How Some Investors Saved 50% More

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While some people view risk as synonymous with opportunity, the majority of us don’t enjoy the roller coaster ride of investing.  Our natural proclivity for risk-avoidance can, unfortunately, become a deterrent in deciding how much we save. Without having specific goals, investors often default to a relatively low contribution rate to retirement accounts and other investment vehicles.  They commit only how much they feel comfortable investing, rather than looking at how much they actually need to be saving in order to fund their retirement or other financial goals.

In the November issue of the Journal of Financial Planning, Professors Michael Finke and Terrence Martin published a study of 7616 people born between 1957 and 1965, looking at whether working with a financial planner produced improved outcomes for accumulated retirement wealth.  Here are their conclusions:

Results indicate consistent evidence that a retirement planning strategy and the use of a financial planner can have a sizeable impact on retirement savings.  Those who had calculated  retirement needs and used a financial planner… generated more than 50% greater savings than those who estimated retirement needs on their own without a planner. 

When I read the executive summary of their article, I wondered if perhaps the results reflected that higher income people were simply more likely to use a financial planner.  However, the authors took this into consideration.  They controlled for differences in household characteristics such as income, education, and home ownership… Even after controlling for socioeconomic status, households that used a financial planner and calculated retirement needs had significantly higher retirement wealth accumulation across all quantiles relative to households with no plan. 

Interestingly, the authors noted that this result of 50% higher wealth was not due to investment performance.  When they looked at individuals who used a financial advisor who was not doing a comprehensive plan (such as a stock broker), they noted that using a planner without estimating retirement needs had little impact on accumulation compared to having no retirement strategy at all.  

And that’s why we put planning first at Good Life Wealth Management.  Goals dictate actions.  Only when we have a clear picture of what you want to accomplish will we will know if you are on track or behind schedule.  We’re more willing to save when we are working towards a finish line, as opposed to worrying about what the market is going to do next.  If you’re looking for a comprehensive advisor to bring clarity to your goals and to carry out your game plan, I hope you’ll give me a call.

5 Ways to Save Money When Adopting a Pet

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Americans love their pets, and although they repay every penny with their love and devotion, the amount we spend on our pets can be astronomical.  I’ve been a volunteer in animal rescue since 1997 and here are my top five suggestions for ways to save money if you’re looking to add a four-legged companion to your family.

1) Adopt Don’t Shop.  Puppies in a pet store or from a breeder can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars.  Adopting from a shelter may cost a fraction of this amount, and often, a shelter pet has already been vaccinated, wormed, and neutered, saving you $300 to $500 in initial vet bills.  Additionally, adopting a shelter pet saves a life, as currently, approximately 4 million unwanted pets are euthanized each year in the US. Take your time and make sure the dog or cat will be a good fit for your household – many pets are returned or wind up in shelters when people underestimate how much time and effort it will take to train a puppy to become a well-behaved adult dog.

2) Crate Train.  Although cute, puppies love to chew and can be quite destructive when left unsupervised.  They are naturally attracted to shoes, furniture, and other expensive items in your home.  Besides being costly to replace these items, it can also be dangerous for dogs to ingest these items.  There have been many expensive vet visits from dogs who got sick from eating something in their home that should have been off-limits.  Save yourself this headache and expense by buying a crate to keep your dog from causing trouble when you’re not home.  This has the additional benefit of helping with house training, which will save your carpets!  Over time, dogs really do start to like their crates.  My dog goes into his crate immediately when we get ready to leave the house – it’s his safe place.  Read up on crate training.  The $50-100 you spend on a crate may save you hundreds or thousands in preventable destructive behavior.

3) Ask Friends for a Veterinarian Recommendation.  The price of vaccines, neutering, or heartworm treatment can vary significantly from vet to vet.  Ask friends for a recommendation for a low-cost vet.  Some clinics offer one or two days a month that they provide discounts on vaccines.  Ask your shelter if they know of any free or low-cost vaccination or neutering clinics in your city.  Still, make sure to develop a relationship with one veterinarian who knows your dog or cat, to monitor changes in your pet’s health over time and make sure you stay up to date with any needed care.

4) Consider a Mixed Breed Dog.  A lot of people want a specific kind of dog, but unfortunately, many breeds have a higher likelihood of developing certain health issues.  For example, some breeds are prone to hip dysplasia, cancer, or ear infections.  These can be expensive to treat and often result in a shorter life expectancy for the animal.  Mixed breed dogs tend to be healthier, live longer, and have fewer of these genetic predispositions for certain ailments.  If you do want a specific breed, you can still probably find one through a local shelter or rescue group.

