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. 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. 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 2020.

                                         Reduction of Benefits – 2020

Age $25,000 earned income $50,000 earned income $75,000 earned income
Younger than FRA $282 per month $1,323 per month reduction $2,365 per month reduction
Year in which you reach FRA No reduction $39 per month reduction $733 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.

One other point to keep in mind, continuing to work can add to your Social Security wage base, somewhat offsetting the permanent benefit reduction from taking Social Security early.

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.

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 limits. 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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Stock Market Highs and Your Retirement

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After a rough year in 2018, the S&P 500 and the Dow sit in record territory. So far in 2019, stocks have staged a very nice recovery with the S&P 500 up about 29% year-to-date. These gains are in spite of the questions and issues surrounding the Trump administration, the threat of trade wars with a number of countries and uncertainty about what the Fed will do with interest rates.

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 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

 

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.

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.

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

Will my Social Security be Taxed?

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Contrary to what some politicians might say, your Social Security benefits are not an entitlement. You’ve paid Social Security taxes over the course of your working life and you’ve earned these benefits.

Many retirees and others collecting Social Security wonder about the tax treatment of their benefit. The answer to the question in the title is that your Social Security benefits may be subject to taxes.

How do taxes on Social Security work? 

According to the Social Security Administration (SSA), about 40% of the people who receive Social Security pay federal taxes on their benefits.

The formula for the taxation of benefits works as follows:

For those who file as single:

  • If your combined income is between $25,000 and $34,000, up to 50% of your benefits might be subject to taxes.
  • If your combined income is over $34,000, up to 85% of your benefits might be subject to taxes.

For those who file a joint return:

  • If your combined income is between $32,000 and $44,000, up to 50% of your benefits might be subject to taxes.
  • If your combined income is over $44,000, up to 85% of your benefits might be subject to taxes.

According to the SSA, if you are married but file as single your benefit will likely be subject to taxes.

Source: Social Security Administration

What is combined income?

SSA defines your combined income as:

Your adjusted gross income (from your tax return) 

+ non-taxable interest (from a municipal bond fund for example) 

+ one-half of your Social Security Benefit

For example, if your situation looked like this:

  • Adjusted gross income $60,000
  • Non-taxable interest income of $1,500
  • Social Security benefit of $35,000

Your combined income would be: $60,000 + $1,500 + $17,500 (1/2 of your Social Security benefit) or $79,000. Whether single or married filing jointly, $29,750 (85%) of your Social Security benefit would be subject to taxes.

What this means is that $29,750 would be considered as taxable income along with the rest of the taxable income you earned in that year, this amount would be part of the calculation of your overall tax liability.

Is my Social Security subject to taxes once I reach my full retirement age? 

Your full retirement age (FRA) is a key number for many aspects of Social Security. For those born prior to 1960 your FRA is 66, it is 67 for those born in 1960 or after it is 67. For example, there is no reduction in your Social Security benefit for earned income once you reach your FRA. 

As far as the taxation of your Social Security benefit, age doesn’t play a role. Your benefit will potentially be subject to taxes based on your combined income, regardless of your age. Taxes can be paid via quarterly payments or you can have taxes withheld from your Social Security benefit payments. You will receive a Social Security Benefit Statement or form SSA-1099 each January listing your benefits for the prior year. This is similar to a 1099 form that you might receive for services rendered to a client if you are self-employed.

Related to this, if you are working into retirement your wages or self-employment income are subject to FICA and Medicare taxes regardless of your age.

Is Social Security subject to state income taxes? 

Thirteen states currently tax Social Security benefits. These states are:

  1. Colorado
  2. Connecticut
  3. Kansas
  4. Minnesota
  5. Missouri
  6. Montana
  7. Nebraska
  8. New Mexico
  9. North Dakota
  10. Rhode Island
  11. Utah
  12. Vermont
  13. West Virginia

The rate and method of taxing your benefits will vary by state, if you live in one of these states check with your state’s taxing authority or a knowledgeable tax professional for the details.

The Bottom Line 

Social Security represents a significant portion of retirement income for many Americans. Its important to understand how Social Security works, including any tax implications. This is part of the bigger picture of taxes in retirement. Its important for retirees to understand how taxes will impact their retirement finances and to include this in their retirement financial planning.

Note the information above is a review of the basics of how Social Security benefits are taxed and should not be considered to be advice. Your situation may differ. You should consult with the Social Security Administration, or a tax or financial advisor who is well-versed on Social Security regarding your specific situation.

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.

