How to Get Paid for Limit Orders

When we place an order for a stock or Exchange Traded Fund (ETF), there are a couple of ways we can make a purchase. The easiest is a Market Order, which simply instructs our custodian (TD Ameritrade Institutional) to purchase the specified number of shares at the current market price.

Sometimes, however, we may want to purchase shares at a lower price or wait until the market falls to a specific level. This can be achieved through a Limit Order – which says that we will buy our position only at or below a price we indicate. Of course, the challenge with a Limit Order is that there is no guarantee that the price will in fact fall to our target!

Many investors who use Limit Orders, especially in a Bull Market like we’ve had in recent years, see prices move up and their orders never fill. Then they are faced with the ugly choice of having to buy at a higher price than if they had just used a Market Order at the beginning. And instead of participating in the growth of the market, they sit on the sidelines in cash. So there can be a real opportunity cost to Limit Orders. In reality, Limit Orders are a type of market timing, where an investor thinks they can predict short term moves and profit from those fluctuations.

There is a third, more complicated option, which most investors don’t know how to do. Like a Limit Order, we can select a target price that we would like buy a stock or ETF within a certain time frame. And like a Limit Order, if the price falls to or below this level, we will buy the shares at our target price. Unlike a Limit Order, we can get paid for our willingness to buy these shares, regardless of whether or not the order fills, by using options.

It is done by selling a Put. A Put is an option which requires you to buy a security for a specific price (called the “strike price”) before or at the expiration of the option (typically one month to one year). When you sell a Put, you receive a premium upfront in exchange for agreeing to buy shares at the strike price. One options contract equals 100 shares.

Let’s walk through an example. You are looking to buy the iShares Emerging Markets Index, ticker EEM. As of the Friday August 17 close, you could have bought EEM at the market at $42.21. 100 shares would have cost $4,221. But maybe you thought it could go lower, so instead, you enter a Limit Order for $40. Now, if EEM falls to $40, you will buy your 100 shares for $4,000.

Alternatively, you could sell a November $40 Put on EEM for $83. That means you would get paid $83 in exchange for the right for someone else to make you buy 100 shares of EEM for $40 a share between now and November 16, 90 days from now. If EEM falls to $40 or below, you will buy 100 shares for $4,000 just like in the limit order, plus you made the $83. Even if EEM stays above $40, you keep the $83 no matter what.

I know that $83 isn’t much, it represents about 2% of the price of EEM. That’s over 90 days, so if we consider the value of selling this option on an annualized basis, it is a bit over 8% a year. That’s a lot better than using a limit order and not making anything.

Let’s consider the difference between a market order, a limit order, and selling a Put using two different scenarios, at 100 shares. Today’s price is $42.21 and I’m disregarding commissions and taxes in these examples.

1. The price rises to $45. If you bought at the market ($4,221), you would have a profit of $279. If you placed a limit order at $40, your order never filled and you have nothing. If you sold the put, you would not have any shares, but you would have the $83.

2. The price of EEM falls over time to $38 a share. If you bought 100 shares at the market ($4,221), your shares are now worth $3,800 and you are down $421. If you set a limit order at $40, you would have bought 100 shares for $4,000 and you are now down by $200. If you sold a put, you’d also buy 100 shares at $4,000, but since you collected the $83, you now have a lesser loss of $117.

So whether the price goes up or down, selling a Put is generally going to be better than a limit order. The only example where this might not occur is if a stock has a big gap down overnight – for example, it is at $41 one day and the next morning opens at $38. In this case, your limit order will fill at the open at $38. This does happen sometimes, but it is fairly unusual. Most limit orders, if they fill, end up being executed right at your limit price.

Who is taking the other side of the option? The buyer of a Put is likely a “hedger”: they are buying the Put as protection to preserve their money in case the stock goes down. Or they are a speculator who is betting that the stock will fall. Both are bad bets, statistically. When the expected return of the market is only 8%, paying an 8% annualized premium to hedge your position is in effect giving away all of your potential upside.

