Robo-Advisors may be just what we need!

Should you really fear Robo-Advisors?

Reading financial news, you see many posts warning of robo-advisors, telling you how you really need a human advisor, how you can robo-proof your investment business, or how robo-advisors are merely a fad and will die off when everyone realizes how evil they are.

All these posts have it backwards. They are apologists for entrenched firms attempting to protect their turf when individuals need help.

Shift from pensions to 401(k) plans hurt individuals

Last century, many large employers provided pensions as a benefit. These were large portfolios that could hire good advisors and thus performed well. However, by the end of last century, retirement funds had shifted to 401(k) and similar plans, where individuals managed their own portfolios.

Institutional portfolios hire great managers so many are able to beat their various market indices. In contrast, individual investors historically achieve less than half the returns of their related indices.

Poor performance by individuals managing their own retirement funds is a key factor in the current crisis facing Boomers who are under-funded for retirement. (Note to Millennials: don’t just speak to your parents, do your own planning so this doesn’t happen to you!)

Why do individuals invest poorly?

Individual investors are seen as a contrary indicator:

  • If they are buying, then the market is near its peak and it is time to sell; and
  • If they are selling, the market has reached its bottom and it is time to buy.

Here is a case in point:

We saw the regret and pride response in action beginning in March 2000, the largest purchase of mutual funds in the history of the stock market. Fast forward to 2008, just before the “Great Recession” market downturn, and stock prices were falling, but investors refused to sell at a loss. As the market continued to fall, investors held off until they simply couldn’t take it any longer. Many sold their stock near the bottom and missed the following upswing that began March 2009. Forbes – Why average investors returns are so low.

To summarize, individual investors perform poorly due to these factors:

  1. Lack of access to good investment advice; and
  2. Investment psychology. For more on the psychological factors to which individuals fall prey, see Seven deadly sins of investing to avoid.

There is a third factor: High expenses in form of commissions and other fees.

Robo-advisors address all three factors. 

  • First, automating advice permits good advisors to offer services to small investors. Betterment with automated rebalancing and tax-loss harvesting is a good example.
  • Second, automation lowers costs, so fees charged can be reduced. Combine that with use of ETFs and you have dramatically reduced expenses.
  • Last, robo-advisors are immune to greed and fear so their performance will not suffer the way performance of individuals may. No robo-advisor would wait until the market hit bottom to sell, as in the case of 2008 summarized above.  

Bring on the Robos!

What is my conclusion? Not only are robo-advisors here to stay, they may be just what individual investors need so they can retire well!

7 things to do when starting a business to avoid nasty surprises

The only thing that hurts more than paying an income tax is not having to pay an income tax. Thomas Dewar

When you decide to start a business, taxes may be the last thing you think about. However, not realizing that you owe the self-employment tax as well as income taxes can lead to a nasty surprise when you file your taxes. This post is aimed at avoiding that costly surprise.

But, before we discuss the self-employment tax, there are other important steps to take when you become self-employed. Here are the 7 things to do after you start your own business to avoid nasty surprises:

Avoid nasty surprises – set up bookkeeping, form your entity, get licensed, buy insurance, and pay taxes

Bookkeeping – set up bookkeeping using software like QuickBooks (either online or on your laptop). You don’t want to be scrambling to find receipts at tax time or not be able to tell somebody if you are making money or not.

You can save time by downloading from your bank and credit card companies. If you set up things well, all income and every expense will be properly categorized for your profit and loss statement, or P&L. The P&L and balance sheet help you monitor your business to see how well you are doing and are essential for preparing your tax returns. The balance sheet will also come in handy if you need to apply for financing.

For all these steps, you may want to hire an accountant or speak to an attorney.

Entity – for many small businesses, being a sole proprietor is appropriate. You avoid paying corporate excise taxes and filing annual reports. However, if you have partners, you may want to form a partnership, corporation or LLC (details on choosing are beyond the scope of this post).

If your business involves risks that could lead to law suits, form a corporation or LLC to shelter your personal assets from liabilities of the business that insurance may not cover. Make sure that any actions you take for the business are in your capacity as an officer or manager – i.e., never sign personally.

Remember, you may want to consult with an attorney.

Get licenses, file annual reports and pay local taxes – certain businesses require a license to operate. Most entities are required to file annual reports. And, your city may impose taxes on the personal property in your business. Be sure to find out so you don’t owe penalties for failing to file and pay.

Buy health and other insurance – in addition to liability insurance, you will want to obtain health insurance if you are no longer working for another employer. You may get favorable treatment for this expense on your income taxes. You can also purchase insurance to cover damage to equipment, loss of data, identity theft and so on.

