Objective information about financial planning, investments, and retirement plans

What I’m Reading – Jay Cutler Superstar Edition

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Far too much time on the local newscasts has been devoted to the demotion of quarterback Jay Cutler to backup for this week’s game against the Detroit Lions.  The Bears have had a dismal season and the very sub-par play of Cutler has been cited almost universally among fans and the media as a main cause.

What I’m Reading – Jay Cutler Superstar Edition

For those who don’t follow the NFL it should be noted that Cutler signed a huge contract extension just this past January that made him the highest paid quarterback in the league.  This means he makes more than Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees to name a few.

As a finance blogger how could I refer to him as anything less than a superstar, a financial superstar to be precise?  His agent clearly did a masterful selling job on the Bears. This is likely why the Bears last great quarterback was a gentleman named Sid Luckman back in the 1940s.

Full disclosure I am an avid Green Bay Packers fan and love the dysfunction that is the Chicago Bears.

In the spirit of Jay Cutler’s superstar agent here are some financial articles that you might find interesting.

3 Reasons Not to Raid Your Retirement Accounts by Eric McWhinnie via Retirement Cheat Sheet.

Retirement vs College Saving in a Nutshell by Jim Blankenship at his blog Financial Ducks in a Row.

The World Economy In 2015 Will Carry Troubling Echoes Of The Late 1990s according to The Economist via Business Insider.

Opinion: The hidden truth about rebalancing your portfolio by Mark Hulbert via Marketwatch.

5 RMD Pitfalls to Avoid by Christine Benz via Morningstar.

Why Does Everybody Recommend Complex Portfolios? by Mike Piper at his blog Oblivious Investor.

14 Holiday Activities to Build Wealth and Memories by Barbara Friedberg at her blog Barbara Friedberg Personal Finance.

I continue in my role as a contributor to Investopedia and here are my last three articles for them:

Is An Online Financial Advisor Right For You?

How To Manage A Cash Windfall

Tips For Managing Inflation In Retirement

Here’s hoping for a long Packers run through the playoffs.  Is that Jay Cutler I hear laughing all the way to the bank?

Check out an online service like Personal Capital to manage all of your accounts all in one place or purchase the latest version of Quicken.  Check out our Resources page for more tools and services that you might find useful.

Photo source:  Mike Shadle and Wikipedia

Dow 18,000 – A Big Deal?

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In February of 2013 I wrote Dow 14,000 – Big Deal or Just a Number?  Today the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed at 17,778 after a 421 point gain.  This is on the heels of a better than 200 point rise yesterday marking the average’s largest two day gain in 12 years.  Dow 18,000 looks like it will not be far off.

Just as I thought Dow 14,000 was a pretty meaningless number, I also think Dow 18,000 is equally meaningless.  In fact there are many, including yours truly, who think the Dow Jones Industrial Average isn’t all that meaningful as a benchmark.

Rather than focusing on the level of the market you should focus on your portfolio and your investment strategy.  Some specific action steps you might consider:

Rebalance your portfolio

You should have a strategy to review your overall portfolio on a regular basis (annually, semi-annually etc.) to ensure that your asset allocation is within your target allocation.  Invariably certain asset classes will outperform or under perform.  Bringing your portfolio back into balance forces you to sell off some winners and fund those asset classes that have underperformed.

Market leaders and laggards shift periodically and this approach adds a level of discipline to your strategy.  Mostly rebalancing helps mitigate investment risk.

Keep expenses low 

You can’t control how the markets will perform.  You can control your investment expenses.  Specifically:

  • Mutual fund and ETF expenses.
  • Trading costs at your custodian.
  • The cost of financial advice

Revisit your investment strategy 

I view market highs as a great time to revisit your investment strategy and your financial plan.  If you’ve been fully and properly invested your portfolio has hopefully risen along with the markets.

Where does this leave you in terms of progress towards achieving your financial goals?  This is a good time to revisit your financial plan.

The Bottom Line

Is Dow 18,000 a big deal?  Not in my book and frankly I wonder if anyone besides the financial news media really cares.  I suggest focusing on the details of your portfolio and your strategy and ignoring the hype.

Check out an online service like Personal Capital to manage all of your accounts all in one place or purchase the latest version of Quicken.  Check out our Resources page for more tools and services.

