Retire right — plan to do it twice

There’s the retirement that looks like the commercials: biking, travel, enjoying the family.

And then there’s the one where you can’t get up the stairs anymore.

Most of us happily plan for the first, when our health is good and energy high. The second can be hard to contemplate, when health falters and medical crises can change lives in an instant.

Yet a focus on just the active part of retirement can shortchange your quality of life once you begin to decline, which is why financial advisers suggest you also look at how you’ll live in that later phase. In my latest for the Associated Press, what you should consider for that second stage.

Q&A: Investing during retirement

Dear Liz: I’ll be retiring shortly. After 30 years of public service, I’m fortunate to have a generous pension. I’ll be paying off all my debts upon retirement, including my mortgage. I have a deferred compensation account that I will leave untouched until I’m required to take disbursements at 70 1/2 (15 years from now). Until then I will have disposable income but no significant tax deductions. Short of investing on my own in a brokerage account (and perhaps incurring capital gains taxes), are there any other investment vehicles that perhaps would be tax friendlier?

Answer: A variable annuity could provide tax deferral, but any gains you take out would be subject to income tax rates, which are typically higher than capital gains rates. (Annuities held within IRAs are subject to required minimum distributions starting after age 70 1/2. Those held outside of retirement funds will be annuitized, or paid out, starting at the date specified in the annuity contract.) Also, annuities often have high fees, so you’d need to shop carefully and understand how the surrender charges work.

Many advisors would recommend investing on your own instead and holding those investments at least a year to qualify for lower capital gains rates. This approach is particularly good for any funds you may want to leave your heirs, since assets in a brokerage account would get a “step up” in tax basis that could eliminate capital gains taxes for those heirs. Annuities don’t receive that step-up in basis.

You also shouldn’t assume that waiting to take required minimum distributions is the most tax-effective strategy. The typical advice is to put off tapping retirement funds as long as possible, but some retirees find their required minimum distributions push them into higher tax brackets. You may be better off taking distributions earlier — just enough to “fill out” your current tax bracket, rather than pushing you into a higher one.

Q&A: Fees can do serious damage to your retirement

Dear Liz: When I changed jobs, I rolled my 401(k) account into an IRA and took it to a financial planner. He invested it initially and now has a management company watching it. So now I am paying quarterly fees to him, the management company and the IRA custodian. The fees average about $2,000 a year. I am thinking about moving my account to my current 401(k), which has lower fees.

I feel like the planner has me in way too many investments, and my returns aren’t great. My account is up about $40,000 on a $122,000 initial investment. I will be 60 this year and plan on working for another six-plus years.

Answer: If your employer accepts IRA transfers — and many do — then rolling the money into your current 401(k) could be a great way to go.

Many 401(k) plans offer ultra-low-cost investment options that aren’t available to retail investors. Many also offer target date funds that would take care of diversifying your investments while making sure the mix gets more conservative as you get closer to retirement.

Right now you’re paying above-average fees to get below-average performance. If you had put your money into a low-cost option such as the Vanguard Balanced Index Fund five years ago, your account would now be worth nearly $190,000. The expense ratio for the balanced fund can be as low as 0.08%, compared with the 1.23% you’re paying now. (Your actual cost probably is higher; you didn’t include the expense ratios of the underlying investments in your account.)

Fees matter a lot. Higher fees depress returns and can increase your chance of running short of money in retirement.

At the same time, the years just before and after retirement are crucial because you’ll be making a lot of decisions with major consequences (such as when to claim Social Security and how much to withdraw from retirement accounts). Paying 1% in fees could make sense if you were getting comprehensive financial planning advice that addressed your retirement planning needs as well as other aspects of your finances, such as insurance, taxes and estate planning. If all you’re paying for is investment management, though, you can get that for a lot less.

If your employer doesn’t accept transfers or doesn’t have low-cost options, you could consider transferring your IRA to a custodian that offers low-cost computerized investment services. These include Betterment, Wealthfront, Vanguard Personal Advisor Services and Schwab Intelligent Portfolios, among others. The all-in fee for their services, including expense ratios of underlying investments, is typically less than 0.5%.

If you do opt for less expensive investment management, you still should consider hiring a fee-only financial planner before you retire to review your plan. You can find fee-only planners who charge by the hour at Garrett Planning Network.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Managing your 401(k) in uncertain times. Also in the news: How the Alternative Minimum Tax works, how owning or selling a home affects your taxes, and the 10 biggest tax havens on earth.

How To Manage Your 401(k) in Uncertain Times
Protecting your retirement.

How Does the Alternative Minimum Tax Work?
What you need to know about the extra tax bite.

