What is the AMT?

Rather than showing themselves to be an ally to the middle class by ending the AMT or repealing it for years to come, my Republican colleagues refused to include it in today’s legislation and America’s middle class will surely suffer that choice greatly.

-Ellen TauscherRead

No, it is not a dyslexic version of ATM!

Back when people could shelter almost 100% of their high income, Congress decided to make that more difficult by creating the alternative minimum tax (“AMT”).  This and other changes have made it difficult for the top 1% of taxpayers, people with income over $1 million, to go much below an average tax of 20%.  But, an AMT rate as high as 28% is still great if your marginal rate is 39%.

However, the AMT is sometimes called the “stealth tax” because it now affects many less wealthy taxpayers!

Why do you care?  Despite the title, you do not get to pick

You must pay the higher amount determined by the regular and AMT
tax calculations.  If you have to pay the AMT, you are paying almost a flat rate of 26% but it can be 28%, and you are losing the value of certain deductions, including state income taxes paid, certain mortgage interest and miscellaneous deductions, and having “preference” amounts added to AMT income, including incentive stock options and alternate depreciation schedules.  Data on 2012 income tax indicates that nearly every married taxpayer with income between $100,000 and $500,000 owed some AMT.  [This has changed since the tax laws changed in 2018.]

So what do you do?  Plan carefully

Make sure that efforts to reduce regular taxes do not push you into paying the AMT.  Here is one example: If you have a year with high ordinary income, you should pay your state income taxes during that calendar year, since you are less likely to be in the AMT, rather than waiting to pay in April of the next year, where a lower ordinary income means that you
will certainly be in the AMT.

(Note: some states impose an AMT as well.)

Good planning pays off

As in the example above, where preserving the deduction can be a very substantial savings
on your federal income taxes.

Should you Lease or Buy your next Car? It Depends

Any time you hear “always lease” or “always buy,” the “always” tells you the advice will probably never work for you – Steven

Are you better off leasing or buying a car?  The answer depends on many factors.

You want to evaluate the cost of having the car during the period you own or lease it.   That includes the down payment, loan payments and interest or lease payments, insurance, maintenance not covered by any maintenance agreement, repairs not covered by warranty or extended warranty, and gas.

When you buy a car, your total cost is reduced by what you get when you sell or trade it in.

When you lease a car, have lease payments and no trade value.

Note that the amounts you can deduct for business use also differ: you can depreciate a car you buy, and deduct financing charges, for the percent of business use, but only take lease payments on a car you lease for the percent of business use.

Quick guess:

If you want a new car every few years, leasing is probably better;

But if you typically own a car for six years or more, which would be at least two successive leases, then buying probably works better.

Contact me if you need more car-related advice!

Let’s really talk about risks

There is always risk involved. You can’t be a capitalist only when there are investment profits but then a socialist when you experience losses. 

-Cristina Kirchner

Only focusing on being “debt free” and having an “emergency fund” is like claiming that your favorite team won on defense alone, not needing any offense. 


(we are not talking about that kind of risk!)

Comprehensive financial planning uses cash management, debt, tax-planning, investing and insurance so you use all resources in the best way over time. 

In terms of a holistic plan, amassing cash is incomplete planning.  It deals very well with market risk, the volatility of the stock market (or any other capital market).  But it gets a zero in terms of dealing with the inflation rate risk (see notes risks below).  The after-tax return on cash is lower than the rate of inflation. 

What if you take a bit more risk and put money in bonds.  Now you added volatility risk and interest rate risk, but did dampen your inflation risk.  Next, you could add stocks.  Now you really addressed inflation well, but you also ramped up your volatility and increased your  liquidity risk.  You will need to diversify the stocks and the bonds, – you can’t just buy Apple stock or a short-term bond fund.  Yes, there is so much planning to do.

A good plan will design your cash management, debt and investment strategies based on your goals.  If you can fund all your goals, you need less return and can take less risk.  If you are far from your goals, you need to judiciously take on more risk. 

Okay, then, what if you need an enormous risk to reach your goals?  You can’t fully amp your investments without going so far beyond your risk tolerance so that you can’t sleep at night.  It would be better to take the goals down a notch.

Good planning

You need to cost out all your goals, then compare those costs to your resources to use them in the best way to achieve those goals.  And at the end of any plan, this caution should be added: 

The single most important risk to planning is a poorly defined or constantly changing strategy.  You must have a long-term approach to which you adhere over time regardless of the current favor of the particular strategy.  That will work, while chasing constantly changing tactics will not. 