My Top 10 Most Read Posts of 2014

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It’s hard to believe that 2014 is almost over.  I hope that it has been a good year for you and your families.

Readership here at The Chicago Financial Planner has increased every year since I started blogging back in 2009 for which I thank you my readers.  My hope is that some of the articles, whether written by me or by some of the excellent guest authors who have contributed their insights, have been useful and informative to you.

Here are my top 10 most read posts during 2014:

Life Insurance as a Retirement Savings Vehicle – A Good Idea?

4 Signs of a Lousy 401(k) Plan

Small Business Retirement Plans – SEP-IRA vs. Solo 401(k)

401(k) Fee Disclosure and the American Funds

My Thoughts on PBS Frontline The Retirement Gamble

Using Retirement Accounts to Pay Off Debt – A good Idea?

4 Reasons to Accept Your Company’s Buyout Offer

7 Retirement Savings Tips to Help Avoid Regret

Is a $100,000 a Year Retirement Doable?

5 Reasons to Consider a Solo 401(k)

Additionally I recently started writing for Investopedia, here is a link to my contributor page which includes links to all of my contributions to the site.

I want to thank all of my readers again.  I also invite you to contact me to ask any questions that you might have, to tell me what you like or don’t like about the site, and to suggest topics that you would like to see covered here in the future.

I hope that you and your family have a great holiday season.

7 Reasons to Avoid 401(k) Loans

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One of the features of many 401(k) plans is the ability for participants to take a loan against their balance.  There are rules governing what the loans can be used for, the number of loans that can be outstanding at one time, and the percentage of your account balance that can be borrowed.  Additionally there is a time limit by which these loans need to be repaid.

It is the decision of the organization sponsoring the plan whether or not to allow loans and also as to what they can be used for.  Typical reasons allowed are for college expenses for your children, medical expenses, the purchase of a home, or to prevent eviction from your home.

The flexibility offered by allowing loans is often touted as one of the good features of the 401(k).  However taking a loan from your 401(k) also carries some downsides.  Here are 7 reasons to avoid 401(k) loans.  

Leaving your job triggers repayment 

If you leave your job with an outstanding loan against your 401(k) account the balance can become due and payable immediately.  This applies whether you leave your job voluntarily or involuntarily via some sort of termination.  While your regularly scheduled repayments are deducted from your paycheck, you will need to come up with the funds to repay the loan upon leaving your job or it will become a taxable distribution.  Additionally if you are under 59 ½ a 10% penalty might also apply.

Opportunity costs in a rising market

While loan repayments do carry an interest component which you essentially pay to yourself, the interest rate might be much lower than what you might have earned on your investments in the plan during a rising stock market.  Obviously this will depend upon the market conditions and how you would have invested the money.  This can lead to a lower balance at retirement resulting in a lower standard of living or possibly necessitating that you work longer than you had planned.

There are fees involved 

There are often fees for loan origination, administration, and maintenance which you will be responsible for paying.

Interest is not tax deductible 

Even if the purpose of the loan is to purchase your principal residence interest on 401(k) loans is not tax-deductible.

No flexibility in the repayment terms 

The loan payments are taken from your paycheck which all things being equal will reduce the amount of money you bring home each pay period.  If you run into financial difficulty you cannot change the terms of the loan repayment.

You might be tempted to reduce your 401(k) deferrals 

The fact that you now have to repay the loan from your paycheck might cause you to reduce the amount you are saving for retirement via your salary deferral to the plan.

You will have less at retirement 

A loan against your 401(k) plan will result in lower nest egg at retirement.  Given the difficulty many in the United States already have in accumulating a sufficient amount for retirement this only adds to the problem.

You should especially avoid 401(k) loans if:

  • You are near retirement
  • You feel that your job security is in jeopardy
  • You are planning to leave your job in the near future
  • You are already behind in saving for retirement
  • You have other sources to obtain the money you need
  • You feel that repaying the loan will be financial hardship 

Look life happens and sometimes taking a loan from your 401(k) plan can’t be avoided.  The economy has been tough for many over the past few years.  However if at all possible avoid taking a 401(k) loan and rather let that money grow for your retirement.  Down the road you will be glad you did.

Tis the Season for Stock Market Predictions

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As I listen to CNBC in the background and read the financial press it is the season for the pundits to make their 2015 stock market predictions.  Some of these predictions relate to the level of the market in general, others include “hot stocks for 2015.”

