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.

***

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.

‘Budgeting’ has negative connotations for some, but it doesn’t have to be that way

By BOB CUNNINGHAM

In personal finance parlance, it is known as “the B word.” And not in any sort of positive way.

Budgeting, defined as the excruciating act of creating a personal or family summary of income and expenses for the purposes of determining what can be spent and (hopefully) saved, carries such a negative vibe that some alleged PF gurus claim you can effectively manage your money without it.

Not likely…

Look, it’s really a matter of what you want to accomplish, in life and specifically when it comes to your money.  Are you truly satisfied to wing it from week to week, month to month and hope you have enough to get by?  Or are you willing to put in a little effort, in the boring form of crunching numbers, to improve your circumstances?

If you are among the vast majority of folks who want to make financial progress ongoing, there’s no way around some version of monetary accountability.

Still, that doesn’t mean it has to be painful… or a pain in the posterior. Budgeting is actually relatively simple, if you decide to keep it that way. Here’s how:

Know as accurately as possible your monthly take-home pay

True, determining what you make isn’t always that simple.  Sales professionals who work on commission, for instance, can have a wide variation in what they make from month to month. But there are ways around this.  First, determine an average income.  Go back three months, six months, or whatever time-frame you believe can most accurately reflect your net pay, and come up with a “common” figure.

Obviously, if you are on salary, you simply need to take a peek at your paycheck, or observe the associated direct deposit in your bank account.

Now reduce that number by 20% for budgeting purposes.  For instance, if you’ve determined that your average monthly net income is about $3,000, reduce it by 20% ($600) and work with $2,400 as you figure your budget. The 20-percent fudge factor allows for errors and anomalies while also demonstrating to you (eventually) that you can get by with less than you think. What if you only make $1,500 in a particular month… are you going to have to move back in with your parents?  You may be nodding your head after reading this, but we both know you’ll do whatever it takes to avoid that scenario.

Make savings an integral part of any “spending” plan

Next take at least 5% of the $2,400 (10% is reommended), and mark it down as your monthly savings goal.  Yep, do it now… this resulting $120 for socking away in our example is important – commit to it, even before you figure out what your bills are.  That comes next.

Once you have your typical monthly income established, and your associated monthly commitment for savings, the next step is to mark down your fixed expenses.  These are the monthly bills that are the same every month – rent or mortgage payment, car payment, TV/internet bills, cellphone bill (in most cases), loan payment to Mom and Dad, etc.  It doesn’t matter what they’re for, if you pay them and they are constant, they should be included here.

Determine your expenses in two broad categories first

Now add up the total of your fixed expenses, tack on the aforementioned $120 savings figure, and come up with a total.  Then, take that total and subtract it from the $2,400.  The result is what you have available to spend monthly on what is referred to as discretionary spending – the costs that change every month, such as groceries, gasoline, and entertainment.

Guess what? You’re more than half finished.  Not exactly bamboo under the fingernails, correct?

OK, sure, I’m not claiming this is as fun as Space Mountain on Halloween. But it’s a lot less costly.

Be willing to go back through previous spending history

Now comes a little bit of effort, because you need to go back through your on-line banking or credit card receipts, and determine how much you’ve been spending on those discretionary costs.  My suggestion is that you separate them into the following categories:  groceries, eating out, gasoline, entertainment, and miscellaneous.

After you have those figures determined for the last month (ideally, figure out three months’ worth of each category and average for a more accurate monthly reference), take the monthly figures and add them up.  Compare to what your new budget “allows” you to spend.  Analyze what you’ve been overspending on, and what you’ve been more reasonable about. Adjust accordingly. Let logic and common sense be your guide.

For instance, let’s say your discretionary spending amount that you determined from your income/fixed expenses/savings portion of the budget is $600 per month. And you’ve determined you’ve been spending closer to $900 per month.  That means we need to find $300 to cut, but remember that we took your initial average take-home pay and cut it by 20 percent.  That was $600 lopped off the $3,000 average monthly pay, yes?

Decide on spending cuts if needed, but you don’t have to go overboard

So whatever we determine needs to be cut, it probably doesn’t truly need to be as drastic because we padded the initial income figure by using only 80 percent of it.  Are you with me?

In other words, you have some leeway… as long as you’re prepared to make some needed cuts when it’s obvious.  Are you going out to the movies a lot, or do you mostly stay in and watch Netflix? How ’bout fast-food?  That is the young adults’ most significant bug-a-boo, bar none.  Are you on a first-name basis with the folks at Carl’s Jr.?  If so, that has to change.  Cooking at home typically costs a fifth of fast-food, and a tenth or less compared to eating at sit-down restaurants.  How about at the grocery store?  Do you buy a lot of processed and/or name-brand foods, or do you focus on produce, dairy, and generic stuff?

