Q&A: Investment returns

Dear Liz: In a recent column you mentioned a fund that shows a return of 7% consistently for several years to present. Would you be so kind as to provide me with the name of the fund?

Answer: I don’t know of any mutual fund that’s shown a consistent 7% return year in and year out. What you may be referring to is research showing overall stock market returns. Taking into account each year’s gains and losses, the average annual return over each 30-year period starting in 1928 — from 1928 to 1958, 1929 to 1959, and so on — is greater than 8%, but you can’t expect 8% every year.

Q&A: Invest or pay down mortgage?

Dear Liz: I usually finish the month with $1,000 to $2,000 left over after expenses to invest. My savings are with a money manager who has conservatively invested in a diversified portfolio. Given the uncertainty of the market, does it make any sense for me to start using that monthly excess to pay down the balance on my 15-year mortgage rather than continue to invest? The mortgage has about 91/2 years to go with a balance of just under $75,000. One added point: I would like to retire in about five years.

Answer:
It’s time to talk to a fee-only financial planner who can review your entire financial situation and offer personalized advice. The planner can give you a better idea if you’re really on track to retire within five years. If you are, then paying down the mortgage may be an excellent use of the money. Having a paid-off home will reduce your monthly expenses, which in turn can reduce how much of your retirement funds you’ll need to tap.

Before you prepay a mortgage, though, you should make sure all your other financial ducks are in a row. In addition to saving enough for retirement, you should have paid off all your other debt, accumulated a decent emergency fund (at least six months’ worth of expenses) and be properly insured.

Q&A: Using Roth IRA earnings for a first-time home purchase

Dear Liz: My 29-year-old son recently married, and as a gift I pledged $20,000 as a down payment on a house. My daughter-in-law is beginning a career as a registered nurse and I know they will not be buying for a few years. Is there any type of account that will grow tax-free or tax-deferred for a first-time buyer? Maybe I could gift this money to them into a retirement account for the time being?

Answer: You may be able to give them enough money to fund Roth IRA accounts for both 2015 and 2016. They would be able to withdraw those contributions tax- and penalty-free at any time in the future for whatever purpose they wanted.

Withdrawing earnings from a Roth can trigger taxes and penalties, but that’s not likely to be an issue in this case. Each person is allowed to withdraw up to $10,000 in Roth earnings for a first-time home purchase. If they plan to buy a home within a few years, it’s highly unlikely that your gift would generate enough earnings to cause concern.

The ability to contribute to a Roth begins to phase out for married couples filing jointly at modified adjusted gross income of $183,000 in 2015 and $184,000 in 2016. Assuming their incomes were below those limits, they each can contribute up to $5,500 per year to a Roth. The deadline for making 2015 contributions is April 15, 2016. If you give them the money now, they could fund two years’ worth of contributions at once.

Q&A: Brokerage accounts

Dear Liz: I have some questions regarding my brokerage accounts. What happens to my investments there if the brokerage company goes out of business? How much of my investments will I be able to recover and how? Also, does it matter if my accounts are IRAs, Roth IRAs, or conventional brokerage accounts?

Answer: Most brokerages are covered by the Securities Investment Protection Corp., which protects up to $500,000 per eligible account, which includes a $250,000 limit for cash.

Different types of accounts held by the same person can get the full amount of coverage. IRAs, Roth IRAs, individual brokerage accounts, joint brokerage accounts and custodial accounts could each have $500,000 of coverage.

So with an IRA, a Roth and a regular brokerage account, you would have up to $1.5 million in coverage.

If you have a few traditional IRAs at the brokerage, though — say, one to which you contributed and one that’s a rollover from a 401(k) — those two would be combined for insurance purposes and covered as one, with a $500,000 limit.

In addition to SIPC coverage, many brokerages buy additional insurance through insurers such as Lloyds of London to cover larger accounts.

It’s important to understand that SIPC doesn’t cover losses from market downturns. The coverage kicks in when a brokerage goes out of business and client funds are missing.

SIPC is commonly compared to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., which protects bank accounts, but there’s an important difference between the two.

The FDIC is backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. government. SIPC has no such implicit promise that if it’s overwhelmed by claims, the government will come to the rescue.

Q&A: Rolling 401(k) into an IRA

Dear Liz: I’m leaving my job later this month and am trying to decide what to do with my 401(k) account. Some of my friends say to leave it where it is, and others say to roll it into a traditional individual retirement account or Roth IRA. Which is best?

Answer: You can’t roll a 401(k) directly into a Roth IRA. You would first need to roll it into a traditional IRA, then convert that to a Roth and pay the (often considerable) tax bill.

But let’s back up a bit. There are few reasons you might want to leave the money where it is, if you’re happy with your employer’s plan. Many large-company plans offer access to low-cost institutional funds that are cheaper than what you might find as a retail customer with an IRA.

