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Dear Liz: Your tax expert’s answer to a person who wanted to roll over a $30,000 capital gain on a mutual fund missed an important point. Since the couple were solidly in the 15% tax bracket with a taxable income under $72,000, they should qualify for the 0% federal capital gain tax rate. (They may, of course, owe state taxes.)
Answer: They may not have had a capital gain at all, as other tax pros have pointed out. When people own mutual funds, the earnings are often reinvested each year. If the couple paid taxes on those earnings, their basis in the mutual fund would increase each year. To know if the couple had any capital gain, we’d need to know that adjusted tax basis. In any case, the original answer — that you can’t roll over the gain on a mutual fund into another investment to avoid capital gains taxes — still stands.
Dear Liz: I have quite a bit invested in stocks in a regular brokerage account. I’ve held them for many years, and to sell them would mean huge capital gains taxes. I’d like to move some of these into a Roth IRA, so that I can avoid paying taxes on their appreciation and dividends, since I plan to hold these for quite some time. Is it possible to move these stocks into a Roth IRA without selling and repurchasing?
Answer: Nope. Uncle Sam typically gets his due, with one major exception.
Roths have to be funded with cash, and direct contributions are limited to $5,500 per person per year, plus a $1,000 catch-up contribution for those 50 and over. Your contributions would be further limited once your modified adjusted gross income exceeds $181,000 for married couples and $114,000 for singles, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for tax research firm CCH Tax & Accounting North America. A big-enough capital gain, on top of your regular income, could push you over those limits.
If you want to avoid paying capital gains, just hold the investments until your death. Your heirs will get the investments at their market value and can sell them immediately without owing any capital gains. There may be other taxes involved, however. If your estate is worth more than $5 million, it may owe estate taxes, and a few states levy inheritance taxes on heirs.
Dear Liz: I just turned 50. My company has an option to contribute pretax money to a regular 401(k) or after-tax money into a Roth 401(k). Should I put the maximum contribution ($17,500) plus the catch-up ($5,500) into the Roth? Or should I split my contributions?
Answer: Given that you’re close to retirement, putting most of your contributions into the traditional 401(k) is probably the way to go.
Most people’s tax brackets drop once they retire. That means you can benefit from a bigger tax break now and qualify for a lower rate on your future withdrawals.
If you had a few decades until retirement, the math might be different. Younger people with good prospects may well be in a lower tax bracket currently than they’ll eventually be in retirement. In their case, it can make sense to gamble on making after-tax contributions to a Roth 401(k), betting that their tax-free withdrawals in retirement will be worth much more.
You may want to put some money into the Roth 401(k) so you’ll have flexibility with your tax bill in retirement. Being able to choose between taxable and nontaxable options gives you what financial planners call tax diversification. But the bulk of your contributions should still go to the traditional 401(k).
Dear Liz: I think you were way too hard on the young man who said his 30-year-old girlfriend’s lack of retirement savings was a potential deal breaker. You told him to get off his high horse. He was just being prudent.
Answer: It would be prudent to regard massive debt, alcoholism or drug use as deal breakers for a relationship. Elevating the young woman’s lack of retirement savings to this level is just over the top. But let’s hear what the young man himself had to say:
Dear Liz: I want to say thank you for taking the time to write on my question. I was able to find a few charts online and show her [the power of compounded returns]. She got excited about it and is now putting in to get the company match (5%).
Thank you very much for putting me in my place. I did not mean to come across as if I was better. I have been very lucky to have been able to save and be taught about compounding at an early age.
Answer: One of the potential hazards of being good with money is arrogance. We can become convinced that we know better and that other people should do things our way. It takes some humility to understand that not everyone has had the advantages we’ve had or been able to take in the information as we’ve done. Understanding that makes it easier to find compromises in a relationship that work for both parties.
Good luck with your relationship. She sounds like a keeper.
Dear Liz: I left a job several years ago to become a full-time freelancer. I have a SEP IRA and a SIMPLE IRA from that job that have basically just been sitting there. What are my options in moving this money to a better retirement investment?
Answer: SEPs and SIMPLEs are just the tax-advantaged buckets into which you (and your then-employer) put money. It’s the investments you choose within those buckets that determine what kind of returns you’ll get. The financial institution that’s holding these accounts can be a factor as well: If it’s charging a lot of fees, your returns will suffer accordingly.
Your best bet is to make sure the accounts are being held at a low-cost provider and that you have sufficient exposure to stocks to offer growth that will offset inflation over time. Most discount brokerages and mutual fund companies offer target-date maturity funds that give you diversification, professional asset allocation and automatic rebalancing at a low cost.
Dear Liz: I got a big tax refund this year and am trying to figure out what to do with the money. Right now I have school loans with a 4% interest rate that I do not need to make a payment on until 2024 with my current payment plan, but the amount I owe is pretty hefty and I know it’s going to compound more over time. I also have a very low-interest car loan (1.9%) that will be paid off in 31/2 years. I also could put that money in the market in hopes that it will grow. I should add I am 27 years old. Any advice?
