Category Archives for "Financial Planning"

Dec 09

Year End Tax Planning Opportunities

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

Year End Tax Planning Opportunities

The Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017 (TCJA) was the most consequential tax reform package in this generation. It changed many of the ways that we think about reducing taxes.

According to the Tax Policy Center, we know that about 80% of taxpayers pay less income tax in 2018 than before the TCJA , about 5% pay more, and the balance of taxpayers pay about the same amount. On balance, the TCJA seems to have delivered on its promises.

A key item of the TCJA is that it increased the standard deduction, reducing the impact of the elimination of State and Local Taxes (SALT) under $10,000 and the elimination of personal deductions. As a result, about 84% of taxpayers claim the standard deduction and do not itemize. By comparison, about 56% of taxpayers itemized before the enactment of the TCJA. The vast majority of taxpayers are no longer subject to the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT), since two of its key drivers, the deductibility of state and local taxes and personal deductions, are no longer a practical issue for most people. And in 2018, only 1,700 estates were subject to the federal estate and gift tax. So for most people, the TCJA has made taxes simpler to deal with. What’s there not to like about a simpler tax return ?

Federal deficit due to tax cuts

Source: Congressional Budget Office

Impact of the TCJA on the Federal Deficit

As predicted, the TCJA worsened the federal deficit bringing it to nearly a trillion dollars in fiscal year 2019. That was in spite of an increase in tax revenue due to the continuing improvement in the economic climate. Of course, the federal deficit continues to be driven by federal spending on the sacred cows of modern US politics: Defense, Social Security, and Medicare. Interest on the federal debt is also a major budget item that needs to be paid. While our continuing regime of low interest rates is helping control the interest on the debt, it is clear that the future may change that.

What will happen to tax rates?

Tax rates are lower now than they have been since the 1970s and 80s. Hence, industry insiders tend to think that tax rates have nowhere to go but up.  That is also what’s is predicted by the TCJA, which is largely designed to sunset in 2025. Should the American people turn on Republicans at the 2020 election, it’s possible that the TCJA will see a premature end. However, it seems that the possibility that the American people might elect a progressive in 2020 is largely discounted when it comes to tax rate forecasting: most people assume that tax rates will increase.

Year-End Planning

Political forecasting aside, there are still things that we can do to lower our taxes . It should be noted that many of the techniques in this article are not limited to the year-end. Furthermore, we all have different situations that may or may not be appropriate for these techniques. 

Tax Loss Harvesting

Even though we have had a pretty good year overall, many of us may still have positions in which we have paper losses. Tax-loss harvesting consists of selling these positions to realize the losses. This becomes valuable when you sell the equivalent amount of shares in which you have gains. So if you sell some shares with $10,000 in losses, and some with $10,000 in gains, you have effectively canceled out the taxes on the gains.

You then have to reinvest the shares sold into another investment. Be careful not to buy back the exact same shares that you sold. That would disallow the tax loss harvesting!

At the same time, it makes sense to review your portfolio and see if there are other changes that you would like to make. We are not fans of frequent changes for its own sake. However, periodically our needs change, the markets change, and we need to adapt.

Income Tax Planning

While tax loss harvesting is mostly about managing Capital Gains taxes, it is also important to keep an eye on income tax planning . This is a good time of year to estimate your income and your taxes for the year. When comparing your estimated Adjusted Gross Income with the tax tables, you will see if you might be creeping up into the next tax bracket. For instance, if you are single and your estimated AGI is $169,501 (and you have no other complexity), you are right at the 32% tax bracket (after you remove the $12,000 standard deduction).  In this example, that means that for every dollar above that amount you would owe 32 cents in federal income tax, and a little bit more for state income tax, if that applies to you.

If your income is from a business, you may possibly defer some of that income to next year. If your income comes from wages, another way to manage this is to plan an additional contribution to a retirement account. In the best of cases your $1,000 contribution would reduce your taxes by $320, and a little bit more for state taxes.

In some cases, you might have a significant dip in income. Perhaps if you have a business, you reported some large purchases, or you booked a loss or just had a bad year for income. It may make sense at this point to take advantage of your temporarily low tax rate to do a Roth conversion. Check with your wealth manager or tax preparer.

If your income does not straddle two tax brackets, the decision to invest in a Traditional IRA or a Roth IRA is still worth considering.

Charitable Contributions

By increasing standard deductions, the TCJA has made it more difficult for people to deduct charitable contributions . As a result, charitable contributions bring few if any tax benefits for most people.

One way around that situation is to bundle or lump charitable gifts. Instead of giving every year, you can give 2, 3 or more years worth of donations at one time. That would allow your charity to receive the contribution, and, potentially, for you to take a tax deduction. 

Pushing the bundling concept further, you could give even more to a Donor Advised Fund (DAF). With that option, you could take a tax deduction, and give every year from the DAF. That allows you to control your donations, reduce your income in the year that you donate, and potentially reduce income taxes and Medicare premiums. Consult your wealth strategist to ensure that taxes, income, and donations are optimized.

Retirement Accounts

First, it is important to review Required Minimum Distribution (RMDs). Anyone who is 70 ½ years of age or older is subject to RMDs. Please make sure to connect with your financial advisor to make sure that the RMD is properly withdrawn before the year-end.

The RMD is a perennial subject of irritation for people . Obviously, if your retirement income plan includes the use of RMDs, it’s not so much of an issue. However, if it is not required, it can be irritating. That is because RMD distributions are subject to income taxes that may even push you into the next tax bracket or increase your Medicare premium. There are, however, some ways that you can deal with that.  

For instance, if you take a Qualified Charitable Distribution (QCD) from your IRA and have the distribution given directly to a charity, the distribution will not be income to you. Hence you won’t pay income taxes on that distribution, and it will not be counted toward the income used to calculate your Medicare premium. However, it will fulfill your RMD, thus taking care of that pesky issue.

Generally, we advocate planning for lifetime taxes rather than for any one given year. Lifetime financial planning has the potential to result in even more benefits. It should be noted that many of the possibilities outlined in this article can be used throughout the year, not just at year-end. We encourage you to have that conversation with your wealth management team to plan for the long term!

Nov 26

8 Reasons you need a Business Valuation

By Jason Berube | Financial Planning

8 Reasons for a Business Valuation

Why you need a Valuation

If you value your business, you should know the value of your business. Every business owner should have an up-to-date business valuation wherever you are in your business’s lifecycle. It is important to know the value of your business sooner rather than later. For a variety of reasons, owners like you will want to have an ongoing understanding of where you stand.  In this post, I will be describing eight of the most common reasons for valuing ongoing businesses, the different valuation methods, and advice for future planning. 

1. Measuring Your Company’s Growth A business valuation delivers a calculated benchmark for comparing your annual growth. Specifically, a valuation report details areas for improvement and what is having a negative impact on your business, such as unstable cash flow, poor systems and procedures and key staff dependencies. Correcting these negative impacts can often translate into opportunities for business and valuation growth.

2. Selling your Business – This is one of the most common reasons for needing a valuation. Knowing your business’ true value and how to increase its Earnings Before Interest and Tax (EBIT) is crucial if you’re planning to sell (as EBIT is a critical factor in valuation). Much like using a valuation to measure your business’ growth, in the case of preparing for a sale you can use the valuation to identify areas for improvement and strategically implement developments to improve your business’ value by the time you plan to sell. Even if you want to sell only a percentage of your company, to get a partner, for example, an owner will need to know the value of the interest being transferred.

What is Earnings Before Interest and Taxes (EBIT)? In accounting and finance, EBIT  is a measure of a company’s profit that includes all income and expenses (operating and non-operating) except interest expenses and income tax expenses.

3. Attracting Investment Opportunities – You never know when an attractive opportunity will present itself. A valuation can be like your business’s resume for potential investors. It provides a snapshot of your business performance in the current economic climate. If you are seeking investors, annual valuations are essential.

4. Planning for expansion – When using a business valuation to measure your business’ growth, you might also decide that it’s the right time to expand your business.  An annual valuation provides an accurate performance benchmark and can make it easier to obtain funding from lenders and financial institutions. Having completed business valuations regularly can help you plan strategically and grow at the right time. 

5. Retirement PlanningMany business owners put their heart and soul (not to mention their life savings) into their business, with the hope that it will one day provide them with a retirement nest egg. If your long-term goal is to retire comfortably on the proceeds of the sale of your company, you need to be prepared.  A periodic update of the value of your company can help you determine if you are on track, and if you are not, what corrective measures to implement.

