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Yoda Would Suggest a Low-Cost Index

Use the low-cost index, Luke

“Use the low-cost index, Luke…”

Recently a colleague told me that he’d “give that a try”. I responded (tongue in cheek of course) “Try not. Do or do not. There is no try.”  In case you don’t recognize it, that’s a line that Yoda gives to Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars “Empire Strikes Back” movie. Yoda was pointing out to Luke that if he simply “tries” to undertake the action, he will not succeed. I think it shows that Yoda would also suggest a low-cost index mutual fund for investing.

If you think back to the excellent article that Sterling wrote a few weeks ago, “Not All Index Funds are Created Equal”, Sterling used a particular load mutual fund as an example. The objective of the fund (paraphrasing here):

Seeks to match the performance of the benchmark…

Let’s analyze that objective. The “benchmark” in question is an index, in particular the S&P 500 index. And the term “seeks” can be interpreted as “tries”. So the fund tries to match the performance of the S&P 500 index. It is the act of “trying” that causes costs to go up. All that “trying” by the fund manager(s) costs money after all – there are yachts to buy don’t you know?

So anyhow, if our objective as investors is to match the performance of the benchmark, why not invest in the benchmark via a low-cost index fund rather than in a fund that wastes a lot of effort (and money) “trying” to match the benchmark?

I think Yoda would heartily approve.

Book Review – Pension Finance

Pension FinanceM. Barton Waring does an excellent job in his book Pension Finance. The book essentially covers what’s wrong with the way conventional accountants and actuaries think using conventional math and accounting practices to justify the payments (or lack thereof) funding corporate and municipal pensions.

A concept talked about at length in the book is the idea of long-term average returns and how many pension actuaries rely on them to determine funding. Mr. Waring would argue that there is too much reliance on the long term average returns thus allowing pension actuaries to fund their pensions with less money due to assuming higher rates of return.

Instead, one of the areas that may help the crippling pension system in the US is to get realistic about long term returns and use a combination of a smaller returns, and bigger contributions (among others).

The book is heavy on the analytic side (great for our quant readers) but offers substantial insight in plain English on what led to the current pension crisis while offering a mathematically possible solution that relies on real numbers and not hypothetical long term average returns.

Ten Essential Tips for a Bright Financial Future

  1. bright financial futureSee a lawyer and make a Will. If you have a Will make sure it is current and valid in your home state. Make sure that you and your spouse have reviewed each other’s Will – ensuring that both of your wishes will be carried out. Provide for guardianship of minor children, and education and maintenance trusts. If you have divorced and remarried, make sure that your retirement account beneficiary designations are up-to-date reflecting your current situation.
  2. Pay off your credit cards. Forty percent of Americans carry an account balance on their credit cards or other personal credit – this is not good for your financial future. Create a systematic plan to pay down your balances. Don’t fall into the “0% balance transfer game” as it will hurt your FICO score. Credit scores matter not only to credit card companies but to insurance companies and future employers as well; you can avoid an unpleasant increase in your insurance rates by managing your credit wisely.
  3. Buy term life insurance equal to 6-8 times your annual income. This is primarily true for younger folks who have financial obligations to cover with future income. Most consumers don’t need a permanent policy (such as whole life or universal life). Also consider purchasing disability insurance; think of it as “paycheck insurance.” Stay-at-home spouses need life insurance, too! Note: Each family’s needs are different. Some families have a need for other kinds of life insurance, so you should review your situation carefully with an insurance professional (preferably two or more) before making decisions in this area.
  4. Build a 3 to 6 month emergency fund. This helps you to keep from having to charge up your credit cards when life’s emergencies strike. In the interim, before you’ve built up your fund, you can establish a home equity line of credit before you need it – this can take the place of part of your emergency fund.
  5. Don’t count on Social Security too much. Since the projections show that in the future the most that can be paid out for Social Security obligations is around 77%, you should adjust what you expect to receive – especially if you are age 50 or younger. Make up for this by funding your IRA each and every year. If you don’t fund these accounts annually, you lose the opportunity to increase your tax-deferred savings. Fund a Roth IRA over a traditional IRA if you qualify.
  6. If offered, contribute to your 401(k), 403(b) or other employer-sponsored saving plan. Just the same as with your IRA, if you don’t take advantage of the opportunity to defer funds into these savings vehicles, you lose the opportunity. In addition, if you don’t participate in the plan, you lose the chance to receive the matching funds from your employer.
  7. Use your company’s flex spending plan to leverage tax advantages. If you don’t use your flex plan annually, you lose the opportunity – and the tax advantages – for that year.
  8. Buy a home if you can afford it. Maintain it properly. Build equity in your property. You’ll have much more to show for your money spent than a box full of rental receipts! This is also about more than your financial future – studies show that home ownership adds to peace of mind and improved quality of life.
  9. Use broad market stock index funds to reduce risk and minimize costs. Indexes are a simple way to diversify, and they can have very low costs but you have to pay attention to make sure you’re getting a low-cost index. Diversification reduces risk of single securities (see #10) and reducing costs is one of the best things you can do to improve your overall investment results. If you have limited options, for example in your 401(k) plan, make sure that you diversify across a broad spectrum of options.
  10. Don’t over-weight in any one security, especially your employer’s stock. As a rule of thumb, keep exposure to any single stock to less than 5% of your overall portfolio. If you over-expose to a single stock and that company goes bankrupt, you’ve lost a significant portion of your portfolio. It can happen easily, history is littered with good companies that went bad.

