Objective information about retirement, financial planning and investments

SALT and Your Taxes

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One of the big topics this tax season is SALT. This is not a seasoning for food, but rather SALT stands for state and local taxes. The treatment of these expenses in terms of their deductibility for those who itemize is a major change for the 2018 tax year, arising out of the Tax Cut and Jobs Act passed at the end of 2017.

What is SALT?

As mentioned above this includes state and local taxes. In most cases the biggest components will be your state income tax, state and local sales taxes and the real estate taxes on your home.

The SALT cap 

Beginning with the 2018 tax year, SALT taxes have been capped at $10,000 as an itemized deduction. This could represent a significant reduction for many taxpayers compared to prior years. Those in states with high state income taxes and areas with high real estate taxes will likely feel the greatest impact.

Our latest real estate tax bill alone has put us over the cap limit. The state income tax rate for Illinois stands at 4.95%. This means that none of the state income taxes paid on income earned by my wife and I will be eligible as an itemized deduction for 2018 and beyond.

Fewer taxpayers can itemize 

One estimate indicates that the number of itemizers will drop from about 46.5 million in 2017 to about 18 million in 2018. The increase in the standard deduction is another major change impacting the ability to itemize along with the SALT cap.

  • For those filing married and joint the standard deduction increased from $12,740 to $24,000 for 2018.
  • For single filers the standard deduction increased from $6,350 to $12,000.

This means for those with itemized deductions less than these amounts it makes financial sense to just take the standard deduction.

What impact does the SALT cap have on your taxes? 

Beyond whether or not you can still itemize deductions, you will need to determine the effect of the SALT cap and other changes under the new rules on your overall tax situation.

For example, a married couple might have previously been able to claim $18,000 in itemized deductions. Now with the SALT cap, their itemized deductions will be lower, and they will be forced to claim the standard deduction. However, the $24,000 standard deduction likely provides a greater benefit than the amount they itemized in prior years.

Other factors to consider:

  • Tax rates are generally lower than in prior years starting with 2018.
  • Some businesses and the self-employed might be eligible for a pass-through deduction of 20% of their business income in some cases. In our case this will be helpful to our situation for 2018.
  • The income limits on the child-care credit have been increased allowing more parents to take advantage of this credit. Remember a direct credit on your taxes is worth more than a deduction in income.
  • The alternative minimum tax will impact fewer tax payers than in past years due to changes in the income limits.
  • Along with the increase in the standard deduction, the personal exemption has been repealed under the new rules. This was worth $4,050 per person in 2017.

The point is the SALT cap will impact each of us differently depending upon our situation.

The impact on real estate

Some have said that the SALT cap was retribution to those in “blue” states that didn’t support the president in the last election. I’ll leave that to you the reader to decide.

This cap disproportionately impacts states with high state income taxes and relatively high real estate values. According to one study, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, California and Maryland were the top five states in terms of the deduction for SALT as a percentage of taxpayer’s AGI (adjusted gross income) in 2016.

The inability to fully deduct property taxes and mortgage interest will make the after-tax cost of buying a home in high cost areas more expensive. Some have speculated that the cap on the ability to deduct these taxes might influence decisions about where people live and potentially cause some people to relocate to lower tax, lower cost states. It could also have an impact on the level of housing starts in these high cost areas, and the fortunes of home builders and related industries.

Planning around the SALT cap

Most of the changes enacted as part of the Tax Cut and Jobs Act expire after the 2025 tax year, so the SALT cap will be around for a few years. Here are some planning considerations.

Bunch deductible expenses. This could involve deferring or accelerating expenses that are eligible for itemizing into one year to get you over the standard deduction threshold. A couple of examples:

  • Bunch your charitable contributions in to a single year. If you were going to make say $5,000 in contributions over several years, bunch all or as much of that amount as possible into a single year if it will help you to reach the level where you will be able to itemize.
  • Same thought process as above with elective medical expenses. If there is a procedure or other elective expense, plan to incur it in the year that is most beneficial tax-wise if possible.

Max out your retirement plan contributions. This has nothing to do with itemized deductions, but this can provide the double benefit of a larger tax break if you aren’t currently doing this along with the added savings for retirement. If your company offers a 401(k) or similar plan be sure that you are contributing as much as possible. If you are self-employed be sure that you have a retirement plan set-up and that you are contributing as much as possible as well.

Review your mortgage and real estate situation. It may behoove you to pay down your mortgage if you can, especially if you can no longer itemize. If you are looking at buying a new home, be sure to take the SALT cap into account when calculating the after-tax cost of ownership.

The Bottom Line 

Tax season is a good time to take a look at your tax situation not only for last year but also going forward. Be sure to consult with a qualified tax or financial professional to help you review your situation as needed.

Need help looking at your overall financial plan and want another opinion on where you stand? Not sure if your investments are right for your situation? Concerned about stock market volatility? Check out my Financial Review/Second Opinion for Individuals service for detailed guidance and advice about your situation.

NEW SERVICE – Financial Coaching. Check out this new service to see if it’s right for you. Financial coaching focuses on providing education and mentoring on the financial transition to retirement.

FINANCIAL WRITING. Check out my freelance financial writing services including my ghostwriting services for financial advisors.

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. Check out our resources page for links to some other great sites and some outstanding products that you might find useful.

Charitable Giving and Tax Reform

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The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act passed in December of 2017 marks the biggest overhaul in the tax code in many years. One area that will be impacted under tax reform is charitable giving.

