It’s time to review several things we’ve covered in past BWE posts – Part II

By BOB CUNNINGHAM

Continuing with the post from last week, in which we are examining some basic financial principles from a “fantasy and reality” perspective:

“Invest in your company’s 401K Plan.”  The most common workplace retirement savings vehicle is a 401K Plan, which is a qualified (i.e. government-sponsored) account in which the company holds your money and pays a brokerage to invest it for you into various securities.

FANTASY:   Max out your 401K Plan (the government places limits on how much you are allowed to contribute annually) as soon as you can.  The government is truly generous in allowing us an account that can grow tax-deferred.

REALITY:   Doing so means you’re trusting others to manage your money, in markets that are risky and volatile, and forfeiting access to your money until you’re age 59 1/2 (unless you want to pay a 10% penalty on top of standard taxation) and the account has been in existence at least five years.  It’s true that many companies offer a match up to a certain percentage of your income.  As a secondary retirement savings instrument, I’m fine with maximizing the company match (example – company matches 25% of the first 5% you have deducted from your paycheck to be put into your 401K).  Otherwise, there are better places to put your savings where you have safety and complete control. And once and for all:  Tax-deferred doesn’t mean tax-free, and it doesn’t result in more compiled money once you’ve paid income tax at the back-end.

“The most important aspect of investing is Rate of Return.” How much compound interest your money makes as it is invested in stocks, bonds, precious metals, real estate, or any other from among a host of investment choices IS something you’re going to want to track.  But there are other factors.

FANTASY:  You should be investing your money where you can earn the highest returns.  The stock market has risk, but it has gone up steadily over the long-term so if you leave your money in the markets, you’ll most certainly come out ahead.

REALITY:  I can’t quite recall where I first read the following, but the adage is oh-so accurate:  The most important part of savings and investing isn’t the return on your money.  It’s the return of your money.  I’ve never fully understood why otherwise sensible people have allowed themselves to become convinced that they should put their hard-earned life savings at significant risk.  In 2008-09, I personally knew folks who saw their nest-eggs drop by 40 percent.  They are just now fully recouping those losses, and that’s amidst the longest-lasting bull market in any of our lifetimes.  Remember, in a previous post we demonstrated how a 5% return every year can out-perform and average of 10 percent over the same period, in the same way that a 50% gain followed by a 50% loss results in a 25% net loss (Don’t believe me? Try it starting with $100 to make the math simple).  Slow and steady wins the race.  Just ask either the tortoise or the hare.  Better yet, ask them both.  Wouldn’t steady gains with no market risk – that’s zero risk, ladies and gentlemen – seem to be more intelligent when it comes to something as important as retirement savings? As opposed to hoping your funds return double-digits and avoid big declines along the way?  The answer is yes, because it is,

“Buy term and invest the difference.” This expression, of course, is referring to life insurance.  There two primary types – term and permanent.  Term insurance is solely a death benefit in exchange for a monthly (or annual) premium.  Permanent insurance includes products like whole life insurance, and can be set up to function in several capacities in addition to providing a death benefit.

FANTASY:  Because term is cheaper, it is advisable to buy term and then take the amount of money you’re saving on premiums versus permanent insurance and invest it in the stock market or other vehicle for long-term returns.

REALITY:  It sounds logical enough on its face, but two big problems here.  First, the vast majority of folks who intend to follow this strategy won’t “invest” the difference.  They will spend it… on stuff that depreciates.  And I simply don’t believe in unrealistic advice, even if the logic is sound (which it really isn’t here).  Secondly, there’s an obvious reason that permanent insurance tends to be more expensive than term.  IT DOES A LOT MORE FOR YOU!  Dividend-paying whole life, the product choice for permanent insurance suggested by this blog, offers a host of “living benefits” in addition to the fundamental death benefit.  The premiums are higher because the product is superior, on numerous levels. To recommend term strictly because it’s cheaper demonstrates a lack of reasonable research and comparison.

I hope you enjoyed this review and reaped some additional wisdom, or at least some reinforcement, from it.  Once again, thank you for taking time from your busy schedule to join us weekly on this site.

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DISCLAIMER:  This post represents the author’s opinions only.  In no way should any part of the content of this post be interpreted as official financial advice, nor does it represent an intention to solicit readers into a specific company or investment.  Results are never guaranteed.  Utilize the information as you see fit, make all money decisions at your own risk.

 

It’s time to review several things we’ve covered in past BWE posts – Part I

By BOB CUNNINGHAM

(Note to my readers:  My apologies for being a day late with this post.  This marks a permanent change to Tuesday morning release of my new post each week.  The change is due primarily to professional convenience.  Thanks for your understanding.)