Minimize taxes by adjusting your portfolio

minimize taxesSince the markets have had some downturns lately, now could be a good time to make some adjustments to your portfolio, rebalancing and the like, that may help to minimize taxes. In doing so you can possibly get a bit of advantage in your tax bill from a loss you’ve experienced in your investments.

If you have taxable accounts, that is, accounts that are not tax-deferred (like IRAs or 401(k) plans) when you sell your investments there is capital gains treatment on your gains and losses. If you have losses and gains in your taxable account, when you realize these losses and gains by selling the holdings, your losses are subtracted from the gains, and if the result is positive (net gains), these gains are taxed at the preferable long-term capital gains rates. I say this is preferable as the rate is less, often much less, than ordinary income tax rates.

Keep reading…

It’s Never Too Early to Teach Your Kids About Money

Lincoln memorial cent, with the S mintmark of ...

Lincoln memorial cent, with the S mintmark of the San Francisco mint. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have two daughters and it has given me the pleasure of seeing them grow up and get excited about even the little things like chasing butterflies or finding a lucky penny. My kids find lucky pennies all the time. In fact, they find lucky coins all over the place. Some are by chance as we’re walking down the sidewalk and other times it’s a lucky coin that I may place in an inconspicuous place so they stumble upon it and find it (sometimes it’s fun creating luck for my kids).

Whether they find the coin by luck or otherwise, it gives me a great opportunity to teach them. After the excitement of the find goes away, they get even more excited when I ask, “Where should we put that lucky coin?” With glee they almost always reply, “In the piggy bank!”

I feel parents can teach their kids about money even if it’s starting with something as small as a penny. From lucky coins to birthday money it’s OK to teach your kids about saving a little bit, giving a little bit and spending some as well. I don’t think there’s too-young an age to start doing this. And by starting early, your kids will get excited about saving and this can potentially be less burdensome if they were to try at say – age 21.

Some readers may question how they can teach their kids about money or even feel that they can’t be effective teachers since they may not be as financially stable or literate as they would like. They needn’t worry. It’s an excellent way for parents to learn with their kids and they can both enjoy the benefits of working together. Parents can learn and then teach by example and simultaneously  show their kids how to save.