6. Implementing an EXIT strategy – Every exit plan should align with the owner’s business and personal goals. You have worked a lifetime to build your business into a profitable, well-run operation. A successful exit from a business takes considerable planning. Annual business valuations create a ‘starting point’ for the planning process. No matter what exit strategy you choose (merger/acquisition, sale to employees, etc.), you will need an accurate insight into the value of your share of the business. Regular business valuations will provide a clear picture of your business’s financial position at all times, and help you to achieve the best possible outcome when it is time to ‘exit’.

7. Litigation – If the Principal/Owner of the business is involved in legal proceedings such as a divorce or other lawsuit, the business may need to be valued as part of a property settlement. Divorce and legal disputes can sometimes be difficult topics to discuss. By implementing regular business valuations you’ll have an up-to-date financial record of your business assets which can be useful in legal proceedings such as a divorce or an audit investigation with a government agency.

8. Insurance coverage – Buy-sell arrangements between heirs of the owners’ estate will often include a life insurance requirement so that funds are available in the event of a co-owner’s death. The other co-owners are paid a lump sum benefit, which is then used to buy out the interest of the deceased’s surviving family members. An up-to-date business valuation is vital for this agreement. Insurance companies will ask for it, as your family’s/estate will be paid according to your share of the business value upon your death.

Three Approaches of a Business Valuation

Did you know that there is more than one approach to valuing your business?

There are several business valuation methods. The three most common types of business valuation are the Cost Approach, the Income Approach, and the Market Approach. While methods under each approach rely upon compatible sets of economic principles, the procedural and mathematical details of each business valuation method may differ considerably. 

Businesses are unique and putting a price on a company is complex. Cost, income, and market data must all be considered in order to form an opinion of value. 

The Cost Approach looks at how much it would cost to reconstruct or replace your company (or certain assets that are part of it). When applied to the valuation of owners’ or stockholders’ equity, the cost approach requires a restatement of the balance sheet that substitutes the fair market values of assets and liabilities for their book or depreciated values.

The Income Approach looks at the present value of the future economic benefits of your company. That future is then discounted at a rate commensurate with alternative investments of similar quality and risk.

The Market Approach measures the value of your company, or its assets, by comparing it to similar companies that have been sold or offered for sale. This information is generally compiled from statistics for comparable companies. Where the price represents a majority interest, the higher value is recognized and reflected in a higher price or a premium paid. However, the value of a closely-held company or its stock must reflect its relative illiquidity compared to publicly traded companies. A discount, or a reduction in the indicated marketable value, is made for this factor.

Planning for Your Future

Just like a medical checkup, business valuations should be done regularly since your business value can fluctuate widely depending on market conditions, competition, and financial performance. With so many reasons for knowing the value of your company, having an annually updated company valuation has become a best practice. A good business person knows their position and options at all times so they can make well-informed decisions.

A business is an important asset with very different characteristics from most other financial assets. Handling it correctly to maximize your net worth starts with periodic valuations. It also takes a wealth manager with experience catering to the needs of small business owners.

 

 

Oct 28

Is A Health Savings Account Right For You?

By Chris Chen CFP | Divorce Planning , Financial Planning , Investment Planning , Tax Planning

Is A Health Savings Account Right For You?

It is health insurance plan signup season . Whether you subscribe to your employer’s health care insurance plan or you buy your own directly, it is the time of the year when you have to sign up all over again. Unless you have specific circumstances such as a change of employer, a divorce, or new baby, this is the one time in the year when you get to change your health care insurance plan.

If you have been keeping abreast of the popular financial media, you may have come across the Health Savings Account (HSA).  According to AHIP (America’s Health Insurance Plans), 22 million people had HSA accounts in 2018.  Financial Planners love HSA. It is potentially the most tax advantageous vehicle that exists.  Contributions to HSAs are pre-tax, the money is invested tax-free, and distributions are tax-free if used for health purposes. Triple tax-free. HSAs are even better than Roth retirement accounts !

The reality is that we all have health care expenses, and they can be substantial . Having the ability to pay with tax-free money is a critical advantage. If you have to pay a $100 hospital invoice, you might have to earn $150 or more first, pay Federal income taxes, Social security taxes, state income taxes, before you can have $100 to pay your bill. With an HSA, there is no income tax, you pay with $100 of your earnings. 

A Health Savings Account is effectively an alternative to the Flexible Spending Account (FSA) , the more traditional way to pay for health care expenses that are not covered by insurance. The FSA allows employees to save pre-tax from earnings, and then to spend it on health care expenses without paying taxes on the earnings.  Money in FSAs, however, is not invested, and it must be spent by year-end or be forfeited. It has to be spent, or it will be lost. HSA funds, on the other hand, can be invested, and funds from HSA accounts can be carried over into the future. Thus, HSAs can be spent in a way that is similar to other retirement savings accounts such as the IRA or the Roth IRA.

IRARoth IRA529FSAHSA
Contributions are pre-taxYesNoNoYesYes
Funds are invested tax-freeYesYesYesN/AYes
Distributions are tax-free (1)NoYesYesYesYes
Distributions can be taken in the futureYesYesYesNoYes
  1. If used as intended for retirement, education or health expenses respectively

What’s in it for the employer?

In order to contribute to an HSA, you must have chosen a High Deductible Health Plan with your employer. 

According to the IRS, for 2019, a high deductible is defined as $1,350  ($1,400 in 2020) for an individual or $2,700 for a family ($2,800 in 2020.) On top of this high deductible, annual out of pocket expenses (including deductibles, copayments, and coinsurance) cannot exceed $6,750 for an individual or $13,500 for a family. Those numbers increase in 2020 to $6,900 for an individual and $13,800 for a family. 

For employers, offering high deductible health insurance plans is more cost effective than other plans. Therefore, they will prefer that their employees sign up for high deductible plans. Many employers will contribute directly to HSA accounts to encourage their workforce to choose a high deductible health insurance plan.

Theoretically, if employees have to pay out of pocket or out of their HSA for their health care expenses, they will be more careful about their choices.  While the funds in the HSA remain available to be used for health care expenses immediately if needed, the designers of the HSA believe that the ability to carry over HSA balances to future years will motivate employees to be better health care shoppers when choosing treatments or, indeed, when choosing to be treated in the first place. The net result is that high deductible health plans help employers contain health care expenses, and shift the burden on their employees. 

From an employee’s point of view, high deductible plans can make a lot of sense . If you don’t believe that you will need (much) health care in the coming year, you can benefit from a lower cost plan, and from the savings and investment opportunity.  

Financial Benefit 

And how do you maximize the value of the HSA? By contributing to the maximum, and investing it. A dollar contributed may be worth many times its value in the future when invested.

The Internal Revenue Service allows individuals in 2020 to contribute up to $3,550 to their HSAs. Families may contribute up to $7,100.  Both individuals and families can benefit from a catch-up provision of $1,100 if they are over 55.

According to Debbie Taylor, a CPA and tax expert, many people make the mistake of not investing their HSA contributions and keeping them in money market. Because one of the key benefits of HSAs is that the contributions can grow tax-free , not investing them is a grievous and expensive mistake. 

However, it’s worth noting that an HSA may need to be invested differently from your retirement accounts , especially if you plan to use your HSA at different times than you might use your retirement accounts. Consult your wealth manager for more insight.

If you are choosing the high deductible plan to save money, but you are not able to contribute to your HSA, you are putting yourself at risk if you have an unforeseen health event. Not having enough saved to cover the cost of the health care you need means that you may have to go into debt until you have met your plan’s deductible. 

So, if you have a tight budget, please think twice before trying to save money with a high deductible plan. It may just backfire on you.

Unintended Consequences

A question that is often minimized at enrollment time is what happens to the HSA if you have miscalculated, and you happen to have a significant health care expense in the year that you are contributing? 

First, if it is a major event, you may consider using funds in your HSA account. However the health care insurance will eventually kick in and cover most of the cost. So as a subscriber to a high deductible plan, you are still protected from the catastrophic consequences of an unexpected health issue. While you may not harvest all the benefits of the HSA, and you will likely lose the cost savings of choosing a high deductible plan, you are protected from financial disaster.

What if it is not a really major event, just a somewhat major event like, say, a trip to the emergency room for a temporary issue that you will easily recover from?

In that case, you also have the option to use your funds in the HSA to pay for those expenses. Your contributions will have been pre-tax as with an FSA. You will not have enjoyed much investment growth. Your distribution will still be tax-free. You are giving up the future benefits of the HSA, but you are dealing with your more immediate issues. Basically, your HSA will have functioned like an FSA. You will also lose the savings benefits of choosing a lower cost high deductible plan over a higher cost low deductible plan.

