Objective information about retirement, financial planning and investments

 

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 $18,240 for 2020. This increases to $18,960 for 2021. 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 2020 this increased limit is $48,600. for 2021 this limit is $50,250. 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.

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

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

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

SEP-IRA vs. Solo 401(k)

SEP-IRA Solo 401(k)
Who can contribute? Employer contributions only. Employer contributions and employee deferrals.
Employer contribution limits The maximum for 2020 is $57,000, this has been increased to $58,000 for 2021. Contributions are deductible as a business expense and are not required every year. For 2020, the employer plus employee combined contribution limit is a maximum of 25% of compensation up to the maximums are $57,000 and $63,500, respectively. These have been increased to $58,000 and $64,500 for 2021. Employer contributions are deductible as a business expense and are not required every year.
Employee contribution limits A SEP-IRA only allows employer contributions. Employees can contribute to an IRA (Traditional or Roth, based upon their individual circumstances). $19,500 for 2020 and 2021. An additional $6,500 catch-up contribution is available for participants 50 and over. In no case can this exceed 100% of their compensation.
Eligibility Typically, employees must be allowed to participate if they are over age 21, earn at least $600 annually, and have worked for the same employer in at least three of the past five years. No age or income restrictions. Business owners, partners and spouses working in the business. Common-law employees are not eligible.

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

  • While a SEP-IRA can be used with employees in reality this can become an expensive proposition as you will need to contribute the same percentage for your employees as you defer for yourself. I generally consider this a plan for the self-employed.
  • Both plans allow for contributions up your tax filing date, including extensions for the prior tax year. Consult with your tax professional to determine when your employee contributions must be made. The Solo 401(k) plan must be established by the end of the calendar year.
  • The SEP-IRA contribution is calculated as a percentage of compensation. If your compensation is variable the amount that you can contribute year-to year will vary as well. Even if you have the cash to do so, your contribution will be limited by your income for a given year.
  • By contrast you can defer the lesser of $19,500 ($26,000 if 50 or over) or 100% of your income for 2020 and 2021 into a Solo 401(k) plus the profit sharing contribution. This might be the better alternative for those with plenty of cash and a variable income.
  • Loans are possible from Solo 401(k)s, but not with SEP-IRAs.
  • Roth feature is available for a Solo 401(k) if allowed by your plan document. There is no Roth feature for a SEP-IRA.
  • Both plans require minimal administrative work, though once the balance in your Solo 401(k) account tops $250,000, the level of annual government paperwork increases a bit.
  • Both plans can be opened at custodians such as Charles Schwab, Fidelity, Vanguard, T. Rowe Price, and others. For the Solo 401(k) you will generally use a prototype plan. If you want to contribute to a Roth account, for example, ensure that this is possible through the custodian you choose.
  • Investment options for both plans generally run the full gamut of typical investment options available at your custodian such as mutual funds, individual stocks, ETFs, bonds, closed-end funds, etc. There are some statutory restrictions so check with your custodian.
  • For those wishing to invest in alternative assets inside of their SEP or solo 401(k), a number of self-directed retirement plan custodians offer this option.

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

Approaching retirement and want another opinion on where you stand? Not sure if 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

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 2020 the maximum contribution to a 401(k) plan is $19,500 plus an additional $6,500 catch-up contribution for individuals who are age 50 and older at any point during the year. These limits are unchanged for 2021.

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.

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 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.

7 Tips to Become a 401(k) Millionaire

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According to Fidelity in an update released in February of this year, the average balance of 401(k) plan participants stood at $112,300, up 7 percent from the balance at the end of the prior quarter. This data is from plans using the Fidelity platform. This came on the heels of significant gains in the stock market in 2019. It will be interesting to see how these numbers change in the wake of the market volatility from the fallout of COVID-19.

Fidelity indicates that about 441,000 401(k) participants and IRA account holders had a balance of $1 million or more, 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 $19,500 and $26,000 for those who are 50 or over.

If you are just turning 50 this year or if you are older be sure to take advantage of the $6,500 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 of salary. 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. Everyone’s situation is different, be sure you make the best investing decisions for your situation.

