The Cost of Waiting from 25 to 35

I am on a mission to get people in their twenties saving and investing. Why? Because an early start on good financial habits creates an exponential difference later. The solution to the next generation’s retirement crisis of a bankrupt Social Security, underfunded pensions, and increased longevity will require people get an early start.

Let’s compare two investors, both of whom will earn an 8% return over time. Smart Sally starts a Roth IRA at age 25 and contributes $5,000 a year through age 35 (11 years). Then she makes no further contributions.

Late Larry starts his Roth at age 35, also contributes $5,000 a year, and makes this contributions all the way through age 60. He will end up contributing for more than twice as long as Sally.

At age 61, both Sally and Larry retire. Who has more money in their Roth IRA? Sally has $615,580. Larry, although he contributed for longer, never caught up to Sally’s early start. He has only $431,754.

Of course, if Sally had contributed all the way through age 60, which is what I hope she would do, she would have the sum of both amounts: $1,047,334. If you can start a Roth IRA at age 25, you could have a million dollars by retirement. But if you wait just a decade, until age 35, you will likely lose more than $600,000 from your retirement.

It’s that first decade of investing that is so important. At an 8% hypothetical return, you are doubling your money every nine years. The early bird will likely finish with at least twice as much money as someone who starts a decade later.

If you are a recent college grad, please sign up for your 401(k) and put in at least 10%, preferably more if you can afford it. Most of your friends will only contribute up to the company match. Do better, contribute more. If you don’t have a 401(k), determine if you are eligible for a Roth IRA, a Traditional IRA, or a SEP IRA.

But most of all, just do it now and don’t wait. Because when you wait one year, one year has a way of turning into 10 years, and then you are the 35 year old with no retirement savings. I know you have student loans, are saving for a car, house, wedding, etc. You may have kids of your own. No excuses, you just have to find a way to get started. Even if you can only start with $100 a month, get going, and then increase your contributions when you can afford it.

The truth is that there is never an easy time to save and invest. It will always require planning and maybe even a little sacrifice. At 25, you have student loans and credit card bills. At 35, you may have a big mortgage and young kids. At 45, you might be trying to figure out how you are going to pay for your own kids’ college. So don’t think that it will be easy to save later. That day may never come!

For the parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles reading this, you have the opportunity to help your twenty-something young adults get a leg up and make a positive impact on their whole life, even after you are long gone.

  • Talk about investing and the importance of starting early. Ask about their 401(k) and IRAs. Forward this article. Kids are NOT taught to be financially savvy in school. If parents don’t teach this, young adults are likely to miss the opportunity of an early start. (And thank you to my Mom and Dad for their wisdom.)
  • Send them this book: The Elements of Investing. It’s short and an easy read, but contains essential information for becoming wealthy.
  • Hire me to be their financial advisor. I love helping young investors, to teach them the ropes and help establish their financial foundation at an early age. See our $99/month Wealth Builder Program.
  • Instead of leaving a lump-sum inheritance when your children are middle aged, you might establish better money habits by funding their Roth IRA at an early age and involving them in the process. If a 16-year old has earned income, they can contribute to an IRA, or you can let them save their money and make the contribution for them. (Note that a student’s IRA is not reportable on the FAFSA, although some colleges will count the account as a part of their expected contribution.)

Good habits last a lifetime. While it is never too late to invest, there is an enormous cost to waiting from age 25 until age 35. It’s potentially the difference between having a million dollars or $431,000. You can’t control what the market is going to do, but the real game changer could be getting an early start. Of all the levers we can control, an early start is going to make a bigger difference in your lifetime outcome than anything else.

Reducing the Cost of Healthcare

The Tax bill passed in December eliminated the individual mandate requiring consumers to have health insurance or pay a tax penalty, starting in 2019. As healthy individuals drop their insurance, it is expected that premiums will rise by an average of 20% next year for individual plans on the insurance exchange. As prices rise, this creates a negative feedback loop where more healthy people cannot afford insurance, the insurance pool becomes worse for insurers, and premiums increase again.

As a result, more consumers are adopting higher deductibles and pay for more of their care out of pocket. Health Insurance will shift from being used for every appointment to being catastrophic coverage where you will only have claims in rare years. Think of your auto insurance – you don’t expect it to pay for oil changes, only when you have a wreck.

This will shift the burden of cost-savings to the consumer rather than the insurer. Unfortunately, doctors offices and hospitals are terrible at sharing price information with patients, so it’s extremely difficult to know how much something will cost at one office, let alone be able to determine if you could save money by going elsewhere.