While charitable contributions remain eligible as an itemized deduction under tax reform, the ability to actually deduct your contributions may have been impacted by some changes in in the rules. Here are some thoughts for this holiday season and throughout the year.

SALT Cap

SALT stands for state and local taxes. Tax reform capped the amount of these taxes that can be used as an itemized deduction at $10,000 for 2018 going forward. The two biggest SALT components for most people are their state income taxes and their property taxes. This will especially impact those people living in states with high income taxes and locations with high property values/property taxes. Many commentators say this was politically motivated since taxpayers in “blue states” seem to be disproportionately impacted, I’ll leave that to you the reader to decide.

Higher standard deduction

The other major change that may impact your ability to itemize deductions is the increase in the standard deduction. Starting in 2018, the standard deduction increases to $24,000 for those who are married filing jointly and $12,000 for single filers. This means that if your itemized deductions are less than these thresholds, you will be better off taking the standard deduction versus itemizing.

Note that these and most provisions under tax reform expire after the 2025 tax year, so we will see what the future holds for these and other provisions beyond that. 

Deductibility of charitable contributions under tax reform 

The deductibility of charitable contributions was not eliminated under tax reform, in fact it was expanded for some high-income taxpayers. The issue for many taxpayers is whether or not they can still itemize deductions with the changes to the standard deduction limits and the SALT cap discussed above.

For those whose situation might not allow them to itemize, here are some ways to make your charitable giving more tax-efficient.

Bunch contributions

Let’s say that you and your spouse file a joint return. In this example let’s say your mortgage interest is $10,000 for the year and your SALT taxes are capped at the $10,000 level. With other deductible expenses your itemized deductions would come to $21,500, leaving you $3,500 short of the $24,000 standard deduction threshold.

One option would be to bunch expenses that would qualify as itemized deductions into 2018 (or any appropriate year) to get over the $24,000 hurdle.

In the case of charitable contributions, you might consider making additional contributions in the current tax year to help your reach the threshold where you can itemize. If you normally would make contributions of $1,500 per year and can afford to do so, you might try to make 2-3 years’ worth of contributions to the organizations of your choice in the current year to get your deductions above the threshold.

Give appreciated securities or assets 

Using appreciated securities held in a taxable account to make charitable contributions has long been an excellent method to make charitable contributions. Stocks, mutual funds and ETFs that have appreciated in value are good gifts. Other types of appreciated assets can be used as well, such as art, collectibles and real estate. These types of assets will need to have an appraisal to determine their value as a gift, versus using the market value on the day of the gift for appreciated securities.

There are two potential benefits:

  • The value of the gift can be deducted as a charitable contribution for those who can itemize deductions.
  • There are no capital gains taxes that will be due on the contributed shares. If you were to sell the shares first and then contribute the cash, you would owe capital gains taxes on the amount of the realized gain on the sale.

This strategy can also be used as part of your overall portfolio rebalancing, it can be a tax-efficient way to rebalance your holdings.

Even for those who cannot itemize under the new rules, the benefit of not having to pay taxes on the capital gains can be a significant benefit.

If you have a security that has declined in value, you are generally better off selling it, realizing a loss on the sale and then contributing the cash.

If this is a route that is appropriate for you, be sure to contact the organization to ensure that they can accept gifts of appreciated securities or other types of assets.

Donor-advised funds 

A donor-advised fund is a fund that allows you to have your contributions to the fund professionally managed, offering the opportunity to make contributions to qualified charitable organizations over time. DAFs have been around for many years and are offered by such big-name financial services organizations like Vanguard, Schwab and Fidelity among others.

After establishing your account, contributions to the DAF can be made via check, securities or other assets. The details may vary a bit from fund to fund.

The fund invests your contributions professionally, typically through a list of individual funds or several managed portfolios they might offer. The money grows, and contributions can be made over time to the organization(s) of your choosing, as long as they are qualified charities. Most DAFs have minimum initial and future contribution levels, as well as minimum donation levels.

DAFs fit well into the new tax environment in that they can accept appreciated securities and can be a great vehicle to bunch your contributions in order to be able to itemize in certain years. They also allow you to space out your charitable donations if your desire is to give a certain amount each year.

RMD – Qualified Charitable Distribution (QCD) 

For those who are age 70 ½ or older, you can direct some or all of your required minimum distribution (RMD) to a qualified charitable organization each year in what is called a qualified charitable distribution (QCD). The limit is $100,000 annually.

The QCD has been around for a number of years. The amount directed to the charity is not taxed. This is beneficial for many reasons, including keeping your income in a range that offers the lowest future Medicare costs.

The amount of the QCD does not qualify as a deductible charitable contribution. If you have charitable intentions, this can be a tax-efficient way to make charitable.

The Bottom Line 

Contributing to charity is a great thing to do for those of us who are able to do it. As a Jesuit priest told me back in my graduate school days at Marquette University, you might as well take any tax breaks possible when making donations. The ideas above can help make your contributions a bit more tax-efficient.

As with any tax or financial planning issue, be sure to consult with a qualified tax or financial professional to determine if these ideas make sense for your situation.

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. Check out our resources page for links to some other great sites and some outstanding products that you might find useful.

Approaching retirement and want another opinion on where you stand? Not sure if your investments are right for your situation? Need help getting on track? Check out my Financial Review/Second Opinion for Individuals service for detailed guidance and advice about your situation.

FINANCIAL WRITING. Check out my freelance financial writing services including my ghostwriting services for financial advisors.

