Everything you need to know about your Target Retirement Fund

Everything you need to know about your Target Retirement Fund

Target Retirement Funds are a popular investment option in many workplace retirement plans such as 401k, 403b, 457, and TSP. They offer a relatively simple and straightforward way to invest your retirement savings as their investment approach is based on the individual target retirement dates.

Nowadays, almost all employers and 401k providers offer target retirement funds – from Fidelity to Vanguard, American Funds, Blackrock, and Schwab. Although employers and advisors have a choice amongst several fund families, they will typically select one of them for their plan. Multiple target fund families are readily available in individual brokerage accounts or self-directed IRAs.

Workplace plan participants typically have to choose one fund from a single family with target retirement dates in 5-year increments – 2025, 2030, 2035, 2040, 2045, and 2050. Often, plans with auto-enrollment features will automatically assign a target retirement fund based on the estimated year of retirement. Manual enrollment programs will have the fund series in their fund line-up, which could consist of a mix of index, actively managed and target retirement funds.

The base assumption of the target retirement funds is that younger investors have a long investment horizon and higher risk tolerance, therefore, they should have their target retirement assets in more risky investments such as stocks. Inversely, older investors will have a shorter investment horizon and lower risk tolerance. Therefore, the majority of their target retirement money will be in more low-risk investments such as bonds.

Despite their growing popularity, target retirement funds have some limitations and are not identical.  They have substantial differences that may not always appeal to everybody. In this post, I would like to explain some of those nuances.

Style

Target funds utilize two main investment styles – passive indexing and active management. Passive Target Retirement Funds like Vanguard and BlackRock LifePath primarily invest in a mix of index funds. The second groups including T. Rowe Price, Fidelity, American Century, and American Funds pursue an active strategy where investments are allocated in a mix of active mutual funds typically managed by the same firm.

Fees

The fund investment style will often impact the management fees charged by each fund. Passive funds tend to charge lower fees, usually around 0.15% – 0.20%. On the other hand, active funds typically range between 0.40% – 1%.

Name Ticker Morningstar Rating Morningstar Analyst Rating AUM Expense
Vanguard Target Retirement 2045 VTIVX 4-star Gold $18.1 bil 0.16%
T. Rowe Price Retirement 2045 TRRKX 5-Star Silver $10.2 bil 0.76%
American Funds 2045 Trgt Date Retire R6 RFHTX 5-Star Silver $4.8 bil 0.43%
Fidelity Freedom® 2045 FFFGX 3-Star Silver $3.5 bil 0.77%
American Century One Choice 2045 AROIX 4-star Bronze $1.7 bil 0.97%

If you have any doubts about how much you pay for your fund, double-check with your plan administrator or Human Resource. Not to sound alarming but I recently read about a case where a 401k plan contained a fund listed as “Vngd Tgt Retrmt 2045 Fund.” whose sole investment was Vanguard Target Retirement 2045 Fund. However, instead of charging an expense ratio of 0.16%, the fund was taking a whopping 0.92%.  The only purpose of this sham is to deceive participants into believing they are investing in the real Vanguard fund and marking up the expense ratio exponentially.

Asset allocation

The asset allocation is the most critical factor for investment performance. According to numerous studies, it contributes to more than 90% of the portfolio return.  As a factor of such significance, it is essential to understand the asset allocation of your target retirement fund.

While comparing five of the largest target retirement families, we see some considerable variations between them. Vanguard has the highest allocation to Foreign Equity, while T. Rowe has the largest investment in US Equity. Fidelity has the highest allocation to Cash and Cash Equivalents while American Century has the biggest exposure to Bonds. And lastly, American Funds has the largest distribution to Other, which includes Preferred Stocks and Convertible Bonds.

 

2045 Series 

Name Ticker Cash US Stock Non-US Stock Bond Other
Vanguard Target Retirement 2045 VTIVX   1.11      52.98         34.91     9.77   1.23
T. Rowe Price Retirement 2045 TRRKX   2.87      58.98         28.48     9.05   0.62
American Funds 2045 Trgt Date Retire R6 RFHTX   3.66      53.21         29.02     9.77   4.34
Fidelity Freedom® 2045 FFFGX   5.79      57.58         32.07     3.93   0.63
American Century One Choice 2045 AROIX   2.04      55.38         20.32   21.36   0.90

It is also important to understand how the target asset allocation changes over time as investors approach retirement. This change is known as the glide path. In the below table you can see the asset allocation of the 2025 target fund series. All of them have a higher allocation to Bonds, Cash and Cash Equivalents, and a lower allocation of US and Foreign Equity.

2025 Series

Name Ticker Cash US Stock Non-US Stock Bond Other
Vanguard Target Retirement 2025 VTIVX   1.44      38.05         25.09   34.30   1.12
T. Rowe Price Retirement 2025 Fund TRRHX   3.35      45.64         22.06   28.23   0.72
American Funds 2025 Trgt Date Retire R6 RFDTX   4.12      39.60         19.36   33.65   3.27
Fidelity Freedom® 2025 FFTWX   8.99      41.70         24.31   24.46   0.54
American Century One Choice 2025 ARWIX   7.18      40.01         11.88   40.01   0.92

 

 Keep in mind that the target Asset Allocation is not static. Moreover, the fund managers can change the fund allocation according to their view of the market and economic conditions.

Performance

After all said and done, the performance is what matters for most investors and retirees. However, comparing performance between different target funds can be a little tricky. As you saw in the previous paragraph, they are not the same.

So let’s first look at a comparison between different target-date funds from the same family. The return figures represent a net-of-fees performance for 3, 5 and 10 years. Standard Deviation (St. Dev) measures the volatility (risk) of returns.  As expected, the long-dated funds posted higher returns over the near-dated funds. However, the long-dated funds come with higher volatility due to their higher allocation to equities.