Cost transparency is the only thing that is going to save our health system from continuing to escalate out of control. We have a fee for service system which encourages for-profit hospitals to charge as much as they can and to add on extra tests, services, and procedures to increase their bills. And it’s not easy being a doctor, where every patient wants a quick-fix (other than eat right, exercise, and take care of your body in advance). With the risk of malpractice claims, doctors order extra tests to cover themselves even if the actual need for those tests is small. That’s called “Defensive Medicine”, and it’s not about defending the patient.

At a conference I attended last week, a Doctor turned financial advisor presented information on how to save money on your health care. Here are nine tips:

1. In-Network. Don’t ask a doctor if they take your insurance, ask “Are you in my network?”. Write down who you spoke with and the date and time. Later, if you get a bill that shows out-of-network charges, you can contest that with the evidence of what you were told. In fact many doctors offices record their calls, and you can demand to listen to your call.

2. PPOs used to offer choice of going anywhere, but networks are often very narrow for small plans. A cheap plan usually means that very few doctors are in that network. You have to ask at each step. If you have a planned hospital procedure, get a signed estimate in advance, and write on your paperwork: “I will only allow in-network care.” Otherwise, you may find out that some of your care is out of network even when you are at an in-network hospital!

3. Balance Billing. If you are out of network, you may be billed for the difference between the in-network price and what the hospital wants to charge you. For example, in Texas, insurance will pay up to $12,668 for an Appendectomy, but the average hospital bill is $40,893. So when you get an outrageous bill, you can find out this information to negotiate a lower price. This information is published by the Texas Department of Insurance Healthcare Costs Guide.

4. If you go to an in-network hospital and receive charges from an out-of network provider for over $500, you have the right to seek Medical Bill Mediation again through the Texas Department of Insurance. They have been able to lower these bills in 90% of the cases submitted to the state.

5. Reduce unnecessary tests and medications. The vast majority of a doctor’s diagnosis comes through patient history and the physical examination. Doctors today have to see a large number of patients and are in a hurry, so they often default to ordering expensive tests to save time. Before going to an appointment, type up your symptoms, medical history, medications, and diet. Write down the questions you have. Print three copies. Mail one in advance. Give one copy to the receptionist when you arrive. And if the doctor walks in without it, give them the third copy.

If they want to order additional testing, ask: What do you hope to learn from this test? How will the results of this test change the approach to treatment? If they are going to prescribe medicine, ask how long you will take the medicine. What are the benefits, side effects, and risks? What alternatives (i.e. lifestyle) are there to this medicine?

6. Independent Practice or Hospital. Hospitals are buying up doctors offices in their area and raising prices. Where a doctor might charge $100 for an office visit, a hospital can charge $250. Ask if an office is an independent practice or part of a hospital.

7. Ask your pharmacist if there are generics or less expensive substitutes for your medicines. Doctors are not always aware of the price of the medicines they prescribe.

8. If you hit your deductible during the year, try to take advantage of the fact that insurance has kicked in. Fill your prescriptions in December for the year ahead. Complete any tests that you should have done. If you’ve put off knee surgery or other procedures, try to get those done as well.

9. If you have a High Deductible Health Plan, fund your Health Savings Account (HSA), so you can pay your co-pays, deductible, prescriptions, and other costs with pre-tax money. That’s like saving 12-37% on every dollar you spend.

If you don’t have an HSA, but your employer offers a Flexible Spending Account (FSA), that will also allow you to pay medical bills with pre-tax money. Just remember that unlike an HSA, FSA is use it or lose it – money not spent before December 31 is forfeited.

Healthcare costs have increased by 7.76% a year since 1970. The US spends about 19% our GDP on healthcare each year, significantly more than any other nation. Even countries which guarantee healthcare for everyone only spend 11-13% of their GDP. We have a broken system but seem unwilling to learn from what works in other parts of the world.

The trend will continue: to reduce insurance claims, more expenses will be shifted to the consumer. Capitalism works to bring down costs, but it requires that consumers have price transparency, something which doctors and hospitals have been unwilling to do. They should publish their prices and post prices on their website. Today, we have to ask and be our own advocate to keep healthcare costs down.

Skin In The Game

Leading up to the last financial crisis, bankers made hundreds of millions by packaging together mortgages and selling them. They were paid upfront and had no repercussions when those mortgages went into foreclosure and both the homeowners and investors lost money.  The asymmetry that bankers had an enormous upside to sell something but shared none of the downside risk led to catastrophic losses.

This is the subject of Skin In The Game, a new book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, perhaps the foremost writer on risk and the practical application of the mathematics of probability. I’ve just finished the book and while it was not an easy read, its ideas are relevant to investors.

