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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