Instead, I’d rather be the person selling them this insurance and be the seller of the Put. I’ve spent may years selling Puts (and Calls, too) and am not recommending this is something you try to do on your own. Not every stock or ETF has an active options market and you should be very careful with thinly traded options.

But this is a strategy we use with some of our clients in place of Limit Orders and I wanted to share with all of you an very brief overview of how it works. Please note that options are only available on securities which trade on the exchange and not on mutual funds. What I do not recommend is selling Puts as a speculative bet. Only sell Puts for shares you want to buy and own as a long-term investment. Additionally, to sell Puts, you must either have either cash in the account or a margin account. If you’re interested in learning more about selling Puts in place of limit orders, please reply to this email.

Note: accounts must be approved for options before trading can begin. Please see The Characteristics and Risks of Standardized Options for more information.

Increase Returns Without Increasing Your Risk

In theory, Return and Risk are linked – you cannot get a higher rate of return on an asset allocation without taking more risk. However, portfolios can be inefficient and there are a number of ways we can improve your return without adding risk or changing your asset allocation. Here are five ways to increase your returns:

1. Lower Expense Ratios. Many mutual funds offer different “share classes” with different expense ratios. The holdings are the same, but if one share class has 0.25% more in expenses, those shareholders will under perform by 0.25% a year. Here at Good Life Wealth Management, we have access to Institutional shares which have the lowest expense ratio. Generally, these funds are available only to institutions or individuals who invest over $1 million. We can buy these shares for our investors, without a minimum, which frequently offer savings of 0.25% or more versus “retail” share classes.

2. Increase your Cash Returns. If you have a significant amount of cash in your holdings, make sure you are getting a competitive return. Many banks are still paying 0% or close to zero, when we could be making 1.5% to 2% elsewhere.

3. Buy Treasury Bills. If you have a bond mutual fund and it charges 0.60%, that expense reduces your yield. If the bonds they own yield 2.8%, subtracting the expense ratio leaves you with an estimated return of 2.2%. Today, we can get that level of yield by buying Treasury Bills, such as the 26-week or 1-year Bill, which have a short duration and no credit risk. If you are in a high expense bond fund, especially a AAA-rated fund, it may be preferable to own Treasury bonds directly and cut out the mutual fund expenses. We participate in Treasury auctions to buy bonds for our clients.

4. Buy an Index Fund. If you have a large-cap mutual fund, how has it done compared to the S&P 500 Index over the past 5 and 10 years? According to the S&P Index Versus Active report, for the 10-years ended December 2017, 89.51% of all large-cap funds did worse than the S&P 500 Index. Keep your same allocation, replace actively managed funds with index funds, and there’s a good chance you will come out ahead over the long term.

5. Reduce Taxes. Two funds may have identical returns, but one may have much higher capital gains distributions, producing higher taxes for its shareholders. If you’re investing in a taxable account, take some time to look at the “tax-adjusted return” listed in Morningstar, under the “tax” tab, and not just the gross returns. Even better: stick with Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) which typically have much lower or even zero capital gains distributions. This is where an 8% return of one fund can be better than an 8% return of another fund! We prefer to hold ETFs until we can achieve long-term capital gains, and especially want to avoid funds that distribute short-term gains. We also look to harvest losses annually, when they occur, to offset gains elsewhere.

How can we help you with your investment portfolio? We’d welcome the chance to discuss our approach and see if we would be a good fit with your goals.

The New 2018 Kiddie Tax

Last year’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) significantly changed the way your dependent children are taxed. Previously, they used to be taxed at their parent’s tax rate, but starting this year, their income could be taxed at the egregious “Trust and Estate” rate of 37% with as little as $12,501 in taxable income. With higher deductions, other children will pay less tax in 2018. Both changes give rise to additional planning strategies that parents will want to know before potentially getting a nasty surprise next April when they file their next tax return.

First, let’s define dependent child for IRS purposes. A dependent child includes any child under 18, an 18 year old who does not provide more than 50% of their own support from earned income, or a full-time student who is under age 24 and also does not not provide more than 50% of their own support from earned income. A child’s age for the tax year is the age they are on December 31.