Skin in the game – having shared risks and rewards – is essential for investors to achieve better outcomes with their advisors and investment managers. Taleb points out interesting and not always obvious situations where these asymmetries present potential pitfalls in investing, politics, economics, and everyday life.

Investors would be well-served to think about whether their advisors have skin in the game and aligned interests, or if they are like the bankers who win regardless of whether their clients profit or not.

Before starting my own firm, I worked at two companies for 10 years. I had one colleague, who in spite of making a lot of money over many years, actually had less than $50,000 in investments. His top priority was paying down his mortgage. He talked about investments all day long yet had almost no interest in putting his own money in what he recommended to clients.

Another colleague invested significant sums every month and became one of the three largest clients of the firm. And every purchase was into the exact same funds as our clients. Which of those Financial Advisors would you prefer to manage your money? One who didn’t want to invest or one who couldn’t get enough of the funds we bought for clients?

Strangely, to me at least, clients rarely ask questions about Skin In The Game. I became a Financial Advisor because I was fascinated with investing and found myself spending all my evenings and weekends reading everything I could find and investing every dime I could scrape together. I opened my firm with one purpose: to treat every client as I would want to be treated.

That’s why I’d encourage investors to think and ask about Skin In The Game. Here are some ways to do that:

1. Doing not Saying. If you really want to know what people believe, find out what they do, rather than what they say. Understanding the difference is a BS-detector. Do you invest in this fund? How much of your net worth is in this strategy? Have you bought this investment for your mother’s account? Those answers, if you can get an honest one, are more telling than any pitch. In other words, don’t buy a Ford from someone who drives a Toyota.

2. Appearances. Taleb is trying to choose between two surgeons: one has an Ivy League undergraduate diploma, and wears immaculate bespoke suits. The other wore rumpled clothes, was a bit slovenly, and came from a middle class background. Taleb suggests choosing the latter surgeon, because he had to work much harder to achieve his career and is therefore likely more skilled. The first was more successful in looking like a surgeon rather than being the best possible surgeon.

(Thank you to all the clients who have hired a former music teacher to manage millions of their dollars. I used to get up at 5 am for years to study for the CFP and then CFA exams before going to work. It hasn’t been an easy road.)

3. Simple is better than complex. Complex solutions are sometimes created as a hook to sell something. Often, a simple, well-tried approach is more effective. Convoluted structures conceal many flaws, hidden fees, and conflicts of interest. If something seems unnecessarily complex, that’s a red flag.

4. “Scientism”. Facts and book knowledge can be bent to your point of view. Consider for example: “homeowners have 30-times the wealth of renters”. I heard this statement this week, along with the conclusion that buying a house therefore causes wealth. Correlation is not causation! You could also reach the opposite conclusion: you have to be very wealthy to afford a house in America.

Both are flawed because the thought process of going from the fact to the conclusion is biased. If I got an apartment, would I become poor? No, of course not. Taleb calls this “Scientism”, dangerous ideas which sound scientific, but don’t actually follow the objective hypothesis-testing process demanded by real science.

You cannot become wealthy without taking risks. The best way of ensuring a good outcome is through the fairness of symmetry and shared risks. That means both sides have an upside and a downside.

I don’t have a crystal ball about what the market will do, but I do invest in the same ETFs and Funds as my clients (I use our Growth Portfolio Model). By having Skin In The Game, I think it does provide an important motivation to spend extra time on due diligence, think carefully about risks, and follow our positions closely.

Manager Risk: Avoidable and Unnecessary

You can choose between two funds, A or B. If Fund A has an 85% chance of beating Fund B over five years, would those be good enough odds for you to want to pick Fund B?

More and more investors are realizing that using active equity managers is a bad bet. This is Manager Risk, which is the risk that your portfolio fails to achieve your target returns because of the active managers you selected. When there is a significant probability that a manager lags an index fund and only a small chance that a manager beats that index, taking that risk is going to be a losing proposition for the majority of investors.

Here are three ways Manager Risk can bite you:

1. Performance chasing doesn’t work. Top funds often have a good story about their “disciplined process”, or “fundamental research” approach, but there are so many reasons why today’s leader is often tomorrow’s laggard:

  • Massive in-flows of cash into popular funds make it more difficult for managers to be nimble and to find enough good investment ideas to execute.
  • It’s possible that the fund’s specific approach (style, size, sector, country, etc.) was in-favor recently and then goes out of favor.
  • With thousands of funds, some are going to be randomly lucky and have a period of strong performance that is not repeatable or attributable to skill.

