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Financial decisions: I shoulda done better

  It’s taken me a while to realize that not everyone loves financial planning. I mean, when I first started this I assumed all my clients would be deliriously happy

Ugh! UTMAs and UGMAs

I’m not sure why anyone has these accounts anymore, but they do. I mostly see them during divorces, where one spouse has tried to transfer money to the kids in

Don’t make this mistake with your 401K

It’s no secret that I love Roth IRAs. Don’t tune out because you think you make too much money to have one! Let me count the ways they’re great: No

How to screw up your 401K

I’ve recently been listening to the audiobook Nudge, by Nobel Prize winner Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. I had to double check the copyright date on it (2008) because their

Financial planning, James Comey, and the least bad alternative

Not to decide is to decide -Harvey Cox I’ve been fascinated to listen to James Comey describe his decision process on the interviews with George Stephanopoulos and Stephen Colbert. When

Financial decisions: I shoulda done better

 

It’s taken me a while to realize that not everyone loves financial planning. I mean, when I first started this I assumed all my clients would be deliriously happy about what a positive future we were going to plan together, and untangling any knots would be fun along the way. I love it, so everyone else should too, right?

It took me years to realize that many people who came to me were scared, embarrassed, or at least nervous. The great thing about working with people is that, in almost all cases, I can help most people make a good plan and feel much better. But I continually listen and try to learn, and after hearing so many stories over the years, I can distill a few principles which I repeat over and over to myself in my own life.

  1. You can never fix the past. In all the (now) hundreds of people I’ve seen, perhaps one or two had no regrets about their financial decisions. That’s not to say there weren’t regrets about other issues. Nevertheless, you have absolutely no way to rewrite your past decisions. Most of them either seemed right back then, or you knew they were wrong but did them anyway for what seemed like the easier or better way at the time. You have absolutely no control over the past at this point.
  1. The only reason to go over your past mistakes is to learn how to do better in the present and future (and to make atonement if necessary). If you can learn from this review how to make better decisions now and going forward, it’s worthwhile.

My first ex-husband has a wonderful phrase he uses to evaluate his public speaking engagements. If he thinks it went badly, he tells himself I was not satisfied with my performance. This is just a wonderful way to characterize a less-than-ideal effort, with no blame and every possibility to learn to improve. And yes, he’s a wonderful speaker.

  1. If it’s not working for you, you have to change. You can’t keep doing the same things and expect different results. Sure, something may be too hard (break it down into smaller steps), not have taken into consideration all factors (then revise until it works) and the ideal outcome may not be possible (but some improvement surely is).
  1. It’s not hopeless unless you’re dead. I’m not speaking of actual physical illness here, I’m talking about money. You may not be able to create exactly what you want (can we ever?) but you can almost always make things at least a little better.
  1. Any change is more likely to succeed if you can set it up so you make the fewest choices possible. It’s much harder to decide to save every month if you have to write the check or make the transfer, than it is if you decide to set up automatic transfers and forget about them thereafter—you’ve only made one choice, not 12.
  1. The older you are, the more creativity it may take. You can go back to school, relocate, get rid of a car—things that may have been unthinkable in years past can actually become liberating and unburdening. You most assuredly do not need all the stuff you have—no American does. Will a yard sale fully fund your retirement savings? No, but a lot of littles can add up to big.

Bottom line: a financial plan isn’t a punishment where you review all your past sins. It’s a way to wrest control from chaos and fine tune your financial engine to hum along at a better velocity.

Ugh! UTMAs and UGMAs

I’m not sure why anyone has these accounts anymore, but they do. I mostly see them during divorces, where one spouse has tried to transfer money to the kids in hopes of keeping it out of the divorce joint property. Technically, these accounts are considered property of the children (not marital), but as with so many other financial issues, it’s largely up to what the attorneys are able to negotiate.

Funding these accounts is a pretty poor idea in most cases, however. What you’re doing is putting all the money in the kid’s name: they’re entitled to it at 18 to do whatever they want with it, and all the earnings are taxed at the parents’ rate. It used to be that as long as earnings stayed below a certain amount, the earnings were taxed at the kid’s rate so it was once a decent strategy to avoid some tax, as long as you could trust your kid not to burn through it by the time they were 18 and two months.