What if instead, you decide to pay for your trip to the emergency room out of pocket with post-tax savings and save your HSA for the future, as your wealth manager told you that you should? The real cost of your $5,000 trip depends on your income and tax bracket. If you happen to be in the 32% Federal tax bracket and you live in Massachusetts, the cost of the $5,000 emergency room trip will be around 58% higher.  

HSAs provide some tremendous benefits that should be considered by everyone who is looking to enhance their health care and their retirement situation. However, the decision to choose a Health Savings Account should be based on more than just taxes and the cost of your health care insurance. It is important to consider the very real costs of unforeseen events and to be realistic about your health insurance needs. 

Sep 19

Should you cancel your LTC insurance?

By Chris Chen CFP | Financial Planning , Retirement Planning , Risk Management

Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels

Should you cancel your LTC insurance?

Long Term Care (LTC) can be a stressful subject to discuss, especially when costs are addressed. The reality is that Long Term Care is expensive. According to Genworth, a prominent provider of Long Term Care insurance, the median national cost of a stay at an assisted living facility is $48,000 annually in 2018. The total cost, over someone’s lifetime, ends up being much larger depending on where and how long a person will be needing it.

For example, the median cost of assisted living in New Jersey in 2018 was $72,780, according to Genworth. If someone were to stay at an assisted living facility for three years, the cost would be in excess of $200,000. Nursing home care could be even more expensive.

Aside from overall unpleasantness, a key issue with planning for LTC is the uncertainty. 70% of Americans will need it. But how much, and for how long? LTC is often the most unpredictable expense of retirement, and the least planned for.

Even insurance companies have difficulty ascertaining the cost. Large insurance providers such as John Hancock have left the field and no longer offer LTC policies to the general public. Others, including Genworth and Mass Mutual, have been struggling with State Insurance Commissions to increase premiums. Recently, Genworth was approved to increase premiums by 58% in 22 States.

According to the Federal Government, Long Term Care is the range of services and support you will need to meet health and personal care needs over a long period of time when you are unable to provide it for yourself. LTC is not medical care, but rather assistance with the basic personal tasks of everyday life.

The fact is that most of us will require some form of long term care usually toward the latter part of our lives . Given the high probability, and the high level of expense, it is something that needs to be addressed in our financial and retirement plans.

We have plenty of statistics on how LTC affects us as a whole, but very few on how it will affect us individually. Are we going to be part of the 70%, or can we avoid it and be part of the 30%. We just don’t have a very good way to predict how much long term care we will need, when we will need it, and how much it will cost. This is precisely why long term care planning is necessary as part of normal financial or retirement planning.

Who Pays for Long Term Care?

People often assume that Medicare or Medigap (the supplemental coverage for Medicare), or even regular health insurance will cover the cost of their Long Term Care expense.

Unfortunately, that is incorrect. Medicare is set up to cover only direct medical expenses, such as doctor and hospital visits, tests, and medicine. When it comes to issues of old age care, Medicare is not involved.

In general, most people without a plan who need Long Term Care will pay for it out of their own assets. Once there is no money left, Medicaid will usually take over. This approach works best for people who have enough assets to cover the other foreseeable circumstances in their future.

However, planning for Medicaid to take over is a backup plan at best. However, it is good to know that it is there, should we need it.

How do I protect my assets from nursing homes?

A close alternative to spending your own money and then letting Medicaid take over is actually to plan for Medicaid to take over. That involves creating a trust in which to put your assets so they can be protected in the event that long term care is needed. When that happens, the assets remain safely in the trust, and Medicaid pays for your long term care. You should keep in mind that Medicaid is taxpayer-funded, and as with other government programs, it is periodically under stress for funding. In other words, it is not easy to predict with certainty that such a plan would work, especially if it is much in the future.

Long Term Care Insurance

For others, purchasing a long term care insurance policy may be a better alternative. In exchange for the premiums, the insurance company commits to pay the amount contracted for. Effectively, the policy covers a significant percentage of the uncertainty generated by long term care. That amount can vary to take into account your own circumstances.

Who needs Long Term Care Insurance?

Long Term Care Insurance can help to preserve assets for other goals, including for legacy . It can also help you determine the level of care that you would like when you have a need for long term care.

From a tax viewpoint, it is worth noting that some of the premiums for most standard LTC policies available today may be deductible from taxable income within the limits specified by the IRS, especially for business owners. Also, up to certain limits, benefits are not taxed as income. Take this favorable tax treatment as a sign that Uncle Sam would like to encourage you to be covered (and not use Medicaid)!

The challenge with LTC insurance is that insurance companies have miscalculated the premiums required to cover their costs. As a result, premium increases, including the one mentioned earlier from Genworth, have shocked pre-retirees and retirees alike, resulting in a considerable debate about whether to drop LTC insurance policies altogether.

The financial impact of premium increases is real. It is a painful hit on a sore subject. And as with any price increase like that, the impulse is just to cancel.

However, canceling would be a mistake for many people. The cost of LTC must be covered somehow, and if not through insurance, it is usually through your own assets. However, it does provide an opportunity to reconsider the issue with your financial planner. Most people affected by price increases bought their policy many years ago. It would be beneficial to re-analyze the LTC need and the benefits of the policy. You may find out that you are over-insured, or underinsured. And then you can figure out a way forward on how to right-size your coverage.

According to Tara Bernard at the New York Times analyzing your LTC coverage can even lead to a renegotiation of the policy, especially if you are reducing the benefits.

Long Term Care insurance helps pay for long term care expenses, helps preserve your assets and your legacy. Also, a portion of the premium is potentially tax-deductible. So why are so many people resistant to traditional Long Term Care insurance?

First, as we mentioned before, it is expensive. Although, it is worth noting that the cumulative cost of LTC insurance premiums usually is less than the cost of Long Term Care itself!
Second, the possibility that the insurance policy may not be used, as in the case of death happening suddenly, is enough to stop many people from acquiring Long Term Care insurance. In this paradigm, the thought of paying premiums for years, and not collecting a benefit would make the insurance a waste.

Don’t Waste the Premiums

To counter this objection, the insurance industry has created products that allow you to “not waste the premiums.” These products allow you to purchase an annuity or a life insurance policy with a special “rider” that allows their conversion to an LTC policy should the need arise.

These products allow you to get Long Term Care coverage if needed, and allow repurposing the funds in case the Long Term Care benefit is not used. The details of these products are beyond the scope of this post. Suffice it to say, that these alternatives can provide a lot of flexibility, at a cost, in a financial plan. For people who have significant assets that are not needed for their retirement plan, these alternatives may be worth considering.

Should I cancel my LTC insurance?

Because of the increases in premiums that are sweeping the LTC insurance industry, many people are wondering if they should cancel their policies . There is no easy answer to that question. The increased cost can be burdensome. But the other side to this question is if you cancel your insurance because of the premium increase, how are you going to pay for your Long Term Care expenses when they occur?

The answer is different for everyone. Being a financial planner and number geek, I believe that the answer for many resides in comparing the costs and the benefits. For most people that will result in keeping your insurance. If you are not sure, schedule a call, and we can review.

LTC can be a significant expense. As such, it needs to be factored into your overall retirement plan. The four approaches discussed (pay out of assets, Medicaid planning, traditional long term care insurance, and “not waste the premium” alternatives) all offer different benefits and should be matched to the right circumstance and individual preference.

In my experience, most people find it liberating to include LTC in a retirement plan formally, and know what is planned and how much is planned for. It then leaves greater flexibility to focus on the fun aspects of life!

If you need to figure out which option works best for you, schedule a conversation with me today!

Aug 06

What to Expect Financially When Expecting

By Jason Berube | Financial Planning

What to Expect Financially When Expecting

Recently two of my closest friends and their wives became expecting parents. Of the two couples, one is expecting for the very first time. This very happy news inspired me to write this post to share my experiences as both a parent and a financial planner.  I would like to share my insights with becoming a parent for the very first time and getting a chance to understand and become competent at the financial aspects of parenting. 

Going down the path to parenthood, a thrilling moment in a relationship is quickly followed by the sobering realization of the costs involved in raising a child.

Many people receive help from family, friends and baby showers in accumulating the initial items needed such as furniture, baby equipment, and newborn clothes. This assistance may ease some of the immediate financial burdens but the ongoing cost of diapers, food, toys, and childcare can be a staggering expense.

