10 Behavioral biases that can ruin your investments

10 Behavioral biases that can ruin your investments

As a financial advisor, I often speak with my clients about behavioral biases. Our emotions can put a heavy load on our investment decisions. In this article, I would like to discuss ten behavioral biases that I encounter every day. It’s not a complete list, but it’s a good starting point to understand your behavioral biases and how to deal with them.

We have to make choices every day. Often our decisions are based on limited information or constrained by time. We want to make the right call every single time. But sometimes we are wrong. Sometimes we can be our worst enemy. Stress, distraction, media, and market craziness could get the worst of us.

Behavioral finance

In 2018 Richard Thaler won the Nobel prize for his work in behavioral economics. In his 2009 book “Nudge” and later on in his 2015 book “Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics,” Thaler reveals the architecture of the human decision-making process. He talks about behavioral biases, anomalies, and impulses that drive our daily choices.

In another study about the value of the financial advisor or the advisor alpha, Vanguard concluded that clients using a financial advisor have the potential to add 1.5% of additional annual returns as a result of behavioral coaching. Further on, Vanguard concludes that because investing evokes emotion, advisors need to help their clients maintain a long-term perspective and a disciplined approach.

 

Afraid to start investing 

Social Security is going into deficit by 2035. And most employers moving toward Defined Contribution Plans (401k, 403b, SEP-IRA). It will be up to you and me to secure our retirement by increasing our savings and investments. However, not everybody is in tune. For many people, investing is hard. It’s too complicated. Not all employers provide adequate training about retirement and investment options. And I don’t blame anyone. As much as I try to educate my blog readers, as well as many colleagues, we are outnumbered by the media and all kinds of financial gurus without proper training and credentials. If you are on the boat and want to start investing, talk to a fiduciary financial advisor, or ask your employer for educational and training literature. Don’t be afraid to ask hard questions and educate yourself.

“This time is different.”

How many times have you heard “This time is different” from a family member or the next financial guru, who is trying to sell you something? Very likely, it’s not going to be any different. As a matter, it could be worse. As humans, we tend to repeat our mistake over and over. It’s not that we don’t learn from our mistakes. But sometimes it’s just more comforting staying on your turf, not trying something new, and hoping that things will change. So, when you hear “This time is different,” you should be on high alert. Try to read between the lines and assess all your options.

Falling for “guaranteed income” or “can’t lose money” sales pitch

As many people are falling behind their retirement savings, they get tempted to a wide range of “guaranteed income” and “can’t lose money” financial products. The long list includes but not limited to annuities, life insurance products, private real estate, cryptocurrency, and reverse mortgage. Many of these products come with sky-high commissions and less than transparent fees, costly riders, and complex restrictions and high breakup fees. The sales pitch is often at an expensive steakhouse or a golf club following a meeting in the salesperson’s office where the deals are closed. If someone is offering you a free steak dinner to buy a financial product that you do not fully understand, please trust me on it – you will be the one picking the tab in the end.

Selling after a market crash

One of the most prominent behavioral biases people make in investing is selling their investments after a market crash. As painful as it could be, it’s one of the worst decisions you could make. Yes, markets are volatile. Yes, markets crash sometimes. But nobody has made any money panicking. You need to control your impulses to sell at the bottom. I know it’s not easy because I have been there myself. What really helps is thinking long-term. You can ask yourself, do you need this money right away. If you are going to retire in another 10 or 20 years, you don’t need to touch your portfolio, period. Market swings are an essential part of the economic cycle. Recessions help clean up the bad companies with a poor business model and ineffective management and let the winners take over.

You may remember that the rise of Apple coincided with the biggest recession in our lifetime, 2008 – 2009. Does anyone still remember Blackberry, Nokia, or Motorola, who were the pioneers of mobile phones?

Keeping your investments in cash

Another common behavioral bias is keeping your investments in cash…..indefinitely. People who keep their 401k or IRA in cash almost always miss the market recovery. At that point, they either have to chase the rally or must wait for a market correction and try to get in again. As a financial advisor, I would like to tell you that it is impossible to time exactly any market rally. By the time you realize it. It’s already too late.

To understand why timing the markets and avoiding risk by keeping cash can be harmful, see what happens if an investor misses the biggest up days in the market. The hypothetical table below looks at the performance of $10,000 invested in the S&P 500 between January 4, 1988, and December 31, 2018. It’s important to note this hypothetical investment occurred during two of the biggest bear markets in history, the 2000 tech bubble crash and the 2008 global financial crisis.

10 Behavioral biases that can ruin your investments - Keeping Cash

As you can see, missing the ten best days over between 1998 and 2018 meant earning nearly 2.5% less on an annual basis and leaving half of the potential absolute gains on the table. Here’s the kicker: Six of the 10 “best days” in the market were within weeks of the worst days in the market. In other words, some of the best days often happen as “v-shaped” bounces off the worst days. Going to cash on a big negative day means increasing the risk of missing a big positive day which, as can be seen from the table above, can have a substantial impact on your returns over time.

Chasing hot investments

One of the most common behavioral biases is chasing hot investments. People generally like to be with the winners. It feels good. It pumps your ego. There is a whole theory of momentum investing based on findings that investors buy recent winners and continue to buy their stock for another 6 to 12 months. We have seen it time and time again – from the tech bubble in 2000, through the mortgage-backed securities in 2008, to cryptocurrency and cannabis stocks in 2018. People like highflyers. Some prior hot stocks like Apple, Google, and Amazon dominate the stock markets today. Others like Motorola, Nokia, and GE dwindle in obscureness. If an investment had a considerable run, sometimes it’s better to let it go. Don’t chase it.

Holding your losers too long

“The most important thing to do if you find yourself in a hole is to stop digging.” – Warren Buffett.

In a research conducted in the 1990s by professor Terrance Odean, he concluded that investors tend to hold to their losers a lot longer than their winners. A result of this approach, those investors continue to incur losses in the near future. Professor Odean offers a few explanations for his findings. One reason is that investors rationally or irrationally believe that their current losers will outperform. A second explanation comes from the Prospect Theory by Kahneman and Tversky (1979). According to them, investors become risk-averse about their winners and risk-seeking to their losers.

When it comes to losing bets, they are willing to take a higher gamble and seek to recover their original purchase price. A third theory that I support and observed is based on emotions. The pain from selling your losers is twice as high as the joy from selling your winners. We don’t like to be wrong. We want to hold on to the hope that we made the right decision. After all, it is a gamble, and the odds will be against you. At some point, we just need to make peace with your losses and move on. It’s not easy, but it’s the right thing to do.

Holding your winners too long

There is a quote by the famous financier Bernard Baruch – “I made my money by selling too soon.” Many people, however, often hold on to their winners for very long. Psychologically, it’s comforting to see your winners and feel great about your investment choices. There is nothing wrong with being a winner. But at some point, you must ask yourself, is it worth it. How long this run can go for and should you cash in some of your profits. What if your winners are making up a large part of your investment portfolio? Wouldn’t this put your entire retirement savings at risk if something were to happen to that investment?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer when it comes to selling your winners. Furthermore, there could be tax implications if you realize the gains in your brokerage account. However, it’s prudent to have an exit strategy. As much as it hurts (stops the joy) to sell the winners, it could lower the risk of your portfolio and allow you to diversify amongst other investments and asset classes.

