Category Archives for "Financial Planning"

Jan 04

Ready & ABLE: 529A, a New Planning Tool for Disabled Family Members

By Chris Chen CFP | Financial Planning

Ready & ABLE: 529A, a New Planning Tool for Disabled Family Members

529AIn the week leading to the Christmas holiday, the US congress passed the ABLE Act of 2014 as part of the Tax Increase Prevention Act of 2014. ABLE stands for Achieving a Better Life Experience. The Act creates the new 529A plan. It is a significant change to the financial planning landscape for special needs beneficiaries.

The 529A plan is modeled after the Section 529 College Savings Plans, which are widely used for college planning. The 529A is meant to help people with disabilities as defined under Social Security rules and will allow tax advantaged distributions for certain expenses for the disabled beneficiary including housing, transportation, health and wellness, education and more without disqualifying the disabled individual from Federal and State aid.

As with the current 529 plans, for funds not used for qualifying expenses, any investment growth would be taxed as ordinary income plus a 10% penalty. Additionally, the funds can be rolled over tax-free from one ABLE account to another and the designated beneficiary can be changed from one disabled person in a family to another in the same family.

In theory the 529A will be limited to the same maximums that apply to 529 plans in their respective state. However, in practice the maximum amount that can be held in a 529A will be limited to $100,000.  Above that amount, the beneficiary may lose his or her qualification for Medicaid coverage.  In addition, a maximum of $14,000 can be contributed annually to a 529A.

There are other differences between the 529A and the current 529 plans. For example, it appears that the 529A will only be able to be used in the beneficiary’s resident home state. Hence, if the beneficiary moved, it may require rolling over the 529A from one state plan to another. That is different from the college 529, for which families can use the best state plan that they can find, including out of state plans.

The 529A is a great new tool to add to the panoply available to help disabled people. It will allow more middle-income families to plan support for their disabled family members with an easy to use framework that should be relatively low cost. The 529A comes with built-in advantages such as lower costs and tax advantages. On the other hand, there are restrictions for annual and maximum contributions to the 529A. On balance, the new plan should be very attractive to many middle class families.

It will take some time for 529A rules to be finalized and for states to roll out the plans. Hopefully, Massachusetts will be at the vanguard!

(an earlier version of this article also appeared in the Boston Globe)

Dec 05

Welcome Tom!

By Chris Chen CFP | Divorce Planning , Financial Planning , Retirement Planning

We are pleased to announce that Tom Seder CDFA has recently joined Insight Financial Strategists as a Wealth Strategist. Tom is a seasoned professional who brings a wealth of experience to our firm. He focuses on helping his clients invest and plan for Retirement and navigate the process of Divorce Financial Planning.

Almost everyone has concerns and questions about their financial futures: Will I run out of money before I die? How much risk can I take with my portfolio? How should I plan for healthcare costs in retirement? Are annuities worth the cost? What is my best strategy for collecting Social Security? How can I best provide for my surviving spouse? Should I keep the marital home or downsize or rent? Do I have appropriate insurance? How will I pay for college for my kids? The list is endless…there are many pieces to the puzzle, and Tom can help to assemble the puzzle and work with you to plan for a secure retirement with more confidence.

During his career as a Financial Advisor for a large brokerage house, Tom was struck by the particular financial difficulties and hurdles which divorcing clients faced and decided to specialize in the area of divorce planning. His own divorce experience, which included two separate modification of support actions and a trial, makes him committed to exploring practical resolutions which are in the client’s best interest, both financially and emotionally.

Tom graduated from Harvard College magna cum laude with a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Social Relations. He has two grown children who live in New York and the Washington DC area.  Tom is an avid bridge player and is a golf member at Oakley Country Club in Watertown.  He has completed the Financial Planning program at Boston University and is a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst. He is a member of The Divorce Center and the Institute for Divorce Financial Analysts.

Contact Tom with your questions!

Aug 30

Gender Lens Investing

By Chris Chen CFP | Financial Planning

 

Gender Lens Investing

By Harshita Mira Venkatesh

gender lens investing“Study after study has shown that when women are fully empowered and engaged, all of society benefits” according to Deputy United Nations secretary Asha-Rose Migiro.

