Q&A: How to cash savings bonds for children

Dear Liz: My son is trying to cash in his children’s savings bonds, which seems to be difficult. You used to be able to go to a bank to do that. Is that still possible? If not, how can you do it now?

Answer: If the bonds were electronic, they probably would be held in a special minor’s account at TreasuryDirect.gov, the government site that allows investors to buy and redeem Treasury securities. If your son was identified as the person to have authority over the account, it would be relatively easy for him to redeem them.

We’ll assume, then, that your son is dealing with paper bonds. We’ll further assume that your grandchildren are still minors and that your son is cashing these bonds for their benefit, rather than his own. Many banks are leery of cashing children’s bonds precisely because parents (or people posing as parents) may be trying to rip off their kids.

Parents are allowed to redeem a child’s paper saving bond if the child lives with that parent and is too young to sign the request for payment, according to TreasuryDirect. The parent should write the following on the back of the bond:

“I certify that I am the parent of [child’s name]. [Child’s name] resides with me / I have been granted legal custody of [child’s name]. [She / he] is ___ years old and is not of sufficient understanding to make this request.” Your son should find a bank willing to certify or guaranty his signature. Then, in the presence of the bank representative, he must sign the request with his name “on behalf of [child’s name].”

Then he can send them to Treasury Retail Securities Site, PO Box 214, Minneapolis, MN 55480-0214. If the bonds are electronic, he can log into TreasuryDirect.com and follow the instructions there. Your son can contact the U.S. Treasury at (844) 284-2676 for further details.

Q&A: There’s a big difference in various kinds of bonds

Dear Liz: My mutual funds and IRA are mostly in stocks with very little in bonds. I’m thinking I should have more in bonds, but just don’t know how much I should transfer from the stock funds and which bond fund to pick. Are they all the same?

Answer: Just as with stock funds, bond funds have different compositions, fees and investment philosophies. There’s a fairly big difference, for example, between a rock-solid U.S. Treasury bond and a “junk” or low-rated bond.

There’s also a difference in fees between funds that are trying to beat the market (active management, which is more expensive) versus merely matching the market (passive management, which is less expensive and typically offers better results).

The ideal asset allocation, or mix of stocks, bonds and cash, also varies depending on your age and risk tolerance. There are a variety of asset allocation calculators on the web you can try, or you can consult a fee-only planner.

Another option is turn the task over to a target date retirement fund, which manages the mix for you, or a robo-advisor, which invests according to computer algorithms.

Whatever you do, keep a sharp eye on the fees you’re charged. The average bond fund had an expense ratio of 0.51% in 2016, according to the Investment Company Institute. There’s little reason to pay much more than that, and ideally you’d try to pay less.

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).