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).

Take a year to Get Rich Slowly

Fixing material in the red plastic boxesJ.D. Roth went from being over $35,000 in debt to having over $1 million in the bank. He documented his journey at the excellent Get Rich Slowly site, sharing what he learned about frugality, investing and smart money decisions.

He also wrote a very good book, “Your Money: The Missing Manual.” But The Missing Manual series has a definite format (like the For Dummies and Idiot’s Guides). I’ve been looking forward to reading what J.D. could come up with on his own.

It was worth the wait. J.D. and fellow entrepreneur/blogger Chris Guillebeau just debuted the Get Rich Slowly course. For $39–75 cents a week–you get:

  • An email every Monday that features the best lessons from the blog.
  • A 120-page guide called “Be Your Own CFO”, that in my view is the highlight of the course. (J.D. agrees, calling it “the best work I’ve ever done.)
  • Supplementary downloads, including a revised version of my Roth IRA guide.
  • Interviews with people with a bunch of money thought leaders, including Jean Chatzky, Gretchen Rubin, Tess Vigeland, and yours truly.

I’m not getting paid or compensated in any way for recommending J.D.’s course. I just think it’s a great way to step up your game when it comes to money, and maybe your life.

Check it out at MoneyToolbox.com.

Money rules of thumb: Retirement edition

Thumbs upFor every rule of thumb, there are hundreds of people who would quibble with it.

We saw that just recently with a USA Today columnist who quantified exactly how much you need to save for retirement (his answer, via an analysis by T. Rowe Price: $82.28 a day). Lots of people didn’t like that the number was an estimate, an average, and that their own mileage may vary.

But many more people don’t have the patience, knowledge or energy to sort through all the potential factors for every financial decision. Sometimes, they just want an answer.

Over the next few days, I’m going to share the most helpful rules of thumb I know. They aren’t going to apply to everyone in all situations. But if you’re looking for guidelines (or guardrails), there are a starting point.

Let’s start with retirement:

Retirement comes first. You can’t get back lost company matches or lost tax breaks, and every $1 you fail to save now can cost you $10 to $20 in lost future retirement income. You may have other important goals, such as paying down debt or building an emergency fund, but you first need to get started with retirement savings.

Save 10% for basics, 15% for comfort, 20% to escape. If you start saving for retirement by your early 30s, 10% is a decent start and 15% should put you in good shape for a comfortable retirement (these numbers can include company matches). If you’re hoping for early retirement, though, you’ll want to boost that to at least 20%. Add 5-10% to each category for each decade you’ve delayed getting started.

Don’t touch your retirement funds until you’re retired. That pile of money can be tempting, and you can come up with all kinds of reasons why it makes sense to borrow against it or withdraw it. You’re just robbing your future self.

Keep it simple–and cheap. Don’t waste money trying to beat the market. Choosing index mutual funds or exchange-traded funds, which seek to match market benchmarks rather than exceed them, will give you the returns you need at low cost. And cost makes a huge difference. If you put aside $5,000 a year for 40 years, 1 percentage point difference in the fees you pay can result in $225,000 less for retirement.

 

How to start investing

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailA reader recently posted this question on my Facebook page:

Liz, I’m 30 years old and looking into starting [to invest in] mutual funds and IRAs and have no idea where to start. I know I really need to invest for the future and am eager to do so, but again, have no knowledge on any of this nor know where to start. Any advice or pointers would be more than appreciated.

I suggested he start with reading two really good books for beginning investors, Kathy Kristof’s “Investing 101” and Eric Tyson’s “Personal Finance for Dummies.” But here’s a summary of what you’ll learn:

Get started investing as soon as possible, even if you don’t quite know what you’re doing. You’ll learn along the way, and you really can’t make up for lost time.

Invest mostly in stocks. Stocks over time offer the best return of any investment class, and provide you the inflation-beating gains you’ll need for a comfortable retirement.

Don’t try to beat the market. Few do consistently. Most people just waste a lot of money. Instead, opt for mutual funds or exchange traded funds that try to match the market, rather than beat it.

Keep fees low, low, low. Wall Street loves to slather them on, but fees kill returns. Here’s an example: An annual IRA contribution of $5,000 can grow to about $1 million over 40 years if you net a 7 percent average annual return. If you net 6 percent, that lowers your total by a $224,000. That’s a heck of a lot to pay for a 1 percentage point difference in fees.

If you have a workplace retirement plan such as a 401(k), that’s where you should start investing. If you don’t, then an IRA you open yourself is the next best thing.

So here’s a prescription for getting started: Open an IRA at Vanguard, which prides itself on its low expenses. Send them a check for $1,000 (the minimum to get started with an IRA). Choose a target date retirement fund that’s close to the year when you expect to retire (in this reader’s case, that would be the Vanguard Target Retirement 2050). Target date funds take care of everything: asset allocation, investment choices, rebalancing over time for a more conservative mix as you approach retirement age. You can get the $20 annual account fee waived if you sign up for online access and opt for electronic delivery of account documents.

There you go–you’re on your way.

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.

How to protect your 401(k) in a frothy market

iStock_000002401817XSmallReader Claudia asks how she can lock in her recent investment gains:

“Is there a way to protect the growth on a 401K? From your post, it doesn’t appear that there is. It appears that the initial investment along with any growth is left to the mercy of the economy, market, etc.”

You actually can “take some money off the table” by switching it to the lower-risk options in your account, such as stable value funds, short-term bond funds and money market funds. The problem is that you won’t get much if any growth on that money going forward. And most of us will need a lot of growth if we want to retire someday.

Everyone’s 401(k) got hammered in 2008-2009. The people who made the damage permanent, though, were the ones who bailed out of the stock market and missed the subsequent run-up.

Investing in the stock market is scary, but over the long run stocks outperform every other type of investment and give us the inflation-beating growth we’ll need to retire.

So rather than trying to time the market, which doesn’t work, consider putting your anxiety to good use by reviewing your asset allocation—your mix of stocks, bonds and cash—and see if it makes sense given your goals.

How do you know the right balance? Your HR department may have resources, or you can use an online resource such as Financial Engines or Jemstep to give you advice. Another option is to simply use the “lifestyle” or “target date” options your 401(k) probably offers. These funds do all the heavy lifting for you, allocating your money and rebalancing automatically so your portfolio doesn’t get too far out of whack.

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).

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Credit card backgroundHidden credit card charges, moving on from Grandpa’s investment strategy, and why everyone should plan to retire early.

Hidden Credit Card Charges: Are You At Risk?
Be on the lookout for “grey charges”.

How to Improve Your Credit History
Credit mistakes don’t have to follow you forever.

Four Ways Not to Invest Like Your Grandfather
An ever-changing economy may require a different portfolio strategy.

Why Everyone Should Aspire to Early Retirement
How planning ahead for retirement keeps you financially focused

10 Dumb Things You Do With Credit Cards
Small mistakes could have big consequences.

“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.