Objective information about retirement, financial planning and investments

 

6 Investment Expenses You Need to Understand

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Investment expenses reduce your investment returns. While nobody should expect investment managers, financial advisors or other service providers to offer their services for free, investors should understand all costs and fees involved and work to reduce their investment expenses to the greatest extent possible.

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Here are 6 investment expenses you need to understand in order to maximize your returns.

Mutual fund and ETF expense ratios

All mutual fund and ETFs have expense ratios. These fees cover such things as trading costs, compensation for fund managers and support staff and the fund firm’s profit. Expense ratios matter and investors shouldn’t pay more than they need to.

Vanguard’s site, as you might expect, deals with this topic at length. In one example, it shows the impact of differing levels of fees on a hypothetical $100,000 initial account balance over 30 years with a yearly return of 6%. After 30 years the balance in the account would be:

$574,349 with no investment cost

$532,899 with an investment cost of 25 basis points

$438,976 with an investment cost of 90 basis points

These numbers clearly illustrate the impact of fund fees on an investor’s returns and their ability to accumulate assets for financial goals like retirement and funding their children’s college educations.

Mutual fund expense ratios are an example of where paying more doesn’t get you more. Case in point, Vanguard Value Index Adm (VVIAX) has an expense ratio of 0.05%. The Morningstar category average for the large cap value asset class is 1.03%. For the three years ending September 30, 2018 the fund ranked in the top 10% of all funds in the category; for the trailing five years it placed in the top 6% and for the trailing ten years it placed in the top 24% in terms of investment performance.

Sales loads and 12b-1 fees

Front-end sales loads are an upfront payment to a financial advisor or registered rep. Front-end sales loads reduce the amount of your initial investment that actually goes to work for you. For example, if a rep suggests investing in a mutual fund like the American Funds EuroPacific Growth A (AEPGX) for every $10,000 the investor wants to invest, $575 or 5.75% will be deducted from their initial investment balance to cover the sales load. Over time this will reduce the investor’s return versus another version of the same fund with a similar expense ratio that doesn’t charge a sales load.

Some will argue that this load is a one-time payment to the advisor and their firm for their advice. This strikes me as dubious at best, but investors need to decide for themselves whether the advice received in exchange for paying a sales load warrants this drain on their initial and subsequent investments. This share class has an expense ratio of 0.82% which includes a 12b-1 fee of 0.24% (see more on 12b-1 fees below).

Level loads are associated with C shares. The American Funds EuroPacific Growth C (AEPCX) fund has a level load of 1% in the form of a 12b-1 fee and an overall expense ratio of 1.60%. Brokers and registered reps love these as the level load stays in place for ten years until the funds convert to a no-load share class of the fund. There is a 1% surrender charge if the fund is redeemed within the first year of ownership.

12b-1 fees are a part of the mutual fund’s expense ratio and were originally designated to be marketing costs. They are now used as trialing compensation for financial advisors and reps who earn compensation from selling investment products. They can also be used to provide revenue-sharing in a 401(k) plan. While 12b-1 fees don’t increase expenses as they are part of the fund’s expense ratio, typically funds with a 12b-1 fee will have a higher expense ratio than those that don’t in my experience.

401(k) expenses

For many of us our 401(k) plan is our primary retirement savings vehicle. Beyond the expense ratios of the mutual funds or other investments offered, there are costs for an outside investment advisor (or perhaps a registered rep or broker who sold the plan) plus recordkeeping and administration among other things. If your employer has these costs paid by the plan they are coming out of your account and reducing the return on your investment.

Be sure to review the annual fee disclosures provided by your employer for your company’s plan for information on the plan’s expenses.

Financial advice fees

Fees for financial advice will vary depending upon the type of financial advisor you work with.

Fee-only financial advisors will charge fees for their advice only and not tied to any financial products they recommend. Fees might be charged on an hourly basis, on a project basis for a specific task like a financial plan, based on assets under management or a flat retainer fee. The latter two options would generally pertain to an ongoing relationship with the financial advisor.