While there are plenty of initiatives on a global scale to empower women in society, much progress still needs to be made in the corporate world: only 13 of the 500 largest corporations in the world have female CEO’s.

Women have been hindered in the corporate world because on average, they have less access to capital than men. In practice, this means that if a man and a woman both held the exact same job then on an average the woman would be earning less, and would face more discrimination because of her gender.

Additionally if the woman were from a minority race, the level of discrimination increases and her access to capital decreases even further.  In broader terms, women haven’t been able to succeed not because of genetic predisposition but because of the dearth of resources available to them.

As investors and global citizens we need to begin re-evaluating the success of the companies and organizations today through gender lens investing.

Gender lens investing means evaluating companies based on how their contributions to enhancing the status of women either by evaluating them on criteria such as:

1) The number of women they have on their boards, in senior management or in the work force.
2) The efforts the company makes towards enhancing the status of women in the community though their Corporate Social Responsibility Efforts.

From an Investors Perspective How Effective is Gender Lens Investing?

A 2012 study from the Harvard Business School showed that companies with an average of three women on the board of directors have a Higher Return on Equity Invested (by almost 60%) compared to companies with absolutely no women on the board of directors.

It has also been observed that micro-finance institutions catering towards women clients have fewer write-offs and see regular streams of loan repayment.

And in 2009 a Silicon Valley study showed that venture funded companies which were run by women have 12% higher returns on average.

This just goes to show that gender lens investing may just be smart investing.

How should you begin gender lens investing?

As of this writing, there are 333 mutual fund products which cater to ESG criteria (Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance), and several of these products were modified with a gender lens investing focus. Here are a few notable ones:

The Calvert Foundation launched WIN-WIN (Women Investing in Women Foundation) which was started in 2012 and aims to invest 20 million dollars in organizations which empower women.

The PAX Elevate Global Women’s Index Fund, seeks investments that closely correspond or exceed the performance of the PAX Global Women’s Leadership Index (the first and only broad market index consisting of highest rated companies in the world in advancing women’s leadership as rated by PAX gender analytics). The fund has returned 8.13% annually since inception in January 27, 2011 till December 31, 2013. In this very same period the Index has returned 7.86% annually.

GWEF (Global Women’s Equity Fund) was a purely gender lens investing oriented fund launched by the Toronto based Global Women Equity Corp. in 2013. The fund tries to invest in companies which have demonstrated support for women’s causes and are leaders in promoting women in the corporate workplace.

On July 9, 2014 Barclays launched a Women in Leadership Index and ETN (Exchange Traded Note). The Barclays index includes 83 U.S.-based companies that are listed on the NASDAQ or the New York Stock Exchange and have at least $250 million in market capitalization. Thirty-five of these companies have female CEOs.

Gender lens investing doesn’t seek to isolate successful male dominated companies. Rather gender lens investing asserts that gender heterogeneity in corporations is conducive to more educated decision making and better performance.   To learn more about gender lens investing consult your financial professional regarding the options available.

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This blog post is contributed by Harshita Mira Venkatesh, a student at the University of Rochester majoring in Financial Economics and Applied Mathematics.  Harshita was also a summer intern at Insight Financial Strategists LLC for the Summer of 2014.  She intends to pursue a career in equity research analysis.

Note:  All content provided on this blog post is for informational purposes only. We make no representation as to the accuracy or completeness of any information on this site or any information found by following any link on this site. The information is general in nature and may not be applicable or suitable to an individual’s specific circumstances or needs. Application to an individual situation may require considerations of other matters. The investments featured in this blog post are for illustration purposes only. No representation is made as to their suitability for any individual’s portfolio. If you have questions about the mutual funds described, please contact your investment professional.

Jul 24

Five Considerations For Managing Your Employee Stock Options

By Chris Chen CFP | Financial Planning

Five Considerations For Managing Your Employee Stock Options

Five Considerations for Managing Your Employee Stock OptionsAccording to the 2010 General Social Survey, approximately 8.7% of Americans in the private sector have Employee Stock Options. More have restricted stock, restricted stock units, phantom shares, and so on. The odds that you own them yourself are good especially if you are in senior management. If you are among the lucky few, it is a financial opportunity to build wealth in a way that is difficult with a regular salary. However, because of their special nature Employee Stock Options require special planning.