P.S. – adhering includes monitoring and managing, as forgetting about it may not work well. 

So, evaluate  the risks that match your goals so you can plan well! 

…. and let us know if we can help!

Notes on risk:

1.  Specific and Non-specific market risk – buying a single stock versus buying the entire market is specific market risk; non-specific is the risk of a particular market.  You address these with diversification (cross-correlations among major asset types reduces volatility over the long-term without reducing returns) and asset allocation.

2.  Interest Rate Risk – is the inverse relation between the direction of interest rates and the value of a fixed-income asset as set by the market.

3.  Inflationary Risk – is the erosion of returns in terms of purchasing power due to inflation.

4.  Opportunity Cost Risk – is the failure to invest in assets producing the necessary returns because one chose instead to remain in cash.

5.  Liquidity Risk – is the risk that the investment chosen is one that cannot be liquidated easily before some event, such as the ultimate sale.

 

Should you “simplify your finances”? No, just gain control & understand your finances

Truth is something which can’t be told in a few words. Those who simplify the universe only reduce the expansion of its meaning.

-Anais Nin

After reading a recent article in Kiplinger’s Finance Magazine 
on simplifying your finances, I wondered if your personal finances can really be made simple.  Sure, many of us hope so ….

But, I am not sure that “simple” is best.

via GIPHY

However, gaining control of your finances and a better understanding does make sense.

Here are some ways that help you gain control that may also “simplify” your life:

Cash management and Debt
management

Set up automatic payments with vendors so they use your bank or credit card, or set up payments using your bank website.

·       If the payments are regular, and of similar amounts, you save time and can plan on the withdrawals.

·      However, if you change banks, sorting and resetting auto-pay at the new bank can be a major headache. Similarly, if you change credit cards, you need to update information with all vendors.

You can also automate tracking of your spending by using websites like Mint or Personalcapital.  Or, you can use Quicken or QuickBooks software from Intuit to track your bank and credit card accounts.  You can download from your bank and credit card websites into the program and then review to analyze your cash flow and spending.

Setting up direct deposit for payroll into your checking is great.  You can also split part so it goes to savings or even have some go to your investment accounts.  You will then need to follow up to invest the cash that accumulates, but having money set aside saves it from being spent, and adds to your investments.

Investing

Kiplinger’s recommended consolidating retirement accounts to avoid low balance fees.  It also makes updating beneficiary designations easier.

While avoiding fees makes sense, am not sure that putting all investments into a single retirement account does.  You cannot do this if you have Roth and pre-tax accounts like a 401(k) plan, and you probably should not do it if you have contributory IRA and 401(k) accounts that are subject to different tax rules.

Kiplinger’s also recommended using one broker for your taxable accounts.  This makes more sense, in that you have a higher balance which should mean lower fees and more attention from the broker.  However, I prefer using exchange traded funds, or ETFs, and avoiding most broker fees, which means essentially no attention from a broker.

One article said that your investment plan should be to “sign up and forget it.”  While avoiding investment pitfalls like second-guessing yourself out of panic when a fund goes down is good, I do think you need to review and re-balance your investments once
a year.

Another article recommended using an “all in one” fund for investing.  Now, this really troubles me.  If your sole goal is retirement, then an age-targeted fund could make sense.  But, if you are saving for goals with different time horizons, this is a bad idea.

If you use an age-targeted fund, do your homework on the funds.  For example, if the fund plans to suddenly shift to bonds when you retire, that will not serve you well because you are likely to have several decades for which you will need the growth from stocks.

Protecting your information

Having a master password for access to all your other passwords reminds me of the joke about the student who repeatedly distilled his notes down, first to an outline, then to note cards, and finally to one word.  How did he do on the day of the exam?  He forgot the word.

Nonetheless, having passwords is clearly important so having a way to manage them is as well.  Check out this recent review of apps for managing your passwords PC Magazine Best Password Managers for 2015.

You can manage the passwords yourself by creating a document that you save as a PDF and then encrypt.  But don’t forget the password you used for the PDF!

Store files in one place

We did a post on using cloud storage when you do not need originals.  Here is another site to check out:  Shoeboxed

Credit cards

In addition to downloading transactions as noted above, you can track your credit score and credit history by using sites like Credit Karma

Estate planning

For insurance purposes, and for your estate plan, having a record of possessions, you can list all your property using sites like Know your stuff home inventory.

Conclusion? Too simple may be a bad result

Setting simplification as your primary goal risks distorting your finances. There are ways to gain better understanding of your finances that also make your finances simpler.