Checking your portfolio every day

The stock market is volatile. Your investments will change every day. There will be large swings in both directions. So, checking your portfolio every single day can only drive crazy and will not move the needle. It could lead to irrational and emotional decisions that could have serious long-term repercussions. Be patient, disciplined, and follow your long-term plan.

Not seeking advice

Seeking advice from a complete stranger can be scary. You must reveal some of your biggest secrets to a person you never met before. It’s s big step. I wish the media spends more time talking about the thousands of fiduciary advisors out there who honestly and trustworthy look for your best interest.

My financial advisory service is based on trust between you as a client and me as the advisor . So, do not be afraid to seek advice, but you also need to do your homework. Find an advisor who will represent you and your family and will care about your personal goal and financial priorities. Don’t be afraid to interview several advisors before you find the best match for you.

Final words

“The most important quality for an investor is temperament, not intellect. You need a temperament that neither derives great pleasure from being with the crowd or against the crowd.” – Warren Buffet.

Investing is an emotional act. We put our chips on the table and wish for a great outcome. We win, or we lose. Understanding your emotions and behavioral biases will help you become a better investor. It doesn’t mean that we will always make the right decisions. It doesn’t mean that we will never make a mistake again. We are humans, not robots. Behavioral biases are part of our system. Knowing how we feel and why feel a certain way, can help us when the markets are volatile, when things get ugly or the “next big thing” is offered to us. Look at the big picture. Know your goals and financial priorities. Try to block the noise and keep a long-term view.

Reach out

If you have questions about your investments and retirement savings, reach out to me at stoyan@babylonwealth.com or +925-448-9880.

You can also visit my Insights page, where you can find helpful articles and resources on how to make better financial and investment decisions.

About the author:

Stoyan Panayotov, CFA, founder of Babylon Wealth Management

Stoyan Panayotov, CFA, MBA is a fee-only financial advisor in Walnut Creek, CA, serving clients in the San Francisco Bay Area and nationally. Babylon Wealth Management specializes in financial planning, retirement planning, and investment management for growing families, physicians, and successful business owners.

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The biggest risks for your retirement savings

Biggest risks to your retirement savings

Whether you are just starting your career or about to retire, you need to understand the risks you are facing when you plan for your future retirement.

Most experts recommend that you should aim to replace about 80% of work income during your retirement. Part of your retirement income will come from Social Security. Other sources could be a public pension, IRAs, 401k, rental income, sale of real estate or business, royalties, or a part-time job. However, the 80% is not a definite number. The amount you need in retirement could vary substantially depending on your lifestyle, family size, number of dependents, health issues, and so on.

Social Security benefits

The maximum Social Security benefit in 2019:

  • $3,770 for someone who files at age 70.
  • $2,861 for someone at a full retirement age of 66
  • $2,209 for someone aged 62

For reference, very few people reach these upper limits. The average Social Security retirement benefit in 2019 is $1,461 a month. The average disability benefit is $1,234.

Unfortunately, the Social Security trust is already running a deficit. Currently, the Social Security is paying more benefits than all the proceed its receiving from the payroll taxes. Its reserve will be depleted by 2035. After that point, social security recipients will have to receive only a portion of their actual benefit. The current estimate is around 75%.

Pension Shortfall

Similarly to Social Security, most of the public and private pension plans nationwide have an enormous shortfall between assets and their future liabilities. According to a recent study by Pew Charitable Trust and Pension Tracker, US public pension shortfall is over $1 trillion. States like Alaska, California, Illinois, Ohio, Hawaii, and New Jersey have one of the highest pension burdens in the nation. Even after ten years of economic recovery and bull market, most state pension plans are not prepared to face another downturn. Policymakers must take urgent measures to close the pension funding gap, which remains at historically high levels as a share of GDP.

Low savings rate

With social security benefits expected to shrink, I advise my clients that they need to increase their savings in order to supplement their income in the future. Retirement savings in IRA, 401k and even a brokerage account will provide you with the necessary income during your retirement years.

Unfortunately, not everyone is forward-looking. The average 401k balance, according to Fidelity, is $106,000 in 2019, while the average IRA is $110,000. The sad reality is that most Americans do not save enough for retirement and we are facing a retirement crisis.

Not saving enough for retirement is the highest risk of enjoying your retirement years.

Relying on a single source

Many people make the mistake of relying on a single source of income for their retirement.  

Imagine that you were planning to retire in 2009 upon selling a piece of real estate. Or you had all your retirement savings in a 401k plan and the market just crashed 50%.  Many of these folks had to delay their retirement for several years to make up for the lost income. Similarly, selling your business can be risky too. With technology advancements, many businesses are becoming obsolete. You may not always be able to find buyers or get the highest price for your business.

We always recommend to our clients to have a diversified stream of retirement income. Diversifying your source will create a natural safety net and potentially could increase the predictability of your income in retirement.

Market risk

We all would like to retire when the market is up and our retirement account balance is high. However, the income from these retirement accounts like IRA, Roth IRA and 401k are not guaranteed. As more people relying on them for retirement, their savings become subject to market turbulence and the wellbeing of the economy.  Today, prospective retirees must confront with high equity valuations, volatile markets, and ultra-low and even negative yields.

In my practice, I use my clients’ risk tolerance as an indicator of their comfort level during market volatility. With market risk in mind, I craft well-diversified individual retirement strategies based on my clients’ risk tolerance and long-term and short-term financial goals.

Sequence of returns

The sequence of returns is the order of how your portfolio returns happen over time. If you are in your accumulation phase, the sequence of return doesn’t impact your final outcome. You will end up with the same amount regardless of the order of your annual returns.  

However, if you are in your withdrawal phase, the sequence of returns can have a dramatic impact on your retirement income. Most retires with a 401k or IRAs have to periodically sell a portion of their portfolios to supplement their income. Most financial planning software uses an average annual return rate to project future account balance. However, these average estimates become meaningless if you experience a large loss at the start of your retirement.

Our retirement strategies take the sequence of returns very seriously. Some of the tools we use involve maintaining cash buffers, building bond ladders and keeping a flexible budget.

Taxes

Your IRA balance might be comforting but not all of it is yours. You will owe income taxes on every dollar you take out of any tax-deferred account (IRA, 401k, 403b). You will pay capital gain taxes on all realized gains in your brokerage accounts. Even Social Security is taxable.

With skyrocketing deficits in the treasury budget, social security and public pensions will guarantee one thing – higher taxes. There is no doubt that someone will have to pick up the check. And that someone is the US taxpayer – me and you.

Managing your taxes is a core function of our wealth management practice. Obviously, we all must pay taxes. And we can not predict what politicians will decide in the future. However, managing your investments in a tax-efficient manner will ensure that you keep more money in your pocket.