2. The data is clear: over a long-period, the vast majority of funds do not keep up with their index. According to the Standard and Poors Index Versus Active (SPIVA) report: 84.23% of large cap funds failed to keep pace with the S&P 500 Index over the five-years through December 29, 2017.

If 17 out of 20 large cap funds do worse than the S&P 500, why do people bother trying to pick a winning fund, instead of just investing in an Index Fund? I think some of it is that over shorter periods, it can be pretty easy to fund funds that are out-performing and people mistakenly think that recent leaders are going to continue their winning streak.

Consider, amazingly, that nearly 85% of Small Cap Growth funds did better than their benchmark in 2017 according to SPIVA. What a great environment for active managers, right? They must have a lot of skill! But let’s look back further: over the past 15 years, 98.73% of those Small Cap Growth funds lagged their index. That is the worst performance of any investment category in the SPIVA report.

If your odds of outperforming the index over 15 years is only 1 in 100, you’d be crazy to bet on an active manager. It’s a risk that isn’t worth taking.

3. In some categories, there are 10-20% of managers who do outperform the benchmark over five or more years, which means that there might be dozens of funds which have done a nice job for their shareholders. Why not just pick one of those funds?

Standard and Poors also produces The Persistence Scorecard, which evaluates how funds perform in subsequent periods. Let’s look at two five year periods, in other words, the past 10 years. Imagine that five years ago, you looked at the top quartile (the top 25%) of all US Equity funds. How did those top funds do over the next five years (through December 2017)?

25.34% remained in the top quartile
21.56% fell to the 2nd quartile
18.87% fell to the 3rd quartile
23.45% sank to the bottom quartile (the worst 25% of all funds)
10.24% were liquidated or merged, which is the way fund companies make their lousy funds’ track records disappear.

So, if you picked a top quartile fund, you had about only a one-in-four chance (25.34%) that your fund stayed in the top quartile (which is no guarantee that you outperformed the index, by the way). But, you had a one-in-three chance (33.69%) that your fund fell to the bottom quartile or was liquidated and didn’t even exist five years later. Again, those are not odds that are in your favor.

This is why fund companies are required to state, Past performance is no guarantee of future results. We can look backwards at fund history, but that information has no predictive value for how the fund will perform going forward.

It’s an unnecessary risk for investors to use actively managed funds. And that’s why I have moved away from trying to pick 5-star actively managed funds, and have embraced using Index funds.

From time to time, you may hear, “this is a stock picker’s market”, because of volatility, or concentrated returns, or whatever. Don’t believe it. Even when active managers are able to have a good month, quarter, or year, the vast majority remain unable to string together enough good years in a row to beat their benchmark.

There’s enough risk in investing as it is. Let’s reject Manager Risk and instead recognize that an Index Fund is the most likely way to beat 80, 90% or more active funds over the long-term.

How to Create Your Own Pension

With 401(k)s replacing pension plans at most employers, the risk of outliving your money has been shifted from the pension plan to the individual. We’ve been fortunate to see many advances in heath care in our lifetime so it is becoming quite common for a couple who retire in their sixties to spend thirty years in retirement. Today, longevity risk is a real concern for retirees.

With an investment-oriented retirement plan, we typically recommend a 4% withdrawal rate. We can then run a Monte Carlo simulation to estimate the possibility that you will deplete your portfolio and run out of money. And while that possibility is generally small, even a 20% chance of failure seems like an unacceptable gamble. Certainly if one out of five of my clients run out of money, I would not consider that a successful outcome.

Social Security has become more important than ever because many Baby Boomers don’t have a Pension. While Social Security does provide income for life, it is usually not enough to fund the lifestyle most people would like in retirement.

What can you do if you are worried about outliving your money? Consider a Single Premium Immediate Annuity, or SPIA. A SPIA is an insurance contract that will provide you with a monthly payment for life, in exchange for an upfront payment (the “single premium”). These are different from “deferred” annuities which are used for accumulation. Deferred annuities come in many flavors, including, fixed, indexed, and variable.

Deferred annuities have gotten a bad rap, in part due to inappropriate and unethical sales practices by some insurance professionals. For SPIAs, however, there is an increasing body of academic work that finds significant benefits.

Here’s a quote on a SPIA from one insurer:
For a 65-year old male, in exchange for $100,000, you would receive $529 a month for life. That’s $6,348 a year, or a 6.348% annual payout. (You can invest any amount in a SPIA, at the same payout rate.)

You can probably already guess the biggest reason people haven’t embraced SPIAs: if you purchase a SPIA and die after two months, you would have only gotten back $1,000 from your $100,000 investment. The rest, in a “Life only” contract is gone.

