How to Save for Retirement with Tax Deferral

A number of tax-deferred investment vehicles are available to individuals saving for retirement, and that is a wonderful thing. With tax deferral, the return on your investment is not reduced by income taxes every year: you pay taxes only when you withdraw the money, most likely in retirement, when you may be in a lower tax bracket and will thus pay fewer taxes on the distributions. So what are your options?

The first kind of retirement plan you may think of for its tax-deferral benefits is your employer-sponsored retirement plan. These plans include defined benefit plans (more commonly referred to as pension plans), which provide a specific benefit in retirement, and defined contribution plans (such as 401(k) and 403(b) plans), which provide a specific contribution to an account in your name, but the benefit you will receive upon your retirement depends on the investment experience of your account.

But you have other options, including individual retirement accounts (IRAs). Traditional IRAs (to which anyone can contribute) and SEP and SIMPLE IRAs (designed for self-employed individuals and smaller employers) are like employer-sponsored retirement plans, but you purchase them yourself. Roth IRAs are a little different: you make after-tax contributions and investment income accrues tax free, but distributions are generally not taxed.

Finally, you could consider a fixed annuity, which is a financial product that provides a stream of income based on guaranteed rate of return for a certain period of time or even for your entire life. Because of this, annuities are similar to defined benefit plans or traditional pensions.

Note that there are different eligibility rules for each of these investment vehicles, such as income phase-outs, age requirements, and contribution limits. Please reach out to us if you need help determining which of these options is most suitable for you given your financial circumstances.

Understanding Rules Around IRA Contributions

With tax time approaching quickly, many American investors are asking questions about their individual retirement accounts (IRAs).

One big question: “If I didn’t turn 70 1/2 until early 2020, can I still make deposits into my traditional IRA?”

The answer is yes. Because you didn’t reach age 70 1/2 in 2019, you are eligible to make a contribution for the 2019 tax year (which is the year before the year in which you turn 70 1/2).

The maximum contribution is $6,000, and because you are older than 50, you qualify for a catch-up contribution of $1,000, meaning your total 2019 contribution can be up to $7,000.

There are some rules to follow, however. You may not contribute more than 100% of your earned income (or salary from work, but not dividend interest from your investments). So, if your earned income for 2019 will be less than $7,000, you may not contribute the full amount.

Another question: “When can I start taking distributions from my IRA?”

Anyone may begin taking distributions from an IRA without penalty at age 59 1/2. But you must begin taking required minimum distributions (RMDs) by April 1 of the year following the year in which you turn 70 1/2 (April 1, 2021, in the case of the questioner above). RMDs are determined by dividing the total balance of all your IRAs as of December 31 of the prior year by your life expectancy, as listed by IRS Publication 590.

Sound complicated? It can be. That is why it is helpful to have a financial advisor guiding you. Please reach out to us for assistance with your IRA contributions or withdrawals.

Stocks: Should You Go Small or Large?

Small-cap stocks appeal to some investors because of their potential for strong growth. Still, not everyone can stomach their potentially higher volatility. Are they right for you, and if they are, how can you best add them to your portfolio?

First, some background. Small-cap stocks typically include companies with market capitalizations of $250 million to $2 billion, while mid-cap stocks range from $2 billion to $10 billion, and large-cap stocks have market capitalizations of greater than $10 billion. To review, the market capitalization of a company is its stock price times the number of shares it has outstanding.

Smaller-cap stocks typically have greater growth potential than larger-cap stocks. This is because smaller companies are generally more nimble than larger companies, so decisions about new products and services and adjustments when problems arise can be made and implemented quickly. This flexibility often helps smaller companies perform well.

But that is not always the case. According to conventional wisdom, small-cap stocks can perform better than larger-cap stocks (a) when markets have been down and are improving and (b) when interest rates are rising. At other times in the market cycle, larger-cap stocks may perform better. For example, when markets are declining, investors may prefer the security of well-known names and shun small-cap stocks in favor of large-cap stocks.

You probably know, however, that it is wise to avoid trying to time the market. Instead, we recommend choosing an appropriate asset allocation for your risk tolerance and financial goals and sticking with it over time. You may want to ensure your distribution includes some allocation to small-cap stocks, perhaps through a small-cap mutual fund, so you have adequate diversification among a number of small-cap companies.

We can help you decide if small-cap stocks are right for your financial goals and, if so, in what allocation. Please reach out if you have any questions or would like to consider adding these investments to your portfolio.

