Objective information about retirement, financial planning and investments

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 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 yourselfer 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. There could be a tax advantage to be had by doing this, however please consult with your financial advisor here for guidance tailored to your unique situation.
  • If you are 70 ½ or older 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. This might also be a reason to consider rolling your old 401(k) to your new employer’s plan, again consult with your financial advisor.

There are a number of options for an old 401(k) or similar retirement account when leaving your employer.  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? Check out my Financial Review/Second Opinion for Individuals service.

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. 

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

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Tim Armstrong

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

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 AOL subsequently rescinded this change due to the public relations disaster caused by the firm’s Chairman tying this change to both Obama Care and specifically to two high-risk million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

Implications for employees 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Implications for employers 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Pre-Retirement Financial Checklist

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Are you within a few years of retirement? It’s time to get your financial house in order. We are now almost eight years into a bull market for stocks that has seen the S&P 500 move from 677 at the lows of the financial crises to a recent intraday high of over 2,350. Hopefully these stock market highs have favorably impacted your retirement readiness?

Here are several items to include on your pre-retirement financial checklist.

Review your company benefits  

Your 401(k) plan might be your largest and most significant employee benefit, but there may be others to consider as well. Does your company offer any sort of retiree medical coverage? Are there other benefits that you can continue at reduced group rates?

In the case of your 401(k) you will have choices to make at retirement. You will need to determine if you want to leave it with your soon-to-be-former employer, roll it into an IRA, or take a distribution. The last choice will likely result in a hefty tax bill, so this is generally not a good idea for most folks.

Do you have company stock options that you haven’t exercised? Check the rules here. Speaking of company stock, there are special rules called net unrealized appreciation to consider when dealing with company stock held in your 401(k) plan.

Do you have a pension from your current or former employer?

While a pension is certainly an employee benefit, I feel that it deserves its own section. You might have several decisions to make regarding your pension benefit if you are fortunate enough to be covered by one.

  • Do you take the benefit immediately upon retirement, or wait?
  • If you have the option, do you take the pension as a lump-sum and roll over to an IRA or take it as a monthly annuity?
  • Generally, there will be several annuity payment options to consider, which one is right for your situation?

These decisions should be made in the context of your overall financial situation and your ability to effectively manage a lump sum. Since any lump-sum would be taxable if taken as a distribution, it is usually advisable for you to roll it over into a tax-deferred account such as an IRA. If you have earned a pension benefit from a former employer, be sure to contact your old company to get all the details and to make sure they have your current address and contact information so there are no delays or glitches when you want to start drawing on this pension.

Determine your Social Security benefits and when to take them

While you can start taking Social Security at age 62, there is a significant reduction in your monthly benefit as opposed to waiting until your full retirement age. Further, if you can wait until age 70 your benefit level continues to grow. If you are married the planning should involve both spouses’ benefits. There are several planning opportunities for married couples around when each spouse should claim their benefit.

Review your retirement financial resources 

Over the course of your working life you have likely accumulated a variety of investments and other assets that can be used to fund your retirement which might include:

  • Your 401(k)or similar retirement plan such as a 403(b) or other defined contribution plan.
  • IRA accounts, both traditional and Roth.
  • A pension.
  • Stock options or restricted stock units.
  • Social Security
  • Taxable investment accounts.
  • Cash, savings accounts, CDs, etc.
  • Annuities
  • Cash value in a life insurance policy
  • Inheritance
  • Interest in a business
  • Real estate
  • Any income from working into retirement

In the years prior to retirement it is a good idea to review all your anticipated assets and retirement resources to determine how they can be best utilized to support your desired retirement lifestyle.

Determine how much you will need to support your retirement lifestyle 

While this might seem intuitive you’d be surprised how many folks within a few years of retirement haven’t done this. Basically, you will want to put together a budget. Will you stay in your home or downsize? What activities will you engage in? What will your basic living expenses be? And so on.

Compare this to the income that your various retirement resources might generate for you and you will have a good idea if you will be able to support your desired lifestyle in retirement. If there is a gap, you still have some time to make adjustments to close that gap.

You will need to do some planning in terms of which financial resources to tap and the sequencing of these withdrawals over the course of your retirement.

This is a very cursory “checklist” for Baby Boomers and others within a few years of retirement. This might be a good point to engage the services of a fee-only financial advisor if you’ve never done a financial plan, or if your plan is out of date. Retirement can be a great time of life, but proper planning is required to help ensure your financial success.

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.

