Smart Financial Moves for College Graduates

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

After finishing school and hopefully landing a rewarding job, college graduates face a myriad of financial obligations and opportunities.   Here are some steps for graduates to get started in the right direction.

Create a Budget and Live Below Your Means – Based on your income, create a spending plan that leaves you with a little extra money at the end of the month.  Your budget should include saving at least 10% of your gross income.  Spend less than you earn so you are prepared for unexpected bumps in the road.  Initially this may involve renting a smaller apartment, living with roommates or driving an older car.  As your career progresses, avoid increasing expenses in lock step with earnings increases.

Establish an Emergency Fund – With the money you are saving, build and maintain an emergency fund equivalent to 4 to 6 months of expenses.

Avoid Credit Card and Consumer Debt – Pay your credit card bill in full at the end of every month.  If you can’t afford to pay for your purchases when the bill arrives then postpone or re-evaluate the purchase.   Avoid or minimize debt on vehicles and other consumer purchases.

Payoff Student Loans – Devise a plan to payoff your student loans.  Consider consolidating or refinancing your loans if it will save you money.  Consider both the interest rate and the duration when evaluating loans.  Generally, you want to pay off student loans in less than ten years.

Buy Adequate Insurance – It’s essential to have good health insurance coverage; if you aren’t covered by your employer you may be eligible for continued coverage on your parents plan.  You will also need good car insurance and renters insurance on your apartment.  Additionally, consider long term disability insurance and an umbrella liability policy.

Contribute to Your Employers Retirement Plan – Many employers offer a 401k or 403b plan to help you   save for retirement using before tax dollars.  At the very minimum contribute up to the match that your employer may provide.

Contribute to a Roth IRA – Once you start earning money you can also save for retirement by contributing to a Roth IRA.  The benefit of a Roth is since you initially invest with after tax dollars, you don’t pay taxes when the money is withdrawn in retirement.   This is a tremendous opportunity for recent college graduates because your money can grow tax free for forty or fifty years.

Travel and Have Some Fun – While you’re young and relatively independent, set aside some money to explore the world or do something adventurous.  Once you buy a house, start a family or assume more job responsibilities it’s harder to get away.

Educate Yourself on Finances – Start reading personal finance books and articles.  Here are a few books to consider; “The Money Book for the Young, Fabulous and Broke” by Suze Orman, “Personal Finance for Dummies” by Eric Tyson, and “The Millionaire Next Door “ by Thomas J. Stanley and William Danko.

Things to Consider Before Filing for Social Security

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Social Security seems straight forward but it can be quite complex, there are many opportunities and pitfalls to watch out for.  Before filing for Social Security, research your options to maximize your benefit, minimize taxes and avoid errors in your benefit calculation.  It’s important to meet with a Social Security Representative prior to filing but don’t solely rely on this information.   Due to the complexity of various options, they may overlook something that could impact your situation

You can file for Social Security benefits as early as 62 but you will receive a reduced benefit.  Most healthy individuals should hold off on taking Social Security as long as possible.  If possible, delay taking Social Security until age 70.  Your benefit will increase 8% a year from your full retirement age to age 70.  The full retirement age for individuals born before 1954 is 66 gradually increasing to age 67 for anyone born in 1960 or later.

Upon reaching full retirement you may be eligible to take 50% of your spouse’s benefit or 100% of your own benefit if you are currently married, were born before 1954 and your spouse has started taking benefits.  While taking spousal benefits, your benefit can continue growing until you reach age 70 at which time you can switch to 100% of your own benefit if it’s higher.  There is no advantage to delaying benefits beyond age 70.

If you have been divorced for two years or more, were married for at least 10 years and are currently unmarried, you are eligible to receive 50% of your ex-spouses benefit or 100% of your own benefit.  If you were born before 1954, at full retirement you have the option to start taking 50% of your ex-spouses benefit and switch to your own retirement benefit at a later date. If you are a widow and you were married for at least 10 years you are eligible to take the highest of 100% of your deceased spouses benefit or your own.

If you take benefits before your full retirement age you are limited on how much you can earn before your benefit is reduced. In 2016, your benefits would be reduced by $1 for every $2 earned over $15,720.  Benefits lost due to work will result in a higher benefit later.  There is no income limit if you wait to take benefits at full retirement. If you take Social Security while working a larger portion of your benefit will be taxable, so you may want to consider delaying Social Security until you stop working or reach age 70.

If you held jobs where you paid into Social Security and you receive a pension from working in a job where you did not pay Social Security, your Social Security benefit may be reduced.  Be sure to notify the Social Security Administration of your pension.

More information on your Social Security benefits is available at www.ssa.gov.