There are different tax methodologies for earned income (wages, salary, tips, etc.) versus unearned income (interest, dividends, capital gains, etc.) under the Kiddie Tax.

First, some good news, for Earned Income, the standard deduction has been increased to $12,000 for 2018, which greatly increases the amount of income a child can earn income tax-free. Of course, they will still be subject to payroll taxes (Social Security and Medicare) on these earnings.

Strategy 1. For Self-Employed Parents: did you know that when you hire your dependent children, you do not have to pay or withhold payroll taxes (Social Security and Medicare) on their income. If you hire them, and have legitimate work for them to do, you could shift $12,000 from your high tax rate to their 0% tax rate. If they open a Traditional IRA and contribute $5,500, they could earn $17,500 tax-free. Just be aware that the IRS scrutinizes these arrangements, so be prepared to demonstrate that the work was done and the pay was “reasonable”. (Paying your kids $500 an hour to mow the lawn might be considered excessive.)

For Unearned Income, the Kiddie Tax is more complicated. The standard deduction for unearned income is only $1,050 (or their earned income plus $350 up to the $12,000 maximum). Above this amount, the next $2,100 is taxed at the child’s rate, and then any unearned income above this level is now taxed at the Trust and Estates rate. If a child has a significant UTMA, inherited IRA, or other investment account, this is where their taxes could soar in 2018, especially if they used to be taxed at their parent’s rate, say, of 22%. If their parents were in the highest tax bracket, there would be no change, but for middle class kids with investment income, they now could be taxed at a much higher rate than their parents!

Here are the 2018 Trust and Estates Tax Marginal Rates, which now apply to the Kiddie Tax:
10% on income from $0 to $2,550
24% from $2,551 to $9,150
35% from $9,151 to $12,500
37% over $12,501

Long-Term Capital Gains and Qualified Dividends will be taxed at:
0% if from $0 to $2,600
15% if from $2,601 to $12,700
20% if over $12,701

2. Children with under $1,050 in income do not need to file a tax return.

3. The first $4,700 in long-term capital gains are at the 0% rate (a $2,100 deduction followed by $2,600 at the zero rate). This is an opportunity to gift appreciated shares to a child and then they will not owe any tax on the first $4,700 in capital gains. If you are planning to support your kids and set up a fund for them, or pay for college, why should you pay these taxes if they can be avoided? We can establish a program to make use of this annual 0% exclusion.

4. If a child’s investment income is subject to the Kiddie Tax, and the portfolio is going to be used for college education, a 529 Plan can offer tax-free growth and withdrawals for qualified higher educational expenses. In these cases, 529 Plans have just become more valuable for their tax savings.

5. For some college aged kids, it may be better for the parents to stop listing them as a dependent if eligible. In the past, parents received a personal exemption for each child ($4,050 in 2017), but this was eliminated by the TCJA. It was replaced with an expanded child tax credit of $2,000 in 2018. However, the tax credit only applies to children under 17. Unless you are able to claim a college tax credit, it is possible you are not getting any tax benefits for your college kids over 17. In this case, not claiming them as a dependent, and having your child file their own tax return, may allow them to receive the full standard deduction, save them from the Kiddie Tax, and may even allow them to qualify for the college credit. You would need to verify with your tax professional that your child did in fact have enough earned income to be considered independent.

College financial aid doesn’t exactly follow the IRS guidelines for dependency, and they don’t even ask if a parent lists a child as a dependent or not. Instead, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), has its own form, Am I Dependent or Independent?, which looks at factors including age, degree program, military service, and marital status.

If you’ve got questions on how to best address the Kiddie Tax for your family, let’s talk.

Financial Planning In Your Fifties

My hope for every fifty-something investor is that you have by now attained financial independence, where you have enough assets to stop working if you wanted and live off your investments. Most aren’t quite there yet, but if you’re working with me, we have a good idea of your finish line, a quantifiable goal, and the steps needed to get there.

What does scare me is when someone says that they plan to never retire, so this doesn’t matter or apply to them. While it’s natural to wish that time would stand still or that things won’t change, it’s a poor plan to assume that change isn’t going to happen to your life.