5) Buy Smart.  A 15 pound bag of my dog food costs $35, but a 30 pound bag only costs $45.  Buy the larger bags and use an airtight storage container.  Buy a high quality food and skip the expensive treats, such as rawhides, that have limited nutritional value and can upset a sensitive stomach.  Keep up with heartworm preventative and flea/tick medicine.  Although it is one of the largest ongoing costs, these preventative medicines are much less expensive than treatment, should your pet become sick.  And here in Texas, even indoor dogs have a very high likelihood of developing heartworms without prevention.

If you are looking for a pet, let me know and I will look for a good fit for you at Operation Kindness.  We also have fosters in our home several times a year, if you are interested in a puppy.

5 Tax Savings Strategies for RMDs

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In November each year, we remind investors over age 70 1/2 to make sure they have taken their Required Minimum Distribution (RMD) from their retirement accounts before the end of the year.  If an investor does not need money from their IRAs, the distribution is often an unwanted taxable event.  Although we can’t do much about the RMD itself, we can find ways to reduce their taxes overall.

Clients who have after-tax contributions to retirement accounts often ask about which account they should take their RMDs, but it doesn’t matter.  The IRS considers IRA distributions to be pro-rata from all sources, regardless of the actual account you use to make the distribution. Whichever account you use to take the RMD, the tax due is going to be the same.

If all your contributions were pre-tax, your basis in all accounts is zero and you can ignore the comments above.  Note that you do not have to take a distribution from each individual account, even though each custodian is likely to send you calculations and reminders about your RMD for that account. All that matters is that your total distribution meets or exceeds the RMD for all accounts each year.

For investors taking RMDs, here are 5 steps you can take to reduce your income taxes:

1) Asset Location.   Avoid generating taxable income in your taxable accounts by moving taxable bonds, REITs, and other income generating investments to your retirement account.  This will keep the income from the investments out of a taxable account, leaving your RMD as your primary or only taxable event.  Placing stable, income investments in your IRA will also be a benefit because it will keep your IRA from having high growth.  Otherwise, if your IRA grows by 20%, your RMDs will grow by 20%.  (Actually more than 20%, since the percentage requirement increases each year with age).

Keeping stocks and ETFs in a taxable account allows you to choose when you want to harvest those gains and also allows you to receive favorable long-term capital gains treatment (15% or 20%), a tax benefit which is lost if those positions are held in an IRA.  Lastly, if you hold the stocks for life, your heirs may receive a step-up in basis, which is yet another reason to hold stocks in a taxable account and not your retirement account.

2) Charitable Donations.  If you itemize your tax return and are looking for more deductions, consider increasing your charitable donations.  And instead of giving a cash donation, donate shares of a highly appreciated stock or mutual fund and you will get both the charitable donation and you’ll avoid paying capital gains on the position later.

3) Stuff your deductions into one year.  Many investors in their 70’s have paid off their mortgage and it is often a “wash” between taking the standard deduction versus itemizing.  If this is the case, consider alternating years between taking the standard deduction and itemized deductions.  In the year you itemize, make two years of charitable donations and property taxes.  How do you do this?  Pay your property tax in January and the next one in December and you have put both payments into one tax year.  Do the same for your charitable contributions.  The following year, you will have few deductions to itemize and will take the standard deduction instead.

4) Harvest losses.  Investors are often reluctant to sell their losers, but selectively harvesting losses can save money at tax time.  Besides offsetting any capital gains, losses can be applied against ordinary income of up to $3,000 a year, and any leftover losses carry forward indefinitely.

5) Roth IRA.  If you don’t need your RMD because you are still working, consider funding a Roth IRA.  There is no age limit on a Roth IRA, so as long as you have earned income, you are eligible to contribute $6,500 per year.  If you qualify for a Roth, then your spouse would also be eligible to fund a Roth, even if he or she is not working.  Although the Roth is not tax deductible, the contribution does enable you to put money into a tax-free account, which will benefit you, your spouse, or your heirs in the future.

There is a “five year rule” which requires you to have a Roth open for five years before you can take tax-free withdrawals.  This rule applies even after age 59 1/2, so bear that in mind if you are establishing a Roth for the first time.

One additional suggestion: although you have until April 1 of the year after you turn 70 1/2 to take your first RMD, waiting until then will require you to have to take two RMDs in that year.  It may be preferable to take your first RMD in the year you turn 70 1/2, by December 31.

Retirement Cash Flow: 3 Mistakes to Avoid

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Living off your portfolio is unfamiliar territory for new retirees, and although it’s sounds simple, there are a number of common pitfalls which many people encounter in their first few years of retirement.  Here are three mistakes you should avoid to help keep your retirement cash flow safe.