Inflation risk

Most retirees have a significant portion of their portfolios in fixed income. Modern portfolio managers use fixed income instruments to reduce investment risk for their clients. At the time of this article, we are seeing negative and near-zero interest rates around the world. However, with inflation going at around 2% a year, the income from fixed-income investments will not cover the cost of living adjustments. Retirees will effectively lose purchasing power on their dollars.

Interest risk

Bonds lose value when interest rates go up and make gains when interest rates go down. For over a decade, we have seen rock bottom interest rates. We had a small blip in 2018 when the Fed raised rates 4 times and 1 year’s CDs reached 2.5%. At that point in time, many investors were worried that higher interest rates will hurt bond investors, consumers and even companies who use a lot of debt to finance their business. Even though these fears are subdued for now, interest rates remain a viable threat. Negative interest rates are as bad for fixed income investors as the high rates are. Unfortunately, traditional bond portfolios may not be sufficient to provide income and protect investors for market swings. Investors will need to seek alternatives or take higher risks to generate income.

Unexpected expenses

Most financial planning software will lay out a financial plan including your projected costs during retirement. While most financial planning software these days is quite sophisticated, the plan remains a plan. We can not predict the unexpected. In my practice, I regularly see clients withdrawing large sums from their retirement savings to finance a new home, renovation, a new car, college fees, legal fees, unexpectedly high taxes and so on. Reducing your retirement savings can be a bad idea on many levels. I typically recommend building an emergency fund worth at least 6 months of living expenses to cover any unexpected expenses that may occur. That way, you don’t have to touch your retirement savings.

Healthcare cost

The average health care cost of a retired couple is $260,000. This estimate could vary significantly depending on your health. Unless you have full health insurance from your previous employer, you will need to budget a portion of your retirement savings to cover health-related expenses. Keep in mind that Medicare part A covers only part of your health cost. The remaining, parts B, C, and D, will be paid out of pocket or through private insurance.

Furthermore, as CNBC reported, the cost of long-term care insurance has gone up by more than 60% between 2013 and 2018 and continues to go higher. The annual national median cost of a private room in a nursing home was $100,375 in 2018.

For future retirees, even those in good shape, healthcare costs will be one of the largest expenses during retirement. In my practice, I take this risk very seriously and work with my clients to cover all bases of their health care coverage during retirement.

Longevity

Longevity risk is the risk of running out of money during retirement. Running out of money depends on an array of factors including your health, lifestyle, family support and the size and sources of retirement income.  My goal as a financial advisor is to ensure that your money lasts you through the rest of your life.

Legacy risk

For many of my clients leaving a legacy is an important part of their personal goal. Whether funding college expenses, taking care of loved ones or donating to a charitable cause, legacy planning is a cornerstone of our financial plan. Having a robust estate plan will reduce the risks to your assets when you are gone or incapacitated to make decisions.

Liquidity Risk

Liquidity risk is the risk that you will not be able to find buyers for your investments and other assets that you are ready to sell. Often times, during an economic downturn, the liquidity shrinks. There will be more sellers than buyers. The banks are not willing to extend loans to finance riskier deals. In many cases, the sellers will have to sell their assets at a significant discount to facilitate the transaction.

Behavioral risk

Typically, investors are willing to take more risk when the economy is good and the equity markets are high. Investors become more conservative and risk-averse when markets drop significantly. As humans, we have behavioral biases, Sometimes, we let our emotions get the worst of us. We spend frivolously. We chase hot stocks. Or keep all investments in cash. Or sell after a market crash. Working with a fiduciary advisor will help you understand these biases. Together, we can find a way to make unbiased decisions looking after your top financial priorities.

Final Words

Preparing for retirement is a long process. It involves a wide range of obstacles. With proper long-term planning, you can avoid or minimize some of these risks. You can focus on reaching your financial goals and enjoying what matters most to you.

Reach out

If you need help growing your retirement savings, reach out to me at stoyan@babylonwealth.com or +925-448-9880.

You can also visit my Insights page, where you can find helpful articles and resources on how to make better financial and investment decisions.

About the author:

Stoyan Panayotov, CFA, MBA is a fee-only financial advisor in Walnut Creek, CA, serving clients in the San Francisco Bay Area and nationally. Babylon Wealth Management specializes in financial planning, retirement planning, and investment management for growing families, physicians, and successful business owners.

Subscribe to get our new Insights delivered right to your inbox

Why negative interest rates are bad for your portfolio

Why negative interest rates are bad for your portfolio

Quantitative Easing

Ever since the financial crisis of 2008-2009, central banks around the world have been using lower interest rates and Quantitative Easing (QE) to combat to slow growth and recession fears. In the aftermath of the Great Recession, all major central banks cut their funding interest rate to nearly zero.

The QE policy led to the longest US economic expansion in history. As the US economy improved, the Federal Reserve started hiking rates in late 2015 and continued hiking until December of 2018. The Fen fund rate reached 2.4% in the early months of 2019. In the meantime, the European and Japan Central Banks hovered their interest rates near zero. In 2016, for the first time, we registered negative interest rates in Europe and Japan.

The trade wars

Escalating fears for slowing global growth and trade war threats had forced the Fed to announce its first rate cut since the financial crisis. While widely expected, the rate cut triggered a chain of events. First, President Trump imposed an additional 10% import tax on $300 billion of Chinese good. In return, the Chinese central bank lowered the target exchange rate between US dollars and yuan to 7.0039, the lowest level since April 2008. Losing confidence for a quick trade resolution the equity markets sold off by 3%. The 10-year Treasury fell to 1.7%, one of the lowest levels since the financial crisis.

Negative interest rates

Fearing that the intensifying trade war between the US and China could adversely impact the global economy, many Central banks around the world cut their funding rates to zero or even negative levels. Most recently the Reserve Bank of New Zealand lowered its rate from 1.5% to 1%. Furthermore, the New Zealand Governor said, “It’s easily within the realms of possibility that we might have to use negative interest rates,”

In Germany, the 30-year government bond turned negative for the first time last week. In Japan, the 10-year government bond yields -0.2%.

As we stand today, there is $15 trillion in government bonds that offer negative interest rates, according to Deutsche Bank. In short, European investors are paying to own EU government bonds. 

In addition, there are 14 European below investment grade bond issuers trading at negatives rates. Conventionally, the junk bonds are issued by risky borrowers with weaker balance sheets that may struggle to pay back their loans. The typical junk-bond offers a higher income to compensate investors for taking the higher risk of not getting paid at all.

So why negative interest rates are bad for your portfolio

Traditionally, retired and conservative investors have used government bonds as a safe-haven investment. Historically, US treasuries have had a negative correlation with stocks. When the equity markets are volatile, many investors move to US government bonds to wait out the storm. Therefore, many portfolio managers around the world use government bonds as a diversification to lower the risk of your investment portfolio.

So, let’s imagine a conservative investor whose portfolio is invested in about 40% in Equities and 60% in Fixed Income. This person has a low-risk tolerance and would like to use some the extra income to supplement her social security benefits and pension. With ultra-low or negative interest rates, 60% of the portfolio is practically earning nothing and potentially losing money. Let’s break it down.