 

Target Date Performance Comparison by Target Year

Return Standard Deviation
Name Ticker 3-Year 5-Year 10-Year 3-Year 5-Year 10-Year
American Funds 2025 Trgt Date Retire R6 RFDTX    5.71     9.36      5.88    6.78     7.48    12.83
American Funds 2035 Trgt Date Retire R6 RFFTX    6.73   10.43      6.44    8.70     8.84    13.81
American Funds 2045 Trgt Date Retire R6 RFHTX    6.99   10.67      6.56    9.09     9.10    13.96
American Funds 2055 Trgt Date Retire R6 RFKTX    7.33   11.32    9.13     9.15

 

The comparison between different fund families also reveals significant variations in performance. The majority of these differences can be attributed to their asset allocation, investment selection, and management fees.

Target Date Performance Comparison by Fund Family

Return     Standard Deviation
Name Ticker 3-Year 5-Year 10-Year 3-Year 5-Year 10-Year
Vanguard Target Retirement 2045 VTIVX    6.24     9.50      5.70    9.42     9.51    14.63
T. Rowe Price Retirement 2045 TRRKX    6.54     9.92      6.20    9.68     9.80    15.80
American Funds 2045 Trgt Date Retire R6 RFHTX    6.99   10.67      6.56    9.09     9.10    13.96
Fidelity Freedom® 2045 FFFGX    6.50     8.95      4.82    9.83     9.64    15.25
American Century One Choice 2045 AROIX    5.79     8.63      5.73    8.38     8.41    13.50

How they fit with your financial goals

How the target retirement fund fit within your financial goals is an important nuance that often gets underestimated by many. Target retirement funds assume the investors’ risk tolerance based on their age and the estimated year of retirement. Older investors will automatically be assigned as conservative while they could be quite aggressive if this is a part of their inter-generational estate planning. Further, young investors default to an aggressive allocation while they could be more conservative due to significant short-term financial goals. So keep in mind that the extra layer of personal financial planning is not a factor in target retirement funds.

 

Final words

Target retirement funds come with many benefits. They offer an easy way to invest for retirement without the need for in-depth financial knowledge. Target funds come in different shapes and forms and bring certain caveats which may appeal to some investors and not to others. If you plan to invest in a target retirements fund, the five questions above will help you decide if this is the right investment for you.

6 Essential steps to diversify your portfolio

6 Essential steps to diversify your portfolio

Diversification is often considered the only free lunch in investing. In one of my earlier blog posts, I talked about the practical benefits of diversification. I explained the concept of investing in uncorrelated asset classes and how it reduces the overall risk of the investments.  In this article, I will walk you through 6 essential steps to diversify your portfolio.

1. Know your risk tolerance

Risk tolerance is a measure of your emotional appetite to take on risk. It is the ability to endure volatility in the marketplace without making any emotional and spur of the moment investment decisions. Individual risk tolerance is often influenced by factors like age, investment experience, and various life circumstances.

Undoubtedly, your risk tolerance can change over time. Certain life events can affect your ability to bear market volatility. You should promptly reflect these changes in your portfolio risk profile as they happen.

2. Understand your risk capacity

Often your willingness and actual capacity to take on risk can be in conflict with each other. You may want to take more risk than you can afford. And inversely, you could be away too conservative while you need to be a bit more aggressive.

Factors like the size of savings and investment assets, investment horizon, and financial goals will determine the individual risk capacity.

3. Set a target asset allocation

Achieving the right balance between your financial goals and risk tolerance will determine the target investment mix of your portfolio. Typically, investors with higher risk tolerance will invest in assets with a higher risk-return profile.

These asset classes often include small-cap, deep value, and emerging market stocks, high-yield bonds, REITs, commodities and various hedge fund and private equity strategies. Investors will lower risk tolerance will look for safer investments like government and corporate bonds, dividends and low volatility stocks.

In order to achieve the highest benefit from diversification, investors must allocate a portion of their portfolio to uncorrelated asset classes. These investments have a historical low dependence on each other’s returns.

The US Large Cap stocks and US Treasury Bonds are the classic examples of uncorrelated assets. Historically, they have a negative correlation of -0.21. Therefore, the pairs tend to move in opposite direction over time. US Treasuries are considered a safe haven during bear markets, while large cap stocks are the investors’ favorite during strong bull markets.

See the table below for correlation examples between various asset classes.

Asset Correlation Chart
Source: Portfoliovisualizer.com

4. Reduce your concentrated positions

There is a high chance that you already have an established investment portfolio, either in an employer-sponsored retirement plan, self-directed IRA or a brokerage account.

If you own a security that represents more than 5% of your entire portfolio, then you have a concentrated position. Regularly, individuals and families may acquire these positions through employer 401k plan matching, stock awards, stock options, inheritance, gifts or just personal investing.

The risk of having a concentrated position is that it can drag your portfolio down significantly if the investment has a bad year or the company has a broken business model. Consequently, you can lose a substantial portion of your investments and retirement savings.

Managing concentrated positions can be complicated. Often, they have restrictions on insider trading. And other times, they sit on significant capital gains that can trigger large tax dues to IRS if sold.

5. Rebalance regularly

Portfolio rebalancing is the process of bringing your portfolio back to the original target allocation. As your investments grow at a different rate, they will start to deviate from their original target allocation. This is very normal. Sometimes certain investments can have a long run until they become significantly overweight in your portfolio. Other times an asset class might have a bad year, lose a lot of its value and become underweight.

Adjusting to your target mix will ensure that your portfolio fits your risk tolerance, investment horizon, and financial goals. Not adjusting it may lead to increasing the overall investment risk and exposure to certain asset classes.

6. Focus on your long-term goals

When managing a client portfolio, I apply a balanced, disciplined, long-term approach that focuses on the client’s long-term financial goals.