1) Not including everything in your budget

A retirement income plan establishes a safe withdrawal rate designed to last for 30 or more years of retirement.  For example, we may determine that a couple can safely withdraw $4,500 a month from their accounts, in addition to their Social Security and pension.  They set up a $4,500/month transfer and this works well until they encounter a large, unanticipated bill.  Then, they require additional withdrawals to cover their expenses and suddenly their plan to withdraw only 4% that year balloons to 6% or 7%.

When we create a budget, it should include everything, and not just your ordinary monthly bills.  The following are some “unexpected” expenses that have caused retirees to request additional withdrawals in recent years:

  • Home repairs, such as a new roof or AC
  • Needing $35,000 for a new car
  • Medical expenses not covered by insurance
  • Property taxes
  • Vacations
  • Buying a Vacation Home
  • Boats, or RVs

It’s easy to consider a 401(k) account or Pension Lump Sum payout as being all available, but it’s better to view the account as a 30-year stream of income.  Rather than looking at the account as a $1 million slush fund, consider it a $40,000 salary with a 3% raise each year.  A retiree needs to have an emergency fund just like everyone else and to budget and save for large expenses.  The principal of your retirement account cannot be both your permanent source of income and your emergency fund.

2) Reinvesting Dividends in a taxable account.

If you are taking withdrawals, or will need to take withdrawals, from your taxable account, I’d suggest turning off dividend reinvestment on all your positions.  Have your funds pay dividends and capital gains in cash and hold the resulting cash for your withdrawals.  This will save you from having to sell positions and creating taxes on capital gains in order to access your money.

You probably have substantial gains in mutual funds if you’ve owned them for a long time.  Mutual funds typically use the average cost basis method, so if you have a 75% gain in the position, any withdrawal will be considered to have a 75% gain.  ETFs and individual stocks use the specific lot method, and sales are generally considered to be First In, First Out (FIFO), unless you specify lots at the time of the trade or change your default cost basis disposal method to another option.  While that does give an investor more flexibility in managing the tax implications of ETF sales than with mutual funds, I find that most don’t bother and simply go with the default of FIFO.

The easiest way for retirees to avoid this headache is have distributions paid in cash.  If you end up with more cash than you need at the end of the year, you can always use the money to rebalance your portfolio.  (Which is preferable to having to make sales in order to rebalance the portfolio, anyways.)

3) Ignoring the Low Interest Rate environment.  

Today’s low interest rates present a challenge for retirees and many of the conservative ideals of the past are simply not providing the same level of financial security today.  This applies to both assets and liabilities.  On the asset side, keeping the majority of your money in a bank account or CD may be safe in the short-term, but with today’s historically low interest rates running below inflation, you’ll lose purchasing power each year.  We call this a negative real return.  A balanced and properly diversified portfolio has short-term risk, but is likely to increase your wealth over time.  If you’re investing for the long-term, make sure all your investments aren’t designed as short-term holdings, or they may be setting you up for eventual disappointment.

Many near-retirees have a goal of being debt-free, which is a laudable ambition, but with today’s low rates, you could lock in a mortgage in the 3% range.  Selling investments or cashing out a 401(k) and paying taxes on the withdrawal to pay off a 3% mortgage could hurt your long-term financial strength, provided you are willing to hold investments that can potentially return more than 3%.  By paying off their mortgages, some home owners inadvertently wind up house rich and cash poor, which does not give you much flexibility in paying your living expenses.  From a cash flow perspective, you may be better off keeping a mortgage versus tying up a majority of your net worth in home equity.

One additional note on mortgages: eligibility for a mortgage is based largely on your income.  If you are going to refinance a mortgage, do so while you are still working and before you retire.  Once you are retired, it will be more difficult to underwrite a mortgage with no income, even if you have sufficient assets to buy the property outright.

These types of issues come up frequently with new retirees, and we give a lot of thought to the pros and cons of each choice.  Individual situations can vary and there are sometimes reasons why no rule of thumb can apply 100% of the time.  If you have questions about retirement cash flow and your personal portfolio, please send me a message and we can discuss your options.

Adversity or Opportunity?

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In the past two weeks, market volatility has spiked and major indices have traded down 7% or more.  I follow the market closely and monitor the situation for news which might impact our portfolios.  Generally, I prefer to use this space to discuss beneficial financial planning topics, but I know that everyone is wondering about the market, so here is my take on the situation.