What is less apparent at first is that non-child related expenses may be reduced. Many parents stay home more to take care of the baby, which means they have less time to go out and spend money on restaurants, bars, entertainment, and travel!

I am often asked what is the biggest financial expense that new parents should anticipate. I have found from my own experience is that most parents’ budgets will adapt to accommodate the new needs and replace old ways of spending. 

If you are a new or expecting parent, here are some suggestions on how you can take action now to prepare your financial life for your new way of life.

Set Up An Online Automatic Savings Account

The best way to prepare for increased expenses is to start making monthly contributions, before the baby arrives, to a savings account dedicated to baby-related costs. When goal-setting, it is often a good idea to establish different savings accounts for each goal like a vacation, buying a new house or, in this instance, saving for the ongoing cost of providing for a child. Having separate accounts can be a great way to keep track of how you organize your money. For example, if you have two different checking accounts, they can each have a different name, such as “Baby’s Expenses” and “Mom’s Mad Money” – or whatever you want! Putting aside money each month will benefit you in two ways. It gives you a chance to get use to the bigger cash outflows from your checking account and it also provides you with a nice cash cushion for baby-related expenses that you may have overlooked.

Create A Budget

Once you have children, finances have a way of becoming more complex.  That can be compounded by the fact that there is less time to keep track of everything.

New parents should consider creating a budget to keep their finances on track. One way is to create a “reverse budget”. It simply helps you to figure out how much you need to save, makes those savings automatic and then allows you to spend the remaining amount of money as you please. This process emphasizes using a regular and ongoing savings method instead of manual expense tracking, (a big plus when unexpected baby expenses arise). Once a reverse budget is set up, the entire thing is automated. 

From a financial planning perspective, a reverse budget forces you to write out your short- and long-term goals, which may be different now that a little one is on the way. And, you can use the same tool for other goals such as vacation or retirement.

Get Basic Estate Documents

Estate planning is a frequently overlooked task. Nonetheless, it remains very important for new parents to complete. There are five estate planning documents you should consider regardless of your age, health and wealth:

    1. Will
    2. Durable power of attorney
    3. Advanced medical directives
    4. Letter of instruction (LOI)
    5. Living trust (or revocable trust)

Creating a will is the most important step in an estate plan because it distributes your property and assets as you wish after death. Even more importantly, a will names legal guardians for your children in case both parents pass away while the children are still minors. 

Without a will that names a guardian for your children, the state you reside in will determine it for you.  That may not align with your wishes and creates needless anxiety.

Although, the other items in the list above are beyond the scope of this post, expecting parents should pay attention and review them, with a professional if you need to.

Figure Out Childcare Now

Whether you want to send your kids to daycare, hire a nanny, get help from grandparents or stay at home yourself, you need to get a plan in place soon.

The average cost of center-based daycare in the United States is $11,666 per year ($972 a month), but prices range from $3,582 to $18,773 a year ($300 to $1,564 monthly), according to the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies (NACCRRA).

Most daycare centers require a non-refundable deposit. If you’re planning on using daycare, you should make a deposit at your daycare of choice as soon as possible!!!

Daycare slots will fill up quickly, so even registering for daycare just a few months before your due date can still leave you on a waiting list.

Hiring a nanny is not easy either. Finding someone you can trust, afford and fit in your schedule can be tricky. It is a little more difficult to secure a nanny as far in advance as a daycare center, but it is never too soon to begin looking so you can familiarize yourself with the important qualities and nuances of these relationships.

Long Term

It’s easy to remain focused on the joy (and anxieties) of the present. However, don’t forget the long term: although you may be overwhelmed by the excitement of a new addition to the family, you still have to steer your growing family into financial security for the long term.  

A new baby on the way is a great opportunity to check your long term financial plan. A bit like checking the air in your tires before a long trip. What to do for college savings.  How to prioritize retirement savings and investment. Dealing with the mortgage and other debt. And many other questions.

Consider Hiring A Financial Planner

If you’re feeling concerned about all the financial details involved in raising a child, just know that you’re going to do great! You’re planning ahead and getting prepared now, which will go a long way once your baby arrives.

But if you’re still worried, now may be the time to hire a financial planner, preferably a fee-only fiduciary. Hiring a professional frees up your time to do the other things you love most in life – including focusing on your growing family.

It can also help alleviate any stress your finances may cause because a really good financial planner will work with you to get your entire financial house in order and help you keep it that way forever.

Jul 16

Do You Have To Pay Taxes in Retirement?

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

Do You Have To Pay Taxes in Retirement?

Many people mistakenly look forward to not having to pay income taxes in retirement. It is understandable that after a lifetime of paying taxes, retirees would feel that they deserve a break. 

Unfortunately, that is not generally how income taxes work! In this article, I categorize nine sources of income and their corresponding level of taxes. 

It may seem at times that taxes are hitting us from all directions.  However, a variety of tax rules can also give retirees, or ideally pre-retirees, opportunities to plan such that they can optimize their lifetime taxes, and avoid paying more than their fair share .

Social Security

For those filing as single with income below $25,000, or married filing jointly with income below $32,000, social security income is income tax-free. However, single filer retirees with income up to $34,000 or $44,000 for married filing jointly will find that 50% of their social security becomes taxable.  When income increases over $34,000, or $44,000 for married filing jointly then 85% becomes taxable. 

So while it is correct that a portion of their social security income will be income tax-free, many retirees find that they will pay some taxes on their social security income

Retirement Accounts

Retirement accounts such as 401(k), 403(b), and IRAs are an important source of income for retirees.  Income from these accounts is taxed as ordinary income, as if it was being earned in a job, with tax rates ranging from 10% to 37% at the federal level. That is because the initial contribution to those accounts helped to reduce taxable income at the time.  That means that the money in these retirement accounts was never taxed. 

To complicate the matter, distributions from some accounts may be exempt from State taxes. For instance, 403(b) accounts earned in New Jersey are exempt from New Jersey State income taxes at distribution. Similarly, IRA distributions from accounts that were established by Massachusetts taxpayers are exempt from State income taxes. These peculiarities vary from State to State. It’s important to verify how they may apply in your State rather than making an assumption.  

Pensions

Many retirees still receive pension income. Some of the more common ones include state, federal and military pensions. Although private pensions have been in decline for several decades now, there continue to be many people who receive payments from these pensions.

Retirees are often surprised to find that their pension income is taxable as ordinary income at the federal level, just as other retirement account income. As with other retirement income sources, there may be exceptions for state taxes that vary from state to state and pension to pension.

Roth Accounts

Income from Roth accounts is not taxed in retirement.  That is because the initial contribution came from after-tax money. In other words, the income used to make the contribution was taxed on the full amount before the contribution was made. I like to say that “Roth accounts are not tax-free, they are just taxed differently“.

A key benefit of Roth accounts is that their distributions do not count toward high-income surcharges for Medicare Part B and Part D premiums. 

Retirees find that Roth accounts can be tremendously useful to optimize taxes in retirement by strategically combining income from Roth accounts with income from taxable accounts .

As a result, effective retirement planning should include considering saving in Traditional vs Roth accounts and strategically converting Traditional to Roth accounts, when appropriate.

Before jumping into making a Roth conversion, it is important to understand that the point of a Roth account contribution should not be to avoid taxes in retirement per se.  Instead, it should be to reduce lifetime taxes . It is possible that a badly timed Roth contribution would increase lifetime taxes, while also reducing retirement income taxes. A strategic plan is important to think through and implement. 

Municipal Bonds

Income received from municipal bonds is federal tax-free.  Like a Roth contribution, an investment in municipal bonds is made with after-tax money. If you own municipal bonds from the state of your residence, the interest is also state tax-free. However, if you own municipal bonds from states other than your residence, their interest is usually taxable at the state level.

People also wonder what happens when they sell their municipal bonds.  When that happens, the price of the bond can be higher or lower than the face value, known as a premium or a discount. When the price is at a premium, the difference between the premium and the face value can be taxed. That can often be an impediment to a sale as people don’t want to be taxed.  

Investments

When held for one year or longer, investments outside of retirement accounts are subject to long term capital gains taxes. They can range from 0% to 23.8%, including potential Medicare surcharges.  In 2019, for a married couple filing jointly with taxable income up to $78,750, long term capital gains are taxed at 0% federally ($39,375 for people filing as single).

Therefore investments can potentially be taxed less than other sources of income such as retirement accounts. Balancing distributions from investments in conjunction with Traditional retirement and Roth accounts can be a valuable tax optimization tool.