But that’s how insurance works; it’s a pooling of risks, based on the Law of Large Numbers. The insurance company will issue 1,000 contracts to 65 year olds and some will pass away soon and some will live to be 100. They can guarantee you a payment for life, because the large number of contracts gives them an average life span over the whole group. You transfer your longevity risk to the insurance company, and when they pool that risk with 999 other people, it is smoothed out and more predictable.

There are some other payment options, other than “Life Only”. For married couples, a Joint Life policy may be more appropriate. For someone wanting to leave money to their children, you could select a guaranteed period such as 10 years. Then, if you passed away after 3 years, your heirs would continue to receive payouts for another 7 years.

Obviously, these additional features would decrease the monthly payout compared to a Life Only policy. For example, in a 100% Joint Policy, the payout would drop to $417 a month, but that amount would be guaranteed as long as either the husband or wife were alive.

There are some situations where a SPIA could make sense. If you have an expectation of a long life span, longevity risk might be a big concern. I have clients whose parents lived well into their nineties and who have other relatives who passed 100 years old. For those in excellent health, longevity is a valid concern.

There are a number of different life expectancy calculators online which will try to estimate your longevity based on a variety of factors, including weight, stress, medical history, and family history. The life expectancy calculator at Time estimates a 75% chance I live to age 91.

Who is a good candidate for a SPIA?

  • Concerned with longevity risk and has both family history and personal factors suggesting a long life span,
  • Need income and want a payment guaranteed for life,
  • Not focused on leaving these assets to their heirs,
  • Have sufficient liquid funds elsewhere to not need this principal.

What are the negatives of the SPIA? While we’ve already discussed the possibility of receiving only a few payments, there are other considerations:

  • Inflation. Unlike Social Security, or our 4% withdrawal strategy, there are no cost of living increases in a SPIA. If your payout is $1,000 a month, it stays at that amount forever. With 3% inflation, that $1,000 will only have $500 in purchasing power after 24 years.
  • Low Interest Rates. SPIAs are invested by the insurance company in conservative funds, frequently in Treasury Bonds. They match a 30-year liability with a 30-year bond. Today’s SPIA rates are very low. I can’t help but think that the rates will be higher in a year or two as the Fed raises interest rates. Buying a SPIA now is like locking in today’s 30-year Treasury yield.
  • Loss of control of those assets. You can’t change your mind once after you have purchased a SPIA. (There may be an initial 30-day free look period to return a SPIA.)

While there are definitely some negatives, I think there should be greater use of SPIAs by retirees. They bring back many of the positive qualities that previous generations enjoyed with their corporate pension plans. When you ask people if they wish they had a pension that was guaranteed for life, they say yes. But if you ask them if they want an annuity, they say no. We need to do a better job explaining what a SPIA is.

The key is to think of it as a tool for part of the portfolio rather than an all-encompassing solution to your retirement needs. Consider, for example, using a SPIA plus Social Security to cover your non-discretionary expenses. Then you can use your remaining investments for discretionary expenses where you have more flexibility with those withdrawals. At the same time, your basic expenses have been met by guaranteed sources which you cannot outlive.

Since SPIAs are bond-like, you could consider a SPIA as part of your bond allocation in a 60/40 or 50/50 portfolio. A SPIA returns both interest and principal in each payment, so you would be spending down your bonds. This approach, called the “rising equity glidepath“, has been gaining increased acceptance by the financial planning community, as it appears to increase the success rate versus annual rebalancing.

There’s a lot more we could write about SPIAs, including how taxes work and about state Guaranty Associations coverage of them. Our goal of finding the optimal solution for each client’s retirement needs begins with an objective analysis of all the possible tools available to us.

If you’re wondering if a SPIA would help you meet your retirement goals, let’s talk. I don’t look at a question like this assuming I already know the answer. Rather, I’m here to educate you on all your options, so we can evaluate the pros and cons together and help you make the right decision for your situation.

What Happens If You Die Without a Will?

Last April, a long-time client passed away unexpectedly at his home. I ask all clients if they have an estate plan. If they do not, I recommend they get one and provide a referral if they do not have an attorney. Unfortunately, not everyone follows my advice, and this client passed away without a will or estate plan in place.

It has been over a year now, and his estate is still not settled. I was able to transfer his IRA to his spouse within days of receiving the death certificate. But, his individual account and his home and business assets remain tied up in Probate Court. His account, which I was managing, is frozen, and I cannot place any trades in the account or pay any bills (yet) for the estate.

