Archive for Retirement Planning

Taxes: we’re not Europeans

We don’t want to pay as much tax as the Europeans do. How many times have you heard that? If less than 1,000 times, congratulations—you live without internet service. But, I still retain an old-fashioned interest in verifiable facts, not just what I’d like to be true. I hope one or two readers still feel the same way, so let’s take a look at some numbers on just who pays what taxes, and what those taxes pay for.

The moment you delve into comparing countries, you have to contend with currency conversions, buying power and the cost of necessities (what’s a middle class house in Chicago vs. Lyons vs. Haarlem?) so of course we can argue “not comparable” whenever. We work with what we have, and what I found was some very interesting data on the Forbes website. Forbes states all figures in Euros, but I’m going to use a handy dandy currency converter to put this all in U.S. dollars. (I wish these figures were newer–2009–but it isn’t easy finding facts that are up to date. I just don’t know where all those Freedom Caucus people can get their information.)

Let’s look at a couple earning $108,667 (100,000 euros) with two children. Here’s what Forbes says their after-tax income would be:

United States (overall—some states like Illinois have higher taxes) $84,760
France $78,029
United Kingdom $72,154
Germany $73,676
Netherlands $64,113


I could add more countries, but as you might expect, taxpayers in countries with small population bases (Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, etc.) keep less of their gross because there are fewer taxpayers to pay for services.

So, we ARE better off by at least $6,000 and maybe as much as $20,000? Wait a minute—you get what you pay for. And our mythical couple is going to have to pay for a lot more out of that after tax income—stuff that is already paid by government programs in these other countries. I’ll admit I don’t have the specifics on every policy in every other country (but would welcome input from anyone who does), but I do know a few expenses our model couple would need to cover out of pocket:

  • Yearly deductible for health care. Mine’s $3,500/family but employer plans can range anywhere from about $2,000 to $6,000. I’ll be conservative and use just $2,000. Let’s assume the parents’ employers cover all health care premiums—increasingly rare, but I’m trying to be conservative here.
  • Savings needed to cover $30,000 in college costs per year for each of two kids—I’ll again be conservative and assume the kids aren’t going to Harvard, and are 2 years old and newborn, so the amount needed will be on the low side. If the kids were older, more would need to be deducted. According to the SavingForCollege calculator, the parents would need to be saving $613/month for the 2 year old and $558/month for the newborn: a total of $14,052/year.
  • If these parents have such young children, they’re probably not very old themselves. Nevertheless, since in the US people are “free” to pay for their own long term care, and this is covered by many European health systems, let’s estimate a low $1,000/parent per year for long-term care insurance: $2,000. (forget saving for the actual cost of care—it would about double the amount needed if the parents are currently in their 30s and can save for 40 years).
  • I’m not including the value of the living allowance that is given to college students in some countries (Netherlands), the free student exchange programs that are routine, the excellent trades and vocational schools available to non-college Europeans (and which are hard to get at any price in the U.S.), the lump sum children’s benefit given to parents upon birth of a child, or the cost of co-pays and prescription drugs, since these vary and I wanted to look at just a few things we can agree on. So how does that math look now?


US $84,760
health care deductible (cost of insurance premiums not included) -2,000
college savings -14,052
long term care insurance -2,000
what you actually have left after being “free” to pay for those services yourself. $66,708


Another “but wait”—what if mom and dad are both working and need to obtain child care? In my neck of the woods that’s going to cost around $20-25,000 a year, but Europeans can pretty much depend on free or very low cost service from shortly after the child’s birth. So now, our model couple could easily be down to $46,708 after paying for the same services the European family would get for free (or greatly reduced costs). I’ll try not to go on about the paid-for health spas that are routine in Europe, the far-more-luxurious birth center experience, the well-child checkups and assistance, the earlier retirement age, the longer paid vacations, guaranteed paid maternity leave, the housing assistance for the elderly and low-income families…

Yeah, I’m glad we pay such low taxes. And that we get what we pay for.


