Objective information about retirement, financial planning and investments

 

4 Steps to Make Your 401(k) Work as Hard as You Do

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Whether you work as an employee or you are self-employed you work hard for your money. In spite of what was said on PBS Frontline The Retirement Gamble and elsewhere in the press, in my opinion 401(k) plans are one of the best retirement savings vehicles available. Here are 4 steps to make sure that your 401(k) plan is working hard for your retirement.

Get started 

This might seem basic, but you can’t benefit from your employer’s 401(k) plan unless you are participating. If you haven’t started deferring a portion of your salary into the plan this is great time to start. Look at your budget, determine how much you can afford to defer each pay period and get started. You may be able to do everything online, otherwise contact the plan administrator at your company.

Are you self-employed? There are a number of retirement plan options to consider. If you don’t have a retirement plan in place for yourself, do this today.  You work way too hard not to be putting something away for retirement.

Increase your contributions 

This is a great time to review the amount of your salary deferral and look to increase it if you are not already maxing out your contributions.  For 2022 the maximum contribution is $20,500 if you are under 50 and $27,000 if are 50 or over at any point during the year. For those 50 and over you can still make the full $6,500 catch-up contribution even if your contributions are otherwise limited to an amount below the maximum due to your plan failing its testing. This situation can occur for highly compensated employees and often occurs with smaller plans.

If you were enrolled into your employer’s plan under an automatic enrollment scenario the amount you are deferring is likely inadequate to meet your retirement needs, you need to revisit this and take affirmative step both in terms of the amount deferred and the investment options to which those salary deferrals are directed.

It’s often popular to urge 401(k) participants to contribute at least enough to receive the full amount of any company match. I agree that it makes sense to go for the full match, but the key words here are at least. The quality of each plan is different, but if your plan offers a solid investment menu and reasonable expenses, consider increasing your contributions beyond the minimum required to receive the full company match. Automatic salary deferrals are an easy, painless way to invest and simplicity in saving for your retirement should not be pooh-poohed.

Take charge of your investments, don’t just default 

Target Date Funds are offered by many 401(k) plans and are often the default option for those participants who do not make an investment election. While TDFs may be fine for younger participants, I’m not a huge fan for those of you within say 15-20 years of retirement. If you are in this situation, look at an allocation that is more tailored to your overall situation. At the very least if you are going to use the Target Date Fund option offered by your plan take a hard look at how the fund will invest your money, how this fits with investments you may have outside of the plan, and the fund’s expenses.

Plan for your retirement 

While contributing to your 401(k) plan is a great step, it is just that, a step. Your 401(k) is an important tool in planning for retirement, but the keyword is planning.  Many 401(k) plan providers offer retirement planning tools on their websites.  They may also offer advice in some format.  Consider taking advantage.

If you work with a financial advisor make sure that they consider your 401(k) and all investments when helping you plan for your retirement.  I find it amazing every time that I hear of some brokerage firm that forbids its registered reps from providing clients advice on investing their 401(k) account because the plan is not offered by their firm.

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.

Photo source:  Annie Spratt via Upsplash

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 many 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, thousands 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.

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 a low cost provider who offers a product with 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.

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.

Photo credit:  Flickr

Stock Market Highs and Your Retirement

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After a significant drop in March of 2020 in the wake of the pandemic, the S&P 500 has staged an amazing recovery. The index finished 2020 with a gain in excess of 18%. So far in 2021, the index is in record territory and has closed at record levels numerous times during the year.

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 financial crisis 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 review your situation and to get an up-to-date plan in place.. 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 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 credit:  Phillip Taylor PT

 

Social Security and Working – What You Need to Know

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In today’s world of early or semi-retirement, many people wonder when they should begin taking their Social Security benefits. The combination of Social Security and working can complicate matters a bit. You can begin taking your benefit as early as age 62, but that is not always the best choice for many retirees. If you are working either at a job where you are employed or some sort of self-employment, you need to analyze the pros and cons based on your situation.

Full retirement age

 Your full retirement age or FRA is the age at which you become eligible for a full, unreduced retirement benefit. FRA is an important piece in understanding the potential implications of working on your Social Security benefit.

Your FRA depends on when you born:

  • If you were born from 1943 -1954 your full retirement age is 66
  • If you were born in 1955 your FRA is 66 and two months
  • If you were born in 1956 your FRA is 66 and four months
  • If you were born in 1957 your FRA is 66 and six months
  • If you were born in 1958 your FRA is 66 and eight months
  • If you were born in 1959 your FRA is 66 and ten months
  • If you were born in 1960 or later your FRA is 67

Source: Social Security

Social Security and working

If you are working, collecting a Social Security benefit and younger than your FRA your benefits will be reduced by $1 for every $2 that your earned income exceeds the annual limit which is $18,960 for 2021. This increases to $19,560 for 2022. Earned income is defined as income from employment or self-employment.

During the year in which you reach your full retirement age the annual limit is increased. For 2021 this increased limit is $50,520, for 2022 this limit is $51,960. The reduction is reduced to $1 for every $3 of earnings over the limit.

This chart shows the monthly reduction of benefits at three levels of earned income for 2021.