Assets which have designated beneficiaries, such as life insurance policies, retirement accounts, or annuities, will go to the beneficiaries without the involvement of the Probate Court. Additionally, joint accounts with rights of survivorship, may go to the survivor, such as a spouse, almost immediately.

For all other types of assets, their disposition is determined by your Will. When you do not have a Will, it is said that your estate is “Intestate”. In these cases, your individual assets will be distributed based on state law. For real property, for example, one-half of your home would go to your surviving spouse, and one-half would go to surviving parents or siblings. But you wanted your spouse to receive all of your house or real estate investments? Too bad, you don’t have a will with those instructions.

Chart of Distribution of Assets in Texas Without a Will.

For parents of minor children, not having a will means that a court will determine who gets custody of your children. And since minors cannot own, inherit, or manage investments, any funds designated for their care would have to be placed in trust under the management of a court-appointed trustee (not of your choosing). Expenses for your children would need to be approved by the court.

Everyone does need to have a will and a few other estate planning documents. Typically, you will also want:

  • Durable Power of Attorney: authorizes a person to make financial decisions and enact transactions such as paying bills on your behalf, in case you are incapacitated or unable to make those decisions.
  • Health Care Power of Attorney: designates someone to make health care decisions if you are too ill or injured to speak for yourself.
  • Physicians Directive: instructions on what care or life support you would like to receive or not.

Here in Texas, we are a Community Property State, but even for married people you still need a will. If you die “intestate”, your assets could be tied up for a year or more, assets might not automatically go to your surviving spouse, and you increase your expenses and the potential for fights and lawsuits between family members. I have seen a LOT of families fall apart over disagreements about a parent’s estate, and yet parents never think it would happen with their kids. But it does, with sad consequences that no parent would want.

Do you need a trust? The majority of people do not. It used to be that a trust was needed to avoid the estate tax. But for 2018, a married couple has basically $22 million that can be passed on without any estate taxes at all.

I have an experienced attorney here in Dallas who will create a complete Will and set of Estate Documents for you. Like me, he believes this is essential protection which every family needs. He will meet with you face to face and determine your needs before making a recommendation. For families needing standard documents, the cost is a flat $750, which is less than some online services.

After my experience of having a client pass away without a Will, I wished I had been more adamant about insisting he had gotten this done. I realize it is a morbid topic that most people don’t want to think about. But the responsible way to take care of your loved ones is to make sure your Estate Plan is in place.

If you have a Will, you may need an update or a new one, if:

  • you have moved to a different state,
  • you have gotten married, divorced, or had children,
  • any of your beneficiaries have passed away,
  • your documents are more than five years old.

This is so easy to put off for another day because you are “too busy”. Please don’t wait. There is never an ideal time. Let me help you get this done, and I promise you will feel better once you have this settled.

5 Steps to Boost Your Savings

The key to financial independence is your commitment to saving.

The market has captured our attention in the past quarter, as volatility spiked and concerns have risen about everything from interest rates to North Korea. While everyone is fixated on how the Dow is doing or how much the S&P 500 is up or down each day, we all need a reminder from time to time that the only way you accumulate money is by setting it aside. Saving is the real growth engine for investors, not rates of return.

It’s not that returns don’t matter. It’s just that we have no control over what the market does, and worrying about those short-term gyrations is a waste of your time and energy. Volatile markets often make people not want to invest, preferring to wait until there is more clarity.

Uncertainty is always going to be part of investing; long-term investors have done very well by ignoring what they can’t control and concentrating on saving as much money as possible.

Here’s a guarantee for you: if you save $2,000 a month, you will accumulate ten times more money than if you had saved $200 a month. If your plan is to reach $500,000 or $1,000,000 or $5,000,000, the sooner you save, the faster you will accomplish your goal.

Saving is the most difficult, simple thing in the world. There is nothing complex about saving money, but actually doing it is quite challenging. Let’s break it down into five steps:

Step 1. Update your attitude about saving. Thoughts become actions.
Do You Hate Saving Money?

Step 2. Create an ambitious goal.
How To Become a Millionaire in 10 Years

Step 3. Find ways to reduce your expenses.
23 Ways to Save Money

Step 4. Create a Financial Plan.
How Some Investors Saved 50% More

Step 5. Stick with the program.
How Exercise Can Make You A Better Investor

Want more evidence?
Study: Deferral Rates Trump Fund Performance

A lot of financial advisors only want clients who are already very wealthy. They can charge more fees that way. For me, I love helping investors who are at all points on their financial journey and my purpose in life is to lift others up to achieve the American Dream. That’s why we have no investment minimums at Good Life Wealth. I can help you the most if you are committed to saving and recognize that saving is the key to your financial future.

