Category Archives: Monthly Financial Tips

Tips for retiring into a bear market

You’re approaching that long-awaited day when you can say goodbye to full-time employment. But you’ve been listening to the dire predictions of financial pundits. Not exactly encouraging stuff. Should you continue to plug along at work and ride out the storm? Or should you retire as planned, even if the market’s headed for a significant downturn?

Tough questions. Unfortunately, there’s not a one-size-fits-all answer.

Take a deep breath. Forget about the stuff you can’t control: the stock market, interest rates, government programs, the world economy… etc. One of the biggest hazards of retiring into a declining market is “sequence of returns” risk. That’s the problem of taking withdrawals — especially early in retirement — from a portfolio that’s headed in the wrong direction. Once shares are sold, fewer shares are available to profit from future market recoveries.

Nevertheless, you can take steps to cushion the transition even when retirement accounts are performing poorly. Here are four suggestions:

  • Think about pulling funds from other assets. If you have cash in “buffer accounts,” tap those sources first. If not, consider reverse mortgage or home equity lines of credit. Both may have significant upfront costs, but establishing a line of credit early in retirement can help you defer substantial withdrawals from your retirement accounts.
  • Consider selling your house and moving. Many people find that retirement is a great time to downsize and move to a less-expensive location. Proceeds from the sale can provide enough cash to cover expenses as you wait for the market to recover.
  • Set a realistic budget. Don’t just guess what you’ll need. Do the math. Establish the habit of living within your means, before and after you leave your job.
  • Seek professional help. A financial advisor can help you map out a plan for your golden years.

3 investment blunders everyone should avoid

Whether you’re a seasoned investor or new to the game, you’ll want to make a conscious effort to avoid these three common investment mistakes:

  • Relying on emotions. According to Essentia Analytics, behavioral scientists have studied biases that shown to drive investment choices. For example, you might fall into anchoring bias. That’s the irrational decision to hold on to something — a stock, a car, a piece of information — just because you already own it. Or there’s recency bias, which involves the tendency to lean more heavily on recent investment performance when considering future returns. This type of bias can unduly impact investment decisions as people approach retirement.

    One idea to skirt such emotional hazards may be to place investment contributions on autopilot and readjust portfolios annually to align with long-term goals.

  • Taking or avoiding risk. You might pack your investment portfolio with individual stocks that have performed well in recent years. Unfortunately, if stock in one of these companies takes a dive, your retirement account may never recover. On the other hand, if you’re too averse to risk, inflation may eat up the purchasing power of your money as it languishes in low-interest accounts. To avoid such pitfalls, many people consider investing in a few well-diversified low-cost mutual funds to allow money to grow without undue risk.
  • Not investing at all. If you live only for today and don’t save enough for retirement, you’ll likely struggle to meet expenses later. The good news: Because of compounding returns, the earlier you start saving, the less you may need to save. And if your employer provides matching contributions to your retirement account, take full advantage.

Keep track of your digital assets during estate planning

An important step in estate planning is creating an inventory of your assets. Your executor, or the person you designate in your will to carry out your last wishes, uses the inventory to make sure all of your property passes to your heirs.

It’s likely that some of your assets exist in digital form. Documenting your digital assets along with your physical belongings can help ensure your final wishes are honored and your estate is administered correctly.

Here are a few items to keep in mind as you compile a list of your digital assets:

  • Create a list of passwords. In order to review financial accounts with banks, brokerages or other businesses, your executor will need your current passwords. If you protect passwords with additional encrypted apps, include the master access info.

    Most importantly, keep your list updated when you change passwords.

  • Be comprehensive. Add URLs, usernames and passwords for non-financial accounts (such as your email and online storage sites) to your inventory. Why? These accounts can be essential for retrieving invoices, statements and other paperwork for which you’ve chosen electronic-only delivery.
  • Don’t forget device access. The physical assets you use to access your digital data include your phone, tablet and computer. That means your executor will need passwords and file names to access those devices. Also, list the location and encryption information for offsite or standalone storage devices, like external drives.

