Objective information about retirement, financial planning and investments

The Bull Market Turns 10 – Now What?

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On March 9, 2009 the market downturn fueled by the financial crisis bottomed out as measured by the S&P 500 Index. On that day the index closed at 677. As we approach the tenth anniversary of the ensuing bull market, the index closed at 2,749 on March 7, 2019. This is an increase of 406%.

Looking at this another way, an investor who invested $10,000 in the Vanguard 500 Index fund (ticker VFINX) at the end of February of 2009 and held it through the end of February 2019 would have seen their investment grow to $46,135 according to data from Morningstar.

As the bull market turns 10, now what? Here are some thoughts for investors.

How does this bull market stack up?

According to data from JP Morgan Asset Management, the average bull market following a bear market lasts for about 55 months and results in a gain of about 160%. By both measures this bull market is a long one.

Does this mean that investors should brace for an imminent market correction? Not necessarily but bull markets don’t last forever either.

There have been some speed bumps along the way, including 2011, a sharp decline in the third quarter of 2015 and the sharp declines we saw to start off 2016. Most notable was 2018, the first down year for the index since 2008. This was punctuated by a 13.52% decline for the fourth quarter and a 4.38% loss for the year.

What should investors do now? 

None of us knows what the future will hold. The bull market may be getting long of tooth. The threat of tariffs and trade wars could weigh on the market. There are factors such as potential actions by the Fed, the threat of terrorism and countless others that could impact the direction of the stock market. It seems there is always something to worry about in that regard.

That all said, my suggestions for investors are pretty much the same “boring” ones that I’ve offered since I started this blog in 2009.

The Bottom Line 

The now ten-year old bull market has provided some very robust returns for investors. Nobody knows what will happen next. In my opinion, investors are wise to control the factors that they can, have a plan in place, follow that plan and adjust as needed.

Approaching retirement and want another opinion on where you stand? Are your investments in line with your financial plan? 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 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.

Photo via I’d Pin That

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.

The Super Bowl and Your Investments

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Lombardi Trophy - Super Bowl XXXI

Update, with the Patriots’ win yesterday the indicator says the markets should have a down year in 2019. As I mention below, the indicator has been wrong for three years running, as investors let’s hope for a fourth year.

It’s Super Bowl time and once again my beloved Packers are not playing for the for the eighth consecutive year. They had a horrible season and lost or tied a number of games they could have (and should have) won. The good news is that I was able to attend three regular season games at football’s holy shrine, Lambeau Field and a fourth at the Los Angeles Coliseum.

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

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

How has the Super Bowl Indicator done?

In 2018 this indicator failed to predict the direction of the stock market for the third year in row. Denver won the 2016 game and the market had an up year. The Patriots won the 2017 game and it was a stellar year for the markets. The Eagles won last year and 2018 was the first down year for the S&P 500 since 2008. Overall the indicator has held true for 40 of the 52 prior Super Bowls.

Quoted in a Wall Street Journal article before the 2016 game, respected Wall Street analyst Robert Stoval said, “There is no intellectual backing for this sort of thing, except that it works.”

Some notable misses for the indicator include:

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

Is this a valid investment strategy?

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

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

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

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

Not sure if your investments are right for your situation? Concerned about stock market volatility? Approaching retirement and want another opinion on where you stand? 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.

Photo credit:  Flickr

7 Tips to Become a 401(k) Millionaire

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According to Fidelity, the average balance of 401(k) plan participants stood at $104,000 at the end of the second quarter of 2018, just shy of the all-time high level of $104,300 at the end of 2017. This data is from plans using the Fidelity platform.

They indicate that about 168,000 participants had a balance of $1 million, which is about 41 percent higher than a year earlier. What is their secret?  Here are 7 tips to become a 401(k) millionaire or to at least maximize the value of your 401(k) account.

Be consistent and persistent 

Investing in your 401(k) plan is more of a marathon than a sprint.  Maintain and increase your salary deferrals in good markets and bad.

Contribute enough 

In an ideal world every 401(k) investor would max out their annual salary deferrals to their plan which are currently $18,500 and $24,500 for those who are 50 or over. These amounts increase to $19,000 and $25,000 for 2019.

If you are just turning 50 this year or if you are older be sure to take advantage of the $6,000 catch-up contribution that is available to you. Even if your plan limits the amount that you can contribute because of testing or other issues, this catch-up amount is not impacted. It is also not automatic so be sure to let your plan administrator know that you want to contribute at that level. 

