Economic Updates & Financial Articles

Economic Updates & Financial Articles

Economic Updates:

Retirement in Sight Newsletter:

Financial Articles:

 


Weekly Economic Update for 7/16/2018

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INFLATION NEARS 3%

The federal government’s Consumer Price Index rose 2.9% across the 12 months ending in June, a level of annualized inflation last seen in February 2012. Yearly inflation has now increased for five straight months (although the headline CPI went north only 0.1% last month). The core CPI, which removes food and fuel costs, rose 0.2% in June, bringing its 12-month gain to 2.3%. Over the past 12 months, the cost of fuel oil climbed 30.8%; the cost of gasoline, 24.3%. Feeling the effect of those advances, the Producer Price Index rose 3.4% in the year ending in June.1,2

UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN CONSUMER SENTIMENT GAUGE DECLINES

At a mark of 97.1, the preliminary July edition of this consumer sentiment index came in 1.1 points underneath its final June reading. Still, it was close to its average reading over the past year (97.7). One year ago, the index stood at 93.4. Thirty-eight percent of consumers felt tariffs would negatively affect the economy, an increase from 21% in June and 15% in May.3

GOLD FALLS TO A 12-MONTH LOW

With a strengthening dollar providing a stiff headwind for the metals market, it was unsurprising that the key precious and base metals (gold, silver, copper, palladium, platinum) all retreated last week. Gold suffered the least, declining 1.2% to a Friday settlement of $1,241.20, its lowest COMEX close since July 17, 2017.4

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Tax Changes Around the Home

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Three recent tax law changes impact homeowners and home-based businesses. They may affect your federal income taxes this year.

The SALT deduction now has a $10,000 yearly limit. You can now only deduct up to $10,000 of some combination of (a) state and local property taxes or (b) state and local income taxes or sales taxes, annually. (Taxes paid or accumulated due to trade activity or business activity are exempt from the $10,000 limit.)1,2

If you have itemized for years and are continuing to itemize this year, this $10,000 cap may be irritating, especially if there is no state income tax or a very high state income tax where you live. In the state of New York, for example, taxpayers who took a SALT deduction in 2015 deducted an average of $22,169.1,2

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Before You Claim Social Security

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Whether you want to leave work at 62, 67, or 70, claiming the retirement benefits you are entitled to by federal law is no casual decision. You will want to consider a few key factors first.

How long do you think you will live? If you have a feeling you will live into your nineties, for example, it may be better to claim later. If you start receiving Social Security benefits at or after Full Retirement Age (which varies from age 66-67 for those born in 1943 or later), your monthly benefit will be larger than if you had claimed at 62. If you file for benefits at FRA or later, chances are you probably a) worked into your mid-sixties, b) are in fairly good health, c) have sizable retirement savings.1

If you sense you might not live into your eighties or you really need retirement income, then claiming at or close to 62 might make more sense. If you have an average lifespan, you will, theoretically, receive the average amount of lifetime benefits regardless of when you claim them; the choice comes down to more lifetime payments that are smaller or fewer lifetime payments that are larger. For the record, Social Security’s actuaries project the average 65-year-old man living 84.3 years and the average 65-year-old woman living 86.7 years.2

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Financial Elder Abuse, Perception vs. Reality

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You may know victims of financial elder abuse. According to a new Wells Fargo Elder Needs Survey, almost half of Americans do.1

As you read or hear stories about seniors being financially exploited, you may think: not me, I would never fall prey to that in my old age. Your parents? Same thing. They are too smart and too vigilant to be taken for a ride by a con artist or an unprincipled relative or caretaker. 

This perception is only natural. When we are young, we never picture ourselves, or our parents, in decline. We are told 60 is the new 40, and 80 is the new 50. Perhaps so, but as some of the Wells Fargo survey data bears out, we may be overconfident in our ability to evade financial scams as we age.

Nearly 800 Americans aged 60 and older were asked if they believed senior citizens were vulnerable to financial abuse. Ninety-eight percent of the respondents said yes, but 81% were confident that it would never happen to them. Just 10% thought they were susceptible to such exploitation, and only 24% even worried about the possibility.1

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Retirement In Sight for July, 2018

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WHY TAKE ON DEBT TO HELP YOUR KIDS WITH COLLEGE?

An unsettling trend is emerging among pre-retirees and retirees. Parents are picking up a greater share of college education costs, and in doing so, they may risk damaging their retirement prospects.

A new analysis of higher education debt patterns by SavingforCollege.com finds that the average college loan debt shouldered by parents rose approximately 6% this year, topping $35,000. College is so expensive today that some students are hitting the ceilings on federal student loans, which allow them to borrow as much as they might make their first year after graduation. This year, those lending limits are set at $31,000 for dependent students and $57,500 for independent students. To some undergraduates, that seem low – and parents are opting to help.

Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a retirement loan (unless a reverse mortgage counts). With running out of money a prime retirement concern among baby boomers and Gen Xers, it seems financially perilous to tap savings accounts, IRAs and other retirement plans, or whole life insurance policies to help young adults whose peak earning years are presumably ahead of them. The desire to help sons and daughters deal with this debt is understandable, but it may backfire: if parents cannot fund their retirements adequately as a consequence of this generosity, their children may end up with another financial burden decades later – the burden of their impoverished elders moving in with them. The bottom line: put retirement saving first.1

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Weekly Economic Update for 7/9/2018

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ANOTHER STRONG MONTH FOR THE LABOR MARKET

Employers hired 213,000 more workers than they laid off in June, according to the Department of Labor. Analysts surveyed by Bloomberg had forecast a gain of 195,000. In the second quarter, net monthly job growth averaged 211,000. As the labor force participation rate increased 0.2% last month, so did the headline jobless rate: it rose 0.2% to 4.0%, moving north for the first time in almost a year. The U-6 rate, which includes underemployed Americans, also increased 0.2% to 7.8%. Annualized wage growth remained at 2.7%.1

BOTH ISM INDICES IMPROVED IN JUNE

The Institute for Supply Management’s twin purchasing manager indices came in at or near 60, last month. ISM’s manufacturing gauge rose to 60.2 from the previous reading of 58.7; its service sector index increased 0.5% to 59.1. MarketWatch projected both PMIs at 58.3 for June.2

FED MNUTES SHOW OPTMISM, CONCERNS

Minutes from the Federal Open Market Committee’s June policy meeting were released Thursday, and noted that the economy’s expansion is “progressing smoothly” and at “a solid rate.” Policymakers also had some downside risks on their minds, noting the “possible adverse effects of tariffs and other proposed trade restrictions” and “political and economic developments in Europe.” Some FOMC members were concerned that rapid growth could breed “heightened inflationary pressures” and “financial imbalances” that might eventually provoke “a significant economic downturn.”3

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Ways to Repair Your Credit Score

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We all know the value of a good credit score. We all try to maintain one. Sometimes, though, life throws us a financial curve and that score declines. What steps can we take to repair it?

Reduce your credit utilization ratio (CUR). CUR is credit industry jargon, an arcane way of referring to how much of a credit card’s debt limit a borrower has used up. Simply stated, if you have a credit card with a limit of $1,500 and you have $1,300 borrowed on it right now, the CUR for that card is 13:2, you have used up 87% of the available credit. Carrying lower balances on your credit cards tilts the CUR in your favor and promotes a better credit score.1

Review your credit reports for errors. You probably know that you are entitled to receive one free credit report per year from each of the three major U.S. credit reporting agencies – Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. You might as well request a report from all three at once. You can do this at annualcreditreport.com (the only official website for requesting these reports). About 25% of credit reports contain mistakes. Upon review, some borrowers spot credit card fraud committed against them; some notice botched account details or identity errors. Mistakes are best noted via a letter sent certified mail with a request for a return receipt (send the agency the report, the evidence, and a letter briefly explaining the error).2

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Should You Use 529 Plan Funds on K-12 Education?