Should You Accept a Pension Buyout Offer?

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Corporate pension buyout offers have been in the news in recent years with companies like Hartford Financial Services offering lump-sum payment options to vested former employees and with Boeing offering a choice of lump-sum or annuity payments to a similar group. Note these offers are not available to retirees who have already taken their pension benefit.

The answer to the question of whether you should accept a pension buyout offer versus taking your pension as a lifetime stream of monthly payment is that it depends upon your situation. Here are a few things to consider.

Are they sweetening the deal? 

Perhaps the lump-sum is a bit larger, and in the case of the Boeing offer the annuity payments were a bit better as well. Or perhaps there normally wouldn’t be a lump-sum option available from the pension plan so this in and of itself is an incentive.

Remember the incentive for the companies offering these deals is to get rid of these future pension liabilities. The potential cost savings and impact on their future profitability is huge. 

Can you manage the lump-sum? 

The decision to take your pension as a lump-sum vs. a stream of payments is always a tough decision. A key question to ask yourself is whether you are equipped to manage a lump-sum payment. Ideally you would be rolling this lump-sum into an IRA account and investing it for your retirement. Are you comfortable managing this money?  If not are you working with a trusted financial advisor who can help you?

There has been much written about financial advisors who troll large organizations (both governmental and corporate) looking for large numbers of folks with lump-sums to rollover. In some cases, these advisors have moved this rollover money into investments that are wholly inappropriate for these investors. As always be smart with your money and with your trust.  Be informed and ask lots of questions.

Do you have concerns about the company’s financial health? 

Do you have doubts about the future solvency of the organization offering the pension? This pertains to both a public entity (can you say Detroit?) and to for-profit organizations like Hartford Financial and Boeing. In the latter case pension payments are guaranteed up to certain monthly limits set by the PBGC. If you were a high-earner and your monthly payment exceeds this limit you could see your monthly payment reduced.

While I am not familiar with the financial state of either Hartford Financial or Boeing I’m guessing their financial health is not a major issue. If you receive a buyout offer you might consider taking it if you have concerns that your current or former employer may run into financial difficulties down the road.

Who guarantees the annuity payments? 

If the buyout offer includes an option to receive annuity payments make sure that you understand who is guaranteeing these payments. Generally, if a company is making this type of offer they are looking to reduce their future pension liability and they will transfer your pension obligation to an insurance company. They will be the one’s making the annuity payments and ultimately guaranteeing these payments.

This is not necessarily a bad thing but you need to understand that your current or former employer is not behind these payments nor is the PBCG. Typically, if an insurance company defaults on its obligations your recourse is via the appropriate state insurance department. The rules as to how much of an annuity payment is covered will vary.

The impact of inflation

An additional consideration in evaluating a buy-out option that includes annuity payments of this type is the fact that most of these annuities will not include cost of living increases. This means that the buying power of these payments will decrease over time due to inflation. 

What other retirement resources do you have? 

If you will be eligible for Social Security and/or have other pension plans it quite possibly will make sense to take a buyout offer that includes a lump-sum. Review all of your retirement accounts and those of your spouse if you are married.  This includes 401(k) plans, 403(b) accounts, IRAs, etc. This is a good time to take stock of your retirement readiness and perhaps even to do a financial plan if don’t have a current one in place.

The Bottom Line

I’m generally a fan of pension buyout offers, especially if there is a lump-sum option. As with any financial decision it is wise to look at your entire retirement and financial situation and to have a plan in place to manage this money.  Where an annuity is also available you need to understand who will be behind the annuity and to analyze whether this is a good deal for you. Be prepared to deal with an offer if you receive one.

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 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.

Annuities: The Wonder Drug for Your Retirement?

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Annuities: The Wonder Drug for Your Retirement?

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

What is an annuity?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s good about annuities?

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

Watch out for high and/or hidden fees 

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

There are typically several layers of fees in an annuity:

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

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

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

Who’s really guaranteeing your annuity? 

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

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

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

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

Annuities and the DOL fiduciary rules

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

Should you buy an annuity? 

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

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

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

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Please check out our resources page as well.  

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Some Excellent Online Financial Resources

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English: Taken from the internet, public teach...

I use social media and the web to interact with financial advisors, financial bloggers and writers and to keep up with the latest financial news.  Here are some excellent online financial resources, including some blogs and websites that I follow.