According to a Fidelity study several years ago, the average contribution rate for those with a $1 million balance was 16 percent. According to their most recent data, the average contribution across all 401(k) investors they surveyed was about 8.6 percent. The 16 percent contribution rate translated to a bit over $21,000 for the millionaire group.

As I’ve said in past 401(k) posts on this site, it is important to contribute as much as you can. If you can only afford to defer 3 percent this year, that’s a start. Next year try to hit 4 percent or more. As a general rule it is a good goal to contribute at least enough to earn the full match if your employer offers one.

Take appropriate risks 

As with any sort of investment account be sure that you are investing in accordance with your financial plan, your age and your risk tolerance.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen lists of plan participants and see participants in their 20s with all or a large percentage of their account in the plan’s money market or stable value option.

Your account can’t grow if you don’t take some risk.  

Don’t assume Target Date Funds are the answer 

Target Date Funds are big business for the mutual fund companies offering them. They also represent a “safe harbor” from liability for your employer. I’m not saying they are a bad option but I’m also not saying they are the best option for you.

I like TDFs for younger investors say those in their 20s who may not have other investments outside of the plan. The TDF offers an instant diversified portfolio for them.

Once you’ve been working for a while you should have some outside investments. By the time you are say in your 40s you should consider a more tailored portfolio that fits you overall situation.

Additionally Target Date Funds all have a glide path into retirement. They are all a bit different, you need to understand if the glide path offered by the TDF family in your plan is right for you. 

Invest during a long bull market 

This is a bit sarcastic but the bull market for stocks that started in March of 2009 is in part why we’ve seen a surge in 401(k) millionaires and in 401(k) balances in general. The equity allocations of 401(k) portfolios have driven the values higher.

The flip side are those who swore off stocks at the depths of the 2008-2009 market downturn have missed one of the better opportunities in history to increase their 401(k) balance and their overall retirement nest egg.

Don’t fumble the ball before crossing the goal line 

We’ve all seen those “hotdogs” running for a sure touchdown only to spike the ball in celebration before crossing the goal line.

The 401(k) equivalent of this is to just let your account run in a bull market like this one and not rebalance it back to your target allocation. If your target is 60 percent in stocks and it’s grown to 80 percent in equities due to the run up of the past few years you might well be a 401(k) millionaire.

It is just as likely that you may become a former 401(k) millionaire if you don’t rebalance.  The stock market has a funny way of punishing investors who are too aggressive or who don’t manage their investments.

Pay attention to those old 401(k) accounts 

Whether becoming a 401(k) millionaire in your current 401(k) account or combined across several accounts, the points mentioned above still apply. In addition it is important to be proactive with your 401(k) account when you leave a job.  Whether you roll the account over to an IRA, leave it in the old plan or roll it to a new employer’s plan if allowed do something, make a decision.  Leaving an old 401(k) account unattended is wasting this money and can be a huge detriment to your retirement savings efforts.

The Bottom Line 

Whether you actually amass $1 million in your 401(k) or not, the goal is to maximize the amount accumulated there for retirement.  The steps outlined above can help you to do this. Are you ready to start down the path of becoming a 401(k) millionaire?

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.

Stock Market Highs and Your Retirement

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Both the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 closed at record highs today. Perhaps this is due to the new tax laws passed at the end of last year. Perhaps this is a continuation of the very solid gains in the stock market that we saw in 2017. These gains are in spite of the questions and issues surrounding the Trump administration and the threat of trade wars with a number of countries.

Difference Between Stocks and Bonds

At some point we are bound to see a stock market correction of some magnitude, hopefully not on the order of the 2008-09 financial crisis. As someone saving for retirement what should you do now?

Review and rebalance 

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

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

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

Financial Planning is vital

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

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

Learn from the past 

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

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

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.

Photo credit:  Phillip Taylor PT

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.

Annuities: The Wonder Drug for Your Retirement?

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Annuities: The Wonder Drug for Your Retirement?

Annuities are often touted as the “cure” for all that ails your retirement.  Baby Boomers and retirees are the prime target market for the annuity sales types. You’ve undoubtedly heard many of these pitches in person or as advertisements. The pitches frequently pander to the fears that many investors still feel after the last stock market decline. After all, what’s not to like about guaranteed income?

What is an annuity?

I’ll let the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) explain this in a quote from their website:

“An annuity is a contract between you and an insurance company that is designed to meet retirement and other long-range goals, under which you make a lump-sum payment or series of payments. In return, the insurer agrees to make periodic payments to you beginning immediately or at some future date.