Fee-based or fee and commission financial advisors will typically charge a fee for and initial financial plan and then sell you financial products from which they earn some sort of commission if you choose to implement their recommendations. Another version of this model might have the advisor charging a fee for investment management services, perhaps via a brokerage wrap account, and receiving commissions for selling any insurance or annuity products. They also would likely receive any trailing 12b-1 fees from the mutual funds used in the wrap account or from the sale of loaded mutual funds.

Commissions arise from the sale of financial and insurance products including mutual funds, annuities, life insurance policies and others. The financial advisor is compensated from the sale of the product and in one way or another you pay for this in the form of higher expenses and/or a lower net return on your investment.

Investors need to understand these fees and what they are getting in return. In fact, a great question to ask any prospective financial advisor is to have them disclose all sources of compensation that they will receive from their relationship with you.

Surrender charges

Surrender charges are common with annuities and some mutual funds. There will be a period of time where if the investor tries to sell the contract or the fund they will be hit with a surrender charge. I’ve seen surrender periods on some annuities that range out to ten years or more. If you decide the annuity is not for you or you find a better annuity, the penalty to leave is onerous and costly.

Taxes 

Taxes are a fact of life and come into play with your investments. Investments held in taxable accounts will be taxed as either long or short-term when capital gains are realized. You may also be subject to taxes from distributions from mutual funds and ETFs for dividends and capital gains as well.

Investments held in a tax-deferred account such as a 401(k) or an IRA will not be taxed while held in the account but will be subject to taxes when distributions are taken.

Tax planning to minimize the impact of taxes on your investment returns can help, but investment decisions should not be made solely for tax reasons.

The Bottom Line

Fees and expenses can take a big bite out of your investment returns and your ability to accumulate an amount sufficient to achieve your financial goals. Investors need to understand all costs and expenses associated with their investments and take steps to minimize these costs.

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.

Am I on Track for Retirement?

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Financial advisors are frequently asked some version of the question “Can I Retire?”  The Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) recently released its 2018 Retirement Confidence Survey. The latest survey offered several key findings:

  • Only 32% of retirees surveyed felt confident that they will be able to live comfortably throughout their retirement.
  • Retiree confidence in their ability to over basic expenses and medical expenses in retirement dropped from 2017 levels.
  • Less than one-half of the retirees surveyed felt confident that Medicare and Social Security would be able to maintain benefits at current levels.

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It is essential that Baby Boomers and others approaching retirement take a hard look at their retirement readiness to determine any gaps between the financial resources available to them and their desired lifestyle in retirement. Ask yourself a few questions to determine if you can retire.

What kind of lifestyle do you want in retirement?

You’ll find general rules of thumb indicating you need anywhere from 70% to more than 100% of your pre-retirement income during retirement. Look at your individual circumstances and what you plan to do in retirement.

  • Will your mortgage be paid off?
  • Do you plan to travel?
  • Will you live in an area with a relatively high or low cost of living?
  • What’s your plan to cover the cost of healthcare in retirement?

Remember spending during retirement is not uniform. You will likely be more active earlier in your retirement.  Though you may spend less on activities as you age, it is likely that your medical costs will increase as you age.

How much can you expect from Social Security?

Social Security benefits were never designed to be the sole source of retirement income, but they are still a valuable source of retirement income. Those with lower incomes will find that Social Security replaces a higher percentage of their pre-retirement income than those with higher incomes.

Recent news stories indicating that the Social Security trust fund is in trouble is not welcome news for those nearing retirement or for current retirees.

What other sources of retirement income will you have?

Other potential sources of retirement income might include a defined-benefit pension plan; individual retirement accounts (IRAs); your 401(k) plan, and your spouse’s employer-sponsored retirement plans. If you have other investments, it is important to have a strategy that maximizes these assets for your retirement.

