Objective information about financial planning, investments, and retirement plans

Understanding Your Bond Fund’s Duration

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Interest Rates

For most of the past 30 years bonds and bond mutual funds have had the proverbial wind in their sails. Interest rates have steadily headed downwards. Bond prices and interest rates have an inverse relationship.

Last week, however, the Fed increased interest rates by 25 basis points (0.25%). They also indicated that they would continue to raise rates this year as, in their view, our economy has reached a new phase. This is part of an overall tightening of the money supply to keep the economy from overheating, including an effort to keep inflation in check.

Many investors may be wondering what this means for their bond mutual funds ETFs. A key number that all holders of bond funds and ETFs must know and understand is the fund’s duration.

What is duration? 

Bond mutual funds and ETFs are a portfolio of individual bonds.

According to Morningstar, “Duration is a time measure of a bond’s interest-rate sensitivity, based on the weighted average of the time periods over which a bond’s cash flows accrue to the bondholder.” A bond’s cash flows include the value received at maturity, generally $1,000 per bond, and the periodic interest payments received by the holder of the bond. A bond’s duration is expressed in years and is generally shorter than its maturity.

All things being equal, a bond with a longer time to maturity will have a higher duration meaning its price is more sensitive to changes in interest rates. Likewise, the higher the bond’s coupon rate (the stated interest rate paid by the bond) the lower the bond’s duration. Bonds with a shorter time to maturity and a higher coupon rate will have a lower duration and their price will be less sensitive to changes in interest rates.

The duration of a bond fund or ETF can be found on the fund’s fact sheet usually posted on the fund company’s site, or the portfolio tab on the fund’s listing on Morningstar.com.

What does bond fund duration tell us? 

The largest bond fund, Vanguard Total Bond Market Index (ticker VBMFX), has an effective duration of 6.05 years according to Morningstar. This tells us that if interest rates rise by 1% the value of the underlying bonds held by the fund would likely decline by around 6.05%.  Note this number is an approximation and bond prices are impacted by factors other than changes in interest rates. This fund roughly tracks the aggregate U.S. bond market.

By comparison Vanguard Long-Term Investment Grade (ticker VWESX) has longer duration of 13.31 years and would see a greater impact from rising interest rates.

The Vanguard Short-Term Bond Index ETF (ticker BSV) has a duration of 2.76 years.

The actively managed Double Line Total Return Bond Fund I (ticker DBLTX), managed by Jeffrey Gundlach who many call the “bond king,” has a duration of 3.98 years.

What should I do now?

As mentioned above, duration is a good indicator of the potential impact of a change in interest rates upon the value of your bond fund, but other factors also come into play. In 2008, many bond funds saw outsized losses and investors moved their money into Treasuries as a safe haven during the financial meltdown.

Many high-quality bond funds suffered major losses that year based only upon this flight to quality by investors.

Longer term the total return of a bond fund or ETF is driven by income payments as well as the direction of interest rates. Lower coupon bonds will be replaced by bonds with higher coupon rates over time.

Bonds are traded on the secondary market and prices are a function of supply and demand much like with stocks.

Bond mutual funds and ETFs offer the advantage of a managed portfolio.  On the flip side unlike an individual bond, bond mutual funds and ETFs never mature.

Is it time to get out of bond funds?  The point of this article is not to advocate that you do anything differently, but rather that you understand the potential duration risk in any bond mutual funds or ETFs that you currently hold or may be considering for purchase.

Bond funds and ETFs still have a place in diversified portfolios, but for many investors the characteristics of the fixed income portion of their portfolios may need an adjustment. This might mean shortening up on bond fund duration and looking at other, non-core types of bond funds.

The landscape of the financial markets is continually evolving and interest rates are a part of this evolution. As investors we need to understand the potential implications on our portfolios and adjust as needed.

Approaching retirement and want another opinion on where you stand? Not sure if you are invested properly for your situation? Check out my Financial Review/Second Opinion for Individuals service.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Please check out the Hire Me tab to learn more about my freelance financial writing and financial consulting services.  

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Investing Seminars – Should You Attend?