Employee stock options allow you to purchase your employer’s stock at a pre-determined price. When you exercise the option and purchase the stock you are expected to make a profit. As you ascend in seniority, you are likely to receive more employee stock options and eventually they may form a large portion of your compensation.

A long time ago when I used to receive employee stock options, a mentor instructed me that ESO were a unique opportunity for an employee to build wealth. I agree. However, employee stock options are more complicated than traditional financial instruments such as stocks, bonds, or 401(k) accounts. Their actual value can be volatile, and the impact on your portfolio wealth uncertain if you do not plan for it.

Five key steps to watch are: 

1. Know what you have

Consider what kind of instrument you have. Most people get Non Qualified Stock Options (NQSO); others get Incentive Stock Options (ISO). The major difference is how and when they are taxed. It is important to know what you have so you can plan accordingly

2. Plan for taxes

The good news is that employee stock options receive tax benefits under current Federal law. The down side is that you will eventually owe taxes. NQSO are taxed as ordinary income when they vest. They also incur payroll taxes. ISO are taxed when the underlying stock is sold, i.e. after you have exercised the stock. If you sell the stock more than one year after you exercise it, it will usually be taxed at capital gains rate.  With planning you can make sure that you are ready for the impact.

3. Beware of the risks of ownership

Owning Employee Stock Options may carry additional risks, especially as you get more of them. As Wealth Strategists we recommend that you should not concentrate too much of your wealth in a single stock. As an employee you are already exposed to the risk of your employer: you work there and you depend on your employer for your income. You need to evaluate how much more of that risk you can afford. If in addition to having employee options you also own stock in your employer either directly or in the company 401k, we need to talk!

Of course employee stock options need to vest before you can do anything about them. However, when they vest you can mitigate the concentration risk by diversifying or selling a portion in the most tax efficient manner, then reallocating the proceeds to other investments.

4. Harvest your gains

The optimal time to exercise employee stock options and sell them, is soon after they vest, with allowance added for the tax differences. According to Options Pricing Theory, beloved of MBAs, gains can be maximized by postponing exercise until shortly before expiration. In practice, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush: you never know when the next market downturn is coming.

5. Plan for Re-investment

Two pressing problems at exercise time are: 1) where to get the money to pay the taxes, and 2) what to do with the proceeds.

One example of a way to handle can be to balance the additional income from stock options with a temporary increase in 401k or IRA contributions. The additional 401k contribution reduces your taxable income, as well as your cash flow. That is balanced by the increase in taxable income and cash flow that comes from the exercised options or sold stock.

In that way your tax level may remain at equivalent levels. And you will have stored away the gain.

Option wealth comes with many complex issues to consider. However, it is an exciting opportunity for you and your family to build or fortify a nest egg and further secure your financial future. As Wealth Managers our primary goal is to help you plan strategically to maximize the value of this unique opportunity.

(a version of this post appeared on boston.com).

 

Jul 01

Socially Responsible Investing

By Chris Chen CFP | Financial Planning

 

Socially Responsible Investing

By Harshita Mira Venkatesh

At a Symposium on Impact Investing held at the Vatican during the third week of June, Pope Francis appealed to sustainable investors to support social justice through their actions. According to the Pope: “It is important that ethics once again play its due part in the world of finance and that markets serve the interests of peoples and the common good of humanity.”

Changing ourselves as individuals is merely the first step. The second more imperative question to ask is: how can we make the companies and organizations around us behave and act in a systematically conscious manner for the advancement of society? As individuals some of us may feel overwhelmed by the scale of such a question. The answer was highlighted by Pope Francis during the symposium: we should make our investments count .

Impact investing or Socially Responsible Investing is when you not only invest in a corporation but also in the message they spread. For instance:

Starbucks is one of the most powerful coffee chains in the world. While they brew their signature coffee blends, they simultaneously aim to keep the underlying coffee bean environmentally equitable by using “Green Coffee” or fair trade coffee.

Ben and Jerry’s make wholesome dairy products and they also donate more than 7.5% of their pre-tax profit to various charities around the world.