Websites and Media 

Market Watch is one of the best all around financial sites; I especially like their RetireMentors section which includes a variety of writers on topics useful to retirees and those planning for retirement.  Robert Powell (twitter @RJPIII) provides some great insights on retirement-related topics.

Morningstar is one of the best investing sites and their columnists provide some excellent insights into a variety of topics. I especially enjoy articles from their personal finance guru Christine Benz (twitter @christine_benz), Mark Miller (twitter @RetireRevised) and John Rekenthaler.

Investopedia is an excellent all-around financial website. They offer an almost encyclopedia-like range of definitions on countless financial terms and products. In addition, they offer insights on a wealth of financial, investing and retirement planning topics for both individuals and financial advisors. I have been a frequent Investopedia contributor for the past few years.

Go Banking Rates is a popular website dedicated to providing readers with information about the best interest rates on financial services nationwide, as well as personal finance content and tools. I have contributed a number of articles to the site over the past year.

Financial Bloggers

Financial advisor Jim Blankenship’s (twitter @BlankenshipFP) site Getting Your Financial Ducks in a Row is a must read blog for information on topics relating to retirement.  Jim is an expert on Social Security and also provides great information on IRAs, taxes, and a variety of essential financial planning topics.  Jim’s books on Social Security and IRAs are must reads.

Mike Piper’s blog Oblivious Investor does a great job discussing a variety of investing and retirement related topics.  Mike is also a published author on retirement, Social Security and several other topics.

Barbara Freidberg Personal Finance provides a wealth of information on a variety of personal finance and investing topics. Barbara does a great job of sharing her knowledge and experience in these areas with her readers in an easy-to-understand and actionable style.

Investor Junkie is published by long-time investor and entrepreneur Larry Ludwig. This site provides great information about investing, retirement and other related topics. Additionally, they do review of various financial products and service providers. I have contributed a number of articles to this site as well.

Frugal Rules is an excellent personal finance blog offering practical tips on investing, frugality, and a range of useful personal financial topics.

Robert Farrington’s blog The College Investor does a great job of discussing investing and a range of financial topics geared to younger investors.

Financial advisor Russ Thornton (twitter @RussThornton) focuses his practice on women clients and his blog Wealth Care for Women provides sound financial planning tips for women.

The Dollar Stretcher is one of the oldest but still one of the best all-purpose financial blogs out there.  Gary Foreman (twitter @Gary_Foreman) covers the full spectrum of personal financial topics.

The websites and blogs listed above are some of my favorites, but this is not meant to be an exhaustive list.  Are there financial sites or online resources that you would recommend?  Please feel free add to this list by leaving a comment.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Please check out our resources page as well.

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Social Security-The End of the File and Suspend Couples Strategy

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The big news in the world of retirement planning is end of a lucrative couples Social Security claiming strategy, file and suspend with a restricted application. The ability take advantage of this lucrative option comes to an end as of April 30, 2016 thanks to the passage of the Bipartisan Budget Bill of 2015.

Social Security-The End of the File and Suspend Couples Strategy

What is the file and suspend strategy?

Under this strategy spouse A upon reaching their full retirement age (FRA) would file for their benefit and then suspend it. They would accrue delayed credits at 8% per year out to age 70 (or sooner) at which time they would resume taking their benefit.

Once spouse B reached their FRA they would then file a restricted application for benefits in order to receive a spousal benefit based upon spouse A’s earnings record. Their own benefit would continue to accrue out until age 70 at which time they would switch to their own benefit if it was higher than the spousal benefit or continue to take the spousal benefit if it was larger.

In many cases this might add an additional $60,000 in benefits to the couple over the four years between spouse B’s FRA and age 70.

There are numerous reasons to do this and it has become a popular couples claiming strategy in recent years.

This option ends as of April 30, 2016.

Who can still take advantage? 

Couples who have executed this strategy are fine and there will be no changes. Couples who are eligible to execute this strategy prior to April 30, 2016 will still be able to.

What are the implications? 

Couples who might have factored this into their retirement strategy will need to rethink their plans and their Social Security claiming strategy.

Those who advise clients nearing retirement and those who provide Social Security tools to the financial advisors will need to rethink their advice and redo some of these tools. Websites offering Social Security calculators will need to redo them as well.

If this change impacts your situation I’d urge you to consult with a knowledgeable financial advisor.

There is much more detail on this change and much has been much written on this topic by a lot of folks whose opinions and knowledge I respect. Below are some excellent articles to check out to learn more about this.