Lending free money

Investors in negative-yielding bonds are effectively giving the government free money and receiving nothing in return. With $15 trillion worth of negative-yielding bonds, many institutional investors might be willing to take the “deal” since they have legal restrictions on a target amount of fixed income instruments they must own.

No risk-reward premium

The interest rate is the risk-reward premium that the lender is willing to take to provide a loan to a borrower. The higher the risk, the higher the interest rate. Simple. If the risk-reward relationship is broken, many creditors will choose not to lend any money and have the risk of going out of business. Why would a bank give you a negative interest mortgage on your home?

Can’t supplement income

Going back to our imaginary investor with 60% in negative-yielding bonds. This portfolio will not be able to provide additional income that she will need to supplement their pension or social security benefits. What if our investors could not rely on guaranteed benefits, and her portfolio was the sole generator of income? In that case, she will have to spend down the portfolio over time. She would have to adjust her lifestyle and lower her cost so she can stretch the portfolio as long as she could.

Need to take more risk to generate higher income

What if our investor wants to protect her principal? To generate higher income, our conservative investor will ultimately have to consider higher-risk investments that offer a higher positive yield. She will have to be willing to take more risk to receive a higher income from her portfolio.    

Subject to inflation risk

The inflation risk is the risk of lower purchasing power of your money due to rising prices. In a simple example, if you own $100 today and the annual inflation is 2%, the real value of your money will be $98 in a year. You are essentially losing money.

With the US inflation rate at around 1.6% as of June of 2019 and Eurozone inflation rate hovering about 1.2%, there is a real risk that the ultra-low and negative rates will reduce the real value of your investments. Investments in negative-yielding bonds will end up with lower purchasing power over time 

Subject to interest rate risk

In the fixed-income world, rising interest rates lead to a lower value of your bonds. The reason is that older bonds will have to sell at a lower price to match the yield of the newly issued bonds with a higher interest. Just about a year ago when the Fed was hiking rates by 0.25% every quarter, fixed income investors were rightly worried that their bond holdings would lose value. Many bonds funds ended up in the negative in 2018. Even with lower or negative interests, this risk is looming out there.

Promote frivolous spending and cheap debt

It’s not a secret that lower interest rates allow more individuals, corporations, and governments alike to borrow cheap credit. While everybody’s situation is unique, cheap credit often leads to frivolous and irresponsible spending. With US consumer debt reaching $13.51 trillion, total US corporate debt at $15.5 trillion, and Federal debt pushing above $22 trillion, the last thing we need is banks and politicians writing blank checks.

Create asset bubbles

Cheap credit leads to asset bubbles. Artificially low interests allow phantom companies with negative earnings and weak balance sheet to borrow cheap credit and stay afloat. 

The financial crisis of 2008 – 2009 was caused by lower interest rates, which increased the value of US real estate. Many borrowers who otherwise couldn’t afford a mortgage took on cheap loans to buy properties around the country. This led to a real estate bubble which burst soon after the Fed started hiking the interest rates.

One bright spot

The lower interest rate will allow millions of Americans to refinance their mortgage, student debt, or personal loan. If you have borrowed money in the last three year, you might be eligible for refinancing. Be diligent, talk to your banker, and assess all options before taking the next step.

Reach out

If you need help with your investment portfolio or have questions about generating income from your investments, reach out to me at stoyan@babylonwealth.com or 925-448-9880.

You can also visit my Insights page, where you can find helpful articles and resources on how to make better financial and investment decisions.

About the author:

Stoyan Panayotov, CFA, MBA is a fee-only financial advisor in Walnut Creek, CA, serving clients in the San Francisco Bay Area and nationally. Babylon Wealth Management specializes in financial planning, retirement planning, and investment management for growing families and successful business owners.

Subscribe to get our new Insights delivered right to your inbox

The Secret to becoming a 401k millionaire

401k millionaire

How to become a 401k millionaire? Today, 401k plans are one of the most popular employee benefits. Companies use 401k plans to attract top talent. 401k plan is a powerful vehicle to save for retirement and become financially independent. According to Fidelity, there are 180,000 Fidelity 401(k) plans with a balance of $1 million or more. Congratulations to you If you are one of them. There are still many helpful tips that can get you to reach your financial goals while keeping your investments safe.

You hear stories about people with a million dollars in their 401k plan. Then you look at your 401k balance, and it doesn’t look as high as you would like it to be.

The path to becoming a 401k millionaire

I hope this article will guide you on your path to become a 401k millionaire.

There are many variables that can impact your 401k account – age, salary, debt, tax rate, risk tolerance, plan fees, employee match.

Becoming a 401k millionaire is not as hard as it might seem. However, you need to follow a few simple rules that can get you on the right path.

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.”

Start saving early in your 401k

Saving early in your 401k will guarantee you the highest chance to become a 401k millionaire at the lowest cost.

I did the math for how much you need to contribute if you start fresh at any age. These numbers are based on assumptions for continuous monthly 401k contributions until reaching 65 with a 7% average annual market return for a 60/40 portfolio and 2% annual inflation.  Keep in mind that these assumptions are just assumptions and only for illustration purposes.  Your situation could be unique and could change the math dramatically.

401k Contributions by Age if you start fresh

 

Age|Monthly
Contribution
|Yearly
Contribution
|Lifetime
Contribution
25$387$4,644$190,404
30$560$6,720$241,920
35$820$9,840$305,040
40$1,220$14,640$380,640
45$1,860$22,320$468,720
50$3,000$36,000$576,000
55$5,300$63,600$699,600

 

What drives the growth of your 401k is the power of compounding. It’s the snowball effect of accumulating earning generating more earnings over time. The longer you wait, the larger the amount you will need to contribute to reaching your 1-million goal.

If you are 25-years old and just starting your career, you need to save approximately $390 per month or $4,644 annually to reach the $1-million goal by the age of 65. Your lifetime contribution between the age of 25 and 65 will be $190,000.

When you start saving in your 30s this target number goes to $560 per month. Your lifetime contribution between the age of 30 and 65 will be $241,920.

Your saving rate goes up to 1,220 per month if you start saving actively in your 40s and increases to $5,330 at the age off 55.

Take advantage of your employer match

If my recommended monthly contribution looks like an uphill battle, don’t forget about your employer match. Many employers offer a 401k match to attract and keep top talent. The match could be a percentage of your salary, one-to-one match or an absolute dollar amount. If your employer offers a 4% match, at a minimum you should contribute 4% to your 401k plan. Take full advantage of this opportunity to get free money.

Max out your 401k

In 2020, you can make up to $19,500 contribution to your 401k plan. If you can afford it, always try to max out your contributions.

Catch-up contributions when 50 and older

If you are 50 years or older, you can make an additional $6,500 contribution to your plan. Combined with the $19,500 limit, that is a maximum of $26,000 in 2020.

Save aggressively

Obviously, owning $1 million is a big accomplishment. However, it may not be enough to sustain your lifestyle during retirement.  As a financial advisor, I recommend to my clients replacing at least 80% of their income before retirement. If you are a high earner or plan to retire early, you need to save more aggressively to reach your goals.