Variable Annuity Not Magic Solution

office pictures may 2012 002While driving home recently I was disconcerted by another commercial spouting false information and preying on investor fear.  This commercial was exaggerating the danger and volatility of the stock market by implying most investors lost millions in the 2008 and 2009 market crash.  In reality if you were invested in the stock market from 2006 to 2016 you would have seen a 65% increase in your stock portfolio.  If you didn’t sell when the market dropped, you would have experienced a reasonable return rather than a loss on your investment.   Commercials like this stir up fear and anxiety then promise the perfect solution to market volatility – the magic to provide great returns without taking risk.

There is no miracle product that is going to provide you with high returns without risk.  If it sounds too good to be true, it is!  A basic concept of investing is the trade-off between risk and return.  If you want more return you will have to absorb greater risk.  If you want a risk free investment you will be limited to CD’s and US government bonds that pay very low interest rates.   If you want to earn higher returns you will need to take on some risk and invest part of your portfolio in the stock market.

The mystery product in commercials and ads that promise high returns with no risk is often a variable annuity.  While on occasion the use of an annuity may be appropriate for a portion of your portfolio, most variable annuities come with significant disadvantages.   A variable annuity is an insurance vehicle that invests your money into separate accounts similar to mutual funds.   Annuities are complex insurance contracts that are commonly sold on commission, with built-in fees and significant restrictions on when and how you can withdraw your money.    Earnings on money invested in a variable annuity grow tax deferred but are taxed at regular income tax rates when withdrawn.

Insurance salespeople influence you to buy annuities by promising protection from market volatility.  Basically, in addition to paying the typical fees and commissions, you can purchase an insurance rider to guard against a drop in the market.  However, this insurance usually only applies to a death benefit or the base amount used to calculate an annual income stream.   If you think a variable annuity is appropriate for your situation make sure you fully understand the product’s benefits and restrictions before investing.   Also consider an annuity with no or a low commission and without restrictions on when and how you can access your money.

A better option for managing market volatility may be to invest in a diversified portfolio that supports your time horizon.   Avoid the need or temptation to withdraw money from the stock market when it’s down.  Invest money needed in the short term in safe investments and limit your stock market investments to long term money.

Save on Travel by Making Wise Credit Card Choices and Eating with the Locals

office pictures may 2012 002Credit cards have become an excellent tool for saving money on travel. Many major credit card providers offer reward cards that provide 30,000 to 50,000 bonus airline miles after you charge as little as $3,000 to $4,000 over the first 3 months of opening the account.  They frequently waive the annual fee for the first year. If you don’t want to continue, and pay the annual fee for subsequent years, cancel the card before the end of the year when the fee is due.  Additionally, many travel cards have a generous rewards program that allows you to earn miles as you make purchases during the year.   Many travel cards also allow you to waive checked baggage fees and provide you with priority seating.

Some cards with an attractive introductory offer include Chase Sapphire Preferred, Capital One Venture Card and Citi/AAdvantage Platinum Select, among others.  A helpful website to compare the benefits and fees for various travel cards is creditcards.com/airline-miles.php.  Before selecting a new credit card make sure you fully read and understand the terms and conditions.  Credit cards opened to accumulate airline miles should only be used by those who pay off their entire balance every month.  This should not be considered by those who carry a balance from month to month.

When travelling overseas you should have at least one card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees.  Many credit cards assess a 3% foreign transaction fee on all international charges.  Some companies have begun waiving foreign transaction fees including Capital One Venture Card and Chase Sapphire Preferred, to mention a few.

When travelling abroad, a rewards card without foreign transaction fees is essential but there will be times when cash is required.  Use your ATM card to get foreign currency, it will provide you the best exchange rate.  Avoid exchanging U.S. dollars for foreign currency at exchange bureaus.  ATMs do charge a fee for every transaction so limit the number of transactions by getting as much money as possible each time you make a withdrawal.  Additionally, it’s prudent to carry at least two ATM cards, from different banks, in case there is a security concern and access to your account is blocked.

Once at your destination you can save money and enhance the authenticity of your visit by staying and dining off the beaten path.  Seek out family run hotels and restaurants that are local favorites. You can often save money by booking a Bed and Breakfast or vacation rental.  Booking a room at the last minute can also result in nice accommodations at a reduced price.  To find good restaurants, ask local residents for their recommendations.  Observe who is patronizing a restaurant and select one that is teaming with locals rather than tourists. Once you select a restaurant, stick with the local specialties and order food that is currently in season.

Flexibility is the Secret to Saving Money on Travel – Part I

office pictures may 2012 002

The demand for travel in 2016 is strong.  This has resulted in fewer deals and the need for extra planning if you want to save some money.   Flexibility on when and where you travel can have a huge impact on travel costs.  Try to avoid travel on major U.S. holidays and on major holidays in countries that you will be visiting.  If possible, avoid peak season and travel during the shoulder seasons which fall in September, January and April.  Generally, you can save money by flying in the middle of the week or on Saturday afternoon.   Additionally, it’s usually cheaper to fly very early in the morning or late at night.  Prices will vary based on supply and demand.

