With the end of the year approaching, now is the time to look for opportunities to save on income taxes. Here are some items you should look for:
Part of Oak Street Advisors’ 10 Financial Commandments for Millennials series, we discuss the advantages a Roth IRA presents for young investors. From tax-free compound growth to backdoor Roth IRA contributions— we explain why young investors need to use Roth IRAs regardless of their income level.
The 7th Financial Commandments for Millennials is to max our Roth IRA contributions. Roth IRA accounts have been available since 1997. Unlike a Traditional IRA, Roth IRA contributions are taxed in the year of the contribution but never taxed again if certain requirements are met.
The magic of compounding means, the earlier you start, the greater the tax-free growth within the account. If you are 20 when you start making contributions, you could be looking at four doubles of your original contribution by the time you retire at age 60. That means a $6,000 contribution this year could grow to $96,000, creating $90,000 of tax-free income for your retirement years.
With today’s historically low income-tax rates, it would be prudent to put as much money as one can into a Roth IRA. Always consult your CPA before making this decision, but one could argue the tax-free growth and withdrawals outweigh the hurt of paying today’s top tax rates.
The 5 Year Rule
Another reason to open a Roth IRA is the flexibility it can provide to fund emergencies that may arise over your life.
You can always withdraw any Roth IRA contributions without taxes, after all, you paid income tax on the money prior to making the contribution. However, if you haven’t had the Roth IRA open for at least five years, your distribution could still be subject to a 10% tax penalty, similar to the early withdrawal penalty for Traditional IRAs.
The five years for withdrawals begins when you open the account, not when you make subsequent contributions. There is also a five-year rule for Roth IRA conversions that start in January of the year you make a conversion; this prevents someone from using a Roth IRA conversion to avoid early distribution penalties from early Traditional IRA withdrawals.
Who Qualifies for a Roth IRA
If you have a modified adjusted gross income of less than $122,000 if single, or less than $193,000 if married filing jointly, you can make Roth IRA contributions of 100% of your income up to $6,000 if younger than age 50 or $7,000 if age 50 or older.
Back-Door Roth IRA Contributions
Without income limitations for converting assets in a Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA, many who are disqualified for income resort to the back-door method for funding a Roth IRA. This works because anyone may open and contribute to a non-deductible Traditional IRA, even if you are covered by a qualified retirement plan.
Once the funds are deposited into the non-deductible Traditional IRA, they can then be converted to a Roth IRA. This has the same net income-tax effect as contributing directly to a Roth IRA. The IRS recently loosened the back-door conversion rules and allow for immediate conversions, where in the past investors were recommended to wait a few months before converting to satisfy the IRS.
The Younger, The Better
Tax-free growth and tax-free distributions are very enticing, especially for young investors. The more time your account grows tax-free, the better. Another point to make is that the more of your nest egg you have in a Roth IRA, the less your Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) will be during retirement. Which inherently leads to you and your financial advisor having more ability to control/minimize income taxes during retirement years.
Insurance Coverage: Basic Concepts
Part of Oak Street Advisors’ 10 Financial Commandments for Millennials series, basic insurance knowledge will help you get the coverage you need and help clarify some misconceptions.
Employer group health insurance plans are the most common option for young investors. Often, you don’t have much say in the plan, but the pricing is generally much cheaper for at least the employee, if not their entire family, than paying for private insurance through the Healthcare Marketplace. If you do have a robust menu of options in your healthcare and supplemental plans, it’s best to sit down with your advisor or HR department to discuss how you can optimize these features.
If you’re paying for private health insurance, you likely have a high deductible health care plan. Using a Health Savings Account (HSA) you can reduce your taxable income, experience tax-free growth, and make tax-free purchases on qualified medical expenses. Talk with your financial planner to discuss how to set an HSA up and an appropriate strategy if investing inside the account.
Auto insurance coverage can often be boiler-plate, but you should understand these concepts. First, you only need personal collision coverage up to the value of your car; other vehicle collision coverage should be at least $50,000 to cover damage to a more expensive vehicle while at fault.
Second, make sure you have enough “under insured motorist coverage. This is different from “uninsured motorist coverage” where you are paying for people who are driving around uninsured all together. Under insured motorist coverage makes up the gap between someone who has the bare minimum auto insurance and the actual money needed to pay for collision damage and medical bills. It is important to remember this is further protection for you, not any other motorist.
The basics of life insurance are broad, but we have shortened it down for you HERE.