Money in a 401(k) also has unlimited protection from creditors in case you’re ever sued or wind up filing for bankruptcy. When the money is in an IRA, the protection is typically limited to $1 million.

If you’re not happy with your old employer’s plan, you could transfer the account to your new employer’s plan if that’s allowed. If not, you can roll the 401(k) into an IRA, but choose your IRA provider carefully.

You’ll want access to a good array of low-cost mutual funds or exchange traded funds (ETFs). The costs you pay to invest make a huge difference in how much you eventually accumulate, so it’s important to keep those expenses down.

If you want help managing the money, many discount brokerages offer access to financial planners and some, including Vanguard and Charles Schwab, offer low-cost digital investment advice services. The services, also known as “robo-advisors,” use computer algorithms to invest and monitor your portfolio.

You’ll want to arrange a direct rollover, in which the money is transferred from your 401(k) account into the new IRA.

Avoid an indirect rollover, in which the 401(k) company sends a check to you. You would have 60 days to get the money into an IRA, but you’d have to come up with the cash to cover the 20% that’s withheld in such transfers. You would get that cash back when you file your taxes, but it’s an unnecessary hassle you can avoid with a direct rollover.

Before you decide to convert an IRA to a Roth, consult a tax professional.

Conversions can make sense if you expect to be in the same or higher tax bracket in retirement, which is often the case with young investors, and you can tap some account other than the IRA to pay the income taxes. But these can be complex calculations, so you should run your plan past an expert.

Q&A: Investment advice websites

Dear Liz: I invest in real estate and have a secure pension, but I also have a managed stock account worth about $250,000 and would like to get more involved in investing that.

Can you recommend some good books on how the market works and perhaps a couple of good middle-of-the-road websites? Everything I see is either overly bullish or bearish.

Answer: The principles of sound stock market investing aren’t exactly “click bait” (Web speak for catchy links that generate views and advertising income). So you’d be smart to read a few books that have stood up over time.

Legendary stock picker Warren Buffett says “The Intelligent Investor” by Benjamin Graham is “by far the best book about investing ever written.” Graham is considered the father of value investing, which involves focusing on the underlying performance of companies rather than on speculating in their share prices.

Buffett also says, however, that the vast majority of investors are better off taking a passive approach — one that involves buying and holding low-cost index funds that seek to match the market rather than beat it.

To understand why, you should read “A Random Walk Down Wall Street” by Burton G. Malkiel, which discusses how the active approach to investing typically fails and drives up costs that doom a portfolio to underperform.

Although both books have been updated recently, they were first published in 1949 and 1973, respectively. A must-read book published this century is Jason Zweig’s “Your Money and Your Brain,” which uses discoveries in neuroscience, behavioral finance and psychology to explore how we mess up investing and finance and how we can do better.

If you’re looking for a website with solid investing advice, explore Kiplinger, a personal finance publisher in business since 1920.

Q&A: Budgeting for new college grads

Dear Liz: My son will be graduating from college this June. He is fortunate to have already landed a good job, starting in August, and will be managing his own finances for the first time. His company provides a full benefits package, retirement fund, profit-sharing, a hiring bonus and all that good stuff.

I’d like to give him some guidance on how to organize and allocate his income between living expenses, liquid savings, student loan payments, charities, etc. What do you suggest? With graduations coming up, this might be a good time to help us parents get our kids off on the right foot.

Answer:One of the best things new college graduates can do is to continue living like college students for a little while longer.

In other words, they shouldn’t rush out to buy a new car or sign up for an expensive apartment when they get their first paychecks.

Pretending they’re still broke can help them avoid overcommitting themselves before they see how much of that paycheck is actually left after taxes and other nondiscretionary expenses.

A few other rules of thumb can help them get a good financial start. One is to immediately sign up for the 401(k) or other workplace retirement plan.

Ideally, they would contribute at least 10% of their salaries to these plans, but they should put in at least enough to get the full company match. If they aren’t eligible for the plan right away, they can set up automatic monthly transfers from their checking accounts to an IRA or Roth IRA.

Graduates don’t need to be in a rush to pay off their federal student loans, since this debt has fixed rates, numerous repayment options and various other consumer protections. Private student loans have none of these advantages, and so should be paid off first.

If your son has both types, he should consider consolidating the federal loans and opting for the longest possible repayment period to lower his payments. That would free up more money to tackle the private loans. Once those are paid off, he can start making larger payments toward the federal loans to get those retired faster.

One budgeting plan to consider is the 50/30/20 plan popularized by bankruptcy expert and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

In her book “All Your Worth,” she suggested people devote no more than half their after-tax incomes to “must have” expenses such as shelter (rent or mortgage), utilities, food, transportation, insurance, minimum loan payments and child care. Thirty percent can be allocated to “wants,” including clothing, vacations and eating out, while 20% is reserved for paying down debt and saving.

