“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.

Okay then, what is a financial plan?

You may hear some argue that robo-planners will not replace individual, human planners. I call them the “There’s no app for that” group.

We do believe that “There is an app for that.”
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Well, that is not what I had in mind.

But exactly what is “a financial plan”? Finding a good, workable definition is a challenge.

Wikipedia says:

Textbooks used in colleges offering financial planning-related courses also generally do not define the term “financial plan.” For example, Sid Mittra, Anandi P. Sahu, and Robert A Crane, authors of Practicing Financial Planning for Professionals[8] do not define what a financial plan is, but merely defer to the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards’ definition of ‘financial planning’.

Can’t we define “financial plan”?

Yes. Investopedia offers this broad definition:

While there is no specific template for a financial plan, most licensed professionals will include knowledge and considerations of the client’s future life goals, future wealth transfer plans and future expense levels. Extrapolated asset values will determine whether the client has sufficient funds to meet future needs.

And Wikipedia gives more detail:

In general usage, a financial plan is a comprehensive evaluation of an individual’s current pay and future financial state by using current known variables to predict future income, asset values and withdrawal plans. This often includes a budget which organizes an individual’s finances and sometimes includes a series of steps or specific goals for spending and saving in the future.

So you need to project where your assets can take you to be sure you meet your future in good shape. Makes sense

And what is my definition?

A to do list or “action plan” that tells you what you need to change now so you optimize the use of all your resources to achieve your major, long term goals in the future.         

So what does a financial plan look like?

If you paid to have a financial plan prepared, and have a complicated situation, you may get a glossy, bound book filled with projections, charts and graphs, plus text. While much of it may be boilerplate, it will tell you where you are going from now until you die, how your money will follow if you invest according to the plan, and what you need to change on taxes, insurance, and your estate plan.

At the other extreme, you can glean the essential steps and write them all on a PostIt note, which you then place in a spot you see often enough to remind you what to do:

  • Maximize my 401(k) contributions,
  • Set up and contribute to a Roth IRA,
  • Review my investment allocation, use ETFs,
  • Steer clear of any major credit card debt,
  • Review my beneficiary designations,
  • Sign an medical directive, and
  • Save enough for a fun (not too expensive) vacation next summer!

In the end, it doesn’t matter how many pages or what the plan looks like; what matters is that you learn from reviewing your finances and change how you manage your resources so that improve your finances.

So, yes, a simple to do list could be enough, if you follow it!

Roth or not to Roth? Deciding requires predicting your future tax rate

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More employers now provide the option of a Roth 401(k) as well as a traditional 401(k), so you may ask:

Which should contribute to a Roth 401(k) or a traditional 401(k)?

The answer is not so simple and it depends on your income tax rate now and at retirement. Before offering background and explanation, we start with this Quick Summary

If you have a high tax rate now, and expect a low tax rate later, pick the traditional 401(k)

The traditional plan is better because get the current tax deduction, reducing taxes now at the higher tax rate. This may be true for people in middle or later years of employment.

Note: this is only financially better if you invest the amount of taxes saved.

If you have a low tax rate now, and expect a high tax rate later, pick the Roth 401(k).

The Roth plan is better because you avoid higher taxes later. This may be true for most people starting work now.

If expect to have the tax rate later as you have now, pick the Roth 401(k)

The Roth plan has other benefits described below.

Background – How the Plans Work:

Tax deferred growth

Earnings on both the traditional 401(k) and the Roth 401(k) are not taxed. Not paying taxes on investments in your retirement account means more grows and compounds tax-free – that is why contributing to a retirement plan is so important.

Contributions “pre-tax” vs. after tax

Contributions to a traditional 401(k) are made “pre-tax,” meaning that the amount contributed is excluded from your taxable income for the year.

Contributions to a Roth 401(k) are made after tax – they are not excluded from taxable income.

Taxing withdrawals vs. no tax

Withdrawals from a traditional 401(k) are taxed in the year of withdrawal.

Withdrawals from the Roth plans are not taxed. That is, the after-tax contributions are not taxed a second time and neither is the growth on those contributions.

Other rules – early withdrawal and require minimum distribution

There are penalties for withdrawal before reaching age 59½, unless certain exceptions are met, such as disability or first-time home buyer.

You must begin withdrawing when you reach age 70½ under the IRS Required Minimum Distribution or “RMD” rules. For more on RMD rules, see IRS Retirement Topics – RMDs

Hedging your bets:

If you are not sure of your tax rates, or if you just want more options because you cannot predict, then you can opt to combine plans. For example, you can contribute to your traditional 401(k) up to the employer match and then put the rest in a Roth IRA, if the contribution limits allow.

Conversions:

When you change jobs, you can convert a 401(k) to a Roth IRA, but doing so is a taxable event. If you expect your tax rate to be higher in the future, this is a good move. However, you will want to pay taxes due from other sources. If you have to take funds from the IRA to pay the taxes, you reduce the amount going into the Roth IRA which dramatically reduces the future benefit.

If you convert after-tax contributions made to a traditional 401(k) or non-deductible IRA, you have less on which taxes are due because the after-tax portion is not taxed in converting to a Roth IRA.