Booking your flight well in advance of your preferred departure date can also save money.   After analyzing over 3 million airline trips, CheapAir found that the best time to book domestic airfare is 54 days prior to your departure.  Similarly, Expedia’s Air Travel Outlook for 2016, found the best time to buy a domestic ticket is 57 days prior to departure and the best time to buy a ticket from North America to Europe is 176 days before departure.

To find the most cost effective combination of date and location use on-line sites such as Kayak Explore.  Kayak Explore allows you to interactively change the date to see how the airfare changes for cities throughout the U.S. or the world, all on one screen.

Flexibility with regard to your destination can result in significant savings – costs vary dramatically depending on the country or region you are visiting.  In 2016 some of the most expensive countries to visit include Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and Japan while some of the least expensive countries include Slovakia, Croatia, Poland, Romania and Morocco.  Information on the comparative travel costs in various countries is available on Numbeo.com/travel-prices and fareness.com.   You can also reduce travel costs by flying into smaller cities or less popular cities.   When travelling to Europe consider flying into a less popular city on a major airline and connect to cities within Europe on small, inexpensive regional carriers like Air Berlin or EasyJet.

Once you have decided upon a date and destination use airfare search sites such as Cheaptickets.com, CheapAir.com and Expedia.com to shop and compare flights on different airlines.  However, keep in mind that several airlines, including Southwest, are not listed on aggregation sites.  Do some research and check fares on all major airlines with service to your destination.  Check both round trip and one way ticket prices.  Some airlines have recently begun offering two, one way segments for less than a round trip ticket.  Once you have selected a flight try to book directly with the airline you will be using.  The prices are usually comparable and it will be a lot easier to reschedule if any problems arise.

Taking the Mystery Out of Alternative Minimum Tax

office pictures may 2012 002This year many taxpayers were faced with the unwelcome surprise of Alternative Minimum Tax on their income tax return. Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) is a complex, parallel income tax system to the standard income tax calculation.  AMT was started in 1969 in an attempt to prevent very wealthy people from using large deductions and exemptions to avoid paying income tax.  At that time it was discovered that 155 households with income over $200,000 were able to avoid paying any income tax.  AMT was originally aimed at the very rich but over the years it has come to impact millions of middle and upper income taxpayers.

Until you are hit with AMT, you may be unaware that behind the scenes your tax software runs two sets of numbers to determine how much income tax you will owe.  Your return is calculated using the standard income tax rules and it is calculated using the AMT rules.

AMT recalculates your taxable income by adding back many commonly used deductions and exemptions.  Some of the most common AMT add-backs include state and local taxes including real estate taxes, miscellaneous itemized deductions, home equity loan interest that isn’t used to buy or improve a home, and medical expenses.  AMT also adds back exemptions for dependents and the standard deduction, if you don’t itemize.  Tax-exempt interest from most private activity bonds becomes taxable under AMT and if you exercise Incentive Stock Options, the gain becomes taxable upon exercise. Under the standard income tax calculation, tax is due when the stock is sold.

If there is a possibility you will be subject to AMT, I recommend having your taxes professionally prepared or using tax preparation software.  Your software will calculate AMT by adding the items listed above to your adjusted gross income to arrive at your Alternative Minimum Tax Income (AMTI).  You are allowed to exempt some of your income from AMTI.  For 2016 the exemption for single filers is $53,900 and for joint filers is $83,800, the exemption is reduced for higher income taxpayers.  AMT is calculated by subtracting your exemption from your AMTI and multiplying your first $186,300 by 26% and anything over $186,300 by 28%, these figures are adjusted every year.  Your total income tax for the year will be the higher of your standard income tax calculation or AMT.

Taxpayers who are most likely to fall into AMT are those who live in a state with high income taxes, those with high deductions and those with large families. While there are limited opportunities to reduce the likelihood of paying AMT, one option is to reduce your adjusted gross income by maximizing tax deferred retirement plans such as 401k and 403b plans.  You also may be able to reduce AMT by moving to a state with no or low income tax or by managing the timing on when you pay state and local taxes.

Get Serious About Planning for Retirement in Your 50’s

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

In our 50’s we still have time to plan and save for retirement and it’s close enough that we can envision ourselves in retirement.  Below are some things to address as you plan for retirement.