Retirement Accounts: keeping the advice sane and safe

When my daughter and I were at the Women’s March, I saw a number of signs saying I can’t believe I’m still protesting this sh*t (and they didn’t have an asterisk). I feel that way too, and I also feel that way concerning the fiduciary rule for retirement accounts. In fact, I can’t believe we’ve EVER needed to discuss this. The fiduciary rule was set to go into effect on April 10th of this year, but the so-called current administration has issued an executive order on February 3 delaying the order until—who knows?

What’s fiduciary?

The fiduciary rule is simply a requirement that your financial advisor–fee-only, fee-based, hourly fee, commissioned, or maybe roboadvisor (although that’s not quite clear)—be legally obligated to act in your best interest. How on earth is this even controversial? You’re paying for advice one way or the other and the advisor is allowed to act in their own best interests? And keep in mind that this fiduciary rule only applies to retirement accounts. Even so, the brokerage industry has fought it tooth and nail. They claim this rule will squeeze out the little investor who won’t be able to get advice. Give me a break—there’s plenty of fee-only advisors, many hourly, and (shudder) you can get some advice from the robos. At least they won’t skin you alive.

For eons now the SEC has been debating whether and how to employ the fiduciary standard for other investment accounts, and it looks like they’ll now be dithering until your children age into dental implants. Most people believe that any advisor they see is acting in the clients’ interest. Most people are wrong. So let’s take it from the top, yet again.

Difference between best interest and appropriate

Investment sales people (brokerages, bank investment departments, stock mongers, whatever) are only obligated to peddle something to you that’s appropriate for you, and boy, is that broadly defined. So, if it’s appropriate for you to be invested in the S&P 500, you can bet that you will be in the S&P fund that pays the highest commission to the broker, or that the brokerage pitches. I have never yet seen a broker-designed portfolio that included low-cost or no-load mutual funds, because even if those are in your best interests, they’re not in the broker’s best interest because they aren’t going to make any money from those funds.

How to get skinned alive

It can be even worse, depending on what you’ve blurted out to your broker. Before I ever became a financial advisor, my dad used a broker to invest his retirement savings. He adored T., who called him every few days—more than I did, as my dad liked to point out. He had told T. how he needed safety, but how he also wanted the most income possible. Dad had no idea that these were mutually contradictory statements. BTW, if you don’t know why, call me and I’ll explain. Since T. the broker had two options here, guess which one he took? The one that made T. the most money, which was selling my dad a whole raft of junk bonds—high income—which mostly went belly up, losing my 90-something father around $300,000 if my calculations were correct when I finally looked at what was going on in 2007. T. eventually exited the brokerage firm and dad was upset not because he’d lost so much money, but because T. didn’t call anymore; I have a sneaky suspicion it had nothing to do with ethics, sadly. My guess is he didn’t make his quota.

Despite all the firepower the brokerage industry could muster and all the rending of expensive business suits, the rule at best only applied to retirement accounts, which are presumably needy of more protection because—the only money the little guy has? A potential future burden on government support? Because people who have money in other accounts are sophisticated investors? Where’s my emoticon (dog running in circles) when I need one?

What, me worry?

I just saw an article where it was claimed that, well, not to worry. Since, the article argues, the brokerage industry has already moved toward the fiduciary standard for retirement accounts, they’ll do it anyway. With all due respect, I need that emoticon right away. I’ve noticed that when it comes to fleecing the consumer making the most money possible, or being freed from regulation, the brokerage and banking industry can move with lightning speed to change their policies, whereas when something is designed to protect the consumer, implementation will be as slow as regulators will allow. No regulators, no regulation. And please don’t tell me your broker is a nice guy and wouldn’t do that. I have some inherited very attractive “hi-yield” bond certificates I’d be happy to sell you.

Know what you’re getting

Really, with this new change, you have no hope but yourself (which is actually all you’ve got right now). How do you know you’re getting fiduciary advice? Ask you advisor to sign a statement, or review their registration brochure. Does it specify fiduciary? For all advice? Is there any mention on their website about being a member of SIPC ? (look in the tiniest print on the page, near the bottom)—that’s a broker. Next, look at what kind of investments they’re recommending. Are they no-load mutual funds? If not, why not?