For people preparing to retire, it may make sense to divert investments from retirement accounts to brokerage accounts . Since taxes cannot be entirely avoided, it is about creating a strategy that optimizes investment vehicles to reduce lifetime taxes.

Annuities

Any income from annuities held inside qualified retirement accounts such as an IRA will be taxable as ordinary income in its entirety.

Income from annuities that are not held in qualified retirement accounts is partially taxable as ordinary income. The amount of the distribution that represents your original investment is considered tax-free. 

Therefore, the taxation of annuity income falls somewhat below that the taxation of income from retirement accounts. 

Life Insurance

Loans from the cash value of an insurance policy are considered tax free. That is because, as any loans, they are not considered income. That is a critical point made at the time that an insurance sale occurs.  It should be noted, however, that life insurance is an instance when the tax issues are so prevalent in the discussion that they obscure the other costs of cash value life insurance. The loan from the policy is tax-free, but that in an of itself does not necessarily make life insurance cost-effective or appropriate for your needs.

Earned Income

Income earned in retirement is taxed as any other earned income before retirement. Some retirees continue to earn work income, from part-time jobs or from consulting gigs for example. That income is taxed as earned income as if they were not retired, including Social Security and Medicare. Unfortunately, there is no tax break for working in retirement!

The reality for most of us is that we will owe taxes in retirement. The multiplication of tax situations can make planning difficult for a retiree.

The challenge is to plan our income situation strategically, manipulate it if you will, in order to minimize lifetime taxes. 

Fortunately, wealth planning done properly is a very feasible endeavor that  may help you keep more of what you earned in your pockets!

Apr 15

McKenzie Bezos: 4 Wealth Strategy Concerns

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

McKenzie Bezos: 4 Wealth Strategy Concerns

source: pexels

On April 4th, it was announced that McKenzie Bezos would be receiving 36 billion dollars worth of assets from her divorce from Jeff.  

First of all, congratulations to Jeff and McKenzie for keeping this divorce process short, out of the media as much as possible, and out of the courts. We are not going to know the details of the Bezos’ agreement. However, some information has been disclosed in the press.

As reported by CNN, McKenzie is keeping 4% of their Amazon stock, worth approximately 36 billion dollars. Jeff retains voting power for her shares as well as ownership of the Washington Post and Blue Origin, their space exploration venture. According to The Economist, this makes the Bezos divorce the most expensive in history by a long shot.

As a post-divorce financial planner, I feel a little silly thinking of what I would tell McKenzie to do with her money now. The magnitude of her portfolio is well beyond run of the mill high net worth divorces with assets only in the millions or tens of millions of dollars. McKenzie can buy $100M or $200M houses and condos wherever she wants. She can have her own jets and her own yachts. She could buy an island or two.

Unsurprisingly, McKenzie’s wealth is concentrated in AMZN stock. That has worked out well for the Bezos’ for the past several years. It is likely to continue to be a great source of wealth for both of them in the future. As it stands, McKenzie is now the third richest woman in the world. Who knows, if she holds onto AMZN stock, she could become the richest woman in the world one day! McKenzie’s concerns with budgeting, taxes, and wealth strategy will soon be in a class of their own.

There are, however, some lingering considerations for McKenzie, particularly when it comes to capital gains taxes, portfolio management, philanthropy and wealth transfer.

Capital Gains Taxes

McKenzie probably has an enormous tax liability built into her AMZN holdings. While I am not privy to her cost basis, it is not unreasonable to assume that it is close to zero since the Bezos’ have owned Amazon stock since the company’s inception. Should McKenzie sell her AMZN stock, the entire amount would likely be subject to capital gains taxes. As such McKenzie may not be worth quite $36 Billion after taxes are accounted for .

A benefit of keeping the stock until her death is that her estate will benefit from a step up in cost basis. This would mean that the IRS would consider the cost of the stock to be equal to the value at her death. This favorable tax treatment would wipe out her capital gains tax liability.

Portfolio Management

Nevertheless, the standard advice that wealth strategists give clients with ordinary wealth applies to Ms. Bezos as well: it would be in McKenzie’s best financial interest to diversify her holdings. Diversifying would help her reduce the risk of having her wealth concentrated into a single stock. It is a problem that McKenzie (and Jeff) share with many employees of technology and biotech startups.

McKenzie might not want to sell all of her AMZN stock or even most of it. Although we have not read their separation agreement, she has probably agreed with Jeff that she would retain the bulk of her holding. She may also believe enough in AMZN and Jeff’s leadership to sincerely want to keep it. Regardless, McKenzie should still diversify her portfolio to protect herself against AMZN specific risks.

Philanthropy

An advantage of having more money than you need is that you have the option to use the excess to have a measurable impact on the world through philanthropy. In 2018, Jeff and McKenzie created a $2B fund, the Bezos Day One Fund, to help fight homelessness. Given that the home page of the fund now only features Jeff’s signature, this may mean that Jeff is keeping this also. McKenzie will likely organize her own charity. What will her cause be?

Philanthropy can be an effective tax and estate management tool , primarily because, within limits, the IRS allows you to deduct your donations against your income thus helping you manage current and future taxes. For McKenzie, it is about deciding what to do with the money, instead of letting Congress decide.

Wealth Transfer

McKenzie’s net worth is far in excess of the current limits of federal and state estate taxes. Unless she previously planned for it during her marriage, she will have to revise her estate plan.  Even though she would benefit from a step up in basis on her AMZN stock if she chooses not to diversify, she would still be subject to estate taxes, potentially in the billions of dollars.

Of course, no matter how much estate tax McKenzie ends up paying, it is likely that she will have plenty to leave to her heirs.

Financially, McKenzie Bezos has what wealth strategists would consider as ‘good financial problems’ . She has the financial freedom to focus on the important aspects of life: family, relationships and making a difference.

 

A version of this post appeared in Kiplinger on April 12, 2019

Nov 18

Seven Year End Wealth Management Strategies

By Chris Chen CFP | Financial Planning , Investment Planning , Retirement Planning , Tax Planning

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

As we approach the end of a lackluster year in the financial markets, there is still time to improve your financial position with a few well placed year-end moves .

Maybe because we are working against a deadline, many year-end planning opportunities seem to be tax related .  Tax moves, however, should be made with your overall long-term financial and investment planning context in mind. Make sure to check in with your financial and tax advisors.

Here are seven important moves to focus your efforts on that will help you make the best of the rest of your financial year .

1) Harvest your Tax Losses in Your Taxable Accounts

As of[ October 26, the Dow Jones is up 1.65%, and the S&P500 is up just 0.98% ]for the year. Unfortunately, many stocks and mutual funds are down for the year. Therefore you are likely to have a number of items in your portfolio that show up in red when you check the “unrealized gains and losses” column on your brokerage statement.

You can still make an omelet out of these cracked eggs by harvesting your losses for tax purposes . The IRS individual deduction for capital losses is limited to a maximum of $3,000 for 2018.  So, if you only dispose of your losers, you could end up with a tax loss carryforward, i.e., tax losses you would have to use in future years. This is not an ideal scenario!

However, you can also offset your losses against gains. For example, if you were to sell some losers and hypothetically accumulate $10,000 in losses, you could then also sell some winners. If the gains in your winners add to $10,000, you have offset your gains with losses, and you will not owe capital gain taxes on that joint trade!

This could be a great tool to help you rebalance your portfolio with a low tax impact. Beware though that you have to wait 30 days before buying back the positions that you have sold to stay clear of the wash sale rule.

2) Reassess your Investment Planning

Tax loss harvesting is a great tactic to use for short-term advantage. As an important side benefit, it allows you to focus on more fundamental issues. Why did you buy these securities that you just sold? Presumably, they played an important role in your investing strategy. And now that you have accumulated cash, it’s important to re-invest mindfully.

You may be tempted to stay on the sideline for a while and see how the market shakes out.  Although we may have been spoiled into complacency after the Great Recession, the last month has reminded us that volatility happens.

No one knows when the next bear market will happen , if it has not started already. It is high time to ask yourself whether you and your portfolio are ready for a significant potential downturn.

Take the opportunity to review your goals, ensure that your portfolio risk matches your goals and that your asset allocation matches your risk target..

3) Check on your Retirement Planning

It is not too late to top out your retirement account!  In 2018, you may contribute a maximum of $18,500 from your salary, including employer match to a 401(k), TSP, 403(b), or 457 retirement plan, subject to the terms of your plan. Those who are age 50 or over may contribute an additional $6,000 for the year.