This website is, first and foremost, dedicated to coaching people how to best go about the various tasks related to savvy personal finance.  Achieving success can be accomplished through a mixture of some sound fundamental principles, combined with the reality that many strategies which are considered advisable by the masses are, instead, more beneficial to others.

What does that all mean?  Translated into one expression,

    “Unconventional wisdom, in many cases, is better than conventional.”

As you read, listen, watch, and research the world of personal finance, you will encounter some common themes preached by everyone from the most famous gurus to the tiniest out-of-the-mainstream blogs (I’d like to believe I’m somewhere in between, but closer to the latter than the former.)

This blog has been dedicated to assisting you in deciphering what to believe and trust, and what not to.  We’ve taken individual topics and broken them down into pieces small enough to digest in a way that allows us to effectively learn just how such habits can affect us, short- and long-term.

What I haven’t really done, until the paragraphs to follow today and next week, is put together a summary of the major points made through this blog’s seven months of existence.  So let’s get to it.  I’m calling this, “Personal Finance:  Fantasy and Reality.”  Part I is below, with Part II to run Oct 17.

“Pay Yourself First.”   This is arguably the most common adage in the world of money.  It simply means that you should set aside money for savings and/or investing before you earmark funds to pay your bills and for everyday expenses.  The theory, of course, is that if you get in the habit of doing this, you’re guaranteed to save more and anything is better than nothing.

FANTASY:  Saving even the smallest amount on a regular basis will eventually lead to significant holdings, from which you can build on additionally.

REALITY:  While it’s true that something is always better than nothing, there has to be a definitive goal for increasing savings regularly, and it should only be undertaken after expensive personal debt, such as credit cards that can have APRs well more than 20 percent, is eradicated.  One of the most common mistakes is to save slowly in an account earning less than 1% while simultaneously carrying a balance on a credit card charging 23.9% interest compounded.  Spend every extra dime paying off the card, stop charging stuff unless you pay it off entirely by the due date, and THEN ratchet up the savings to blow away what you would have accumulated – and wasted – otherwise.

“You need to save at least 3 to 6 months of living expenses in an emergency account.”  The idea is that if you have this kind of a reserve, loss of your job for an extended period won’t put you in the poorhouse – or worse, your parents’ basement.

FANTASY:  This is one of my favorite finance fables.  Some pretty well-known gurus claim it’s better to have a year’s worth saved.  Sure, and it would be better if my retirement savings had one or two additional zeroes, too.  In truth, for 95% of the population on this planet it is a complete fantasy to have a liquid cash reserve of $10,000 or more and be willing to leave it alone for a rainy day.  There’s a better HD television available.  It’s an emergency!!

REALITY:  A much savvier plan is a basic reserve fund of $1,000-$2,000 for things such as auto repairs.  But actually, I propose to use your credit cards as your emergency fund.  As long as you’re disciplined – and let’s face it, discipline is required when utilizing any type of advisable strategy – you can use a credit card to charge a true emergency and then formulate a plan to pay off the card with minimal damage.  Saving more than the aforementioned $1K-$2K means you’re not utilizing legitimate funds properly.  You should be investing those funds in debt elimination, or a dividend-paying whole life insurance policy, or if you must, low-cost index funds, or even in your work’s 401K plan (more on that next week).  All are preferable to letting inflation eat away at the buying power of a tidy sum dedicated to nothing… and earning next to nothing in a regular savings account.

“Avoid credit cards.”  Because they are debt instruments, many gurus advise to ignore them entirely, except perhaps for one card that can be used only in a “true emergency.”

FANTASY:  Just pay cash for everything, and you won’t need cards.  Credit cards only benefit the companies who issue them.  They victimize their customers unfairly.

REALITY:  Credit cards are great, but ONLY when used wisely and properly.  Running up a balance on an account charging such high interest rates is fiscal mutilation.  But if you are able to obtain 3-4 cards, each with cash-back allowances (preferably in rotating categories offering as high as 5%), and you use them for everyday regular expenses while ALWAYS paying off the entire balance prior to the next minimum payment being due, you not only avoid unnecessary costs, but also accrue small refunds, and at the same time build a favorable credit history.  Plus, your purchase of tangible goods are often insured by the card company, a service not provided by cash or a debit card.

“When strategically paying off credit card debt, pay off the smallest balance first.” As opposed to eliminating the account with the highest APR, many financial advisers propose the “snowball” strategy versus the “avalanche” approach.

As the AFLAC duck often exclaims, “Huh??”

FANTASY:  Paying off your smallest balances first, before working on the larger ones, yields quicker results and gives you a sense of accomplishment. This increases your chances of sticking with the program.