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7 Things to Know About the New Tax Law

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The new tax law (Tax Cuts and Jobs Act) passed in December of 2017 marks the biggest overhaul in the tax code in many years. The impact of these changes is far reaching and will impact most of us in some way.

As we are now over half-way through 2018, this is a good time to look at your tax situation in light of the new tax law and make any necessary adjustments prior to year-end.

Here is a look at seven ways the new tax law may impact you.

1. Lower tax brackets

For most tax payers, the new federal income tax rates will be lower.

Single filers

Tax Rate Income range 2018 taxes Income range 2017 taxes
10% Up to $9,525 Up to $9,325
12% $9,526 to $38,700 NA
15% NA $9,326 to $37,950
22% $38,701 to $82,500 NA
24% $82,501 to $157,500 NA
25% NA $37,951 to $91,900
28% NA $91,901 to $191,650
32% $157,501 to $200,000 NA
33% NA $191,651 to $416,700
35% $200,001 to $500,000 $416,701 to $418,400
37% $500,001 or more NA
39.6% NA $418,401 or more

Source Bankrate.com

Married filing jointly

Tax Rate Income range 2018 taxes Income range 2017 taxes
10% Up to $19,050 Up to $18,650
12% $19,051 to $77,400 NA
15% NA $18,651 to $75,900
22% $77,401 to $165,000 NA
24% $165,001 to $315,000 NA
25% NA $75,901 to $153,100
28% NA $153,101 to $233,350
32% $315,001 to $400,000 NA
33% NA $233,351 to $416,700
35% $400,001 to $600,000 $416,701 to $470,000
37% $600,001 or more NA
39.6% NA $470,001 or more

Source Bankrate.com

As you can see from the bracket in almost every range, the top end of the bracket is a bit higher and generally most income levels are in lower brackets. This means tax savings for most of us starting with the 2018 tax year.

Suggestion – Check the level of taxes being withheld from your paycheck to ensure you don’t come up short and find yourself with a bigger tax bill than you had anticipated.

2. Increased standard deduction

Beginning in 2018, the standard deduction is drastically increased.

  • The standard deduction increases from $6,350 to $12,000 for single filers.
  • The standard deduction increases from $12,700 to $24,000 for those married filing jointly.

This means that fewer people will be able to itemize deductions. It also means that more taxpayers at lower income levels will not owe any taxes.

Partially offsetting the increased standard deduction is the repeal of the personal exemption for 2018. The 2017 amount was $4,050 per eligible dependent, including the tax payer(s). For a family of five, including three dependent children, this would amount to $20,250. The trade-off between the loss of the personal exemption and the increase standard deduction will vary with each person’s situation.

Strategy idea – If the new standard deduction is likely to prevent you from itemizing, it might make sense to bunch deductible expenses into a single tax year, either by accelerating or deferring expenses. Examples of expenses to consider bunching include charitable contributions and eligible medical expenses.

3. SALT reductions

This might be the most controversial provision of the new tax law. SALT stands for state and local taxes. These typically include state and local income taxes as well as property taxes and state sales taxes.

The big change for 2018 is that the deduction for all SALT taxes combined is limited to $10,000. With the higher level of standardized deductions, this limitation may prevent many folks who are used to itemizing deductions from doing so in 2018 and beyond.

For example, if your property taxes are $12,000 annually and your state income tax liability is $8,000, your total deduction for these items will be limited to $10,000. Combined with the higher standard deduction levels you may find yourself unable to itemize deductions going forward.

This provision will likely have the greatest impact in high cost states like California, New York, Illinois, Minnesota and much of the Northeastern part of the country. As many of these are “blue states,” some have speculated that this provision of the new tax law was politically motivated.

Regardless of the motivation, this change is functionally a drop in after-tax income for those impacted. This may be partially offset by the reduced tax brackets and the increase in the standard deduction, but you would be wise to look at your situation as soon as possible to get a true picture of the impact on you.

4. Child tax credit

For families with children, the Child Tax Credit has doubled from $1,000 to $2,000 per child for 2018. Additionally, up to $1,400 of the credit can be refundable if the credit results in a tax refund for you.

The income level at which the credit begins to phase-out has been increased to $400,000 for married couples in 2018, increasing the number of families that will be able to take advantage of this credit. Remember, a tax credit directly reduces the amount of taxes paid and is therefore more valuable than a tax deduction.

The new law also added a $500 credit for other dependent family members, including dependent parents.

As a practical matter, the loss of the personal exemption may offset a portion of the benefit of these increases. There are rules regarding earned income limits and the definition of an eligible child so be sure to understand all the rules and how they might apply to your situation.

5. Retirement plan contributions

Contrary to some earlier versions of the tax bill, the 2018 contribution rates for 401(k) plans, IRAs and other tax-deferred retirement plans was left unchanged. Contributing to a retirement plan provides a tax-break for many and is a great way to save for retirement while your money grows tax-deferred (or tax-free in the case of a Roth account). Be sure to contribute as much as you can for 2018.

6. Mortgage interest deduction

The new tax law limits the amount of mortgage debt against which an interest deduction can be taken. For 2018 and beyond, the ability to deduct mortgage interest is limited to the first $750,000 of mortgage debt. This limit does not apply to mortgages in place prior to 2018.

The ability to deduct interest on home equity lines of credit is now gone as of 2018, unlike with mortgages existing home equity lines were not grandfathered. The exception to this is for home equity debt that is specifically used for home improvement purposes.