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My Top 10 Most Read Posts of 2018

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I hope that 2018 was a good year for you and your families and that you’ve had a wonderful holiday season. For us it was great to have our three adult children home and to be able to spend time together as a family. We all ate way too much good food.

As far as the stock market, 2018 was certainly a volatile year, we will have to wait and see what 2019 holds for investors and those looking toward retirement.

Hopefully you find many of the posts here at The Chicago Financial Planner useful and informative as you chart your financial course. Whether you do your own financial planning and investing, or you work with a financial advisor, my goal is to educate and provide some food for thought.

In the spirit of all the top 10 lists we see at this time of year, here are my top 10 most read posts during 2018:

Is a $100,000 Per Year Retirement Doable?
Year-End 401(k) Matching – A Good Thing?
401(k) Fee Disclosure and the American Funds
4 Reasons to Accept Your Company’s Buyout Offer
Life Insurance as a Retirement Savings Vehicle – A Good Idea?
4 Benefits of Portfolio Rebalancing
7 Tips to Become a 401(k) Millionaire
Should You Accept a Pension Buyout Offer?
Five Things to do During a Stock Market Correction
Small Business Retirement Plans – SEP-IRA vs. Solo 401(k)

 

This past year saw me expand my freelance financial writing business, while continuing to serve a number of long-time financial advisory clients. I wrote a number of pieces for various financial services firms and other financial advisors over the past year. I’m looking forward to continuing to grow my business into 2019 and beyond.

Thank you for your readership and support. Please let know what you think about any of the posts on the site (good or bad) and please let me know if there are topics that you would like to see covered in 2019. Please feel free to ask any questions you may have via the contact form.

I wish you and your families a happy, healthy and prosperous 2019.

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

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

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

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Check out our resources page for links to some other great sites and some outstanding products that you might find useful.

 

Am I on Track for Retirement?

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

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

English: Scanned image of author's US Social S...

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

What kind of lifestyle do you want in retirement?

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

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

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

How much can you expect from Social Security?

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

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

What other sources of retirement income will you have?

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

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

Where does this leave me? 

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

Amount Needed

$100,000

Social Security

30,000

Pension

20,000

Gap to be filled from other sources

$50,000

 

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

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

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

Look at where you stand and take action 

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

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

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

Approaching retirement and want another opinion on where you stand? Need help getting on track? Check out my Financial Review/Second Opinion for Individuals service for more detailed advice about your situation.

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

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

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Check out our resources page for links to some other great sites and some outstanding products that you might find useful.

Photo credit:  Wikipedia

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.

Investing Seminars – Should You Attend?

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It must be the season for investing and retirement dinner seminars. I’ve received a number of these invitations in the mail recently.

Typical was one from a local investment firm “___ Cordially Invites You to Attend an EXCLUSIVE Dinner Gathering!” Wow, me invited to anything that was exclusive?  The only brokerage sponsored investment “seminar” that I have ever attended featured legendary market guru Joseph Granville who among other things played the piano in his boxer shorts. It was in a movie theater in Milwaukee back in grad school, no food was involved.

Opening the invitation, it was from a well-known brokerage firm. The topic of the seminar is “Strategies for helping build a stronger portfolio.” The areas to be covered include:

  • Outlook for Domestic/International Stock & Bond Markets
  • Focus on distributions:  strategies for managing your retirement income
  • Developing a systematic process to help GET and STAY on the right financial track
  • Strategies to help take advantage of upside market potential while planning for a possible downside

So far this all sounds great. Reading on I noticed that while the session is sponsored by two brokers from the firm, the featured speakers were from a mutual fund company that offers funds that are often sold by commissioned reps while the other speaker was from an insurance company who is big in the world of annuities.

Should you attend? 

Clearly the objective is to sell financial products to the attendees, this is reinforced by the choice of speakers. That said there might be some good information available, the topics are certainly timely especially for Baby Boomers and retirees.

Consider attending one of these seminars only if you feel that you can resist a sales pitch. In the case of this session, the restaurant is a pretty good one that is close to my home. I am often tempted to check out one of these seminars out of professional curiosity, a free meal at a good restaurant would be an added bonus.

What are you hoping to gain from attending? The brokers are likely spending a fair amount of money on this session and expect a return on their investment. There will be a good deal of sales pressure at the very least to schedule a follow-up session with them.

Think about your real objective 

If you want a good meal and perhaps a little bit of knowledge, go ahead and attend.

If you are serious about finding a financial advisor to guide you to and through retirement, perhaps you should forego the meal and try to find someone who is a good fit for you. I strongly urge that you seek a fee-only advisor who sells only their knowledge and advice. NAPFA (a professional organization for fee-only advisors) has published this excellent guide to finding a financial advisor.