The recent pull-back has been relatively minor and probably long-overdue, given that we’ve gone five years since a significant correction.  The good news is that stock fundamentals are strong and the US economic recovery remains in place, although actual growth is somewhat tepid. While equity prices have risen, valuations are within a normal range and not at the elevated levels we saw in previous bubbles.  With interest rates remaining extremely low, “risk” assets like stocks still offer greater potential return than cash or fixed income.

Having shared my opinion, I have to say that it really doesn’t matter what I think will happen.  Anyone who thinks that data is “proof” of what the market is going to do is fooling themselves.  No one can predict the market.  Fortunately, long-term investment success does not require a crystal ball.  What it does require is a well-researched and executed plan, a diversified allocation, and most importantly, the fortitude and discipline to stick to your plan.

I was asked this week if I got my clients out of the market before the recent turmoil.  No, I didn’t and I didn’t sell any of my own stock positions, either.  I was doing the opposite this week: buying in a number of portfolios.  And I was quite happy to have the opportunity to pick up ETF shares 5-10% lower than they cost just three or four weeks ago.  I’m focused on the long-term opportunity and not the present adversity.  Although I don’t know where the market will be one month from now, I strongly believe that the market will be significantly higher in 10 years from now and that is what really matters.

So rather than worry about the troubles of the day and the things you cannot control, I believe investors are best served by focusing on the things you can control, such as:

  • establishing a target asset allocation to match your risk tolerance, required return, and time horizon;
  • diversifying to eliminate company-specific risks;
  • keeping investment expenses low and reducing tax drag to a minimum; and
  • how much you save and invest.

Of these four, the last one is crucial to your individual success.  The news tends to make us focus on trying to improve short-term investment performance, instead of how much you should be saving.  If your goal is accumulation, it’s more important to be thinking about how to increase your saving than how to increase your return.  We have to learn to ignore the noise of the daily media so we can stay focused on how to achieve our long-term objectives.

Optimism is key.  Not a blind naivete, but the confidence to know that you are on the right path, and the recognition that sometimes the path is uphill.  I remember a bit of wisdom I heard years ago “You make your money in bear markets, you just don’t know it until later.”  If you’ve got five or more years to retirement, you should welcome each pullback in the market as a tremendous opportunity.

With this understanding, there are some small ways to take advantage of the recent market turmoil and use the recent drop in prices to your advantage:

  • Put excess cash to work; if you haven’t made your IRA contribution, now is a good time.
  • Rebalance your portfolio.
  • Swap losing positions to harvest tax losses; replace your high expense funds with tax-efficient, low cost ETFs.  Use the downturn as an opportunity to clean up your portfolio.
  • Add Emerging Market equities, if you don’t have any.  EM is down more than domestic equities and has lagged for several years.

Market timing may be an alluring mirage, but ultimately is a counterproductive distraction for investors.  If you’re able to take advantage of the pullback, that’s fine, but if you’re already invested, don’t think that you have to “do something”.  Most of the time, doing nothing is ultimately the best option!

Community Property and Marriage

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In Community Property states (AZ, CA, ID, LA, NV, NM, TX, WA, WI), assets acquired during marriage are considered to be jointly owned regardless of how the account or asset is titled.  Separate property includes assets which pre-date the marriage as well as inheritances and gifts received during the marriage.  In the case of a divorce, community property is split equitably while separate property will remain with its original owner.

Assets are considered to be community property unless you can provide clear and convincing evidence that they are separate.  You may have heard that you only need to keep your financial records for six years, as that is the length of time that the IRS can go back for an audit (unless you submitted a false or fraudulent return, in which case there is no statute of limitations).  However, for the purpose of proving separate property, you have to keep documentation permanently.

It is important to also understand that income from separate property is considered community income in Texas.  If funds are commingled, contributions added, or dividends reinvested, you may inadvertently cause separate property to become characterized as community property.  

When a couple is getting married, it is important for both spouses to understand their individual separate property rights and to take steps to ensure that their assets maintain their separate property character.  We suggest having all income, such as interest and dividends, swept from the separate account automatically when received and deposited into a joint account.  Capital gains from mutual funds can be reinvested, and of course, you can sell one position and use the proceeds to purchase another another one in the account.

In Texas, we have an “inception of title” rule which means that any asset acquired before marriage is separate, even if debt for the asset is discharged with community income.  For example, a home purchased before one day before the wedding will forever be a separate asset, even if the mortgage is paid during the marriage.  The same applies for a business entity – if created before the marriage, it will be separate property, and if created during the marriage, it’s a community asset, regardless of debt or title of ownership.  Debt can be a part of community property, so any debt acquired by one spouse during marriage may be considered to be a joint debt.