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It must be the season for investing and retirement dinner seminars. I’ve received a number of these invitations in the mail recently.

Typical was one from a local investment firm “___ Cordially Invites You to Attend an EXCLUSIVE Dinner Gathering!” Wow, me invited to anything that was exclusive?  The only brokerage sponsored investment “seminar” that I have ever attended featured legendary market guru Joseph Granville who among other things played the piano in his boxer shorts. It was in a movie theater in Milwaukee back in grad school, no food was involved.

Opening the invitation, it was from a well-known brokerage firm. The topic of the seminar is “Strategies for helping build a stronger portfolio.” The areas to be covered include:

  • Outlook for Domestic/International Stock & Bond Markets
  • Focus on distributions:  strategies for managing your retirement income
  • Developing a systematic process to help GET and STAY on the right financial track
  • Strategies to help take advantage of upside market potential while planning for a possible downside

So far this all sounds great. Reading on I noticed that while the session is sponsored by two brokers from the firm, the featured speakers were from a mutual fund company that offers funds that are often sold by commissioned reps while the other speaker was from an insurance company who is big in the world of annuities.

Should you attend? 

Clearly the objective is to sell financial products to the attendees, this is reinforced by the choice of speakers. That said there might be some good information available, the topics are certainly timely especially for Baby Boomers and retirees.

Consider attending one of these seminars only if you feel that you can resist a sales pitch. In the case of this session, the restaurant is a pretty good one that is close to my home. I am often tempted to check out one of these seminars out of professional curiosity, a free meal at a good restaurant would be an added bonus.

What are you hoping to gain from attending? The brokers are likely spending a fair amount of money on this session and expect a return on their investment. There will be a good deal of sales pressure at the very least to schedule a follow-up session with them.

Think about your real objective 

If you want a good meal and perhaps a little bit of knowledge, go ahead and attend.

If you are serious about finding a financial advisor to guide you to and through retirement, perhaps you should forego the meal and try to find someone who is a good fit for you. I strongly urge that you seek a fee-only advisor who sells only their knowledge and advice. NAPFA (a professional organization for fee-only advisors) has published this excellent guide to finding a financial advisor.

A free meal is great, but in the end as they say, there are no free lunches.

Approaching retirement and want another opinion on where you stand? Not sure if you are invested properly for your situation? Check out my Financial Review/Second Opinion for Individuals service.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Please check out the Hire Me tab to learn more about my freelance financial writing and financial consulting services.  

Year-End 401(k) Matching – A Good Thing?

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Tim Armstrong

I was reminded of the issue of year-end 401(k) matching by employers when I learned that the employer of a close relative was changing their match to the end of the year.

A few years ago, AOL announced that they were moving to a year-end once per year match on their 401(k) plan. AOL subsequently rescinded this change due to the public relations disaster caused by the firm’s Chairman tying this change to both Obama Care and specifically to two high-risk million dollar births covered by the company’s health insurance in 2012. Many major companies, including IBM, have gone this route in recent years. What are the implications of a year-end annual 401(k) match for employees and employers?

Implications for employees 

Ron Lieber wrote an excellent piece in the New York Times entitled Beware the End-of-Year 401(k) Match about this topic.  According to Lieber:

“AOL’s chief executive, Tim Armstrong, drew plenty of attention earlier this month when he seemed to attribute a change in the company’s 401(k) plan in part to a couple of employees whose infants required expensive care. But what was mostly lost in the discussion was just how much it would cost employees if every employer tried to do what AOL did. 

The answer? Close to $50,000 in today’s dollars by the time they retired, according to calculations that the 401(k) and mutual fund giant Vanguard made this week. That buys a lot of trips to see the grandchildren — or scores of nights in a nursing home.” 

The Vanguard study assumes an employee earns $40,000 per year and contributes 10% of their salary for 40 years, the investments earn 4% after inflation and the employee receives a 1% salary increase per year. The worker would have a balance that was 8.7% lower with annual matching than with a per pay period match. Of note, the Vanguard analysis assumes that this hypothetical worker missed 7 years’ worth of annual matches due to job changes over the course of his/her career.