File payroll taxes – if you hire people to work for you and pay them over $600 per quarter in any year, you need to report the compensation. If they are independent contractors, you file a form 1099 with the IRS. If they are employees, you file a W-2 with the Social Security Administration. You also provide these forms to your people for the income tax filings.

You may need to withhold and remit FICA and Medicare taxes. Also, your employees may request that you withhold and remit federal and state income taxes (unless you live in a state that does not impose income taxes). Failure to withhold and pay to the IRS and state can lead to serious penalties.

Pay your income tax – one big shock for many who start a business is how much they owe in taxes. When you received a paycheck, you probably did not focus much on the fact that your employer withholds federal and state income taxes and FICA and Medicare taxes. And, you never had a chance to spend what was withheld.

However, when you run your own business, you have full access to the pre-tax income, so you must diligently allocate funds ahead of time so that you don’t come up short at text time. To avoid owing interest on the taxes due, you make estimated tax payments each quarter to the IRS and state.

Pay the self-employment tax – when you were an employee, your employer withheld FICA and Medicare taxes from your paychecks. The employer also contributed FICA and Medicare taxes on your behalf

When you become self-employed, you are responsible for both the employee and employer amounts. This tax is based on your net self-employment income

A lot to remember, right?

Maybe, but knowing and planning is far better than trying to scrape together money in April to cover taxes you did not expect.

Good luck with your new business!

In future posts, we will examine partnering with others, assessing your profitability, rules on deducting expenses, and entry into the real estate market.

 

Parenting, don’t fool yourself, it never ends – and you don’t want it to!

Good parenting never stops. You can always have a positive impact on the lives of your children, if you pay attention and employ good thinking. This remains true after they leave home, after they graduate college, after they get their first job, after you get a divorce, after they get a divorce, after they have kids, and so on.

Loving them no matter what

My divorce was quite unpleasant. After my ex-wife and I separated, my children were upset. One expressed anger and wanted little to do with me. I made clear that I cared and wanted to be in his life. So, over time, that attitude changed.

After some time, we met for dinner. The evening seemed to be going calmly, but then I said something that brought out his anger. I sat and took it. Because I listened to his anger, and continued to make clear that I loved him no matter what, this was a turning point. We have grown much closer since that evening.

Celebrating holidays

Holidays are always challenging. One year, in September, I asked about Thanksgiving. The response was, “I thought you said seeing us on Thanksgiving was not important to you.” I said that I had feelings that made me realize that was not completely true.

However, I backed off and I sent an e-mail saying that what was really important was to see my children together on any day, regardless of what day was. A few days later, I got an email saying that they wanted to join me for Thanksgiving. Messages like that will bring tears to your eyes! (And that was the best Thanksgiving ever!)

Finances

As an attorney and financial planner, I try to make sure my children plan well. On the other hand, I know saying too much turns into prying into their lives when they are striving to be independent. It can make them feel badly, as if they are not doing well or as if I am being critical.

After the divorce, my daughter needed some support from me. I asked if her mother was helping. She said yes, so I never asked again and provided what she said she needed.

Much later, I learned that she amassed several thousand dollars in credit card debt during this time. When she told me this, she also told me that she paid it off. Such an impressive accomplishment; you have to be proud of that!

Conclusion

So, my learning never stops, because I want to be better as a parent.
I count myself very fortunate for the close relationship I have with my children.
And what I can do to help my children continues!

Cancer, I try not to talk about it

I had cancer. If you have had cancer, or know anyone who has, you know it changes your life – forever.

If you are lucky, and you live, each day is special in a new way.

When I first wrote this, I had just attended a wake for a friend who was 51 and in great health, or so we thought. He played basketball, rode a mountain bike, trained in karate … then died from heart attack.

It’s over a year later, so why am I talking about this now? I don’t want anyone to starve themselves today for a future they may never see.

I am not saying spend everything living today. But I am saying find a balance!

Yes, “balance,” that mindfulness term that applies to financial planning. Enjoy what you can today without making your future a mess, and make your future good enough so you can enjoy today.

Got it? I hope so.

P.S – please see my Pan-Mass Challenge profile for more on my response to having had cancer and losing a dear friend. (The answer is obvious: I ride to raise money to save others!)
Great photo of some young PMC riders!

Year-end planning, 2016 version

The election of Donald J. Trump could have a significant impact on your finances. Individual and corporate tax laws may change, the Affordable Care Act may be eliminated, trade war may ensue, infrastructure building may boost jobs and sectors of the economy, and national defense and diplomacy could lead almost anywhere – your guess is as good as anyone else’s.

So then, how do you incorporate this into year-end planning? Very carefully!