What Q1 Suggests About the Rest of 2018

Now that the dust has settled on the first quarter of 2018, investors are trying to figure out what this renewed volatility means. Although we experienced a drop of roughly 10% in February, the overall return for the first quarter was a negligible loss: if you invested in an S&P 500 Index Fund, such as SPY, you had a return of -1.00% through March 31.

For the most part, portfolios were close to flat for Q1. Nevertheless, investors are quite concerned about where we go from here and worry that we may have more losses ahead in 2018. Here’s what we think:

1. Technical Analysis. The 200-day moving average, a key level of support, has held since February. The market went straight up in December and January, and the subsequent pull-back simply returned prices to the longer-term trend line. We have not seen a crossover of the 60 and 120 day averages, which would be expected to precede a prolonged downturn. Presently, the Q1 pullback appears to be a temporary correction and is not worsening.

While that could change in the months ahead, we will continue to use an evidence-based process to examine the trend. For investors who want to be more nimble, we are now offering the Equity Circuit Breaker, which uses Technical Analysis to move in and out of the market based on these trends.

2. Fundamentals. The economy remains strong. Leading Economic Indicators suggest that the potential for a recession in 2018 is extremely unlikely. Unemployment is so low that many employers are now finding it difficult to fill positions and are having to raise wages. All of which provides a positive backdrop for the stock market.

3. Bonds, however, have turned negative in the past six months. The Federal Reserve has increased short-term interest rates through the Fed Funds rate, and has planned another two or so rate hikes in 2018. As rates go up, the price of bonds goes down. The total return of the US Aggregate Bond Market, if you invested in the AGG exchange traded fund, was -1.47% for Q1.

Short-term rates have crept up to nearly 2% on a 1-year T-Bill, but the yield on the 30-year Treasury bond has hardly budged and is only 3.03% today. If the yields on long-term bonds had moved as much as short-term rates, the return of the bond market would have been worse than it was in Q1.

Anticipating more rate increases ahead in 2018, I think investors would be smart to seek out the safety in short-term, high quality bonds, like 0-2 year Treasuries. There remains a high risk for those in long-term bonds. The chase for yield in recent years drove the price of junk bonds to very high levels. We sold our position in high yield last summer, as we posted here on August 13. Since that time, prices have moved down on junk bonds. If you really want to understand the economy, follow the bond market.

4. Total Return. While a large drop in the price of the bond market is unlikely, it seems very possible that returns could be zero or negative for 2018. This is a tough market for investors who want income, and what income is available today comes with elevated risks. We think that investors would be well served to invest with a total return objective rather than investing for income or yield.

5. Volatility is back. Three thoughts on risk and investing:

  • Diversification is crucial. That’s why we invest in broad-based ETFs as our core holdings. Don’t risk too much on any one stock, sector, or country.
  • Asset Allocation, specifically your weighting in bonds, remains the best measure to achieve a targeted level of risk and return for a portfolio.
  • Quarterly fluctuations are mostly just noise for long-term investors. Focus on what you can control and the markets will likely serve you very well over your decades as an investor.

2018 is already proving to be a harder year than 2017 for investors. We will continue to watch the market closely so that we can provide informed, timely guidance for you. What is most important, however, is to have a strategy in place for your personal situation. Is your investment allocation optimized for your needs, time horizon, and risk preferences? If you don’t know – or know that it is not – we need to sit down and go through our financial planning process first, before we make any conclusions about how you are invested today.

9 Ways to Manage Capital Gains

Investors want to rebalance or reduce their exposure to stocks without creating a large tax bill. We specialize in tax-efficient portfolio management and can help you minimize the taxes you will pay. Here are 9 ways to manage your investment taxes more effectively:

1. Use ETFs instead of Mutual Funds. ETFs typically have very little, and often zero, capital gains distributions. Actively managed mutual funds are presently sitting on very large embedded gains, which will be distributed on to shareholders as the managers trade those positions. Using ETFs gives you better control of when you choose to realize gains.

2. Donate appreciated securities to charity instead of cash. If you are already planning to give money to a charity, instead donate shares of a stock or fund which has appreciated. The charity will get the same amount of money and they will pay no capital gains on the sale. You will still get the same tax deduction (if you exceed the now higher standard deduction) plus you will avoid paying capital gains. Use the cash you were planning to donate to replenish your investment account. Same donation, lower taxes.

Consider funding a Donor Advised Fund and contributing enough for several years of charitable giving. If you give to a large number of charities, it may be easier to make one transfer of securities each year to the Donor Advised Fund, and then give to the charities from the Fund.