You should purchase life insurance to cover your family debts and provide income to survivors, if needed. In your life insurance calculation make sure to insure your home mortgage, kids’ college expenses, any other outstanding debts, and your final burial expenses. Often investors can self-insure some of this with their current retirement savings, but rarely all.
Here’s a quick way to determine how much insurance coverage you’ll need to replace employment income for your family:
Every $1,000,000 can produce $50,000 of income at a safe withdrawal rate of 5%. So add $1 million for every $50,000 of annual income you need to provide, $500,000 for every $25,000 etc.
In general, if you’re not married and do not have any children- there is little reason for you to purchase life insurance. If you do need life insurance, I strongly encourage you to purchase term. Term is much cheaper and does what it’s supposed to do- insure you if you die.
If you like paying an extra premium for no reason just to invest your money, you can purchase a whole life policy. These are expensive and laden with commissions and fees which are a conflict of interest to the salespeople who will try to talk you into purchasing these.
An umbrella policy bridges the gap between your standard home and auto coverages and catastrophic costs. If something goes terribly wrong that you are liable for, this policy will usually cover the difference between your policy maximum coverage limits and $1 million- and can cover even more if need be. These policies are typically $150-$300 per year for the $1million coverage. For anyone building or maintaining wealth this coverage is too cheap to pass up. There is a reason on the CFP® students are taught that when in doubt regarding an insurance policy, the answer is always “recommend an umbrella policy”.
The tax plan passed at the end of 2017 has a bonus for parents whose children attend private elementary and high schools. You can now use funds from a 529 savings plan to pay for these expenses, up to a maximum of $10,000. In South Carolina and other states that allow a tax deduction for 529 plan contributions, this change can mean significant savings on your state income taxes.
For example, the Charleston, SC both Porter-Gaud and Ashley Hall have high school tuition that exceeds $23,000 per year. By using the SC Future Scholar program as the funding vehicle for this tuition, families can save between $500 and $700 on their state income taxes.
To take advantage of this income tax break, simply open a Future Scholar 529 plan and fund the plan with the money you will be sending to the private school anyway. Then, request the plan send the money to the students account at the school of your choice. By using the 529 plan as a middle man in the transaction you will save yourself 5% to 7% on your annual tuition expenses by lowing your state income tax liability for the year you make the contribution.
It is also important to understand any sales charges associated with your 529 plan investments. In South Carolina you can open a 529 plan directly with the sponsor and avoid sales charges and loads. If you go through a broker your savings could be negated by the additional expenses. Another good reason to work with a fee-only financial advisor.
While there are limits to the amount you can contribute each year to a 529 plan, you should understand that contributions are considered gifts. Contributing more than $15,000 per parent per year can be complicated but there are strategies to contribute much more in a single year and stretch the tax benefits of doing so.
You should also understand how using this tax saving strategy will impact your savings goals for post high school education. College expenses will still need to be planned for and funded, so have a plan in place to address both education funding needs. Talk to your tax professional or financial advisor about not only maximizing the tax advantages of a 529 plan for college- but for private elementary and high school as well.
Whether you’re trying to buy a home, looking to refinance or hoping to get a lower interest rate on an automobile loan - your credit score matters. Clients often ask me how they can improve their scores and the answer is the same regardless of which stage of life you’re in.
1) Increase Your Limits
This is pretty easy to do, yet most clients don’t realize it. Here’s how it’s done:
Call up your credit card company (all of them) and simply ask them to increase your limits. Some will simply increase it without any hesitation, but often this method produces only a minimal increase. When they say they’ll increase your limit by $2,000, tell them you want it upped by a significantly greater amount. What’s that amount? I recommend something unlikely to be granted- say 10-20 times your current limit.
The point here is that they’ll type in your request, which will likely to be denied, and then give you the maximum increase allowed by their computation.
This will improve your credit to debt ratio. The basic tenet here is that your credit score is positively impacted when you increase your credit to debt ratio. Here’s an example:
You have a $15,000 limit on your credit card.
You carry a $3,000 revolving balance on said credit card.
Your credit to debt ratio is: $3,000 ÷ $15,000 = 0.20 or a 20% ratio.
By adding all your limits and debts and using the above equation, you can determine your ratio.
So, even with not paying your debt down, increasing your credit limits by making a few phone calls will improve your score and cost you nothing.
Even if you pay off all your cards every month, your score will increase still if you increase your credit limits. Having the ability to borrow more but not doing so helps your score.