Lieber also discussed the case of IBM’s move to year-end matching that also proved controversial. IBM, however, offers all employees free financial planning help and has a generous percentage match.

Additional implications of an annual match from the employee’s viewpoint:

  • One of the benefits of regular contributions to a 401(k) plan is the ability to dollar cost average. The participants lose this benefit for the employer match.
  • Generally, employees must be employed by the company as of a certain date in order to receive their annual match.  Employees who are looking to change employers will be impacted as will employees who are being laid off by the company.
  • If the annual match is perceived as less generous it might discourage some lower compensated workers from participating in the plan. This could lead to the plan not passing its annual non-discrimination testing, which could lead to restrictions on the amounts that some employees are allowed to contribute to the plan. 

Note employers are not obligated to provide a matching contribution. The above does not refer to the annual discretionary profit sharing contribution that some companies make based on the company’s profitability or other metrics. Lastly to be clear, companies going this route are not breaking any laws or rules.

Implications for employers 

I once asked a VP of Human Resources why they chose a particular 401(k) provider. His response was that this provider’s well-known and respected name was a tool in attracting and retaining the type of employees this company was seeking.

While not all employers offer a retirement plan, many that do cite their 401(k) plan as a tool to attract and retain good employees.

There are, however, some valid reasons why a plan sponsor might want to go the annual matching route:

  • Lower administration costs (conceivably) from only having to account for and allocate one annual matching contribution vs. having to do this every pay period. In many plans the cost of administration is born by the employees and comes out of plan assets, in other plans the employer might pay some or all of this cost in hard dollars from company assets.
  • Cost savings realized by not having to match the contributions of employees who have left the company prior to year-end or the date of required employment in order to receive the match.
  • Let’s face it the cost of providing employee benefits continues to increase. Companies are in business to make money. At some point something may have to give. While I’m not a fan of these annual matches, going this route is better for employees than eliminating the match altogether.

Reasons a company wouldn’t want to go this route:

  • In many industries, and in certain types of positions across various industries, skilled workers are scarce.  Annual matching can be perceived as a cut in benefits and likely won’t help companies attract and retain the types of employees they are seeking.
  • Companies want to help their employees to retire at some point because they feel this is the right thing to do. Additionally, if too many older employees don’t feel they can retire this creates issues surrounding younger employees the company wants to develop and advance for the future. 

Overall I’m not a fan of these annual matches simply because it is tough enough for employees to save enough for their retirement under the defined contribution environment that has emerged over the past 25 years or so. The year-end or annual match makes it just that much tougher on employees, which is not a good thing.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Please check out the Hire Me tab to learn more about my freelance financial writing and financial consulting services. 

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Financial Fraud – Tips to Protect Yourself

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Financial fraud is all over the news.  Whether high-profile Ponzi Scheme cases via the likes of Madoff, Allen Stanford or many smaller cases, investors are being defrauded out of their hard-earned money at an alarming rate.

Financial Fraud – Tips to Protect Yourself

I’d like to tell you that the problem emanates only from financial advisors who sell product, but sadly two former presidents of NAPFA, the country’s largest organization of fee-only advisors, have been implicated in fraud cases in recent years.

Given the increasing skill and imagination of fraudsters there is no fool-proof way to protect you and your family from financial fraud.  None the less here are some tips for you to reduce the risk:

Use a third-party custodian

If a financial advisor suggests that you don’t need to house your investments with a third-party custodian such as Schwab, Fidelity, your bank, Merrill Lynch, etc. I suggest that you run (don’t walk) away from any relationship with this person.

This was one of the key tactics that Madoff used to perpetrate his fraud for so many years. He even sent his own client statements. While a third-party custodian is not fool-proof, you should insist upon this arrangement. Besides receiving an independently prepared statement, you can generally set-up online access.

Review your account statements

Read and review your account statements on a regular basis. Besides being a good practice, this is a must to catch both honest mistakes and potentially fraudulent transactions. Several years ago, an advisor allegedly took client funds from accounts at Schwab by forging their signatures. I’m sure that he was counting on the fact that many clients never review their account statements or check their accounts online.