Corporate Taxes

Our analysis starts with a review of his proposal to limit corporate income taxes to 15% as a way to illustrate how tricky planning is:

Analysis of the way this limit applies to pass-through entities suggests that the 10-year cost could be anywhere from $4.4 trillion, assuming owners of pass-throughs pay 33% tax, to $5.9 trillion, assuming owners only pay a 15% tax.

Those are hefty cost numbers, which is why it is tricky to assume that any major tax changes will be enacted in 2017.

Income Taxes

There could be three rates on ordinary income: 12%, 25% and 33%, with the latter starting at $225,001 for married filers and $112,501 for single filers. The 0.9% and 3.8% Affordable Care Act surtaxes on upper-incomers would be eliminated. So would the AMT (“alternative minimum tax”). The 20% maximum capital gains tax would remain. Standard deductions would go up, personal exemptions would be eliminated and breaks for dependent care would be increased.

Check here for 2017 tax rates.

Estate taxes

The President Elect has revised his estate tax proposal, calling now for pre-death tax on appreciation in assets of large estates, subject to a $10-million-per-couple exemption. This may be accomplished by limiting the step-up in basis for heirs who inherit capital assets from large estates.

Another change would be elimination of the IRS’s proposal to restrict the use of valuation discounts for gift and estate tax purposes on intrafamily transfers of closely held firms.

Investing and retirement

Infrastructure building could boost certain investments, while conflicts on trade agreements could hurt many.

His proposed tax changes for retirement plans include extending the age for which contributions to IRAs are allowed and delaying required minimum distributions (RMDs).

Okay, enough, how does one act now?

Some moves still make sense

Tax plan – deferring income into 2017 and adding deductions to 2016 should work well, unless doing so puts you in the AMT, in which case the reverse will work best.

Most of our suggestions from our 2015 year-end planning post still work, including RMDs, 3.8% Medicare surtax, itemized deductions, stock options, investment income and sole proprietor and small business income. Also check out our estate planning post for more ideas.

If your deductions include donating to charities, gifting appreciated assets leverages your donation. That is, you can avoid the income tax on capital gains while still benefiting from the charitable deduction. Watch for the rules on exceeding 30% of your adjusted gross income and donating to private charities.

Research Your Charities

Check out websites like such as ImpactMatters and GiveWell to make sure what you donate has the best impact. Other tools include Agora for Good, a tool to track donation impact over many sectors.

Investing – your strategy should not be altered in any dramatic way now.

If you do sell mutual funds, be sure to wait to buy replacement funds until after the dividend distribution date, so you do not end up with a taxable distribution on gains in which you did not participate

Summary

Many of the income and estate tax rules may change during 2017. However, for now, your safest plan is to assume little changes and stick to the “traditional” techniques outlined above.

If you have any questions, please contact me!

What I learned with my website failure

Yes, robo-advisors are coming. But, I seem to have missed that boat, er self-driving car.

In the effort to design and launch a financial planning website for young people, I learned quite a lot. One thing I learned is that a good idea, even one that many people think is up and coming, is not enough by itself. In fact, it takes a great deal of effort plus substantial capital to launch an effective site. And even then, there is no assurance that you have a successful business.

We did preserve the content that we created and used it to launch a financial literacy website. We hope that people can use this site to better understand their finances. But it will not be a source of revenue: too few want to pay for financial planning advice. It may be the same phenomenon as people searching online for medical questions instead of paying to see a doctor.  Who knows?

Another thing I learned over the last couple of years is that I really enjoy human interaction, helping people solve problems. Creating a robo-planner website wasn’t going to satisfy that need.

So what am I doing? I’m back to concentrating on my law firm, providing financial planning and related legal work plus adding divorce mediation to my business.

Before concluding this post, there are so many to thank. The list of advisors, consultants and friends includes, in no special order: Joseph B. Lassiter, III, Francesca Bartholomew, Shannon M. Bénay, Sima Patel, Jeff Benson, Carl Muscari, Howard Zaharoff, Elliot Sloyer, Peter Demuth, Mark J. Deck, Elliot Kaztman, Catalina Gorla, Meredith McPherron, Jason Yarrington, Ron Aines, Chris Lovell, Amanda Cripps, Adam Weisman, Alyssa Windell, Beth Marcus, Mary Anna Mancusco, Scott Branson, Marissa Branson, and so many more!

Thank you all so much for a great adventure!

Steven

Before you take advice on your finances, ask this question

As I review posts for our sister website on financial literacy, this seemed to be a great post to repeat:

If you want financial advice, before listening to someone, ask yourself one simple question:

“If I’m not paying this adviser, who IS paying them?”