REALITY:  I won’t argue with psychology because I’m not educated in that area beyond my Psych I college course explaining the difference between Sigmund Freud’s id, ego, and superego.  But our goal is to save money on interest, so why would I pay off an account charging 16% before one jacking me for 24%?  The latter is going to require a larger minimum payment, so I want that one outta-here ASAP.  Look, if you have two accounts of very similar rates (like, within 1% of each other) and you choose the smaller one in order to get rid of it quicker, knock yourself out.  But don’t leap over dollars for psychological nickels.  Just dedicate yourself to the task with the knowledge that it is what is best for your long-term financial health, and save every dollar you can.

That’s it for Part I.  See ya next week for the conclusion of our review.

As always, thank you for reading.

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DISCLAIMER:  This post represents the author’s opinions only.  In no way should any part of the content of this post be interpreted as official financial advice, nor does it represent an intention to solicit readers into a specific company or investment.  Results are never guaranteed.  Utilize the information as you see fit, make all money decisions at your own risk.

Tax reform important, including to those who don’t think they have much to tax

By BOB CUNNINGHAM

Frequently, when the subject of taxes comes up I hear people refer to their own lack of income and assets, and indicate that “any changes won’t affect me much..”

Even if the statement were true, which it almost always isn’t, that represents the wrong attitude when considering your personal finance.

Sure, many people – primarily younger adults still trying to get themselves established – lack the income and/or asset accumulation to be significantly affected by marginal tax rates and such.  But it’s still a good idea to understand how the system works, and how new changes in the law compare, because eventually, such things will directly impact your bottom line.

I’m not going to attempt to go into any sort of detail in this space on the proposals recently offered by President Trump.  It would take a great deal more space than is practical to dedicate here in order to do it justice.

Nor do I intend to go all political on you.  Again, that’s not what this blog is for.

But I will comment on some specifics, and suggest you pay attention to them regardless of your current economic standing.  NOTE:  Nothing from this post, or anything else found on this website, should be interpreted as professional advice.  For all things tax-related, seek the advice of a certified tax professional.

The major tone to the president’s changes elicits simplicity – purportedly, 80 percent of Americans will be able to file their taxes annually on one sheet of paper.  Wow… I presume we will need both sides of the page?

The simplification in terms of tax rates is two-fold.  First, the proposal suggests a low-end tax rate of 12 percent, up 2 percent, among only three levels.  What… he’s raising taxes on the lowest income Americans?

Hardly.  Instead, as I understand it, those who don’t make enough currently to be required to pay federal tax will still be under that line.  And the aforementioned 2 percent difference will more than be made up for by a doubling of the standard deductions, for both individuals and married couples.

And some long-held itemized deductions, like for mortgage interest and charitable contributions, will remain intact.  Other deductions, however, such as home office write-offs and gambling losses (currently, the law allows you to claim losses up to a maximum equal to any claimed winnings) would go by the wayside.

After the 12 percent, the other two rates are 25 percent and 35 percent, plus possibly an additional upper bracket still to be determined.  Currently, the top bracket is about 39%.

Also unclear is the treatment of capital gains.  Under current law, they are taxed at a cap of 15 percent – this affects you and me if you understand that, in order to get the capital gains rate on the growth of your investments, you are required to have held these investments at least for one year.  If you sell stock less than 12 months after you bought it, folks, any gains are taxed as regular income. That can make a substantial difference.

It’s also important to understand that the 12%, 25%, 35% and whatever other rates are included in the new proposal are, like the current system, tiered.  In other words, if your adjusted gross income is $100,000 per year, you would fall under the 25% rate.  But that doesn’t mean all $100K is taxed at 25%.  Instead only, the portion that falls within the 25% rate range is taxed at that rate.

So in a fictional example, you may get taxed nothing on the first $25,000, 12% for dollars $25,001 through $74,999, and 25% for dollars $75,000 through $100,000. Again, these numbers are fictional for ease of explanation, but if the above were true, your effective tax rate on $100,000 would be $5,999.88 (12% of 74,999 – $25,000) + $6,250 (25% of $100,000 – $75,000) = $12,249.88, or about 12.25%.

In the meantime, as Washington D.C. labors over tax reform and other issues, your job as an individual (or couple, if you’re married), is to pay as little in taxes as you can legally avoid.

Doing so starts with understanding the basics of how your taxes are determined… and may be perpetuated by utilizing tax-friendly strategies including (but not limited to), Roth Individual Retirement Accounts, maximum leverage on personal as well as investment real estate, and owning dividend-paying whole life insurance policies as a central part of your financial plan.

We’ve discussed the life insurance aspect in previous posts, and we will continue to explore these types of strategies in the future.  So stay with me, and as always…

Thanks for reading.

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DISCLAIMER:  This post represents the author’s opinions only.  In no way should any part of the content of this post be interpreted as official financial advice, nor does it represent an intention to solicit readers into a specific company or investment.  Results are never guaranteed.  Utilize the information as you see fit, make all money decisions at your own risk.