Many of these people are pretty smart and I’m not dismissing their research.  What I am saying is that that I’m not so sure any of this is useful.  But in the spirit of the season here are my 2015 stock market predictions.

The stock market might go up 

The consensus seems to be that 2015 will be a good year for the stock market.  They might well be right.  The U.S. economy is improving, oil prices are low, etc.

The stock market might go down 

The experts could be wrong or worse there could be some sort of adverse event that spooks the market and perhaps the economy.

My official stock market predication is that I have no clue 

While this is all fun and provides something for the cable news talking heads to discuss, at the end of the day nobody has a clue what 2015 or any year holds for the stock market or the economy.

Focus on what you can control 

We have no control over what the financial markets will do or over how your stocks, mutual funds, ETFs, or any other holdings will do.  But as investors you can control a number of things including:

  • The cost of investment advice
  • The expense ratios of mutual funds and ETFs owned
  • Your asset allocation
  • Your overall investment strategy
  • How much you save and invest in our 401(k) and elsewhere
  • How much you spend.

I’m not denigrating the value of stock market research and analysis.  But for most of you reading this post I’m guessing that you are long-term investors versus being traders.  If that is the case you are, in my opinion, far better off controlling what you can control and investing in line with your financial plan than in trying to chase predictions and hot segments in 2015 or in any year.

Start 2015 out right, check out an online service like Personal Capital to manage all of your accounts all in one place or purchase the latest version of Quicken.  Check out our Resources page for more tools and services.

8 Year-End Financial Planning Tips for 2014

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When I thought about this post I looked back at a post written about a year ago cleverly titled 7 Year-End 2013 Financial Planning Tips.  The year-end 2014 version isn’t radically different but it’s also not the same either.

Here are 8 year-end financial planning tips for 2014 that you might consider:

Consider appreciated investments for charitable giving 

This was a good idea last year and in fact always has been.  Many organizations have the capability to accept shares of individual stocks, ETFs, mutual funds, closed-end funds and other investment vehicles.  The advantage to you as the donor is that you receive a charitable deduction equal to the fair market value of the security on the date of the completed transfer to the charity.  Additionally you will not owe any tax on the gains in the investment unlike if you were to sell it.

This does not work with investments showing a loss since purchase and of course is not applicable for investments held in tax-deferred accounts such as an IRA.  I suggest consulting with a financial or tax advisor here.

Match gains and losses in your portfolio 

With the stock market having another solid year, though not nearly as good as 2013 was, year-end represents a good time to go through the taxable portion of your investment portfolio to review your gains and losses.  This is a sub-set of the rebalancing process discussed below.

Note to the extent that recognized capital losses exceed your recognized gains you can deduct an extra $3,000.  Additional losses can be carried over.  This is another case where you will want to consult a tax or financial advisor as this can get a bit complex.

Rebalance your portfolio 

With several stock market indexes at or near record highs again you could find yourself with a higher allocation to stocks across your portfolio than your financial plan calls for.  This is exposing your portfolio to more risk than anticipated.  While many of the pundits are calling for continued stock market gains through 2015, they just could be wrong.

When rebalancing take a look at all investment accounts including your 401(k), any IRAs, taxable accounts, etc.  Look at all of your investments as a consolidated portfolio.  While you are at it this is a good time to check on any changes to the lineup in your company retirement plan.  Many companies use the fall open enrollment event to also roll out changes to the 401(k) plan.

Start a self-employed retirement plan 

There are a number of retirement plan options for the self-employed.  Some such as a Solo 401(k) and pension plan require that you have the plan established prior to the end of the year if you want to make a contribution for 2014.  You work too hard not fund a retirement for yourself.

Take your required minimum distributions

If you are one of the many people who need to take a required minimum distribution from a retirement plan account prior to the end of the year you really need to get on this now.  The penalties for failing to take the distribution are steep and you will still owe the applicable income taxes on the amount of the distribution.

Use caution when buying mutual funds in taxable accounts 

This is always good advice around this time of year, but is especially important this year with many funds making large distributions.  Many mutual funds declare distributions near year-end.  You want to be careful to wait until after the date of record to buy into a fund in your taxable account in order to avoid receiving a taxable distribution based on a few days of fund ownership.  The better path, if possible, is to wait to buy the fund after the distribution has been made.  This is not an issue in a tax-deferred account such as an IRA.