Investing an Inheritance: What You Need to Know

An inheritance may be expected, or it may be a complete surprise. Either way, when we receive one, we worry that others do not: What should I do with the inheritance?

When it comes to investing in a windfall like an inheritance, there are many options. Spend it on a sports car? Donate it to charity? Invest it? And if the latter, how?

Let’s focus on the investing options. The steps for this are relatively simple.

First, determine appropriate asset allocation. Such an allocation should take into account the fact that no one knows how the market is going to perform.

Ideally, your assets should be divided among different types of investments based on your financial goals and appetite for risk. This is a mix of stocks, bonds, and other investments.

Next, you would invest the inheritance based on that mix of assets. You could do this all at once, which gets your money working more quickly and does not leave you too conservatively invested in cash for a period of time. Or you could use an approach called dollar-cost averaging, which involves investing the inheritance a little at a time. With this approach, you can take on less risk by slowly investing small chunks at a time rather than throwing it in all at once.

Regardless of which approach you choose (other than the sports car), we can help you determine the appropriate asset allocation.

Please reach out if you have received an inheritance or expect one in the future and would like assistance with this investment.

Managing Market Volatility in 2020

After one of the longest bull markets in history, many investors are worried about a stock market decline, and that is natural. Markets have cycles, and even if another financial crisis is not impending, even minor downturns can be troubling. But you can take steps to protect your portfolio from market volatility by following these three tips.

Review your asset allocation. Take a look at your asset allocation before you are tempted to make changes based on emotion. Make sure your portfolio is diversified. How much do you have invested in stocks, bonds, and cash? Is it still appropriate for your growth goals and risk tolerance? Although diversification can’t protect you from a loss, it may help cushion your overall portfolio from significant declines.

Invest a little at a time. If you are still contributing money to a retirement account, you may want to contribute a little at a time instead of all at once. This is called dollar-cost averaging, and it can help manage risk.

Because the amount you invest remains constant, you are able to buy more shares of a stock or mutual fund when the price is low and fewer shares as the price rises. Over time, your average cost per share could be lower than the investment’s average price per share.

Hold steady. Some investors attempt to overcome market volatility by trying to time the market, jumping in on an upswing and jumping out on a downswing. But it’s difficult to predict how financial markets will react to any specific situation or event. You have to be right twice: when you sell and when you buy. So, stick it out.

Although past performance is no guarantee of future results, historically, the markets have always rebounded. From 1957 through the end of 2018, the S&P 500 Index has returned roughly 8%.

Don’t Skip These Important Estate Planning Tasks

You may not be subject to estate tax, which is applied to estates with values that exceed the exclusion limit set by law, but that does not mean you should avoid estate planning.

Here are five tasks for everyone to consider that fall under estate planning.

Check your beneficiaries. If you have filled out beneficiary designation forms for your financial accounts (such as your life insurance or 401(k) plan), they override any other estate planning documents, so review them and ensure they are up to date.

Create two wills. That is correct: two wills. You need a living will to indicate how you would like to be cared for if you become unable to express your wishes, and you need a last will and testament to explain how you’d like your assets distributed after your death.

Draft two powers of attorney. You also need two powers of attorney to indicate who will handle your affairs if you are incapacitated. One will specify who will handle healthcare decisions, and another will specify who will handle financial matters. You can designate one person to handle both.

Designate guardians if necessary. If you have children, you will want to name a guardian to look after them (day to day and financially) if you are unable to care for them.

Name an executor. When you die, your executor will make sure your assets are distributed in accordance with your will. You can specify a family member or a professional, such as a bank trust officer.

Just be sure to tell your executor that you have named him or her.

3 Steps to Avoiding Probate Delays

If you die without a will, the court will decide how to distribute your assets among your heirs.

This process will take place in one or more state probate courts, depending on where your assets are located, and it will be based on state laws.

This can be expensive, and your estate may have to shoulder court costs and pay for any legal advice your heirs may require. Is this what you want?

Probably not. Your estate represents a significant amount of work, and it is natural for you to want to leave as much as you can to your heirs, as efficiently as possible.

One way to do so is to avoid probate court altogether. How? To avoid probate, increase the number of items in your estate that are transferred without a probate procedure. Here are three ways to achieve that.

1. Register assets as “joint tenants with rights of survivorship” or “transfer on death.” You can specify that many of your assets, such as securities and brokerage accounts, be set up as “transfer on death”. Similarly, other assets (such as properties) can be titled as “joint tenants with rights of survivorship.” Upon your death, these assets will bypass probate court and go directly to whomever you specify.

