |March 30th, 2015|General Personal Finance|0 Comments|

A secured loan has some type of security attached to it. This means that if you default on your loan, the lender can take possession of this security and sell it to cover their costs. As such, a mortgage is a type of secured loan.

People take out these types of loans for a variety of reasons. You may, for instance, want to lend quite a high amount of money. Perhaps you want to improve your property, consolidate your debt or more. Alternatively, you may have a poor credit history, in which case secured loans are the only option out there for you. Because you offer a lender security, they will be more forgiving of your credit history.

How Can You Get a Secured Loan?

You don’t have to be an outright home owner for a secured loan. If you want to secure it against your property, however, you do have to have equity against which you want to secure it. Alternatively, you can apply for different types of secured loans that have been specifically designed to help people in a financial emergency who also have bad credit. These all tend to be low amount loans with high interest rates, but very short running times, generally one month. Let’s take a look at some of these options.

Pawn Loans

With a pawn loan, you hand over an item of value to a pawnbroker. This could be a piece of jewelry, an expensive item of clothing, something electronic and so on. The pawnbroker determines the value of your item and pays you this, and you then have a set amount of time to pay that back, with interest. If you do not pay it back, the pawnbroker becomes the new owner of your item and will then sell it in their shop.

Payday Loans

With payday loans, you secure a loan against your next payday. This means that when you get paid, the lender will automatically take the loan principle and interest out of your account. Generally speaking, you will not be able to lend more than 50% of your monthly income, as the lenders need to be careful that you are able to meet your various financial obligations in the month that you pay your loan back as well.

Title Loans

Title loans are loans secured against your vehicle. This means that you have to have a clean deed on a vehicle in order to apply. The lender will determine the value of your car and lend you money against the value. Usually, the maximum they will lend you is 50% of the value of your car, up to a maximum of $2,000, although there are exceptions. This loan is designed to run for one month, at which point you pay back the loan principle and the interest.

As you can see, there are numerous different secured loan constructions out there to consider. You must always first think whether there is any way to meet your obligations without borrowing money, however.

Mar 27 2015

5 Ways ETFs are Different from Mutual Funds

By |March 27th, 2015|Blog, Personal Finance Tips|0 Comments|

Let me say this up front. I think ETFs, or exchange-traded funds, are super cool. I have nothing against mutual funds – or any product, really – but I do have a thing for ETFs. Undoubtedly, I am not alone in this, but I feel compelled to confess my bias up front.

ETFs and mutual funds offer the opportunity for individuals to take part in larger portfolios of stocks, bonds or other securities, providing easy access to diversity for the smaller investor. Each is sold in shares, whose net asset value, or NAV, reflects the price of the underlying securities in the portfolio. It’s right about here, however, that the similarities end. Their differences are numerous, but here are five of the most obvious:

1. ETFs trade on the secondary market.

This one is simple. Mutual fund shares, for the most part, are purchased from and redeemed by the fund. (The exception to this would be closed-end funds, but that’s another post altogether.) This is the primary market. ETFs, on the other hand, are bought and sold on the secondary market, like common stocks.

2. The price of an ETF changes throughout the day.

Mutual fund shares are valued and priced at the end of the day, which means that an investor who decides to purchase or sell shares will do so at a price to be determined when trading closes for the day.   ETFs, on the other hand, are priced throughout the day, and allow investors to take advantage of short- term gains and losses in the market. (Which is not a selling point for long-term investors. It is merely a difference from traditional mutual funds.) It also bears mentioning that ETF shares purchased or sold at a price that differs from NAV.

Confused over your investment options? Here are five ways ETFs are different than mutual funds and why they're both good investments!

3. Trading of ETF shares has little effect on NAV.

A mutual fund can essentially issue as many shares as investors want to buy, which has performance implications. Mutual funds must purchase securities when money is invested, and sell them when shares are redeemed. This results in trading costs, which are paid by the fund. Also, demand can be an issue for mutual funds. Excess demand can put fund managers in the position of looking to buy, even when, in a perfect world, they may prefer to time their opportunities differently. The same goes for redemptions, when investors sell their shares back to the fund. If the fund gets enough redemption requests, it can be forced to sell securities it would rather hold on to, which can mean the fund misses out on an anticipated gain, or realizes a gain that is taxable to the fund.

Buying and selling of ETF shares does not impact its NAV, since the fund is not involved in the transaction.

4. Most ETFs are passively managed.

ETFs are typically designed to reflect a specific index or even a subset of an index. In this way they do resemble some mutual funds. Changes in the ETF’s composition generally reflect changes in the index, or result from rebalancing to bring the portfolio back in line with the index.

However, many mutual funds are actively managed, where the portfolio manager’s goal is to beat an index.

5. ETFs generally have lower expenses.

After reading number 2, it would be logical – and correct – to conclude that ETFs generally offer lower expenses than mutual funds. ETFs bear little to no trading costs, require less marketing and incur fewer distribution costs than mutual funds. Index mutual funds close this gap a bit, but as a general rule of thumb, ETFs are cheaper.

Comparing ETFs to mutual funds is the logical place to start your education, but there are many additional benefits to ETFs, along with potential downside. Because I believe that responsible investing requires a deeper dive, look for more about these intriguing products, including tax advantages, legal structure and more.

Mar 25 2015

Bonds as a safety net? Choose carefully.

By |March 25th, 2015|Blog, Personal Finance Tips|0 Comments|

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Image credit: epSos.de

Simplified lists that order investments by risk almost universally describe bond funds as less risky than equity funds, and often, this is true. But it isn’t categorically true, and that’s a problem for me. A novice may think he or she has enough information to reasonably conclude that any bond fund will provide the stability to offset any losses from riskier investments. This is because in our effort to simplify things, we sometimes leave out important information.

Critical differences

Equity fund managers invest your money in securities that represent ownership. Most commonly, these are stocks, but there are other types of equity securities.

The risks of equity funds are those related to the price of the securities owned by the fund. Low earnings, market perception and high amounts of corporate debt are some of the many factors that may affect price.

Bond fund managers invest in debt securities, which basically means they loan money. Companies and governments issue bonds to raise capital, and investors (such as fund managers) buy those bonds, in effect lending money to the entity that issued the bond at an agreed-upon interest rate.

The most common risks of bond funds generally fall into two categories: the possibility that interest rates will rise while your money is tied up, and the likelihood that the debt will be repaid. A third risk category would be currency risk, which applies to any security from a foreign country.

Consider what those last two risk categories mean. As the likelihood that a debt will be repaid decreases, another one rears its head: the likelihood of default. Default, as you might imagine, can result in the near-total loss of an investment, and that is a pretty big risk. Also significant is currency risk, since the money will be loaned in the currency of the country where the bond is issued. If an investor is being repaid in currency that declined significantly relative to the dollar after the investment was made, the value of the investment could decline dramatically.

The bottom line

Some bond investments carry more risk than many equities. Bond issuers are graded by creditworthiness. Higher grade, shorter duration domestic bonds are generally safer, so if you’re looking to mitigate riskier investments in other areas of your portfolio, start there.