That tax dodge evaporated years ago, but somehow these accounts are still hanging around. Unless you’re trying to shaft your spouse, or have a child actor who’s earned the money themselves but needs some supervision, I don’t think there are many good reasons to have such an account.  They’re considered 100% the property of the child for college financial aid determinations, also.

How can you get the money out of it? The account has to be used for the benefit of the child (once funded, it’s their money), but as long as you can prove that’s how you used it, you’re fine. You’ll have to pay taxes on any gains from the sale of investments, but it’s unlikely the IRS will check up on how the money itself was spent—it’s your kid that could sue you, and hopefully that won’t be a factor.

Once upon a time I had such an account for my daughter, when the taxation was still favorable. I liked it way back then because there was no obligation to spend it on college, and I was certain my brilliant kid would get a full ride scholarship. Ha-ha. Obviously that was before I was a financial planner. We never did accumulate much in college savings in the account, being dunderheads at the time, and I eventually cashed it in to purchase her harp. She hasn’t sued me yet.

Probably the easiest way to clean out the account, besides covering tuition, music lessons, instruments, sports equipment, computers…is to move the money into a 529 plan. If you have significant gains, you’ll have to pay taxes (now playing world’s smallest violin) because 529 deposits have to be in cash. At least the (new) investment will be growing tax free.

If your child has actual earned income, you can also deposit some of the funds into a Roth IRA (up to $5,500/year depending on their earned income). They can withdraw money for college with no early withdrawal penalty, but they will need to pay taxes on any earnings withdrawn. Although they own the account once they’re adults, the tax and withdrawal penalties may slow them up a little. Also, $10,000 can be used as a down payment on a first time home purchase.

For some odd reason, most of these lingering UTMAs are also invested in savings accounts, where they’re earning practically zero for years now. I think they’re just places where people thought they were going to park some cash for college, then mostly forgot about them.  So, if you still have these accounts, resurrect them and put them to work for your kids. College is going to take whatever you can scrape together.

In case you’re wondering what these letters stand for, UTMA is Uniform Transfer to Minors Act and UGMA is Uniform Gift.

Don’t make this mistake with your 401K

It’s no secret that I love Roth IRAs. Don’t tune out because you think you make too much money to have one!

Let me count the ways they’re great:

  • No required minimum distribution at 70 ½, so you can leave the money to grow into old age if you wish.
  • Grows tax free and you pay no taxes on any of it when you withdraw after 59 ½.
  • Can always withdraw your contribution tax free.
  • Can be used for medical emergencies and a $10,000 down payment on a first house (but don’t—leave it alone for retirement!)
  • Your heirs will pay no taxes on withdrawal if any is left
  • And the biggest benefit in my opinion—if you need a lump sum in retirement (dental implant, hearing aid, relocation expenses, buying into a continuous care community), you can withdraw it tax free. If you have to withdraw from a traditional IRA or 401K, you’re going to need to withdraw what you need + taxes on the withdrawal, so much less of your money is preserved going forward.

But, you make too much money, you say? Have you checked whether your 401K at work offers a Roth 401K option? Several clients in the past month have told me they don’t have a Roth 401K because they “make too much money”. It’s true that individual Roth IRAs have an income limit of $189,000 joint and $120,000 single, but the limit DOES NOT APPLY to workplace Roth 401ks. These Roth 401ks have exactly the same limits as your current plain vanilla 401k.

One of the biggest drawbacks of an individual Roth IRA is that you have a limited amount you can contribute each year: $5,500 with $1,000 additional after 50. But this is a relatively small amount, so many Roths never get large enough to fund a retirement. NOT SO with Roth 401ks, where you can deposit $18,500, with $6,000 extra after 50. Note: your employer’s match contribution will still go into the regular 401k.

Roth 401ks were relatively uncommon just a few years ago, but now many employers are offering the choice. It’s much underutilized. Sure, you lose the current tax deduction, but in the future, you should save far more in taxes on the appreciated amount. Check out this chart to see if you’d be better off with a Roth or traditional. In almost every instance, a Roth does better. Special alert to new grads: choose the Roth! Then you’ll never get used to the tax deduction.

If you don’t know if your employer offers it, ask. And agitate for the option if you need to. It shouldn’t cost the employer much extra, if anything. And it will really pay off for you.