Dell supports 4,615 charities around the world. In addition the Dell Social Innovation Challenge aims to mentor and nurture social entrepreneurs who have potentially socially consequential ideas.

Whole Foods may be our local grocer; internationally the organization supports 40,000 impoverished female micro-entrepreneurs.

The list goes on. It may be worthwhile to note that while these companies have achieved paramount corporate Socially Responsible Investing standards, they are also highly profitable enterprises. Socially Responsible Investing does not mean forfeiting gains, just choosing how to obtain them.

The inevitable question arises: do these organizations use their socially conscious efforts to mask their corporate greed?

None of these organizations are not 100% socially responsible in their actions.  Yet they have taken stride to mitigate their harmful activities as well as promoting social causes.  It is precisely this trend that we as social investors should campaign for.

There are a wide array of Socially Responsible Investing funds available offered by several well established fund managers as well as specialized advisers. These funds screen companies based on their ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) standards. They simultaneously attempt to retain a diversified portfolio to mitigate the underlying risk.

  • The Calvert Social Index Fund is an index fund benchmarked on the Calvert Social Index® established to measure the performance of US-based sustainable and responsible companies. It has a diversified 699 issues in its current portfolio and a four star rating from Morningstar. The average return annually over a ten year period ranging from 4/01/04 to 3/31/14 for the A-shares is 6.15%, while the return of the Calvert Social Index during this period is 7.21%.

  • Another notable one is the Parnassus Fund which is benchmarked against the S&P 500. The average return of the A shares (post tax and excluding distribution fees) over a ten year period (01/01/04 to 12/31/2013) is 6.99% .The return of the S&P 500 by comparison for this period is 7.39%.

  • The iShares MSCI KLD 400 Social ETFis indexed to the MSCI KLD 400 Social Index (a free floating adjusted capitalization weighted index consisting of companies which comply with strict ESG standards). The fund’s performance since inception (11/14/06 to 12/31/13) has been 6.11%. The Index by contrast had a 6.65% annual average return over the same period.

  • The Green Century Balanced Fund contains a diversified portfolio of stocks and bonds. It is benchmarked against the S&P 500 Its return over the last ten year period has been 4.97% (04/01/04 to 3/31/14), compared with 8.34% for the S&P 500 over the same period.

These choices are not exhaustive. However, they demonstrate that there are Socially Responsible Investing choices that are valid from an investment standpoint. These Socially Responsible Investing options are diversified and varied. They are constructed in such a way that you need not sacrifice on returns in order to be socially conscious.  

If you are interested in Socially Responsible Investing, take some time to research the possibilities and consult your Financial Planner regarding the investment options available and how they may fit in with your goals and your portfolio.

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This blog post is contributed by Harshita Mira Venkatesh, a student at the University of Rochester majoring in Financial Economics and Applied Mathematics.  Harshita is also a summer intern at Insight Financial Strategists LLC for the Summer of 2014.  She intends to pursue a career in equity research analysis.

Note:  All content provided on this blog post is for informational purposes only. We make no representation as to the accuracy or completeness of any information on this site or any information found by following any link on this site. The information is general in nature and may not be applicable or suitable to an individual’s specific circumstances or needs. Application to an individual situation may require considerations of other matters. The investments featured in this blog post are for illustration purposes only. No representation is made as to their suitability for any individual’s portfolio. If you have questions about the mutual funds described, please contact your investment professional.

May 30

The IRS thinks you are cheating on your Spousal Support

By Chris Chen CFP | Divorce Planning , Financial Planning

 

The IRS thinks you are cheating on your spousal support

Spousal SupportAccording to the Journal of Accountancy, the IRS has increased resources devoted to scrutinizing alimony, or spousal support.  

As is well known amongst divorcing individuals and the professionals who support them, the tax code allows the payor of spousal support to deduct it from taxable income, while the recipient must include it in taxable income. So if Kevin pays Kate $30,000 of spousal support a year, he can reduce his taxable income by that amount while she is supposed to claim it as income, and pay taxes. 

Predictably, divorced couples don’t agree about spousal support any more than they do about anything else. On March 31 2014, TIGTA , the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, an IRS watchdog, issued a report identifying a large tax gap between spousal support deductions by payers and the corresponding income claimed on ex-spouses’ returns.