After you have determined all your adjustments, be sure that the first thing you do at the beginning of each month is put the savings away. “Pay Yourself First” is a universally accepted personal finance adage for assuring you save regularly regardless of your budget.

Ultimately, as long as you’re willing to do a little self-analysis with what you spend, and make some common-sense alterations, it can be pretty simple and only a little painful.

If nothing else, make a commitment to avoid high-interest debt

Last item:  I could easily write 10,000 words about sensible budget decisions, cutting spending, etc.  But that isn’t the point of this post.  Instead, focus on the idea that getting basic organization in your financial life doesn’t have to be difficult and it truly doesn’t have to suck.

A huge take-away is this:  Whatever path you go, do your utmost to stay out of debt… specifically, credit cards that – speaking of sucking – will suck the life out of any possibility of you getting ahead with your money and ultimately being able to reasonably afford many of the things and experiences you desire.

As always, thank you for reading.

***

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.

Worried about a market correction? I’m not, because it won’t determine my fate

By BOB CUNNINGHAM

As I write this weekly entry, the Dow Jones is coming off a gain of more than 200 points.  Despite predictions of impending doom by some, and the realistic acknowledgement from even the most optimistic of investors that the markets won’t go up forever, they continue their improbable ascent.

It’s a lot like late 2006 and most of 2007, when we hit record highs according to all the major benchmarks… right before falling to Earth like a rocket in 2008, reducing many account balances by almost half in a matter of months, even weeks.

So why am I not concerned about the inevitable decline?  What puts me in a position of being so confident?  Simple… I’m flat broke and, thus, have nothing to lose.

LOL… JUST KIDDING.  How I crack myself up.  Truth is, while my wife and I are far from being considered wealthy, we have some decent retirement savings… we’re doing OK.

And the really cool thing is that our funds aren’t invested in the markets.

“But Bob, you’re missing out on some of the greatest profits ever!”

That’s true.  And we’re perfectly fine with that.  Our nest-egg is invested in dividend-paying whole life insurance, which gives us a steady and predictable gain… with NO chance of loss.

None. Nada. Zilch.

Look, friends, unless you’re brand new as a reader on this site, you’ve read here before about how losses annihilate an account more significantly than the same rate of gain helps.  I’ve demonstrated how average annual rate of return is a fallacy.  Go up 25% one year, go down 25% the next… and instead of being even, you’re actually down 12.5%.  Reverse the order – down the first year, then up the second – and you’re STILL down 12.5% after the second year.

Doesn’t seem fair, does it?

And while it is absolutely true that we are missing out on some pretty sweet gains right now, it is without question that we will be better off over the long run than those who insist on riding the roller coaster.  History says so… and I’m not willing to buck a trend lasting more than 140 years.

“Okay, but hasn’t the S&P 500 averaged about a 10% return all-time?  That’s what I always read.”

Again, that’s a bogus average – taking all the returns and adding them up (since after The Great Depression, I believe), subtracting the losses, and dividing by the total number of years.  The effective return, according to Morningstar.com, was slightly better than 3%.  The effective return is how much your money would have actually grown.  Dividend-paying whole life insurance returns between 4% and 5.5% (depending on dividends) EVERY YEAR, and is tax-free when the money is correctly acquired via withdrawals of principal and dividends and/or non-qualifying policy loans.

It’s truly great having a fairly specific idea of how much money you will have at any given time in the future.

“If this is true, why doesn’t everyone use dividend-paying whole life insurance, and get the heck out of the stock market altogether?”

Many would if they knew about it.  And more and more people are going that route, thanks to the strategy getting more publicity from sources such as this blog.  Still, the same conventional drivel of favoring 401Ks, IRAs, etc. continues to be perpetuated by Wall Street, many personal finance gurus, and our federal government.  It’s a constant battle.

The purpose of this blog is to educate folks… primarily, younger adults and families… that there is a much better way than conventional retirement savings vehicles.  The key is starting NOW.  This superior approach offers more safety, liquidity, a steady rate of return, tax benefits, and a living benefit that allows for self-financing of major purchases and other handy uses that you simply can’t get from traditional savings and investments.

And I’ll continue to plug these in this space and others.  Slowly, the tide will turn in favor of Americans who, like myself, want to retain complete control of their finances at all times.

As always, thank you for reading.

***

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.

Just this once, I’d appreciate your OK to take this finance blog off topic

By BOB CUNNINGHAM

Make no mistake – this is a website dedicated to personal finance… unconventional in many cases, in a world that constantly nudges you against your own best interests… but specifically about your money, nonetheless.

But for the second consecutive week, your visit here will not yield you some new, relevant information in the economic world.  I do apologize for that.  Please stay with me, however.

Last week, I wrote you a quick note asking you to excuse me from a new post due to illness – I had surgery to have my gallbladder removed, received doctor’s orders not to work for two weeks, and was in enough post-operative discomfort that proper concentration on work was challenging.  So I took the week off.  I promise it won’t happen often.