8 Questions About Social Security Claiming Strategies by Mark Miller

The Death of File & Suspend and Restricted Application by Jim Blankenship

Congress kills Social Security claiming loopholes by Alice Munnell

Social Security changes will hit couples, divorced women hard by Robert Powell

Navigating The Effective Date Deadlines For The New File-And-Suspend And Restricted Application Rules by Michael Kitces 

Congress Eliminates Two Popular (and Profitable) Social Security Claiming Strategies by Tim Mauer 

New Social Security Rules: What You Need to Know by Mike Piper 

Check out these two books on Amazon by Jim Blankenship and Mike Piper which have both been updated to reflect the new rules (note these are affiliate links and I earn a small fee if you purchase at no extra cost to you)

In addition here are two pieces on the topic that I recently wrote for Investopedia:

Social Security File and Suspend to End: How to Adjust

Social Security File and Suspend Claiming Strategy is Ending: Now What?

The Bottom Line 

The popular couples Social Security claiming strategy, file and suspend with a restricted application is coming to an end as of April 30, 2016. This is a game-changer for a lot of couples. This may be the time to seek out a knowledgeable financial advisor to advise you. Also stay tuned as there will undoubtedly be much more written on this topic moving forward.

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.

Discover the Secret to Living Tax-Free in Retirement

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On those rare occasions that I develop writer’s block in terms of what to write about here the financial services industry seems to bail me out. Case in point the invitation to a “Private Taxation Workshop” (versus just a plain old seminar) I recently received in the mail. The title of the seminar on the invitation was title I used for this article.

Think about the words “secret to living tax-free in retirement” and while doing so make sure you know where your wallet is.

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Look I’m not saying the accounting firm who is conducting the session in conjunction with a financial services firm is anything but above-board but when I hear words like living tax-free in retirement my first thought is that there will be someone telling you that purchasing the cash value life insurance policy or annuity product being peddled is the answer to your retirement anxiety.

To top this off the seminar is being held at a park district facility, not at a restaurant. In other words they aren’t even providing dinner. Those of you who are regular readers of The Chicago Financial Planner know that I do not hold the sponsors of these sessions in high regard. (Please read Investing Seminars – Should You Attend? and Should You Accept That Estate Planning Seminar Invitation? )

How to legally be in the 0% tax-bracket for any income level

This is one of the bullet points listed under the items they will be discussing at the session. Come on, really? If it were that easy wouldn’t everyone be doing it?

Again I’m guessing that there is some sort of life insurance or annuity product that will be promoted. Note nothing will be sold at the session (it says so right on the invitation) but you can be sure that if you schedule a follow-up session the hard-sell with be there right after the hand-shake. In fact you can count on being given the hard-sell to schedule a follow-up session.

The most overlooked strategy for creating tax-free income from your taxable investments

Another bullet point on topics that will be covered. This sounds great! Wow!

OK back to reality. Remember the adage if it sounds too good to be true it probably is? Well this sounds like it fits.

Again I have no idea what they will be saying but if this was some super-secret sophisticated tax strategy would they be sharing it with a group of non-screened attendees in a park district building for free?

The Bottom Line

I am not saying anyone is doing anything fraudulent, illegal or untoward. What I am saying is that this appears to be nothing but a thinly veiled sales pitch by an accounting firm and a financial services firm to pique your interest and to ultimately sell you some sort of life insurance policy, annuity or some other financial product with hefty commissions attached. I’m guessing the accounting firm has some arrangement to realize a portion of the product sales arising from session attendees.

I’m not against learning and improving your financial knowledge. In fact that’s why I started this blog and why I write for Investopedia, Go Banking Rates and elsewhere. If you go to one of these seminars go with a very skeptical attitude, listen hard and be non-committal about your interest when they urge you to schedule a follow-up meeting. Go home afterwards and at least research the ideas they are touting and the firms involved. Be a smart consumer of financial products and advice. That is the best way to protect yourself from financial fraud and from buying expensive financial products that serve someone else’s needs better than they serve yours.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Please check out our resources page as well.

Six Reasons Small Businesses Should Offer a 401(k) Plan

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The statistics on the number of American workers not covered by a workplace retirement plan like a 401(k) are sobering. According to a 2011 survey just over half of all American workers had access to a workplace retirement plan.

Sadly all too often the reason that smaller companies don’t offer a 401(k) plan are that they can be expensive and there are a vast number of government rules and regulations that must be followed. Small business owners have all that they can handle in running and growing their companies.

Here are six reasons that a small business should consider offering a 401(k) plan for their employees.

