Q&A: Where to find the most bang for your savings buck. Spoiler: On Wall Street

Dear Liz: I recently sold my home and want to put away funds for my daughters. I want to place $130,000 each in an account that will earn 7% to 10% interest for 30 years or so, providing them with a comfortable retirement fund. I’m thinking of having them start with a low-cost index mutual fund. What are the drawbacks to placing all of the funds in one mutual fund account?

What are the tax implications?

Answer: Stock market index funds mimic a benchmark, such as the Standard & Poor’s 500. That means you’re typically getting at least some diversification, which can help reduce the volatility of your investment.

You could reduce volatility even more by including bond market index funds, or opting for a target date fund that spreads the money across a mix of investments — stocks, bonds, cash. Target date funds are labeled with a specific year in the future and gradually reduce risk as that date approaches. Or you could consider a robo-advisor, which uses computer algorithms and ultra-low-cost exchange-traded funds to create and manage a portfolio.

These investments typically will generate taxable returns, so you’ll want to discuss the implications with a tax pro.

Also, you mentioned earning interest, but interest is what is paid on bonds and savings accounts. Returns are what investors earn on stocks and other higher-risk investments. No investment currently pays 7% to 10% interest. Over time, stocks typically generate average annual returns of 8% or so, but returns aren’t guaranteed and some years your stocks may lose money.

Q&A: Here’s why trying to time the stock market is a really bad idea

Dear Liz: I confess that I am one of those people who panicked and sold a portion of my portfolio in March, against the advice of many who said, “Hold, don’t fold.” Thus, when the market bounced back, I was left standing out in the cold.

I am filled with a tremendous sense of stupidity. I have no idea what I should do with the cash, which remains in a money market account.

Do I wait for a 5% or 10% market correction to reenter the market? Do I leave the money in a money market account, where it earns 0.01% interest, and wait for interest rates to rise?

Answer: You tried to time the market once, with painful results. Why would you want to make the same mistake again?

That’s what you’re doing when you wait for a correction to enter the market. Many people think they’ll have the discipline to do this, but the reality can be quite different.

Once the market drops 5% to 10%, what’s to keep it from dropping further? Would you be able to jump in as others are bailing out? And what if the correction is manageably small but happens after the market has climbed considerably? You would still have missed out on a substantial amount of growth.

You may have panicked because you were taking too much risk with your portfolio. Perhaps you were trying for maximum returns or the proportion devoted to stocks had increased during the previous bull market.

The solution is to craft an asset allocation that reflects your goals and risk tolerance. Then you regularly rebalance back to that asset allocation.

Having such a plan can help you resist the urge to cash out in a downturn. So too can having an advisor who can help you craft a plan and talk you down when anxiety has you climbing the walls.

Q&A: It’s not too late for Mom’s stocks

Dear Liz: My mother is 68. She has had a sizable amount of money in an old work 401(k) for several years now. Unfortunately, it has been stuck in the most conservative low-growth fund for more than 10 years during a time of great stock market growth. If she changed it to a more aggressive fund now, are there tax implications to consider, and would this be an unwise change at her age?

Answer: Ouch. The stock market as measured by the Standard & Poor’s 500 benchmark rose more than 250% in the last decade. Instead of more than tripling her money, her low-growth fund may have barely kept up with inflation.

She can’t get back those lost returns, but she could allocate her money more aggressively without having to worry about triggering taxes. Money in 401(k)s and most other retirement accounts is taxed only when it’s withdrawn.

Q&A: Investing can be scary. How to overcome your anxiety

Dear Liz: I’m 53 and a debt-free homeowner. I’m employed but don’t have a 401(k) and have only about $80,000 in savings. I realize I need to put that money to work somewhere but I just freeze when it comes to trusting myself or someone else to handle it. Markets lately scare me to death, as do fraudulent or self-serving money managers. But as time ticks away, I develop more and more anxiety about it. What would you suggest?

Answer: Many worthwhile endeavors are scary, and you haven’t got a moment to lose.

You don’t have to make yourself an investing expert. You do need to understand enough about how the markets work that you don’t panic at the first downturn and yank your money out. Consider reading a good book about investing, such as “Investing for Dummies” by Eric Tyson, “The Little Book of Common Sense Investing” by John Bogle or “The Broke Millennial Takes On Investing” by Erin Lowry.