7. Divorce 

For those couples contemplating divorce, the new tax law brings a huge change. For divorces finalized after 2018, the alimony payments will no longer receive a tax deduction for those making the payments. This will potentially make alimony payments more expensive for the paying spouse and could result in lower alimony payments for the spouse receiving them.

The implications are potentially huge for the spouse receiving the payments and could place many of them in an adverse financial situation going forward. For couples thinking about a divorce, they should consider finalizing the process in 2018 if possible.

The bottom line

These are just some of the changes contained in the new tax law. There are provisions impacting businesses large and small, as well as a number of other provisions impacting individuals in various situations. This is a good time to sit down with your tax or financial professional to see what impact the new rules will have on your taxes and your financial planning.

One thing to keep in mind. Most of the changes enacted by these new rules are set to expire after 2025, they aren’t permanent.

Not sure how the new tax rules will impact your financial planning? Approaching retirement and want another opinion on where you stand? Need help getting on track? Check out my Financial Review/Second Opinion for Individuals service for detailed advice about your situation.

NEW SERVICE – Financial Coaching. Check out this new service to see if its right for you. Financial coaching focuses on providing education and mentoring in two areas: the financial transition to retirement and small business financial coaching.

FINANCIAL WRITING. Check out my freelance financial writing services including my ghostwriting services for financial advisors.

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. Check out our resources page for links to some other great sites and some outstanding products that you might find useful.

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Tax Reform and Divorce

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The tax reform legislation passed in late 2017 provides the most sweeping changes in the tax code in years. While there are a number of changes that will impact many of us in various ways, the changes in the tax treatment of alimony payments could have a profound impact on couples contemplating divorce.

Tax Reform and Divorce

Divorce is an emotional issue that can have a significant and lasting impact on the couple involved and their families. Divorce is also a significant financial event as well.

Alimony payments 

Under the current tax rules, alimony payments are a deductible expense by the ex-spouse making the payments. Generally, alimony payments are made by the ex-spouse with the higher income. The current rules shift the tax burden of these payments to the ex-spouse receiving the payments, who is often in a lower tax bracket.

The new rules that go into effect for divorces that are finalized after 2018 eliminates the tax deduction for alimony payments.

Under the current rules here’s how the alimony deduction would work at the federal level.

Income of ex-spouse paying alimony            $500,000

Federal tax bracket                                                 35%

Annual alimony payment                               $100,000

Tax deduction                                                   $35,000

After-tax cost of alimony                                 $65,000

Without the tax deduction the after-tax cost of the alimony increases to the full $100,000.

These changes could result in lower alimony payments going forward. The attorney for the alimony-paying ex-spouse could argue that the amount of alimony their client can now afford to pay will be reduced due to the loss of the tax deduction. If the argument is successful in reducing the amount of alimony, the ex-spouse receiving the payments will suffer financially on an ongoing basis as a result.

Boomers impacted

In a recent study, the Pew Research Center found that the rate of divorce among couples 50 and older more than doubled from 1990-2015. Many in this demographic are in high tax brackets and this change comes at a bad time for this group as they head into retirement. This is especially true if one spouse, often the wife in this age group, has been out of the workforce for a number of years raising children and/or serving as a caregiver to older family members.

Focus on divorce financial planning 

This change due to tax reform doesn’t change the fact that divorce is a major financial event that requires careful financial planning during the process by both spouses.

It is important the couple seek sound, unbiased financial guidance from a fee-only financial advisor to ensure that a settlement that is as fair and equitable for both spouses is reached. Moreover, decisions need to be made with as little emotion as possible. For example, keeping the family home may be a poor financial choice if the costs of ownership will be a strain on the ex-spouse receiving this asset. It is important that all marital assets be considered as part of this process.

For couples nearer to retirement it’s important to understand the rules governing Social Security benefits from ex-spouses. These rules remain intact and both spouses need to incorporate them in their retirement planning.

Summary

Overall the loss of this tax deduction is an incentive for couples looking to divorce to get things finalized in 2018 if possible. Delaying things until 2019 or beyond might result in a lower alimony payment and will result in less money for one or both ex-spouses. Pre-divorce financial planning remains a critical part of the divorce process.

Approaching retirement and want another opinion on where you stand? Not sure if your investments are right for your situation? Need help getting on track? Check out my Financial Review/Second Opinion for Individuals service for detailed guidance and advice about your situation.

NEW SERVICE – Financial Coaching. Check out this new service to see if its right for you. Financial coaching focuses on providing education and mentoring in two areas: the financial transition to retirement or small business financial coaching.

FINANCIAL WRITING. Check out my freelance financial writing services including my ghostwriting services for financial advisors.

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. Check out our resources page for links to some other great sites and some outstanding products that you might find useful.

The Election and Your Financial Plan

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The improbable happened last night, we now have President-Elect Donald Trump.

The financial news media is buzzing about the election results and the potential impact on your pocketbook. There has been much speculation about taxes, healthcare and certainly which stocks and stock sectors might benefit from the Trump victory and the Republic majority in both houses of Congress.

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What should you do financially in the wake of the election? 

Nothing!

There is a lot of speculation and uncertainty. Those of you who read this blog or follow me on social media know that I advocate the use of a financial plan as the basis of most financial decisions. Reacting to the election or any other major event usually is not a good idea. For example, many investors who panicked and sold off investments during the market drop of 2008-09 are generally behind those investors who stuck with their investment plan, at least based upon my experience.