Be consistent

An important part of the formula of becoming a 401k millionaire is consistency.  Saving every month and every year is a critical part of achieving your financial goals. On the contrary, large gaps could hurt your chances of reaching your financial goals.

Don’t panic during market turbulence

The market can be volatile. Don’t let your emotions get the worst of you. Nobody has made any money panicking. During the financial crisis of 2008-2009, many people stopped contributing to their 401k plans or moved their investments into cash. These folks never participated in the market recovery and the longest bull market in history. Stay invested. And think of this way. If the market goes down, your plan will invest your automatic monthly contributions at the lower prices. You are already getting a deal.

Watch your fees

Higher fees can erode your returns and slow down the pursuit of your financial goals. I recently advised a 401k plan, where the average fund’s fees were 1.5%. In the age of ETFs and index investing it is mind-blowing that some 401k plan still charges exuberantly high fees. If your 401k plan charges high fees, talk to your manager or HR representative and demand lower fee options.

Be mindful of your taxes

Taxes play a big role in 401k planning. Most 401k contributions are tax-deferred. Meaning that your contributions will reduce your current taxable income. Your investments will grow tax-free until you reach retirement age. You start paying taxes on your withdrawals. There are a couple of strategies you can implement to make your withdrawals to make more tax-efficient. You can reach out to me if you have any questions on that topic as every situation is unique and could require a unique solution.

Roth 401k

Currently, some employers offer a Roth 401k contribution as an additional option to their plan. Unlike the tax-deferred option, Roth 401k contributions are made on an after-tax basis. Roth 401k contributions don’t have an immediate financial impact. However, if planned well, Roth contributions could help you immensely to reach your financial goals. For example, let’s assume that you are in a low tax bracket and your employers offer both tax-deferred and Roth 401k contributions. The tax-deferred option is usually the default. But if you are in a low tax bracket, your tax benefit will be minimal. In that case, maybe it’s worth selecting the Roth 401k.

Don’t take a loan

Under no circumstances, you should take a loan from your 401k plan. No matter how dire the situation is, try to find an alternative.  Taking a loan from your 401k can set you back many years in achieving your financial goal of becoming a 401k millionaire. Obviously, all rules have exceptions, but before you take a loan from your 401k, talk to your financial advisor first for alternatives.

Keep a long-term view

Life happens. Markets go up and down. You can lose your job or change employers. You need to pay off a big loan. Your car breaks down. You need money for a down payment on your first house. Something always happens. Circumstances change. Whatever happens, keep a long-term view. Your 401k plan could be the answer to your financial independence. Don’t make rash decisions.

Reach out

If you need help growing your 401k savings, or learn how to manage your 401k investments, reach out to me at stoyan@babylonwealth.com or +925-448-9880.

You can also visit my Insights page, where you can find helpful articles and resources on how to make better financial and investment decisions.

About the author:

Stoyan Panayotov, CFA, MBA is a fee-only financial advisor in Walnut Creek, CA, serving clients in the San Francisco Bay Area and nationally. Babylon Wealth Management specializes in financial planning, retirement planning, and investment management for growing families and successful business owners.

The Smart Way to Manage Your Sudden Wealth

The Smart Way to Manage Your Sudden Wealth

Getting rich is the dream of many people. When your sudden wealth becomes a reality, you need to be ready for the new responsibilities and challenges. As someone experienced in helping my clients manage their sudden wealth, I want to share some of my experience.

Wealth sources

Your sudden windfall can come from many different sources – receiving an Inheritance, winning the lottery, selling your business or a real estate property, signing a new sport or music contract, royalties from a bestselling book or a hit song, or selling shares after your company finally goes public. Whatever the source is, your life is about to change. Being rich brings a unique level of issues.  Your new wealth can have a variety of financial, legal and core repercussions to your life.

Avoid making any immediate changes to your life

Don’t make big and hasty changes to your lifestyle. I recommend that you wait at least six months. Let the big news sink in your mind.  Let things settle down before quitting your job, moving to another city or making a large purchase. Keep it quiet. The next six month will give you a chance to reassess your life, control your emotions and set your priorities.

Figure out what you own

This is the moment you have been waiting for all your life. You are probably very excited, and you deserve it. There are tons of things you want to do with your money. But before you do anything.  Take a deep breath. Figure out exactly what you own. Gather all necessary information about your assets. Maybe your sudden windfall is in cash. However, your new wealth could be in real estate, land, stocks, art, gold, rare wines, luxury cars and so on. Not always your new fortunate can easily be converted into cash. Each wealth source is unique on its own and has specific legal and financial rules.

Build your team

Your financial life is about to become a lot more complicated. You will need a team of trusted experts who will help you navigate through these changes. Your financial team can help you understand your wealth.   They watch your back and flag any blind spots. Talk to your team and figure what are your options.

Hire a CPA

You are rich. And that’s a great news for the IRS and your state. There is a very good chance you will pay more taxes that you ever imagined. Start assembling your financial team by hiring a reputable CPA who understands your situation and can steer you through the complex world of taxes.  Each source of wealth has unique tax rules. Find out what rules apply to you.

Hire a financial advisor

Look for a trusted fiduciary financial advisor with experience managing sudden wealth. A fiduciary advisor will look after your best interest and guide you in your new journey. Talk to your new advisors about your personal and financial goals and how to reach them with the help of your new wealth.

Have a financial plan

Ask your advisor to craft a financial plan that is tailored to your unique situation, specific needs and financial objectives. Figure out how your sudden wealth can help you reach your goals – retire early, send your kids to college, buy a new house, become self-employed. The list is endless. Talk to your advisor about your risk tolerance. Many of my clients who earned a windfall have a low risk appetite. An important part of our conversation is how to reach their goals without taking on too much risk.

Protect your new wealth

You need to take steps to protect your sudden windfall.  For a starter, try to keep

If your new money is sitting in your checking account, make sure you allocate it among several different banks and account types. Remember that FDIC insurance covers up to 250k per person per bank in each account category.

If you inherited real estate or art or some other type of physical property make sure to have solid Insurance to protect you from unexpected events.  

In case you received stocks or other investments, speak to your financial advisor how to hedge them from market volatility and losing value.

Have an estate plan

No matter how well you plan, life can be unpredictable. Getting a windfall is a great opportunity to update your estate plan or craft a new one. The estate plan will protect your loved ones and ensure your legacy in the face of the unknown. If something happens to you, your fortune will be used and divided per your own wish. The alternative is going through a lengthy and expensive probate process that may not have the same outcome.

Pay off your debts

If you owe money, you have a chance to pay off your debts.  Credit cards debts and any personal loans with high interest should be your priority. Your new wealth can help your live a debt-free life. This is one area where working with a financial advisor will make a big difference in your life.  

Beware that many people who receive sudden windfall end up borrowing more money and sometimes filing for bankruptcy.  Don’t be that person. You still need to live within your means.

Plan your taxes

Depending on the source of sudden wealth you may owe taxes to the IRS and your state either immediately or sometime in the near future. Don’t underestimate your tax bill. Your CPA and financial advisor should help you understand and prepare for your current and future tax bills.