I think of a relative who worked for one company for 30 years, until age 59, when they went out of business. He was used to making a certain level of income, which just wasn’t available in his small town, for someone with skills that didn’t easily carryover to other types of business. He was planning to work forever, but it turns out, he wasn’t interested in jobs that paid 50% of his previous salary. He was unemployed for three years, before starting Social Security at age 62.

See: The Boomer’s Guide to Surviving A Lay-Off

For many employees in their fifties and sixties, they want to keep working, but if they lose their job, they discover how tough it is to get another high-paying job in today’s economy. Others leave work due to health issues, or to care for an ailing spouse. The point is that things change. It’s great to work if you want to, but not because you have to. The single-minded goal of every fifty-something investor should be to build their nest egg to where they would be fine if they didn’t work.

1) Prepare your retirement finish line. What size nest egg should you have? At a 4% withdrawal rate, you need 25-times your annual needs. Need $50,000 in withdrawals? Your goal is $1.25 million. Are you there now? How much do you need to save to get there? And while you are at it, download your Social Security statement.

Why 3% withdrawals might be better for retiring early: Can You Retire In Your Fifties?

2) Increase your contributions to catch-up levels. In the calendar year that you turn fifty, you can now contribute an extra $1,000 to an IRA ($6,500 total), and an additional $6,000 to your 401(k) or 403(b) ($24,500 total for 2018). There’s also a $1,000 catch-up for Health Savings Accounts (HSA), but you have to be 55 for the HSA catch-up.

Learn about The Secret Way to Contribute $35,000 to a Roth IRA. 

3) While it’s possible to manage debt into retirement, most people are more confident about their finances when they are debt-free before they retire. I’d suggest you avoid creating new debt in your fifties and consider paying your mortgage off entirely.

4) Many of us are going to need some type of long-term care in the future, especially as life expectancy rises with medical advances. Increasingly, in-home care can allow people in their eighties to remain in their home. Why are we talking about this now? The most cost effective time to buy long-term care insurance is in your fifties to early sixties. You can’t wait until you have a need for care, and then apply for insurance. Instead, we ought to look at creating a pool of funds that could provide this care should you or your spouse need it, decades in the future.

5) Rethink Retirement. Some of you will have a traditional retirement, where one day you stop working and never work another day. However, many of you will have a very different “retirement” than your parents. Maybe you change careers, go to part-time, start a business, or find new sources of income. It’s all possible! Let’s figure out how to make it happen.

See: Replacing Retirement With Work-Life Balance.

Financial Planning In Your Forties

In your forties, it’s time to get serious about your money. Let’s take care of business and establish your financial plan. You can create your future. When I meet with people in their sixties, their net worth and retirement preparedness has little to do with their income, but has a lot to do with how consistent they were with their planning and saving in their thirties and forties. So, be the 40 year old that will make your 65 year old self proud.

1. You are behind. Chances are that you have neglected some aspects of your financial planning at this point and many people in their forties are not on a trajectory that will lead to a comfortable future. Some people are only a little behind and just need to add a few things, but others are severely in danger. You still have the potential for significant compounding of your investments so take advantage of the fact that time is on your side.

Here’s a checklist of what you should have:

  • savings plan of how much to save and where;
  • a retirement plan that calculates a finish line when you can retire;
  • an estate plan;
  • a college funding plan for your kids;
  • comprehensive insurance for your assets, life, and for unexpected liabilities;
    tax strategies to minimize your tax bills;
  • a disciplined, investment program and target asset allocation.

Catch up: Financial Planning In Your Twenties
Financial Planning In Your Thirties

2. Get Rid of Debt. At this point, you should have a mortgage as your only debt. You should have paid off your student loans, and should be paying your credit cards in full every month. “Living within your means” means you don’t borrow money for furnishings, vacations, or toys.

If you are serious about your financial future, you will recognize that cars are a terrible waste of money. All cars lose about 50% of their value within five years. I see a lot of people who are leasing a Mercedes or driving a new $65,000 truck who tell me they cannot afford to put $400 a month into an IRA. My advice: keep your current car for as long as possible, 100,000 miles or more, then buy used and pay cash.