When it comes to planning, keeping track of your online assets can be vital. Call Carl Heinemann, your Chattanooga CPA,  if you have questions how your assets may be affected by state and federal estate tax laws.

Health Savings Accounts: Know your options

Should you open a Health Savings Account (HSA)? Not surprisingly, the answer depends on many factors. For instance, if you’re in good health and can afford a high-deductible insurance policy, HSAs may offer significant advantages. Think about the following as you consider an HSA:

The plus side

  • HSAs can reduce your tax bill. You contribute pre-tax dollars, the money grows tax-free, and you make tax-free withdrawals for qualified medical expenses.
  • HSAs can lower health insurance premiums. Because HSAs work in tandem with high-deductible health plans (HDHPs), premiums are generally lower. That’s because you, rather than the insurer, cover more of the costs until the deductible is met.
  • HSAs can bolster retirement investments. ASome HSAs allow you to invest in mutual funds after the account balance reaches a certain threshold. Because the balances accrue (unlike Flexible Spending Accounts that require you to spend the funds annually), an HSA can grow over time.

Possible pitfalls

  • Changing insurers can be risky. If you or a family member suffers from a chronic health condition, switching to an insurance company with a high-deductible policy may not be feasible or advisable.
  • Out-of-pocket costs will likely increase. The upfront costs of a high deductible can sting. For 2018, the insurance deductible for a family must be at least $2,700 to qualify for an HSA. Although your insurance may cover routine preventative care, you’ll be on the hook for most medical costs until the deductible is met at the start of each coverage year.
  • Withdrawal options may be limited. If you withdraw funds for non-qualified expenses before age 65, you’ll be hit with a 20 percent penalty in addition to regular income taxes.

Bottom line? If you have the financial resources to cover out-of-pocket healthcare costs, an HSA can be a great tax-advantaged tool. Just be sure to compare the benefits and pitfalls alongside your own situation.

5 essential steps to becoming debt-free

Americans hold more than $1 trillion in credit card debt and over twice that much in loans, according to the Federal Reserve. After mortgages, student loans are the second largest source of debt, and auto loans aren’t far behind. It’s no wonder many Americans have almost nothing set aside for emergencies or retirement.

Fortunately, you don’t have to be part of this trend. One recent survey found that more than 25 percent of Americans are living debt-free. It’s not an impossible dream. Of course, getting there will take discipline and a specific strategy. Here’s a starter plan for getting out of debt once and for all:

1. Know what you owe. Go to the websites of your lenders and card issuers. Identify your outstanding balances, interest rates and minimum monthly payments. Copy the information to a spreadsheet or piece of paper. Post the figures above your desk or on your refrigerator. Update the balances as they’re paid down.

2. Craft a plan. Develop a strategy for liquidating those accounts. You might opt for paying off high-interest cards first or focus on balances you can get rid of quickly. Do whatever works to maintain momentum.

3. Stop borrowing. Summer’s here. Will you splurge for a tropical vacation using credit cards? Bolster your odds of becoming financially independent by paying cash, even if that means going with a cheaper option.

4. Prepare for emergencies. Make a concerted effort to build up a rainy-day fund with enough cash to cover at least three months of expenses. An emergency stash will help you steer clear of debt when the unexpected happens.

5. Learn to budget. Besides loan and credit card payments, you need to buy groceries, put gas in the car and keep the electricity on. So it’s important to monitor cash flow. Understanding and documenting regular income and expenses can help you gauge progress toward your financial goals.

Traditional and Roth IRAs: What changed?

If you want a tax-advantaged retirement account outside your employer’s plan, you have two main options: a traditional IRA or a Roth IRA. You may prefer one over the other, depending on your short-term savings goals, years until retirement and assumptions about future tax rates.