  • Set some goals and make plans, what does your retirement look like? Consider your path to retirement and your timeframe – you can gradually transition by working fewer hours in your current job, work part time in a new career field or completely stop working.  Think about how you will spend your time in retirement.   Work usually provides us with mental stimulation, a sense of purpose and accomplishment, social interaction and a sense of identity.  How will you meet these needs in retirement?
  • Evaluate your current situation. Take a thorough look at current expenses and assets.  Analyze your spending habits and compare this to your earnings.   Look for opportunities to save money to invest and prepare for retirement.
  • Ramp up savings and maximize your retirement contributions – try to save at least 10% to 15% of your annual income. Increase contributions to your 401k and IRA to take advantage of catch-up provisions.  These are your highest earning years where you can really benefit from investing in tax deferred retirement plans.
  • Invest in a diversified portfolio that will grow and keep up with inflation. Your retirement savings is long term money that will need to last another 30 – 40 years.   A reasonable portion of this money should be invested in stock mutual funds to provide you the growth needed to carry you through retirement.
  • Take steps to reduce your retirement expenses – pay off high interest debt, credit cards and vehicle loans. Make extra payments on your mortgage to pay it off around the time you retire.
  • Think about where and how you want to live. Do you want to move to a lower cost area or downsize to a smaller home? Put plans in place to meet your goals.  Complete major remodeling, repairs and upgrades on appliances before you go into retirement.
  • Develop a retirement budget. Consider the impact of inflation and taxes on your monthly outflow.  Many retirees are more active and spend more early in retirement.   Include expenses for health care and long term care in your budget.
  • Evaluate your Social Security options. Delay taking Social Security benefits as long as possible, up to age 70.
  • Calculate how much you need to pull from your retirement savings by subtracting your monthly expenses from your Social Security and pension benefits. As a rule of thumb, avoid spending more than about 4% of your retirement savings per year.  This will vary with the amount of risk you are comfortable taking in your portfolio.  To get a more precise projection on when you can retire, how much you can spend and how much you should save, periodically work with a financial planner on some formal retirement planning.

Patience is the Key to Successful Gardening and Investing

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

We recently built a new home and have been feverishly working on landscaping and planting new flower beds.   While going through the process of planting and nurturing my flower gardens I realized there are many similarities between gardening and investing.  I planted a lot of perennials to create a garden that will last for many years.  However, I’m anxious for the perennials to grow into the large, colorful flowers I have envisioned.  I realize it takes time and patience to develop a gorgeous garden.  To satiate my immediate need for some color I interspersed some annuals with the perennials.  The annuals will meet my short term needs but aren’t a good long term investment.  They will provide beautiful color this year but will die and won’t return next spring

To build a successful garden you have to plan ahead, prepare the earth and plant seeds long before reaping the benefits.   Investing is similar to gardening in that you need to think ahead to create a plan that will meet your long term objectives.  You have to start by planting the seeds and continue feeding and nurturing your investment plan.  After your initial investment is made, continue making contributions and annually re-balance your portfolio to be sure you stay on track.  Periodically some weeding is required to remove poor performing or inappropriate investments from your portfolio.   You may also need to add some nutrients by adding better performing mutual funds or by expanding on the categories of funds in which you are invested.

It’s essential to meet short term needs.  This year I had a short term need for some annuals to add color to the garden.    In your portfolio, you need to include short term money for emergencies and living expenses.  If short term needs are addressed you can invest your long term money more effectively with greater confidence.

Additionally, in both gardening and investing it’s important to stay diversified.  My garden has a variety of flowers that bloom at different times of the year or react differently to varying weather conditions.  Your portfolio should also be diversified with a variety of different investments that help you buffer against a variety of market conditions and changes in your personal life.

Just like perennials in the garden, investments in your portfolio need time to grow and absorb fluctuations in the market.  If you become impatient and give up before they have time to fully bloom you won’t meet your end goal.  Just as vibrant short term annuals can provide a lot of immediate satisfaction they don’t result in a garden that is sustainable over many years.

Investing, as in gardening, is a slow and steady process.  Get started, set a plan, keep a long term perspective and stick to your plan.   Patience and perseverance will help you build a gorgeous garden and a more secure financial future.

Most Effective Investment Approach Combination of Male and Female Traits

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Numerous studies have found that men and women generally approach investing differently.  Generalizations can be dangerous but there is ample evidence to indicate there are some common gender traits that may hinder our investment performance.  An increased awareness of our potential strengths and weaknesses may help us to adjust our behavior for a better outcome.

Studies have found that men are more confident than women when it comes to investing.  According to Meir Statman, professor of finance with Santa Clara University, “Women tend to be less overconfident than men.  In the stock market, where so much is random, trying to do better than average is more likely to get you results that are below average.  This really is where all the confidence is going to hurt you”.  On the positive side confidence can prompt you to make a decision and take action, but overconfidence can result in taking too much risk and investing in things you don’t know enough about.  A lack of confidence can result in taking too little risk and a reluctance to take action.

In another study conducted by Brad M. Barber, professor at UC Davis and Terrance Odean, professor at UC Berkeley, researchers found that overconfidence leads men to trade excessively.  As a result their returns suffer more than women’s.  But women and men sell securities indiscriminately;    women just do it less often, so their performance doesn’t suffer as much.