Don’t overspend

Many lottery winners and former athletes file for bankruptcy due to poor spending habits, lending money to family and friends and money mismanagement. The fact that you are rich doesn’t mean that you can’t lose your money. You need to be responsible. Talk to your advisor about your monthly budget and what you can afford.  

Be philanthropic

Making a donation is an excellent way to give back to the society and leave a legacy.  If you have a charitable cause close to your heart, you make a difference. Often time, charitable contributions can be tax-deductible and lower your tax bill. Talk to your CPA and financial advisors how you can achieve that.

Conclusion

Sudden Wealth can come in all shapes and forms – cash, real estate, land, ongoing business, royalties, stocks, and many others. Even though it might not be completely unexpected, the way you feel about after the fact might be shocking to you. Don’t let your emotions get the worst of you. Getting windfall is a great life accomplishment. And you should make the best out of it.  Work with your team of trusted professionals and build a long-term plan with milestones and objectives.

Reach out

If you are expecting a windfall or recently received a sudden wealth, reach out to me at stoyan@babylonwealth.com or +925-448-9880.

You can also visit my Insights page where you can find helpful articles and resources on how to make better financial and investment decisions.

About the author:

Stoyan Panayotov, CFA, MBA is a fee-only financial advisor in Walnut Creek, CA, serving clients in the San Francisco Bay Area and nationally. Babylon Wealth Management specializes in financial planning, retirement planning, and investment management for growing families and successful business owners.

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Why you need a Roth IRA

Roth IRA

Do you have a Roth IRA? If you never heard about it, I hope this article will convince you to open one. Roth IRA is a tax-exempt investment account that allows you to make after-tax contributions to save for retirement.  The Roth IRA has a tax free status. It is a great way to save for retirement and meet your financial goals without paying a dime for taxes on your investments. The Roth IRA offers you a lot of flexibility with very few constraints.

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1. Plan for your future

Opening a Roth IRA account is a great way to plan for your retirement and build your financial independence. The Roth IRA is an excellent saving opportunity for many young professionals and pretty much anyone with limited access to workplace retirement plans. Even those with who have 401k plans with their employer can open a Roth IRA.

If you are single and earn $122,000 or less in 2019, you can contribute up to $6,000 per year in your Roth IRA. Individuals 50 years old and above can add a catch-up contribution of $1,000. If you are married filing jointly, you can contribute the full amount if your MAGI is under $193,000.

There is a phaseout amount between $122,000 and $137,000 for single filers and $193,000 and $203,000 for married filing jointly.

2. No age limit

There is no age limit for your contributions. You can contribute to your Roth IRA at any age as long as you earn income.

Minors who earn income can also invest in Roth IRA. While youngsters have fewer opportunities to make money, there are many sources of income that will count – babysitting, garden cleaning, child acting, modeling, selling lemonade, distributing papers, etc.

3. No investment restrictions

Unlike most 401k plans, Roth IRAs do not have any restriction on the type of investments in the account. You can invest in any asset class that suits your risk tolerance and financial goals.

4. No taxes

There are no taxes on the distributions from this account once you reach the age of 59 ½. Your investments will grow tax-free.  You will never pay taxes on your capital gains and dividends either. Roth IRA is a great saving tool for investors at all income levels and tax brackets.

With an average historical growth rate of 7%, your investment of $6,000 today could bring you $45,674 in 30 years completely tax-free. The cumulative effect of your return and the tax status of the account will help your investments grow faster.

5. No penalties if you withdraw your original investment

While not always recommended, Roth IRA allows you to withdraw your original dollar contribution (but not the return) before reaching retirement, penalty and tax-free. Say, you invested $5,000 several years ago. And now the account has grown to $15,000. You can withdraw your initial contribution of $5,000 without penalties.

6. Diversify your future tax exposure

It is very likely that most of your retirement savings will be in a 401k plan or an investment account. 401k plans are tax-deferred and you will owe taxes on any distributions. Investment accounts are taxable and you pay taxes on capital gains and dividends. In reality, nobody can predict what your tax rate will be by the time you need to take out money from your retirement and investment accounts. Roth IRA adds this highly flexible tax-advantaged component to your investments.

7. No minimum distributions

Unlike 401k plans, Roth IRA doesn’t have any minimum distributions requirements. Investors have the freedom to withdraw their savings at their wish or keep them intact indefinitely.

8. Do a backdoor Roth conversion

Due to recent legal changes investors who do not satisfy the requirements for direct Roth IRA contributions, can still make investments to it. The process starts with a taxable contribution, up to the annual limit, into a Traditional IRA. Eventually, the contributions are rolled from the Traditional IRA to the Roth IRA.

9. Roth conversion from Traditional IRA and 401k plans

Under certain circumstances, it could make sense for you to rollover your Traditional IRA and an old 401k plan to Roth IRA. If you expect to earn less income or pay lower taxes in a particular year, it could be beneficial to consider this Roth conversion. Your rollover amount will be taxable at your current ordinary income tax level. An alternative strategy is to consider annual rollovers in amounts that will keep you within your tax bracket.

10. Estate planning

Roth IRA is an excellent estate planning tool. Due to its age flexibility and no minimum required distributions, Roth IRA makes it a good option for generation transfer and leaving a legacy to your beloved ones.

Final words

Roth IRA is an excellent starting point for young professionals. It can help you reach your financial goals faster. So open your account now to maximize its full potential. Investing early in your career will lay out the path for your financial independence.

Reach out

If you’d like to discuss how to open a new Roth IRA or make the most out of your existing account, reach out to me at stoyan@babylonwealth.com or +925-448-9880.

You can also visit our Insights page where you can find helpful articles and resources on how to make better financial and investment decisions.

About the author:

Stoyan Panayotov, CFA is the founder and CEO of Babylon Wealth Management, a fee-only investment advisory firm based in Walnut Creek, CA. Babylon Wealth Management offers personalized wealth management and financial planning services to individuals and families.  To learn more visit our Private Client Services page here.

Essential Guide to Your Employee Stock Purchase Plan

Employee Stock Purchase Plan

What is ESPP

Employee Stock Purchase Plan (ESPP) is a popular tool for companies to allow their employees to participate in the company’s growth and success by becoming shareholders. ESPP gives you the option to buy shares of your employer at a discount price. Most companies set a discount between 10% and 15%. Unlike RSUs and restricted stocks, the shares you purchase through an ESPP are not subject to any vesting schedule restrictions. That means you own the shares immediately after purchase. There are two types of ESPP – qualified and non-qualified. Qualified ESPP generally meets the requirements under Section 423 of the Internal Revenue Code and receive a more favorable tax treatment. Since most ESPP are qualified, I will only talk about them in this article.

How ESPP works

Your company will typically provide you with information about enrollment and offering dates, contribution limits, discounts, and purchasing schedule. There will be specific periods throughout the year when employees can enroll in the plan. During that time, you are required to decide if you want to participate and set a percentage of your salary to be deducted every month to contribute to the stock purchase plan. The IRS allows up to $25,000 limit for ESPP contributions. Make sure you set your percentage, so you don’t cross over this limit.