See: Rethink Your Car Expenses
Should You Get A New Car to Save Gas?

3. Save Based on Goals. In your twenties and thirties, you probably saved based on ability: I can afford to save $300 a month, or, I’ll save 10% to my 401(k). That’s okay to start, but it’s not looking at what is actually needed to accomplish your goals. Maybe you didn’t even have a goal! When your goal is specific, a course of action becomes obvious. If your goal is to pay for four years of tuition at a certain university, we can project how much that will cost and how much we need to save to achieve that goal.

For financial independence, start with your living expenses and apply a 4% withdrawal rate. If you need $60,000 a year to spend, that would require a portfolio of $1,500,000 (4% = $60,000). Now you have a specific goal. How much do you need to save to get to $1.5 million at age 65? Can you do it by 62? Are your investments likely to achieve the return necessary to reach your finish line? Your actions – spending, saving, and investing – should be based on a plan for your goals.

See: Setting Your Financial Goals

4. Family Needs. Increasingly, we are seeing adults who besides having to plan for their own future and their children’s needs are having to help their retired parents with care or financial support. Have a conversation with your parents and understand how they have planned for their retirement. Do they have a retirement income plan and an estate plan? Are you seeing any signs of memory loss or a decline in cognitive skills? These are signs of potential difficulty managing money in the future. If your parents are in their seventies or older, it might be a good idea to have conversations about money and their wishes. And of course, they might need a financial planner to help them as well.

See: Financial Planning for the Sandwich Generation

5. Umbrella Policy. When it comes to insurance, don’t just get “a” policy. Take the time to understand what your policies cover and exclude and make sure your coverage is more than adequate. People who look only at getting the lowest rate on their home and auto insurance are likely to be disappointed by their coverage, exclusions, and deductibles if, or should I say when, they have a claim. It’s important to make sure you have enough insurance, especially as your net worth grows.

That’s why I recommend clients consider an Umbrella Policy, which will supplement the liability coverage on your home and auto policies. If you have a car accident, your umbrella policy can provide another $1 million or more in coverage above the $250,000 limit on your auto policy. For a few hundred dollars a year, it’s worth owning an umbrella. If you don’t have a policy, or want to shop rates, I can refer you to an independent agent who can help you consider your options.

See: Don’t Forget Your Umbrella

Financial Planning In Your Thirties

In your thirties, you are establishing the financial habits which will last for the rest of your life. Choose carefully! You might think that it was tough to save and invest in your twenties. Well, I wish I could say things get easier in your thirties, but there are going to be new demands and expenses. You might still have student loans, but will be adding in a mortgage and car payments. Besides your own expenses, you may have a young family and all the joys and bills of day care, pre-school, and then clubs, sports, and music lessons. Your time and your money can disappear very quickly!

It’s important that you don’t delay your financial planning for another year. One year can turn into five or ten before you know it. I know it is easy to feel overwhelmed with all the financial pressures you face. Although there is a lot to do, we can help you get through the process and take the steps to create financial security and eventually, financial independence.

1. Catch Up. Most people in their thirties still need to do some of the key steps we discussed for your twenties: establishing an emergency fund, managing debt, tracking net worth, starting investing, and getting term life insurance.

See: Financial Planning in Your Twenties

2. Increase Savings. As your career progresses, you may find you are being promoted from entry-level to higher paid positions. You might change employers, relocate, or even pursue a new, more lucrative career. From 30 to 39, you might see a significant increase in your income. The question is: When you get a raise, will you spend it or save it? If you can get in the habit of increasing your saving and investing, you can generate a significant amount of investment capital in your thirties.

The challenge is that you will see so many friends who are buying a bigger house, leasing two luxury cars, taking lavish vacations, or buying a boat or a lake house. You have to resist the temptation to “Keep up with the Joneses”. They may be taking on a vast amount of debt to fund their lifestyle and are not being responsible with their money. Just because a bank will give you a credit card or loan, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to spend the money.