The owner’s retirement needs

 Small business owners work hard to manage and grow their companies. Unlike with a larger organization there generally are not armies of employees to handle administrative tasks like human resources or accounting. The owner is often the face of the business and intimately involved in sales and various business processes. It is not uncommon for small business owners to put in many long hours and take very little time off.

Too often the hope is that the value of the business will serve as their retirement plan. Maybe this will happen; they will find a willing buyer who will pay a premium price for the company. Or maybe it won’t happen at least not quite that way.

A 401(k) plan allows the business owner to contribute up to $18,000 or $24,000 (if 50 or over) of their compensation for 2015. In addition they can make a profit sharing contribution as well. This can bring the total combined employee deferral and employer contribution for the owner to a maximum of $53,000 or $59,000 if they are 50 or over. This can go a long way towards helping the business owner fund a comfortable retirement for themselves.

Business contributions and tax dedications

Any employer matching contributions will be tax-deductible as will any costs incurred by the employer in connection with offering the plan.

In order to alleviate any restrictions on the amount the business owner and top executives can contribute for themselves the company may decide on a safe harbor plan that entails a minimum matching level or a minimum level of contributions to the accounts of all employees whether they contribute to the plan or not. The safe harbor contributions are immediately vested for the employees. In exchange the owner will not be limited as to the amount of their contributions based on the results of the required non-discrimination testing. Certainly not all small businesses will be able to afford the safe harbor contributions but for those that can this is a great solution for the owners and the employees.

Doing the right thing for employees

There many articles written and studies done that point to a retirement savings crises in this country. Part of the problem as mentioned above is the lack of availability of a workplace retirement plan for a number of U.S. workers.

Offering your employees a low cost 401(k) plan is a great way to help them save for their retirement and frankly it’s the right thing to do for employees. They work hard and contribute to the success of the business, they should have the opportunity to save for their own retirement and build a measure of financial security for themselves and their families.

Attract and retain top talent

With the economy having largely recovered from the financial crises unemployment is low and many companies are having a hard time finding the workers they need in some cases. Top talent expects to be well-compensated and a quality 401(k) plan is a part of a top-notch compensation package. While likely not the main driver of determining whether a top prospective employee accepts your job offer, a really lousy 401(k) plan (or no plan) might be the “tie-breaker.”

Likewise if a valued employee is being courted by a competitor and that competitor has a robust benefits package that includes a much better 401(k) plan that might be the difference between retaining that key employee and losing them. 

Financial wellness can help the bottom line

Employees who are worried about retirement or other financial issues may be less productive at work. Stressed out employees might also drive up the company’s healthcare costs.

According to a survey by benefits consultant AON Hewitt about 90% of the country’s 250 largest employers also recognize the impact of financial stress on their workforce and will be looking to expand or start financial wellness programs.

Small businesses may not have the resources of these large companies but offering a solid, low cost 401(k) plan is a positive step for their employees on the road towards financial wellness. 

Technology has expanded plan options

Just a few years ago smaller plans and start-ups had very few alternatives and most of those alternatives were high cost plans with questionable investment choices. Insurance company group annuities were also a common option in this market, again generally an expensive, unattractive option.

There are a number of low-cost 401(k) options for small businesses today that thanks in large part to technological advances can offer a complete package including administration, education and low-cost investing options at a reasonable price. Some of these providers serve as plan fiduciaries taking that responsibility off of the shoulders of the business owner.

Frankly cost and the rules connected with running a plan can make it a hassle where these issues and the costs outweigh the good of offering the plan in the minds of many small business owners. The new generation of user-friendly low cost options for small businesses remove this hurdle.

The Bottom Line 

Traditionally the 401(k) options for small businesses have been limited to high cost options with less than desirable investment options. Today with the advances in technology there are a number of low cost, low-hassle options for small companies to consider. Offering a 401(k) plan is a win-win for small businesses in that the owners win and so do their employees.

This post was sponsored (meaning that I was compensated) by San Francisco based ForUsAll an innovative provider of low cost turnkey 401(k) solutions for small businesses. They had no editorial input on anything above. 

I discovered ForUsAll in a finance blogging group that I am part of and was very impressed with what they can offer a small business looking for a turn-key 401(k) solution. They take all of the administrative and compliance burdens off the shoulders of the plan sponsor through their status as a 3(16) fiduciary. Via their menu of low-cost Vanguard funds and their technology they offer a complete 401(k) solution that includes guidance for employees.

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