Have a family financial meeting 

With many families getting together for the holidays this is a great time to hold a family financial meeting.  It is especially important for adult children and their parents to be on the same page regarding issues such as the location of the parent’s important documents like their wills and what would happen in the event of a long-term care situationWhile life events will happen, preparation and communication among family members before such an event can make dealing with any situation a bit easier. 

Get a financial plan in place 

What better time of year to get your arms around your financial situation?  If you have a financial plan in place review it and perhaps meet with your advisor to make any needed revisions.  If you don’t have one then find a qualified fee-only financial advisor to help you.  Just like any journey, achieving your financial goals requires a roadmap.  Why start the journey without one?

If you are more of a do-it-yourselfer, check out an online service like Personal Capitalor purchase the latest version of Quicken.

These are just a few year-end financial planning tips.  Everyone’s situation is different and this could dictate other year-end financial priorities for you.

The end of the year is a busy time with the holidays, parties, family get-togethers, and the like.  Make sure that your finances are in shape for the end of the year and beyond.  

What I’m Reading-Packers Reign Supreme Edition

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It’s Cyber Monday (can you say contrived promotional event) and I have already been to O’Hare to drop my daughter off.  Amazing how crowded it was even at 5 AM.

Great football games over the holiday weekend, but none better than the Packers beating the Patriots yesterday in what was deemed a Super Bowl preview.  Feels good now but the next week is another game.

Here are a few financial articles I suggest for some good Post-Thanksgiving financial reading:

Jim Blankenship offers some Year-End Charitable Giving Tips at Getting Your Financial Ducks in a Row.

Mike Piper answers a reader question Which Accounts Should I Spend From Each Year In Retirement? at Oblivious Investor.

Christine Benz provides an example of A Conservative Retirement Saver Portfolio for ETF Investors at Morningstar.com.

Larry Light shared a piece from financial advisor and blogger Jeff Rose Make Your Money Last In Retirement (Pt. 2) at Forbes.

Ben Steverman writes Hedge Funds Lose Money for Everyone, Not Just the Rich at Bloomberg.

John Wasik shares Five Ways to Protect Yourself on Cyber Monday at Forbes.

For now the Packers reign supreme but the Falcons visit Lambeau for next week’s Monday Night game and they will pose a tough challenge.  Enjoy Cyber Monday and the rest of the week.

Are You Ready For Retirement?

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To my readers:

The infographic that was originally included in this post was taken down as was the link to the firm that supplied it due to a malware warning on their site.  Please check out the many other posts on this site in the retirement category and other categories that may interest you.  I apologize for any inconvenience but your online safety in viewing my site is of the utmost importance to me.

Original post without reference to the infographic

Happy Thanksgiving to all of you and to your families.  We are thankful for having all five of us home together and the time we get to spend as family. For anyone with adult kids you know that doesn’t happen as often as we might like sometimes.

As I write this we are sitting out Black Friday as we always do and looking forward to a weekend filled with family, great leftovers, and football. Especially on Sunday when I am hoping for a Packer victory over the Partriots at Lambeau Field.

Retirement is a journey.  I can’t think of a better time to get started or to gauge your progress than now no matter what your age.  Why not take some time over the last month of year to ensure that you hit the ground running in 2015?

7 Retirement Savings Tips to Help Avoid Regret

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According to TIAA-CREF’s Ready to Retire Survey “…more than half of people approaching retirement (52 percent) say they wish they had started saving for the future sooner.”    Some key findings from the survey include:

  • “Many respondents say they wish they had made smarter financial decisions earlier in their career, including saving more of their paycheck (47 percent) and investing their savings more aggressively (34 percent).
  • Forty-five percent of participants age 55-64 say financial readiness is the most important factor in determining when they will retire, but only 35 percent say they saved in an IRA or met with a financial advisor.
  • By not making the most of these options, many Americans now feel uncertain about their financial futures, with 68 percent of those approaching retirement saying they are not prepared for what’s to come
  • These retirement savings challenges are causing Americans to reconsider their vision of retirement. Forty-two percent of survey respondents age 55-64 say they plan on working in a part-time job, and 39 percent say they’ll be more conservative about how much they spend on entertainment and other luxuries.” 

Here are 7 retirement savings tips to help you avoid regret as you approach retirement. 