Affinity Fraud

Don’t assume that you can trust an advisor just because he or she attends your church or you are in the same Rotary club. Affinity fraud is far too common. Many of Madoff’s victims were members of the Jewish community up and down the East Coast. I’m not saying to disqualify an advisor because they are a member of your church, but they should be put through the same level of scrutiny as any other advisor that you would consider.

Beware the rush job

If an advisor is insistent that you invest NOW, be very leery. There is no investment that is that urgent. Investments should be made after careful planning to ensure that they are part of a strategy that is right for you. Don’t let yourself be pressured into doing anything with your money. High pressure often equals a scam.

Only invest in what you understand

If you don’t understand an investment vehicle proposed by a financial advisor don’t allow your money to be invested there. Demand he or she explain the investment to you until you do understand it so that you can make a good decision.

Elder Fraud

If you have elderly parents or relatives talk to them about investment scams as many are aimed at seniors. While this can be a touchy subject, it is an important one. Sadly, a high percentage of the financial fraud aimed at seniors is perpetrated by family members. Your help here may include protecting these people from other members of your own family.

Stay engaged

Overall make sure that if you work with a financial advisor that you stay engaged in the process of managing your money. While it is great to find a trusted advisor, make sure you continue to ask questions about the advice they are providing and why they feel a particular investment or course of action is right for your situation.

The Bottom Line

Financial and investment fraud is rampant. The steps above can help but overall be diligent about your finances and the people you are trusting to provide you advice. Be especially leery of unsolicited calls urging you to invest in the next hot thing. If something sounds too good to be true it probably is.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Please check out the Hire Me tab to learn more about my freelance financial writing and financial consulting services.  

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A Pre-Retirement Financial Checklist

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Are you within a few years of retirement? It’s time to get your financial house in order. We are now almost eight years into a bull market for stocks that has seen the S&P 500 move from 677 at the lows of the financial crises to a recent intraday high of over 2,350. Hopefully these stock market highs have favorably impacted your retirement readiness?

Here are several items to include on your pre-retirement financial checklist.

Review your company benefits  

Your 401(k) plan might be your largest and most significant employee benefit, but there may be others to consider as well. Does your company offer any sort of retiree medical coverage? Are there other benefits that you can continue at reduced group rates?

In the case of your 401(k) you will have choices to make at retirement. You will need to determine if you want to leave it with your soon-to-be-former employer, roll it into an IRA, or take a distribution. The last choice will likely result in a hefty tax bill, so this is generally not a good idea for most folks.

Do you have company stock options that you haven’t exercised? Check the rules here. Speaking of company stock, there are special rules called net unrealized appreciation to consider when dealing with company stock held in your 401(k) plan.

Do you have a pension from your current or former employer?

While a pension is certainly an employee benefit, I feel that it deserves its own section. You might have several decisions to make regarding your pension benefit if you are fortunate enough to be covered by one.

  • Do you take the benefit immediately upon retirement, or wait?
  • If you have the option, do you take the pension as a lump-sum and roll over to an IRA or take it as a monthly annuity?
  • Generally, there will be several annuity payment options to consider, which one is right for your situation?

These decisions should be made in the context of your overall financial situation and your ability to effectively manage a lump sum. Since any lump-sum would be taxable if taken as a distribution, it is usually advisable for you to roll it over into a tax-deferred account such as an IRA. If you have earned a pension benefit from a former employer, be sure to contact your old company to get all the details and to make sure they have your current address and contact information so there are no delays or glitches when you want to start drawing on this pension.

Determine your Social Security benefits and when to take them

While you can start taking Social Security at age 62, there is a significant reduction in your monthly benefit as opposed to waiting until your full retirement age. Further, if you can wait until age 70 your benefit level continues to grow. If you are married the planning should involve both spouses’ benefits. There are several planning opportunities for married couples around when each spouse should claim their benefit.