If you have contributed less than the limit to your plan, there may still be time! You have until December 31 to maximize contributions for 2018, reduce your 2018 taxable income (if you contribute to a Traditional plan), and give a boost to your retirement planning.

Alternatively to deferring a portion of your salary to your employer’s Traditional plan on a pre-tax basis, you may be able to contribute to a Roth account if that is a plan option for your employer. As with a Roth IRA, contributions to the Roth 401(k) are made after tax, while distributions in retirement are tax-free.

Many employers have added the Roth feature to their employee retirement plans. If yours has not, have a chat with your HR department!

Although the media has popularized the Roth account as tax-free, bear in mind that it is not. Roth accounts are merely taxed differently . Check in with your Certified Financial Planner practitioner to determine whether electing to defer a portion of your salary to on a pre-tax basis or to a Roth account on a post-tax basis would suit your situation better.

4) Roth Conversions

The current tax environment is especially favorable to Roth conversions . Under the current law, income tax rates are scheduled to go back up in 2026; hence Roth conversions could be suitable for more people until then.

With a Roth conversion, you withdraw money from a Traditional retirement account where assets grow tax-deferred, pay income taxes on the withdrawal, and roll the assets into a Roth account. Once in a Roth account, the assets can grow and be withdrawn tax-free, provided certain requirements are met. If you believe that your tax bracket will be higher in the future than it is now, you could be a good candidate for a Roth conversion .

Read more about the new tax law and Roth conversions

5) Pick your Health Plan Carefully

It is health insurance re-enrollment season! The annual ritual of picking a health insurance plan is on to us. This could be one of your more significant financial decisions for the short term. Not only is health insurance expensive, it is only getting more so.

First, you need to decide whether to subscribe to a traditional plan that has a “low” deductible or to a high deductible option.  The tradeoff is that the high deductible option has a less expensive premium. However, should you have a lot of health issues you might end up spending more.  High deductible plans are paired with Health Savings Accounts (HSA).

The HSA is a unique instrument. It allows you to save money pre-tax and to pay for qualified healthcare expenses tax-free. Unlike Flexible Spending Accounts (FSAs), balances in HSAs may be carried over to future years and invested to allow for potential earnings growth. This last feature is really exciting to wealth managers: in the right situation clients could end up saving a lot of money.

If you pick a high deductible plan, make sure to fund your HSA to the maximum. Employers will often contribute also to encourage you to choose that option.  If you select a low deductible plan, make sure to put the appropriate amount in your Flexible Spending Account. FSAs are used to pay for medical expenses on a pretax basis. Unlike with an HSA, you cannot rollover unspent amounts to future years.

 

Gozha net on Unsplash

6) If you are past 70, plan your RMDs

If you are past 70, make sure that you take your Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) each year. The 50% penalty for not taking the RMD is steep. You must withdraw your first minimum distribution by April 1 of the year following the year in which you turn 70 ½, and then by December 31 for each year after.

Perhaps you don’t need the RMD? You may want to redirect the money to another cause. For instance, you may want to fund a grandchild’s 529 educational account. 529 accounts are tax-advantaged accounts for education. Although contributions are post-tax, growth and distributions are tax-free if they are used for educational purposes.

Or, you may want to plan for a Qualified Charitable Distribution from the IRA and take a tax deduction. The distribution must be directly from the IRA to the charity. It is excluded from taxable income and can count towards your RMD under certain conditions.

7) Plan your charitable donations

Speaking of charitable donations, they can also be used to reduce taxable income and provide financial planning benefits. However, as a result of the Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017 (TCJA), it may be more complicated than in previous years. One significant difference of the TCJA is that standard deductions went up to $12,000 for individuals and $24,000 for married filing jointly. Practically what that means is that you need to accumulate $12,000 or $24,000 of deductible items before you can feel the tax savings benefit.

In other words, if a married couple filing jointly has $8,000 in real estate taxes and $5,000 of state income taxes for a total of $13,000 of deductions, they are better off taking the standard $24,000 deduction. They would have to donate $7,000 before they could start to feel the tax benefit of their donation.  One way to deal with that is to bundle your gifts in a given year instead of spreading them over many years.

For instance, if you plan to give in 2018 and also in 2019, consider bundling your donations and giving just in 2019. In this way, you are more likely to be able to exceed the standard deduction limit.

If your thinking wheels are running after reading this article, you may want to check in with your wealth manager or financial planner: there may be other things that you could or should do before the end of the year!

 

Check these other wealth management posts:

Is the TCJA an opportunity for Roth conversions?

New Year Resolution

How to Implement a New Year Resolution

Tax Season Dilemna: Invest ina Traditional IRA or a Roth IRA 

 

 

 

Note: The information herein is general and educational in nature and should not be construed as legal, tax, or investment advice. We make no representation as to the accuracy or completeness of the information presented.  To determine investments that may be appropriate for you, consult with your financial planner before investing. Tax laws and regulations are complex and subject to change, which can materially impact investment results. Views expressed are as of the date indicated, based on the information available at that time, and may change based on market and other conditions.We make no representation as to the completeness or accuracy of information provided at the websites linked in this newsletter. When you access one of these websites, you assume total responsibility and risk for your use of the websites to which you are linking. We are not liable for any direct or indirect technical or system issues or any consequences arising out of your access to or your use of third-party technologies, websites, information, and programs made available through this website.  

Oct 15

Financial Planner or Estate Planner: Which Do You Need?

By Anna Byrne | Financial Planning , Retirement Planning , Tax Planning

Financial Planner or Estate Planner: Which Do You Need?

Financial Planners and Estate Planners are two different professions that are often confused. There is some overlap between professionals in these fields, but their roles are rather distinct. When you are striving to make a long-term plan for a strong financial future, both financial planners and estate planners play a crucial role.

In fact, when you consider some of the most recent personal finance statistics, it becomes very clear that many Americans could really benefit from retaining the services of both a financial planner AND an estate planner. For instance, 33% of Americans have no money saved for retirement, 60% lack any form of an estate plan, and only 46% have money saved for emergencies. Better planning starts with understanding what both types of planners do.

What is a Financial Planner?

A financial planner is a professional who offers a wide range of services that can assist both individuals and businesses to accomplish their long-term financial goals and accumulate wealth. They fall into two categories:

  • Registered Investment Advisor
  • Certified Financial Planner

Certified Financial Planners (CFP) are required to comply with the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, which means they have a basic level of expertise backed by a larger organization. Ethically they have to work in your best interest.

Services provided by both financial advisors and CFPs include:

What is an Estate Planner?

The goal of a financial planner is to assist with wealth accumulation. On the other hand, an estate planner can help you to make financial plans associated with your passing, which includes protecting the wealth that you have accumulated .

While you might believe only wealthy individuals need to work with an estate planner, you should consider the fact that everything you have accumulated in your life comprises your estate. Accumulated assets such as vehicles, furniture, bank accounts, life insurance, your home, and other personal possessions are all included in your estate.

Your assets become the property of the state if you die without a will or an estate plan in place , and your family members will not be able to claim them without paying legal fees and taxes. They will also have to face the stress of potential disagreements with other family members over how your property should be divided.

Besides planning for your passing, estate planning also involves creating a clear plan for your care if you become disabled , and it also covers naming guardians for underage children. Estate planning is a way to protect your family and your assets while reducing taxes and legal fees .

Which Do You Need?

The roles of financial planners and estate planners are unique, and for this reason, you will benefit from working with both . While your financial planner helps you accumulate wealth, he or she can also prepare you for a meeting with an estate planner as part of your long-term strategy. This includes providing the estate planner with lists of beneficiaries, tax return documentation, lists of investments and a breakdown of income and expenses.

When you work with both a financial planner and an estate planner, they will keep you accountable by periodically reviewing your documentation and beneficiaries and making sure everything is updated and reviewed as necessary. By taking the time to work with both these professionals, no important decisions will be overlooked, and you will take control of your financial future.

 

Note: This article was authored by Kristin Dzialo, a partner at Eckert Byrne LLC, a Cambridge, MA law firm that provides tailored estate planning. Eckert Byrne LLC and Insight Financial Strategists LLC are separate and unaffiliated companies. This article is provided for educational and informational purposes only. While Insight Financial Strategists LLC believes the sources to be reliable, it makes no representations or warranties as to this or other third party content it makes available on its website and/or newsletter,  nor does it explicitly or implicitly endorse or approve the information provided.  

Aug 13

Is Your Caution Today Hurting Your Tomorrow?