According to the 2010 study by the Boston Consulting Group, women have a tendency to focus more on long term goals.  Their investment strategy and risk tolerance revolves around long term goals and financial security.  Men have more of a business orientation and tend to be more focused on efficient transactions and short term performance.  Men are likely to be more competitive and thrill seeking in nature which can lead to a focus on short term returns.  Women’s longer time horizon may help them to prepare for retirement but if they are overly concerned with security they may not take enough risk to earn the investment returns needed to meet retirement needs.

Additionally, the Blackrock Investor Pulse Survey of 4,000 Americans found that 48% of women describe themselves as knowledgeable about saving and investing vs. 57% of men.  Women generally felt less confident making investment decisions and investing in the stock market.  Typically women were likely to do more research, take more time to make investment decisions, use more self-control and stay the course.

Studies have also indicated women enjoy learning about investments in a group setting and men are more likely to be independent learners.  Women are also more receptive to financial research and advice.

The best approach to successful investing is a blend of habits commonly practiced by both men and women.  Identify your personal biases and tendencies and make adjustments to achieve optimal investment results.

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.

Avoid These Common Retirement Mistakes

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

When it comes to retirement there are many preconceived notions and myths on how you should handle your finances.  Avoid falling into the trap of what retirees are “supposed to do”.  Instead, logically evaluate your situation and make decisions accordingly.   Below are some common financial mistakes to avoid with regard to your retirement.

  • Don’t underestimate your life expectancy and how many years you will spend in retirement. It is reasonable to spend 20 to 30 years in retirement.  Most retiree’s should plan to cover expenses well into their 90’s.
  • Avoid overestimating your ability and opportunity to work during retirement. Be cautious about including too much income for work during retirement in your cash flow projections.  You may lose your job or have trouble finding a good paying position.  Additionally, your ability and desire to work during retirement may be hindered by health issues or the need to care for a spouse.
  • Many retirees invest too conservatively and fail to consider the impact of inflation on their nest egg. Maintain a diversified portfolio that supports the time frame in which you will need money.  Money needed in the short term should be in safer, fixed income investments.  Alternatively, long term money can be invested in stock mutual funds where you have a better chance to earning returns that will outpace inflation.
  • Resist the temptation to take Social Security early. Most people should wait and take Social Security at their full retirement age or later, full retirement is between 66 and 67 for most individuals.  Taking Social Security early results in a reduced benefit. If you can delay taking Social Security you can earn a higher benefit that increases 8% per year up to age 70.  This can provide nice longevity insurance if you live beyond the normal life expectancy.  You also want to avoid taking Social Security early if you are still working.  In 2016 you will lose $1 for every $2 earned over $15,720, prior to reaching your full Social Security retirement age.
  • Avoid spending too much on your adult children. The desire to help your children is natural but many retirees need this money to cover their own expenses.   You may be on a fixed income and no longer able to earn a living, your children should have the ability to continue working for many years.

One of the biggest retirement mistakes is the failure to do any retirement planning.  Crunch some numbers to determine how much you need to put away, when you can retire, and what kind of budget you will need to follow.  Without proper planning many retirees pull too much from their investments early on leaving them strapped later in life.  It’s advisable to have your own customized retirement plan done to determine how much you can annually pull from your investments.  As a general rule, annual distributions should not exceed 3-4% of your retirement portfolio.

Grandparents Should Consider Financial Aid When Contributing to 529 Plans

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

With the high cost of college many grandparents want to help their grandchildren with college.   One of the best ways to accomplish this can be through the use of 529 plans.

A 529 plan allows you to invest money for college with tax free earnings and tax free withdrawals, as long as the money is used for qualified higher education expenses.  Your grandchildren can use this money at any eligible post-secondary institution.  In Colorado your 529 contribution is deductible on your state income taxes.  Additionally, the owner of a 529 plan can change the beneficiary of a 529 plan as the needs of grandchildren change.

There are special gift tax benefits when contributing to a 529 plan.  The current annual gift tax exclusion is $14,000.  This means that both grandparents can gift up to $14,000 to each grandchild.  Additionally, with 529s you can make a one-time contribution of up to $70,000, if you treat the contribution as if it were made over 5 years.

Unfortunately, if your grandchildren are eligible for need based financial aid, utilizing a 529 plan for your grandchildren’s college expenses can hurt their chances of getting financial aid.  The amount invested in the 529 is not reported on the FAFSA (Free Application for Student Aid) but payments made to cover college expenses are included in the student’s income.  This income will reduce the student’s financial aid by 50% of the amount of the payment.