I am a fiduciary. I’ll be happy to detail what investments I’m recommending, why, and exactly how I get paid. They’ll be in your best interests. Accept no less.


The Affordable Care Act and an alternate future

I’m one of those people who had a policy I liked, and I’ve been able to keep it. Sounds great? Not so fast. Look how lack of regulation has affected the premiums I pay per month:

Year Beginning of year End of year (September increase)
2011 $360.87
2012 $405.32 $437.77
2013 $507.67 $559.99
2014 $588.72 $641.04
2015 $845.35
2016 $934.50 $1,180.95
2017 (notified of increase) $1,669.87


I cover my daughter and myself, with a $3,500 per year family deductible, a 100% coverage (no co-pay) after the deductible is met, and the plan is Health Savings Account compliant. Nothing being offered to me via is even close—all have co-pays and out of pocket maximums that would double my paid out amount because my daughter has a chronic illness where medications and doctor visits total more than $1,000 per month. No matter the plan, we’ll meet the deductible and out of pocket maximums every year.  None of the ACA plans include the three doctors nor the hospital we most frequently use, and the “best” of them equal or exceed our highest monthly cost.

Yes, it’s dismal. I was and remain a supporter of the Affordable Care Act, because so many friends, family, and clients couldn’t have gotten insurance except in a high risk (and high cost) pool before the ACA, due to pre-existing conditions. In fact, I’ve heard more than one story about people staying legally separated but not divorced, so that a spouse could continue health coverage pre-ACA. But without universal participation in health coverage, rates are exploding. Why?

  • Many more sick people are now getting health issues addressed. This has been a bonanza for hospitals, who can now actually get paid, but a drag on insurance companies who now have to cover these people and payments
  • If you have a non-ACA policy that you’ve had for a long time, you’re aging, and you’re likely keeping it because it covers more than the ACA policies, ergo you’re costing the company more
  • There are no breaks on costs—it’s a “free” market after all.
  • Many doctors are exiting acceptance of ACA insurance. These are doctors who want to be able to bill at an even higher rate, and do. Many are choosing to be completely out-of-network, which means the consumer will bear all the higher costs, making the insurance supplementary rather than full coverage.


Actually, I think my premiums are a pretty good representation of what we’ll see if we lose the ACA rather than improve it—after all, these premiums are from the unregulated segment of the market. We’re in a horrible mess, particularly in Illinois. I laugh when I hear that vouchers are the solution. My prediction is that this will drive consumer costs up even further, because the system will become  bill +voucher add on. It’s like selling a house by owner to save the commission—the seller think he’s saving the commission, but the buyer also is expecting a lower price because the seller is “saving the commission”. In the end, nobody saves, but everyone gets less service.

I see the terrible effect of these stratospheric increases. My clients who are self-employed, or run small businesses, professional services, or consultancies are being priced not only out of the market but out of running their own businesses by these astounding increases. If we want a climate of business start up, expansion, or new ventures, something has to be done to contain the nuclear explosions. The inability to get individual health coverage for business start ups was one of the benefits the ACA was supposed to provide, but the current toxic effect of sky high premiums is instead crushing those same entrepreneurs.

We planners struggle to estimate foreseeable costs for retirees, entrepreneurs, and early retirees, but I don’t think anyone in 2011 was contemplating a 462% increase in premiums (which is what mine have increased). Just to put that payment in perspective, my 2017 monthly payment for health insurance would support a mortgage of about $350,000. I’m buying a house with no equity to show, and no term end in sight.

From my point of view, the only way to rein in costs and get a rational health care system is a single payer system, sometimes known as Medicare-for-all. Unfortunately, it looks like the current administration and Congress is hell bent on taking us in the other direction—solving the problem by forcing people off health care, or providing poorer and fewer services, rather than focusing on a way to provide better, more efficient care. Unless you can Pay. A. Lot.  Why can every other Western democracy solve this, but not the U.S.?