Use our website to improve your
financial literacy and if you get stuck, ask us questions!

Guidelines for Holiday Tips and Gifts

I never wanted Mary Poppins to be my nanny. I wanted to be her when I grew up. 

-Anita Diament

The holiday season is in full swing and with that comes gift giving and tipping!  

This year, many of us have more people to thank, and tipping is one way to respond.

While gift giving etiquette may be obvious in some instances, it can get less clear when considering gifts for people outside of your friends and family.  So, to help you navigate the season, we have put together a guide of suggested amounts for gifts and tips.  

We all have people in our lives that help us keep our families, homes and businesses on track and get through each day as we move forward throughout the year.  In many cases, the services they provide ensure we can go to work, have clean homes and stay fit, including caregivers, delivery, home maintenance, and personal care services: 

Caregivers (for kids, parents and pets, too!)

Caregivers for your children, parents and pets can be lifesavers.  They provide care, education, exercise, and attention to those you care about most.  This is the time of year to let them know how thankful you are for all that they do.  The amount of service they provide and the arrangement you have with them can dictate the appropriate gift level:

1.    Nanny/au pair – a week’s salary and a small gift;

2.    Daycare teachers – a $25-$70 gift;

3.    Home healthcare worker – a week to a month’s salary;

4.    Teacher – a small gift and a handmade card from
your child;

5.    Dog walker – depending on your walker’s schedule, you may want to gift a day’s pay or a full week’s pay; and

6. Dog groomer – half the cost to the full amount for the service.

If you contract any of these services through an agency, you may want to contact the agency to find out if they have a gift-giving policy in effect.  If the agency prohibits gifts, consider alternatives like making a donation to the agency or sending in homemade cookies to the office. Or sneak a Starbucks card into their stocking …

“Neither snow nor rain…”

Despite the weather, terrain or traffic, your mail carrier delivers your mail every day and your online purchases arrive on time and in good condition.  Let those who make those
deliveries know you’re grateful.  In deciding what and how much to give, consider the particular company’s gift giving restrictions:

1.    Mail carriers – are not prohibited from receiving cash gifts and gifts more than $20;

2.    FedEx – employees may accept gifts under $75,  though no cash or gift cards;

3.    UPS – workers are allowed to accept tips, but UPS discourages the practice; and

4.    Newspaper delivery – $10-$30 is standard. 

Home Maintenance:

Whether you live in a single family home or a large apartment building, it’s likely there is someone who services your home or property in some way. 

1.  Trash and recycling collectors – $10-$30, which you may want to mail directly to the collection company if you’re not home to hand deliver it;

2.    Doorman – $25-$100;

3.    Regular cleaning person – the cost of one visit;

4.    Landscapers/gardeners – $20-$50 per person or if you have just one person doing the work, the cost of one visit;

5.    Parking garage attendant – $10-$50; and

6.    Building’s handyman, superintendent and custodian – $20-$100.

If you have someone who always goes the extra mile, such as a handyman who’s prompt and efficient or a doorman who is quick to carry heavy packages for you, then a larger tip may be warranted. 

Personal Services:

It’s hard work keeping you fit, perfectly coiffed and beautiful, but recognizing the efforts of those who do is easy and may also buy you scheduling flexibility when you really need it.  In deciding whether to tip and how much, consider this:

1.    Hairdresser/manicurist – if you’re a frequent visitor, tip the cost of one visit.  If
you’re a less frequent customer, then $20.  However, if you tip generously through the year, you do not need to give an extra tip at the end of the year;

2.    Personal trainer – up to the cost of one  cost;

3.    Massage therapist – also cost of one visit; and

4.    Golf or tennis instructor or sax teacher – a thoughtful gift.

If you’re unable to tip or give a gift, a thoughtful thank you note will acknowledge the good work these people do for you throughout the year.  Another effective gesture of gratitude is to send a thank you note to the supervisors of the people who provide you with great  service throughout the year, letting them know how impressed you are with the service you receive.  

Good feedback is appreciated by both the supervisor

and the people who are helping you out. 

Make Customer Service Calls Work for You

Southwest Airlines is successful because the company understands it’s a customer service company. It also happens to be an airline. 

-Harvey Mackay

Afraid to make a call to customer service? 

 

Years ago, I read a compelling account of success in handling customer service issues and was transformed from the angry guy making threats to the customer rep’s new best friend.  My new attitude brought great results, like the time I dialed up Verizon Wireless about a malfunctioning cell phone (one I accidentally put through the wash cycle), they effectively paid me (via a dollar refund and free headsets) to replace it. 