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When President Trump signed the Tax Cuts & Jobs Act into law late in 2017, new possibilities emerged for the tax-advantaged investment vehicles known as 529 college savings plans. Funds from these accounts may now be used to pay for qualified elementary and secondary school expenses under federal law.1

Unfortunately, some state laws for 529 college savings plans are just catching up with federal law or treat such withdrawals differently from a tax standpoint. Hopefully, these differences will be resolved with time.2

Federal law permits you to spend up to $10,000 of 529 funds on K-12 tuition per year. Under the Tax Cuts & Jobs Act, you can use these funds to pay tuition at private and public elementary and secondary schools. If you do this, the withdrawal from your 529 plan is tax free or at least free from federal taxation.1

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Monthly Economic Update for July, 2018

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THE MONTH IN BRIEF

While segments of the stock market rallied in June, assumptions that a global trade war was starting hurt the blue chips – the Dow Jones Industrial Average lost 0.59% last month. As the U.S., European Union, and China exchanged tariff threats, equity benchmarks worldwide treaded water or took losses. The economy was doing well: the latest hiring and retail sales data was excellent, consumer confidence appeared strong, and industries were growing impressively. Inflation pressure was mounting, and unsurprisingly, the Federal Reserve responded with another interest rate hike. New home sales improved, but residential resales waned. Ongoing trade frictions seemed to mute much of the bullishness seen early in the year.1

DOMESTIC ECONOMIC HEALTH

The Trump administration announced further tariffs in June. New import duties aimed at China are scheduled for a July 6 launch: $34 billion in Chinese goods are supposed to be hit with 25% tariffs beginning on that date, with another $16 billion in Chinese imports potentially susceptible to these levies in the future. In addition, the U.S. may impose a 10% tariff on another $200 billion of Chinese products. A 20% tariff on autos coming from the European Union is also planned. The E.U. and China have retaliatory measures to these moves in the works (see “Global Economic Health” below).2

Away from tariffs and their implications, investors absorbed some excellent reports on the U.S. economy. The Department of Labor’s May jobs report showed a net hiring gain of 223,000 and wages up 0.3% for the month (better than the 0.1% rise in April). The headline unemployment rate declined 0.1% to just 3.8%, and the U-6 jobless rate, including the underemployed, fell from 7.8% to 7.6%. Retail sales improved a striking 0.8% in May, and the gain held even without the inclusion of gasoline and automotive purchases.3

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Quarterly Economic Update for Q2, 2018

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THE QUARTER IN BRIEF

At the end of 2018, economists and journalists may look back on the second quarter and see the moment when a global trade war began. Whether one is truly underway or not, the fact is that Q2 was a good quarter for equities. The S&P 500 gained 2.93% in three months, and while the blue chips had their struggles, tech shares ascended once again. Many foreign benchmarks also had a good quarter, even as the Trump administration’s planned import taxes on U.S. trading partners drew tariffs in kind and bred pessimism overseas. Our labor market and manufacturing and service industries continued to look healthy, and consumer confidence and spending reports were largely encouraging. Existing home sales tailed off. Oil made quite a comeback, aided by supply concerns. It was a quarter in which relatively strong economic data was overshadowed by a shift in the playing field for global trade.1

DOMESTIC ECONOMIC HEALTH

The Trump administration had begun imposing import taxes early in the year, but in the second quarter, the international tariff spat truly grew heated. U.S. duties against metals imported from Mexico, Canada, and European Union nations were met by 25% taxes levied by the E.U. on American jeans, bourbon, orange juice, and other products, and Canada, India, and Mexico announced duties on select imports from America as well. Then the U.S. supplemented its earlier tariffs with new 25% taxes on $34 billion of Chinese imports (set to take effect July 6), and threatened to impose further 10% duties on another $200 billion of Chinese products and a 20% tariff on autos coming out of the E.U. China replied to the new tariff on $34 billion of its exports with an equal tariff on U.S. goods, to be implemented July 6.2

Interest rates moved north in Q2. The Federal Reserve made its second rate move of the year on June 13, taking the target range for the federal funds rate 0.25% higher to 1.75%-2.00%. A new wrinkle was found in the Federal Open Market Committee’s latest dot-plot consensus projection: it suggested four quarter-point rate hikes would occur this year rather than three.3

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Weekly Economic Update for 7/2/2018

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INCOME AND SPENDING RISE, ALONG WITH CORE INFLATION

According to the latest monthly Department of Commerce snapshot, personal incomes improved 0.4% in May. Personal spending, however, advanced just 0.2% (half the gain forecast by economists polled by Reuters) and was actually flat when adjusted for inflation. May also brought the sixth straight 0.2% monthly increase for the core PCE price index, which the Federal Reserve uses as its inflation yardstick. The core PCE was up 2.0% year-over-year through May, reaching the central bank’s annualized inflation target for the first time in more than six years.1

CONSUMER CONFIDENCE GAUGES SHOW JUNE DECLINES

The University of Michigan consumer sentiment index and the Conference Board consumer confidence index both came in lower for June. The UMich index dipped 1.1 points from its previous reading to a final June mark of 98.2; meanwhile, the CB’s gauge dipped 2.4 points to a still-impressive 126.4.2

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What People Overlook When Shopping for Life Insurance

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Shopping for life insurance means paying attention to detail. In scrutinizing these details, however, some fundamental, big-picture truths may be ignored.

If you want to renew or upgrade coverage later in life, the terms could be less than ideal. You may be healthier than most of your peers, you may have the constitution of someone half your age, but insurers base policy premiums and terms of coverage on actuarial norms, not exceptions. Purchase a term life policy at age 50, and your premiums may be considerably more expensive than if you had bought the same coverage at age 30. This is the way of the insurance business.1

Have you had a serious illness? Have you been diagnosed with a medical condition, such as diabetes, sleep apnea, or high blood pressure? You are looking at higher life insurance premiums, and insurers may limit the amount of life insurance coverage you can buy.2

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Weekly Economic Update for 6/25/2018

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TARIFF TALK INTENSIFIES

Major economic powers proposed additional import taxes last week, as investors wondered if a global trade war was now underway. Monday evening, President Trump stated that he had instructed U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to identify another $200 billion of Chinese products to subject to a new 10% import duty. Shortly before the trading week began, the European Union proclaimed it would place import taxes on $3.3 billion of U.S. products, in retaliation to recently imposed metals tariffs. Friday, President Trump mulled imposing a 20% tax on autos arriving from the E.U. unless it lifts such import duties.1,2

EXISTING HOME SALES WEAKEN SLIGHTLY

A National Association of Realtors report says that sales tapered off 0.4% in May. While the inventory of homes listed grew 2.8% in the fifth month of the year, the median price of an existing home hit an all-time peak of $264,800. The sales pace was 3.0% slower than in May 2017.3

HOUSING STARTS RISE, BUT PERMITS FALL

While home sales were nearly flat last month, groundbreaking increased 5.0% according to the Census Bureau. Its latest report on U.S. residential construction also noted a 4.6% drop in building permits, far exceeding the decline seen in April.4

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The Flattening of the Yield Curve

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What is the yield curve, and why is the financial media writing about it? Here is a brief explanation, starting with a clarification.

A yield curve is really an X-Y graph projecting expected rates of return for equivalent-quality bonds with different maturity dates. But it is not just any yield curve that matters. When investors, commentators, and economists talk about “the yield curve,” they are talking about the graph plotting the interest rates of Treasuries: 3-month, 2-year, 5-year, 10-year, and 30-year notes. The “curve” is the line connecting their projected future yields. This Treasury yields snapshot is authoritatively referred to as: “the yield curve.”1,2

The yield curve normally slopes upward. (Think “rise over run.”) In other words, the projected yields on the short-term Treasuries (at the left of the X-Y graph) are small compared to the projected returns on the 10-year and 30-year Treasuries.2

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Why Do People Put Off Saving for Retirement?

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Common wisdom says that you should start saving for retirement as soon as you can. Why do some people wait decades to begin?

Nearly everyone can save something. Even small cash savings may be the start of something big if they are invested wisely.

Sometimes, the immediate wins out over the distant. To young adults, retirement can seem so far away. Instead of directing X dollars a month toward some far-off financial objective, why not use it for something here and now, like a payment on a student loan or a car? This is indeed practical, and it may be necessary. Even so, paying yourself first should be as much of a priority as paying today’s bills or paying your creditors.

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Keep Your Life Insurance When You Retire

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Do you need a life insurance policy in retirement? One school of thought says no. The kids are grown, and the need to financially insulate the household against the loss of a breadwinner has passed.

If you are thinking about dropping your coverage for either or both of those reasons, you may also want to consider the excellent reasons to retain, obtain, or convert a life insurance policy after you retire. It may be the best decision once you take these factors into account.

Could you make use of your policy’s cash value? If you have a whole life policy, you might want to utilize that cash in response to certain retirement needs. Long-term care, for example: you could explore converting the cash in your whole life policy into a new policy with a long-term care rider, which might even be doable without tax consequences. If you have income needs, many insurers will let you surrender a whole life policy you have held for some years and arrange an income contract with the cash value. You can pull out the cash, tax-free, as long as the amount withdrawn is less than the amount paid into the policy. Remember, though, that withdrawing (or taking a loan against) a policy’s cash value naturally reduces the policy’s death benefit.1

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Should You Leave Your IRA to a Child?

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Can a child inherit an IRA? The answer is yes, though they cannot legally own the IRA and its invested assets. Until the child turns 18 (or 21, in some states), the inherited IRA is a custodial account, managed by an adult on behalf of the minor beneficiary.1,2

IRA owners who name minors as beneficiaries have good intentions. Their idea is to “stretch” a large Roth or traditional IRA. Distributions from the inherited IRA can be scheduled over the (long) expected lifetime of the young beneficiary, with the possibility that compounding will partly or fully offset them.2

Those good intentions may be disregarded, however. When minor IRA beneficiaries become legal adults, they have the right to do whatever they want with those IRA assets. If they want to drain the whole IRA to buy a Porsche or fund an ill-conceived start-up, they can.2

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What Determines Car Insurance Rates?

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Your auto insurance payment is not just based on your driving history. Assorted variables come into play that have nothing to do with your accident record or your experience behind the wheel.