Annuities typically offer tax-deferred growth of earnings and may include a death benefit that will pay your beneficiary a specified minimum amount, such as your total purchase payments. While tax is deferred on earnings growth, when withdrawals are taken from the annuity, gains are taxed at ordinary income rates, and not capital gains rates. If you withdraw your money early from an annuity, you may pay substantial surrender charges to the insurance company, as well as tax penalties.

There are generally three types of annuities — fixed, indexed, and variable. In a fixed annuity, the insurance company agrees to pay you no less than a specified rate of interest during the time that your account is growing. The insurance company also agrees that the periodic payments will be a specified amount per dollar in your account. These periodic payments may last for a definite period, such as 20 years, or an indefinite period, such as your lifetime or the lifetime of you and your spouse.

In an indexed annuity, the insurance company credits you with a return that is based on changes in an index, such as the S&P 500 Composite Stock Price Index. Indexed annuity contracts also provide that the contract value will be no less than a specified minimum, regardless of index performance.

In a variable annuity, you can choose to invest your purchase payments from among a range of different investment options, typically mutual funds. The rate of return on your purchase payments, and the amount of the periodic payments you eventually receive, will vary depending on the performance of the investment options you have selected.

Variable annuities are securities regulated by the SEC. An indexed annuity may or may not be a security; however, most indexed annuities are not registered with the SEC. Fixed annuities are not securities and are not regulated by the SEC. You can learn more about variable annuities by reading our publication, Variable Annuities: What You Should Know.”

What’s good about annuities?

In an uncertain world, an annuity can offer a degree of certainty to retirees in terms of receiving a fixed stream of payments over their lifetime or some other specified period of time. Once you annuitize there’s no guesswork about how much you will be receiving, assuming that the insurance company behind the product stays healthy.

Watch out for high and/or hidden fees 

The biggest beef about annuities are the fees, which are often hidden or least difficult to find. Many annuity products carry fees that are pretty darn high, others are much more reasonable. In general, the lack of transparency regarding the fees associated with most annuity contracts is appalling.

There are typically several layers of fees in an annuity:

Fees connected with the underlying investments In a variable annuity there are fees connected with the underlying sub-account (accounts that resemble mutual funds) similar to the expense ratio of a mutual fund. In a fixed annuity the underlying fees are typically the difference between the net interest rate you will receive vs. the gross interest rate earned.  In the case of an indexed annuity product the fees are just plain murky.

Mortality and expense charges are fees charged by the insurance company to cover their costs for guaranteeing a stream of income to you. While I get this and understand it, the wide variance in these and other fees across the universe of annuity contracts and the insurance companies that provide them makes me shake my head.

Surrender charges are fees that are designed to keep you from withdrawing your funds for a period of time.  From my point of view these charges are heinous whether in an annuity, a mutual fund, or anyplace else. If you are considering an annuity and the product has a surrender charge, avoid it. I’m not advocating withdrawing money early from an annuity, but surrender charges also restrict you from exchanging a high cost annuity into one with a lower fee structure. Essentially these fees serve to ensure that the agent or rep who sold you the high fee annuity (and the insurance company) continue to benefit by placing handcuffs on you in terms of sticking with the policy.

Who’s really guaranteeing your annuity? 

When you purchase an annuity, your stream of payments is guaranteed by the “full faith and credit” of the underlying insurance company.  This differs from a pension that is annuitized and backed by the PBGC, a governmental entity, up to certain limits.

Outside of the most notable failure, Executive Life in the early 1990s, there have not been a high number of insurance company failures. In the case of Executive Life, 1,000s of annuity recipients were impacted in the form of greatly reduced annuity payments which in many cases permanently impacted the quality of their retirement.

Insurance companies are regulated at the state level; state insurance departments are generally the backstop in the event of an insurance company failure. In most cases you will receive some portion of the payment amount that you expected, but there is often a delay in receiving these payments.

The point is not to scare anyone from buying an annuity but rather to remind you to perform your own due diligence on the underlying insurance company.

Annuities and the DOL fiduciary rules

The Department of Labor’s fiduciary rules that will govern which financial products financial advisors use for clients in their retirement accounts do not prohibit the use of annuities, but the new rules do require much more disclosure and justification when they are used. The final draft of the rules also cover indexed annuities which is different from drafts of the rules prior to the final version.

Should you buy an annuity? 

Annuities are not a bad product as long as you understand what they can and cannot do for you. Like anything else you need to shop for the right annuity. For example, an insurance agent or registered rep is not going to show you a product from someone like Vanguard that has ultra-low fees and no surrender charges because they receive no commissions.

An annuity can offer diversification in your retirement income stream. Perhaps you have investments in taxable and tax-deferred accounts from which you will withdraw money to fund your retirement. Adding Social Security to the mix provides a government-funded stream of payments. A commercial annuity can also be of value as part of your retirement income stream, again as long as you shop for the appropriate product.