If you are fortunate enough to be covered by a workplace pension, be sure to understand how much you will receive at various ages.  Look at your options in terms of survivor benefits should you predecease your spouse.  If you have the option to take a lump-sum distribution it might make sense to roll this over to an IRA.  Also determine if your employer offers any sort of insurance coverage for retirees. 

Where does this leave me? 

At this point let’s take a look at where you are.  We’ll assume that you’ve determined that you will need $100,000 per year to cover your retirement needs on a gross (before taxes are paid) basis.  Let’s also assume that your combined Social Security will be $30,000 per year and that there will be $20,000 in pension income.  The retirement gap is:

Amount Needed

$100,000

Social Security

30,000

Pension

20,000

Gap to be filled from other sources

$50,000

 

Where will this $50,000 come from?  The most likely source is your retirement savings.  This might include 401(k)s, IRAs, taxable accounts, self-employment retirement accounts, the sale of a business, and inheritance, earnings during retirement, or other sources. 

To generate $50,000 per year you would likely need a lump sum in the range of $1.25 – $1.67 million at retirement.

Everybody’s circumstances are different.  Many retirees do not have a pension plan available to them, some don’t have a 401(k) either.

Look at where you stand and take action 

Some steps to consider if you feel you are behind in your retirement savings:

  • Save as much as possible in your 401(k) or other workplace retirement plan while you are still employed
  • Contribute to an IRA
  • If you are self-employed start a retirement plan for yourself
  • Keep your spending in check
  • Scale back on your retirement lifestyle if needed
  • Plan to delay your retirement or to work part-time during retirement

Providing for a comfortable retirement takes planning. Don’t be lulled into thinking your 401(k) plan alone will be enough. If you haven’t put together a financial plan, don’t be afraid to enlist the aid of a professional if you need help.

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 more 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 regarding 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.

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Review Your 401(k) Account

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For many of us, our 401(k) plan is our main retirement savings vehicle. The days of a defined benefit pension plan are a thing of the past for most workers and we are responsible for the amount we save for retirement and how we invest that money.

Managed properly, your 401(k) plan can play a significant role in providing a solid retirement nest egg. Like any investment account, you need to ensure that your investments are properly allocated in line with your goals, time horizon and tolerance for risk.

Photo by Aidan Bartos on Unsplash

You should thoroughly review your 401(k) plan at least annually. Some items to consider while doing this review include:

Have your goals or objectives changed?

Take time to review your retirement goals and objectives. Calculate how much you’ll need at retirement as well as how much you need to save annually to meet that goal. Review the investments offered by the plan and be sure that your asset allocation and the investments selected dovetail with your retirement goals and fit with your overall investment strategy including assets held outside of the plan.

Are you contributing as much as you can to the plan?

Look for ways to increase your contribution rate. One strategy is to allocate any salary increases to your 401(k) plan immediately, before you get used to the money and find ways to spend it. At a minimum, make sure you are contributing enough to take full advantage of any matching contributions made by your employer. For 2018 the maximum contribution to a 401(k) plan is $18,500 plus an additional $6,000 catch-up contribution for individuals who are age 50 and older at any point during the year.

Are the assets in your 401(k) plan properly allocated?

Some of the more common mistakes made when investing 401(k) assets include allocating too much to conservative investments, not diversifying among several investment vehicles, and investing too much in an employer’s stock. Saving for retirement typically encompasses a long time frame, so make investment choices that reflect your time horizon and risk tolerance. Many plans offer Target Date Funds or other pre-allocated choices. One of these may be a good choice for you, however, you need to ensure that you understand how these funds work, the level of risk inherent in the investment approach and the expenses.

Review your asset allocation as part of your overall asset allocation

Often 401(k) plan participants do not take other investments outside of their 401(k) plan, such as IRAs, a spouse’s 401(k) plan, or holdings in taxable accounts into consideration when allocating their 401(k) account.

Your 401(k) investments should be allocated as part of your overall financial plan. Failing to take these other investment assets into account may result in an overall asset allocation that is not in line with your financial goals.