Where you live counts. If you reside in a congested big-city neighborhood with an unyielding traffic stream, that could push your premium higher. Certainly, the accident threat is greater there than in a rural area. In addition, high-density neighborhoods may see more vandalism, break-ins, and auto theft than lower-density communities – plus, more car insurance fraud schemes.1

The vehicle you drive factors into the calculation. Yes, a luxury car will commonly cost more to insure than an economy car, but vehicle price is not the only factor. Certain makes and models are stolen more than others: the Honda Civic, the Nissan Altima, and the Toyota Camry are prime targets for auto thieves. If you drive a 4x4 SUV, the insurer may factor in some off-road use, even if you just want to drive it to work, the beach, and the mall. Engine horsepower could also affect your rates.2

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Weekly Economic Update for 6/18/2018

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FED, NEW TARIFFS GET WALL STREET’S ATTENTION

As expected, the Federal Reserve adjusted the target range on the federal funds rate to 1.75%-2.00% on Wednesday. The central bank’s latest dot-plot projection, however, raised some eyebrows: it showed four interest rate increases planned for 2018 instead of three. The median forecast of Fed officials puts the benchmark interest rate at 2.4% at the end of this year, on the way to a peak of 3.4% in 2020. Friday morning, the Trump administration announced new 25% tariffs on at least $34 billion of Chinese imports. Hours later, China retaliated, declaring that it would levy 25% import taxes on a minimum of $34 billion of goods from America. The U.S. and China both plan to implement their new tariffs on July 6.1,2

YEARLY INFLATION REACHES 2.8%

The latest Consumer Price Index shows the highest 12-month inflation reading in six years; the core CPI (which leaves out food and fuel costs) rose 2.2% in the year ending in May. Both the headline and core CPI were up 0.2% last month. Wholesale inflation, as measured by the Producer Price Index, increased 0.5% in May.3,4

AN IMPRESSIVE ADVANCE FOR RETAIL SALES

According to the Department of Commerce, the May gain was 0.8% (0.9% with car and truck buying factored out). This follows an April improvement of 0.4% (revised up from 0.3%).4

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Who Is Your Trusted Contact?

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Investment firms have a new client service requirement. They must now ask you if you want to provide the name and information of a trusted contact.1

You do not have to supply this information, but it is certainly welcomed. The request is being made, with your best interest in mind, to lower the risk that someone crooked might someday make investment decisions on your behalf.1

Financial scams rob U.S. seniors of more than $36 billion per year. As a CNBC article notes, 27% of these frauds represent abuse or exploitation committed by third parties; 23% are wrongdoings committed by family members or trustees.1

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Do You Know Who Your Beneficiaries Are?

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Your beneficiary choices may need to change with the times. When did you open your first IRA? When did you buy your life insurance policy? Are you still living in the same home and working at the same job as you did back then? Have your priorities changed a bit – perhaps more than a bit?

While your beneficiary choices may seem obvious and rock solid when you initially make them, time has a way of altering things. In a stretch of five or ten years, some major changes can occur in your life – and they may warrant changes in your beneficiary decisions. In fact, you might want to review them annually.

Beneficiary designations commonly override bequests made in a will or living trust. Many people do not realize this. When assets have designated beneficiaries, they can usually avoid probate and transfer directly to that person.1,2

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Still Procrastinating About Your Financial Plan?

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First, look at your expenses and your debt. Review your core living expenses (such as a mortgage payment, car payment, etc.). Can any core expenses be reduced? Investing aside, you position yourself to gain ground financially when income rises, debt shrinks, and expenses decrease or stabilize. 

Maybe you should pay your debt first, maybe not. Some debt is “good” debt. A debt might be “good” if it brings you income. Credit card debt is generally deemed “bad” debt.

If you’ll be carrying a debt for a while, put it to a test. Weigh the interest rate on that specific debt against your potential income growth rate and your potential investment returns over the term of the debt.

Of course, paying off debts, paying down balances, and restricting new debt all works toward improving your FICO score, another tool you can use in pursuit of financial freedom (we’re talking “good” debts).1

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The Case for Women Working Past 65

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The median retirement age for an American woman is 62. The Federal Reserve says so in its most recent Survey of Household Economics and Decisionmaking (2017). Sixty-two, of course, is the age when seniors first become eligible for Social Security retirement benefits. This factoid seems to convey a message: a fair amount of American women are retiring and claiming Social Security as soon as they can.1

What if more women worked into their mid-sixties? Could that benefit them, financially? While health issues and caregiving demands sometimes force women to retire early, it appears many women are willing to stay on the job longer. Fifty-three percent of the women surveyed in a new Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies poll on retirement said that they planned to work past age 65.2

Staying in the workforce longer may improve a woman’s retirement prospects. If that seems paradoxical, consider the following positives that could result from working past 65.

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Little-Known Homeowners Insurance Facts

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If you have a homeowners insurance policy, you should be aware of what the insurance does and does not cover. These policies have their limitations as well as their underrecognized perks.

Some policies insure actual cash value (ACV). ACV factors depreciation into an item’s worth. If someone makes off with your expensive camera that you bought five years ago, a homeowners policy that reimburses you for ACV would only pay for part of the cost of an equivalent camera bought new today.1

Other policies insure replacement cash value (RCV). That means 100% of the cost of an equivalent item today, at least in the insurer’s view.1

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Life Insurance Explained

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When it comes to life insurance, there are many choices. Whole life. Variable universal life. Term. What do these descriptions really mean?

All life insurance policies have two things in common. They guarantee to pay a death benefit to a designated beneficiary after a policyholder dies (although, the guarantee may be waived if the death is a suicide occurring within two years of the policy purchase). All require recurring payments (premiums) to keep the policy in force. Beyond those basics, the differences begin.1

Some life insurance coverage is permanent, some not. Permanent life insurance is designed to cover you for your entire life (not just a portion or “term” of it), and it can become an important element in your retirement planning. Whole life insurance is its most common form.2

Whole life policies accumulate cash value. How does that happen? An insurer directs some of your premium payments into a reserve account and puts those dollars into investments (typically conservative ones). The return on the investments influences the growth of the cash value, which builds up according to a formula the insurer sets.3

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How Much Do You Really Know About Long Term Care?

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How much does eldercare cost, and how do you arrange it when it is needed? The average person might have difficulty answering those two questions, for the answers are not widely known. For clarification, here are some facts to dispel some myths.

True or false: Medicare will pay for your mom or dad’s nursing home care.  

FALSE, because Medicare is not long-term care insurance.1

Part A of Medicare will pay the bill for up to 20 days of skilled nursing facility care – but after that, you or your parents may have to pay some costs out-of-pocket. After 100 days, Medicare will not pay a penny of nursing home costs – it will all have to be paid out-of-pocket, unless the patient can somehow go without skilled nursing care for 60 days or 30 days including a 3-day hospital stay. In those instances, Medicare’s “clock” resets.2

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Retirement In Sight for June, 2018

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When It Comes to Retirement Savings, How Much Is Enough?

While it is hard for any pre-retiree to determine an exact answer to that question, it seems some are just stumped. A Bankrate survey just asked working-age Americans how much they should save to have a comfortable retirement, and the most common answer (61%) was “Don’t know.” The average estimate of those 39% who ventured a guess was $650,000. One average, members of Generation X felt they would need $1 million, while baby boomers and those age 73 and older most frequently said $500,000.

Just 16% of the pre-retirees surveyed said they were deferring 15% or more of their salaries into retirement accounts, which is a common recommendation these days. Twenty-one percent reported saving 5% or less per paycheck. That does not portend good things to come, given that workers older than 50 should have the equivalent of several times their salary saved for retirement. Yes, retirement planning is an “inexact science” – but that does not mean an individual or couple can simply wing it and hope for the best. Before retirement approaches, a conversation with a retirement planner should happen, to help a pre-retiree identify income needs, potential income sources, and threats to savings. That discussion may bring more clarity to a retirement transition.1

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Weekly Economic Update for 6/11/2018

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100 MONTHS OF GROWTH FOR SERVICE BUSINESSES

The Institute for Supply Management announced this milestone as it revealed a 58.6 May reading for its non-manufacturing purchasing manager index. That excellent reading was well north of the 56.8 mark seen in April. Fourteen of the fifteen service industries followed by the PMI reported expansion in May; the information sector was the only outlier.1

Q2 GDP OUTLOOK BRIGHTENS

Is the economy now expanding at the rate of 5% a year? The bold new estimate by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta nearly says as much. The Atlanta Fed projects a 4.6% GDP reading for Q2. The first quarter saw a 2.2% rate of growth, and the economy grew 2.3% for all of 2017.2

SOCIAL SECURITY TO TAP ITS RESERVES THIS YEAR

Last week, Social Security’s trustees announced that the program needs to dip into its trust funds for the first time in 36 years in order to fully fund itself in 2018. In their annual report, the trustees noted that monthly benefits could be reduced as much as 23% by 2034 if no legislative action is taken on Capitol Hill between now and then. The report also noted that Medicare’s hospital insurance fund risks being depleted by 2026; barring a fix, Medicare might only pay out 91% of hospital costs at that point.3

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Watch for These Insurance Blind Spots

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No insurance policy will protect you from everything. Even the most comprehensive umbrella liability policy has its shortcomings. A good auto, homeowner, or renter policy will insure you against what the carrier believes to be common threats. There are other risks, however, that you might need to address.

