Q&A: Social Security Payouts

Dear Liz: My wife and I, 63 and 62, plan to continue working till at least 65. We will begin collecting Social Security benefits in September. Our combined income is $58,000, we own our home outright, and we have no debt, no children, $84,000 in a traditional IRA and $90,000 in a stock portfolio.

I just sold a portion of a mutual fund for a $30,000 gain that is in the bank for the time being. How long do we have to reinvest without paying a capital gains tax? Or would it be best to pay the tax now, leave the money in the bank and be done with it?

Answer: Unless you sell another investment for a $30,000 loss to offset the gain, you’re going to have to pay taxes on your profit.

“There is no way to do a tax-free reinvestment,” said tax professional Eva Rosenberg, an enrolled agent who runs the TaxMama.com site. “And the time to ask questions like that is before you sell the mutual funds.”

You still have time to avoid a much bigger mistake: signing up for Social Security now.

Your Social Security checks would be reduced $1 for every $2 you earn over a certain level, which this year is $15,480. That “earnings test” applies until you reach your full retirement age (which is 66, not 65, for both you and your wife). What’s more, you would lock in lower benefits for life and give up a chance to boost your Social Security payout in a way that’s available only to married couples who wait until full retirement age to start benefits. (More on that in a moment.)

Your savings are too small to generate much income, particularly if you want to minimize the chances of running out of money. You should be looking to maximize your Social Security benefits to help make up for that deficit. Your benefits grow substantially each year you put off applying for them, and most people will live past the break-even point where delaying benefits until full retirement age results in more money than taking them early.

Many people erroneously think they should grab Social Security as early as they can, but the Social Security system isn’t going away, and you are likely to regret settling for a smaller check. Remember that your wife probably will outlive you and will have to get by on one check, so you should make sure your benefits are as big as they can be.

One way to do that is for the lower-earning spouse to claim spousal benefits at his or her full retirement age. Once the lower earner’s benefit maxes out at age 70, he or she can switch if that benefit is larger.

But spousal benefits can’t start until the higher earner files for his or her own benefit. If the higher earner waits until full retirement age to apply, he or she has the option to “file and suspend” — a maneuver that lets the spouse claim spousal benefits while leaving the higher earner’s benefit untouched so it can continue to grow.

This “claim now, claim more later” strategy is available only to people who wait until their full retirement age to start.

Your tax question and your plan to start Social Security early indicate you could really use some sessions with a fee-only financial planner. Such a consultation is a good idea for everyone as they’re approaching retirement, but in your case, it’s essential.

Q&A: What to do with an old IRA?

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.

Q&A: What to do with a big tax refund?

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).

Investing Made Easy

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.

Don’t invest emergency cash

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.

Investing in stocks: what you need to know

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.

Stick to an investment plan for best results

Dear Liz: If I plan to stay invested for more than 15 years and I can tolerate the ups and downs of the market, why would I want to put any of my 401(k) money into bonds instead of putting it all in various stock funds? The bond funds in my 401(k) have a five-year return of 5% to 6% whereas the other funds are 8% to 13%.

Answer: If you look at the more recent performance of those bond funds, you’ll notice that their returns are considerably worse. Many have been losing money lately as interest rates have risen. That poor performance may worsen if the economy improves and rates continue to rise.

But you need to consider more than recent performance when allocating your portfolio. Bonds and cash can cushion your account against big downturns in the stock market. That can help keep you from panicking and selling at a bottom.

If you’re as risk tolerant as you think and decades away from retirement, you might be able to put as little as 10% of your portfolio into bonds and cash. If you’re 15 to 20 years from retirement, a 20% bond allocation may be more prudent. A fee-only financial planner can help advise you about sensible asset allocations, or you can check out the stock and bond mixes of target date funds offered by leading mutual fund companies (such as the Vanguard Target Retirement 2030 Fund, if you’ll be retiring around 2030).

“Permanent” employment? No such animal

Dear Liz: My spouse has tenure at a university. Given that one of us will always be employed, should we change the way we look at the amount of money we keep in an emergency fund or our risk tolerance for investments?

Answer: Even tenured professors can get fired or laid off. Tenure was designed to protect academic freedom, but professors can lose their jobs because of serious misconduct, incompetence or economic cutbacks, such as when a department is eliminated or a whole university is closed. About 2% of tenured faculty are dismissed in a typical year, according to the National Education Assn.’s Higher Education Department.

That’s more job security than in most occupations, of course. Your spouse also may have access to a defined benefit pension, which would give him or her a guaranteed income stream in retirement. Those factors mean you reasonably can take more risk with your other investments.

As for your emergency fund, you may be fine with savings equal to three months of expenses. But consider that if your spouse were to be dismissed, he or she probably would have a tough time finding an equivalent position. If the institution starts having financial difficulties or if there is any reason to suspect that he or she could be dismissed, a fatter fund could come in handy.

High, safe returns don’t exist

Dear Liz: I’m getting about $500,000 from the sale of my business this year and next year will be getting an additional $1 million. What’s the best way to invest the money so I can make $150,000 to $200,000 a year? I am 55 years old and will have no other income than what I can earn with this money.

Answer: You probably know that “guaranteed” or “safe” returns are very low right now. If you’re getting much more than 1% annually, you’re having to take some risk of loss. The higher the potential returns, the greater the risk.

So even if you could find an investment that promised to return 10% to 13% a year, there are no guarantees such returns would last, plus you would be at risk of losing some or all of your investment. A down draft in the market or an extended vacancy in your real estate holdings could cause you to dig into your principal.

That’s why financial planners typically advise their clients not to expect to take more than 4% a year or so out of their portfolios if they expect those portfolios to last. If you try to take much more out or invest aggressively to earn more, you run a substantial risk of running out of money before you run out of breath.

Playing it safe could mean losing money

Dear Liz: The certificate of deposit I owned in my Roth IRA recently matured. I’ve put the money into a Roth passbook account until I can figure out what to do with it. I’m a public school teacher and have a 457 deferred compensation plan to which I contribute monthly. I am 57 and will need to work until I am at least 65. What should I do with the money in my Roth?

Answer: As a public school teacher, you probably have a defined benefit pension that will give you a guaranteed monthly check for life once you retire. Depending on how long you’ve taught and where, this pension could cover a substantial portion of your living expenses.

The guaranteed nature of this pension means that you may be able to take more risk with your other investments. That would mean your Roth could be invested in stock mutual funds or exchange-traded funds that offer potential for growth. CDs and other “safe” investments can’t offer that — in fact, your money loses purchasing power since you’re not earning enough interest to even offset inflation.

Since you’re so close to retirement, you should invest a few hundred dollars in a session with a fee-only financial planner who can review your situation and offer personalized advice.