Review the performance of individual investments, comparing the performance to appropriate benchmarks. You shouldn’t just select your investments once and then ignore them. Review your allocation at least annually to make sure it is correct. If not, adjust your holdings to get your allocation back in line. Selling investments within your 401(k) plan does not generate tax liabilities, so you can make these changes without any tax ramifications.

Do your investments need to be rebalanced?

Use this review to determine if your account needs to be rebalanced back to your desired allocation. Many plans offer a feature that allows for periodic automatic rebalancing back to your target allocation. You might consider setting the auto rebalance feature to trigger every six or twelve months.

Are you satisfied with the features of your 401(k) plan?

If there are aspects of your plan you’re not happy with, such as too few or poor investment choices take this opportunity to let your employer know. Obviously do this in a constructive and tactful fashion. Given the recent volume of successful 401(k) lawsuits employers are more conscious of their fiduciary duties and yours may be receptive to your suggestions.

The Bottom Line

Your 401(k) plan is a significant employee benefit and is likely your major retirement savings vehicle. It is important that you monitor your account and be proactive in managing it as part of your overall financial and retirement planning efforts.

NEW SERVICE – Do you have questions about retirement planning and making the financial transition to retirement? Schedule a coaching call with me to get answers to your questions.

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 more detailed advice about 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. Please check out the Hire Me tab to learn more about my freelance financial writing and financial consulting services. Check out our resources page for links to some other great sites and some outstanding products that you might find useful.

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.

Approaching retirement 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 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.

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5 Reasons 401(k) Lawsuits Matter to You

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Several 401(k) lawsuits against major employers have been in the news this year. These suits are about high fees, conflicts of interest and plan sponsors failing to live up to their fiduciary obligations.

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Ameriprise Financial settled a suit that alleged that the firm offered a number of its own proprietary mutual funds in the company’s 401(k) plan and collected revenue sharing payments on these funds from an Ameriprise subsidiary.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Tibble vs. Edison International that the large utility company had a duty to monitor the investments offered in the plan no matter how long along they were initially added to the plan. One of the issues here surrounds the fact that lower cost share classes of these funds became available but the plan stayed with the higher cost retail share class.

Most recently Boeing settled a lawsuit that was first filed in 2006 for $57 million. The suit alleged that the company had breached its fiduciary duty to its employees by using high cost and risky investment options in the plan and by allowing the plan’s record keeper to charge employees and retirees excessive fees.

While all of this may be interesting, you may be asking what does any of this have to do with me? Here are 5 reasons 401(k) lawsuits matter to you.

Plan Sponsors have a fiduciary obligation 

These and a growing number of 401(k) related lawsuits have reaffirmed that retirement plan sponsors have a fiduciary obligation to act in the best interests of the plan participants. This includes:

  • The selection and monitoring of the mutual funds (or other investment vehicles) offered in the plan.
  • The selection and monitoring of the service providers selected for the plan.
  • All costs and fees associated with the plan.

Moreover plan sponsors should have a process in place to manage all aspects of the plan.

Mutual Fund share classes 

Several of the lawsuits centered on plan sponsors offering expensive retail share classes of funds when lower cost share classes were available. These higher cost share classes might throw off more revenue sharing and other fees to the plan but they are more expensive for the plan participants. It behooves plan sponsors more now than ever to offer the lowest cost share classes of a given fund available to them.

Numerous studies have shown the connection between lower investment costs and investment return. Well-run 401(k) plans strive to keep investment costs down and one way to do this is to ensure that the plan offers the lowest mutual fund share classes available.

Duty to monitor 

As shown in the Tibble versus Edison ruling the Supreme Court said plan sponsors have a duty to continue to monitor the investments offered in the plan long after they may have been initially offered. This dovetails into an ongoing duty of plan sponsors to monitor the investments offered to you to ensure the costs are reasonable and that they meet a set of criteria.