In all likelihood there will be changes in the coming months politically and economically. Some of these changes might create the need to adjust strategies for some investors and retirement savers down the road.

For now my suggestion is to monitor the news and to stick with your financial plan. As always your financial plan should be reviewed on a periodic basis and adjusted when appropriate.

My advice is to plan and not react.

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.  

Resolving Financial Issues Before Marriage

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Personal financial topics are often some of the most difficult topics for people to discuss. But since financial issues often cause significant problems in marriages, you should try to reach some sort of agreement on your finances before your wedding. Some items to consider include:

Resolving Financial Issues Before Marriage

Where do you want to be in five or 10 years?

Our dreams for the future often come with price tags. If one spouse wants to continue his/her education or start a business, significant sums may be needed for that goal. If children are part of your future plans, when you have those children, how many you have, and whether both of you continue working will have a significant impact on your finances. Planning now will allow you to set priorities and start saving for those goals.

What assets and liabilities are each of you bringing to the marriage?

Preparing a combined net worth statement will give you a starting point for determining how you can help achieve your financial goals. If one or both of you have significant assets, you might want to consider a prenuptial agreement to spell out what happens to your assets in the event of death or divorce. For a second or third marriage, especially if there are children from any of these prior marriages, proper estate planning is essential.

Do either of you have credit problems?

When you apply jointly for credit, both of your credit histories will be evaluated. Thus, if one of you has an outstanding credit history and the other has credit problems, it can affect the approval process and your debt’s cost. If one of you has credit problems, work hard during the early years of your marriage to correct those problems.

Should you combine your finances or keep them separate?

Some couples prefer pooling all funds, thinking it helps create a feeling of unity. Others, however, have difficulty losing their financial autonomy, especially if they have been on their own for many years. Keep in mind that this is not an either/or decision. You can set up a joint account for shared expenses, with each spouse contributing a predesignated amount to the account. For the remaining funds, separate accounts can be kept for discretionary spending.

How will you handle spending decisions?

The process of defining goals and setting a budget can help resolve differing views about money matters, forcing couples to compromise and make joint decisions about how money will be spent. While that might seem like a painful process, addressing these issues now can help prevent future misunderstandings. You may want to set a maximum amount that each of you can spend without consulting the other.

How will you handle insurance?

If you both have medical insurance through your employers, it may be cheaper to select one plan for both of you. Combining auto insurance may also reduce premiums. You’ll also want to evaluate your life insurance.

Who will handle financial tasks?

Decide who will handle financial tasks. One person may be more suited for these tasks due to his/her background or time availability. However, the other spouse should not give up total control. Set up a formal time, perhaps monthly, to go over financial matters. This keeps both spouses informed and provides a designated time to discuss spending or items of concern. You then won’t fret about how to bring up financial topics or let finances interfere at other times.

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.  

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Some Excellent Online Financial Resources

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English: Taken from the internet, public teach...

I use social media and the web to interact with financial advisors, financial bloggers and writers and to keep up with the latest financial news.  Here are some excellent online financial resources, including some blogs and websites that I follow.

Websites and Media 

Market Watch is one of the best all around financial sites; I especially like their RetireMentors section which includes a variety of writers on topics useful to retirees and those planning for retirement.  Robert Powell (twitter @RJPIII) provides some great insights on retirement-related topics.

Morningstar is one of the best investing sites and their columnists provide some excellent insights into a variety of topics. I especially enjoy articles from their personal finance guru Christine Benz (twitter @christine_benz), Mark Miller (twitter @RetireRevised) and John Rekenthaler.

Investopedia is an excellent all-around financial website. They offer an almost encyclopedia-like range of definitions on countless financial terms and products. In addition, they offer insights on a wealth of financial, investing and retirement planning topics for both individuals and financial advisors. I have been a frequent Investopedia contributor for the past few years.

Go Banking Rates is a popular website dedicated to providing readers with information about the best interest rates on financial services nationwide, as well as personal finance content and tools. I have contributed a number of articles to the site over the past year.

Financial Bloggers

Financial advisor Jim Blankenship’s (twitter @BlankenshipFP) site Getting Your Financial Ducks in a Row is a must read blog for information on topics relating to retirement.  Jim is an expert on Social Security and also provides great information on IRAs, taxes, and a variety of essential financial planning topics.  Jim’s books on Social Security and IRAs are must reads.

Mike Piper’s blog Oblivious Investor does a great job discussing a variety of investing and retirement related topics.  Mike is also a published author on retirement, Social Security and several other topics.

Barbara Freidberg Personal Finance provides a wealth of information on a variety of personal finance and investing topics. Barbara does a great job of sharing her knowledge and experience in these areas with her readers in an easy-to-understand and actionable style.

Investor Junkie is published by long-time investor and entrepreneur Larry Ludwig. This site provides great information about investing, retirement and other related topics. Additionally, they do review of various financial products and service providers. I have contributed a number of articles to this site as well.

Frugal Rules is an excellent personal finance blog offering practical tips on investing, frugality, and a range of useful personal financial topics.

Robert Farrington’s blog The College Investor does a great job of discussing investing and a range of financial topics geared to younger investors.

Financial advisor Russ Thornton (twitter @RussThornton) focuses his practice on women clients and his blog Wealth Care for Women provides sound financial planning tips for women.

The Dollar Stretcher is one of the oldest but still one of the best all-purpose financial blogs out there.  Gary Foreman (twitter @Gary_Foreman) covers the full spectrum of personal financial topics.