2) Don’t Close Old Credit Card Accounts
If a card is paid off and you don’t use it anymore, just shred it but do not close the account. Again, you want to keep your credit to debt ratio low. Having that credit line but keeping a $0 balance only helps. Further, the longer you have had a credit card open, the better for your score.
3) Pay Off All Cards Each Month or as Much as Possible
Duh, right? Everyone understands this, but I put this point here to again discuss your credit to debt ratio. Larger credit limits combined with less debt equals a better ratio- simple!
4) Spread Your Credit Card Debt Out
If you already have several cards, I don’t recommend opening another account, but you don’t want to over utilize any of your cards. You should use no more than 30% of a card’s credit limit and of course, the less the better.
5) Don’t Open a Bunch of Cards
While you want to work on decreasing your credit to debt ratio, this will actually hurt your score.
6) Pay Your Bills on Time
Everyone knows this, but if you have missed a payment make sure you get current on those bills.
Use these strategies and your score will go up. I’ve seen it happen both for myself and clients. If you’d like to know more about other strategies that can help you establish a strong financial foundation, check out our Financial Fitness program. FinFit is built to help our clients do just that!
As a financial planner, when a potential client comes to me with money to invest they often ask, “How should I start investing my money?” They know that they need to invest and have extra capital on hand to do so, but they’re putting the cart before the horse.
Before even speaking with them about their risk tolerance, current investments, potential strategies for future investing etc. I always ask, “How much is in your emergency fund?”
The answers can range from “What’s an emergency fund?” to having hundreds of thousands in a savings account. But more times than not, they don’t know exactly how much they should have in savings.
An emergency fund is a savings account dedicated to bailing you out when unforeseen financial troubles arise. This fund is for repairing your HVAC unit, fixing your car, unexpected medical bills, and especially loss of wages.
The emergency fund shouldn’t be so small that you aren’t able to cover a financial crisis without going into debt; but not so large that you have too much capital allocated in cash.
General guidelines for an emergency fund say it should be around 3 months of expenses for two incomes, 6 months of expenses with one income- for both single and married investors. This is a baseline, but your Emergency Fund should be dictated by your individual circumstances. You and your financial planner should collaborate to determine the amount that is right for you.
Once the proper amount is determined, your emergency fund should be moved into a high yield savings account. Most of us keep our savings at a big bank and receive terrible interest rates for parking our money there. While it may not seem like a lot of extra money, going from an account producing 0.01% interest vs. 1.0% interest just makes sense. Why not let your money earn the most it can for you?
For example, say you have $10,000 in your Emergency Fund:
Interest Rate Amount You Earn/Year
Bank A 0.01% $10
Bank B 1.0% $100
I know, this is not a huge difference, right? But over 10 years, you have received $900 more by utilizing Bank B.
While you will have to pay more in taxes with Bank B, you will still come out well ahead. I encourage you to look at the current return on your savings account, then go here to compare it to other options available. You may be pleasantly surprised what this simple move can do to increase your earnings on the money you have already saved.
Roth IRA accounts have been available since 1997. In a traditional IRA, you contribute pretax dollars that grow tax deferred, but are taxable upon withdrawal. Roth IRAs are for after tax contributions that provide tax free growth and distributions upon retirement.
The magic of compounding means, the earlier you start, the greater the tax-free growth within the account. If you are 20 when you start making contributions, you could be looking at four doubles of your original contribution by the time you retire at age 60. That means a $6,000 contribution this year could grow to $96,000 allowing you to potentially create a constant flow of tax free income for your retirement years.
Another reason to open a Roth IRA is the flexibility it can provide to fund emergencies that may arise over your lifetime.
The Five-Year Rule
You can always withdraw any Roth IRA contributions without taxes, after all, you paid income tax on the money prior to making the contribution. However, if you haven’t had the Roth IRA open for at least five years, your distribution could still be subject to a 10% tax penalty, similar to the early withdrawal penalty for traditional IRAs.
The five years for withdrawals begins when you open the account, not when you make subsequent contributions. There is also a five-year rule for Roth IRA conversions that start in January of the year you make a conversion. This additional rule was enacted to prevent someone from using a Roth IRA conversion to avoid early distribution penalties from traditional IRA withdrawals.
Who qualifies for a Roth IRA
If you have a modified adjusted gross income of less than $122,000 and are single or less than $193,000 if married filing jointly, you can make Roth IRA contributions of 100% of your income up to $6,000 if younger than age 50 or $7,000 if age 50 or older.