Earthquakes. A typical homeowners policy offers no earthquake protection, and that presents a serious coverage gap in certain states. Just 10% of California households have earthquake insurance, for example. (On the bright side, a record number of Californians bought these policies in 2017.)1

Floods. In some regions, houses may be more at risk for flood damage than their owners believe. Last year, tens of thousands of Southeast Texas homeowners discovered just how vulnerable they were in the wake of Hurricane Harvey – neighborhoods well inland were inundated. Just 12% of U.S. homeowners have flood insurance coverage, which the average homeowners policy does not provide.2

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Monthly Economic Update for June, 2018

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THE MONTH IN BRIEF
In May, investors were left to interpret mixed geopolitical and financial signals. The historic U.S.-North Korea summit was on, then off, then possibly on again. An apparent truce emerged in the U.S.-China tariffs battle, but it did not last. Oil rallied, but then prices fell. Federal Reserve policy meeting minutes indicated central bank officials would accept above-target inflation for a while. Other economic signals were clear: new and existing home sales were down, consumer confidence was back up, and consumer spending was strong. In the end, the markets took all this in stride – the S&P 500 rose 2.16% for the month.1

DOMESTIC ECONOMIC HEALTH 
On May 19, Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin told the media that the U.S.-China trade war was “on hold.” Both nations agreed to refrain from imposing new import tariffs, and China announced plans to lower taxes on imported cars and trucks from 25% to 15%. Ten days later, the U.S. surprised economists, journalists, and investors by electing to proceed with the 25% tariffs on $50 billion of Chinese imports it had proposed in April. The Chinese government indicated it was ready to institute tariffs in response. On May 31, the Trump administration said that it would move forward with its planned steel and aluminum tariffs against Mexico, Canada, and the European Union, as well as extend short-term exemptions no further. Mexico and the E.U. quickly announced retaliatory taxes for U.S. imports.2,3

What did the Federal Reserve mean when it used the word “symmetric” in the minutes of its May meeting? The text referred to its “symmetric inflation objective,” and that obscure adjective (meaning “showing symmetry”) was used nine times. Market participants did learn that Fed policymakers were willing to let inflation briefly top the central bank’s 2% target rate. The Fed held interest rates steady last month, but a June rate hike seemed a distinct possibility: “Most participants judged that if incoming information broadly confirmed their current economic outlook, it would likely soon be appropriate [to] take another step in removing policy accommodation.”4,5

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Weekly Economic Update for 6/4/2018

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HIRING, HOUSEHOLD SPENDING STRENGTHEN

Net job growth surprised to the upside in May: companies added 223,000 more workers than they laid off or fired. At 3.8%, the unemployment rate is now where the Federal Reserve thought it would be at the end of 2018, and it is also at its lowest level since April 2000. Underemployment, as measured by the Department of Labor’s U-6 jobless rate, fell 0.2% in May to a 17-year-low of 7.6%. Year-over-year wage growth was measured at 2.7% in this latest labor market snapshot. In another sign of a strong economy, the Department of Commerce said that consumer spending grew by a noteworthy 0.6% in April, with consumer incomes rising 0.3%.1,2

CONSUMER CONFIDENCE REBOUNDS

The Conference Board’s closely watched consumer confidence index improved to 128.0 in May, rising 2.4 points from its April mark. Analysts polled by MarketWatch expected a reading of 127.5.2

FACTORY SECTOR CONTINUES TO BOOM

Growth picked up in U.S. manufacturing last month, according to the Institute for Supply Management’s May purchasing manager index. At an impressive reading of 58.7, the PMI was 1.4 points better than it was in April and matched its average reading over the past 12 months. The index has not been below 56.5 for a year. Any reading above 50.0 indicates expansion.3

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Should Couples Combine Their Finances?

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Some couples elect to consolidate their personal finances, while others largely keep their financial lives separate. What choice might suit your household?

The first question is: how do you and your partner view money matters? If you feel it will be best to handle your bills and plan for your goals as a team, then combining your finances may naturally follow.

A team approach has its merits. A joint checking account is one potential first step: a decision representing a commitment to a unified financial life. When you go “all in” on this team approach, most of your incomes go into this joint account, and the money within the account pays all (or nearly all) of your shared or individual bills. This is a simple and clear approach to adopt, especially if your salaries are similar.

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Why Medicare Should Be Part of Your Retirement Planning

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Medicare takes a little time to understand. As you approach age 65, familiarize yourself with its coverage options and their costs and limitations.

Certain features of Medicare can affect health care costs and coverage. Some retirees may do okay with original Medicare (Parts A and B), others might find it lacking and decide to supplement original Medicare with Part C, Part D, or Medigap coverage. In some cases, that may mean paying more for senior health care per month than you initially figured.

How much do Medicare Part A and Part B cost, and what do they cover? Part A is usually free; Part B is not. Part A is hospital insurance and covers up to 100 days of hospital care, home health care, nursing home care, and hospice care. Part B covers doctor visits, outpatient procedures, and lab work. You pay for Part B with monthly premiums, and your Part B premium is based on your income. In 2018, the basic monthly Part B premium is $134; higher-earning Medicare recipients pay more per month. You also typically shoulder 20% of Part B costs after paying the yearly deductible, which is $183 in 2018.1

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Weekly Economic Update for 5/28/2018

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HOME SALES DECLINE

Both new and existing home sales weakened in April, according to reports from the Census Bureau and National Association of Realtors. Resales were down 2.5%; new home buying, 1.5%. NAR chief economist Lawrence Yun cited “the utter lack of available listings on the market” as the “root cause” of the retreat in resales. Existing home sales were down 1.4% year-over-year through April; on the other hand, the pace of new home buying improved 8.4% in the same 12 months. Zillow says that existing home values soared 8.7% in the year ending in April; that is the largest annualized jump it has recorded since June 2006.1,2

CONSUMER SENTIMENT TURNS SLIGHTLY LOWER

The University of Michigan’s preliminary May consumer sentiment index came in at 98.0 on Friday, 0.8 points below its final April reading. The gauge was 0.9 points above its year-ago level.3

OIL TAKES A FALL

WTI crude suffered a 4.9% loss last week on the NYMEX. The price settled at $67.88 Friday after a 4.2% single-day dive. That was the lowest close since May 1. The main reason for the drop? News that OPEC countries and Russia may boost output to counter production slumps in Iran and Venezuela.4

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How New Tax Laws Affect Small Businesses

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The Tax Cuts & Jobs Act changed the tax picture for business owners. Whether your company is incorporated or held closely, you must recognize how the recent adjustments to the Internal Revenue Code can potentially affect you and your workers.

How have things changed for C corps? The top corporate tax rate has fallen. C corps now pay a flat 21% tax. For most C corps, this is a big win; for the smallest C corps, it may be a loss.1

If your C corp or LLC brings in $50,000 or less in 2018, you will receive no tax relief – your firm will pay a 21% corporate income tax as opposed to the 15% corporate income tax it would have in 2017. Under the old law, the corporate income tax rate was just 15% for the first $50,000 of taxable income.1,2

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Including Digital Assets in Your Estate Plan

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When people think about estate planning, they may think in terms of personal property, real estate, and investments. Digital assets might seem like a lesser concern, perhaps no concern at all. But it is something that many are now considering.1

Your digital assets should not disappear into a void when you die. You can direct that they be transferred, preserved, or destroyed per your instructions. Your digital assets may include information on your phone and computer, content that you uploaded to Facebook, Instagram, or other websites, your intellectual/creative stake in certain digital property, and records stemming from online communications. (That last category includes your emails and text messages.)1

You can control what happens to these things after you are gone. Your executor – the person you appoint to legally distribute or manage the assets of your estate – will be assigned to carry out your wishes in this matter, provided you articulate them.1

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What Women Shouldn't Retire Without

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When our parents retired, living to 75 amounted to a nice long life, and Social Security was often supplemented by a pension. The Social Security Administration estimates that today’s average 65-year-old female will live to age 86.6. Given these projections, it appears that a retirement of 20 years or longer might be in your future.1,2

Are you prepared for a 20-year retirement? How about a 30- or 40-year retirement? Don’t laugh; it could happen. The SSA projects that about 25% of today’s 65-year-olds will live past 90, with approximately 10% living to be older than 95.2

How do you begin? How do you draw retirement income off what you’ve saved – how might you create other income streams to complement Social Security? How do you try and protect your retirement savings and other financial assets?