Review your retirement financial resources 

Over the course of your working life you have likely accumulated a variety of investments and other assets that can be used to fund your retirement which might include:

  • Your 401(k)or similar retirement plan such as a 403(b) or other defined contribution plan.
  • IRA accounts, both traditional and Roth.
  • A pension.
  • Stock options or restricted stock units.
  • Social Security
  • Taxable investment accounts.
  • Cash, savings accounts, CDs, etc.
  • Annuities
  • Cash value in a life insurance policy
  • Inheritance
  • Interest in a business
  • Real estate
  • Any income from working into retirement

In the years prior to retirement it is a good idea to review all your anticipated assets and retirement resources to determine how they can be best utilized to support your desired retirement lifestyle.

Determine how much you will need to support your retirement lifestyle 

While this might seem intuitive you’d be surprised how many folks within a few years of retirement haven’t done this. Basically, you will want to put together a budget. Will you stay in your home or downsize? What activities will you engage in? What will your basic living expenses be? And so on.

Compare this to the income that your various retirement resources might generate for you and you will have a good idea if you will be able to support your desired lifestyle in retirement. If there is a gap, you still have some time to make adjustments to close that gap.

You will need to do some planning in terms of which financial resources to tap and the sequencing of these withdrawals over the course of your retirement.

This is a very cursory “checklist” for Baby Boomers and others within a few years of retirement. This might be a good point to engage the services of a fee-only financial advisor if you’ve never done a financial plan, or if your plan is out of date. Retirement can be a great time of life, but proper planning is required to help ensure your financial success.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Please check out the Hire Me tab to learn more about my freelance financial writing and financial consulting services.  

Approaching retirement and want another opinion on where you stand? Check out my Financial Review/Second Opinion for Individuals service.

The Super Bowl and Your Investments

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Lombardi Trophy - Super Bowl XXXI

It’s Super Bowl time and once again my beloved Packers are not playing. They had a good season and beat the Giants and the top-seeded Cowboys in the playoffs. I attended the game against the Giants at football’s holy shrine, Lambeau Field, my first time attending a playoff game.

Every year the Super Bowl Indicator is resurrected as a forecasting tool for the stock market.

The indicator says that a win by a team from the old pre-merger NFL is bullish for the stock market, while a win by a team from the old AFL is a bad sign for the markets. Looking at this year’s game, New England is an original AFL team while Atlanta is an original NFL team.

How has the Super Bowl Indicator done?

According the Wall Street Journal, the seven-year win streak for this indicator was broken last year when Denver won and the market had an up year in 2016. The article said that the indicator has held true in 40 of the 50 Super Bowls that have been played.

Quoted in a Wall Street Journal article before last year’s game respected Wall Street analyst Robert Stoval said, “There is no intellectual backing for this sort of thing, except that it works.”

Some notable misses for the indicator include:

  • St. Louis (an old NFL team that was formerly and is now again currently the L.A. Rams) won in 2000 and the market dropped.
  • Baltimore (an old NFL team that was formerly the original Cleveland Browns) won in 2001 and the market dropped.
  • The New York Giants (an old NFL team) won in 2008 and the market tanked in what was the start of the recent financial crisis.
  • In 1970 the Kansas City Chiefs shocked the Minnesota Vikings and the Dow Jones Average ended the year up, by less than 5 percent.

Is this a valid investment strategy?

As far as your investments, I think you’ll agree that the outcome of the game should not dictate your strategy. Rather I suggest an investment strategy that incorporates some basic blocking and tackling:

  • financial plan should be the basis of your strategy. Any investment strategy that does not incorporate your goals, time horizon, and risk tolerance is flawed.
  • Take stock of where you are. What impact has the bull market of the past seven plus years had on your portfolio? Perhaps it’s time to rebalance and to rethink your ongoing asset allocation.
  • Costs matter.  Low cost index mutual funds and ETFs can be great core holdings. Solid, well-managed active funds can also contribute to a well-diversified portfolio. In all cases make sure you are in the lowest cost share classes available to you.

View all accounts as part of a total portfolio. This means IRAs, your 401(k), taxable accounts, mutual funds, individual stocks and bonds, etc. Each individual holding should serve a purpose in terms of your overall strategy.

The Super Bowl Indicator is another fun piece of Super Bowl hype. Your investment strategy should be guided by your goals, your time horizon for the money and your tolerance for risk, not the outcome of a football game.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Please check out the Hire Me tab to learn more about my freelance financial writing and financial consulting services.  