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 in your 30s or 40s you should consider a portfolio more tailored to your 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 and recently ended with the market decline in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, 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 and 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, make a decision. Leaving an old 401(k) account unattended is wasting this money and can hinder 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 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.

Is a $100,000 Per Year Retirement Doable?

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Is a $100,000 a Year Retirement Doable?

A recent CNBC article indicated that 58% of those who responded to a 2019 TD Ameritrade survey felt that a $1 million retirement nest egg would be sufficient to fund a comfortable retirement. This may or may not be the case depending upon your individual situation. To me it seems more meaningful to look at the level of income you’d like to generate in retirement and then determine if a given lump-sum, combined with other sources of retirement income, will support that income stream. Let’s take a look at what it takes to provide $100,000 income annually during retirement.

The 4% rule 

The 4% rule says that a retiree can safely withdraw 4% of their nest egg during retirement and assume that their money will last 30 years. This very useful rule of thumb was developed by fee-only financial planning superstar Bill Bengen.

Like any rule of thumb it is just that, an estimating tool. At your own peril do not depend on this rule, do a real financial plan for your retirement.

Using the 4% rule as a quick “back of the napkin” estimating tool let’s see how someone with a $1 million combined in their 401(k)s and some IRAs can hit $100,000 (gross before any taxes are paid). Note this is not to say that everyone needs to spend $100,000 or any particular amount during their retirement, but rather this example is simply meant to illustrate the math involved.

Doing the math 

The $1 million in the 401(k)s and IRAs will yield $40,000 per year using the 4% rule. This leaves a shortfall of $60,000 per year.

A husband and wife who both worked might have Social Security payments due them starting at say a combined $40,000 per year.

The shortfall is now down to $20,000

Source of funds

Annual income

Retirement account withdrawals

$40,000

Social Security

$40,000

Need

$100,000

Shortfall

$20,000

 

Closing the income gap 

In our hypothetical situation the couple has a $20,000 per year gap between what their retirement accounts and Social Security can be expected to provide. Here are some ways this gap can be closed:

    • If they have significant assets outside of their retirement accounts, these funds can be tapped.
    • Perhaps they have one or more pensions in which they have a vested benefit.
    • They may have stock options or restricted stock units that can be converted to cash from their employers.
    • This might be a good time to look at downsizing their home and applying any excess cash from the transaction to their retirement.
    • If they were business owners, they might realize some value from the sale of the business as they retire.
    • If realistic perhaps retirement can be delayed for several years.  This allows the couple to not only accumulate a bit more for retirement but it also delays the need to tap into their retirement accounts and builds up their Social Security benefit a bit longer.
    • It might be feasible to work full or part-time during the early years of retirement.  Depending upon one’s expertise there may be consulting opportunities related to your former employment field or perhaps you can start a business based upon an interest or a hobby.

Things to beware of in trying to boost your nest egg 

The scenario outlined above is hypothetical but very common. As far as retirement goes I think financial journalist and author Jon Chevreau has the right idea:  Forget Retirement Seek Financial Independence.

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.

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.

With the drastic economic impact the coronavirus pandemic is having on a number of businesses, I would expect there to be a number of new buyout offers now and afterwards as companies assess the changes in their business models as a result of this situation.

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

Annuity Sellers Love Stock Market Turmoil

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Update 3/11/2020 – We are in the midst of the worst stock market turmoil since the financial crisis in 2008, due to the coronavirus and related disruptions in the economy. It’s times like these that can fuel fear-based selling tactics by many who sell annuities. I have absolutely nothing against annuities, but I feel that no financial product should be purchased based on fear. It will be interesting if the pattern of these fear-based tactics that we’ve seen in the past materializes in this volatile stock market environment.

Just like clockwork if we see a prolonged period of volatility you can count on a new wave of ads touting various types of annuity products as the answer for investors worried about the stock market. Annuity sellers love stock market turmoil. Those of you who follow my blog know that I have a special level of contempt for those who sell financial products by invoking fear.

Stan Haithcock wrote Annuity sharks smell blood with market volatility recently at Market Watch. This was one of those articles that after reading it led me to wish I’d written it.  Stan’s opening paragraph provides a great overview.