Back-door Roth IRAs
Because there are no income limitations for converting traditional IRAs to a Roth IRA, many who are disqualified for income resort to the back-door method for funding a Roth IRA. This works because anyone may open and contribute to a non-deductible traditional IRA, even if you are covered by a qualified retirement plan.
Once the funds are deposited into the nondeductible traditional IRA, they can then be converted to a Roth IRA. This has the same net income tax effect as contributing directly to a Roth IRA.
The Early Bird Gets the Worm
Tax free growth and tax free distributions are very enticing especially for those with many years until retirement, so start today. The more time your account has to grow tax free, the better.
I often get the question of what to do with an old 401(k) or 403(b) sitting with a former employer. In short, there are only a few circumstances where you would want to leave it be, but in those circumstances it can be extremely advantageous to do so.
So, when should you leave the money in an old 401(k) or 403(b) rather than roll it over to an IRA?
Other than these scenarios, I recommend rolling over your nest egg to an IRA with a reputable fiduciary. Just some of the reasons are:
This is one of the walls in the reception area of my office. You can see I like to hang lots of little items there. The items were picked with some care, they are meant to convey to clients and prospective clients a sense of who I am and what I believe in. They are also there to remind me of what I aspire to. If you came to my office you would find that none of the items on the wall relate directly to money or wealth in the traditional way you might expect at an investment advisor’s office (though there are other places where you could find some of that).
The items on the wall are there to remind me that money is just something that allows us to live fuller lives. It is not a goal in and of itself. One of the plaques reads “Enjoy the little things in life because one day you will look back and realize they were the big things”. That is a reminder that everyday I have the chance to enjoy something. It may not be a big new shiny thing, but that is not important, what is important is for me to be mindful and grateful for all that comes my way.
One of the cards reads “You are what you eat…I need to eat a skinny person” That is there to remind me to have a sense of humor and to laugh once in a while. Life is meant to be fun.
Another reads “Success is getting what you want, happiness is wanting what you get” That’s a reminder that I am as wealthy as I allow myself to be, by being happy with what I have.
Maybe you have a wall of your own. Maybe it exists only in your head. What do you hang on your wall?
It is important to understand all the risk you face as an investor. Risk comes in many forms and some risks are higher than others at different stages of market cycles. Understanding the risks that could hurt you the most and how you can offset or reduce that risk is important to your long term success as an investor.
There is company specific risk. That is the risk that you will own a company like Enron or MCI or Kodak or any other of a myriad of companies that have fallen by the wayside. The cure for market risk is broad diversification. If your portfolio had a 1% exposure to Enron when they imploded it didn’t really hurt, the other 99% of your portfolio likely bailed you out. But if Enron was 20% or more of your portfolio it hurt a lot and took a long time to recover from.
There is interest rate risk. That is the risk that interest rates will rise. This is generally bad for dividend paying stocks, but is really, really bad for bonds, as bond prices fall when interest rates increase. I would venture that interest rate risk is higher in most portfolios today than at any time in the last 25 years.
There is inflation risk. The risk that the falling value of a currency will lead to lower purchasing power per unit of currency. Inflation is really bad for bond holder as they are repaid with currency that purchases less goods and services than the currency they originally loaned out. You can offset inflation risk to a degree by investing in inflation protected bonds or by investing in companies that pay dividends that go up over time.
There is political risk. That is risk that an act of the government could adversely affect an industry. Energy policy can mean millions of dollars of extra business for oil companies or millions of dollars of extra business for renewable energy firms. Tax policy can benefit some industries more than others. Political risk is hard to avoid because it changes so often and is so capricious in its implementation. Here, diversification is once again your friend.
Finally, there is obviously, market risk. Which is will the market prices of the securities you own go down in value over some arbitrary time frame. I say some arbitrary period of time because over the long run this risk has always disappeared. Over the last decade, we have seen markets go down by 50% or so, only to see them rebound by more than double that number. In your lifetime, you will likely see over two dozen times when stocks will retreat by at least 15%. Yet over your lifetime the stock market will almost certainly be a one-way street with the bias to the upside. Maybe we should call this the risk of missing out rather than market risk, because the fear of short term dips could prevent you from profiting from the permanent ups of stock ownership.
Understanding the risks you face and the ways you can offset that risk will help you become a better investor. Invest some time to contemplate the risks you are facing today.