By Eric Weigel | Financial Planning , Investment Planning , Retirement Planning , Sustainable Investing

A Hypothetical Case of Fear vs Greed Tradeoffs

How our brain works:

We all think that we are fully rational all the time but in reality the way our brains operate that is not always the case.

One of the key functions of the brain is self-defense. When the brain perceives danger it makes automatic adjustments to protect itself.  When it perceives discomfort it seeks to engage in an action that removes the stress.

In his book “Thinking Fast and Slow” Nobel Prize Winner Daniel Kahneman explains how we all have a two way system of thinking that we use to make decisions.  He labels the two components as System 1 (Thinking Fast) and System 2 (Thinking Slow).

System 1 is automatic, fast responding and emotional. System 2 is slower, reflective and analytical.

Think of your System 1 as your gut reaction and your System 2 as your conscious, logical thought.

While we all like to think that our key life decisions are governed by our logical thought (System 2) research has shown that even major decisions are often driven by our gut feel.

Which System do we use to make a decision? That depends on the problem. If we have seen the problem many times before such as what to do when see a red light we default to our automatic System 1 thinking.

When we face a challenge or issue that we have not seen before or maybe infrequently we tend to use System 2, our more reflective and analytical capabilities.

Kahneman’s research shows that we spend most of our time in System 1. While most people think of themselves as being rational and deliberate in their decision making, the reality is that we often employ “short-cuts” or heuristics to make decisions.

Most of the time, these “short-cuts” work just fine but occasionally for more difficult or complex problems the impressions arrived from System 1 thinking can lead us astray.

Why? Above all else, System 1 thinking seeks to create quick and coherent stories based on first impressions.  These impressions are a function of what our brain is sensing at that moment in time.

According to Kahneman, conclusions are easily reached despite often contradictory information as System 1 has little knowledge of logic and statistics. He calls this phenomenon – WYSIATIfor “what you see is all there is”.

The main implication from WYSIATI is that people often over-emphasize evidence that they are familiar with and ignore evidence that may be much more relevant to the problem at hand but that they are not fully aware of.

System 1 conclusions therefore may be biased and lead to decision “short-cuts” or heuristics that seriously impair the quality of a decision.

What makes making “money” decisions so hard?

When it comes to investing people often rely too much on System 1 or automatic thinking. The research shows that we are not infallible and we in fact often make behavioral mistakes. Sometimes we over-rely on our gut feel without properly evaluating the consequences of our actions.

Often our brain perceives of the dangers first and sends us a warning signal to be careful.  Losing money puts us on red alert.

Behavioral finance research (for example in the book Nudge) has shown that losing money makes you twice as miserable as gaining the same amount makes you happy. People are loss averse.

Loss aversion makes people overvalue what they have due to a reluctance to incur any losses should they make a change. What they give up, sometimes unknowingly, is potential upside.

Loss aversion creates inertia. Inertia often works against investors that overvalue the attractiveness of their current holdings.

There are different degrees of loss aversion.  According to Prospect Theory, all investors value gains less than losses but some exhibit an extreme dislike for potential losses that significantly hinders their long-term wealth creation potential.

Nobody likes to lose money, but taking on risk in order to compound your hard earned savings is an integral feature of how capital markets work.  You don’t get a higher reward unless you take additional risk.

Most investors know that stocks do better than bonds over the long-term but that the price of these higher returns is more risk.  Investors also understand that bonds do better most of the time than simply purchasing a CD at the local bank or investing in a money market mutual fund.

But knowledge stored in your logical and analytical System 2 thinking does not always make it through in the face of stress or uncertainty.

People can become too risk averse for a couple of reasons:

  • Case A: They let their fears and emotions guide their investment decision making and give disproportionate importance to avoiding any losses
  • Case B: They fail to calibrate their expectations to the likely frequency of outcomes.

In Case A, investors seek the perceived safety of bonds often not realizing that as interest rates go up bonds can lose money.  Or they simply pile into CD’s not realizing that their returns most often fail to keep up with inflation. Stocks are frowned upon because you can lose money.

Investors in Case A let their decisions be driven by emotion and fear and will over-value the importance of safety and under-value the importance of future portfolio growth.  Their account balances will not go down much when capital markets experience distress, but neither will they go up much during equity bull markets.

In Case B investors mis-calibrate their expectations for various investment outcomes and the consequences can be as dire as in the first situation.  Behavioral finance research has shown that investors frequently over-estimate the likelihood and magnitude of extreme events such as stock market corrections.

Investors often become fixated on what could happen should an equity market correction occur, but they fail to properly evaluate the likelihood and magnitude of such a correction in relation to historical precedents.  They also importantly fail to properly calibrate the probability of observing a recovery after going through such a correction.

What are the implications for investors playing it too safe?

Let’s consider the case of investors currently working and saving a portion of their income to fund a long-term goal such as retirement. These individuals are in the accumulation phase of their financial lives.

Somebody in the accumulation phase will naturally worry more about how fast they can grow their portfolio over time and whether they will reach their “number”.  People in the accumulation phase care primarily about their balances going up year after year. They are in “growth” mode.

The Hypothetical Setting:

To better illustrate this situation let’s look through the eyes of a recent college grad called Pablo earning $40,000 a year. Pablo is aware of the need to save part of his salary and invest for the long-term.  He just turned 22 and expects to work for 40 years.

Pablo will also be receiving annual 2.5% merit salary increases which will allow him to save a greater amount each year in the future.

The Problem:

Pablo faces two key decisions – what percentage of his salary to save each year and the aggressiveness of his portfolio which in turn will determine its most likely return.

He is conflicted. He has never made this much money before and worries about losing money. He also understands that he alone is responsible for his long-term financial success.

Pablo knows that there is a trade off between risk and return but he wants to make a smart decision. His System 1 thinking is saying play it safe and don’t expose yourself to potential loses.

At the same time his rational and informed System 2 thinking is influenced by a couple of finance and economics classes he recently took while in college.

Pablo can succumb to automatic System 1 thinking and invest in a very conservative portfolio. Or he can rely on his System 2 thinking and invest in a higher risk and commensurately higher return portfolio.

One Alternative – Save 10% of his Income and play it safe investing

For simplicity sake assume that Pablo decides to put 10% of his salary into an investment fund. The fund consists primarily of high grade bonds such as those contained in the AGG exchange traded fund.

From the knowledge gained in his econ and finance classes Pablo estimates that this portfolio should return about 4% per year – a bit below the historical norm for bonds but consistent with market interest rates as of August 2018.

Pablo also understands that such a portfolio will have a bit of variability from year to year. He estimates that the volatility of this portfolio is likely to be about 6% per year. Again, this estimate is in line with current bond market behavior as of August of 2018.

He knows that this is a low risk, low return portfolio but the chances of this portfolio suffering a catastrophic loss are negligible. He is petrified of losing money so this portfolio might fit the bill.

How large could his portfolio be expected grow to over 40 years of saving and investing in this conservative manner?  We built a spreadsheet to figure this out. We assumed a 4% portfolio return on principal, 2.5% annual salary increases and a half year of investment returns on annual contributions also at 4%.  Remember that this is a hypothetical example with no guarantee of returns.

At the end of 40 years Pablo’s salary is assumed to have grown to $107,403 and his portfolio, invested in this conservative manner, would have a balance of $575,540.  The growth of this portfolio (identified as 10_4) is shown in Figure 1. The naming convention for the portfolios corresponds to the savings rate followed by the assumed hypothetical rate of return on the strategy.

Figure 1

Source: Insight Financial Strategists, Hypothetical Example

Pablo knows that his portfolio will not exactly return 4% every year. Some years will be better, other years much worse but over the next 40 years the returns are likely to average close to 4%.

But Pablo does not feel comfortable just dealing in averages.  If things go bad, how bad could it be?

Given the volatility of this conservative portfolio there is a 10% chance of losing 3.6% in any given year. These numbers are calculated by Insight Financial Strategists based on an approximation of a log-normal simulation and are available upon request. Not catastrophic but nobody likes losing money.

Figure 2 shows the 90th and 10th probability bands for this conservative portfolio. These bands are estimated based on the expected average return of the portfolio and its volatility.

The actual portfolio return would be expected to lie about 2/3 of the time within these bands. In the short-term, say 1 to 2 years out, the portfolio returns are more unpredictable.  Over longer horizons, the average return to this conservative portfolio should fall within much tighter bands given the assumed risk and return numbers in the log-normal simulation.