The websites and blogs listed above are some of my favorites, but this is not meant to be an exhaustive list.  Are there financial sites or online resources that you would recommend?  Please feel free add to this list by leaving a comment.

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.

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Life Insurance Over Age 50 – Approval and Savings Tips

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This is a guest post by Chris Huntley, President of Huntley Wealth & Insurance Services. All opinions and suggestions are his.

One of the most common misconceptions about life insurance is that you can no longer purchase it, or the premiums suddenly skyrocket, the day you hit 50 years old.

In many cases, the exact opposite is true!

In some instances, purchasing life insurance at certain “milestone ages” like 60, 65, or 70, can actually unlock huge savings for you!

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Having said that, purchasing life insurance over age 50 can be a bit of a balancing act, and you’ll need to understand some key factors about how age affects pricing and qualification.

Generally speaking, older age affects:

  • Your premium
  • The types of policies and term lengths you are eligible to buy
  • The health class you can qualify for

Let’s start with the obvious… How premiums increase as we age, and then move to savings opportunities.

The Cost of Waiting

Generally speaking, life insurance tends to become more expensive as you age.

As a rule of thumb, you will likely see the premium for a policy increase in the following increments:

  • Age 50 – 59 will see an increase of between 8 – 10% per year
  • Age 60 – 69 will see an increase of between 10 -12% per year
  • Age 70 – 79 will see an increase of between 12 -14% per year

So, if you are currently age 59 or 69, or approaching another birthday, you may not want to wait to apply for coverage.  Of course, you’ll also want to weigh that decision against the savings tips for waiting, which I’ll cover later.

Qualifying for Life Insurance Over Age 50

While in some ways, qualifying for life insurance over age 50 is easier, there are situations when it is more challenging.

For example, most life insurance policies require that you take a medical exam.

After 50 years of age, the medical exams become a bit more stringent. Your exam might include a resting EKG, even for a small amount of coverage.

If you’re over 70, you might also be required to take a “special senior” exam to test mental cognition.

I once had a 72-year-old declined for coverage because he couldn’t draw the face of a clock with the hands showing the time, 2:40.

The age when these and other tests apply vary, so if you are worried you might be disqualified, speak to an independent agent who can check the exam requirements by carrier, to find the carrier with the “easiest” medical exam requirements.

How Age Affects the Types of Policies Available

When it comes to term life insurance, and particularly the length of the term, those who are over age 50 should know that there are certain age cut-offs where certain terms are no longer available.

For example, in your 50’s, some companies may no longer allow you to buy a 30-year term.  Some carriers no longer offer it at age 50, while for others, the cut-off age could be age 55 or 57.

The same holds true for 20 and 25-year term.  As you get into your 60’s or 70’s you may not be able to buy 20 or 25-year term policies. The point to keep in mind is that ALL insurers have a cut-off point where they will no longer sell certain policies.

If you wait too long to buy your policy, you may no longer have access to the term length you desire and might have to opt for a much more expensive permanent policy, such as whole life or universal life instead.

Now that you understand how waiting to buy life insurance can affect the policies available to you and pricing, let’s discuss some savings opportunities for people over age 50.

How Key Birthdays Can Save You Money on Life Insurance

As stated previously, there are specific birthday milestones after age 50 that can end up saving you a lot of money on life insurance.

This can apply to individuals in a variety of scenarios such as:

  • “Big Boned” or Overweight Individuals
  • Individuals with High Blood Pressure and Cholesterol Levels
  • Individuals with History of Family Illness
  • And more

In all cases below, the savings come from being able to qualify for a better health rating.  As we age, many life insurance companies relax on some health and lifestyle concerns, giving us the opportunity to qualify for better health classes.

And since the name of the game in life insurance is getting the best health rate (better health rating = savings), you need to understand these tricks.

Life Insurance Savings Tips for “Big Boned” Individuals

Whether you’re a few lbs. overweight or more, this single tip can easily save you 25% to 50% on your life insurance premiums.

As it turns out, some companies offer more lenient height/weight guidelines to individuals as they get older, particularly for ages 60, 65, and 70.

For example, a 59-year-old male who is 5’9 and weighs 210 lbs. might qualify for an insurance carrier’s third best health rating.

However, if that same individual was 60 years old, he could qualify for the carrier’s best rating.

Since health classes increase premium by approximately 25% per class, the 59-year-old would have to pay about 50% more than the 60-year-old at the same weight!

If you’re overweight at all and over age 50, it would be worth your time to speak to a knowledgeable independent agent who can shop the market for the company that can offer you the best rate at your age, height, and weight.

Savings Tips for Individuals with High Blood Pressure/Cholesterol Levels

The same lenient guidelines over age 50 apply to those with higher blood pressure and cholesterol levels.For example, let’s use an actual chart from one life insurer for blood pressure. They will give the give the top health rating for:

  • Ages 0 – 60 for blood pressure: 140/85
  • Age 61+ for blood pressure: 150/85

If you are an individual who is age 55 and has a blood pressure reading of 145/83, you would not qualify for the top health rating. But the same individual, who is 61 with the same BP reading would qualify for the top health rating.

The same approach applies to cholesterol levels, and other lab levels.  You can even get more favorable underwriting over age 50 if you’ve had a history of cancer or heart disease in your family.

How to Find Affordable Life Insurance After Age 50

As you can see, every insurer has their own underwriting guidelines for those after age 50, and it’s a bit of balancing to determine when you should apply for coverage.