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Stock Market Highs and Your Retirement

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As I write this the Dow Jones Industrial Average has surpassed the 20,000-milestone intraday today. This comes some seven months after a 610 point drop in the Dow in the wake of the Brexit, the vote taken in U.K. where they decided to leave the European Union.

Difference Between Stocks and Bonds

Over the past 16 + years we’ve seen two market peaks followed by pronounced market drops.  The S&P 500 peaked at 1,527 on May 24, 2000 and then dropped 49% until it bottomed out at 777 on October 9, 2002.  The Dot Com Bubble and the tragedy of September 11 both contributed.

The S&P 500 rose to a high of 1,565 on October 9, 2007 only to fall 57% to a low of 677 on March 9, 2009 in the wake of the Financial Crisis. Since then the market has rallied and we are approaching the eighth year of this bull market. As someone saving for retirement what should you do at this point?

Review and rebalance 

During the last market decline there were many stories about how our 401(k) accounts had become “201(k)s.” The PBS Frontline special The Retirement Gamble put much of the blame on Wall Street and they are right to an extent, especially as it pertains to the overall market drop.

However, some of the folks who experienced losses well in excess of the market averages were victims of their own over-allocation to stocks. This might have been their own doing or the result of poor financial advice.

This is the time to review your portfolio allocation and rebalance if needed.  For example your plan might call for a 60% allocation to stocks but with the gains that stocks have experienced you might now be at 70% or more.  This is great as long as the market continues to rise, but you at increased risk should the market head down.  It may be time to consider paring equities back and to implement a strategy for doing this.

Financial Planning is vital

If you don’t have a financial plan in place, or if the last one you’ve done is old and outdated, this is a great time to have one done. Do it yourself if you’re comfortable or hire a fee-only financial advisor to help you.

If you have a financial plan this is a great time to review it and see where you are relative to your goals.  Has the market rally accelerated the amount you’ve accumulated for retirement relative to where you had thought you’d be at this point? If so this is a good time to revisit your asset allocation and perhaps reduce your overall risk.

Learn from the past 

It is said that fear and greed are the two main drivers of the stock market. Some of the experts on shows like CNBC seem to feel that the market still has a ways to run and might even be undervalued. Maybe they’re right. However don’t get carried away and let greed guide your decisions.

Manage your portfolio with an eye towards downside risk. This doesn’t mean the markets won’t keep going up or that you should sell everything and go to cash. What it does mean is that you need to use your good common sense and keep your portfolio allocated in a fashion that is consistent with your retirement goals, your time horizon and your risk tolerance.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Please check out the Hire Me tab to learn more about my freelance financial writing and financial consulting services.  

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

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One of the best tax deductions for a small business owner is funding a retirement plan.  Beyond any tax deduction you are saving for your own retirement.  As a fellow small business person, I know how hard you work.  You deserve a comfortable retirement.  If you don’t plan for your own retirement who will? Two popular small business retirement plans are the SEP-IRA and Solo 401(k).

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

SEP-IRA vs. Solo 401(k)

SEP-IRA Solo 401(k)
Who can contribute? Employer contributions only. Employer contributions and employee deferrals.
Employer contribution limits For 2016, up to 25% of the participant’s compensation or $53,000 whichever is less. The maximum for 2017 is $54,000 Contributions are deductible as a business expense and are not required every year. For 2016, employer plus employee combined contribution limit is a maximum of 25% of compensation up to $53,000 ($59,000 if the employee is age 50 or older).  For 2017 the maximums are $54,000 and $60,000, respectively. Employer contributions are deductible as a business expense and are not required every year.
Employee contribution limits A SEP-IRA only allows employer contributions. Employees can contribute to an IRA (Traditional, Roth, or Non-Deductible based upon their individual circumstances). $18,000 for 2016. An additional $6,000 for participants 50 and over. In no case can this exceed 100% of their compensation. The limits are unchanged for 2017.
Eligibility Typically, employees must be allowed to participate if they are over age 21, earn at least $600 annually, and have worked for the same employer in at least three of the past five years. No age or income restrictions. Business owners, partners and spouses working in the business. Common-law employees are not eligible.