Other considerations:

While a Roth 401(k) is subject to RMD, a Roth IRA is not. If you can re-characterize the Roth 401(k) to a Roth IRA, you avoid the RMD. This may mean that you pass more on to your heirs. Also, you may gain investment flexibility compared to a company plan.

If you use a Roth plan, then your taxable income at retirement will be less than if you were withdrawing from a traditional plan where withdrawals are taxed. This could lessen tax due on social security benefits.

On the other hand, if you expect to use funds in your retirement plan to donate to a charity, you are better off getting the tax savings for yourself now. The charity is not subject to much if any income tax.

Also, if you expect your heirs to receive your retirement plan assets and know that those heirs will be in a lower income tax bracket, you should use a traditional plan now to get the tax benefit for yourself. How can you possibly determine that heirs will get more of your retirement than you and also be in a lower tax bracket? I cannot imagine – well, maybe I can, but none of the ideas sound good. Anyway, it seemed like a good idea to mention (they teach you to think this way in law school).

If you help support others, you need life insurance and an estate plan – really

Purchasing adequate life insurance and doing your estate plan, meaning signing a will and creating a trust, are probably low on your list.

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If you help support others, I hope you will rethink your priories. I will give you two good reasons that you should:

I saw the confusion and pain a wife had to address when she lost her husband, before he bought the life insurance he had promised to obtain, and had to help her kids adjust to the massive change of lifestyle as they sold their home and downsized because they could no longer afford what their dad, the chief income earner of their family, had provided them. If they had proceeds from his life insurance, they would have only been dealing with the grief of losing him.

I saw adult children deal with the probate process so they could be appointed administrators of their mom’s estate just to be able to access bank accounts, pay funeral expenses and then sell and distribute the remainder of her assets, making their own decisions in place of knowing what she would have wanted.

If you have not obtained life insurance to replace your earning power, which helps support your family, and if you have not executed a will, along with a trust, medical directive and other documents that may be appropriate, you are not just avoiding an inconvenient imposition on your time and the payment of premiums and fees, you are failing to properly think of the consequences of not acting and the impact that could have on your loved ones.

So please think again.

Young people, don’t let this happen to you. Plan for retirement now!

Young people, a.k.a. “Millennials,” have the time horizon that should allow them to save well, and thus avoid the need to save much more in later years. Otherwise, they will end up like those now nearing retirement that Theresa Ghilarducci describes in her 2012 article on retirement:

Seventy-five percent of Americans nearing retirement age in 2010 had less than $30,000 in their retirement accounts. The specter of downward mobility in retirement is a looming reality for both middle- and higher-income workers. Almost half of middle-class workers, 49 percent, will be poor or near poor in retirement, living on a food budget of about $5 a day. See Our Ridiculous Approach to Retirement.

Acting now is crucial, but what do you do?

Step 1 – As a Millennial, accept that you need to start saving now and commit to acting. For encouragement, remember that:

The 35-year-old would need to boost her contribution rate to 9 percent to achieve the same result as the 25-year-old starter who was saving 6 percent. (from Retirment Saving for Young People) See You can Ignore Most Financial Planning Rules.

Step 2 – Identify how much you need to save by using a retirement calculator. There are many calculators you can use – see what we listed in The results from retirement calculations on different websites vary. Why?

Step 3 – Follow this hierarchy for how to set up accounts for your savings:

Start with your employer plan, 401(k), 403(b) or if you are self-employed, SEP-IRA. The contributions you make to a 401(k) or 403(b) are made from payroll deductions, so you never get a chance to spend this money. The deductions reduce your taxable income now, so the government is effectively helping you to save. Also, the amounts invested grow “tax sheltered,” meaning that you pay no tax on any interest, dividends and capital gains. However, when you retire and withdraw from the plan, you are taxed on that amount as regular income.

If you save more, use a Roth IRA next. Set up an auto debit from your checking to fund your Roth IRA, so contributing works like payroll deductions. The amount contributed to a Roth IRA is not deductible, but amounts withdrawn at retirement are not subject to income tax. The amounts invested grow tax sheltered.

Finally, if you still need to save more, set up a “taxable account,” meaning an account with no tax sheltering benefit. You can use auto-debit to add to this account.

Note: for the Roth IRA, you must qualify and have earned income from which to make contributions to the account. Also note that, for any of these tax sheltered plans, withdrawing funds before age 59½ may subject you to a 10% penalty in addition to income taxes, so do not fund any plan when you expect to need withdraw the money before retirement.

Step 4 – Invest. And when you invest, stick to the plan you set in place (this cannot be over-emphasized). The time to retirement is decades away so you can afford to take risks, some of which will take many years to pay off. If you panic and sell, you only lock in a loss; but if you weather the ups and downs, you will be far ahead. (see Don’t Let This Happen to You, Plan for Retirement Now)

Creating an asset allocation, where you diversify among stocks, bonds, real estate and cash. Include large cap, mid-cap and small-cap stocks, as well as international stocks. You man also include invest in real estate investment trusts (“REITs”) and hard assets. You can use exchange traded funds (“ETFs”). The low fees of ETFs leave more invested to grow, compared to high fee and load funds.

If you on-going advice, you may want to check out alternatives such as LearnVest and the new Future Advisor website.