Pigs feeding

How you’re like Jeff Bezos

But maybe not in a good way. Every third Facebook post or so mentions that ole’ Jeff should give away his billions and that would fix everything. I used to hear this about the Catholic Church, but Bezos is become the new favorite target. Why shouldn’t he—after all, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett give away buckets.

Here’s where you come in. Do you have a nice house? Decent car? Relatively recent wardrobe? Stash of wine, beer, booze, weed? Most of us (reading a personal finance blog) can answer yes to at least some of those. So, let’s say you’re now out of work. Don’t know how that happened. Can you pay the bills with any of that? Write a check off your house (without refinancing)? Pay the utilities with a 24-pack of craft brew? Cash out your 401k with no penalty, no tax, and not losing the employer match? Just how much are you giving to charity?

Truthfully, I don’t know any insider details about Jeff Bezos’ money. But I do know the difference between assets and income. Assets are wealth, and add to your net worth, but they may or may not produce spending money for you.

You can be a little old lady in a paid-off $2 million dollar house (an asset), but be scraping by on Social Security (income) if you don’t have any other income-producing assets like bonds, dividend paying stocks, or stocks you can sell. You would have a high net worth but very little ability to spend.

As far as I can determine, post-divorce Bezos owns about 11% of Amazon’s $1.175 trillion, so we’re not feeling too sorry for him. He also owns the Washington Post and, my guess, one or two shares in other companies. However, like your wine collection, Bezos has to sell Amazon to get money out of that wealth, which he does. He can’t just dump them whenever he feels the need for a $100 billion or so in chump change, because an insider making huge sales is a pretty good way to tank the company. Amazon doesn’t pay any dividends (Microsoft does) so selling stock is his source of income from the company. Sure, they pay him $81k in salary (kind of a joke), but the rest comes from stock grants, some of which he apparently sells each quarter. The market expects those sales, so no big impact, but liquidating and giving away half his wealth would raise an eyebrow or 10,000 on Wall Street.

By the way, it’s somewhat the same with the Catholic Church—an awful lot of the wealth of the Church is in real estate, structures, art works and artifacts, etc. Many of these are not easily sold, although some (real estate) can produce income. Let’s say, for example, you have a grand piano and a house, you have the mini-version of assets that don’t produce income (unless sold). If it’s your mom’s Steinway or your kid’s harp, it might be very difficult for you to countenance turning that to cash.

Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have pledged to give away huge portions of their fortunes, but not all at once and mostly through their foundations. Bezos could certainly do the same, as well as vastly improve treatment of workers. But here’s something overlooked: a publicly traded company has a duty to maximize return to shareholders (of which you are probably one, if you have a 401k). A company is supposed to be run as frugally as possible in order to return the most to its investors.

Business practices can and do change when workers organize themselves in such a way that management must respond to their demands or lose even MORE money than that response would cost—and why most companies fight unionization tooth and nail, until strikes, vandalism, pilferage, etc. start costing more than meeting workers demands. It’s ridiculous to assume management will take care of you or is benevolent: when publicly traded, they have a duty to get you as cheaply as possible.

Another agent for change is government regulation—when those regulations impose costs of doing business that the company can’t evade, and that (hopefully) are imposed on all businesses in the industry evenly. Regulatory agencies such as OSHA, the Consumer Protection Bureau, FINRA, and the EEOC can and sometimes used to strike fear (and produce change) in the hearts of employers.

Finally, the way to get money out of the hands of the company (and CEO, and investors, which also means you if you invest in a 401k) is taxation. Sure, companies howl about this and saber rattle about going somewhere else (which can also be addressed by regulation), but western European corporations still seem able to operate even when taxed.

So if you think Jeff Bezos should be compelled to provide better working conditions, support health care, or re-distribute wealth to his workers and the society that enables his success, appealing to his personal good heart (I don’t know if he has one or not), or trying to shame him in public isn’t the way to go. Why should it be an option? Why should a very few people have the opportunity to amass that level of wealth, then be lauded as heroes if they’re magnanimous enough to give some fraction of it back to charities which mirror their own priorities?

What we should be advocating for is evenly applied government regulation, taxation, and strong partnerships with unionization. These actions might make a company less profitable in the short run, but provide for a healthier, better educated, more fairly treated workforce with a viable safety net not dependent on the largess, or lack thereof, of any smart rich person.

