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.

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).

Should we use Robo-Advisors? I don’t know, let’s ask Siri!

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Any web search for “robo-advisors” (or robo-advisers, robo-planners, etc.) produces an interesting spectrum of content, from “for” to “against,” with a fair share of “undecided.”

Some posts are ready to embrace new technology. See Robo Advice? Bring it on, it will be great for business by Tony Vidler. He says robo-advisors:

will be good for business for those advisers who provide real value and are smart marketers. The Robo’s will probably kill off the bottom-feeders in the business, together with those who have no genuine advice-based value proposition. Perhaps that is an unfortunate consequence, but then, maybe it isn’t.

We also like Neil Wood’s post “Are You Prepared For the Tidal Wave Of Assets Going Into Robo-Advisor Programs?” He says:

Remember the stock jockeys of the 1970s-1990s that refused to embrace financial planning? Many call them dinosaurs that died with a change in the way our industry did business. There will always be new competitors in our industry. People want faster, cheaper, better, improved, more powerful and a so-called better mousetrap.

But many posts are threatened by new technology. For example, the title alone in the post by Sara Grillo puts robo-advisors in a derogated status: Why a Robo-advisor is Like Getting Financial Advice at a McDonald’s Drive Through. More on Ms. Grillo in a minute ….

Here is another, where the title of the article by Craig Iskowitz sounds as if he thinks robo-advisors are a passing fad: Dead Robo Walking: Why Wealthfront is Doomed. However, he provides real analysis of the new technology and differentiates the growing field of robo-advisors, calling out Wealthfront as an advisor he believes failed to prepare and execute well. Wealthfront may not do well, but Mr. Iskowitz sees it as losing out to other investment firms, both robo or traditional. (Also see Robo-Advisors may be just what we need!)

Finally, there are some who purport to be threatened but may in fact be carving out their own turf in the robo-advisor space. Ron Lieber believes that is what JP Morgan is doing. See “Jamie Dimon Wants to Protect You From Innovative Start-Ups.

As I said in What is a financial plan?, that those who insist that robo-advisors will not replace individual, human planners comprise the “There’s no app for that” group.

Hold on, Steven. This is Siri. What about me? Where do I fit in?

Well Siri, you are a robo-voice, not an advisor.

But you ask me questions all the time!

Yes, I do. But I don’t count on you for life-changing decisions!

I’m hurt!

Enough! As promised, back to Sara Grillo. In the end, she thinks robo-advisors “are a good way to get financial advice for those who have no emotion attached to their money, a long time horizon, and simple requirements.” However, if you need more attention, then she expects you to pay a human for advice, despite the $500,000 portfolio minimum threshold barrier.

Should that be the cutoff? You have to already be wealthy to get good advice? We think it shouldn’t.

Imagine that, as a financial planner, CFP or other advisor, robo-advisor technology frees up more of your time. You could use that time to provide more advice to clients or to advise more clients. Just like the introduction of word processing and desktop computers in offices decades ago, technology brought efficiencies and created a massive shift in how we use time.

Or Imagine that we can create a robo-advisor website that will provide the sort of advice that a human would, even encompassing the issues Ms. Grillo suggests: “complicated trust and estate issues, a need for cash flow planning.” This is my hope for the website we are building, that we can make the essence of human financial planner advice accessible to those who made need it most, who have not amassed great wealth – yet.

Technological change comes in many forms and constantly evolves – that is a constant in our lives. Those who resist are often buried in the process – Neil’s dinosaurs. Those who would adopt and adapt fare far better.

Don’t you agree Siri? Siri?

I’m not talking to you until you apologize

Oh boy.

China’s economy, the stock market and politics


(worried about investing?)

So far this year, checking your investment account balances could lead to an upset stomach, or worse. You are better off watching the historically unusual 2016 presidential campaigns. That way, you have enough to distract you from making a bad investment decision … even if Donald Trump or others upset your stomach.

What would a bad decision be? Here are several worries you may have, stated as “oh no,” along with a description of the potential bad investment decision:

“Oh no, stocks are too risky, I’m moving my money over bonds instead” – a.k.a., changing your portfolio allocation

If you (and your advisors) constructed a good long-term portfolio, then stick to the allocation in your portfolio. At present, the return on most bonds is less than the rate of inflation, after income taxes. The return on money markets is even less. So, unless you have amassed huge sums, you need the stock market returns to reach your financial goals.

That means you have to stay in stocks, and ride out the current downturn.

“But does that work?”

Let’s take the last big market dive of 2008 as an example. Measuring stock performance from 2008 through 2012, “the S&P 500 generated a cumulative return of 8.6 percent.”   See Went to Cash? Here’s the next Big Mistake You’ll Make.

Have you seen any bonds paying 8.6%?