While you can’t control the markets, you can control what’s much more important in the long run: how much you invest and how much you pay in fees. Try to maximize the former and minimize the latter. Consider opening an individual retirement account and contributing the maximum $7,000. (The usual limit is $6,000 per year but people 50 and older can contribute an additional $1,000.)

A discount brokerage, such as Vanguard, Fidelity, TD Ameritrade, ETrade or Charles Schwab, will have low-cost target date retirement funds that do the heavy lifting for you, such as choosing investments, rebalancing and getting more conservative as your retirement date approaches.

If you still want help with investing, seek out an advisor willing to be a fiduciary, which means they’re committed to putting your best interests first.

Q&A: Windfall creates Medicare headache

Dear Liz: A couple of years ago, I was forced to receive a windfall by the sale of a company in which I held stock. Besides taking a huge tax hit, I just got my Social Security estimate for 2021 in which my Medicare bill went up by 47%. This year my income will go back down to normal levels. Is there any way to convince Social Security that this was a one-time event and it shouldn’t adjust my Medicare premiums?

Answer: There’s typically a two-year lag between receiving a windfall and potentially having your Medicare premiums raised because of IRMAA (Medicare’s income-related monthly adjustment amount). You can appeal the increase if your income dropped in the meantime because of one of the following life-changing events:

Divorce or annulment
Death of a spouse
Work stoppage
Work reduction
Loss of income-producing property (because of a disaster or other event beyond your control, not due to a sale or transfer of the property)
Loss of pension income
Employer settlement payment (due to employer’s bankruptcy or reorganization)
If any of those circumstances apply, you can call Social Security at (800) 772-1213 to arrange an interview. Alternatively, you can download form SSA-44 from the web and mail it in. You will need to provide proof of the event, such as a death certificate, divorce decree or documents from an employer.

Q&A: Roth IRA penalties

Dear Liz: I read your column in which you talked about the Roth IRA and how withdrawals can be penalized if you’re younger than 59½ or the account is not 5 years old. But are there any exceptions? Can we withdraw from our Roth IRA and not pay any tax or penalty if we use the money to pay for our children’s college?

Answer: You can avoid the early withdrawal penalty, but you’ll owe taxes on any earnings you withdraw from a Roth IRA when you use the money for qualified higher education expenses.

To recap, you can always withdraw an amount equal to your total contributions to a Roth IRA without owing any taxes or penalties. You don’t even have to wait five years.

When you withdraw earnings, however, you can avoid taxes and penalties only if the account is at least 5 years old and you’re 59½ or older, or you’re taking the distribution because you’re totally and permanently disabled, you inherited the Roth IRA from the account owner or you’re using as much as $10,000 for a first-time home purchase.

If you don’t meet those qualifications, there are still ways to avoid the penalty if not the taxes.

Withdrawing money to pay qualified education expenses is one of those exceptions, as is paying medical expenses that exceed 7.5% of your adjusted gross income, withdrawing as much as $5,000 after the birth or adoption of a child, paying an IRS levy, taking a qualified reservist distribution if you’re a military reservist called to active duty or taking a series of substantially equal periodic payments.

Let’s say you’ve contributed $20,000 to a Roth that’s now worth $30,000. The first $20,000 you withdraw is tax- and penalty-free. The final $10,000 you withdraw would be taxable, but it would not face the 10% early withdrawal penalty if you used it for your children’s college tuition, fees, books, supplies or other qualified expenses.

Q&A: Volatile markets and retirement

Dear Liz: With the tumult in the stock market, I’ve been thinking of a strategy which may be safe but not prudent. I have about $315,000 in a trust account which pays me about $9,000 a year in dividends. I’m 81. If I sell all the stocks in my trust account, I could draw the same $9,000 for over 10 years, not counting about 2% growth on the $315,000. What are your thoughts?

Answer: Many people have discovered they’re not as risk tolerant as they thought they were. The volatile stock market has unnerved even seasoned retirement investors. Most, however, should continue investing because they won’t need the money for decades, and even retirees typically need the kinds of returns that only stocks can deliver long term.

There’s no reason to take more risk than necessary, however. If all you need from your trust account is $9,000 a year, you’d be unlikely to run out even if your money is sitting in cash. But you may need more than $9,000 in the future — to adjust for inflation, for example, or to cover long-term care costs.

One option to consider is a single-premium immediate annuity. In exchange for a lump sum, you’d get a guaranteed stream of monthly checks for the rest of your life. At your age, you could get $9,000 a year by investing about $100,000 in such an annuity. Because your payments would be guaranteed by the annuity, you might be more comfortable leaving at least some of the rest of your account in stocks for potential growth.