For example, if you are 58 years old and have a few health conditions, or are a bit overweight, you’ll probably pay more now to purchase life insurance than you will if you wait until you’re 60.

You might even be tempted to hold off any purchase until you hit that milestone age.

However, I never recommend that my clients wait.  A lot can happen if you “chance it”, and wait a year or two to buy coverage.  First of all, you could die without coverage!  Secondly, no one can predict your health down the line and whether you’ll still be insurable.

Best practice is to buy the coverage you need now, and then every year or two, check with your agent for savings opportunities.

Just be sure to use an independent life insurance agent.

Chris Huntley is President of Huntley Wealth & Insurance Services, a life insurance agency based in San Diego, CA, where he specializes in helping individuals with high risk medical issues.  He has been in business for 10 years and is licensed in 48 states.  He also owns eLifeTools, a site dedicated to online marketing for insurance agents.  Chris can be reached on Twitter: @mrchrishuntley

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.

3 Financial Planning Lessons from the Cincinnati Bengals

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Long-time readers of The Chicago Financial Planner know that I am a die-hard football fan and avid supporter of the Green Bay Packers. Come playoff time, I try catch all of the games as they are often memorable. The game this past Saturday between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cincinnati Bengals was memorable for the wrong reasons if you are a Bengals fan.

Rarely, if ever, in my 50 years of watching NFL games have I ever seen a team give away a game (especially a playoff game) in such a bonehead fashion as did the Bengals. Besides some just plain dumb moves, the level of dirty play and bad sportsmanship was disgusting.

What can we learn from the Bengals about financial planning? Here are 3 financial planning lessons from the Cincinnati Bengals.

Protect your downside 

The Bengals had gained the lead in the final quarter after being held scoreless for the first three quarters of the game. On what should have been a routine running play, (in the Steelers end no less) to try to run the clock out, the Bengals’ running back fumbled. In this situation ball security should have been his first priority, not gaining any yardage.

Unless you are very young, most investors are wise to diversify their portfolios in order to dampen the impact of market declines like the financial crisis or even the market volatility that we’ve seen since the start of the new year.

Keep your emotions in check 

Cincinnati linebacker Vontaz Burfict made a key interception that looked like it might seal an improbable comeback win for the Bengals. After the fumble mentioned above, he proceeded to make one of the absolute dumbest and dirtiest hits to the head of a Steelers receiver resulting in a key 15-yard penalty.

His teammate (and I’m sure fellow Mensa member) Adam Pacman Jones then garnered another 15-yard penalty for shoving a Pittsburgh assistant coach during an on-field altercation that set-up a chip-shot game winning field goal for the Steelers.

Burfict is known as a loose cannon and has been fined in the past and Jones is not a choir boy either. Both personal fouls can be attributed to a combination of bad judgment and a failure to keep their emotions in check in a key situation.

Investors need to stay calm during periods of upheaval in the economy and the financial markets. So far 2016 has started off with roughly a 5% loss in some the major market averages.

Back in 2008 and early 2009 the financial press was filled with stories of investors who panicked and sold out of their stock holdings, including mutual funds and ETFs, at or near the bottom of the market. Many of these investors stayed out missing all or most of the six plus year rally we’ve seen since the lows of March 9, 2009. Sadly, for those who were near retirement they booked substantial losses and never gave their portfolios a chance to recover.

Investors need to stay calm. One way to help in this area is to have a plan. Have an asset allocation that that reflects your situation including your time horizon for the money and your risk tolerance. Review your portfolio at regular intervals and rebalance as needed. A plan does not eliminate market volatility or the stress that it can bring, but it can help to prevent you from acting on your emotions, usually to your detriment. 

Build a team that you can depend on 

While both Burfict and Jones are talented players, both have a history of issues. Jones has been in trouble with the NFL for off-field activities and has been suspended by the league in the past. Burfict was suspended for this hit and has been fined for prior transgressions. He was undrafted, many say as a result of a reputation for being hard to deal with.

As a viewer of the game I would say these two players let their teammates and fans down at the most critical point in the most important game of the season. The Bengals have not won a playoff game since 1991 and their comeback to take the lead and put themselves into a position to win was heroic, only to be destroyed by the lack of self-control of these two.

In the course of accumulating money for goals such as retirement and college for your kids, many of you will seek advice along the way. In doing so it is important to build a team of advisors and partners that you can trust.

If a financial advisor is needed be sure to choose a fee-only advisor. This isn’t to say that one who derives some or all of their compensation from the sale of financial products isn’t competent, but someone who doesn’t have the conflict of interest inherent in the sale of financial products starts out as more objective.

Find an investment custodian who has reasonable fees and offers the types of investments and accounts that meet your needs. Free ETF platforms are nice, but who cares if the ETFs on the platform are not the ones that are right for you.

Other advisors might include a CPA or an attorney to handle estate planning matters.

In all cases don’t be afraid to ask questions. In the case of a financial advisor it is important to understand if they have worked with clients in similar situations as you and to understand what you will receive for the fees paid.

The Bottom Line 

As I’ve written here in the past, football and the world of financial planning and investing have some similarities. Learn from the Cincinnati Bengals and be sure to protect your financial downside, keep your emotions in check and build a team that you can trust. These steps will put you on track towards achieving your financial goals.

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.