Answer: Yes: Please review the terms of your student loans, because it’s likely you’ve misunderstood your obligation.
Federal education loans typically don’t allow you to go 10 years without payment, said financial expert Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Edvisors Network.
“With federal education loans, the economic hardship deferment has a three-year limit and most forbearances have a three-year limit, with one or two having a five-year limit,” Kantrowitz said.
“One could potentially consolidate the loans after getting a deferment and forbearances to reset the clock and thereby get a new set of deferments and forbearances on a new loan. But most of the forbearances aren’t mandatory, so one can’t count on stacking deferments and forbearances to get a 10-year suspension of the repayment obligation.”
Another possibility is that you’ve signed up for an income-based repayment plan that has reduced your payment to zero, but your eligibility is determined year by year. “2024 is a very specific date, so it seems unlikely that this is [income-based repayment],” Kantrowitz said.
“The most likely scenario is this borrower is misunderstanding the terms of his loan,” Kantrowitz said. “The next most likely scenario is that this borrower is not referring to a qualified education loan, but to a particular personal loan that he was able to obtain that few other borrowers would be able to obtain.”
Whatever the case may be, one of the best uses for a windfall is to boost your retirement savings. Even if you don’t have a workplace plan, you could set up an IRA or a Roth IRA as long as you have earned income.
Once you’re on track for retirement, your next goal would be to build your emergency fund, since you don’t have any high-rate debt. Once those goals are met, you can start paying down lower-rate debt (such as your student loans).
Dear Liz: This is going to sound like a stupid question but here goes: I keep hearing different percentages for amounts I should invest for retirement and other goals, such as “put X% in stocks and Y% in bonds.” But which stocks and which bonds? Is it as simple as a purchasing a broad market stock index fund and a broad market bond index fund? There are so many choices for funds, stocks and bonds that I can’t get my head around it all. Also, what should you do with money needed in the near-ish term, say, less than five years?
Answer: Your questions aren’t stupid, and the answers are simple: “Yes,” and “keep it in cash.”
You can make investing complicated if that’s what you want, but a simple, effective solution for most investors is to simply buy inexpensive mutual funds or exchange traded funds (ETFs) that mimic a market index, such as the Wilshire 5000. The investments provide great diversification at low cost, and keeping fees down is essential to getting good long-term returns from your money.
Index funds attempt to match the market’s returns, rather than trying to beat the market with a lot of costly buying and selling. The annual expenses on index funds tend to be a fraction of what you’d pay for an actively managed fund.
Any investment in stocks or bonds requires some patience, however, since short-term fluctuations can cause you to lose money. If you’ll need that money in a few years, you shouldn’t take the risk of losing your principle. An FDIC-insured savings account will keep it safe. Online banks typically offer better yields than their bricks-and-mortar versions.
Dear Liz: I always hear you talking about having an emergency savings fund. Most people that I’ve heard talk about this recommend keeping it in cash. I just couldn’t stand watching that money languish in a low-interest savings account, so I recently moved it over to my brokerage account and purchased a few exchange-traded funds. My wife and I are under 30 and we both have very stable jobs. We have adequate insurance (including a home warranty). We also have a $20,000 signature line of credit through our credit union in case of an emergency, in addition to multiple credit cards with high limits and no revolving balances. I feel that we are covered in case of an emergency with the credit line alone. Does all of this sound reasonable to you or should I go back to keeping my emergency fund in cash?
Answer: Lines of credit can be a reasonable substitute for an emergency fund for people who have more pressing financial goals, such as saving for retirement and paying off debt.
But there’s really nothing like cash in the bank for meeting life’s inevitable financial setbacks. Even seemingly stable jobs can be lost, and lines of credit can get used up fairly quickly. If these personal setbacks happen at the same time as a stock market downturn, your emergency fund could dwindle dramatically.
That’s why it’s best to keep emergency cash safe and accessible in an FDIC-insured bank account. You can squeeze a little extra return from the money by opting for one of the online banks that’s paying close to 1%. Trying to squeeze much more, though, increases the odds that it won’t be there when you need it the most.
Dear Liz: I currently have a 401(k) and an IRA, but want something more. A longtime CPA, who is very close to our family, recommended that I buy some stocks, but I’m unsure how to go about this.
Answer: When you’re investing, it’s important to be diversified. That means you should spread your money among different types of investments so you don’t have all your eggs in one basket, so to speak.
You’d need hundreds of thousands of dollars to be properly diversified with individual stocks. When you’re just starting out, it’s a lot smarter to buy mutual funds or exchange-traded funds that invest in a wide variety of stocks. Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF, for example, invests in more than 3,600 companies and has an ultra-low expense ratio of just 0.05%.
The fees you pay for your investments are important, since high expenses can dramatically reduce your total returns. Funds that try to beat the market, rather than match it, often engage in a lot of trading that drives up costs. Funds sold through full-service brokerages can carry high expenses as well.
So look for a discount brokerage that allows you to invest with minimal fees and commissions. Or consider one of the new breed of online advisors, such as Betterment or Wealthfront, that offers a low-cost basket of investments that are selected, monitored and rebalanced using sophisticated technology.