Q&A: Worried about stocks? Why you shouldn’t try to time the market

Dear Liz: I’m a federal employee with a Thrift Savings Plan account. I’m 35 and have put about $125,000 into my TSP. However, I never changed it from the low-risk G fund so it’s not gaining as much interest as it should. Should I wait for the market to tank before moving it around or is it OK to move it now due to my age and amount of time I have before retirement? I’m worried I’ll move it and I’ll lose the value in a downturn, so maybe I should wait for a downturn to act.

Answer: You sent this question a few weeks ago, before the recent correction. Did you use the downturn as an excuse to hop into the market? Or did you stay on the sidelines, worried it might drop further?

Many people in your situation get cold feet. You’re better off in the long run just diving in and not trying to time the market.

Waiting for a downturn sounds good in theory, but in reality there’s no sure way to call the bottom of any stock market decline. And when the stock market recovers, it tends to do so in a hurry. If you delay too long, you risk missing much of the upside.

It won’t feel good if the market plunges a day, a week or a year after you invest your money, but remember that you’re investing for the long term. The day-to-day or even year-to-year gyrations of the stock market don’t matter. What matters is the trend over the next 30 years — and long term, stocks outperform every other asset class.

Q&A: When should retirees stop actively investing?

Dear Liz: I am retired. My income is from a small pension, Social Security and dividends and interest from investments. I’ve made some bad investments, but I’m still earning a satisfactory return. Is there some kind of formula that I can use to determine whether I should sell a stock, take the loss and seek another investment or keep the stock, enjoy the dividend and worry the stock might drop further?

Answer: One approach is to ask yourself if you’d buy the same stock today. If not, then it may be time to sell these shares. Be sure to consult with a tax pro first because you may be able to use losses on one investment to offset taxable gains on another.

You also might ask yourself if it’s time to transition away from active investing and individual stocks. Most people aren’t able to buy the stock of enough companies to be truly diversified. Then there’s the daunting task of staying up to date on the fortunes and prospects of each company and industry. That’s way more work than most people can handle. Even if you’re up for the task now, you might not be in the future.

Also, most people don’t do well with active investing. Trying to figure out when to buy and sell for maximum gain usually results in excess trading costs that lower your returns. It’s also too tempting to hang on to a losing stock rather than admit you made a mistake, or to chase “hot” stocks that have already had their biggest gains.

A better approach would be a portfolio of mutual funds or exchange traded funds that’s regularly rebalanced, either by a financial advisor or a computer algorithm. If you opt for funds that mimic a market benchmark, you’ll be assured of matching the market and getting a better return than most active investors can achieve.

Q&A: A surprise pension creates investment concerns

Dear Liz: Before my husband died, I encouraged him to find out if he had a pension. He worked for his company for more than 10 years and was vested, but he didn’t think he qualified. A few months after he died, I found an unopened letter stating he would receive a pension after he reached his retirement date. I contacted the benefit plan service center and submitted the required documents. I now have two options for receiving the money as his beneficiary: a lump sum or a single-life annuity that would pay a monthly benefit for my lifetime only. The lump sum could be rolled over into an eligible employer plan or traditional IRA, neither of which I have, or paid directly to me, in which case the whole amount is taxable. I am 65 and my only income is his Social Security survivor benefit and a small pension from my company when I retired. So what is the best thing for me to do?

Answer: Thank goodness you found that letter. It’s unfortunate your husband didn’t understand that “vested” meant qualified to receive a pension.

You don’t have to have an employer plan or an existing IRA to keep the lump sum from being taxed right away. You can open an IRA for the sole purpose of receiving the rollover. A bank or brokerage can help you set this up.

Any withdrawals would be taxed, but you wouldn’t be required to start taking withdrawals until you turn 70½. Even then, you would be required to withdraw only a small portion each year (a little less than 4% to start). You can always take more if you want.

Your income is low enough that taxes shouldn’t be driving your decision. Instead, consider whether you’d rather be able to tap the money at will or have more guaranteed income for the rest of your life.

If you don’t have other savings, you may want to have this pool of money standing by to use for emergencies and other spending. On the other hand, an annuity is money that you don’t have to manage and that you can’t outlive or lose to fraud, bad investments or bad decisions. If you have enough emergency savings, adding more guaranteed income could help you live a bit more comfortably.