With its mouthful of a title (“Significant Discrepancies exist  between Alimony Deductions Claimed by Payers and Income Reported by Recipients“), TIGTA clearly wants us to pay attention.  TIGTA found that for the 570,000 returns that they analyzed for the tax year 2010, deductions exceeded income by more than $2.3 billion. More than 47% of returns showed discrepancies between the spousal payments deducted and the income reported.

According to Mike Conti, a CPA in Boston, TIGTA estimated that the IRS revenue loss from spousal support errors could add up to $1.7 billion over a five year period. Although that is small compared to the estimated $385 billion tax gap experienced in the US, spousal support is now a target for the IRS that has been identified and quantified. 

In fact, the IRS reported adjusting its audit filters to catch more high risk returns. The WSJ (paid access) reports that the IRS is developing “other strategies” to address the spousal support tax gap. In other words, divorcing individuals, at least those paying and receiving spousal support will be at a higher risk for an audit.

There are enough things going on in a divorce that a potential IRS audit may not make it to the top of the list of concerns.  However, given that it is now completely predictable, it is better for divorcing individuals to pay the extra attention and avoid the audit or be ready for it.

For people paying spousal support as well as for those receiving it, it is important to ensure that:

1. You fully understand what is alimony and what is not. Separation agreements are written in a legal style that is not always clear to non-lawyers. If you are not sure, if you have questions check with a financial specialist such as a CFP® professional, a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst (CDFA) or a CPA.

2. You agree with your ex on what spousal support amount you are putting on your respective tax returns. Having a discrepancy between what he files and what she files could put both of you at greater risk for an audit.

3. Your separation agreement correctly specifies spousal support. If it does not and you get audited, alimony could get disallowed. If you have not done so already, take the opportunity to verify that your separation agreement correctly specifies spousal support.

4. You get professional post-divorce support. You will need it anyway for any number of other issues. Analyzing spousal support and filing taxes correctly are just two of them.

5. Avoid pushing the envelope on this issue. It is simply not worth the additional aggravation. 

(a version of this post appeared on boston.com)

 

Mar 23

8 Strategies For Financial Success

By Chris Chen CFP | Financial Planning

8 Strategies For Financial Success

File:Financial Planning.png

If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. That was the subject of a presentation I made recently at Sun Life Financial in Wellesley. While this may sound like an old cliché it illustrates a very important aspect of personal finance: a financial plan is critical.

Regardless of age or income it is essential that you have a personal financial plan for your finances. However, creating a strategy for financial success is actually the easy part; you just need to know where to start. The 8 strategies below can serve as a guide for straightening out your finances and building a better financial future.

1. Develop a Budget

There are many reasons to create a budget. First, it builds a foundation for all the other suggestions in this article. Second, it allows you to pinpoint problem areas and correct them. Third, you will learn to differentiate between your needs and your wants. Lastly, having a financial plan to cover expenses planned and laid out will give you peace of mind. Once done, be sure to stick with it! 

2. Build an Emergency Fund

As part of your budget, you will also need to plan for an emergency fund. Unfortunately we cannot plan the unexpected. We just know that it will happen sooner or later. To cover yourself in case of an emergency (i.e. unemployment, injury, car repair, etc.) you need an emergency fund to cover three to six months of living expenses. 

An emergency fund does not happen overnight. It needs to be part of your budget and financial plan. It also needs to be a in separate account, maybe a savings account. Or some in a savings and some more in a CD. The bottom line is that it needs to be out of sight and out of mind, so that it will be there when needed.

3. Stretch Your Dollars

Now that you know what you need and what you want, be resourceful, and be strategic when you spend on what you want. For instance re-evaluate your daily Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks habit, if you have one. Can it be weekly instead of daily? If you eat out for lunch everyday, could you pack lunch some days? 

4. Differentiate between Good Debt and Bad Debt

It is important to remember that not all debt is created equal. There is a significant distinction between good debt and bad debt. Good debt, such as a mortgage, typically comes with a low interest rate, tax benefits, and supports an investment that grows in value.