Tax stamp

Why your taxes went up

Many of us are still pondering why we didn’t benefit from the alleged tax cut and worrying about what will happen this year, again. After all, tax brackets went down 3-4% for the first 4 tax brackets. But (and this continues this year) your taxable income most likely went up. Don’t expect that to improve for 2019. At a recent conference I attended, this was much discussed. Why?

You live in a blue state. Clever how that worked, huh? Because in many blue states and urban areas, your property taxes on a middle-class home probably exceeded the $10K cap. Add in your state income tax paid. And don’t forget that mortgage interest you used to itemize. With just these three, there’s a good chance you could exceed the $24K standard deduction (married filing jointly) or $12,000 (single). These increase to $24,400/$12,200 for 2019. Woohoo. But once income tax and property tax are capped at $10K total, your mortgage interest might not put you over the standard deduction.

Your charitable deductions don’t count. If you don’t itemize, you don’t get to take a charitable deduction.

You can’t deduct employee expenses. If you buy supplies, or uniforms (except for teachers), that’s on your dime, now.

You don’t have kids. People with kids saw the tax credit doubled.

For 2019, your medical deductions might not qualify. For 2017 and 2018, you needed medical expenses  greater than 7.5% of your income. For 2019, it goes back up to 10% of adjusted gross.

Changes to alimony. Alimony is no longer deductible to the person who pays, beginning with divorces finalized in 2019. The recipient will no longer be taxed on the alimony, but this is likely to result in lower payments to the recipient (since the payer will be dinged for more).

There’s not a whole lot to be done, except by voting. However, it’s important to remember that lower taxes are not the only consideration—what you get for them is also important. It’s how much spendable income actually ends up in your pocket. If you didn’t have to pay for healthcare, long term care, could look forward to a decent guaranteed income in retirement, and didn’t have to save or pay for  college or vocational training, but had to pay, say, 5% higher taxes, you’d most likely be better off.  It’s the value you get, not just the taxes you pay. I discussed this quite extensively in this post, and what exactly we get compared to other Western Democracies here.

 

Health care stethescope

That other retirement account: Financial planning for HSAs

Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) may be the best deal out there, if you can get it. All of us like to beat the tax man, right? HSAs are what’s known as triple tax free: you get a deduction when you put money into the account, the account grows tax free, and as long as you make withdrawals for allowable health care expenses (pretty easy to do), you don’t pay any tax on that either. They’re like a traditional IRA or 401k going in, and a Roth coming out.
But like many good things, there are a few problems and things to watch out for:
1) I’ve probably repeated this for the millionth time now, but you don’t have to pay yourself back for the medical expenses in the year you spent the money. You can accumulate the receipts (and carefully file them so you can find them) and withdraw them in any year, as in when you actually retire. You’ll have to be able to pay your deductible and out of pocket costs out of pocket, but if these are fairly low, you can keep the HSA invested.
2) As with every financial account, watch the fees. Some accounts ding you heavily if you don’t keep a minimum balance. Some charge you a monthly fee. Some employers will pay fees while you’re employed with them, but if you leave they stop paying the fees and the account starts getting bites out of it. If this is the case, you can rollover your HSA into a servicer with different (hopefully, better) rules.
3) It doesn’t do you any good to park it in a savings account paying half a percent. In this case, woohoo it’s growing tax free. But the growth is infinitesimal. You want an HSA that allows you to transfer the bulk to a brokerage, or at least invest in mutual funds. Even if you still work for the same employer as when you deposited the funds, you can rollover the account (or most of it) to a provider of your own choosing. Be sure you carefully check fees and options at your current account, and at the one you are thinking of opening.
4) If you are working with an investment advisor, you may want to consider whether the HSA should be invested as part of your overall portfolio strategy. If it’s going to be untapped for years, it should be managed to build wealth.

Once you’re retired, it’s probably a good idea not to hoard that HSA. If you leave it to your spouse, it becomes their HSA. But for any other heir, it’s a lump sum distribution that they will have to pay taxes on.

So, how do you use it up? Well, of course you can submit those hoarded medical expenses you’ve saved. You can also use it to pay premiums for long term care insurance, premiums for Medicare Part B and Part D (drug), vision and dental care not covered by Medicare supplement insurance, and any copays and deductibles. You cannot use it to pay supplemental or Medigap premiums.

Since these accounts do not usually grow extremely large, it seems to me that it would be pretty easy to use it up during a normal retirement. It’s a nice way to build up a war chest for unexpected medical expenses that crash retirement budgets. Too bad I can’t use it for veterinary bills.