A free meal is great, but in the end as they say, there are no free lunches.

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.

Year-End 401(k) Matching – A Good Thing?

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Tim Armstrong

I was reminded of the issue of year-end 401(k) matching by employers when I learned that the employer of a close relative was changing their match to the end of the year.

A few years ago, AOL announced that they were moving to a year-end once per year match on their 401(k) plan. AOL subsequently rescinded this change due to the public relations disaster caused by the firm’s Chairman tying this change to both Obama Care and specifically to two high-risk million dollar births covered by the company’s health insurance in 2012. Many major companies, including IBM, have gone this route in recent years. What are the implications of a year-end annual 401(k) match for employees and employers?

Implications for employees 

Ron Lieber wrote an excellent piece in the New York Times entitled Beware the End-of-Year 401(k) Match about this topic.  According to Lieber:

“AOL’s chief executive, Tim Armstrong, drew plenty of attention earlier this month when he seemed to attribute a change in the company’s 401(k) plan in part to a couple of employees whose infants required expensive care. But what was mostly lost in the discussion was just how much it would cost employees if every employer tried to do what AOL did. 

The answer? Close to $50,000 in today’s dollars by the time they retired, according to calculations that the 401(k) and mutual fund giant Vanguard made this week. That buys a lot of trips to see the grandchildren — or scores of nights in a nursing home.” 

The Vanguard study assumes an employee earns $40,000 per year and contributes 10% of their salary for 40 years, the investments earn 4% after inflation and the employee receives a 1% salary increase per year. The worker would have a balance that was 8.7% lower with annual matching than with a per pay period match. Of note, the Vanguard analysis assumes that this hypothetical worker missed 7 years’ worth of annual matches due to job changes over the course of his/her career.

Lieber also discussed the case of IBM’s move to year-end matching that also proved controversial. IBM, however, offers all employees free financial planning help and has a generous percentage match.

Additional implications of an annual match from the employee’s viewpoint:

  • One of the benefits of regular contributions to a 401(k) plan is the ability to dollar cost average. The participants lose this benefit for the employer match.
  • Generally, employees must be employed by the company as of a certain date in order to receive their annual match.  Employees who are looking to change employers will be impacted as will employees who are being laid off by the company.
  • If the annual match is perceived as less generous it might discourage some lower compensated workers from participating in the plan. This could lead to the plan not passing its annual non-discrimination testing, which could lead to restrictions on the amounts that some employees are allowed to contribute to the plan. 

Note employers are not obligated to provide a matching contribution. The above does not refer to the annual discretionary profit sharing contribution that some companies make based on the company’s profitability or other metrics. Lastly to be clear, companies going this route are not breaking any laws or rules.

Implications for employers 

I once asked a VP of Human Resources why they chose a particular 401(k) provider. His response was that this provider’s well-known and respected name was a tool in attracting and retaining the type of employees this company was seeking.

While not all employers offer a retirement plan, many that do cite their 401(k) plan as a tool to attract and retain good employees.

There are, however, some valid reasons why a plan sponsor might want to go the annual matching route:

  • Lower administration costs (conceivably) from only having to account for and allocate one annual matching contribution vs. having to do this every pay period. In many plans the cost of administration is born by the employees and comes out of plan assets, in other plans the employer might pay some or all of this cost in hard dollars from company assets.
  • Cost savings realized by not having to match the contributions of employees who have left the company prior to year-end or the date of required employment in order to receive the match.
  • Let’s face it the cost of providing employee benefits continues to increase. Companies are in business to make money. At some point something may have to give. While I’m not a fan of these annual matches, going this route is better for employees than eliminating the match altogether.

Reasons a company wouldn’t want to go this route:

  • In many industries, and in certain types of positions across various industries, skilled workers are scarce.  Annual matching can be perceived as a cut in benefits and likely won’t help companies attract and retain the types of employees they are seeking.
  • Companies want to help their employees to retire at some point because they feel this is the right thing to do. Additionally, if too many older employees don’t feel they can retire this creates issues surrounding younger employees the company wants to develop and advance for the future. 

Overall I’m not a fan of these annual matches simply because it is tough enough for employees to save enough for their retirement under the defined contribution environment that has emerged over the past 25 years or so. The year-end or annual match makes it just that much tougher on employees, which is not a good thing.

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

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

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

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Check out our resources page for links to some other great sites and some outstanding products that you might find useful.

Photo credit:  Wikipedia