Want to use this same magic? Here is how:

1.     Be Respectful:  Make them feel important and validated.  Ask them their name, if they did not give it, and use that in the conversation. 

2.     Show Gratitude: Thank them for what they’re doing. If they feel you appreciate their efforts, they’ll work harder for you.

3.     Recruit Them:  Use terms like “we” and clearly state your objective so you can turn the call into a mission, with the representative committed to helping you accomplish it. 

4.     Remain Calm:  Avoid trigger words, anger and any swearing.  Otherwise you risk losing the bond you created.  Maintain the position of being empowered to get what you, as the customer, deserve. 

5.     Communicate Your Determination:  Be clear that you are not going anywhere until your mission is accomplished.  Be clear that you are not taking any brush off.

6.     Escalate:  If you are not making progress, then escalate: ask to speak to a manager.  Many representatives are judged by the number of calls referred to managers or supervisors, so asking may prompt them to be more helpful.  

This approach takes practice (and patience).  

However, it is quite effective, so you are likely to see good results. Good luck!

Sermons, partying, hangovers, diets, …. and financial planning

One day I woke up with an atrocious hangover, and it hurt so badly that I told myself, ‘It’s time to stop. I can’t do it anymore. It’s not good. It hurts too much.’

-Jordan Knight

Okay, bizarre title, but bear with me:

Financial planners often feel as if they preach sermons to encourage needed planning.

And like most “you should be doing this!” sermons, their preaching is met with serious resistance.

So here’s a different approach:

In college, you must have had at least one morning where you woke up with cobwebs in your head, regretting all the partying you did the night before.  Not only did you feel sick, you couldn’t believe how you acted or worse, had no recollection.  And to make all this worse, your bank account is overdrawn and you maxed out your credit card.

It’s not that you didn’t know better.  Of course you did.  But you told yourself, “hey, I’m young, now’s my time to live!”

Okay, now imagine that we are talking about you waking up at age 60, after several decades of living it up, with more than cobwebs in your head and an empty wallet:  you don’t have enough to retire.  In fact, you have to work much longer than you ever hoped.

You spent decades eating out, entertaining, going on costly vacations, buying expensive clothes and such instead of saving what you needed.  Unlike partying in your 20s, where you can catch up on by being frugal later, at age 60 you can’t catch up and you don’t get to go back a few decades to make up what you needed.

Just as you know better than to party all the time, you know that you should be planning for retirement, even if it is many decades away.  At the same time, you don’t need to sacrifice everything today for the future.

What you do need to do is find a balance in your spending and saving.

And that is where planning comes in.

Here’s one example: managing your cash flow:

Preparing a budget requires some serious work and isn’t that fun.  You need to review 12 months or more of spending, analyze it and then use it to project and inform future pending.  You will see where every dollar came in and went out.  That can enable you to shift where some dollars go, so you save more for future goals.

Preparing a budget is unpleasant and having the discipline to follow it is challenging.  But, like following a diet to lose weight, your financial health will improve.  If your doctor says your health depends on a diet, you follow it.

So now, when a financial planner tells you that your future financial health requires action now, will you take that seriously?

I hope so.

Green Investing for your IRA

We need to invest dramatically in green energy, making solar panels so cheap that everybody wants them. Nobody wanted to buy a computer in 1950, but once they got cheap, everyone bought them.

-Bjorn Lomborg

While there is no “green IRA”, you can pick a mutual fund, such as the ones mentioned above, or select stocks yourself in within your IRA or Roth IRA (see To Roth or Not to Roth).  That is, when you contribute cash to your IRA, it sits in a money market account, doing little until you invest it.

via GIPHY

For an increasing number of investors, “doing good” with their investments is as important as doing well.

Tapping into this new environmentally conscious market, more not-for-profit organizations are teaming up with money managers to create a new line of impact investments.  Here are some examples:

Green Century Funds;

Aquinas Funds; and

Calvert

Caution:  before you pick any, use a resource to evaluate and compare, such as Kiplinger’s
Finance

Here are the steps to invest in environmentally conscious companies:

1.     Select type of IRA:  Before opening and IRA, decide whether a Roth IRA or a traditional IRA suits your needs (see the Financial Literacy post).

2.     Open an IRA:  Opening an IRA has never been easier.  You can contact a financial institution, by phone or online, that offers IRAs, usually a bank, brokerage or mutual fund company.  Do your research and be sure the broker offers a self-directed IRA, so you can pick your investment options.  Also, be mindful of fees charged for trades, that is the buying and selling of stocks or funds.  You want a discount broker.  Finally, name beneficiaries in case something happens to you.