Annuities are generally sold rather than bought by Baby Boomers and others. Be a smart consumer and understand what you are buying, why a particular annuity product (and the insurance company) are right for you, and the benefits that you expect to receive from the annuity. Properly used, an annuity can be a valuable component of your retirement planning efforts. Be sure to read ALL of the fine print and understand ALL of the expenses, terms, conditions and restrictions before writing a check.

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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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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Avoid these 9 Investing Mistakes

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Investing is at best a risky proposition and sometimes even the best investment ideas don’t work out. However avoiding these 9 mistakes can help improve your investing outcomes.

Avoid these 9 Investing Mistakes

Inability to take a loss and move on 

It’s difficult for many investors to sell an investment at a loss. Often they prefer to wait until the investment at least gets back to a break-even level. I think its part of our competitive nature. Investing is not a competitive sport, leave that for our Olympians.  When reviewing your investments ask yourself “Would I buy this holding today?” If the answer is no, it’s time to sell and invest the proceeds elsewhere.

Not selling winners

I’ve seen many investors over the years refuse to sell highly appreciated holdings, all or in part. There is always the risk that you’ll sell and the price will keep going up. But sometimes it’s best to protect your gains and sell while you’re ahead or at least consider selling a portion of the holding and reinvesting the proceeds elsewhere. The latter can be part of your portfolio rebalancing process.

Investing without a plan

When you take a road trip in your car you generally have a map to help you to get to your destination. Investing is a means to an end, a road map to achieve your goals such as providing a college education for your children or funding your retirement.

Without a financial plan how will you know how much you need to accumulate to achieve your goals?  How much risk should you take?  What types of returns do you need to shoot for? Are on track toward your goals?  Essentially investing without a plan is much like hopping in the car without any idea where you are headed. 

Trying to time the market

It’s difficult to predict when the market will rise and fall. Even if the stock market is following a general trend, there will be up and down trading days. Trying to buy and sell based on those daily fluctuations is difficult. While there are professional traders who do this for a living, for most of us this is a losing proposition.

Worrying too much about taxes

Taxes can consume a significant portion of your investment gains for holdings in a taxable account. While nobody wants to pay more tax than needed, in my opinion paying taxes on a gain is almost always better than dealing with an investment loss.

Not paying attention to your investments

Your portfolio needs to be evaluated and monitored on a periodic basis.  You should reevaluate a stock when the company changes management, when the company is acquired by or merges with another company, when a strong competitor enters the market, or when several top executives sell large blocks of stock.

This applies to mutual funds as well. Manager changes, a dramatic increase or decrease in assets under management or a deviation from its stated style should all be red flags that cause you to evaluate whether it may be time to sell the fund.

Failure to rebalance your holdings  

This goes hand in hand with having a financial plan. Ideally you have an investment policy for your portfolio that defines the percentage allocations of your investments by type and style (stocks, bonds, cash, large stocks, international stocks, etc.).  A typical investment policy will set a target percentage with upper and lower percentage ranges for each style. It is important that you look at your overall portfolio in terms of these percentages at least annually.

Different investment styles will perform differently at various times.  This can cause your portfolio to be out of balance. The idea behind rebalancing is to control risk. If stocks rally and your equity allocation has grown to 75% vs. your target of 60% your portfolio is now taking more risk than you had planned. Should stocks reverse course, you could be exposed to over-sized losses.

Assuming recent events will continue into the future 

The first 15 plus years of this century have been tough on investors. The market tumbled during the 2000-2002 time frame and then again in 2008-2009. More recently the stock market dropped steeply and suddenly in the wake of the Bexit vote in the U.K. These events have instilled fear into many investors. It’s hard to blame them.

However this fear and the assumption that recent events will continue into the future might also be keeping you from investing in the fashion needed to achieve your financial goals. Taking the events of recent years into account is healthy, however letting these events paralyze you can be destructive to your financial future. This holds true for stock market drops as well as protracted bull markets.

Building a collection of investments instead of a well-crafted portfolio

Are you investing with a plan or do you simply own a collection of investments?  Great football teams like my beloved Green Bay Packers have a better chance of winning when everyone embraces and executes their role in the game plan for that week.  In my experience you will increase your chances for investment success when all of the holdings in your portfolio fulfill their role as well.

Nothing guarantees investment success.  Avoiding these 9 investing mistakes as well as others can help you increase your odds of being a successful investor.

Concerned about stock market volatility? 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.

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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.