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Weekly Economic Update for 5/21/2018

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RETAIL SALES RISE ANOTHER 0.3%

April’s advance remained at that level. even with car and truck sales removed. It paled compared to the 0.8% March gain reported by the Department of Commerce, but it matched the consensus forecast of economists surveyed by MarketWatch.1

APRIL SAW LESS GROUNDBREAKING

An 11.3% drop for apartment construction set the pace of overall housing starts back 3.7% last month, Department of Commerce data noted.2

HOME LOAN RATES REACH 7-YEAR HIGH

According to Freddie Mac, the mean interest rate for a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage last week was 4.61%. That exceeds any number seen since May 2011. Redfin says that the median existing home sold in April spent only 36 days on the market, a sign that buyers have rushed to close quickly before rates climb higher.3

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Wealth Management With Memory Disorders

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Besides impacting lives and relationships, dementia can also impact family finances. It may call for another family member to assume money management responsibilities for a parent, grandparent, or sibling. It may increase the risk of financial exploitation, even as we do our best to guard against it.

Just how many older adults have memory disorders? Well, here are two recent estimates. The Chicago Health and Aging Project figures that nearly a third of Americans 85 and older have Alzheimer’s disease. The National Institute on Aging sponsored a study, which concluded that 14% of Americans age 71 and older have dementia to some degree.1

Older women may be the most vulnerable to all this. A new Merrill Lynch and Age Wave study notes that after age 65, women have twice the projected risk of Alzheimer’s that men do.2

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Weekly Economic Update for 5/14/2018

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OIL HITS A 4-YEAR PEAK

The price of WTI crude settled at $71.36 on Thursday, hours after Bank of America Merrill Lynch analysts forecast $90 oil by spring 2019 and a “risk of $100 a barrel” Brent crude next year. Thursday’s close was oil’s highest settlement since November 2014. Futures rallied 1.4% on the week after the Trump administration said that the U.S. would exit the Iran nuclear deal and reinstate sanctions against that OPEC member. That implies reduced global oil supply. As of Friday evening, no other OPEC country had committed to produce more oil in response. WTI crude closed at $70.70 on the NYMEX on Friday.1

CONSUMER SENTIMENT HOLDS STEADY

At a mark of 98.8, the University of Michigan’s initial May consumer sentiment index was unchanged from its final April reading. At this time in 2017, the index was at 97.1.2

INFLATION PRESSURE MODERATES

In April, the Consumer Price Index rose 0.2%, while the core CPI ticked up just 0.1%. This left annualized inflation unchanged at 2.5%, while yearly core inflation fell 0.1% to 2.1%. Thanks to a mere 0.1% April gain in the Producer Price Index, wholesale inflation rose 2.6% in the 12 months ending in April, down from 3.0% in the year ending in March.3

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Beware of Lifestyle Creep

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“Lifestyle creep” is an unusual phrase describing an all-too-common problem: the more money people earn, the more money they tend to spend.

Frequently, the newly affluent are the most susceptible. As people establish themselves as doctors and lawyers, executives, and successful entrepreneurs, they see living well as a reward. Outstanding education, home, and business loans may not alter this viewpoint. Lifestyle creep can happen to successful individuals of any age. How do you guard against it?

Keep one financial principle in mind: spend less than you make. If you get a promotion, if your business takes off, if you make partner, the additional income you receive can go toward your retirement savings, your investment accounts, or your debts.

See a promotion, a bonus, or a raise as an opportunity to save more. Do you have a household budget? Then the amount of saving that the extra income comfortably permits will be clear. Even if you do not closely track your expenses, you can probably still save (and invest) to a greater degree without imperiling your current lifestyle. 

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The Backdoor Roth IRA

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Does your high income stop you from contributing to a Roth IRA? It does not necessarily prohibit you from having one. You may be able to create a backdoor Roth IRA and give yourself the potential for a tax-free income stream in retirement.

If you think you will be in a high tax bracket when you retire, a tax-free income stream is just what you want. The backdoor Roth IRA is a maneuver you can make in pursuit of that goal – a perfectly legal workaround, its legitimacy further affirmed by language in the Tax Cuts & Jobs Act of 2017.1

You establish a backdoor Roth IRA in two steps. The first step: make a non-deductible contribution to a traditional IRA. (In other words, you contribute after-tax dollars to it, as you would to a Roth retirement account.)1

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Retirement In Sight for May, 2018

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Would You Pay More for a Better Employee Retirement Plan?

If that trade-off sounds worthwhile, rest assured you are not the only one who feels that way. Sixty-six percent of the working Americans surveyed late last year by consulting firm Willis Towers Watson said that they would defer a greater percentage of salary than they currently do if their potential retirement benefits were upgraded, and 61% said that they would increase their plan contributions if they were offered a guaranteed benefit, in the manner of a traditional pension.

The quality of employer-sponsored retirement plans appeared to matter more to the respondents than the quality of group health benefits, because just 36% of them indicated that they would trade more of their pay for an improved workplace health care plan. Retirement benefits even mattered more to them than time off: only 58% said that they would surrender equivalent compensation in exchange for more personal and vacation time. One finding from the survey also amounted to a memo to American companies: 43% of the respondents noted that their workplace retirement plans did not give them enough options or flexibility.1

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Weekly Economic Update for 5/7/2018

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JOBLESS RATE HITS 18-YEAR LOW

Unemployment fell to 3.9% in April, the Department of Labor said Friday – the smallest percentage seen since late 2000. Additionally, the U-6 underemployment rate declined to 7.8%, a 17-year low. Payrolls expanded with 164,000 net new jobs last month; the economy has created an average of 200,000 jobs a month so far in 2018, compared to 177,000 a month in 2017.1

PERSONAL SPENDING IMPROVES 0.4%

The March gain reported by the Bureau of Economic Analysis was the best since the 0.5% advance in December. Personal wages increased 0.3% for March, replicating the gain from February.2

ISM INDICES RETREAT

Purchasing manager indices at the Arizona-based Institute for Supply Management showed the factory and service sectors of the economy cooling down in April from a red-hot degree of expansion. ISM’s manufacturing PMI fell 2.0 points to 57.3, and its non-manufacturing PMI dropped by the same amount to 56.8.3

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Retirement Planning Weak Spots

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Many households think they are planning carefully for retirement. In many cases, they are not. Weak spots in their retirement planning and saving may go unnoticed.

Couples should recognize that they may face major medical expenses. Each year, Fidelity Investments estimates how much a pair of newly retired 65-year-olds will spend on health care throughout the rest of their lives. Fidelity says that on average, retiring men will need $133,000 to fund health care in retirement; retiring women, $147,000. Even baby boomers in outstanding health should accept the possibility that serious health conditions could increase their out-of-pocket hospital, prescription drug, and eldercare costs.1

Retirement savers will want to diversify their invested assets. An analysis from StreetAuthority, a financial research and publishing company, demonstrates how dramatic the shift has been for some investors. A hypothetical portfolio split evenly between equities and fixed-income investments at the end of February 2009 would have been weighted 74/26 in favor of equities exactly nine years later. If a bear market arrives, that lack of diversification could spell trouble. Another weak spot: some investors just fall in love with two or three companies. If they only buy shares in those companies, their retirement prospects will become tied up with the future of those firms, which could lead to problems.2

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The Different Types of IRAs

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What don’t you know? Many Americans know about Roth and traditional IRAs, but there are other types of Individual Retirement Arrangements. Here’s a quick look at all the different types of IRAs:

Traditional IRAs (occasionally called deductible IRAs) are the “original” IRAs. In most cases, contributions to a traditional IRA are tax deductible: they reduce your taxable income, and as a consequence, your federal income taxes. Earnings in a traditional IRA grow tax deferred until they are withdrawn, but they will be taxed upon withdrawal, and those withdrawals must begin after the IRA owner reaches age 70½. I.R.S. penalties and income taxes may apply on withdrawals taken prior to age 59½.1

Roth IRAs do not feature tax-deductible contributions, but they offer many potential perks for the future. Like a traditional IRA, they feature tax-deferred growth and compounding. Unlike a traditional IRA, the account contributions may be withdrawn at any time without being taxed, and the earnings may be withdrawn, tax-free, once the IRA owner is older than 59½ and has owned the IRA for at least five years. An original owner of a Roth IRA never has to make mandatory withdrawals after age 70½. In addition, a Roth IRA owner may keep contributing to the account after age 70½, so long as he or she has earned income. (A high income may prevent an individual from making Roth IRA contributions.)1,2

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Monthly Economic Update for May, 2018

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THE MONTH IN BRIEF
April saw the S&P 500 advance 0.27% as a new earnings season unfolded – one in which investors grew uneasy about rising Treasury yields, protectionism, and privacy concerns involving tech giants. While the financial media largely focused on those anxieties, good news also appeared. The latest consumer spending and consumer confidence data was solid. Home buying picked up as listings increased slightly. Oil rallied, and so did the dollar. Overseas equity benchmarks saw big gains, even as some economists wondered if the boom in global growth was fading. One of the major financial news stories of April broke only hours before the start of May: a postponement of the tariffs planned for imported metals.1

DOMESTIC ECONOMIC HEALTH 
On the night of April 30, the Trump administration elected to delay the imposition of excise taxes on aluminum and steel imported to America from China, Mexico, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Australia, and the European Union. Those tariffs were set to take effect on May 1, but they are now on hold until at least June 1.2

Consumer spending was strong in March, according to the Department of Commerce. Households devoted 0.4% more of their incomes to consumer purchases than they did in February (and household incomes rose 0.3%). Retail sales picked up 0.6% in March, quite a change from the 0.1% decline in February. The Bureau of Economic Analysis released its first estimate of first quarter GDP in late April: 2.3%.3

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Weekly Economic Update for 4/30/2018

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MAIN STREET SUSTAINS ITS OPTIMISM

America’s two most respected consumer confidence indices just improved. The University of Michigan’s final April household sentiment gauge rose a full point from its initial reading to 98.8 last week, and the Conference Board’s index came in at a great 128.7 for April – 1.7 points higher than its March mark.1

HOW FAST DID THE ECONOMY GROW IN Q1?