At this point, you are all set. Your employer will withhold your selected percentage every paycheck. The contributions will accumulate over time and will be used to buy the company stock on the purchase date.

Offering period and look-back provision

Offering periods of most ESPPs are ranging from 6 to 24 months. The longer periods could have multiple six-month periods for purchase. Your employer will use your salary contributions that accrue over time to buy shares from the company stock on your behalf.

Most ESPP offer a look-back provision will allow you to purchase the shares at a discount from the lowest of the beginning and ending price of the offering period.

ESPP Example

For example, let’s assume that on January 2nd, your company stock traded at $100 per share. The stock price had a nice run and ended the six-month period on June 30 at 120. Your ESPP will allow you to buy the stock at 15% of the lowest price, which is $00. You will end up paying $85 for a stock worth $120.

The price discount is what makes the ESPP attractive to employees of high growth companies. By acquiring your company stock at a discount, the ESPP lowers your investment risk, provides you a buffer from future price declines, and sets a more significant upside if the price goes up further.

Selling your ESPP shares

Some ESPPs allow you to sell your shares immediately after the purchase date, realizing an instant gain of 17.65%. Others may have a holding period restriction during which you cannot sell your shares. Find out from your HR.

Taxation

An ESPP plan has its own unique set of tax rules. All contributions are pretax and subject to federal, state and local taxes.

Keeping your stock will not a create a tax event. In other words, you don’t owe any taxes to IRS if you never sell your shares. However, the moment you decide to sell is when things get tricky.

The discount is treated as ordinary income

The first to remember is that the price discount is always treated as ordinary income. You will add the value of the discount to your regular annual income and pay taxes according to your tax bracket.

Capital gains

The difference between the selling price and the purchase price is considered a realized capital gain. There are two types of capital gains – short-term and long-term. Short-term gains are triggered if you sell your stocks in less than one year after the purchase date. You will pay taxes on short-term capital gains as an ordinary income according to your tax bracket.

Long-term capital gains vary between 0%, 15% and 20% depending on your income. In order to get preferential this lower rate from the IRS, you need to keep your shares for more than 2 years from the offer date and 1 year from the purchase date.

Investment risk

Being a shareholder in a solid high growth company could offer a significant boost to your personal finances. In some cases, it could make you an overnight millionaire.

However, here is the other side of the story. Owning too much stock of a company in bad financial health could impose a significant risk to your overall investment portfolio and retirement goals. Participating in the ESPP of a company with a constantly dropping or volatile stock price is like a catching a falling knife. The discount price could give you some downside protection, but you can continue to lose money if the price continues to go down. The price of General Electric, one of the longest Dow Jones members, went down more than 65% in one year.

Remember Enron and Lehman

Many of you remember or heard of Enron and Lehman Brothers. If your company seizes to exist for whatever reason, you could not only lose your job but all your investments in the firm could be wiped out.

You are already earning a salary from your employer. Concentrating your wealth and income from the same source could jeopardize your financial health if your company fails to succeed in its business ventures.

As a fiduciary advisor, I always recommend diversification and caution. Try to limit your exposure to your company stock and sell your shares periodically. Sometimes paying taxes is worth the peace of mind and safety. 

Conclusion

Participating in your employer’s ESPP is an excellent way to acquire company stock at a discount and get involved in your company’s future. While risky, owning company stock often comes with a huge financial upside. Realizing some of these gains could help you build a strong foundation for retirement and financial freedom. When managed properly, it can help you achieve your financial goals, whether they are buying a home, taking your kids to college or early retirement.

Reach out

Keep in many that most ESPPs have different rules. Therefore, this article may not address the specific features of your plan. If you’d like to discuss how to make the most out of your ESPP, please feel free to reach out and learn more about our fee-only financial advisory services. I will meet you in one of our offices in San Francisco, Oakland, Walnut Creek, and Pleasant Hill areas. As a CFA® Charterholder with an MBA degree in Finance and 15+ years in the financial industry, I am ready to answer your questions.

Stoyan Panayotov, CFA 
Founder|Babylon Wealth Management

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Solving the student debt crisis

Student Debt Growth

The looming student debt crisis

As a financial advisor working with many young families, I am regularly discussing college planning. Many of my clients want to help their children with the constantly growing college tuition. Currently, the amount of US student debt is $1.56 trillion spread among 45 million borrowers. By 2023, 40% of borrowers can default on their loans. I am not running for a president, but I am very curious about the upcoming debate about fighting the upcoming student debt in America.

One recent proposal from the Republican party was to allow 529 plan participants to pay off student debt.

Another proposal from the presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren is to cancel student debt partially or entirely for households based on their income. Furthermore, many Democrat Candidate signed for free public college for all.

While all these ideas have certain merits, I am not confident that they will solve the problem long-term. As a parent and married to my wife who is paying off student loans, I would like to share my opinion.  Here are some of my suggestions

Promote 529 plans

In one of my previous articles, I discussed the benefits of 529 plans. Sadly, only 30% of US families know about or use 529 plans. It’s really striking how little Americans know about this option. 529 plans are state-sponsored tax-advantaged investment accounts allowing parents and other family members to save for qualified college expenses. It literally takes 5-10 minutes to open a 529 account.

Make 529 contributions tax-deductible

Currently, 529 contributions are after taxes. The tax advantage comes from not paying taxes on any future capital gains if you use the funds to pay for eligible college expenses. Additionally, over 30 states offer full or partial state income tax deduction on 529 contributions.

I would like to go one step further and propose federal income tax deduction up to a certain annual limit (say $5,000 or $10,000) with a phaseout over certain household income level (call it $250,000). This income deduction will help low and middle-class families save for college without putting a massive strain on their budget.

Expand the Employer-sponsored 529 plans

In reality, most US families do not use the 529 plan because they don’t know about them or are uncertain about their investment choices. One way to popularize the 529 plan is motivating employers to include them as part of their benefits package similar to 401k plans. Employees can set up automatic payroll deposits and make regular contributions to their 529 accounts. Unfortunately, according to a recent survey by Gradadvisor, only 7% of employers offer 529 plans through their benefits.

Currently, the employer 529 match is taxable income to the parent. At the end of the year, the parent must pay personal taxes on any amount received through their employer.

I believe this provision is discouraging a lot of people to participate in these plans. In order to encourage higher participation in employer-sponsored 529 plans., the employer match should not be treated as income to the parent if used for qualified educational expenses.

Promote more work-study grants and employer-sponsored scholarships

Many college graduates leave school unprepared for the real world. Sometimes, I feel that there is a disconnect between skills learned at school and those needed to compete in the work marketplace.

While many public and private schools are doing a great job in teaching students those skills, I think we can do much better by connecting the school programs with the business. Let’s face it. Unless you are from an Ivy League school, how many students have had the chance to speak to a corporate CEO, a successful small business owner or a community leader.

With US unemployment at a record low, many businesses are struggling to find qualified workers. If we can encourage schools and employers to work together and set up employer-sponsored scholarships, internship programs, and work-study grants, we will have a lot more students learning real-life skills, earn money while study and potentially come out with smaller or no student loans.