Typically a 401(k) that is well-monitored and managed via a consistent investment process will tend to offer a better investment line-up to their participants.

Manage plan expenses 

Boeing recently settled the second largest 401(k) suit in history at $57 million. In part the allegations included that Boeing allowed its outside record keeper to charge employees and retirees excessive fees.

This and other suits underscore the responsibility of plan sponsors to manage 401(k) plan costs and the activities of plan providers such as an outside record keeper. To the extent that administrative expenses are paid out of plan assets plan sponsors who strive to keep these expenses low are doing the right thing for their employees.

Plan Sponsors are getting it 

While this is not a blanket statement as there are still plenty of lousy 401(k) plans out there, there is evidence that plan sponsors are getting the message that they have a responsibility to the plan’s participants.

As an example mutual fund expenses in 401(k) plans have been declining for the past 15 years. Fewer companies are mandating the use of company stock in their 401(k) plans and a 2014 Supreme Court ruling will certainly help keep this trend going.

The Bottom Line 

Retirement plan sponsors have a fiduciary obligation to act in the best interests of the plan’s participants. A number of 401(k) lawsuits in recent years have served to reinforce this duty and this is a good thing for those participating in 401(k) plans. As a plan participant become knowledgeable about the investments offered in your plan and how much the plan is costing you. If you have concerns raise them in a constructive fashion to your employer.

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 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.

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.  

Financial Planning Steps for the rest of 2015

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Labor Day is here and the college football season started with our local Big 10 team Northwestern scoring an upset win over a ranked Stanford team. Next weekend is the first full weekend of NFL football with my Green Bay Packers visiting Soldier Field where they should continue their winning streak over the hapless Bears.

With a bit less than a third of 2015 left there are a number of financial planning steps you should be taking between now and the end of the year. Frankly I wrote a similar piece at this time last year Eight Financial To Do Items for the Rest of 2014 and I would encourage you to check this piece out as these eight items are just as applicable in 2015. The eight items (for those who prefer the Cliff Notes version) are:

While all eight of these items are critical financial planning steps to be tended to or at least reviewed this year or in any year, the environment in the financial markets has changed from this time a year ago.

August and so far early September has proven to be a rough patch for the stock market with much volatility and pronounced drops from highs reached earlier in 2015. The financial press is filled with stories about what to do and this has become a major event for the cable financial news stations.

In this context here are a few thoughts regarding some financial planning steps for the rest of 2015.

Get a financial plan in place or update your current one 

To me a comprehensive financial plan is the basis of an investment strategy and frankly all else in your financial life. If you have a plan in place, revisit it. If you don’t this is a great time to find a qualified fee-only financial planner and have one done.

Where are you in terms of financial goals like retirement and saving for your children’s college education? Do you have an estate plan in place?

With the markets taking a breather this is a good time to see where you are and what it will take to get you where you want to be financially. An investment strategy is an outgrowth of your financial plan and this plan is something to fall back on in times of market turmoil like the present.

Review your investments and your strategy 

How has the recent market decline impacted your asset allocation? Does your portfolio need to be rebalanced? Is your asset allocation consistent with your goals, risk tolerance and time horizon as outlined in your financial plan?

While I don’t advocate making wholesale changes to your portfolio based on some temporary stock market volatility it is always appropriate to do a periodic review of your overall portfolio, your asset allocation and the individual holdings in your accounts. These include mutual funds, ETFs, individual stocks and bonds and so forth.

The recent weakness in the markets may have created some opportunities for year-end tax loss harvesting in your taxable accounts. This refers to selling shares that show a loss to realize taxable losses. If you want to do this but also want to continue to own these or similar investments be sure to consult with a financial or tax advisor who understands the wash-sale rules.

More likely you have many investments that have appreciated nicely and these represent and excellent vehicle to make charitable contributions. Not only do you receive a tax deduction for the value of the gift, but you eliminate the tax liability for any capital gains on the holdings. 