According to the Department of Commerce, the annualized pace of growth was 2.3%. That beat the 2.0% consensus forecast from MarketWatch. The Federal Reserve believes the economy will expand 2.7% this year.1,2

SPRING BRINGS THE HOME BUYERS OUT

The National Association of Realtors says that existing home sales rose 1.1% in March; the median sale price was $250,400, 5.8% higher than last year. Census Bureau data shows a 4.0% advance for new home buying last month.3

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Using a Roth IRA as a College Savings Tool

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At first glance, a Roth IRA might seem an unusual college savings vehicle. Upon further examination, it may look like a particularly smart choice.

A Roth IRA allows you to save for college without the constraints of a college fund. This is an important distinction, because you cannot predict everything about your child’s educational future. What if you contribute to a 529 plan or a Coverdell ESA and then your child decides not to go to college? Or, what if you save for years through one of these plans with the goal of paying tuition at an elite school and then a great university steps forward to offer your child a major scholarship or a full ride?

If you take funds out of a Coverdell ESA or 529 college savings plan and use them for anything but qualified education expenses, an income tax bill will result, plus a 10% Internal Revenue Service penalty on account earnings. (The 10% penalty is waived for 529 plan beneficiaries who get scholarships.)1,2

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Set Goals as You Save and Invest

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Goals give you focus. To find and establish your investing and saving goals, first ask yourself what you want to accomplish. Do you want to build an emergency fund? Build college savings for your child? Have a large retirement fund by age 60? Once you have a defined motivation, a monetary goal can arise.

It can be easier to dedicate yourself to a goal rather than a hope or a wish. That level of dedication is important, as saving and investing usually comes with a degree of personal sacrifice. When you dedicate yourself to a saving/investing goal, some positive financial “side effects” may occur.

A goal encourages you to save consistently. If you are saving and investing to reach a specific dollar figure, you likely also have a date for reaching it in mind. Pair a date with a saving or investing goal, and you have a time horizon, a self-imposed deadline, and you can start to see how you need to save or invest to try and achieve your goal, and what kind of savings or investments to put to work on your behalf.

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Adjusting Your Portfolio as You Age

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If you are an experienced investor, you have probably fine-tuned your portfolio through the years in response to market cycles or in pursuit of a better return. As you approach or enter retirement, is another adjustment necessary?

Some investors may think they can approach retirement without looking at their portfolios. Their investment allocations may be little changed from what they were 10 or 15 years ago. Because of that inattention (and this long bull market), their invested assets may be exposed to more risk than they would like.

Rebalancing your portfolio with your time horizon in mind is only practical. Consider the nature of equity investments: they lose or gain value according to the market climate, which at times may be fear driven. The larger your equities position, the larger your losses could be in a bear market or market disruption. If this kind of calamity happens when you are newly retired or two or three years away from retiring, your portfolio could be hit hard if you are holding too much stock. What if it takes you several years to recoup your losses? Would those losses force you to compromise your retirement dreams? 

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Weekly Economic Update for 4/23/2018

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CONSUMERS BOUGHT MORE IN MARCH

According to a report from the Department of Commerce, retail sales jumped 0.6% last month. That was the biggest monthly gain recorded since November (and the first monthly advance of 2018). Sales of cars and trucks were up 2.0%, making March the best month for that category since September.1

CONSTRUCTION ACTIVITY INCREASES

New Census Bureau data shows housing starts improved 1.9% in March; also, building permits rose 2.5%. In February, permits fell 4.1% and starts declined 3.3%.2

INDUSTRIAL OUTPUT RISES 0.5%

This March gain reported by the Federal Reserve followed a (revised) 1.0% advance for February. Industrial production was up 4.3% year-over-year through March.2

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Financing a College Education

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A university education can often require financing and assuming debt. If your student fills out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and does not qualify for a Pell Grant or other kinds of help, and has no scholarship offers, what do you do? You probably search for a student loan.

A federal loan may make much more sense than a private loan. Federal student loans tend to offer kinder repayment terms and lower interest rates than private loans, so for many students, they are a clear first choice. The interest rate on a standard federal direct loan is 4.45%. Subsidized direct loans, which undergraduates who demonstrate financial need can arrange, have no interest so long as the student maintains at least half-time college enrollment.1,2

Still, federal loans have borrowing limits, and those limits may seem too low. A freshman receiving financial support from parents may only borrow up to $5,500 via a federal student loan, and an undergrad getting no financial assistance may be lent a maximum of $57,500 before receiving a bachelor’s degree. (That ceiling falls to $23,000 for subsidized direct loans.) So, some families take out private loans as supplements to federal loans, even though it is hard to alter payment terms of private loans in a financial pinch.1,2

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The Saver's Credit

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Do you work part-time, or earn less than $65,000 a year? If so, you might be eligible to fully or partly claim the Saver’s Credit – a federal tax credit that gives part-time, low-income, and moderate-income workers an extra incentive to make retirement account contributions.1

Unlike a deduction (which simply exempts a portion of your income from being taxed), a credit lets you lower your tax liability, dollar-for-dollar. A $1,000 federal tax credit, for example, saves you $1,000 in federal taxes.2

The maximum possible Saver’s Credit that a household can claim for a year is $2,000. If you contribute to an IRA, a 403(b) or 401(k), a governmental 457(b) plan, a 501(c)(18) plan, or a SIMPLE IRA or SARSEP, you might be able to take this credit.1,3

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Weekly Economic Update for 4/16/2018

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CONSUMER SENTIMENT INDEX DESCENDS SLIGHTLY

In its initial April edition, the University of Michigan’s survey of household sentiment saw its index decline to 97.8 from its final March reading of 101.4. The survey’s chief economist, Richard Curtin, believed that “uncertainty surrounding the evolving [U.S.] trade policy” affected the reading, but he added that “confidence still remains relatively high.”1

A SURPRISE RETREAT FOR THE HEADLINE CPI

Economists polled by Briefing.com assumed the Consumer Price Index would rise 0.1% in March. Instead, it fell by that amount, largely due to a dip in gasoline costs. Core consumer inflation increased 0.2% and matched their expectations. Looking at the big picture, the Department of Labor said that consumer prices were up 2.4% year-over-year through March.2,3

OIL SOARS AS POSSIBILITY OF SYRIA STRIKE LOOMS

Light sweet crude rose 8.6% in five days on the NYMEX, breaking a 2-week losing streak and settling at $67.39 Friday. That was oil’s best close since December 2014.4

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The Major 2018 Federal Tax Changes

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The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act made dramatic changes to federal tax law. It is worth reviewing some of these changes as 2019 approaches and households and businesses refine their income tax strategies.

Income tax brackets have changed. The old 10%, 15%, 25%, 28%, 33%, 35%, and 39.6% brackets have been restructured to 10%, 12%, 22%, 24%, 32%, 35%, and 37%. These new percentages are slated to apply through 2025. Here are the thresholds for these brackets in 2018.1,2

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Facts About Refinancing

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In the first quarter of 2018, the refinance share of home loan applications in the U.S. fell to 40%, the lowest in ten years. Higher mortgage rates had reduced demand for refis.1

Still, the refi is not exactly dead. If you have good credit, you may be considering refinancing yourself, for one or more reasons. Perhaps you want to shorten the term of your home loan. Maybe you have an adjustable-rate mortgage now and want to refi into a fixed rate. Or, maybe you want to tap into home equity or consolidate debt. Whatever your reason(s), you must weigh two questions. One, how long do you want to stay in your home? Two, how much money will you really save?

Refinances break down into three types: rate-and-term, cash-out, and cash-in. Rate-and-term refis simply adjust the term and/or the interest rate of your existing loan. Even though interest rates are rising now, they still make up the bulk of refinances. This kind of refi could permit you to walk away from closing with as much as $2,000 in cash. The no-cash-out variety adds closing costs to the loan balance, relieving you from having to pay those costs out of pocket.2

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TSP Withdrawal Options Are Changing

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By 2020, federal employees with Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) accounts should have new withdrawal choices for their invested assets. New rules are scheduled to be implemented through the TSP Modernization Act, permitting TSP participants more flexibility.1

The TSP withdrawal rules have been strict for many years. Too strict, in the opinion of many – especially compared to the private-sector workplace retirement plans the TSP takes after. Once a federal worker makes a partial withdrawal, he or she is locked into three choices. Choice one is converting the remaining balance to a life annuity (which the federal worker must buy and which is not the same as a TSP monthly payment or the annuity the federal employee gets with a retirement package). Choice two is cashing out the remaining TSP balance. Choice three is arranging a sequence of monthly payments that may be altered only once a year.2,3

Moreover, if a federal worker makes an age-based withdrawal from the TSP while still employed by the federal government, that worker loses the ability to make partial withdrawals after retiring. As for retirees who avoid age-based withdrawals, they can make one partial withdrawal once retired under the current rules, but are subsequently left with full withdrawal options.4

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Avoid These Life Insurance Missteps

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Are you about to buy life insurance? Shop carefully. Make your choice with insight from an insurance professional, as it may help you avoid some of these all-too-common missteps.