As kids grow up, parents can then teach them how to save from the piggy bank to the savings account and even investments such as stocks, bonds and IRAs. Having been taught the basic fundamentals of just saving and not spending all their money, kids can learn the value of investing, and the miracle of compound interest.

Finally, teaching your kids about money ultimately empowers them to control their money, and not have their money control them. They’ll grow up seeing money as a tool, as a currency, and as an asset they can accomplish great things with – not as a conundrum, enigma, or something to worry or argue about – or worse, something they fear.

 

IRS Notice 2014-54: Will This Clarify NUA Basis Allocation?

ole-dog-300x245Recently the IRS issued a Notice, 2014-54, which details some information regarding the allocation of pre-tax funds from a qualified plan (such as a 401(k) plan) into a Roth IRA. This is a clarification of a question that has been on the minds of folks in the financial services industry for some time, and it’s a good result. Now the question becomes: does this help to clarify NUA basis allocation strategies?

If you’d like additional detail on Notice 2014-54, you can find the actual text of the Notice by clicking this link.

What I find interesting about this Notice is that this is the first time that the IRS has used this interpretation of the rules referenced specifically in IRC Section 402(c)(2), which is the code section I’ve referenced before regarding allocation of basis for Net Unrealized Appreciation (NUA) treatment for employer stock. (See more information in this most recent article NUA Allocation Twist – Not as Easy as it Looks.) The problem (outlined in the article) has been that plan administrators are unwilling to attempt applying the allocation of basis in an NUA transaction because there has never been any guidance from the IRS on such an allocation of basis. Notice 2014-54 may be the first step toward such guidance.

I’ve sent queries to the best minds I know in the retirement plan law universe to get additional insights into this concept – and as yet have not received a confirmation either way. I think this is a step in the right direction, but don’t get too excited yet.

I’ll keep you posted.

File & Suspend and Restricted Application are NOT Equal

spousal beneWe’ve discussed the Social Security filing options of File & Suspend and Restricted Application many times before, but it seems that folks continue to confuse these two options. It’s easy to see why: one (File & Suspend) can be used to enable the other (Restricted Application). Also, neither option is available until the individual is at least at Full Retirement Age (FRA). It’s important to know the difference between File & Suspend and Restricted Application though – primarily because if you confuse the two when talking to the Social Security folks, you’ll have a much different outcome than you expected and hoped for.

Let’s start by defining each option.  Keep reading…

Be Careful of Average Returns

Standard Deviation Diagram Created with raw Po...

Standard Deviation Diagram Created with raw PostScript by Pat Beirne, 5/1/06. Based on an original graph created in Adobe Illustrator by Jeremy Kemp, 2/9/05 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When saving and investing for retirement many folks as well as advisors helping those folks plan save and invest for retirement generally will have the conversation that includes how much they can save per month or year, how much they need at retirement and how long they have to save until retirement.

Essentially, all of the ingredients in the previous paragraph boil down to a phrase mentioned many times in financial planning classes as well as courses in finance, investing and business: the time value of money.

The time value of money helps individuals and businesses figure out how much they need to save, earn, and spend in order to achieve certain financial goals. What it boils down to is what is a dollar worth, if not spent today, and instead invested and allowed to grow for tomorrow (the future).

Keep reading…

Paper Social Security Statements are Back

The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley

— Robert Burns
To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough

Photo courtesy of Sylwia Bartyzel on unsplash.com

Photo courtesy of Sylwia Bartyzel on unsplash.com

As with many great ideas, in practice the concept of exclusive electronic delivery of Social Security benefit statements seems to have gone “agley”. Apparently a very small percentage of folks actually took advantage of the online version of these statements (primarily my client base, I’m guessing). As a result of this and apparent feedback from customers, advocates and Congress, Social Security is resuming the physical delivery of paper Social Security Statements.

The new delivery schedule will be based upon the age of the potential Social Security benefit recipient, with statements being sent automatically 3 months before your 25th, 30th, 35th, 40th, 45th, 50th, 55th, and 60th birthdays. You will only receive this statement if you are not currently receiving Social Security benefits AND if you have not registered with a mySocialSecurity account (the online statement portal).