Traditional IRA vs. Roth IRA basics

You can generally deduct contributions to a traditional IRA, which lowers your tax bill. On the other hand, with a Roth IRA, you pay taxes upfront. So you may have to earn $7,500 pre-tax to sock away the annual maximum of $5,500 in a Roth IRA.

With a traditional IRA, taxes are deferred. When you’re retired and withdraw money, it’s counted as regular income and taxed accordingly. However, with a Roth IRA you’re generally allowed to make tax-free withdrawals in retirement. That means that if you expect to be in a higher tax bracket in the future, a Roth IRA may make the most sense.

Roth recharacterizations: a thing of the past?

When Roth IRAs were originally created in the late 1990s, Congress provided a way to move or “convert” funds from a traditional IRA to a Roth account. Although taxpayers had to pay taxes on the amount converted, some considered the future benefit of tax-free withdrawals preferable to the current benefit of tax-deferred contributions. Congress also let taxpayers change their mind about Roth conversions, and “recharacterize” them back to traditional IRA accounts.

But the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act signed last year eliminated the ability to reverse a Roth conversion using the recharacterization process as of Jan. 1, 2018.

There is some wiggle room left to undo Roth conversions made during 2017, if you complete the recharacterization by Oct. 15, 2018.

Retirement planning can get complicated. If you’d like help evaluating your tax-advantaged account options, give Carl Heinemann, your Chattanooga CPA, a call.

The pros and cons of paying off credit cards with a HELOC

According to a 2017 American household credit card debt study, the average American household with credit card debt has a balance exceeding $15,000. If this sounds all too familiar, you may consider consolidating several balances into a single home equity line of credit, or HELOC. Here are the pros and cons of this approach:

Pros:

  • Interest rates tend to be lower. A HELOC is based on your home equity, the difference between the value of your home and your outstanding mortgage. Because a HELOC is secured by your home (your house becomes collateral for the debt), a lender takes on less risk and may offer a variable line of credit at a substantially lower rate than you’ll get with an unsecured credit card.
  • It’s easier to manage payments. By paying off credit card balances using a single HELOC, you may find it easier to keep track of monthly due dates. No more late payment fees because you missed one.

Cons:

  • Your home is on the line. By pooling your credit card balances into a single line of credit, you’re not getting rid of debt — you’re trading one form of debt for another. If you fail to make payments on time, lenders can foreclose on your house.
  • Setting up a HELOC can be expensive. Depending on the financial institution, fees for setting up a home equity line of credit may approach the closing costs on a home purchase.

Before signing up for a HELOC, research all your options for consolidating and/or liquidating high credit card balances. For example, you might use the “snowball method” to pay off low balance credit cards first or implement a 3-year plan to settle your debts.

Regardless of the method you choose, taking steps to modify poor spending habits is often the smartest way to climb out of credit card debt and secure a debt-free financial future.

Tapping your retirement account early? Consider these factors

Ideally, you should try not to tap your 401(k) or IRA accounts before it’s time to retire. But life happens. In certain situations, you may need to withdraw a portion of your nest egg while you’re still working full time. Here are three scenarios where this may be the case — and possible alternatives to avoid tapping your retirement accounts too soon:

You’re drowning in high-interest debt. Your retirement plan may allow for a 401(k) loan that can be used to pay off expensive credit card accounts. Although the loan is paid back to your own account (paying yourself the interest), this solution has some disadvantages. For one thing, money that’s withdrawn from your 401(k) account isn’t available for long-term growth. Also, should you lose your job, the loan may become due immediately.

If you can’t settle the debt right away, you may be subject to a 10 percent early withdrawal penalty and regular income taxes on the outstanding loan balance. Consider paying off debts using other funding sources as it may be a more prudent solution.

You’re facing foreclosure on your home. The hit to your credit score can be devastating if you default on a mortgage. But, again, using your retirement nest egg should be considered a last resort. You may be better off working with your lender to revamp your mortgage. Consider extending the term or renegotiating the interest rate to reduce monthly payments.