Bad debt, such as credit card debt, will burden you with high interest rates, no tax benefits, and no hope for appreciation. Bad debt will actually reduce your standard of living. When looking at your financial plan you want to make sure that you are keeping bad debts to a minimum. Actually, don’t keep to a minimum: make it go away. 

5. Repay Your Debts

Paying back your debts, especially the bad ones, is one of the most important steps to the success of a financial plan, because debt will only increase if you do not actively work to pay it off. You should include in your budget a significant amount of funds for debt repayment. 

Fact is paying off debt is a drag, and sometimes it is difficult to see the end of the tunnel. One way to accelerate the process of paying debt down is to pay strategically. When you pay over your minimum payments, don’t spread it around all your debts. Concentrate your over-payment on a single debt, the one that’s closest to being paid off. It will make that payment go away faster. And when it’s gone, you can direct the liberated cash flow to the next one, and so on.

6. Know Your Credit Score

A high credit score will make it easier to get loans and credit cards with much more attractive interest rates, which will mean less money spent on interest payments and more money in your pocket. Take advantage of the free credit report that the credit companies must provide you free of charge annually. Make sure that there is no mistake on it. 

7. Pay Yourself First 

Set aside a portion of your paycheck each month to “pay yourself first” and invest in a savings or retirement account. Take advantage of the tax deferral option that come with many retirement plans such as 401(k) or IRAs. If you have just come out of doing your budget, and you don’t know how to do it all, tax deferred retirement accounts actually help you reduce taxes now (it will come due later, but you will have a retirement plan then, right?). Also, think of the matching funds that many employers offer to contribute to your 401(k). This is actually part of your compensation. Don’t leave it. Take it.

In my line of work, people tell me often that they will never retire. The reality is that everyone will retire someday and it is up to you to make sure that you are financially ready. 

8. Check Your Insurance Plans

Lastly, review your insurance coverage. Meet with your certified financial planner and make sure that your policies match the goals in your financial plan. Insurance is a form of emergency fund planning. At times we will have events that a regular emergency fund won’t be able to cover. Then you will be happy to have property or health or disability or long term care or even life insurance. 

If you have any questions or require additional assistance, contact a certified financial planner. They can help you identify your goals and create a financial plan to successfully meet them.

The easy part is starting the financial plan. The hard part is actually implementing. Don’t do it alone, and let me know if I can help.

Mar 03

Roth IRA or Regular IRA?

By Chris Chen CFP | Financial Planning

stockmonkeys.comAs a Financial Planner, I often get asked if people should save money in a Regular IRA or a Roth IRA. In a Regular IRA, we contribute money on a pre-tax basis (i.e. we do not pay taxes on our IRA contributions), we let it grow tax-deferred, and we pay taxes when we withdraw the money in retirement. In a Roth IRA, we contribute after-tax money, we let it grow tax-free and we pay no taxes when we withdraw the money in retirement.

That last point (“we pay no taxes when we withdraw the money in retirement”) is of course the one that gets our attention. We don’t like paying taxes, and the thought that we could have tax free income in retirement is really motivating, so much so, that, sometimes, it can be the only thing we focus on.

However the IRA story is not quite that straightforward.

The reality is that we WILL pay taxes whether it is for a Roth IRA or a Regular IRA. With a Regular IRA, we pay taxes when we withdraw the money. With a Roth IRA, we pay taxes before we contribute the money. At the risk of disappointing many readers, allow me to repeat: the Roth IRA is NOT tax-free.

When you do the math you will find that if you 1) invest in the same way in a Roth IRA and a Regular IRA, and 2) are taxed at the same rate on your Roth IRA contribution today, as on your Regular IRA withdrawals at retirement, you will end up with the exact same amount of money to spend in retirement. Call us: we will show you the math.

So which one is best? The answer is that it depends.

In general it makes sense to invest through a Roth IRA when we think that our tax rate in retirement will be equal to or higher than our current tax rate. If we think that our tax rate in retirement will be lower than our current tax rate it makes better sense to invest through a Regular IRA.

How then should you decide?

It depends on your situation.

For instance, if you are at the peak of your earnings, and you can calculate that your income in retirement will be significantly less than it is today, investing in a regular IRA will save you tax money immediately. Since you expect to be in a lower tax bracket at retirement, you will end up paying less taxes.