Buying the first policy you see. Anyone interested in life insurance should take the time to compare a few plans – not only their rates, but also their coverage terms. Supply each insurer you are considering with a quote containing the exact same information about yourself.1

Buying only on price. Inexpensive life insurance is not necessarily great life insurance. If your household budget prompts you to shop for a bargain, be careful – you could end up buying less coverage than your household really needs.1

Buying a term policy when a permanent one might be better (and vice versa). A term policy (which essentially offers life insurance coverage for 5-30 years) may make sense if you just want to address some basic insurance needs. If you see life insurance as a potential estate planning tool or a vehicle for building wealth over time, a permanent life policy might suit those ambitions.1

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Retirement In Sight for April, 2018

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What That First Year of Retirement May Teach You

When any plan is followed through, there are lessons to be learned, refinements to be made. That certainly holds true for retirement plans. The initial year of retirement may prompt you to revise your monthly budget, your investment approach, and your lifestyle expectations. In fact, a shift in the investment markets might lead to revisions in all three areas.

In addition, you will want to track real-world spending and see how it corresponds to your initial estimate. (Review your monthly bank statements over the past year.) If taxes on your Social Security income or IRA distributions have surprised you, then perhaps an adjustment to your tax management strategy is warranted. After all, half of Social Security benefits are exposed to income tax when your “combined income” tops $25,000 as a single filer or $32,000 as a joint filer. (Your “combined income” for a year = adjusted gross income + non-taxable interest income + 50% of Social Security benefits.) If you gifted thousands of dollars to a child or grandchild last year, you may not want to do that again. In sum, this is why you want to meet with a financial professional each year in retirement. Year to year, your financial situation will change, and your retirement plan must respond.1

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Weekly Economic Update for 4/9/2018

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HIRING WEAKENED IN MARCH

Payrolls expanded by only 103,000 net new jobs last month, according to the latest employment report from the Department of Labor. Some economists wondered if harsh weather distorted the number (job growth was also poor in March 2015 and March 2017). The main jobless rate stayed at 4.1%; the broader U-6 rate, counting the underemployed, fell 0.2% to 8.0%, an 11-year low. Yearly wage growth was at 2.7%. Lastly, February’s huge net job gain was revised up by 13,000 to 326,000.1

TRADE TENSIONS PERSIST

Thursday night, the Trump administration announced the possibility of $100 billion of additional tariffs on Chinese imports. In response, the Chinese government issued a statement saying it would “fight back firmly.” Earlier on Thursday, China had presented a list of U.S. goods that could face up to $50 billion in future excise taxes in that nation. Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin told the media Friday afternoon that U.S. and Chinese officials are both pursuing a resolution to the tariffs battle, stating: “We’re absolutely willing to negotiate.”2

ISM INDICES: ANOTHER IMPRESSIVE MONTH

The Institute for Supply Management’s two closely watched purchasing manager indices were lower in March, but their readings still indicated burgeoning U.S. service and factory sectors. ISM’s service sector PMI declined 0.7 points to a mark of 58.8, while its manufacturing industry PMI settled 1.5 points lower at 59.3.3

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Smart Financial Steps After College

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Did you recently graduate from college? The years after graduation are crucial not only for getting a career underway, but also for planning financial progress. Consider making these money moves before you reach thirty.

Direct a bit of your pay into an emergency fund. Just a little cash per paycheck. Gradually build a cash savings account that can come in handy in a pinch.

Speaking of emergencies, remember health insurance. Without health coverage, an accident, injury, or illness represents a financial problem as well as a physical one. Insurance is your way of managing that financial risk. A grace period does come into play here. If your employer does not sponsor a health plan, remember that you can stay on the health insurance policy of your parents until age 26. (In some states, insurers will let you do that until age 29 or 31.) If you are in good health, a bronze or silver plan may be a good option.1,2

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Monthly Economic Update for April, 2018

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THE MONTH IN BRIEF
In March, stocks faced another significant challenge. The Trump administration’s sudden plan to institute tariffs on imports sent a shudder through the bulls. All three major Wall Street benchmarks fell more than 2.5% during the month as investors around the world considered the prospect of trade wars involving American, Chinese, and European products. The Federal Reserve raised the target range for the federal funds rate by another quarter point; mortgage rates were little changed for the month, and existing home sales improved. In Europe, leaders agreed on how the Brexit would unfold. The value of bitcoin declined, while gasoline and oil futures rallied. All in all, it was an eventful and volatile month for the economy and the markets.1

DOMESTIC ECONOMIC HEALTH 
As March began, President Trump announced that the U.S. would soon impose tariffs of 25% on imported steel and 10% on imported aluminum. Those excise taxes were authorized before the month ended; some nations (including Canada and Mexico) received short-term exemptions from them. Another set of tariffs, about $60 billion annually, were envisioned for various Chinese imports. This last action prompted a direct reaction in China (see “Global Economic Health” below).2,3

The nation’s central bank lifted the benchmark interest rate slightly. Making its sixth, quarter-point hike in less than a year and a half, the Federal Reserve increased the target range on the federal funds rate to 1.50-1.75%. The dot-plot representing the consensus forecast of Fed policymakers still showed a total of three rate hikes for 2018. (Three hikes are also projected for 2019.)4

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Quarterly Economic Update for Q1, 2018

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THE QUARTER IN BRIEF
Stocks rallied in January, corrected in February, and slumped in March as volatility and economic policy changes took some of the enthusiasm out of the market. The Trump administration announced tariffs on foreign steel, aluminum, and assorted products from China; China soon said that it would reciprocate with excise taxes of its own. The Federal Reserve adjusted the federal funds rate upward and welcomed a new chair; the White House appointed a new chief economic advisor. An orderly process was outlined for the Brexit. The Nasdaq Composite advanced for the first quarter, but the Dow 30 and S&P 500 did not; most major Asian and European benchmarks also retreated. Among commodities, bitcoin declined notably, while oil and gold improved. The placid market climate of 2017 vanished, giving way to trading sessions marked by significant ups and downs.1

DOMESTIC ECONOMIC HEALTH
A protectionist trade strategy emerged from the nation’s capital in March. The Trump administration declared that a 25% tariff would be instituted on imported steel and a 10% tariff on imported aluminum. Some countries were given short-term exemptions from these excise taxes: Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Mexico, South Korea, and members of the European Union. Additionally, up to $60 billion in Chinese imports would soon face excise taxes. China retaliated at the end of the quarter, imposing import charges of either 15% or 25% on 128 U.S. products, including pork and fruits.2

Elsewhere in Washington, the Janet Yellen era gave way to the Jerome Powell era at the Federal Reserve. Weeks after Powell took over as Fed chair, the central bank made its first interest rate adjustment of the year, a 0.25% hike that set the target range for the federal funds rate at 1.50%-1.75%. The Fed’s updated dot-plot forecast, reflecting the consensus opinion of its policymakers, projected two more hikes this year: three in 2019 and two in 2020. All that would leave the benchmark interest rate around 3.4%, according to the dot-plot. The Trump administration hired former Reagan administration official and CNBC commentator Larry Kudlow as its new chief economic advisor, following the resignation of Gary Cohn.3,4

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Weekly Economic Update for 4/2/2018

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HAS CONSUMER SPENDING MAINTAINED ITS PACE?

A new Department of Commerce report states that consumer spending rose 0.2% in February as consumer incomes improved 0.4%. These numbers replicated January’s gains. Even so, the personal savings rate hit a 6-month peak of 3.4% in February, suggesting that spending may have leveled off in the first quarter. Newly revised data shows that the economy was very healthy in the fourth quarter. Real consumer spending (personal spending adjusted for inflation) increased 4.0% while Gross domestic product expanded at a 2.9% annual rate. (The previous Q4 GDP estimate was 2.5%.)1,2

STILL PLENTY OF OPTIMISM ON MAIN STREET

Last week, the Conference Board announced a reading of 127.7 for the latest edition of its monthly consumer confidence index, not far from the outstanding mark of 130.0 it reached in February. The University of Michigan’s consumer sentiment index also fell slightly, declining to a final, impressive March mark of 101.4 from its preliminary reading of 102.0.2

PENDING HOME SALES INDEX POSTS A GAIN

The National Association of Realtors said that its gauge of housing contract activity rose 3.1% for February, even with seeming obstacles like a thin inventory of existing homes on the market and a scarcity of affordable properties. Pending sales were still down 4.1% year-over-year.3

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Why Life Insurance Matters for New Homeowners

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If you buy a home and you have no life insurance, there is a financial risk. It may not be immediately evident, but it must be acknowledged – and it should be addressed.  