Separate Property can sometimes be an issue for first marriages, however, most first marriages are with young couples who have little or no assets.  It’s a more common concern for couples getting married (or re-married) in their 40’s, 50’s, or later who may have substantial separate property and who often have children from a previous relationship.  These issues could be addressed by a pre-nuptial agreement, and if you do decide to have a pre or post-nuptial agreement, both spouses should have separate counsel.  The nine states which do have community property laws, all have slightly different rules, so be sure to use an attorney and advisor who are familiar with your state’s laws.

If you’re getting married or remarried, your financial advisor should be having these conversations with you well in advance of the marriage and be taking steps to ensure your separate property rights will be maintained.

Bringing Financial Planning to All

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In my first position as a financial advisor, I worked at a “Broker Dealer”, where we charged commissions on the sale of products.  As an educator in my previous career, the sales aspect of the job was challenging and at odds with my belief that good financial planning encompasses much more than just which funds or securities to buy.  Any investor in a transactional account is bound wonder from time to time if a trade is being suggested to improve their portfolio, or because the broker needs to make a sale.

In order to focus on a more holistic approach, in 2012, I joined a Registered Investment Advisor (RIA), a firm which did not charge commissions on the sale of investments, but charged a management fee based on the assets under management.  I think this is a much better solution for both investors and advisors.  It’s completely transparent and the client pays for on-going service, rather than upfront commissions.  This eliminates feeling like you have to stay on guard to make sure a broker is not placing unnecessary trades to make more revenue for their firm. A fee-based account places investors and advisors on the same side: if the portfolio goes up in value, the advisor will make more, and if the portfolio declines, so will the advisor’s compensation.

While the RIA approach has many advantages over the commission platform, as a business model, it is difficult to spend a great deal of time on a client with limited assets as the revenue is low and it might take years to justify the initial time and costs.  As a result, most RIA firms have minimum account sizes, often $1 million or more; at my previous firm, we did not take any clients under this level.  It was a good business model for the firm, and it gave me the chance to focus extensively on investment research, developing portfolio models, and implementing trades across $375 million in client assets.

However, I found it frustrating to have to turn away friends and family who wanted to use my services.  I believe in the American dream of financial independence.  I want to help others achieve those dreams and not limit my efforts to solely helping those who have already accomplished their financial goals.

That’s why we created a two-part structure at Good Life Wealth Management – to have the ability to help clients of all sizes and ages.  Here’s how it works:

Families with over $250,000 in investable assets will participate in our comprehensive Good Life Wealth Management Program.  This includes creating a financial plan and customized management of your assets in a tax-efficient investment portfolio.  The fee is 1% annually, (charged quarterly).  This approach provides established investors with an ongoing financial plan that addresses your unique needs and changes as your situation requires.

For families below $250,000, we offer our innovative Wealth Builder Program.  We create the financial plan you need today, with a focus on improving both sides of your net worth statement: your assets and your liabilities.  We invest your accounts using no-transaction fee funds or ETFs, and will advise how to allocate your other accounts such as 401(k)s.  Rather than charging as a percentage of your accounts, the Wealth Builder Program costs just $99 a month, which can be paid by credit card or debited directly from your accounts.

Using a monthly retainer is a relatively new approach in the RIA business, but I think is the crucial next step we need to bring the benefits of financial planning to the 90% of Americans currently not being served by the “$1 million and up” firms.

For more information on this approach, check out this article in October’s Think Advisor magazine, which quotes myself and other advisors who are leading and advocating for this change in the industry.  Here’s the link:

http://www.thinkadvisor.com/2014/09/29/experimenting-with-new-compensation-models

The Geography of Retirement

Retirees move for various reasons: to find a better climate, to spend more time pursuing activities they love, or to be closer to family.  Sometimes, the decision is based on a desire to downsize and reduce their cost of living. There are many financial considerations regarding your choice of retirement location, but there are three key factors that I would use as a starting point when weighing your options.

1) Look at total costs and not just income taxes if moving out of state.  Every year, I see articles about retiring to “tax-free” states like Florida or Texas.  There are seven states which have no personal income tax: Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, Washington, and Wyoming.  Additionally, New Hampshire and Tennessee do not tax personal wages, but do tax dividends and interest.  While moving to a tax-free state sounds like a great idea, there may be other costs of living that could offset those state tax-savings.  Be sure to calculate the cost of property taxes, property insurance, and sales taxes.  For a retiree who has $50,000 in annual income, the savings in income tax may be relatively small and your total living expenses could actually increase if you move to another state.  It’s better to look at your whole cost of living, especially if your income in retirement will be modest.