If you are currently a low earner, and expect to have higher income in retirement than you have now, contributing to a Roth IRA will cost you relatively little taxes, and you will not pay any more when you retire.

Because there are many phases in our working life, there are times when it makes better sense to invest through a Roth IRA or Roth 401(k), and other times when it makes better sense to invest through a Regular IRA or a Regular 401(k). Conversely, there will be times in our retired life when it will make better sense to withdraw from a Roth IRA, and others when it will make better sense to withdraw from a Regular IRA.

It is about balance and careful financial planning. In the right circumstances, the proper balance between Roth and Regular IRAs could save you a significant tax bill. In my opinion, it justifies a consultation with a professional financial planner.

 


Dec 16

What is Bitcoin, exactly?

By Chris Chen CFP | Financial Planning

What is Bitcoin, exactly?

BitcoinWhat is Bitcoin?

Bitcoin is a cryptographic protocol operating on a peer-to peer network created in 2009. This protocol is utilized in the form of a currency, allowing for direct transactions between individuals. Simply put, and as implied above, Bitcoin is an anonymous digital currency, which circumvents financial intermediaries in transactions.

Bitcoin can be considered in 4 parts:

1. How are Bitcoins created ? Bitcoins are created through a process called “mining”. The fundamental basis Bitcoin is founded upon is an algorithm, which regulates the speed at which Bitcoin can be “mined” and the manner in which it is used or transferred. In terms of speed, essentially, a computer program, accessible to anyone, works to solve an equation. Once it solves the equation, that person is awarded a certain amount of Bitcoins. The time it takes to solve an equation get progressively harder leading to diminishing returns, as the cap of 21 million Bitcoins gets closer (i.e. there is no additional money supply).

2. How does Bitcoin work? Bitcoins have two encryption keys: one public and one private. The public one has a similar role to an account number and the private one has a similar function to a PIN. Anyone can see the public one and the private one is stored in a “wallet” on the user’s computer or mobile device. These wallets store multiple Bitcoin addresses, created at the users’ discretion. To undertake a transaction, the user would simply give (whether directly or through a Bitcoin client) their private key, which can then be verified versus the public key to confirm the legitimacy of the transaction. Transactions are recorded in a public ledger in what are called “block chains”.

3. Why do people use Bitcoin? Bitcoin is used for its comparative advantages over other forms of currency and transaction methods. It is worth noting that one major attraction to Bitcoin, the anonymity factor, has drawn criticism from certain sectors (i.e. the US government). Websites, most infamously Silk Road (which was closed by the FBI in October 2013), use Bitcoin as a safe currency when dealing with illegal transactions (e.g. drugs, arms). Concern is that as Bitcoin becomes more liquid and volumes start increasing, it will become a target for money-launderers. Other comparative advantages which stand out are simply the fact that it is digital – giving it greater flexibility of usage – and that it is not subject to conventional political pressure or externalities. This second point derives from Bitcoin’s decentralisation, making market influences by a central bank (e.g. printing money) or a government (e.g. Cyprus’ proposed tax on bank deposits) irrelevant. Furthermore, the greatest attraction, at least from the financial side, is that Bitcoin is essentially frictionless; the digital currency has virtually no transaction fees, making cross-border transactions a main driver of future growth and monetisation.

Today, Bitcoin has limited usage. There are a number of services allowing individuals to obtain Bitcoins, through an intermediary or directly on the market (BTC China is the largest one at present, with c. 48% of Bitcoin activity). While large retailers do not accept Bitcoin, there are several services for the purchase of gift cards (e.g. Gyft), for example, providing an indirect method of accessing the retail market. Other website and small-scale retail also provide goods and services.

4. Every Bitcoin has two sides. Bitcoin suffers from a number of problems, many of which mirror the currency’s positives. The largest worry people have and the largest hurdle for Bitcoin and digital currencies in general is the lack of regulation and consumer protection. Simply put, what people don’t know, they don’t trust. While government and central bank action is certainly debatable, these institutions provide the authority to back a currency. Similarly, fees for companies such as MasterCard are used to insure users. The result of the lack of regulation, among other reasons, is a volatile and illiquid currency. Consumer confidence would go a long way to solving many of Bitcoin’s problems, with regulation, a potential platform, market penetration and less speculation key factors in controlling this.