Sometimes we all get tempted to invest in the newest “hot” stock or the “best” investment strategy ignoring the fact that they may not fit with our financial goals and risk tolerance.

If you are about to retire, you probably don’t want to put all your investments in a new biotech company or tech startup. While these stocks offer great potential returns, they come with an extra level of volatility that your portfolio may not bear. And so regularly, taking a risk outside of your comfort zone is a recipe for disaster. Even if you are right the first time, there is no guarantee you will be right the second time.

Keeping your portfolio well diversified will let you endure through turbulent times and help your investments grow over time by reducing the overall risk of your investments.

About the author: Stoyan Panayotov, CFA is a fee-only financial advisor based in Walnut Creek, CA. His firm Babylon Wealth Management offers fiduciary investment management and financial planning services to individuals and families.

 

Disclaimer: Past performance does not guarantee future performance. Nothing in this article should be construed as a solicitation or offer, or recommendation, to buy or sell any security. The content of this article is a sole opinion of the author and Babylon Wealth Management. The opinion and information provided are only valid at the time of publishing this article. Investing in these asset classes may not be appropriate for your investment portfolio. If you decide to invest in any of the instruments discussed in the posting, you have to consider your risk tolerance, investment objectives, asset allocation and overall financial situation. Different investors have different financial circumstances, and not all recommendations apply to everybody. Seek advice from your investment advisor before proceeding with any investment decisions. Various sources may provide different figures due to variations in methodology and timing, Copyright: www.123rf.com

14 Effective ways to take control of your taxes

In this blog post, I will go over several popular and some not so obvious tax deductions and strategies that can help you decrease your annual tax burden. Let’s be honest.  Nobody wants to pay taxes. However, taxes are necessary to pay for pensions, social services, Medicaid, roads, police, law enforcement and so on. Most people will earn a higher income and grow their investments portfolios as their approach retirement. Thus they will gradually move to higher tax brackets and face a higher tax bill at the end of the year. IRS provides many tax deductions and breaks that can help you manage your tax burden. Taking advantage of these tax rules can help you reduce your current or future your tax bill.

These are general rules. I realize that we all face different circumstances. Use them as a broad guideline. Your particular situation may require a second opinion by an accountant, a tax lawyer or an investment advisor.

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1. Primary residence mortgage deductions

Buying a first home is a big decision. Your new neighborhood, school district, nearby services are all critical factors you need to consider before making your choice. If you own a primary residence (sorry, a vacation home in Hawaii doesn’t count), you can deduct the interest on your mortgage loan from your taxable income for the year. Your property taxes are also deductible. These incentives are provided by the Federal and state governments to encourage more families to buy their home.

There are two additional benefits of having a mortgage and being a responsible borrower. First, your credit score will increase. Making regular payments on your mortgage (or any loan) improves your credit history, increases your FICO score and boosts your creditworthiness. Your ability to take future loans at a lower rate will significantly improve. Second, your personal equity (wealth) will increase as you pay off your mortgage loan. Your personal equity is a measure of assets minus your liabilities.  Higher equity will boost your credit score. It is also a significant factor in your retirement planning.

Buying a home and applying for a mortgage is a long and tedious process. It requires a lot of legwork and documentation. After the financial crisis in 2008 banks became a lot stricter in their requirements for providing mortgage loans to first buyers. Nevertheless, mortgage interest on a primary residence is one of the biggest tax breaks available to taxpayers.

 

2. Home office deductions

Owning a home versus renting is a dilemma for many young professionals. While paying rent offers flexibility and lower monthly cash payments it doesn’t allow you to deduct your rent from your taxes. Rent is usually the highest expense in your monthly budget. It makes up between 25% and 35% of your total income. The only time you can apply your rent as a tax deduction is if you have a home office.

A home office is a dedicated space in your apartment or house to use for the sole purpose of conduction your private business. It’s usually a separate room, basement or attic designated for your business purposes.

The portion of your office to the total size of your home can be deductible for business purposes. If your office takes 20% of your home, you can deduct 20% of the rent and utility bills for business expense purposes.

 

3. Charitable donations

Monetary and non-monetary contributions to religious, educational or charitable organization approved by IRS are tax deductible. The annual limit is 50% of your AGI (aggregate gross income) for most donations and 30% of AGI for appreciated assets.

Most often people choose to give money. However, you can also donate household items, clothes, cars, and airline miles. The fair value of the donated items decreases your taxable income and therefore will reduce the amount of taxes due to IRS.

Another alternative is giving appreciated assets including stocks and real estate. This is one of the best ways to avoid paying significant capital gain tax on low-cost investments. For one, you are supporting a noble cause. Second, you are not paying taxes for the difference between the market value and purchase cost of your stock. Also, the fair market value of the stock at the time of donation will reduce your taxable income, subject to 30% of AGI rule. If you were to sell your appreciated assets and donate the proceeds to your charity of choice, you would have to pay a capital gain tax on the difference between market value and acquisition cost at the time of sale. However, if you donate the investments directly to the charity, you avoid paying the tax and use the market value of the investment to reduce your taxable income.

 

4. Gifts

Making a gift is not a standard tax deduction. However, making gifts can be a way to manage your future tax payments and pass on the tax bill to family members who pay a lower tax rate. You can give up to $14,000 to any number of people every year without any tax implications. Amounts over $14,000 are subject to the combined gift and estate tax exemption of $5.49 million for 2017.  You can give your child or any person within the annual limits without creating create any tax implications.

Another great opportunity is giving appreciated assets as a gift. If you want to give your children or grandchildren a gift, it is always wise to consider between giving them cash or an appreciated asset directly.  Giving appreciated assets to family members who pay a lower tax rate doesn’t create an immediate tax event. It transfers the tax burden from the higher rate tax giver to the lower tax rate receiver.