Have personal finance as a mandatory class in high school and college

Only 1/3 states require a mandatory personal finance class in high school. And zero states mandate it in college. It may sound radical, but I believe that every high school and public college should require one personal finance class in the curriculum regardless of the student major.

Teaching kids and young adults essential financial skills like saving money, budgeting, and investing will help them make better choices later in life.

It also means that we need to find teachers who can coach personal finance. Unfortunately, finance and economics are mostly taught in business schools and largely ignored outside of the space. This is where connecting schools with local business leaders can be helpful.

Extend the Non-Taxable Loan Forgiveness

There are several Federal and State programs that offer Loan Forgiveness. However, in most cases, student loan forgiveness is treated as taxable income in the year when the loan was written off.  For some borrowers performing public service or working as teachers, lawyers and physicians in underserved areas, the loan forgiveness can be tax-free.

If your employer offers to pay off your student loans, you will receive a tax bill from the IRS. The amount of your forgiven loan will be added to your annual income and taxed as ordinary income. Knowing this tax trap, very few people opt for that option. If you can’t afford to pay off your student loan, what are the chances you can pay the taxes on the loan forgiveness?

Separately, being an elementary school teacher in a desirable area like Manhattan or San Francisco doesn’t make you financially better off than the rest of your colleagues. Most teachers can’t afford to live in San Francisco or Manhattan on a teacher’s salary, how do we expect them to pay off their loans.

Furthermore, non-taxable loan forgiveness should be designed to reward responsible borrowers who are paying off their loans regularly. I think a dollar to dollar match could encourage more people to pay off their loans.

What about loan cancellation

Canceling loans entirely or partially is a very admirable idea but it could turn into a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s not completely fair to people who are diligently paying off their student loans month after month. And on the other hand, loan cancellation will encourage more people to take on student debt and not pay it. It might provide temporary relief, but it will not solve the problem long-term. I much rather find a way to empower and educate borrowers.

Improve student access to financial advice

How many parents or students speak to a financial advisor before taking a student loan? I bet a lot less than we hope for. Maybe it’s partially our fault as finance professionals but as a society, we need to find a way to get more financial advisors and colleges.

Before the TJCA of 2017, professional service expenses such as fees for CPAs and financial advisors were tax-deductible. I am not sure how many people took advantage of this deduction, probably not too many, but it was one way to encourage people to seek professional financial advice.

The sad truth is that the people who can afford financial advice are not those who needed it the most. So how about, make the financial advisory fees tax-deductible for low income and middle-class families. Or encourage financial advisors to provide free public service. I believe many of my colleagues will be happy to provide free advice in a meaningful and impactful way.

Reach out

If you’d like to discuss how to pay off your student loans, open a new 529 plan or make the most out of your existing 529 account, please feel free to reach out and learn more about my fee-only financial advisory services. I can meet you in one of our offices in San Francisco, Oakland, Walnut Creek, and Pleasant Hill areas or connect by phone. As a CFA® Charterholder with an MBA degree in Finance and 15+ years in the financial industry, I am ready to answer your questions.

Stoyan Panayotov, CFA 
Founder | Babylon Wealth Management

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All you need to know about Restricted Stock Units (RSUs)

RSUs

Employers, especially many startups, use different compensation options to attract and keep top performing employees. A common alternative is equity compensation, which allows employees to share in the ownership and the profits of the company. Equity compensation takes different forms such as stock options, restricted stocks, and deferred comp. Today, most companies are resorting to the use of restricted stock unit (RSU) as a significant compensation package. If you are fortunate to receive RSUs from your employer, you should understand the basics of this corporate perk. Here is all you need to know about Restricted Stock Units (RSUs) and some essential tips on how to manage them.

What are Restricted Stock Units (RSUs)?

A restricted stock unit (RSU) is a type of equity compensation given by an employer to an employee in the form of company stock. Employees receive RSUs through a vesting plan and distribution schedule after achieving required performance milestones or upon remaining with their employer for a particular length of time. RSUs give an employee interest in company stock but they have no tangible value until vesting is complete.

Vesting Schedule

Companies issue restricted stock units according to a vesting schedule.
The vesting schedule outlines the rules by which employees receive full ownership of their company stock. The restricted stock units are assigned a fair market value when they vest. Upon vesting, they are considered income, and often a portion of the shares is withheld to pay income taxes. The employees receive the remaining shares and can sell them at their discretion.

Grant Date and Vesting Date

As an employee, you should be aware of these essential RSU dates. The grant date is the date when the company pledges the shares to you.

You only own the shares when the granted shares are ‘vested.’ The vesting date when the employer transfers the full ownership of the shares to you. At that point, the stock becomes fully vested, and they are owned by the employee.

Even though RSUs offer employees ownership in company stock, they usually don’t have a tangible value before vesting. When vesting is complete, the restricted stock units are valued according to the fair market value at that time.

Taxes on RSUs

The fair market value of your vested RSUs is considered personal income in the year of vesting. Typically, companies withhold part of the shares for federal and state income taxes. The remaining shares are given to the employees. At this point, you can decide to keep or sell them at your wish. If your employer doesn’t withhold taxes for your vested shares, you will be responsible for paying these taxes during the tax season.

Once the RSUs are converted to company stock, you become a shareholder in your firm. You will be able to sell some of these shares subject to companies’-imposed trading windows and executive limits. If the stock price goes up after vesting you will need to pay either short-term capital gain taxes for shares held less than a year from date or long-term capital gains taxes in shares held longer than one year.

Investment risk

Being a shareholder in your firm could be very exciting. If your company is in great health and growing solidly, this could be an enormous boost to your personal finances.

However, here is the other side of the story. Owning too much of your company stock could impose significant risks to your investment portfolio and retirement goals. You are already earning a salary from your employer. Concentrating your entire wealth and income from the same source could jeopardize your financial health if your employer fails to succeed in its business ventures. Many of you remember the fall of Enron and Lehman Brothers. Many of their employees lost not only their jobs but a significant portion of their retirement savings.  

As a fiduciary advisor, I always recommend diversification and caution. Try to limit your exposure to your employer and sell your shares periodically. Sometimes paying taxes is worth the peace of mind and safety.

Conclusion

Receiving RSUs is an excellent way to acquire company stock and become part of your company’s future. While risky owning RSUs often comes with a huge financial upside. Realizing some of these gains could help you build a strong foundation for retirement and financial freedom. When managed properly, they can help you achieve your financial goals, whether they are buying a home, taking your kids to college or early retirement.

Reach out

If you’d like to discuss how to make the most out of your RSUs, please feel free to reach out and learn more about our fee-only financial advisory services. We will meet you in one of our offices in San Francisco, Oakland, Walnut Creek, and Pleasant Hill areas. As a CFA® Charterholder with an MBA degree in Finance and 15+ years in the financial industry, I am ready to answer your questions.

Stoyan Panayotov, CFA
Founder|Babylon Wealth Management

CFA Charterholder. Let's build a better world for investing.

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