I’m feeling significantly better as I write this, and I certainly could attack a new angle in the world of personal finance with this post.  Instead, however, I’d like to request the opportunity for some inflection in light of recent events.  Your humoring of me by reading the following is most appreciated.

In the world of personal finance, and the accompanying “blogosphere,” we spend a lot of time discussing the best ways to save, spend, and invest our money – tools that are extremely handy, strategies that are surprisingly lame, and everything in between.

What we don’t talk enough about is enjoying the fruit of our labors, taking full advantage of how lucky we really are, sharing with those less fortunate, and so forth.

Now please don’t get me wrong – my recent illness was never life-threatening, and by this time next month I should be fully recovered from the ordeal.  Millions and millions of people are a whole lot worse off than I was even at the pique of my abdominal pain a week ago Sunday.  My perspective isn’t improperly altered.

But this did serve as the third reminder of the last five years that life can change drastically.  One minute, you’re going along fine with all your ducks seemingly lined up in a row.  And then suddenly, you learn that your father has died unexpectedly.  You’re cruising with everything planned, and falling into place as you had anticipated, and then BAM!  Your brother obtains a blood infection and is only 50/50 to survive.

Both these things happened in my life.

My brother’s illness came first during this stretch, and for six solid weeks I was doing virtually nothing except heading the 35 miles or so from my home to the hospital every day to check on his condition and try my best to keep my sister-in-law, niece, and nephew informed and calm.  Somehow, he had contracted pneumonia through a strep-throat like bacteria and his condition grew worse as he lay in the Intensive Care Unit, a ventilator inserted to help him survive.  He had become septic, and at one point the doctor informed us that he was “a coin-flip” to make it through, and if he did so, there was a good chance that he would permanently lose kidney function.  They had to do a juggling act, balancing a dangerously accelerated heart rate with declining blood pressure that made him susceptible to a crash.  Very, very dicey.

Ultimately, we were blessed with his recovery.  And, he regained proper kidney function just two weeks after leaving the ICU.  He was laid up at home for several months after the initial stint in the hospital, but today he’s doing just fine and back to work as a restaurant manager.

My dad had been battling multiple forms of cancer, active and in remission, but was feeling as well as he had for months when my son and I drove up to see him at his home not far from the south entrance to Yosemite National Park.  We had a nice visit, and he informed us that he was to have a review from his doctor the day after my son and I were leave for home, with the distinct possibility that he could be taken off of chemotherapy for as long as six months.  With that potential green light, my dad was hopeful of taking a road trip in his RV with my stepmother.

And he certainly looked and acted better.  My wife and I had gone up for a visit about two months prior and it was scary how sickly he looked at the time.  This once 6-foot-2, 215-pounds of brawn built by decades of working as a heavy duty equipment mechanic was 155 pounds and he had begun hunching over to the point that I was now taller than he.  I’m 5-10.  He had always towered over me, but not on this visit.

That trip forced me to start trying to mentally prepare myself for the inevitable.  He was 78, and I was realistic enough to recognize he might never get better.  That’s why the visit two months later when my son came with me was so very encouraging.

But in the following wee hours of the morning, barely 12 hours after my son and I had gotten home, we received the call that my dad was gone – passing away in the local Emergency Room after a coughing fit that apparently burst some blood vessels in his fragile lungs, a side effect of an immune system severely weakened by the months of chemo.

I was devastated, and embarrassingly unprepared for the emotional strain of his loss.  That was 2015.  Less than two years later, I endure the aforementioned illness requiring my own trip to the ER and, subsequently, surgery.  My maladies were nothing compared to what my brother and father went through, but when you’re laying in a hospital bed, all sorts of thoughts race through your mind.  It’s just human nature to ponder the what-if’s.  That said, there are also positive take-aways from the experience:

  • Be sure you live your life to the fullest while you’re healthy enough to do so.  Don’t be reckless, of course,  But don’t wait so long to smell the pizza that you never actually get to.  We get only one life, friends.
  • Be sure you’ve made the arrangements you need to make to assure your loved ones are taken care of in the event something happens to you.  THE dumbest thing you can possibly do is convince yourself that nothing will ever happen to you.  You simply don’t know that, nor do you have any real control over it.
  • And lastly, don’t forget to take the time – time after time – to tell your loved ones how important they are to you, and how much you appreciate them.  I’ve always loved my family – my wife, two sons, daughter-in-law, grand-daughter, parents, brother, sister-in-law, nieces, nephews, cousins, aunts and uncles.  But these days – before I got sick but, admittedly, not so much until after my dad died – I make sure everyone I care about most knows how I feel – frequently.

This is, after all, so very much more important than IRAs, online savings accounts, or even “pay yourself first.”   Please always keep the proper perspective.  Thanks for reading.

***

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.