When you look at property taxes, make sure to research whether your state offers any property tax programs for seniors.  Texas, for example, will freeze school taxes for residents over 65, placing a ceiling on the tax on your primary residence.  Some states offer seniors an income-based reduction on property taxes; it’s worth going through that paperwork to confirm you are eligible, rather than assuming you’re eligible and finding out later that you will not receive the tax rebate.

2) Consider travel costs.  It’s one thing to enjoy a vacation for a few weeks, but some retirees find themselves feeling disconnected and missing out on family activities if they move away permanently.  They find themselves coming back “home” more frequently and for longer periods.  Before long, they’re spending $5,000 a year or more on travel costs between two locations.  That’s fine if that’s the lifestyle you want, but it is an expense that you must consider if you’re thinking that moving is going to be a cost-saving plan.  How will you feel about not spending holidays with your family, or missing your grandchildren’s birthdays and soccer games?  Is the cost and hassle of travel going to make it worth while to move?

3) Know your health care coverage.  If you are part of a health care network, such as a Medicare Advantage Plan (part C), what is covered out of state?  This is a common issue for snowbirds who divide their time between a northern home and their southern winter get-away.  I’ve spoken with quite a few whose “plan” is to have all of their appointments and check-ups take place when they’re home.  But what happens if you get sick while you’re away?  Out-of-network care may be very expensive or not covered by your insurance.  It’s a risk both to your health and your finances.

This concern also applies for US citizens who are looking to move abroad to a low-cost location.  It’s relatively easy to receive your Social Security and Pension out of the country, but for Medicare, you will have very limited or no coverage.  Be sure to read this Medicare brochure before deciding to move overseas: Medicare Coverage Outside the United States.

If you decide to live abroad, you may think you don’t need to enroll in Medicare Part B.  But if you later move back to the US, there will be a penalty (permanently higher premiums) to enroll in Part B if you didn’t sign up at age 65.  And you must have Part B in order to participate in Medicare Advantage or to enroll in Prescription Drug coverage (part D).  So be very careful you understand the potential future costs if you are planning on turning down Part B at age 65.

5 Techniques for Goal Achievement

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Goal Setting is a key step to the financial planning process, and helping clients achieve goals is the value I provide.  Everyone would like to be wealthy, but that is not a goal.  To me, it only becomes a goal when we can state a clear, tangible objective.  So, if you’d like to retire, we’d calculate how to make that happen and develop a specific goal like “accumulate $2.1 million dollars by 2026.”  That long-term goal gives us a timeline and dictates what we need to do each year and month to make your goal a reality.  We can observe if you are on track and make adjustments as needed in the years ahead.  The key step though is translating an ambiguous desire into a goal which is measurable.

Below are 5 Techniques For Goal Achievement, starting with high-level and moving to detail-oriented.  The key is finding not the tool which you like the most, but the tool which helps you address the area where you are most likely to fall down or become distracted or disillusioned with your goal.  If you need motivation and confidence, focus on the the high-level tools; if you need help with implementing goals, focus on the daily tools.  And while I’m writing about financial goals specifically, these concepts could be applied to any goal you want to achieve.

1) Visualize your goal with a daily reminder and affirmation.

For the retirement goal above, write a check to yourself for $2.1 million, with a date of January 1, 2026.  Put the check someplace you will see it everyday.  Over time, our goals will naturally start to shape our behavior.  Daily repetition helps internalize the goal and we come to see it as inevitable, rejecting any fear or self-doubt.

2) Chart your goal road map.

Why do you need a road map?  Imagine you wanted to drive from Dallas to New York.  You could just start driving and figure you’ll get there eventually through trial and error.  But most people prefer to know where they are going and to choose the most direct route.  This makes perfect sense for a long drive, but most people haven’t taken the same step of putting together a plan of how to accomplish other long-term goals relating to their finances, career, or health. Sometimes our destination is not on the road we are on today and we have to know when it’s time to change direction.  This is the difference between hoping we accomplish our goals versus knowing what we need to do today and tomorrow to get to a destination that may be years away.

3) Keep a daily goal journal.

Often times, to reach our goals, it requires that we upgrade our daily habits.  This can apply to financial behavior, but also to improving your diet, exercise, or your performance at work.  Making a change is challenging because our habits become ingrained and second nature to us.  It’s helpful to be able to see ourselves and our behavior from an objective, outside point of view.  The best way I’ve found to increase our self-awareness is through keeping a daily journal.  The journal becomes a mirror to see ourselves better.  Write down what you do each day relating to your goal, your progress or set-backs, and how you felt about the day’s activity.  This focuses your attention on today which is the only day that you can really control.  A journal motivates you to do what you need to do and feel good about your progress.  Sometimes, simply knowing that you have to write down your day’s activities will keep you on track and prevent you from old behaviors which you want to change.