“Any time the stock market has a bad week or experiences extreme volatility, the annuity sharks start smelling blood in the investment waters and will be on the attack to lock your money into their “perfect product.” Current indexed- and variable-annuity sales pitches can sound enticing and almost too good to be true, so it’s important to keep your head and understand the contractual realities and proper uses for annuities in a portfolio.” 

Mike Ditka and Indexed Annuities

My dislike of fear-mongering annuity ads started a few years ago when the local news radio station was full of ads touting indexed annuities as the cure for the risky stock market. The group enlisted former Bears coach Mike Ditka as their pitchman. Ditka can probably sell anything to the win-starved fans of the Chicago Bears.

I personally think using any celebrity spokesperson to sell financial products is reprehensible and takes something as serious as someone’s financial well-being and equates it to the decision of which snack food to buy.

Indexed Annuities 

Though I’ve tried to keep an open mind about these products, I’ve reviewed many contracts over the years and have never found one that seemed to have much redeeming value for the contract holder. By this I mean I’m not sure what the product does for them that a properly diversified investment strategy with a well-conceived retirement income plan couldn’t do just as well or better for a whole lot less money.

Indexed annuities, sometimes called equity-indexed annuities, offer limited upside participation in a stock market index such as the S&P 500. The reason they are sold as an alternative to the risky stock market is they offer either a guaranteed minimum return each year or a limit on how much of a loss the contract holder can incur each year. The sales pitches will vary and they are often also touted as an alternative to CDs.

A few things to be leery of if you are being sold one of these products:

  • Long surrender periods. I’ve seen policies where the surrender charges last for 10 years or more.
  • High fees and commissions. The fees internal to the contract serve to provide nice compensation to those selling them. Why do you think agents and registered reps are so eager to sell you an indexed annuity?
  • Hard to understand formulas to determine your return. The premise is typically that you will participate in a portion of any gains on an underlying market benchmark such as the S&P 500 and that there is some minimum amount of return that you will make no matter how the index performs.  Make sure you understand the underlying formulas that determine your return and any factors that might cause a change in the formula.  Check out FINRA’s Investor Alert on Indexed Annuities as well.
  • Limited upside participation in the underlying index.

Additionally the sales pitches can be confusing. Make sure you understand what you would be buying, all of the underlying expenses and most important why this is the BEST solution for you.

Variable annuities and riders 

Variable annuities generally have underlying investment choices called sub-accounts that function like mutual funds. They also have internal fees called mortality and expense charges that cover the insurance aspect of the contract. These fees can vary all over the board. Many contracts also carry surrender charges for a number of years from the issue date as well.

While the value of the VA will vary based upon the investment results, several riders or add-ons can create certain product guarantees. These riders come at a cost and that cost will impact how long it takes for the contract holder to come out ahead.

Two popular living benefit riders are guaranteed minimum withdrawal benefits (GMWB) and guaranteed minimum income benefits (GMIB).

A GMWB rider guarantees the return of the premium paid into the contract, regardless of the performance of the underlying investments via a series of periodic withdrawals.

A GMIB rider guarantees the right to annuitize the contract with a specified minimum level of income regardless of the underlying investment performance.

Both types of riders entail added costs and require varying time frames to be eligible for exercise and/or to recover the cost of the rider.

A variable annuity with or without one of these riders may be the right choice for you. You are far better off shopping around for the best product versus allowing yourself to be sold via a slick sales pitch.

The Bottom Line 

Renewed market turmoil means a new wave of annuity sales pitches reminding prospects how risky stocks can be. Financial planning should always trump the sale of any financial product so investors who are worried about the volatility in the stock market will generally be better served by having an overall financial plan in place from which the appropriate products for implementation will flow.

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.

401(k) Options When Leaving Your Job

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Retirement Funds over Time

Perhaps you are retiring or perhaps you are moving on to another opportunity. Perhaps you were downsized. Whatever the reason, there are many things to do when leaving a job. Don’t neglect your 401(k) plan during this process.

With a defined contribution plan such as a 401(k) you typically have several options to consider upon separation.  Here is a discussion of several 401(k) options when leaving your job and the pros and cons of each. Note this is a different issue from the decision that you may be faced with if you have a defined benefit pension plan.

Leaving your money in the old plan 

I’m generally not a fan of this approach. All too often these accounts are neglected and add to what I call “financial clutter,” a collection of investments that have no rhyme or reason to them.