 

5. 529 Plans

One of the best examples of how gifts can minimize future tax payments is the 529 college tuition plan. Parents and grandparents can contribute up to $14,000 annually per person, $28,000 per married couple into their child college education fund. The plan even allows a one–time lump sum payment of $70,000 (5 years x $14,000).

529 contributions are not tax deductible on a federal level. However, many states like New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, etc. allow for state tax deductions up to a certain amount. The plan allows your contributions (gifts) to grow tax-free. Withdrawals are also tax-free when using the money to pay qualified college expenses.

 

6. Tax-deferred contributions to 401k, 403b, and IRA

One of my favorite tax deductions is the tax-deferred contribution to 401k and 403b plans. In 2017 the allowed maximum contribution per person is $18,000 plus an additional $6,000 catch-up for investors at age 50 and older. In addition to that, your employer can contribute up to $36,000 for a total annual contribution of $54,000 or $60,000 if you are older than 50.

Most companies offer a matching contribution of 5%-6% of your salary and dollar limit of $4,000 – $5,000. At a very minimum, you should contribute enough to take advantage of your company matching plan. However, I strongly recommend you to set aside the entire allowed annual contribution.

The contributions to your retirement plan are tax deductible. They decrease your taxable income if you use itemized deductions on your tax filing form. Not only that, the investments in your 401k portfolio grow tax-free. You will owe taxes upon withdrawal at your current tax rate at that time.

If you invest $18,000 for 30 years, a total of $540,000 contributions, your portfolio can potentially rise to $1.5m in 30 years at 6% growth rate. You will benefit from the accumulative return on your assets year after year.  Your investments will grow depending on your risk tolerance and asset allocation. You will be able to withdraw your money at once or periodically when you retire.

 

7. Commuter benefits

You are allowed to use tax-free dollars to pay for transit commuting and parking costs through your employer-sponsored program.  For 2017, you can save up to $255 per month per person for transit expenses and up to $255 per month for qualified parking. Qualified parking is defined as parking at or near an employer’s worksite, or at a facility from which employee commutes via transit, vanpool or carpool. You can receive both the transit and parking benefits.

If you regularly commute to work by a bike you are eligible for $20 of tax-free reimbursement per month.

By maximizing the monthly limit for both transportation and parking expenses, your annual cost will be $6,120 ($255*2*12). If you are in the 28% tax bracket, by using the commuter benefits program, you will save $1,714 per year. Your total out of pocket expenses will be $ 4,406 annually and $367 per month.

 

8. Employer-sponsored health insurance premiums

The medical insurance plan sponsored by your employer offers discounted premiums for one or several health plans.  If you are self-employed and not eligible for an employer-sponsored health plan through your spouse or domestic partner, you may be able to deduct your health insurance premiums.  With the rising costs of health care having a health insurance is almost mandatory.  Employer-sponsored health insurance premiums can average between $2,000 for a single person and 5,000 for a family per year. At a 28% tax rate, this is equal to savings between $560 and $1,400. Apart from the tax savings, having a health insurance allows you to have medical services at discounted prices, previously negotiated by your health insurance company. In the case of emergency, the benefits can significantly outweigh the cost of your insurance premium.

 

9. Flexible Spending Account

Flexible Spending Account (FSA) is a special tax-advantaged account where you put money aside to pay for certain out-of-pocket health care costs. You don’t pay taxes on these contributions. This means you will save an amount equal to the taxes you would have paid on the money you set aside. The annual limit per person is $2,600. For a married couple, the amount can double to $5,200. The money in this account can be used for copayments, new glasses, prescription medications and other medical and dental expenses not covered by your insurance.  FSA accounts are arranged and managed by your employer and subtracted from your paycheck.

Let’s assume that you are contributing the full amount of $2,600 per year and your tax rate is 28%. You effectively save $728 from taxes, $2,550 * 28%. Your actual out-of-pocket expense is $1,872.

One drawback of the FSA is that you must use the entire amount in the same tax year. Otherwise, you can lose your savings. Some employers may allow up to 2.5 months of grace period or $500 of rollover in the next year. With that in mind, if you plan for significant medical expenses, medication purchases or surgery, the FSA is a great way to make some savings.

 

10. Health Spending Account

A health savings account (HSA) is a tax-exempt medical savings account available to taxpayers who are enrolled in a high-deductible health plan (HDHP) The funds contributed to this account are not subject to federal income tax at the time of deposit. Unlike a flexible spending account (FSA), HSA funds roll over and accumulate year over year if not spent. HSA owners can use the funds to pay for qualified medical expenses at any time without tax liability or penalty. The annual contribution limits are $3,350 per person, $6,750 per family and an additional $1,000 if 55 or older. The owner of HSA can invest the funds similarly to IRA account and withdraw without penalty when used for medical expenses.

 

11. Disability  insurance

Disability premiums are generally not deductible from your tax return. They are paid with after-tax dollars. Therefore, any proceeds received as a result of disability are tax-free. The only time your benefits are taxable is when your employer pays your disability insurance and does not include it in your gross income.


12. Life insurance

Life insurance premiums are typically not deductible from your tax return if you are using after-tax dollars. Therefore, any proceeds received by your beneficiaries are tax-free.

Life insurance benefits can be tax deductible under an employer-provided group term life insurance plan. In that case, the company pays fully or partially life insurance premiums for its employees.  In that scenario, amounts more than $50,000 paid by your employer will trigger a taxable income for the “economic value” of the coverage provided to you.

If you are the owner of your insurance policy, you should make sure your life insurance policy won’t have an impact on your estate’s tax liability. In order to avoid having your life insurance policy affecting your taxes, you can either transfer the policy to someone else or put it into a trust.