Start early 

If you are just starting out in the workplace, enroll in your employer’s 401(k), 403(b), or whatever type of retirement plan they offer.  Contribute as much as you can.  If there is a match try to contribute at least enough to earn the full matching contribution from your employer, this is free money.  There is no greater ally for retirement savers than time and the magic of compounding.  As tough as it may be to save early in your career put away as much as you can reasonably afford as early as you can afford it.

Increase your contributions 

The maximum 401(k) contribution limits for 2015 are $18,000 and $24,000 for those 50 or over at any point in the year.  No matter what you are currently contributing to your plan try to increase it a bit each year.  If you are currently deferring 3% of your salary bump that to 4% or even 5% next year.  Increase a bit more the following year.  You won’t miss the money and every bit can help fund a comfortable retirement.

Start a self-employed retirement plan 

If during the course of your career you become self-employed it is still important that you save for retirement.  Starting a plan such as a SEP or Solo 401(k) can be a great way for you to put away money for retirement.  You work hard at your own business and you deserve a comfortable retirement.

Contribute to an IRA 

Anyone can contribute to an IRA.  Traditional IRAs are subject to income limits as far as the ability to make pre-tax contributions, but anyone can contribute on an after-tax basis with no income limits.  All investment gains grow tax-deferred you do need to keep track of any post-tax contributions however.  Roth IRAs can also be a good alternative; again there are income ceilings that can limit your ability to contribute.

Don’t ignore old retirement accounts 

Today it isn’t uncommon for people to have worked for five or more employers during their career.  It is important that you make an affirmative decision as to what you with your old 401(k) or other retirement account when you leave your employer.  Leave it where it is, roll it to an IRA, or to your new employer’s plan (if allowed) but don’t ignore this money.  Even smaller balances can add up especially if you have several such accounts scattered about.

By the same token make sure that you stay on top of any pensions that you might be eligible for from old employers.  Make sure these companies can find you and be sure to carefully evaluate any pension buyout offers you might receive from old employers.  These can often be a good deal for you.

Beware of toxic rollovers 

Recently I have read a number of accounts about brokers and registered reps looking for employees of large organizations and convincing them to roll their retirement accounts into questionable investments with their brokerage firms.  Certainly rolling your 401(k) into an IRA via a trusted financial advisor is a valid strategy but like anything else you need to vet the person suggesting the rollover and the investment strategy they are suggesting.

Avoid high cost financial products

Many financial advisors who make all or part of their income from the sale of financial products will often suggest high cost financial products to implement their financial recommendations.  These might include annuities, certain mutual funds, non-traded REITs, and others.  Be leery and ask about the costs and fees associated with these products.  There is nothing wrong with annuities, but many of them that are pushed by registered reps carry excessive fees and have onerous surrender charges.

In the case of mutual funds, index funds are not the end all be all.  But you should certainly ask the advisor why the large cap actively managed fund with an expense ratio of 1.25% or more that they are suggesting is a better idea than an index fund with an expense ratio of 0.15% or less.

At the end of the day starting early, investing wisely and consistently, and being careful with your retirement savings are excellent ways to avoid the regrets expressed by many of those surveyed by TIAA-CREF.

What I’m Reading: Pre-Thanksgiving Edition

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It’s an overcast Saturday here in the Chicago area.  Watching some college football and relaxing.  We are looking forward to having everyone home this upcoming week.

Here are a few financial articles I suggest checking out for some good weekend reading:

Keli Grant asks Which country gives the most to charity? at CNBC.com.

Check out Barbara Freidberg’s first piece as a fellow contributor to Investopedia How Advisors Can Help Clients Stomach Volatility.

Jonathan Clements cautions that In retirement, a big house can lead to the poor house at Market Watch.

Sterling Raskie provides An End of Year Financial Checklist at Getting Your Financial Ducks in a Row.

Ben Steverman suggests Maybe You Don’t Need Long-Term Care Insurance After All at Bloomberg.

Mike Piper answers a reader question Are Dividends More Important Than Price Appreciation? at Oblivious Investor.

Here is my most recent contribution to Investopedia Financial Advisor Salary.

Enjoy your weekend, back to college football.  I’m hoping for a big Packer victory over the hated Vikings this weekend as well.  I wish you, your families, and loved ones a wonderful Thanksgiving.