If you don’t know the answer, you may have a problem.

Think about it ….

“Simplify your finances? No; “Gain control, understand your finances?” Yes

After reading a recent article in Kiplinger’s Finance Magazine  on simplifying your finances, I wondered if your personal finances can really be made simple.  While many of us may hope so, I am not sure that “simple” is best.

However, gaining control of your finances and gaining a better understanding do make sense.

clutter-286975_1920 Okay, that does need to be simplified!

Here are some ways that help you gain control that may also “simplify” your life:

Cash management and Debt management

Set up automatic payments with vendors so they use your bank or credit card, or set up payments using your bank website.

  • If the payments are regular, and of similar amounts, you save time and can plan on the withdrawals.
  • However, if you change banks, sorting and resetting auto-pay at the new bank can be a major headache. Similarly, if you change credit cards, you need to update information with all vendors.

You can also automate tracking of your spending by using websites like Mint or Personalcapital.  Or, you can use Quicken or QuickBooks software from Intuit to track your bank and credit card accounts.  You can download from your bank and credit card websites into the program and then review to analyze your cash flow and spending.

Setting up direct deposit for payroll into your checking is great.  You can also split part so it goes to savings or even have some go to your investment accounts.  You will then need to follow up to invest the cash that accumulates, but having money set aside saves it from being spent, and adds to your investments

Investing

Kiplinger’s recommended consolidating retirement accounts to avoid low balance fees.  It also makes updating beneficiary designations easier.

While avoiding fees makes sense, am not sure that putting all investments into a single retirement account does.  You cannot do this if you have Roth and pre-tax accounts like a 401(k) plan, and you probably should not do it if you have contributory IRA and 401(k) accounts that are subject to different tax rules.

Kiplinger’s also recommended using one broker for your taxable accounts.  This makes more sense, in that you have a higher balance which should mean lower fees and more attention from the broker.  However, I prefer using exchange traded funds, or ETFs, and avoiding most broker fees, which means essentially no attention from a broker.

One article said that your investment plan should be to “sign up and forget it.”  While avoiding investment pitfalls like second-guessing yourself out of panic when a fund goes down is good, I do think you need to review and rebalance your investments once a year.

Another article recommended using an “all in one” fund for investing.  Now, this really troubles me.  If your sole goal is retirement, then an age-targeted fund could make sense.  But, if you are saving for goals with different time horizons, this is a bad idea.

If you use an age-targeted fund, do your homework on the funds.  For example, if the fund plans to suddenly shift to bonds when you retire, that will not serve you well because you are likely to have several decades for which you will need the growth from stocks.

Protecting your information

Having a master password for access to all your other passwords reminds me of the joke about the student who repeatedly distilled his notes down, first to an outline, then to note cards, and finally to one word.  How did he do on the day of the exam?  He forgot the word.

Nonetheless, having passwords is clearly important so having a way to manage them is as well.  Check out this recent review of apps for managing your passwords PC Magazine Best Password Managers for 2015.  You can manage the passwords yourself by creating a document that you save as a PDF and then encrypt.  But don’t forget the password you used for the PDF!

Store files in one place

We did a post on using cloud storage when you do not need originals.  Here is another site to check out:  Shoeboxed

Credit cards

In addition to downloading transactions as noted above, you can track your credit score and credit history by using sites like Credit Karma

Estate planning

For insurance purposes, and for your estate plan, having a record of possessions, you can list all your property using sites like Know your stuff home inventory.

Conclusion?

There are ways to gain better understanding of your finances that also make your finances simpler.  But setting simplification as your primary goal risks distorting your finances – too simple may be a bad result.

P.S. Our sister website, www.wokemoney.com, encourages you to gain a better understanding of your finances so you can handle your own planning.  Let me know what you think.

Holiday Tip and Gift Guidelines

As we recover from Thanksgiving, we turn to Black Friday and then Cyber Monday, so the holiday season is in full swing.

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Part of your gift giving may be tipping those around you upon whom you depend. While gift giving etiquette may be obvious in some instances, it can get less clear when considering gifts for people outside of your friends and family. So, to help you navigate the season, we have put together a guide of suggested amounts for gifts and tips, as well as final comment on notes and cards in lieu of cash.

We all have people in our lives that help us keep our families, homes and businesses on track and get through each day as we move forward throughout the year. In many cases, the services they provide ensure we can go to work, have clean homes and stay fit, including caregivers, delivery, home maintenance, and personal care services:

Caregivers (for kids, parents and pets, too!)