Based on the calculations, the average returns over ten years should range between 6.3% and 1.4% per annum. Clearly, even this conservative portfolio has some risk especially in the short-term, but over longer holding periods returns should smooth out.

Figure 2

 log-normal simulation using 4% assumed return and 6% volatility

Source: Insight Financial Strategists

Another Alternative – Save 20% of his Income and continue investing in a conservative portfolio

Assuming the same 2.5% annual salary increases, the final salary would have been the same but his nest egg would have grown to $1,151,080. Pablo keeps looking at Figure 1 (the 20_4 line representing a 20% savings rate invested at an assumed 4%) and starts thinking that maybe a bit of extra saving would be a very good thing.

He still has a 10% probability of being down 3.6% in any given year, but if his budget allows, he feels that he can forego some frills until later.

Now, Pablo is starting to get excited and wonders what would happen if he invested more aggressively, say in a variety of equity funds?

Yet Another Alternative – Keep saving the same amount but invest more aggressively

The likely returns would go up but so would his risk. He estimates that based on current market conditions and the history of stock market returns (obtained from Professor Damodaran of NYU) that this more aggressive portfolio should have about an 8% annual rate of return with a volatility of around 14% per year. These estimates are both a bit lower than the 1926-2017 average reflecting higher current (as of August 2018) valuations and lower levels of overall market volatility.

He is thinking that maybe by taking more risk in his portfolio during his working years he will be able to build a nest egg that may even allow him for some luxuries down the road.

He also knows that things do not always work out every year as expected. Pablo is pretty confident that 8% is a reasonable expectation averaged over many years, but how bad could it be in any given year?

A log-normal simulation was conducted using the assumed risk and return numbers – same approach as before.

Figure 3 shows the 90th and 10th percentile bands for this portfolio.

Figure 3

log-normal simulation using an assumed 8% return and 14% volatility

Source: Insight Financial Strategists

Given the volatility of this equity-oriented portfolio, there is a 10% chance of losing 9.2% in any given year (based on the simulations). Ouch, the reality of equity investing is starting to sink in for Pablo.

But Pablo is also encouraged to see that his returns in any given year are equally likely to be about 26% or higher. That would be nice!

Especially when it comes to equities there is a wide range of potential returns but over time these year by year fluctuations should average out to a much narrower range of outcomes. While our best estimate is that this portfolio will return on average 8% per year over a ten-year window the range of expected outcomes should be between a high of 12.9% and a low of 1.6%.

Pablo decides to research the history of stock, bond, and cash returns by reading our April Blog on Understanding Asset Class Risk and Return and looking at a chart of long-term returns from Morningstar (Figure 4).

Figure 4

Source: Morningstar

He is surprised to find that over the long-term equities do not seem as risky as he previously thought. He is also quite surprised by the wide gap in wealth created by stocks versus bonds and cash.

The research makes Pablo re-calibrate his expectations and he starts wondering whether the short-term discomfort of owning equities is worth it in the long run.

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The “Aha!” Moment:

Pablo’s System 1 thinking is on high alert and his first thought after seeing how much he could lose investing in equities is to run back to the safety of the bond portfolio.

But something tells him to slow down a bit and think harder. This is a big decision for him and his System 2 thinking is kicking in. Before he throws the towel in on the equity-oriented portfolio he glances again at Figure 1 to see what might happen if he invests more aggressively.

What he sees astounds him. It is one thing to see compounding in capital market charts and yet another to see it in action on your behalf. Small differences over the short term amount to very large numbers over long periods of time.

If Pablo were to invest in the more aggressive portfolio there would be more hiccups over the years but his ending account balance should be $1,440,075 if he consistently put aside 10% of his salary every year.

If he saved 20% the ending portfolio balance would double in size.

Decision Time – Picking among the alternatives

Pablo is now faced with a tough decision.  Does he play it safe and go with the conservative portfolio? Or, does he go for more risk hoping to end up with a much larger nest egg but knowing that the ride may be rough at times?

Beyond the numbers, he realizes that he needs to look within to make the best possible decision.  His System 1 thinking is telling him to flee, but his System 2 thinking is asking him to think more logically about his choices.  He also needs to deal with how much he is planning to save from his salary.

Fear versus Greed:

He needs to come to terms with how much risk he is willing to take and whether he can stomach the dips in account balance when investing in riskier assets.  As Mike Tyson used to say, “Everybody has a plan until they get hit in the face”.

In structuring his investment portfolio Pablo needs to balance fear with greed.  Paying attention to risk is absolutely necessary but always in moderation and in the context of historical precedents.  If Pablo lets his fears run amuck he may have to accept much lower returns.

With the benefit of hindsight, he may come to regret his caution. On the other hand, the blind pursuit of greed and a disregard for risk may also in hindsight come back to bite him.  Pablo needs to find that happy medium but only he can decide what is right for him. Risk questionnaires can help in this regard. Try ours if you like!

Consumption Today versus Tomorrow:

Pablo also needs to come to grips with how much current consumption he is willing to forego in order to save and invest.  We live in an impulse oriented society. Spending is easy, saving is hard.

Saving is hard especially when you are starting out.  On the other hand, over time the saving habit becomes an ingrained behavior.  The saving habit goes a long way toward ensuring financial health and the sooner people start the better.

Will Pablo be able to save 10% of his salary? Or, even better will he be able to squeeze out some additional expenditures and raise his saving to 20%?

If possible Pablo should consider putting as much money in tax-deferred investment vehicles such as a 401(k). He should also have these contributions and any other savings automatically deducted from his paycheck. That way he won’t get used to spending that money. Pablo may come to see these deductions from his paycheck as a “bonus” funding future consumption.

“The greatest mistake you can make in life is to continually be afraid you will make one”

— ELBERT HUBBARD

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Lessons Learned:

This has been an eye-opening experience for our hypothetical friend Pablo.  He was not expecting such a difference in potential performance.  He now realizes the importance of maximizing saving for tomorrow as well as not succumbing to fear when investing for the long-term.

He has learned several invaluable lessons that also apply to individuals in the accumulation phase of their financial lives

Lesson 1: The Importance of Saving

  • Delaying consumption today allows you fund your lifestyle in the future
  • Saving even small amounts makes a big difference over the long-term

Lesson 2: The value of patience and a long-term perspective

  • In the early years you may not notice much of a difference in portfolio values
  • Keep saving and investing – disregard short-term market noise and stick to a plan

Lesson 3: Small differences in returns can amount to huge differences in portfolio values

  • Seemingly tiny differences in returns can result in large differences in portfolio values
  • Compounding is magic – take advantage of it when you can

Lesson 4: The importance of dealing with your fear of losing money

  • Letting your first instinct to avoid risky investments dictate what you own will work against you
  • Investing involves risk – best to manage rather than avoid risk
  • The pain and agony of losing money in any given year is alleviated over the long term by the higher returns typically accruing to higher risk investments

Lesson 5: Investing in your financial education pays off

  • Gaining a proper understanding of capital market relationships is an invaluable skill to possess
  • Leaning on financial experts to expedite your learning is no different than when athletes hire a coach

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Now what should you do?

Avoid all risks, save a lot and watch your investment account grow slowly but smoothly? Or, take some risk and grow your portfolio more rapidly but with some hiccups?

Are a couple of restless night’s worth the higher potential returns in your portfolio? On

Also, are you willing to delay some current consumption in order to invest for the future?

The answer depends on you – your needs, goals and especially your attitude toward risk and your capacity to absorb losses.

Interested in having the professionals at IFS identify your risk tolerance, time horizon, and financial needs? Please schedule a complimentary consultation here.

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Disclaimer:

Much of the data used in these illustrations comes courtesy of Professor Aswath Domodaran from NYU and covers US annual asset returns from 1928 to 2017. Information presented herein is for discussion and illustrative purposes only and is not a recommendation or an offer or solicitation to buy or sell any securities. Views expressed are as of the date indicated, based on the information available at that time, and may change based on market and other conditions. References to specific investment themes are for illustrative purposes only and should not be construed as recommendations or investment advice. Investment decisions should be based on an individual’s own goals, time horizon, and tolerance for risk.

This piece may contain assumptions that are “forward-looking statements,” which are based on certain assumptions of future events. Actual events are difficult to predict and may differ from those assumed. There can be no assurance that forward-looking statements will materialize or that actual returns or results will not be materially different from those described here.

Stock and bond markets are volatile and can decline significantly in response to adverse issuer, political, regulatory, market, or economic developments. Investing involves risk, including risk of loss.

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