13. Student Loan interest

If you have student loans and you can deduct up to $2,500 of loan interest.  To use this deduction, you must earn up to $80,000 for a single person or $165,000 for a couple filing jointly. This rule includes you,  your spouse or a dependent. You must use the loan money for qualified education expenses such as tuition and fees, room and board, books, supplies, and equipment and other necessary expenses (such as transportation)

14. Accounting and Investment advice expenses

You may deduct your investment advisory fees associated with your taxable account on your tax return.  You can list them on Schedule A under the section “Job Expenses and Certain Miscellaneous Deductions.” Other expenditures in this category are unreimbursed employee expenses, tax preparation fees, safe deposit boxes and other qualifying expenses like professional dues, required uniforms, subscriptions to professional journals, safety equipment, tools, and supplies. They may also include the business use of part of your home and certain educational expenses. Investment advisory fees are a part of the miscellaneous deduction.  The entire category is tax deductible if they exceed 2% of your adjusted gross income for the amount in excess.

 

About the Author: Stoyan Panayotov, CFA is a fee-only financial advisor based in Walnut Creek, CA. His firm Babylon Wealth Management offers fiduciary investment management and financial planning services to individuals and families.

Disclaimer: Past performance does not guarantee future performance. Nothing in this article should be construed as a solicitation or offer, or recommendation, to buy or sell any security. The content of this article is a sole opinion of the author and Babylon Wealth Management. The opinion and information provided are only valid at the time of publishing this article. Investing in these asset classes may not be appropriate for your investment portfolio. If you decide to invest in any of the instruments discussed in the posting, you have to consider your risk tolerance, investment objectives, asset allocation and overall financial situation. Different investors have different financial circumstances, and not all recommendations apply to everybody. Seek advice from your investment advisor before proceeding with any investment decisions. Various sources may provide different figures due to variations in methodology and timing,  Image Copyright: www.123rf.com

10 Ways to reduce taxes in your investment portfolio

10 Ways to reduce taxes in your investment portfolio

Successful practices to help you lower taxes in your investment portfolio

A taxable investment account is any brokerage or trust account that does not come with tax benefits. Unlike Roth IRA and Tax-Deferred 401k plans, these accounts do not have many tax advantages. Your contributions to the account are with after-tax dollars. This is money you earned from salary, royalties, the sale of a property, and so on. All gains, losses, dividends, interest, and other income from any investments are subject to taxes at the current tax rates.  In this post, we will discuss several successful practices that can help you lower taxes in your investment portfolio

Why investors put money into taxable accounts? They provide flexibility and liquidity, which are not available by other retirement accounts. Money is readily accessible for emergencies and unforeseen expenses. Many credit institutions take these accounts as a liquid asset for loan applications.

Since investment accounts are taxable, their owners often look for ways to minimize the tax impact at the end of the year. Several practices can help you reduce your overall tax burden.

1. Buy and Hold

Taxable investment accounts are ideal for buy and hold investors who don’t plan to trade frequently. By doing that investors will minimize trading costs and harvest long-term capital gains when they decide to sell their investments. Long-term capital gains are taxable at a favorable rate of 0%, 15% or 20% plus 3.8% Medicare surcharge. In contrast, short-term gains for securities held less than a year are taxed at the higher ordinary income level.

Individuals and families often use investments accounts for supplemental income and source of liquidity. Those investors are usually susceptible to market volatility. Diversification is the best way to lower market risk. I strongly encourage investors to diversify their portfolios by investing in uncorrelated assets including mid-cap, small-cap, international stocks, bonds, and real assets.

2. Invest in Municipal Bonds

Most municipal bonds are exempt from taxes on their coupon payments. They are considered a safer investment with a slightly higher risk than Treasury bonds but lower than comparable corporate bonds.

This tax exemption makes the municipal bond suitable investment for taxable accounts, especially for individuals in the high brackets category.

3. Invest in growth non-dividend paying stocks

Growth stocks that pay little or no dividends are also a great alternative for long-term buy and hold investors. Since the majority of the return from stocks will come from price appreciation, investors don’t need to worry about paying taxes on dividends. They will only have to pay taxes when selling the investments. 

4. Invest in MLPs

Managed Limited Partnerships have a complex legal and tax structure, which requires them to distribute 90% of their income to their partners. The majority of the distributions come in the form return on capital which is tax-deferred and deducted from the cost basis of the investments. Investors don’t owe taxes on the return on capital distributions until their cost basis becomes zero or decide to sell the MLP investment.

One caveat, MLPs require K-1 filing in each state where the company operates, which increases the tax filing cost for their owners.

 5. Invest in Index Funds and ETFs

Index funds and ETFs are passive investment vehicles. Typically they track a particular index or a benchmark. ETFs and index funds have a more tax-efficient structure that makes them suitable for taxable accounts. Unlike them, most actively managed mutual funds frequently trade in and out of individual holdings causing them to release long-term and short-term capital gains to shareholders.

6. Avoid investments with a higher tax burden

While REITs, taxable bonds, commodities, and actively managed mutual funds have their spot in the investment portfolio, they come with a higher tax burden.

The income from REITs, treasuries, corporate and international bonds is subject to the higher ordinary income tax, which can be up to 39.6% plus 3.8% Medicare surcharge

Commodities, particularly Gold are considered collectibles and taxed at a minimum of 28% for long-term gains.

Actively managed funds, as mentioned earlier, periodically release long-term and short-term capital gains to their shareholders, which automatically triggers additional taxes.

7. Make gifts

You can use up to $14,000 a year or $28,000 for a couple to give to any number of people you wish without tax consequences. You can make gifts of cash or appreciated investments from your investment account to family members at a lower tax bracket than yours.

8. Donate 

You can make contributions in cash for up to 50% of your taxable income to your favorite charity. You can also donate appreciated stocks for up to 30% of AGI. Consequently, the value of your donation will reduce your income for the year. If you had a good year when you received a big bonus, sold a property or made substantial gains in the market, making donations will help you reduce your overall tax bill for the year.