You can still receive a Social Security statement from the online system at any time, as often as you wish. This is accomplished by going to the address www.socialsecurity.gov/myaccount. Just keep in mind that you will not receive a mailed paper Social Security statement thereafter once you’ve signed up. Online is the only method that you will be able to receive this statement once you’ve signed up, or once you’ve begun to receive benefits from Social Security.

Five-Step Reallocation

Since there’s been an appreciable run-up in stocks over the recent past, now may be a good time to reallocate your investment allocations in your retirement plans and other accounts. You’ve probably heard of reallocation before – but what does it really mean?

Reallocating is the process of changing your current mix of investments to a different mix. It could be that you’ve changed your risk assessment and wish to have more stock and fewer bonds, vice versa, or your investments have grown in some categories from your original allocation and you need to get the mix back to where you started.

At any rate, reallocation is a relatively simple operation, and research tells us that it is important to reallocate regularly, such as on an annual basis. Below are five steps that you can use for a simple reallocation in your accounts.

Keep reading…

Predicting the Market is Like Predicting the Weather

English: An early weather map produced by the ...

If you’ve ever planned for a day out, picnic, family day or relaxing day outside chances are you turned on your TV, radio or grabbed your smartphone app and got an idea of what the weather was going to be for the day of your trip.

When you looked you got a prediction, based on the probability of what the weather patterns have shown in the past and you got an idea of what your day would look like. And sometime in your life, what was predicted to be a bright sunny day was laden with storm clouds, rain and gloom.

Trying to predict the market is like predicting the weather, only more confusing, more expensive, and less likely to get your desired outcome.

Keep reading…

7 Questions About Divorcee Social Security Benefits

Photo courtesy of Gabriel Santiago on unsplash.com

Photo courtesy of Gabriel Santiago on unsplash.com

Included in the myriad of questions that I regularly receive from readers are questions about how a divorced person can collect benefits based upon his or her ex-spouse’s Social Security record.

For a divorcee (as with many married couples) sometimes the ex’s benefits represent the lion’s share of the couple’s SS record. Because of this, many divorcees are very interested in knowing what benefits are available to them, and when.

In addition, even when the divorced spouse in question is not the higher earner there are questions about benefits that can be quite difficult to find answers for.

Keep reading…

Why Spending a Little On You Is Ok

Piggy bank

Read any financial column or blog and chances are the writers (including yours truly) have advocated that readers save their income, reduce expenses and get rid of debt. Sometimes this valuable information can get interpreted as you can never spend any money on yourself for little things here and there such as a meal out or grabbing a movie with a friend.

These little things can help keep you on track for your bigger savings targets by allowing you a bit of autonomy and a chance to enjoy the money you’re working hard to earn and save.

Think of it this way: let’s say someone is going on a diet and they absolutely refuse to eat any type of sweet, junk food or anything that would keep them from getting to the proper fitness level or weight they are looking to achieve.

What can (and usually does) happen is by denying themselves even the smallest little treat or dessert they eventually cave in and break their diet and binge eat on sweets, junk food, etc., often ending in a worse situation than they started.

The same can happen if we deprive ourselves the pleasure spending a little something because we want to. If we deprive ourselves too long, we can binge spend and completely lose sight of our goals or worse, be tempted to swipe the credit card to make up for the deprivation.

Now, this isn’t a green light to simply spend, it’s more of a cautionary yellow that says it’s ok, but don’t spend out of control.

IRS provides advice for avoiding phone scams

Photo courtesy of Thomas Lefebvre on unsplash.com

Photo courtesy of Thomas Lefebvre on unsplash.com

There has been a rash of phone scams going on this year – scammers posing as IRS agents that is. I haven’t personally received any of the calls, but I’ve had calls from several clients who have gotten these calls.