                                         Reduction of Benefits – 2021

Age $25,000 earned income $60,000 earned income $75,000 earned income
Younger than FRA $252 per month $1,710 per month reduction $2,335 per month reduction
Year in which you reach FRA No reduction $271 per month reduction $688 per month reduction
FRA or older No reduction No reduction No reduction

Source: Social Security

Temporary loss of benefits

The loss of benefits is temporary versus permanent. Any benefit reduction due to earnings above the threshold will be recovered once you reach your FRA on a gradual basis over a number of years. However, your benefit will be permanently reduced by having taken it prior to your FRA. This means that any future cost-of-living adjustments will be calculated on a lower base amount as well.

A one-time do-over 

Everyone is allowed a one-time do-over to withdraw their benefit within one year of the start date of receiving their initial benefit. This is allowed once during your lifetime. This is called withdrawing your benefit.

One reason you might consider this is going back to work and earning more than you had initially anticipated. This is a way to avoid having your benefit permanently reduced. You would reapply later when you’ve reached your FRA, or your earned income is under the limit. Your benefit would increase due to your age and any cost-of-living increases that might occur during this time.

When you do take advantage of this one-time do-over, you must pay back any benefits received. This includes not only any Social Security benefits that you received, but also:

  • Any benefits paid based upon your earnings record such as spousal or dependent benefits.
  • Any money that may have been withheld from your benefits such as taxes or Medicare premiums.

Social Security and income taxes 

Regardless of your age or the source of your income, Social Security benefits can be taxed based upon your income level. This could certainly be impacted from income earned from employment or self-employment, but it also includes other sources of taxable income such as a pension or investment income.

The amount of the benefit that is subject to taxes is based upon your combined income, which is defined as: adjusted gross income + non-taxable interest income (typically from municipal bonds) + ½ of your Social Security benefit.

The tax levels are:

Tax filing status Combined income % of your benefit that will be taxed
Single $25,000 – $34,000 Up to 50%
Single Over $34,000 Up to 85%
Married filing jointly $32,000 – $44,000 Up to 50%
Married filing jointly Over $44,000 Up to 85%

Source: Social Security

The Bottom Line 

The decision when to take your Social Security benefit depends on many factors. If you are working or self-employed you will want to consider the impact that your earned income will have on your benefit.

You should also understand that your benefits can be subject to taxes at any age over certain levels of combined income, regardless of the source of that income.

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 it’s 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.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

4 Reasons to Accept Your Company’s Buyout Offer

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4 Reasons to Accept Your Company’s Buyout Offer

Companies will use buyout packages for groups of employees from time-to-time to provide those employees an incentive to leave the company. The company may have a variety of reasons behind their desire to reduce their workforce, such as reducing expenses or realigning business units.

Many companies offer employees a buyout package to encourage them to leave the company. This is generally done to encourage voluntary departures when the organization is looking to reduce headcount. These offers can cover employers across all levels of experience, but are often structured as early retirement packages geared to older workers. Over the years I’ve been asked by Baby Boomer clients and friends whether they should accept this offer from their company. Almost without exception I’ve encouraged these folks to take the money and run. Here are 4 reasons to accept your company’s buyout offer.

There’s a target on your back 

If your company has identified you as somebody who might be a good candidate for a buyout offer this generally means you are on their list. In my experience I’ve invariably seen folks who have turned down the first offer finding themselves out of a job within a year or so.

The first offer is likely as good as it’s going to get 

A number of years ago a friend called me to discuss a buyout offer he had received from his employer, Motorola. Given his age and the favorable terms of the buyout offer I strongly encourage him to take the package. He ended up not taking the offer and stayed with the company for a bit over a year afterwards. Sadly, he was let go and the financial terms of his separation were not nearly as favorable as they would have been had he taken the initial buyout.

Sweetened terms and incentives 

Every situation is different, but I’ve seen buyout offers that included such incentives as extended medical coverage, years of service added to a pension calculation, and additional severance pay over and above what an employee would have been entitled to based upon their years of service. Additional incentives might include training and job search help.  In many cases these buyouts can be incentives for older workers to take early retirement and the incentives are geared to areas like the ability to receive early pension payments.

This could be a great opportunity

While most people don’t like the idea of losing their job, a generous buyout might be a great opportunity for you. If you will continue to work and you are able to find a new job quickly the buyout could serve as a nice financial bonus for you. This situation might also serve as an opportunity to start your own business. If you were looking to retire in the near future this could be just the opportunity you were looking for.  I’ve had more than one client over the years joyously accept their company’s early retirement incentive.

In analyzing whether to take the buyout you should at a minimum consider the following:

  • Your current financial situation, what impact will this have on my overall financial plan and my goals such as retirement and sending my kids to college?
  • What you might do next:  Retirement, self-employment, look for another job
  • If you will stay in the workforce what are your employment prospects?
  • Health insurance options.
  • How good are the incentives being offered?  Can you or should you try to negotiate a better package?

Corporate buyouts and early retirement packages are clearly here to stay.  If you are a corporate employee, especially one in the Baby Boomer or the Gen X age range, you should give some thought to what you would do if this situation were to present itself.

Were you offered a buyout or early retirement package? Do you need some help evaluating it? Do you need an independent opinion on your investments and where you stand in terms of retirement? Check out my Financial Review/Second Opinion for Individuals service. 

NEW SERVICE – Financial Coaching. Check out this new service to see if its 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 credit: Wikipedia