Note the Solo 401(k) is also referred to as an Individual 401(k).

  • While a SEP-IRA can be used with employees in reality this can become an expensive proposition as you will need to contribute the same percentage for your employees as you defer for yourself.  I generally consider this a plan for the self-employed.
  • Both plans allow for contributions up your tax filing date, including extensions for the prior tax year. Consult with your tax professional to determine when your employee contributions must be made. The Solo 401(k) plan must be established by the end of the calendar year.
  • The SEP-IRA contribution is calculated as a percentage of compensation.  If your compensation is variable the amount that you can contribute year-to year will vary as well. Even if you have the cash to do so, your contribution will be limited by your income for a given year.
  • By contrast you can defer the lesser of $18,000 ($24,000 if 50 or over) or 100% of your income for 2016 and 2017 into a Solo 401(k) plus the profit sharing contribution. This might be the better alternative for those with plenty of cash and a variable income.
  • Loans are possible from Solo 401(k)s, but not with SEP-IRAs.
  • Roth feature is available for a Solo 401(k) if allowed by your plan document. There is no Roth feature for a SEP-IRA.
  • Both plans require minimal administrative work, though once the balance in your Solo 401(k) account tops $250,000, the level of annual government paperwork increases a bit.
  • Both plans can be opened at custodians such as Charles Schwab, Fidelity, Vanguard, T. Rowe Price, and others. For the Solo 401(k) you will generally use a prototype plan. If you want to contribute to a Roth account, for example, ensure that this is possible through the custodian you choose.
  • Investment options for both plans generally run the full gamut of typical investment options available at your custodian such as mutual funds, individual stocks, ETFs, bonds, closed-end funds, etc. There are some statutory restrictions so check with your custodian.

Both plans can offer a great way for you to save for retirement and to realize some tax savings in the process.  Whether you go this route or with some other option I urge to start saving for your retirement today 

Approaching retirement and want another opinion on where you stand? Not sure if you are invested properly for your situation? Check out my Financial Review/Second Opinion for Individuals service.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Please check out the Hire Me tab to learn more about my freelance financial writing and financial consulting services.  

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My Top 10 Most Read Posts of 2016

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I hope that 2016 was a good year for you and your families and that you’ve had a wonderful holiday season. For us it was great to have our three adult children home and to be able to spend time together as a family. We all ate way too much good food. Thankfully our newest family member Rex, a shelter dog we adopted in October, requires frequent walks. On a sad note, we had to say goodbye to Austin our 15-year-old Pekingese in August.

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Hopefully you find many of the posts here at The Chicago Financial Planner useful and informative as you chart your financial course. Whether you do your own financial planning and investing or you work with a financial advisor, my goal is to educate and provide some food for thought.

In the spirit of all the top 10 lists we see at this time of year, here are my top 10 most read posts during 2016:

Is a $100,000 a Year Retirement Doable?

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

401(k) Fee Disclosure and the American Funds

4 Things To Do When The Stock Market Drops

4 Reasons to Accept Your Company’s Buyout Offer

4 Signs of a Lousy 401(k) Plan

My Thoughts on PBS Frontline The Retirement Gamble

YOU RECEIVED A PINK SLIP AND SEPARATION AGREEMENT – NOW WHAT?

Protecting Your Savings from the Cost of a Long-Term Care Illness

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

Full disclosure the last post listed was actually number 11, number 10 needs some updating and will be republished in the new year.

This past year saw me expand my freelance financial writing business. I wrote a number of pieces for various financial sites, several financial services firms and other financial advisors over the past year. I also had my first article published in Morningstar Magazine. I plan to continue growing this side of my business in 2017.

In addition to the above, I was a frequent contributor to these sites in 2016:

Investor Junkie

Investopedia

Go Banking Rates 

Thank you for your readership and support. Please let know what you think about any of the posts on the site (good or bad) and please let me know if there are topics that you would like to see covered in 2017.

I wish you and your families a happy, healthy and prosperous 2017.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Please check out our resources page as well.