9. Stepped up cost basis

At the current law, the assets in your investment account will be received by your heirs at the higher stepped-up basis, not at the original purchase price. If stocks are transferred as an inheritance directly (versus being sold and proceeds received in cash), they are not subject to taxes on any long-term or short-term capital gains. Your heirs will inherit the stocks at the new higher cost basis.  However, if your investments had lost value over time, you may wish to consider other ways to transfer your wealth. In this case, the stepped-up basis will be lower than you originally paid for and may trigger higher taxes in the future for your heirs.

10. Tax-loss harvesting

Tax-loss harvesting is selling investments at a loss. The loss will offset gains from other the sale of other securities. Additionally, investors can use $3,000 of investment losses a year to offset ordinary income. They can also carry over any remaining amounts for future tax filings.

 

 

How to find and choose the best financial advisor near me?

How to find and choose the best financial advisor near me?

Last update, August 2020……….Seeking a financial advisor near you is a significant step in achieving your personal and financial goals. Financial advisors have been instrumental in helping clients maintain well balanced, disciplined, long-term focused approach towards their personal finances and retirement planning. Finding the right financial advisor near you is like finding a personal doctor. There are very high chances that you will stick with that person for a long time. In this article, we will give you several suggestions on how to find and choose the best financial advisor near me?.

What is a financial advisor?

A financial advisor is a professional who provides financial guidance regarding a broad range of topics, including investment management, risk management, financial, retirement, college, tax, estate, and legacy planning.

Furthermore, they will make recommendations and provide services based on your specific financial needs and long-term financial goals. Your financial advisors will help you resolve specific financial circumstances —such a taking a comprehensive view of your finances, preparing for retirement, buying a house, and managing your investments.

So how to pick your financial advisor near you?

The financial industry has done a great job confusing the public with various job titles and certificates. Financial advisors can call themselves financial planners,  investment advisors, wealth advisors, financial coaches, wealth managers, and brokers. Additionally, insurance agents, accountants, and lawyers provide some type of financial advice to their clients.

So let’s breakdown several questions you need to ask when you are looking for a  financial advisor near you.

Are you fiduciary?

There are two main models under which financial advisors offer their services – Registered investment advisor (RIA) and broker-dealers.

RIAs are independent fee-only investment companies that often provide both financial planning and investment management services. They charge a flat fee or a percentage of the client’s assets under management. RIAs are usually boutique companies with one founder and a few employees. Moreover, independent advisors have a fiduciary duty to work in their customers’ best interests. Most RIAs provide holistic goal-based financial advice based on their clients’ particular economic circumstances, lifestyle, and risk tolerance. If you prefer to receive personalized fiduciary financial services, then the RIA model is probably the best fit for you.

Brokers offer commission-based financial services. They receive compensation based on the number of trades placed in their client accounts. The agents often belong to large banking institutions like Wells Fargo and JP Morgan Chase. Other times they are independent houses offering a broad range of services, including insurance, accounting, tax, and estate planning. Brokers and sales agents do not always have a legal fiduciary duty to work in their clients’ best interests. Fortunately, they face certain standards regarding suitability and best interest.

What is your education?

What is your financial advisor’s education? Make sure that you are comfortable with your new advisor’s credentials and educational background.  Many financial professionals hold at least a bachelor’s or master’s degree in Finance or Accounting. For those that lack financial education or work experience, regulators require passing series 65 for RIAs and series 7 and 63 for brokers. Additionally, there are three popular financial certificates – CFA, CFP, and CPA, Advisors that hold any of the certificates that have gone through a significant training and learning process.

Chartered Financial Analyst

CFA is a professional designation given by the CFA Institute. The exam measures the competence and integrity of financial analysts. Candidates have to pass three levels of exams covering areas such as accounting, economics, ethics, money management, and security analysis.

CFA is considered the highest-ranked financial certificate and is widely recognized across the globe. CFA program takes at least three years and requires passing the three-level exam. Level 1 exam is offered twice a year in June and December. Level 2 and 3 are offered only once a year in June. Candidates also need to pass strict work requirements regarding their work experience in the investment decision-making process.

Certified Financial Planner

CFP refers to the certification owned and awarded by the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, Inc. The CFP designation is awarded to individuals who complete the CFP Board’s initial and ongoing certification requirements. Individuals desiring to become a CFP professional must take extensive exams in the areas of financial planning, taxes, insurance, estate planning, and retirement. The exam is computer-based taken over three days.  Attaining the CFP designation takes experience and a substantial amount of work. CFP professionals must also complete continuing education programs each year to maintain their certification status. 

Certified Public Accountant

CPA is a designation given by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants to those who pass an exam and meet work experience requirements. CPA designation ensures that professional standards for the industry are enforced. CPAs are required to get a bachelor’s degree in business administration, finance or accounting. They are also required to complete 150 hours of education and have no less than two years of public accounting experience. CPAs must pass a certification exam, and certification requirements vary by state. Additionally, they must complete a specific number of continuing hours of education yearly.

Why is education important?

While receiving a degree in Finance, Accounting, or Economics or passing a test doesn’t always guarantee that the person has the right set of skills to be an advisor, the lack of any of these credentials should be a warning sign for you.

What is your work experience

If you are planning to give your retirement savings in the hands of a financial advisor, make sure that this person has prior financial experience. Some of you may remember the commercial with the DJ who was imposing as a financial advisor. Would you want to work with this guy? He might be a great person, but it’s your money, after all. Do your due diligence before you meet them for the first time? LinkedIn is a great place to start your search.

Do you provide personalized service?

You are looking for a financial advisor because you have specific needs and financial circumstances. Find out if your financial advisor is willing to listen and learn about your objectives. Does he or she have a gameplan that you will help you achieve your financial goals, preserve your wealth, and allow you to be financially independent?

Can you describe your Investment Management Style?