3. Put Your Investing on Auto-Pilot. What works is squirreling away money consistently. Set up the accounts you need: 401(k), Roth IRA, 529 Plan, Health Savings Account (HSA), etc. Pay yourself first and set up monthly automatic contributions to each account. Don’t worry if you have to start small, you can always increase your amounts later. If you don’t make contributions automatic, you probably aren’t going to have an extra $5,500 lying around at the end of the year to fund your IRA.

See: How Much Should You Contribute to Your 401(k)?

4. 15-Year Mortgage. If you begin your house search process with the pre-approval for a 15-year mortgage, you can save a fortune in interest over the life of the loan. Of course, you also have the opportunity to own your house free and clear in just 15 years. Even if you move after 10 years, you will have significantly more equity if you started with a 15 year rather than a 30 year loan.

See: The 15-Year Mortgage: Myth and Reality

5. Start a 529 College Savings Plan. The sooner you can starting saving for your kids’ college, the more time you can enjoy the benefits of compounding. And since a chief benefit of 529 Plans is tax-free growth, you get more benefit by starting at age 6 than at age 16. An early start is helpful.

See: How Much Will It Cost to Send Your Kids to College?

6.  Establish an Estate Plan. No one wants to think about their own mortality, but this is an important step that you need to take. If you have minor children, you really do not want to leave decisions about what happens to your children (and the money to support them) in the hands of a Judge who doesn’t know you. Courts are bound by rules that may lead to outcomes that you would not have wanted. I can refer you to an attorney who can complete this process with you. The cost for most plans will be only $750.

See: What Happens If You Die Without a Will.

Financial Planning in Your Twenties

In your twenties, you are out of college, starting your career and maybe will be starting a family soon. What is most essential is to realize is that financial planning is not just for people your parents’ age who are getting ready to retire. Financial Planning is for YOU!

The steps you take in your twenties will lay the groundwork for the rest of your life. Will you become wealthy or will you be just one step ahead of your bills and debt like many Americans? A lot of us older folks wish we could be twenty-five again but with what we know at 45 or 65. Then we could get an early start and be in much better position later.

So, let’s get organized, educate ourselves about money, investing, and taxes. Define your goals and create a written financial plan. It’s an exciting time to be seeing your hard work starting to pay off. There are plenty of money issues that create a lot of stress: student loans, credit cards, buying a car, housing affordability, low paying entry level jobs, etc. We need to tackle those issues head-on.

Here are five crucial steps for being in your twenties.

1. Emergency Fund. Keep three to six months of living expenses in a safe, liquid account that is separate from your regular checking or bank account. Unplanned expenses are an inevitable reality of life. Cars break down, houses need repair, injury or illness happens. It’s not really a matter of “if” these things will occur, but just when. An emergency fund is a prerequisite before you can start to invest for long-term goals.

2. Manage Debt. Avoid taking on new debt and be smart about managing your existing liabilities, such as student loans, car payments, and credit cards. You have to plan for how to pay off your loans, while still having a plan for the rest of your financial goals, too.

See Should You Invest or Pay Off Student Loans First?

3. Annual Net Worth Statement. Adding up all your assets and liabilities is a key step to managing your financial life. Understand where you are today and direct your cash flow to grow your net worth. By tracking this annually, you are not only measuring your progress, but creating a sense of urgency that will help align your short-term decisions with your long-term goals and dreams.

4. Start Investing NOW. Don’t think that you can make up for lost time later. Compounding works over time and the earlier you start, the earlier you can reach the finish line.

See The Cost of Waiting from 25 to 35

5.  Term Life Insurance. You might not have significant assets today, but when you are young, you have the largest amount of future lifetime income. If you have a spouse or family, the greatest need for protection is at age 25, not at 65, when most of your earnings years are behind you. We don’t use insurance as an investment; it is to protect against potentially devastating and rare risks. So, buy a term life policy. If you are healthy, it may be only a few hundred dollars a year. And if something were to happen to you, the term policy would be the most important financial planning step we took. Don’t skip this!

See A Young Family’s Guide to Life Insurance

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.