They can be very disconcerting, to say the least. In the typical phone scam, the caller contacts you out of the blue, and seems to have information about your home address, or bank, or other somewhat personal information. They then tell you that you owe a pile of taxes and you have to pay up now or the local police will be on the way to see you. They will readily take your credit or debit card information right now, over the phone.

The flip side is that they’ll say you have a refund coming and will ask for your bank account information so that they can transfer it to you, right away!

Keep reading…

16 Ways to Withdraw Money From Your 401k Without Penalty

Photo courtesy of Lucas Theis on unsplash.com

Photo courtesy of Lucas Theis on unsplash.com

When you have a 401k plan and hard times befall you, you may wonder if there is a way to get your hands on the money. In some cases you can get to the funds for a hardship withdrawal, but if you’re under age 59½ you will likely owe the 10% early withdrawal penalty. (The term 401k is used throughout this article, but these options apply to all qualified plans, including 403b, 457, etc.)

Generally it’s difficult to withdraw money from your 401k, that’s part of the value of a 401k plan – a sort of forced discipline that requires you to leave your savings alone until retirement or face some significant penalties. Many 401k plans have options available to get your hands on the money, but most have substantial qualifications that are tough to meet.

The list below is not all-inclusive, and each 401k plan administrator may have different restrictions or may not allow the option at all.

Keep reading…

Not All Index Funds are Created Equal

bite-out-of-money1As readers of this blog know we believe that markets are generally efficient and any time they’re not we accept that we won’t be the ones to exploit such inefficiencies. Readers further know that our choice of investment vehicles for both our clients’ and our money is index funds.

But that doesn’t mean that just any old fund will do. Even index funds can be different and by that we mean the expenses they charge.

Generally, an index fund at least in theory should charge significantly less than its active fund counterpart. The reason being is that index fund manager really isn’t actively managing anything. They’re simply replicating whatever index they are supposed to be replicating according to the fund’s parameters.

So a person may logically think that all index funds should charge roughly the same expenses. But that isn’t the case. Take for example the well-known Vanguard S&P 500 Index Fund charging just .05% for expenses. A similar fund by State Farm charges .75% in expenses in addition to a 5% load (commission). The Rydex S&P 500 Fund charges 1.57% in expenses with an additional 4.75% load (commission).

Generally an index fund’s objective will be to mirror the returns of the index before fees and expenses. The paragraph above explains what happens to investors’ return after fees and expenses are paid. The result is a return far different than what the index did Disclosure: this also includes any fees deducted by fee-only advisors – such as our firm. But the same adage is true: generally the lower the fees and expenses, the better for your returns.

Even Morningstar says that fees and expenses are important considerations in looking at return. Finally, Morningstar has an excellent glossary of terms to help investors understand what many of the terms tied to fees and expenses mean.

If you’re a proponent of index funds that’s good; now, be a proponent of cheap index funds.

8 Questions: Social Security Survivor Benefits

Photo courtesy of Patrik Goethe on unsplash.com

Photo courtesy of Patrik Goethe on unsplash.com

In this previous article we addressed some of the most common questions about Social Security Spousal Benefits. Keeping with the theme of developing FAQ sheets, today I’ll go through some of the most common questions about Social Security Survivor Benefits.

Survivor Benefits are available when a Social Security recipient passes away and leaves surviving dependents – spouse, children, and other dependent family members.

Keep reading…

Should You Have Gold in Your Portfolio?

American Gold Eagle

American Gold Eagle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We had a great question come in by request this week that we address the question of whether folks should have gold in their portfolios.

Gold can be included under the umbrella of a larger asset class known as commodities. Think of commodities as items used to make or produce other items – such as gold is used to produce jewelry, circuitry and coinage, while timber is used to make lumber and paper, while coal is used to make electricity and disappoint not-so-good kids on Christmas morning (sorry, couldn’t resist).