Do you know your advisor’s investment style? Does your advisor regularly trade in your account or is more conservative and rebalance once or twice a year? It is essential to understand your advisor’s investment style. Frequent trading can increase your trading cost substantially. On the other hand, not trading at all will bring your portfolio away from your target allocation and risk tolerance.

Some advisors prefer to work only with ETFs. Others like using actively managed mutual funds. A third group favors trading single stocks and bonds. All strategies have their benefits and shortcomings. ETFs come with lower fees and broad diversification. Active mutual funds seek to beat their benchmark with lower risk. However, they may lack tax-efficiency if sitting in investment accounts. Finally,  trading single stocks provides a high upside but offer less diversification.

What is your custodian

Who is your advisor’s custodian? Custodians are the financial companies that actually hold your assets. Most RIAs will use a custodian like Pershing, Fidelity, TD, Schwab, or Interactive Brokers. Your advisor’s custodian, to a large extent, will determine (or limit) the selection of ETFs and funds available for investing. Additionally, custodians may have different rules, document requirements, technology platforms, and transaction fees.

How big is your firm?

How large is the company that your advisor works for? Some advisors are one-man-shop. They consist of their founder and potentially one or two assistants or paraplanners. Other advisors, including RIAs, could be a part of a much larger regional or national network. Smaller companies have more flexibility but less capacity. Bigger companies have more bureaucracy but may have more resources.

 Do you coach your clients?

What have you learned from your advisor in the past few years or even at the last meeting?

Advisor’s role is not only to manage investments but also to coach and educate clients about best financial practices, tax changes, market developments, estate planning, college savings, and such.

Additionally, many advisors offer workshops to clients and prospects where they talk about the economy, retirement planning, tax strategies, and other financial topics.

How are you going to communicate with me?

How is your financial advisor communicating with you? Is your advisor responsive?  Communication is an essential part of the advisor-client relationship. The best financial advisors always stay in touch with their clients. Remember what I said earlier, advisors are like doctors. You need to meet at least once a year. So during your meeting, talk to them about your progress in achieving your goals. Also, get updates on your portfolio performance. And finally, update them regarding any changes in your life.

Also, financial advisors have to protect their clients’ privacy. Make sure your advisor uses secured channels to send and receive sensitive information.

How is your advisor handling client queries? Can you speak to your advisor personally if you have an urgent question or unexpected life event? Or do you need to call 1-800 number and wait for your turn in line?

What technology do you use?

Is your financial advisor tech-savvy or old school? The current environment of constant tech innovations provides a broad range of tools and services to financial advisors and their clients.

New sophisticated financial planning software lets advisors change plan inputs just with one click of the mouse. This software allows clients to have access to their personal financial plans to amend their financial goals and personal information. Therefore, clients can see in real-time the progress of their financial plans and make better financial decisions.

Account aggregation tools allow clients to pull different accounts from various financial providers under one view. The aggregated view helps both advisors and customers to see a comprehensive picture of the client’s finances with only one login.

A beginner’s guide to retirement planning

uide to retirement planning

Many professionals feel overwhelmed by the prospect of managing their finances. Often, this results in avoidance and procrastination– it is easy to prioritize career or family obligations over money management.  Doing so puts off decision making until retirement looms.  While it is never too late to start saving for retirement,  the earlier you start, the more time your retirement assets have to grow.  There are several things you can do to start maximizing your retirement benefits.  In this posting, I will present my beginner’s guide to retirement planning.

Start Early 

It is critical to start saving early for retirement. An early start will lay the foundation for healthy savings growth.

With 7% average annual stock return, $100,000 invested today can turn into almost $1.5m in 40 years. The power of compounding allows your investments to grow over time.

The table below shows you how the initial saving of $100,000 increases over 40 years:

Year 0        100,000
Year 10        196,715
Year 20        386,968
Year 30        761,226
Year 40     1,497,446

Not all of us have $100k to put away now. However, every little bit counts. Building a disciplined long-term approach towards saving and investing is the first and most essential requirement for stable retirement.

Know your tax rate

Knowing your tax bracket is crucial to setting your financial goals. Your tax rate is based on your gross annual income subtracted by allowable deductions (ex: primary residence mortgage deductions, charitable donations, and more).

See below table for 2016 tax brackets.

Guide to retirement planning

 

Jumping from a lower to a higher tax bracket while certainly helpful for your budget will increase your tax liabilities to IRS.

Why is important?  Understanding your tax bracket will help you optimize your savings for retirement.

Knowing your tax bracket will help you make better financial decisions in the future. Income tax brackets impact many aspects of retirement planning including choice of an investment plan, asset allocation mix, risk tolerance, tax level on capital gains and dividends.

As you can see in the above table, taxpayers in the 10% and 15% bracket (individuals making up to 37,650k and married couples filing jointly making up to $75,300) are exempt from paying taxes on long-term capital gains and qualified dividends.

Example: You are single. Your total income is $35,000 per year. You sold a stock that generated $4,000 long-term capital gain. You don’t owe taxes for the first $2,650 of your gain and only pay 15% of the remaining balance of $1,350 or $202.5

Conversely, taxpayers in the 39.6% tax bracket will pay 20% on their long-term capital gains and qualified dividends. A long-term capital gain or qualified dividend of $4,000 will create $800 tax liability to IRS.

Tax bracket becomes even more important when it comes to short-term capital gains. If you buy and sell securities within the same year, you will owe taxes at your ordinary income tax rate according to the chart above.

Example: You make $100,000 a year. You just sold company shares and made a short-term capital gain of $2,000. In this case, your tax bracket is 28%, and you will owe $560 to IRS. On the other hand, if you waited a little longer and sold your shares after one year you will pay only $300 to IRS.

Know your  State and City Income Tax

If you live in the following nine states, you are exempt from paying state income tax:  Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, Washington, Wyoming, New Hampshire and Tennessee.