Q&A: Investing vs Saving for college tuition

Dear Liz: We recently inherited some money. We’ve never had much. We want to invest our inheritance for our kids’ college education.

We asked around to find investment firms that people have had a good experience with. But how do we know they are honest and make sound investment decisions? How do we know if the rates they are charging are fair and reasonable? (For example, one charges a percentage of the value of the account. How do I know if their rate is a fair amount?)

Answer: If you want to invest the money for college education, you don’t need to consult an advisor at all. You simply can use a 529 college savings plan. These plans allow you to invest money that grows tax-deferred and can be used tax free for qualified college expenses nationwide.

These plans are sponsored by the states and run by investment firms. You might want to stick with your own state’s plan if you get a tax break for doing so (check http://www.savingforcollege.com for the details of each plan).

If not, consider choosing one of the plans singled out by research firm Morningstar as the best in 2014: the Maryland College Investment Plan, Alaska’s T. Rowe Price College Savings Plan, the Vanguard 529 College Savings Plan in Nevada and the Utah Educational Savings Plan.

College savings plans typically offer several investment choices, but you can make it easy by choosing the “age weighted” option, which invests your contributions according to your child’s age, getting more conservative as college draws nearer.

If you still want to talk to an advisor — which isn’t a bad idea when dealing with a windfall — you’ll want to choose carefully.

Relying on friends and family isn’t necessarily the best approach. Many of the people who invested with Bernie Madoff were introduced to him by people they knew.

Most advisors aren’t crooks, but they also don’t have to put your interests ahead of their own. That means they can steer you into expensive investment products that pay them larger commissions.

If you want an advisor who puts you first, you’ll want to find one who agrees to be a fiduciary for you, and who is willing to put that in writing.

Here are three sources for fiduciary advice:

•The Financial Planning Assn. at http://www.plannersearch.org

•The Garrett Planning Network at http://www.garrettplanningnetwork.com

•The National Assn. of Personal Financial Advisors at http://www.napfa.org.

Garrett planners charge by the hour with no minimums. Expect to pay around $150 an hour.

NAPFA planners often charge a percentage of assets — typically about 1%.

FPA members charge for advice in a variety of ways, including fees, commissions and a combination of the two.

Any planner should provide you with clear information about how he or she gets paid.

You’ll want to check the advisor’s credentials as well. The gold standard for financial planners is the CFP, which stands for Certified Financial Planner.

An equivalent designation for CPAs is the PFS, which stands for Personal Financial Specialist. People with these designations have received a broad education in comprehensive financial planning, have met minimum experience requirements and agree to uphold certain ethical standards.

Each of the organizations listed above has more tips for choosing a plan on its website.

Q&A: 401(k) employer limits

Dear Liz: My company doesn’t allow us to contribute more than 50% of our paycheck to our 401(k). This limits my contribution to far less than the IRS’ $18,000 annual limit because I’m low paid.

How can I tackle this situation, as I would want to contribute more but am being constrained by the 50% contribution cap?

Answer: Your zeal to save for retirement is admirable. Your company may not have anticipated that anyone in your situation would be able to save so much, so consider simply asking if the limit can be raised.

You can explore other avenues as well, such as contributing to an IRA or a Roth IRA. Many people incorrectly believe they can’t contribute to these individual retirement accounts if they have a workplace plan, but that’s not true.

You can contribute up to $5,500 to a Roth (plus a $1,000 catch-up contribution if you’re 50 or older) if your income is below certain limits. The ability to contribute is reduced between modified adjusted gross incomes of $116,000 and $131,000 for single filers and $183,000 and $193,000 for marrieds filing jointly. Alternatively, you can contribute $5,500 (plus the $1,000 catch-up contribution) to an IRA regardless of your income, although your ability to deduct your contribution if you have a workplace plan is phased out for incomes between $61,000 and $71,000 if single and $98,000 to $118,000 for marrieds.

Q&A: Max contributions to 401(k)s

Dear Liz: I understand that anybody with a 401(k) can contribute up to $18,000. Does the amount you can contribute depend on your salary? Say you make $45,000. Therefore I would assume you could put in the full $18,000, or 40% of your salary. Am I wrong?

Answer: The maximum the IRS allows someone under 50 to contribute to a 401(k), 403(b), most 457 plans and the federal government’s Thrift Savings Plan is $18,000 in 2015. The additional “catch up” contribution limit for people 50 and older is $6,000.

The plans themselves, though, may impose lower limits. Even if the plan doesn’t cap contributions, your contributions may be limited if you’re considered a “highly compensated employee.” Last year, highly compensated employees were those who earned more than $115,000 or owned more than 5% of the business. If lower-earning employees don’t contribute enough to the plan, higher earners may not be able to put in as much as they’d like.