To avoid this problem you can transfer ownership of the 529 to the parent’s name before the student applies for financial aid.  For financial aid purposes a parental 529 is considered an asset and only 5.64% of the value is considered when calculating needs based aid.  About a dozen states do not allow transfer of ownership on 529 plans – ownership transfers are allowed in Colorado.

Alternatively, you could initially contribute to a parental 529 plan but you would lose the state income tax deduction and you lose control of the account.  The owner of the 529 account can change beneficiary designations and can spend money from the account, subject to a 10% penalty if not used for qualified college expenses.  Loss of control could be a concern in the case of divorce or blended families.

Another way to avoid an adverse impact to financial aid is to delay use of the grandparent’s 529 until January 1st of the student’s junior year in college.  Contributions after this day will have no impact on the student’s eligibility for financial aid.  You won’t have to report the 529 as an asset on FAFSA and the contributions from the account are not reported as student income.   This is a viable option if the student has other resources to pay for college up to this point and they still have enough college expenses to use all of the funds in the 529 account.

Supercharge Your Career for Long Term Financial Security

office pictures may 2012 002Proactively managing your career is essential to your long term financial success.  While traditional financial planning is important, it’s crucial to invest in yourself and your career.  The return you can earn from a serious commitment to your career may be better than any investment return you may reasonably achieve.  Strategic attention to your career can result in increased long term income opportunities, a job you love, job security and resources to build your investment portfolio.

It’s too easy to become comfortable and complacent with your situation and settle for less compensation and job satisfaction than you deserve.   The first step toward supercharging your career is to understand yourself.  Evaluate what makes you happy and where your passions and talents lie. Consider how you can best utilize your skills, interests, and experience. Research potential opportunities in your current field as well as in new career fields.  Information about a variety of careers,and what they pay, is available in the Department of Labor’s Occupational Outlook Handbook www.bls.gov.ooh.  Information on salaries can also be found on www.payscale.com and www.salary.com.

After doing your research and identifying some career opportunities, decide on your definition of career success and develop a plan to achieve this.   Career success is not based on luck but on strategic planning, action and commitment.  Establish some long and short term career goals to keep you on track toward meeting your plan.

To help achieve success, think of yourself as a brand of one.  In everything you do, consider your image and how people perceive you.  You have a reputation to build and maintain which should demonstrate trust, dependability, competency, enthusiasm and professionalism.  Don’t think of yourself as an employee but as a company of one who is working to bring success to your current firm.  This in turn will bring you success.  Be reliable and meet your commitments, proactively resolve problems and look for smarter ways to do business.  Do what is needed to get the job done, don’t lose site of the big picture, and focus on the bottom line.  Work strategically and watch for opportunities to meet the needs of your boss and your team.

Nurture relationships, be a team player, and keep a positive attitude.  Continually demonstrate how you can be of value to your boss, colleagues and clients.  Work in a collaborative manner and help others look good and get ahead.  Develop a strong personal network and find a mentor to assist you with your current job and exciting options for the future.

Proactively stay abreast of industry and technological changes. Seek out opportunities to learn and grow through continuing education and formal education.  You will experience more success if you embrace change and innovation.

Your career and ability to earn a good living can be your greatest financial asset – manage and nurture it to maximize your financial security.

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.

Taking Social Security Early Not the Best Option

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

The best time to take Social Security is a personal decision based on your financial situation, health, lifestyle, family longevity and when you stop working.  Social Security will provide you with the same total amount, if you live to the average life expectancy, regardless of when you take it.   The full retirement age for most people is between 66 and 67.  You can begin taking reduced benefits as early as 62 or you can wait and take an increased benefit as late as age 70.  If you begin at 62 your benefit is reduced by about 30%, if you take Social Security after your full retirement date your benefit will increase 8% per year until age 70.

You will probably benefit from taking Social Security at full retirement or later.  Unless you have a serious medical condition, there is a good chance you will live longer than the Social Security average life expectancy.  Social Security life expectancy tables are based on 2010 data and lag what can be reasonably expected.  They indicate a 65 year old male will live to around 84.3 and a 65 year old female will live to around 86.6.  Taking Social Security later is like buying longevity insurance.  It can provide you with more money later in life which can help put your mind at ease, if you are worried about out living your money.

If you are still working it can be especially detrimental to take Social Security before your full retirement age.  In 2015 you will lose $1 for every $2 earned over $15,720.   Once you reach full retirement age there is no limit to how much you can earn.   However, taxation of your Social Security benefit is based on your overall earnings.  If you take Social Security after you stop working a smaller portion of your benefit is likely to be taxable.  Additionally, if you continue to work and delay Social Security you may be able to increase your total Social Security benefit. The Social Security Administration annually recalculates benefits for recipients who are still working.