In some larger plans, participants might have access to a solid menu of low cost institutional funds. In addition, many of these plans tend to be among the cheapest in terms of administrative costs. If this is the case with your old employer’s plan, it might make sense to leave your account there. However, it is vital that you manage your account in terms of staying on top of changes in the investment options offered and that you reallocate and rebalance your account when applicable.

Unfortunately far too many lousy 401(k) plans are filled with high cost, underperforming investment choices and leaving your retirement dollars there may not be your best option.

Rolling your account over to an IRA 

This route not only allows for the consolidation of accounts which makes monitoring your portfolio easier, but investors often have access to a wider range of low cost investment options than might be available to them via their old employer’s plan.

Even for do it yourself investors, rolling over to an IRA is often a good idea for similar reasons. You will want to take stock of your overall portfolio goals in light of your financial plan to determine if the custodian you are using or considering to offers a range of appropriate choices for your needs.

Rolling your account into your new employer’s plan 

If allowed by your new employer’s plan, this can be a viable option for you if you are moving to a new job. You will want to ensure that you consult with the administrator of your new employer’s plan and follow all of their rules for moving these dollars over.

This might be a good option for you if your 401(k) balance is small and/or you don’t have significant outside investments. It might also be a good option if your new employer has an outstanding plan on the order of what was mentioned above.

Before going this route, you will want to check out your new employer’s plan.  Is the investment menu filled with solid, low cost investment options? You want to avoid moving these dollars from a solid plan at your old employer to a sub-par plan at your new company. Likewise, you don’t want to move dollars from one lousy plan to another.

Other considerations

A fourth option is to take a distribution of some or all of the dollars in your old plan. Given the potential tax consequences I generally don’t recommend this route.

A few additional considerations are listed below (I mention these here to build your awareness, but I am not covering them in detail here.  If any of these or other situations apply to you, I suggest that you consult with your financial or tax advisor for guidance.):

  • The money coming out of the plan is always taxable, except for any portion in a Roth 401(k) assuming that you have satisfied all requirements to avoid taxes on the Roth portion.
  • You will likely be subject to a penalty if you withdraw funds prior to age 59 ½ with some exceptions such as death and disability.
  • There is also a pretty complex method for those under age 59 ½ to withdraw funds and avoid the penalty called 72(t). Additionally, there are complex rules for those who are 55 and older who wish to take a distribution from their 401(k) upon separating from their employer. In either case consult with a financial advisor who understands these complex rules before proceeding.
  • If your old plan offers a match there is likely a vesting schedule for their matching contributions.  Your salary deferrals are always 100% vested (meaning you have full rights to them).  Matching contributions typically become vested on a schedule such as 20% per year over five years. You will want to know where you stand with regard to vesting anyway, but if you are close to earning another year of vesting you might consider this in the timing of your departure if this is an option and it makes sense in the context of your overall situation.
  • If your company makes annual profit sharing contributions, they might only be payable to employees who are employed as of a certain date. As with the previous bullet point, it might behoove you to plan your departure date around this if the amount looks to be significant and it works in the context of your overall situation.
  • Another factor that might favor rolling your old 401(k) to your new employer’s plan would be your desire to convert traditional IRA dollars to a Roth IRA now or in the future via the use of a backdoor Roth. There could be a tax advantage to be had by doing this, please consult with your financial advisor here for guidance tailored to your unique situation.
  • If you are 72 or older (or had been subject to required minimum distributions under the old rules prior to the SECURE Act) and still working, you are not required to take annual required minimum distributions from your 401(k) as long as you are not a 5% or greater owner of the company and if your employer has made this election for their plan. This applies only to the retirement plan of your current employer, you are subject to any RMDs that would apply to IRAs or old 401(k) plans with former employers. This might also be a reason to consider rolling your old 401(k) or even an IRA to your new employer’s plan if they accept these types of rollovers, again consult with your financial advisor.

There are a number of 401(k) options when leaving your job.  The right course of action will vary based upon your individual circumstances.  The wrong answer is to ignore this decision.

Approaching retirement and want another opinion on where you stand? Need help deciding what to do with your retirement plan when leaving a job? 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