Getting back to gold, the reason an investor may want to consider it as part of their portfolio is because gold is correlated differently from the stock market. Simply put; its pricing moves differently relative to the stock market. This does not mean I’m recommending investors buy gold. Here’s why.

Imagine a lump of gold sitting on your kitchen table. What does it do? Nothing. It simply sits there. It produces no income, and according to a 2013 article in the Financial Analysts Journal, there was little evidence that gold was a hedge against inflation.

Even the great Oracle of Omaha, Warren Buffett has this to say about gold:

“What motivates most gold purchasers is their belief that the ranks of the fearful will grow. During the past decade that belief has proved correct. Beyond that, the rising price has on its own generated additional buying enthusiasm, attracting purchasers who see the rise as validating an investment thesis. As “bandwagon” investors join any party, they create their own truth – for a while.” http://www.berkshirehathaway.com/letters/2011ltr.pdf

My personal and professional opinion is that if an investor is bitten by the “gold bug”, consider putting your emotions aside and ask yourself why you want to invest in gold. Is it because everyone else is doing it, or is it because you know something the market doesn’t (likely rare)? I have joked with clients and students saying that if there’s an absolute “black swan” and the entire US and World economies collapse, what good is gold going to do us? We can’t eat it, can’t drink it, and it produces nothing in and of itself. Time to grow a vegetable garden as food will be a more valuable commodity at that point.

One area where gold may be a good investment is for numismatic purposes. Collecting various gold coins in various conditions and ages can be fun, rewarding and make an excellent hobby that can be passed on to heirs. Additionally, gold coins such as American Gold Eagles, South African Krugerrands, Canadian Maple Leafs and Chinese Pandas tend to hold their value more than the bullion will – simply because it has the numismatic value of collection, scarcity, and condition.

Finally, you may already “own” gold in your portfolio if you hold a broad based index such as a total stock market index fund or ETF (which our investment clients do). The reason I say you already “own” the gold is by owning broad index funds you’re already investing in companies that mine for and produce the precious metal. While you don’t technically own the asset; generally when the price of gold increases so does the stock of the companies that mine it.

There are even ETFs and index funds that hold commodities in general. While not specific to gold they hold gold, silver, timber and other commodities for additional asset allocation correlated differently to the market.

Other than starting a hobby or becoming a serious numismatist, there generally isn’t a need to own gold in order to achieve adequate diversification for potential long term portfolio success.

10 questions: Social Security Spousal Benefits

Photo courtesy of Dan Ruswick on unsplash.com

Photo courtesy of Dan Ruswick on unsplash.com

I recently had the pleasure of taking part in a live interactive event with Yahoo! Finance, where folks were able to ask virtually any question they wished. We received and responded to over 200 questions – they’re all on Facebook on the Yahoo! Finance page (click the link to go to the page). One recurring theme played out over and over: Social Security Spousal Benefits are not understood by a vast number of folks.

Naturally I find this to be disturbing.  Social Security Spousal Benefits often represent a large part of the total benefits available to a couple.  This benefit is even more important for many divorced spouses, as it might represent the only benefits available to many divorcees. Understanding this benefit is very important, as SSA staff often isn’t fully-conversant in the options that you have available.

Keep reading…

Social Security Wage Base Projected for 2015

Update 10/22/2014: The wage base has been set for 2015. See the article Social Security Wage Base Set for 2015.

According to the Social Security Administration trustees, the Social Security wage base for 2015 is projected to be $119,100.  This represents an increase of $2,100 from the 2014 wage base of $117,000.

This is an increase of 1.79% – and won’t be finalized until October when the other increases for Social Security amounts are announced. This is a relatively small increase when compared to recent annual increases we’ve seen.  The previous 3 years’ increases have averaged 3.09%.

This is different from the COLA (Cost of Living Adjustment), which has increased an average of 2.27% in the past three years. The 2014 COLA (applicable to 2015 benefits and other figures) will be released later in the year, typically in October.