Open Enrollment Exploring Your Employee Benefits

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This post was written by Katie Brewer, CFP®.  Young, smart financial planners like Katie bode well for the future of the financial planning profession. Her bio and contact information are provided at the end of the post. This post is timely for those of you who are in the midst of open enrollment via your employers and Katie offers some solid tips to consider.

Is that email from HR about open enrollment buried in your inbox? If you wait until the last minute and then race through your choices, you’re not the only one. Almost half of all employees spend 30 minutes or less choosing their benefits every year. And 90% of employees choose the same benefits every year, even though your family and your benefits are constantly changing.

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Employee benefits are a large part of your compensation, and it pays to make the right choices for your family. Forty-two percent of employees believe they waste up to $750 a year due to open enrollment mistakes. We’ll explore a few common employee benefits so you can feel confident that you’re making the right choice for you and your family during open enrollment.

Save for Your Future with Your Employer Retirement Plan

Many employers offer a retirement plan to help you save for a comfortable life in your later years. The name of the plan will depend on your employer. Do you have a 401(k), Thrift Savings Plan (TSP), 403(b), or SIMPLE IRA? All of these plans allow employees to contribute to a retirement account on a tax-deferred basis.

You’ll also want to look into the details to see if your employer offers a Roth option. With these plans, you pay tax now, but you’ll be able to take your contributions — and all your earnings — out tax free. It’s nice to have options about how to take money out in your retirement.

Some employers also provide a generous match to employee contributions. If your employer provides a match, you’ll want to take advantage of it. If you get a 50% match on your contributions, that’s a huge return on your money that’s tough to get anywhere else.

Protect Your Income with Disability Insurance

If you review your benefits package, you’ll probably also see some mention of long-term disability insurance coverage. This group coverage is an inexpensive way to make sure you are protecting your income. If you rely on your salary to pay your bills and save for your future, you need insurance to protect against a loss in income. Understanding the finer details will help you make the best choice for your policy.

First, what’s the elimination period (or waiting period)? You’ll want to have enough cash in your emergency fund to bridge the waiting period if you need to file a claim.

Second, is there a way to easily increase coverage? It’s a good idea to cover at least 50% of your income.

Third, do you have the option to pay tax on the premium? If so, that’s usually a good choice. It’s very inexpensive, and it means you’d receive your disability payments tax-free when you need the money the most.

Some employers offer short term disability coverage as well. You should have an emergency fund that will help you ride out any short periods away from work. But if you’re still building up your emergency fund, it can make sense to pay for a short term disability policy.

Look After Your Loved Ones with Life Insurance

Another common employer benefit is to provide some amount of life insurance for employees. It’s usually on the order of 1 to 2 times your annual salary. For most families, this is not enough.

Your employer might offer the option to buy additional life insurance without needing a medical exam at a reasonable cost. If you have medical conditions that make it difficult to get life insurance, this is a great way to increase your coverage.

Now that you know how much life insurance you have, you can also purchase your remaining life insurance on the open market. This is usually a better option as you can take it with you if you leave your job.

Cushion Your Budget with Health Insurance

Health insurance is an important part of your benefit package. You might have several options to choose from, and what plan is the right one for you will change as your family changes.

A low deductible and small co-pay plan with a wide range of specialists is important if you or your spouse are facing health problems.

If you are in good health and have the financial means, a high-deductible health plan might be the right choice. This plan has a high out of pocket deductible, but you’ll pay less in premiums, and you can take advantage of a health savings account.

Health savings accounts (HSA) are a fantastic way to build wealth. With a HSA, you contribute pre-tax money into the account to be invested. The money rolls over from year to year so you can build a balance. You can withdraw the money, including any earnings, tax-free on qualified medical expenses. Very few things are completely income tax-free! This is different than a Flexible Spending Account (FSA) or Health Reimbursement Account (HRA), so make sure you know exactly what type of plan you have.

You might also have the option to participate in a health care Flexible Spending Account (FSA). With a FSA, you put away pre-tax money to cover healthcare costs like co-pays, deductibles, and medications. These plans are “use it or lose it,” so be careful about how much you put in the account. While there’s usually a grace period for spending your funds, you can’t rollover much (if any) to the next year. If you’re at the end of your FSA year, check your balance so you aren’t wasting money.

Be On the Lookout for Other Benefits

Many employers also offer a dependent or daycare flexible spending account (FSA). This lets you put away pre-tax money to pay for expenses related to caring for dependents like kids or an elderly parent. Many parents use a dependent FSA to get a tax break on day care. If you decide to skip the FSA, you might be able to claim a credit on your taxes instead.

Some employers also offer the option of pre-paid legal services. If your family needs estate planning documents or other legal services, this can be an inexpensive way to get these papers in place. Other employers offer free or reduced tuition to college or training programs. Benefits like these can add up to a significant sum.

There’s such a wide variety in employee benefits that it’s difficult to name all the possible benefits you might receive. Read the fine print of your package to make sure you’re taking advantage of every benefit you can.

Make this year the year that you take the time to understand your employee benefits. Employee benefits are an important part of your compensation. Be sure to get what you deserve by making the most of open enrollment.

Katie Brewer, CFP® is a financial coach to professionals of Gen X & Gen Y and the President of Your Richest Life. She has accumulated over 10 years of experience working with clients and their money. Katie has been quoted in articles in Money, The New York Times, Forbes, and Real Simple. Katie resides in the Dallas, Texas area, but works virtually with clients across the country. You can find Katie on Twitter at @KatieYRL and email her at info@yrlplanning.com. 

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.