The decision on when to take Social Security is significantly impacted by your marital status and your spouses expected benefit.  If you have been married for at least ten years you have the option to take the greater of 50% of your spouse’s benefit or your full benefit. If you wait until your full retirement age you can start taking 50% of your spouse’s benefit, let your benefit grow, and switch back to your full benefit at age 70.   If you take the spousal benefit prior to your full retirement age you cannot switch back to your own benefit at a later date.  If you have been married for at least 10 years, and your spouse dies, you are eligible for the greater of your benefit or 100% of your spouse’s benefit.

More information about your Social Security benefit is available at www.ssa.gov.

Successful Habits of Wealthy People

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Many believe that wealthy people are lucky or are born into their wealth but this myth is largely dispelled by research conducted by Thomas Corley.  Thomas Corley, CPA, CFP is president of Cerefice and Co. and the author of Rich Habits: The Daily Success Habits of Wealthy Individuals.  Over a five year period, Thomas Corley interviewed 233 millionaires and 128 people living in poverty.   Through these interviews he uncovered many daily activities that differentiated the two groups.  His research indicates that we have control over our destiny with our daily actions and habits.  It’s not always easy, but we can create our own luck by engaging in activities that will lead to greater financial success.  Over 85% of American Millionaires are self-made and are the first generation of wealth in their families.

Thomas Corley found that good habits are the foundation of success.  He discovered successful people have many good habits interspersed with a few bad habits where unsuccessful people have many bad habits with a few good habits.  Below are some of his findings on habits or daily activities practiced by successful people.

Successful people are goal oriented, 95% write down their goals and 81% maintain a To-Do list.  They don’t procrastinate and are focused on accomplishing things.   They are proactive, take control of their lives, and get things done.  They don’t let events or other people control their priorities.  Unsuccessful people are not goal oriented and can become easily distracted.  They don’t have goals to keep them grounded and focused on the end result.

Successful people eat healthy and exercise, 76% of the wealthy exercise aerobically 4 days per week. They rarely overindulge or binge, if they slip it’s a planned overindulgence on special occasions.  Eating well and exercise improves the immune system and energy levels which results in greater productivity.  Unsuccessful people have no consistent day to day control over their health.

Successful people place great value on relationships.  They are focused on others rather than themselves.  They understand the importance of networking and look for reasons to reach out to their contacts.  They don’t waste time in negative relationships with people who are only concerned about themselves.

Successful people engage in moderation.  They keep their thoughts and emotions in check and avoid obsession, addiction, extravagance, jealousy, envy and fanatical behavior.  People enjoy their company and feel comfortable being around them.  Unsuccessful people are more likely to live in conflict with little control over their lives.

Successful people are constantly engaged in self-improvement.  They watch very little TV and read for self-improvement.  They keep up with changes in their profession and devote time every day to better themselves.

Finally, successful people have a positive attitude.  They are happy, enthusiastic, confident and well balanced.  They feel empowered and take control of their lives rather than allowing outside forces to determine their destiny.  Have you taken control of your destiny?

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.

Is Long Term Care Insurance Right for You? – Part 2

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

As mentioned in my previous post, about 75% of the population will spend $10,000 or less on Long Term Care (LTC) and about 6% will spend over $100,000.  You may not need extended LTC but due to the significant costs, the possibility should be addressed in your financial planning.  According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services the average monthly cost for long term care in 2013 was $1343 for adult day care, $3,500 for assisted living, $4,000 for home health care and $6,500 for nursing care.  Based on cost increases over the last 5 years, it’s reasonable to assume that LTC will continue to increase about 5% annually.  If we assume a current LTC cost of $5,000 per month, with a compound inflation rate of 5%, the annual cost of LTC in twenty years could be $159,197.  Although the probability of needing LTC for an extended period of time is low, if you need care, it can quickly diminish your retirement nest egg.

Based on the danger of depleting your savings, LTC insurance may seem like a logical option but the cost can be significant and it’s not without risk.  The cost of LTC insurance is dependent on your age, your health, the daily benefit, the benefit period and the inflation protection.  Below are some average LTC insurance rates for individuals with a standard health rate, a daily benefit of $150, a benefit period of 3 years and a 3% compound inflation growth option.  The average LTC care insurance rate for a single person age 55 is $2,007 per year, the rate for a couple both 55 is $2466, and the rate for a couple both age 60 is $3,381.

If you decide to purchase LTC insurance, compare prices and work with a couple of different brokers who work with several companies.   Companies have different niches where some may have the lowest prices for those in their 50’s while others may focus on clients who are in especially good health.  A good insurance broker can help you select the best provider for your situation.

You also want to purchase LTC insurance from a high quality company, this is not the place to go with the low cost provider.  Select a company with a reasonable chance of being solvent down the road, when you need the coverage.  Over the last several years, 10 out of the top 20 providers have stopped providing LTC insurance.  Additionally, as a result of higher than anticipated LTC costs, low interest rates and a larger than expected number of people holding on to their policies, LTC insurance companies have significantly raised their premiums.  Many older policies have had premium increases in excess of 20% – 40%.  Although industry insiders claim to have a better handle on this going forward, there is still a risk of premium increases in the future.