“No.”

I didn’t think so.

True, there are alternate investments, such as hedge funds, precious metals, commodities and raw materials, which could perform better than bonds. However, each has different risks and expenses, and some of these have high barriers to entry. If any of these investments do belong in your portfolio, they are there to balance your other investments, which must still include stocks.

“Oh no, investing is too risky, I’m putting my savings in cash for now” – a.k.a., attempting to time the market

Pulling out of the market when it goes down and then putting all that cash back in just before it goes back up sounds great. However, the problem with market timing is no one can do it. Looking at 2008 through 2012, “If an investor missed the 36 percent drop in the S&P 500 in 2008 — or even worse, bailed on the markets mid-carnage — they probably also missed the 26 percent gain in the S&P 500 in 2009, and the next three positive years for the index that followed. See Went to Cash? Here’s the next Big Mistake You’ll Make.

So, you are thinking that 2008 to 2012 is an aberration.

“Yes, I still want to move to cash.”

 Then consider 1970 to 2016, where, if you missed just the best 25 days out of 11,620 trading days, “your returns would have gone from 1,910% to 371%, or [from] 6.7% a year to 3.4%. To give you an idea of how lousy that is, 1-month U.S. T-bills returned 4.9% over the same period.” See How missing out on 25 days in the stock market over 45 years costs you dearly.

The challenge of timing the market is capturing the best days. However, Nobel laureate William Sharpe “found that market timers must be right an incredible 82% of the time just to match the returns realized by buy-and-hold investors.” See Why you should stay in the stock market.

Are you that lucky?

“No.”

“Oh no, China is a total mess, this time is different, I’m am getting out of stocks forever” – a.k.a., attempting predict the future

True, the slowing of the Chinese economy is causing economic problems worldwide. But, in terms of the impact on stock markets worldwide, that is not dramatically different from the 1987 crash, only then it was Japan.

“Yes, but my friends are selling stocks …”

Did you know that the individual investor is a contrary indicator for the stock market?

“What does that mean?”

Historically, when individual investors are selling, that is a market low, a good time to invest. Similarly, when individual investors are putting everything into the stock market, that is a market peak and a time to sell the over-priced stocks.

By the time you realize that you are mistaken, you will have missed much needed performance. For emphasis, consider this:

From 1990 to 2005 a $10,000 investment would have grown to $51,354 had you just sat tight from beginning to end. However, if you had missed the best 10 days in that 15-year period, your returns would have dwindled to $31,994; if you had missed the best 30 days, you’d be looking at a mere $15,730. Why you should stay in the stock market.

Oh no, investing is too risky, I put my savings in cash” a.k.a., thinking short-term, another argument for going to cash

he stock market has to be risky, otherwise there would be no reward for investing.

“But I like cash!”

Cash is not volatile, but it is still “risky” – the return on cash – the interest earned – is less than the rate of inflation. Over time, investing only in cash puts you far behind, while long-term investing reduces the risks of stocks. The key is, you have to withstand the downturns to gain from the upturns:

A study by SEI Investments reviewed all the bear markets since World War II. According to the study, reported in The Wall Street Journal, stocks rose an average of 32.5% in the 12 months following the bear-market bottom. Yet, if you missed the bottom by just a week, that return fell to 24.3%. Waiting three months after the market turned cut your gain to less than 15%. Why you should stay in the stock market.

“Oh no, I need money to buy a house” – a.k.a., having the wrong investment strategy

What was your short-term investment doing in the market in the first place?

“I need my money to double so I can buy my dream house!”

Sorry, if you need that much then your dream is wrong.

For the stock market, anything less than 5 years is “short term.” If you have money set aside for a vacation, new car or other major purchase, like a house, those funds need to be invested more conservatively, taking less risk. Otherwise, while you could double your money in a couple of years, you could also end up with much less.

“Oh yes!” a.k.a., the conclusion, an important message – don’t forget it:

After watching investors for several decades, I know this to be true: you must create a good investment strategy and stick to it for it to work.

Even if do not have an optimum strategy, your investments will perform far better than someone who keeps altering their strategy.

“But the fund I have didn’t do as well as another fund last year, so I am selling ….”

Chasing after the last year’s star mutual fund usually works out poorly. You sell your current fund, paying fees and taxes, to buy the star fund, only to watch its performance return to the mean. Disappointed, you then sell the new star fund to chase another star performer, only repeat the same mistake with fees and taxes. After you repeat this a few times, you could end up with negative returns while someone who simply a bought and held a mediocre fund will have substantial gains.

If your investment strategy is better than mediocre, and it includes stocks, stick with it!

“Okay, I will.”

Good, the future you, sitting on a beach sipping drinks with paper umbrellas, will be so glad you did!