3. Give appreciated securities to kids in the zero percent capital gains bracket. Some taxpayers in the lower brackets actually pay a 0% capital gains rate. If your grown children are no longer dependents, and would qualify, they may be able to receive the shares and sell them tax-free. Just be sure to stay under the $15,000 annual gift tax exclusion per person. For 2018, the zero percent capital gains rate will apply to single taxpayers under $38,600 in income and married couples under $77,200.

4. Harvest losses annually. Those losses give you the opportunity to offset gains and rebalance your portfolio. Any unused losses will carry forward to future years without expiration. And you can also use $3,000 a year of losses to offset your ordinary income, which means that instead of just saving 15-20% in taxes you could be saving 37% or more.

5. Develop a Capital Gains Budget. It’s not all or nothing – you don’t have to sell 100% of a position. We can trim a little each year and stay within an annual capital gains target. We also can sell specific lots, meaning we can reduce a position and choose to sell shares with the highest or lowest cost basis.

6. Wait a year for long-term treatment. We try to avoid creating gains under 12 months. The long-term rate is 15% or 20%, but short-term gains are taxed as ordinary income.

7. Use your IRA. If you have a well diversified IRA, we can often rebalance in that account and not create a taxable event. While many investors put taxable bonds in IRAs and leave the equities in a taxable account, for taxpayers in a high bracket, you may prefer to buy tax-free municipal bonds in the taxable account and keep equities in the IRA.

8. Stop Reinvesting Distributions. If your position in a stock or fund has grown, don’t make it larger through reinvestment of dividends and distributions! Reinvesting takes away your choice of how to rebalance your portfolio with the cash flow you receive. However, please make sure you are doing something with your distributions in a timely manner and not letting them accumulate in cash.

9. Just take the Gains already! Don’t let a gain disappear because you don’t want to pay 15% in taxes. If you have a big winner, especially with an individual stock or a speculative investment like bitcoin, take your gains and move on. If we become too obsessed with taxes we run the risk of letting our investment returns suffer.

While most people are thinking about their 2017 taxes right now, reacting to what has already passed, we suggest looking ahead to 2018 and being proactive about managing your futuretax liabilities. Taxes can be a significant drag on performance. If you’re investing in a taxable account, we can give you peace of mind that you have a plan not only for financial security, but also to manage your capital gains as efficiently as possible.

What Are Quarterly Tax Payments?

The IRS requires that tax payers make timely tax payments, which for many self-employed people means having to make quarterly estimated tax payments throughout the year. Otherwise, you could be subject to penalties for the underpayment of taxes, even if you pay the whole sum in April. The rules for underpayment apply to all taxpayers, but if you are a W-2 employee, you could just adjust your payroll withholding and not need to make quarterly payments.

If your tax liability is more than $1,000 for the year, the IRS will consider you to have underpaid if the taxes withheld during the year are less than the smaller of:

1. 90% of your total taxes dues (including self-employment taxes, capital gains, etc.)
2. 100% of the previous year’s taxes paid.

However, for high income earners – those making over $150,000 (or $75,000 if married filing separately) – the threshold for #2 is 110% of the previous year’s taxes. Additionally, the IRS considers this on a quarterly basis: 22.5% per quarter for #1, and 25% per quarter for #2, or 27.5% if your income exceeds $150,000.

Many taxpayers will find it sufficient to make four equal payments throughout the year. If that’s the case, your deadlines are generally April 15, June 15, September 15, and January 15. However, if your income varies substantially from quarter to quarter, or if your actual income ends up being lower than the previous year, you may want to adjust your quarterly estimated payments to reflect these changes.

You can estimate your quarterly tax payments using IRS form 1040-ES. Of course, your CPA or tax software should automatically be letting you know if you need to make estimated tax payments for the following year. You can mail in a check each quarter, or you may find it more convenient to make the payment electronically, via IRS.gov/payments.  For full information on quarterly estimated payments, see IRS Publication 505 Tax Withholding and Estimated Tax.

Please note that the estimated payments will fulfill the requirement of 100% of last years payment, or 90% of this year’s payment if that figure is lower. However, it is not required that you pay 100% of the current tax bill, so if your income is significantly higher this year, you could still owe a lot of taxes in April even after making quarterly estimated payments.

If you’re self-employed, you don’t need to be a tax expert, but you do need to understand some basics and to make sure you are getting correct advice. When you aren’t being paid as a W-2 employee, it is up to you to make sure you are setting money aside and making those tax payments throughout the year, so that next April you aren’t facing penalties on top of having a large, unexpected tax bill.