Caregivers for your children, parents and pets can be lifesavers. They provide care, education, exercise, and attention to those you care about most. This is the time of year to let them know how thankful you are for all that they do. The amount of service they provide and the arrangement you have with them can dictate the appropriate gift level:

  1. Nanny/au pair – a week’s salary and a small gift;
  2. Daycare teachers – a $25-$70 gift;
  3. Home healthcare worker – a week to a month’s salary;
  4. Teacher – a small gift and a handmade card from your child;
  5. Dog walker – depending on your walker’s schedule, you may want to gift a day’s pay or a full week’s pay; and
  6. Dog groomer – half the cost to the full amount for the service.

            If you contract any of these services through an agency, you may want to contact the agency to find out if they have a gift-giving policy in effect. If the agency prohibits gifts, consider alternatives like making a donation to the agency or sending in homemade cookies to the office.

“Neither snow nor rain…”

Despite the weather, terrain or traffic, your mail carrier delivers your mail every day and your online purchases arrive on time and in good condition. Let those who make those deliveries know you’re grateful. In deciding what and how much to give, consider the particular company’s gift giving restrictions:

  1. Mail carriers – are not prohibited from receiving cash gifts and gifts more than $20;
  2. FedEx – employees may accept gifts under $75, though no cash or gift cards;
  3. UPS – workers are allowed to accept tips, but UPS discourages the practice; and
  4. Newspaper delivery – $10-$30 is standard.

Home Maintenance:

Whether you live in a single-family home or a large apartment building, it’s likely there is someone who services your home or property in some way.

  1. Trash and recycling collectors – $10-$30, which you may want to mail directly to the collection company if you’re not home to hand deliver it;
  2. Doorman – $25-$100;
  3. Regular cleaning person – the cost of one visit;
  4. Landscapers/gardeners – $20-$50 per person or if you have just one person doing the work, the cost of one visit;
  5. Parking garage attendant – $10-$50; and
  6. Building’s handyman, superintendent and custodian – $20-$100.

If you have someone who always goes the extra mile, such as a handyman who’s prompt and efficient or a doorman who is quick to carry heavy packages for you, then a larger tip may be warranted.

Personal Services:

It’s hard work keeping you fit, perfectly coiffed and beautiful, but recognizing the efforts of those who do is easy and may also buy you scheduling flexibility when you really need it. In deciding whether to tip and how much, consider this:

  1. Hairdresser/manicurist – if you’re a frequent visitor, tip the cost of one visit. If you’re a less frequent customer, then $20. However, if you tip generously through the year, you do not need to give an extra tip at the end of the year;
  2. Personal trainer – up to the cost of one cost;
  3. Massage therapist – also cost of one visit; and
  4. Golf or Tennis instructor – a thoughtful gift.

If you’re unable to tip or give a gift, a thoughtful thank you note will acknowledge the good work these people do for you throughout the year. Another effective gesture of gratitude is to send a thank you note to the supervisors of the people who provide you with great service throughout the year, letting them know how impressed you are with the service you receive. Good feedback is appreciated by both the supervisor and the people who are helping you out.
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What is the AMT?

 Not, it is not a dyslexic version of ATM!

 Back when people could shelter almost 100% of their high income, Congress decided to make that more difficult by creating the alternative minimum tax (“AMT”), a minimum tax that all must pay with a rate of 28%. This along with sweeping changes made in 1986 made it difficult for the top taxpayers, people with income over $1 million, to get much below an average tax of 20%.

On the other hand, an AMT rate as high as 28% is still great if your marginal rate is 39%.

Why do you care? Despite the title, you do not get to pick

You must pay the higher amount determined by the regular and AMT tax calculations. If you have to pay the AMT, you are paying almost a flat rate of 26% to 28%, not a graduate rate, and you are losing the value of many itemized deductions, including state income taxes paid, most mortgage interest and miscellaneous deductions. To make sure you pay taxes, certain “preference” amounts are added to your AMT income, including incentive stock options and alternate depreciation schedules.

Data on 2012 income tax indicates that nearly every married taxpayer with income between $100,000 and $500,000 owed some AMT. Thus, the AMT is no longer just for the ultra rich!

So what do you do? Plan carefully

Make sure that efforts to reduce regular taxes do not push you into paying the AMT. Here is one example: If you have a year with high ordinary income, be sure to pay all of the state income taxes due during that calendar year, since you are less likely to be in the AMT doing so but are like to be in the AMT next year if you wait until April to pay those state taxes. The lower ordinary income of next means that you will certainly be in the AMT.

Note: some states also impose an AMT, making planning quite … er, taxing!

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Oh, that looks complicated!

Good planning pays off, as in the example above, where preserving the deduction can be a very substantial savings on your federal income taxes.