4) Focus on accomplishing the essential with the 90% rule.

Imagine a pyramid of goals, with long-term at the top, supported by intermediate goals, and short-term goals at the base.  Start each day with a short to-do list of what is essential to complete today to advance your goals.  It’s easy to get bogged down in putting out fires and responding to issues, rather than following your own agenda. For a perfectionist, it’s difficult to leave a task, email, or project, until it is 100% complete to the best of your abilities.  The reality is that there is not enough time to be a perfectionist about everything and it is a better use of time to focus on touching everything that is on your essential to-do list.  The 90% rule is asking yourself if each task truly requires 100% perfection or if it just needs a 90% summary.  Do you really need to write a 10-page essay with footnotes, or will a 2-page overview accomplish the desired outcome?  It may take 2 hours for a “100% job”, but only 45 minutes for a “90% job”.  Some tasks do require 100%, but recognizing the difference allows you to spend more time on the essentials that will get you closer to accomplishing goals.

5) Stop procrastinating by using a timer.

Oftentimes, a task seems so monumental that we don’t even know where to begin.  Or it’s something we don’t enjoy doing, so we put it off for as long as possible.  We become so concerned about how long it will take to finish that we never even begin.  Take the pressure off yourself!  Instead of worrying about finishing the task, just pick an amount of time you can spend right now: 15 minutes, 30 minutes, whatever. Set a timer and let yourself to focus exclusively on that one item, with no checking email or other interruptions, until the timer rings.  You can do anything for 15 minutes.  You’ll surprise yourself how often you can complete a dreaded task in 15 minutes, or get 90% of it done.  This tool takes advantage of the fact that we have a limited amount of concentration (often only 15-30 minutes) on any subject. Our use of electronic media today can often hinder our focus. Consider setting specific times each day to check email, Facebook, etc., to avoid having your schedule hijacked by distractions.

The AFM Pension Plan: What Every Musician Needs to Know

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If you’re a professional musician in the US, you likely received your annual statement from the American Federation of Musicians Employers’ Pension Plan in the past several weeks. The main purpose of the mailing is to verify your Covered Earnings from the past year. Professional musicians often have basic questions about the AFM Pension, in part, because the annual statement doesn’t tell you very much about your personal situation other than your reported earnings and the amount your employer(s) contributed to the pension fund.

Give the importance of the Pension Fund to the retirement planning of musicians, here are five key questions about the plan that every musician should know.

  1. What is the Fund?

The AFM Employers’ Pension Fund (EPF) is a Trust Fund established by the AFM and funded through contributions from employers throughout the country, as required under a Collective Bargaining Agreement. Whether you’re a member of the Chicago Symphony, a Broadway theater musician, or a free-lance performer, you may be covered by the EPF. Currently, there are over 50,000 musician participants (active and retired) in the plan, and the fund has assets of over $1.7 Billion.

  1. How do I find out how much I am going to get?

The pension benefit you will receive depends on your contributions and the age you retire. While it is possible to calculate your benefit manually (it’s just algebra), it is much easier and simpler to use their website at www.afm-epf.org. Create your own Participant Login and use the Pension Estimator tool. Please note that while your contributions and earnings are always in annual amounts, the pension amounts shown are monthly benefits.

To be vested in the pension, you must have received covered earnings for 5 years, or 20 quarters. You receive a “quarter” of credit for $750 of covered earnings, and you will receive a full year of credits if you earned at least $3,000 in that year.

The normal age of retirement is 65 for the pension, but you can start as early as 55, provided you are retired at that age. If you are still working after 65, you can elect to start your pension at 65 and keep working, or you can delay benefits until you do retire and your benefit amount will be actuarially increased based on the age you decide to start benefits.

Once you’re logged on to the website and are on the Pension Estimator, you can create various scenarios to see what your pension benefit might be. If you’re vested, you’re guaranteed a benefit. If you want to find out how much benefit you’re eligible for based on your past earnings, enter 0 under Estimated Additional Contributions, and then hit “Calculate Benefit”. This defaults to age 65 for retirement, but you can make it for any age between 55 and 65. When you enter 0, your estimate doesn’t include any future earnings, so you will probably also want to create other estimates based on the future number of years you plan to work. As a simple estimate, you might take the past year’s employer contribution to the plan and multiply it by the number of years you plan to work.  Just remember that the estimate is based on today’s payout and crediting rules, which could be changed in the future.

  1. What are the payout options?

First, if your expected lifetime payments total less than $5,000, the EPF will give you a “cash-out” and send you a lump-sum payout. This is mandatory. However, if the expected payments exceed $5,000, there is no option to take a lump-sum or a rollover. You must take the monthly payments.