3.     Choose your Investments:  Your IRA can be made of stocks, mutual funds or a mixture.  In choosing stocks, experts such as Jennifer Schonberger of The Motley Fool, suggest that you focus on particular countries as you make green stock or mutual fund selections for your IRA.  She notes that China is an innovator in green technology, though it is also known as one of the world’s biggest polluters.

4.     Fund your Account:  Make a plan to fund your account and stick to it!   Starting early and contributing regularly can have an enormous impact your account’s value due to tax-free compounding of returns (see “Save 10% of Income”).

As with any stock market investing, your Green IRA may show you a roller coaster ride of value swings; however, if you have a long-term horizon, the significant growth potential should out-weigh this volatility risk.  Also, if you pick a loser, you can always sell your investment (tax-free) and invest in another.  Good luck!

Why You Don’t Need a Budget

Manage your spending by creating and sticking to a budget.

-Alexa Von Tobel

Traditional Budgets Don’t Work

You know you need to save more, but how? Where will the money come from? It takes tremendous effort to accurately record all transactions so that you have a valid budget.  Then, frequently, after

“Instant budget”

A much easier way to figure out your spending is to take a twelve-month period and look at your cash and credit card balances at the beginning and compare them to the end of the year. Look for any inflows from gifts or other non-salary items, and then measure the change.  Did the cash accounts go up or did the credit cards go up?  That is your savings/dis-savings for that year.

Changing behavior

Rather than doing a budget to adjust behavior, force a change.  You can do that by removing money from your discretionary spending by contributing the maximum to a 401(k) plan, by an auto debit that put funds into an investment account, and other auto payments you remove available cash from the equation.  If your credit card balances go up, then you have to make a decision to alter behavior.

How does cash flow relate to debts?

Managing your debt means getting the lowest after-tax interest rate so that you pay as much principle with each payment to pay off the loan as quickly as possible.

You can deduct the interest paid on a mortgage and an equity line of credit debt.   You can deduct up to $2,500 of student loan debt.  But you cannot deduct the interest on most other forms of debt.

Conclusion?

Yes, you can skip the budget, but don’t skip knowing where all your money goes so that you can save! Remember, every dollar has a job.

The Seven Deadly Sins of investing

All the seven deadly sins are man’s true nature. To be greedy. To be hateful. To have lust. Of course, you have to control them, but if you’re made to feel guilty for being human, then you’re going to be trapped in a never-ending sin-and-repent cycle that you can’t escape from. 

-Marilyn Manson

The single most important risk to a portfolio of investments is a poorly defined or constantly changing strategy.  You must have a long-term approach to which you adhere over time regardless of the current favor of the particular strategy.  You will need to resist the psychological pressures of investing.

 

                                       (I said resist, not sleep through it!)

Avoid These :  

Gluttony – hoarding cash when you should invest or evaluating by only one category when you should look at the big picture; 

Greed – looking for big winnings when time and patience pay off; 

Pride – not selling your losers or those old, familiar holdings when a new idea is better; 

Lust – listening to the information barrage and adjusting your portfolio constantly rather than filtering it out to stick with a plan; 

Envy – chasing fads or looking at a friend who has “winners”, making investing look more like gambling, when actually you should sell your best and buy trailing but good positions (as in the “Dogs of the Dow” technique); 

Anger – not forgiving yourself for mistakes and moving on; and

Sloth (not our friend up above) – changing beliefs to fit your decisions or portfolio rather than reviewing a portfolio intellectually and objectively to decide if you would still buy the holdings today.

You should review your portfolio about once a year. Any more than that and you’re falling victim to one of the aforementioned sins. When reviewing you should re-balance – taking from investments that did well and adding to investments that did not perform as well since the last re-balancing.  This reallocating may seem wrong, especially when bond yields are low and CD rates are low.  Nonetheless, history tells us to override the psychological urge to keep investing in a “winner.” 

Individual investors are a “negative indicator” because they buy when an investment is near its peak and sell when it is near its bottom, exactly the opposite of buy low, sell high.  So you want to take “profits” from those currently doing well, and re-deploy them with assets that are more likely to provide future returns. 

Adhering to a sensible investment strategy is how money is made over time.  

You may feel that you missed out compared to someone who is all in the right stocks now.  However, you will also be glad to miss out when that person’s holdings go down faster than the market.