You’re heading back to college. If you need to retool for a new career, the IRS allows you to make penalty-free withdrawals from your IRA accounts before age 59½ if the money is applied toward higher education expenses. But be aware that the same rules do not apply to 401(k) accounts. If you haven’t reached age 59½ and use funds from a 401(k) to cover college expenses, early withdrawal penalties and income taxes may apply.

The best way to avoid penalties is to understand the rules around retirement account withdrawals. Give us a call to learn more about tax penalties you may face if you withdraw funds early from retirement accounts. Carl Heinemann, your Chattanooga CPA, can help you create the best plan for your situation.

How to slash student loan debt

Obtaining a legitimate college degree is an expensive proposition. According to a recent Edvisors education survey, the average college student graduates with $35,000 in student loan debt. And that’s not counting people who attend graduate school. Many will be paying off student loans — month after month, year after year — for decades.

The good news? With smart financial management, graduates can liquidate their college debt in a reasonable time, freeing up cash for other priorities. Here are four tips for paying off loans quickly and efficiently:

  • Create a budget. Get a handle on where money is going. A budget can help prioritize, enabling you or your child to whittle down student loans more quickly. Several online tools are available. You can even use a simple spreadsheet listing monthly income and expenses.
  • Ask your employer. Your company or your child’s company may offer one-time loan payoffs in exchange for a lower starting wage or other concessions. Negotiate when interviewing. After taking a job, check with the human resources department about options.
  • Sign up for auto-deductions. Reducing payment steps makes it less likely to divert those funds to lesser priorities. As an added bonus, you or your child may develop the discipline to live on less while loans are being paid off.
  • Reduce your other bills. Talk to your cell phone provider. Postpone that expensive vacation. Hold off on the latest-and-greatest electronics. Instead, prioritize student loan payments. It’ll be worth it when you or your child can enjoy the benefits of a rising salary, increased cash flow and a stellar credit score in a few years from now.

Don’t forget to take advantage of possible education tax credits and deductions. Give Carl Heinemann, your Chattanooga CPA, a call for help determining what tax breaks are right for you.

When fully funding your 401(k) isn’t the best option

Maxing out contributions to your company’s 401(k) plan is almost always a good idea. After all, when you contribute to a traditional 401(k) plan, your current tax bill is lowered. You aren’t taxed on contributions until the money is withdrawn in retirement, allowing your investments to compound tax-free until then. And if your employer matches a percentage of your contributions, you get an immediate return on investment. These are all good reasons to make regular contributions your 401(k) plan.

But sometimes forgoing 401(k) contributions, at least for a while, is the more prudent choice. Consider these three scenarios:

  1. You haven’t established an emergency fund. The rule of thumb is to have enough cash readily available to cover six months of expenses. Otherwise, unexpected events such as job losses, medical emergencies, or personal crises may force you into excessive debt. You may find yourself paying off high-interest credit cards or personal loans long after the misfortune is over, which will set you back in your plans to save for retirement. So, before maxing out 401(k) contributions, set aside enough money from each paycheck to protect yourself with an emergency fund.
  2. You’re laboring under a load of debt. A few hundred dollars on credit cards is no big deal. But high-interest balances of several thousand or tens of thousands of dollars may be cause for concern. It’s usually better to pay off some or all of those balances before contributing extra to a 401(k).
  3. Your company’s investment options are limited. Any matching contribution your company offers should be considered free money. But beyond the company match, survey other places to park your retirement money such as a Roth IRA or indexed mutual fund. Your company may offer funds invested in large-cap American companies exclusively. To diversify your portfolio, look outside your firm’s 401(k) plan for additional investment choices, such as emerging market or international funds that may garner higher returns over time.

Bottom line? Save regularly for retirement, but take a hard look at your overall financial situation before maxing out contributions to your company’s 401(k) plan.