For those living in other states, the state income tax rates vary by state and income level.  I’ve listed state income tax rates for California and New York for comparison.

California income tax rates for 2016:

1% on the first $7,850 of taxable income.

2% on taxable income between $7,851 and $18,610.

4% on taxable income between $18,611 and $29,372.

6% on taxable income between $29,373 and $40,773.

8% on taxable income between $40,774 and $51,530.

9.3% on taxable income between $51,531 and $263,222.

10.3% on taxable income between $263,223 and 315,866.

11.3% on taxable income between $315,867 and $526,443.

12.3% on taxable income of $526,444 and above.

 

New York State tax rates for 2016:

4% on the first $8,400 of taxable income.

4.5% on taxable income between $8,401 and $11,600.

5.25% on taxable income between $11,601 and $13,750.

5.9% on taxable income between $13,751 and $21,150.

6.45% on taxable income between $21,151 and $79,600.

6.65% on taxable income between $79,601 and $212,500.

6.85% on taxable income between $212,501 and $1,062,650.

8.82% on taxable income of more than $1,062,651.

 

City Tax

Although New York state income tax rates are lower than California, those who live in NYC will pay an additional city tax. As of this writing, the cities that maintain city taxes include New York City, Baltimore, Detroit, Kansas City, St. Louis, Portland, OR, Columbus, Cincinnati, and Cleveland. If you live in one of these cities, your paycheck will be lower as a result of this added tax.  The city tax rate varies from 1% and 3.65%.

Create an emergency fund

I recommend setting up an emergency fund that will cover six to 12 months of unexpected expenses. You can build your “rainy day” fund overtime by setting up automatic monthly withdrawals from your checking account. Unfortunately, in the current interest environment, most brick and mortar banks offer 0.1% to 0.2% interest on saving accounts.

Some of the other options to consider are saving account in FDIC-accredited online banks like Discover or Allied Bank, money market account, short term CD, short-term treasuries and municipal bonds.

Maximize your 401k contributions

Many companies now offer 401k plans to their employees as a means to boost employee satisfaction and retention rate. They also provide a matching contribution for up to a certain amount or percentage.

The 401k account contributions are tax deductible and thus decrease your taxable income.  Investments grow tax-free. Taxes are due during retirement when money is withdrawn from the account.

Hence, the 401k plan is an excellent platform to set aside money for retirement. The maximum employee contribution for 2016 is $18,000.  Your employer can potentially match up to $35,000 for a total joint contribution of $53,000. Companies usually match up to 3% to 5% of your salary.

401K withdrawals

Under certain circumstances, you can take a loan against your 401k or even withdraw the entire amount.  Plan participants may decide to take a loan to finance their first home purchase. You can use the funds as last resort income during economic hardship.

In general, I advise against liquidating your 401k unless all other financial options are exhausted.  If you withdraw money from your 401k, you will likely pay a penalty.  Even if you don’t pay a penalty, you miss out on potential growth through compounded returns.

Read the fine print

Most 401k plans will give you the option to rollover your investments to a tax-deferred IRA account once you leave your employer. You will probably have the opportunity to keep your investments in the current plan. While there are more good reasons to rollover your old 401k to IRA than keep it (a topic worth a separate article), knowing that you have options is half the battle.

Always read the fine print of your employer 401k package. The fact that your company promises to match up to a certain amount of money every year does not mean that the entire match is entirely vested to you.  The actual amount that you will take may depend on the number of years of service. For example, some employers will only allow their matching contribution to be fully vested after up to 5 years of service.   If you don’t know these details, ask your manager or call HR. It’s a good idea to understand your 401k vesting policy, particularly if you just joined or if you are planning to leave your employer.

In summary, having a 401k is a great way to save for retirement even if your employer doesn’t match or imposes restrictions on the matching contributions. Whatever amount you decide to invest, it is yours to keep. Your money will grow tax-free.

Maximize your Roth IRA

Often neglected, a Roth IRA is another great way to save money for retirement.  Roth IRA contributions are made after taxes. The main benefit is that investments inside the account grow tax-free. Therefore there are no taxes due after retirement withdrawals. The Roth IRA does not have any age restrictions, minimum contributions or withdrawal requirements.

The only catch is that you can only invest $5,500 each year and only if your modified adjusted gross income is under $117,000 for single and $184,000 for a couple filing jointly. If you make between $117,000 and $132,000 for an individual or $184,000 and $194,000 for a family filing jointly, the contribution to Roth IRA is possible at a reduced amount.

 

How to decide between Roth IRA and 401k

Ideally, you want to maximize contributions to both plans.

As a rule of thumb, if you expect to be in a higher tax bracket when you retire then prioritizing Roth IRA contributions is a good move.  This allows you to pay taxes on retirement savings now (at your lower taxable income) rather than later.

If you expect to retire at a lower rate (make less money), then invest more in a 401k plan.

Nobody can predict with absolute certainty their income and tax bracket in 20 or 40 years.  Life sometimes takes unexpected turns. Therefore the safe approach is to utilize all saving channels. Having a diverse stream of retirement income will help achieve higher security, lower risk and balanced after tax income.

I suggest prioritizing retirement contributions in the following order:

  1. Contribute in your 401k up to the maximum matching contribution by your employer. The match is free money.
  2. Gradually build your emergency fund by setting up an automatic withdrawal plan
  3. Maximize Roth IRA contributions every year, $5,500
  4. Any additional money that you want to save can go into your 401k plan. You can contribute up to $ 18,000 annually plus $6,000 for individuals over 50.
  5. Invest all extra residual income in your savings and taxable investment account

 

About the author: Stoyan Panayotov, CFA is a fee-only financial advisor based in Walnut Creek, CA. His firm Babylon Wealth Management offers fiduciary investment management and financial planning services to individuals and families.