Review your 401(k) 

The current situation in the stock market is a good time to check your account and rebalance your holdings if needed. Better yet if your plan offers it sign up for automatic rebalancing so you don’t have to worry about this.

Fall open enrollment is often the time when companies roll out any changes to the plan in terms of the investments offered, the company match or other aspects of the plan. Additionally most plans were required to issue annual disclosures by the end of August so be sure to review yours to see where the investments offered are compared to their benchmark indexes and how much they are costing you.

Lastly check to see how much you are contributing to your plan. If you are not tracking toward the maximum salary deferrals of $18,000 or $24,000 (for those who will be 50 or over at any point in 2015), try to increase your contributions for the rest of 2015.

Summary 

Labor Day is here and summer is unofficially over. Use the remainder of 2015 to tackle these issues and to get your financial situation where it needs to be.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner.

Check out Carl Richards’ (The Behavior Gap) excellent book The One Page Financial Plan. Carl is a financial advisor and NY Times contributor. This is an easy read and offers some good ideas in approaching the financial planning process. 

The Risks of Too Much Company Stock in Your 401(k) Plan

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Retirement plan sponsors are starting to get it, requiring 401(k) participants to hold company stock in their accounts exposes them to major fiduciary liability if the stock price tanks. That said it is still an option in many 401(k) plans.

According to Fidelity about 15 million people own about $400 billion in company stock across 401(k) plans that they administer.

Too dependent on your employer    

Just ask former employees of Enron, Lehman Brothers or Radio Shack about this.

All employees depend on their employer for a paycheck. If you add a high level of company stock as a component of your 401(k) account you have a recipe for disaster. If the company tanks you might find yourself out of job with no income. If this difficulty causes the stock price to decline you are not only unemployed but your retirement nest egg has taken a hit as well.

How much is too much? 

There is no one right answer; this will vary on a case by case basis. Many financial advisors say the total in employer stock should be kept to a maximum of 5% to 10% of total investment assets. This not only includes stock held in your retirement plan but also shares held outside the plan as well shares represented by any stock options or restricted shares that may be held.

Employers and fiduciary risk 

In the past it was more common for companies to use their stock as the matching vehicle in the 401(k) plan and to require that it be held for a period of time. Both are less common today due to a number of lawsuits by employees against companies after significant declines in the price of their employer’s stock. Plan sponsors want to avoid this type of fiduciary liability.

Diversify 

It is important to set a maximum allocation to your employer’s stock in your 401(k) plan and in total.  Use increases in the stock price as opportunities to take profits and diversify. Within your 401(k) plan there will be no taxes to pay on the gains, though there will be taxes due down the road when taking distributions from a traditional 401(k).

Make sure you fully understand any restrictions on selling company shares held in your plan.

Discounted purchases 

Often employees have the opportunity to purchase shares of company stock at a discount from the current market price. This is a great feature but the decision to purchase and how much to hold should not be overly influenced by this feature.

Net Unrealized Appreciation 

If you leave your employer and hold company shares in your 401(k) plan consider using the net unrealized appreciation (NUA) rules for the stock.

NUA allows employees to take their company stock as a distribution to a taxable account while still rolling the other money in the plan to an IRA if they wish. The distribution of the company stock is taxable immediately, at ordinary income tax rates, based upon the employee’s original cost versus the current market value.

The advantage for holders of highly appreciated shares can be sizable. Any gains on the stock will qualify for long-term capital gains treatment where the rates are generally lower. For a large chunk of company stock the savings can be very significant. Note there are very specific rules regarding the use of NUA so it is best to consult with a knowledgeable financial or tax advisor if you are considering going this route.

The Bottom Line 

Holding excessive amounts of your company’s stock in your 401(k) plan can expose you to undo risk should your employer run into financial difficulty. You could find yourself unemployed and with a much lower retirement plan balance if the stock price drops significantly. Set a target percentage for your overall holdings of employer stock and periodically sell shares if needed to rebalance just as you would any other holding in the plan.

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.

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.