Do You Need Long Term Care Insurance? – Part 1

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

As retirement grows closer the decision on how you will cover potential long term care expenses becomes a serious concern.   Unfortunately, with the high cost of long term care (LTC) and the high cost of long term care insurance there is no easy solution.  LTC refers to services or support to help you with medical or non-medical personal care needs.   LTC can provide assistance with cognitive impairment and activities of daily living such as eating, bathing, dressing, using the toilet and assistance with incontinence.  About 80% of all LTC is provided in the home.

LTC expenses can be paid with a combination of personal or family savings, LTC Insurance and government assistance.  Generally Medicare does not cover long term care.  Medicare will provide 100 days of skilled nursing care following a 3 day stay in the hospital.  Medicaid will pay for LTC after most of your assets have been depleted but Medicaid is usually limited to skilled nursing home care.

The decision to purchase LTC insurance is straight forward for the affluent who can self-insure and for those with little or no assets who must rely on Medicaid for their LTC expenses.  The decision is more complicated for those who can’t afford to self-insure but want to protect their assets to provide a livelihood to a surviving spouse, an inheritance to children or want to avoid being a burden to family.

Individuals who are at the greatest risk for needing LTC are those with a history of a chronic condition such as high blood pressure or diabetes, or have family members with a history of a chronic condition.  You may also have a higher risk if you are in poor health or have poor diet and exercise habits.  Women are at greater risk than men because on average, they live 5 years longer.

According to a study using a microsimulation model performed by Kemper, Komisar and Alecxih, on average people currently turning 65 will need LTC for three years.   They found that 3 out of 10 people will rely on family for their care for more than 2 of these years.  They also found that 2 out of 10 people will need care for over 5 years.  Overall, their analysis indicated that 50% will have no out of pocket expenditures for LTC, 25% will spend less than $10,000 and 6% will spend over $100,000.

Additionally, based on information from leading insurance actuaries, the Association for Long Term Care Insurance reported that someone who buys a LTC insurance policy, with a 90 day elimination period, at age 60 has a 35% chance of using it before they die.  They also reported that the average stay in a nursing home is 2.3 years for men and 2.6 years for women. Most care is provided at home but statistics on this are limited.

My next column will address the cost of LTC and LTC insurance and the pros and cons of purchasing LTC insurance.

Timeless Tips for Investment Success

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

You don’t need to employ a lot of sophisticated techniques and strategies to become a successful investor.  The most effective tools for investment success are simplicity, patience, and discipline.  Below are some guidelines to help you get the most from your investments.

Invest for the long term.  Evaluate your situation, set some goals, create a plan and stick with it.   Keep money that you may need for emergencies and short term living expenses in less volatile investments such as money market accounts, CDs and bonds.   Investments in the stock market should be limited to money that isn’t needed for at least 5 years.  If you keep a long term perspective with the money invested in the stock market you will be less likely to react to short term fluctuations.

Maintain a diversified portfolio.  Your portfolio should be comprised of a variety of different types of investments including stocks, bonds and cash.  The stock portion of your portfolio should include stock mutual funds that invest in companies of different sizes, in different industries and in different geographies.  Don’t chase the latest hot asset class and don’t act on the hot stock tip your buddy shared with you at happy hour.  Create a diversified portfolio and rebalance on an annual basis.  It’s also advisable to avoid investing more than 5% in a single security.

Don’t Time the Market.  Many studies have found that market timing just does not work and can be detrimental to your portfolio.  The so-called experts really have no idea what the market is going to do.  Many analysts earn a living by projecting future market fluctuations when in reality they are no better at predicting the future than you or me.  Peter Lynch sums it up perfectly with the following quote – “More money has been lost by investors preparing for corrections, or trying to anticipate corrections, than has been lost in corrections themselves.”

Keep Your Emotions in Check. The stock market is volatile and there will be years with negative returns.   Limit investment in the stock market to money you won’t need for several years.  Have patience and stay the course.  As experienced after the 2008 correction, the market will eventually rebound.  Don’t succumb to media hype and fear tactics claiming things are different this time. There have always been, and always will be, major events that trigger dramatic fluctuations in the stock market.  Don’t panic this will pass.  Sir John Templeton once said, “The four most dangerous words in investing are: “This Time is Different!”

Be tax smart but don’t let taxes drive your portfolio.  Where possible maximize the use of tax advantaged retirement vehicles such as 401k plans and Roth IRAs.  Place investments with the greatest opportunity for long term growth in tax deferred or tax free retirement accounts.   Save taxes where it makes sense but don’t intentionally sacrifice return just to save a few dollars in taxes.

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