How Owning or Selling a Home Affects Your Taxes
Both could save you money.

These are the 10 biggest tax havens on the planet
In case this year’s taxes have you thinking of relocating.

Monday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: 5 essential investing moves for Millennials. Also in the news: Why your tax refund is ideal for paying credit card debt, how to make sure retirement isn’t a drag, and why you need to do your homework before meeting with a financial advisor.

5 Essential Investing Moves for Millennials
Planning for the future.

Why Your Tax Refund Is Ideal for Paying Credit Card Debt
Use it wisely.

Retirement Can Be a Drag. Here’s How to Fix That
Making the most of it.

Before You Meet With A Personal Financial Advisor, Do Your Homework
Know who you’re dealing with.

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: The student loan tip that saves you money year after year. Also in the news: Overlooked small business tax deductions, when you need a cashier’s check and how to get one, and why Americans are drastically under-saved for retirement.

This Student Loan Tip Saves You Money Year After Year
It’s all about auto-pay.

5 Overlooked Small-Business Tax Deductions for 2017
Don’t forget these deductions.

Cashier’s Check: When You Need One and How to Get It
Another form of payment.

It’s worse than you thought: Americans are drastically under-saved for retirement
Are you one of them?

Q&A: How to track down an old retirement account

Dear Liz: I worked for a company during the late 1990s. When I left, I had a 401(k) worth approximately $10,000. I recently found an old 401(k) statement and called the plan administrator. I was told my company’s accounts had been transferred to another plan administrator in 2008. I called the new administrator and was told they also could not find my 401(k) using my Social Security number. How do I proceed? What are my options?

Answer: Get ready to make a lot more phone calls.

There’s no central repository for missing 401(k) funds — at least not yet. The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., which safeguards traditional pensions, has proposed rules that would allow it to hold orphaned 401(k) money from plans that have closed. That wouldn’t start until 2018. Another proposal, by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), would direct the IRS to set up an online database so workers could find pension and 401(k) benefits from open or closed plans, but Congress has yet to take action on that.

If your balance was less than $5,000 — which is possible, given the big market drop in 2008-2009 — your employer could have approved a forced IRA transfer and the money could be sitting with a financial services firm that accepts small accounts. If the plan was closed and your employer couldn’t find you, the money could have been transferred to an IRA, a bank account or a state escheat office. You can check state escheat offices at Unclaimed.org, but searching for an IRA or bank account may require help.

If your employer still exists, call to find out if anyone knows what happened to your money. If the company is out of business, you may be able to get free help tracking down your money from the U.S. Department of Labor (at askebsa.dol.gov or (866) 444-3272) or from the Pension Rights Center, a nonprofit pension counseling center (pensionrights.org/find-help). Another place to check is the National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits, a subsidiary of a private company, called PenChecks, that processes retirement checks, at www.unclaimedretirementbenefits.com.

One more wrinkle: Your employer or a plan administrator could insist you cashed in your account at some point. You may be able to prove otherwise if you’ve kept old tax returns, since those typically would show any distributions.

Your experience shows why it’s important not to lose track of old retirement accounts. Your current employer may allow you to transfer old accounts into its plan, or you can roll the money into an IRA. Either way, it’s much better to keep on top of your retirement money than to try to find it years later.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How to prepare financially for your death regardless of your age. Also in the news: The best industries for starting a business in 2017, how insurance companies use your driving record as a crystal ball, and 5 practical steps for creating a retirement backup plan.

How to Prepare Financially for Your Death (No Matter How Young You Are)
Making important decisions.

5 Best Industries for Starting a Business in 2017
Time to start working for yourself.

Your Driving Record: Insurance Companies’ Crystal Ball
Analyzing your behavior.

5 practical steps for creating a retirement backup plan
Always have a Plan B.

Retirement advice from retired financial experts

Most retirement advice has a flaw: It’s being given by people who haven’t yet retired.

So I asked money experts who have quit the 9-to-5 for their best advice on how to prepare for retirement.

In my latest for the Associated Press, what the experts say you can do to prepare yourself both financially and mentally.

Friday’s need-to-know money news

mortgage2Today’s top story: Why you should front-load your IRA in January. Also in the news: Rideshare insurance for drivers, why January is the best time to buy a home, and how fifteen minutes a day can get your finances in order.

Front-Load Your IRA in January for a Bigger Payoff
It’s all about compound interest.

Rideshare Insurance for Drivers: Where to Buy, What It Covers
What Uber and Lyft drivers need to know.

Why January Is the Best Time to Buy a Home
Timing is everything.

Commit to Fifteen Minutes of Financial Literacy a Day to Get Your Finances in Order
Make it a daily habit.