From a technical perspective, digital currencies and especially Bitcoin have encountered difficulties of scalability and monetisation, with deflation a potential concern given the technical limit of 21 million Bitcoins. While perhaps simply growing pains, the currency has not gained any meaningful traction concerning scale and monetisation.  While the number of transactions have been increasing on absolute levels, normalised compounded monthly growth rates have been about 10%, compared to a previous rate of 13.6% (since the start of 2012).

(This guest blog was contributed by Patrick Chen, a graduate student in Finance at the Institut des Etudes Politiques, in Paris, France.  Insight Financial Strategists LLC does not provide Bitcoin advice or services.  This is published as an interesting topical topic ).

Oct 24

News for Stafford Student Loans

By Diane Pappas | Financial Planning

Gordon College Students pondering student loansDid you notice that the interest rate on your child’s Stafford student loan changed for the 2013 – 2014 school year? In fact, in the case of the unsubsidized undergraduate and graduate Stafford student loans, the rate actually went down!

On August 9, 2013 President Obama signed the Bipartisan Student Loan Certainty Act of 2013, changing how student loan interest rates are determined. The bill links student loan rates to the Federal 10-year Treasury rate, plus a small margin. The new rates are retroactive, effective for all loans disbursed on or after July 1, 2013. This affects all students who took out Stafford student loans for the 2013-2014 school year.

As the Mom of a sophomore in college, this is good news for me, since I try to pay the accrued interest annually on my daughter’s unsubsidized Stafford student loan in an effort to reduce her student loan balance upon graduation. Just to make sure the interest rate had in fact been applied, I logged onto our Nelnet account to confirm the new rate. As long as the T-bill rates stay low, I should see lower interest payments.

Although the interest rate on the unsubsidized Stafford student loan went down from 6.80% to 3.40%, which is great, it is not without a trade-off. Federal student loan interest rates are fixed for the life of the loan, however, the rates for new loans will fluctuate, based on the current market. The new Stafford student loan interest rates are in effect from 7/01/2013 to 6/30/2014. This means that there is the potential for higher interest rates and payments down the road, which may be devastating for newly employed graduates trying to establish a spending budget. Existing Federal student loan interest rates are still fixed for the life of the loan, so my other daughter, who graduated this year with $27,000 in Stafford student loans, doesn’t need to worry about the possibility of higher payments.

The interest rates for the current 2013-2014 academic year are as follows:

  • 3.86% for undergraduate Stafford loans (both subsidized and unsubsidized)
  • 5.41% for graduate Stafford loans (a decrease from 6.80%)
  • 6.41% on all PLUS loans (a decrease from 7.9%)

The undergraduate subsidized rate actually increased from 3.4% to 3.86%, but the unsubsidized undergraduate and graduate interest rates both decreased from 6.80%.

The good news is the bill immediately lowers rates for most borrowers and it has no expiration date, so students will not have to wait for Congress to act to extend interest rate reductions as in the past. Parents and students who chose to pay the accrued interest on unsubsidized loans while the student is still in school, should take advantage of the lower interest rates to make those interest payments while rates are low.

The bad news is that market-based interest rates are not static. As the economy improves, they will rise and the experts predict that may happen quickly. The bill does cap how high the rates can go – 8.25% and 9.5% for subsidized and unsubsidized Stafford student loans respectively and 10.5% for all PLUS student loans for parents. Those caps are all higher than where the fixed rates stood prior to July, so depending on the level of debt, some students may be very affected by an increase in rates in a couple of years.

I did a quick calculation to see how the new rates and caps may affect my sophomore upon graduation. Assuming I paid all accrued interest and she graduated with a loan balance of $27,000 and the interest rate remained at 3.86%, her monthly payment would be $272. If the interest rate hit the cap of 9.5%, her payment would be $349. Although a difference of $77 does not seem insurmountable, it will have some impact on that student’s net available income.

The new student loan interest rate deal only fixes one thing – interest rates. It does nothing to address the larger issues plaguing higher education, namely ever rising tuition, over-borrowing and the mounting student debt crisis. Let’s hope Congress will address these issues some day soon.  Study hard kids and get that job!