You can elect a Single Life Benefit (SLB), a 50% Joint and Survivor, or a 75% Joint and Survivor. The survivor options will pay you for life and then pay a reduced benefit (50% or 75%) to your “joint annuitant” for the rest of their life. If you are married, the plan defaults to the 50% J&S, but anyone can elect one of the joint and survivor options, regardless of your marital status. The joint amount is calculated as a percentage of the SLB, with a reduction based on the age difference between you and your joint annuitant. The younger your joint annuitant, the greater the reduction and the lower your monthly benefit amount. Your joint annuitant must be within 19 years of your age to elect the 75% plan.

The joint benefit is a valuable resource to take care of your spouse or partner, if they should outlive you, and it’s a relative bargain. Choose carefully, because your election at retirement is permanent. If you do outlive your joint annuitant, there is no option to change your plan or to select another joint annuitant.

The amount of your AFM pension is highly sensitive to the age of the participant at retirement. If you started benefits at 55, you’d receive only 37% of the benefit amount you’d receive at age 65. And that is assuming you didn’t work after 55 and had no additional contributions! Also, if you work past 65, your benefit also can grow significantly. For example, if you work to age 68, your benefit base would be increased by 35%, on top of the additional benefits you accrued from working between 65 and 68. This is one reason (of many) that some musicians are reluctant to retire – for every year they keep working, their pension is increasing by at least 10-11%.

  1. How does the AFM-EPF compare with Social Security benefits?

With Social Security, Full Retirement Age is 66 (increasing to 67 for individuals born after 1954), but you may start benefits as early as 62, or delay to 70. With the AFM EPP, Full Retirement Age is 65, but you can start as early as 55; you can delay the EPP past 65 only if you are still working and contributing to the plan.

One big difference is that Social Security has Cost of Living Adjustments (COLAs) based on inflation, whereas the AFM EPP does not. The amount you receive will remain the same for the rest of your life. Because there are no COLAs in the AFM plan, you have to be careful and not start benefits too early. If you can afford to wait until 65, it is a huge advantage to wait to full retirement age to receive benefits, even if you stopped working earlier. The reason is that you are guaranteed a 10-11% increase in benefits for each year waiting, which is better than Social Security (which increases by a maximum of 8% a year). You may or may not get 10-11% in your investment portfolio, but waiting on the pension is a guaranteed increase for life. Most musicians will receive both the AFM EPP and Social Security, but you do not have to start them at the same time.

With Social Security, your spouse may receive a survivor benefit. If your Social Security benefit is greater than your spouse’s benefit, then he or she will receive your benefit amount for the rest of their life, and their own benefit goes away. (If their SS benefit is already greater than your amount, they will not receive any increase or survivor’s benefit.) With the AFM plan, you don’t have to be married to have a joint annuitant and they can receive 50% or 75% of your amount after your death.

  1. I heard the plan is in trouble. Is my pension safe?

The AFM EPP is overseen by the Federal government and is covered by the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation (PBGC), which is similar to the FDIC in regulating pension plans and providing protection for individual participants. The plan itself has been considered to be in “critical status” since 2010, which occurs when the projected assets are insufficient to cover the projected liabilities. That description is a bit of a simplification, but the current “red zone” status means that the plan is required to create a rehabilitation plan to address the potential shortfall. They have reduced the benefits that will be paid on earnings contributed after 2010, and the board trustees, actuaries, and investment managers are working to monitor and fine tune the plan to ensure that it will be solvent for future retirees.

In the very unlikely event that the plan should fail, individual participants would have their benefits insured by the PBGC. While this should give some comfort, I should point out that there are limits to PBGC coverage based on the number of years of service, so it is possible that some participants would not be fully covered if their benefit amount exceeded the levels of protection under the PBGC.  I don’t think we need to be overly concerned about the viability of the pension plan, but I would council any musician to not rely solely on the pension.  You need to have other sources of assets and cash flow to provide a strong and secure retirement.

I don’t think anyone becomes a musician for the money, but musicians have the same financial needs and concerns as any other professional.  Unfortunately, a lot of musicians don’t pay much attention to their own financial planning, and don’t know where to turn for honest advice. I’ve been a member of the AFM since I was 19 and take great joy in helping my fellow musicians plan for a secure financial future. If you have retirement planning questions that might be a good topic for a blog, please email me at scott@goodlifewealth.com. Chances are that others may have the same questions! And of course, please feel free to call me at 214-478-3398 if you’d like to chat about any of your financial questions or concerns.