2. Ensure retirement accounts have a designated beneficiary. Many retirement accounts (such as IRAs and 401(k) plans) and insurance products allow you to name who should receive the assets when you die. These assets are excluded from your probate estate and transferred directly to your heirs.

3. Place assets in a revocable living trust. A revocable living trust is a legal entity that has the power to hold legal title to assets. Assets in revocable trusts provide for a direct transfer of assets to your beneficiaries.

Feel free to reach out to us if you need guidance with this process.

Should You Consider Index Funds for Your Next Investment?

The concept of indexing is simple: Instead of trying to beat the market, you try to meet the market. But is indexing the right approach for you?

The 1976 launch of the Vanguard 500 Index Fund created an entirely new philosophy of investing: holding all the stocks in the market instead of trying to pick potential winners.

Index funds, as they are called, are thus considered passive investments, and they often have lower turnover and lower fees than actively managed mutual funds.

Today, index funds track all kinds of market indices. There are more than 1,000 index funds and exchange-traded funds (which are similar to index funds) available. Many of them target specific countries (such as China), industries (such as technology), and even strategies (such as long-short investing).

The strategy has often worked. Many studies have shown that the bulk of traditional mutual funds have not been able to keep pace with index funds over time. But it is hard to determine if an index fund is right for you, and if so, which one.

If you think index funds are right for you, you may want to stick with the basics, such as choosing one U.S. stock fund, one international stock fund, and one bond fund.

Or you might use index funds for certain allocations (such as large-cap stocks) and use actively managed mutual funds where manager expertise and research may be more beneficial (such as small-cap stocks).

We can help you determine whether indexing is suitable for you based on your individual financial situation and goals.

How Long Will the Market Stay Strong?

As of fall 2019, the bull market was officially the longest on record, but this doesn’t stop skeptics from asking when it will end. And this leads to the question: How long will any market stay strong?

Most financial analysts use 20 percent thresholds to label bull or bear markets. A bear market begins, for example, when an index falls 20 percent from its peak.

So, as of this writing, we are in a bull market. The S&P 500 index is up more than 300 percent since its closing low on March 9, 2009.

But is it a bubble that will burst?

Market bubbles, such as the housing-market bubble that burst in 2008 and the dot-com bubble that burst in 1999, are fairly regular occurrences. They occur when an economy or market has become unbalanced due to a flawed outlook. And bursting bubbles typically hurt all investors, even those who do not own the inflating asset, because they can affect more than just the inflating asset. Recall that the housing-market bubble that burst in 2008 affected the broad stock market.

Although there are no clear asset-class bubbles today (equities are up broadly), there is concern that at some point the market will have to recalibrate and take a downturn. But we cannot know when that will happen.

How do you prepare, then? One option is de-risking with diversification. It cannot protect you from a decline in all markets, but stock and bond markets often perform differently, so diversifying into stocks, bonds, cash, and possibly even real estate and commodities may help protect you in a down market.

Remember, de-risking does not mean removing all equity risk from your portfolio, because equities play an important role in any portfolio by facilitating growth. The idea, if you are concerned, is to allocate more assets to less volatile asset classes, such as fixed income. Bonds tend to be much less risky than stocks.

For assistance with this diversification process, please contact my office. I’m here to help.

How to Start Your End-of-Year Financial Planning

As December approaches, many of us give thought to getting our houses in order, and that includes our financial houses. Here are some things to look at as you “clean house.”

Review your financial accounts. Look at your bank accounts, retirement accounts, credit cards, and other financial accounts. Gather statements, performance reports, and any other documents that will provide information about the accounts.

Ask if your accounts still meet your needs. With this information in hand, ask if your accounts are still valuable. If not, should you consolidate some, or close them? Should you open others?

Update your account information. Ensure that your accounts have accurate contact and beneficiary information. If you haven’t changed your beneficiaries in some time, you may want to review them (and make all possible accounts transfer on death, or TOD, so they avoid probate in the event of your death).

Review your budget. How is your spending? If it is not on budget, determine why. Are you spending too much money on luxury items?

Review your debts. Are you overwhelmed with debt? If so, develop a strategy for keeping your spending on track and eliminating debt (perhaps by consolidating loans).

Consider estate planning. Estate planning isn’t just for the wealthy; everyone should have a will. If you don’t, get one. If you have an existing will, review it to ensure it still protects your loved ones in the manner you intended.

Contact a financial planner. For assistance with any of these items, please contact me. I can help you put a solid financial plan in place to head into 2020 with confidence.