What if you die, and your spouse or partner is left to pay off the mortgage alone? This possibility may seem remote, and it may be hard for you to contemplate. It deserves consideration regardless.

Imagine your loved one having to handle that 15-year or 30-year debt by themselves. (Or the debt on an adjustable-rate loan or jumbo mortgage.) Additionally, how would that heavy financial burden come to impact your children’s lives? These tragedies do occur and do bring these kinds of emotional and financial challenges. A life insurance payout may provide some help for a homeowner in the event of such a crisis.

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Weekly Economic Update for 3/26/2018

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TRADE WAR POSSIBILITY WEIGHS ON STOCKS

Last week, the U.S. imposed excise taxes on steel and aluminum imported from select countries and announced that up to $60 billion of Chinese imports would also soon face tariffs. These protectionist moves weakened bullish sentiment on Wall Street. The S&P 500 fell steadily Thursday and Friday and had its worst week since 2016, slipping 5.95% to 2,588.26; the Dow Industrials sank 5.67% on the week to 23,533.20. The Nasdaq Composite settled at 6,992.67, down 6.54% for the week.1,2

FED MAKES ITS FIRST INTEREST RATE MOVE OF 2018

After Federal Reserve officials voted to increase the target range on the federal funds rate by 0.25% to the 1.50-1.75% level Thursday, their dot-plot forecast showed no change in the pace of tightening planned for this year. Three hikes are projected for 2019 and two more in 2020. In succession, the increases envisioned for 2018-20 could leave rates near 3.4% by the final quarter of 2020.3

EXISTING HOME SALES INCREASE

New National Association of Realtors data shows that the sales pace improved 3.0% in February. That left resales 1.1% higher, year-over-year. The same cannot be said for new home purchases: they fell 0.6% last month according to the Census Bureau, leaving the seasonally adjusted annual sales rate at its weakest level since October.4,5

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The Medical Expense Deduction in 2018

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If you itemize, you should note the reduced medical deduction threshold for 2018. This year, you can deduct qualified medical expenses exceeding 7.5% of your adjusted gross income. Next year, the threshold for the medical expense deduction returns to 10% of AGI. (The Tax Cuts & Jobs Act of 2018 also allowed the 7.5% threshold to apply retroactively to the 2017 tax year.)1

So, if you are considering surgery or dental work in the future that could mean sizable out-of-pocket expenses for you, it might be better from a tax standpoint to schedule these procedures for 2018 instead of 2019.

What kinds of unreimbursed expenses qualify for the deduction? The list is long. For a start, the Internal Revenue Service says these types of expenses may qualify as tax deductible: out-of-pocket fees to medical and dental professionals, psychiatrists and psychologists, and certain nontraditional medical practitioners; money spent to participate in a weight-loss program in response to a doctor-diagnosed condition or disease; payments for prescription drugs and insulin; payments for smoking cessation programs and prescription drugs to facilitate nicotine withdrawal; money spent on inpatient treatment or acupuncture at a rehab facility; and, money spent on inpatient hospital care or residential nursing home care.1,2

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Tax Efficiency in Retirement

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Will you pay higher taxes in retirement? Do you have a lot of money in a 401(k) or a traditional IRA? If so, you may receive significant retirement income. Those income distributions, however, will be taxed at the usual rate. If you have saved and invested well, you may end up retiring at your current marginal tax rate or even a higher one. The jump in income alone resulting from a Required Minimum Distribution could push you into a higher tax bracket.         

While retirees with lower incomes may rely on Social Security as their prime income source, they may pay comparatively less income tax than you will in retirement – because up to half of their Social Security benefits won’t be counted as taxable income.1

Given these possibilities, affluent investors might do well to study the tax efficiency of their portfolios; not all investments will prove to be tax-efficient. Both pre-tax and after-tax investments have potential advantages.

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Retirement Plans for Individuals & Businesses

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Households are saving too little for the future. According to one new analysis, 41% of Gen Xers and 42% of baby boomers have yet to begin saving for retirement. In a recent financial industry survey, 35% of small business owners said they were planning to use the sale proceeds from their company for a retirement fund, an idea which comes with a flashing question mark.1,2

Do you need to build retirement savings? Take a look at these retirement plans:

SEP-IRA: low fees, easy to implement and maintain. These plans cover sole proprietors and their workers with no setup fees or yearly administration charges. Your business makes all the contributions with tax-deductible dollars. The amount of the contribution your company can deduct is the lesser of your contributions or 25% of an employee’s compensation. You can even skip contributions in a lean year.3,4

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Did You Receive a Corrected Form 1098?

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Recently, you may have received a corrected Internal Revenue Service Form 1098 from your mortgage lender. The correction probably spells good news for you.

When the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 became law in February, certain tax provisions that expired at the end of 2016 were retroactively renewed for the 2017 tax year. Among them: the tax break that allows homeowners to write off mortgage insurance premiums, or MIP.1

You may be able to deduct MIP once more and save hundreds of dollars. If you are carrying a $200,000 home loan and you are in the 25% income tax bracket, you could save about $425 in federal taxes, thanks to the comeback of this deduction. You might even be able to deduct prepaid mortgage interest and points – check with a tax professional to see.1,2

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Are Entertainment Expenses Still Deductible?

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You may have heard that the Tax Cuts & Jobs Act eliminated nearly all possibilities to write off business entertainment expenses. That is not quite true. You may be able to claim a deduction for such expenses today, but it depends on who you are entertaining. Regardless of who you happen to entertain, you will want to confer with your CPA and consider some fine print.1

Firms can no longer deduct expenses linked to entertaining clients and prospects. In past years, you could write off 50% of those costs.1

Meals are a gray area. If you talk business with a current or prospective client over breakfast, lunch, or dinner, is the cost of the meal still 50% deductible? Good question. As spring starts, accountants are awaiting guidance on this matter from the Internal Revenue Service. For now, firms should presume that meals centered around business conversations are still 50% deductible and keep receipts accordingly.1

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Weekly Economic Update for 3/19/2018

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PRICE GAINS EASE

There was no half-percent spike in inflation in February. In contrast to January’s big jump, the headline Consumer Price Index rose 0.2% in the second month of 2018, with the core CPI following suit; the year-over-year CPI gain ticked slightly higher to 2.2%. The headline and core Producer Price Index also increased 0.2% last month; yearly wholesale inflation rose just 0.1% to 2.8%.1

THE CONSUMER IS CONFIDENT

Displaying a preliminary March reading of 102.0, the University of Michigan’s consumer sentiment index reached a 14-year peak last week. Analysts polled by Reuters expected the gauge to decline 0.6 points to 99.3. As for consumer habits, the Department of Commerce just noted a 0.1% retreat for retail sales in February; sales advanced 0.3% with gas and auto buying factored out.1,2

RESIDENTIAL CONSTRUCTION FLAGS

Overall housing starts fell 7.0% last month, according to the Census Bureau. The silver lining: groundbreaking on single-family projects increased 2.9%. Building permits decreased 5.7%.3

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What Should You Keep?

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Fewer taxpayers are itemizing in the wake of federal tax reforms. You may be one of them, and you may be wondering how many receipts, forms, and records you need to hold onto for the future. Is it okay to shred more of them? Maybe not.

The Internal Revenue Service has not changed its viewpoint. It still wants you to keep a copy of this year’s 1040 form (and the supporting documents) for at least three years. If you somehow fail to report some income, or file a claim for a loss related to worthless securities or bad debt deduction, make that six years or longer. (It also wants you to keep employment tax records for at least four years.)1

Insurers or creditors may want you to keep records around longer than the I.R.S. recommends – especially if they concern property transactions. For the record, the I.R.S. advises you to keep documents linked to a property acquisition until the year when you sell the property, so you can do the math necessary to figure capital gains or losses and depreciation, amortization, and depletion deductions.1

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Will Giving Decline?

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Charities are wondering if they will lose out on millions this year. The federal tax deduction for charitable contributions has disappeared because of the recent tax reforms.

The standard federal income tax deduction is now $12,000 – make that $24,000 for a married couple filing jointly. (The amounts rise to $13,600 for a single taxpayer 65 or older and $26,600 for joint filers 65 and older.) With these huge standard deductions, middle-class households now have far less incentive to itemize. If they elect not to itemize, there will be no tax advantage in making a charitable gift – unless that gift is large enough to send their total itemized deductions north of these respective thresholds.1

Charities and non-profit organizations are justifiably worried about this. Their biggest donors – corporations, long-established private foundations, and federal and state grant agencies – may sustain or even boost their level of giving in view of the 2018 tax reforms. Individual donors, on the other hand, may lose motivation. Given the choice between below-the-line deductions and the standard deduction, the standard deduction could easily win out.2

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Retirement In Sight for March, 2018

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What Will $50,000 Be Worth in 25 Years?

If you are on the verge of retiring, this question is well worth asking. You cannot know what the exact answer will be; you can, however, anticipate that it will be worth less. Inflation will exact a slow, but significant, toll on your retirement savings. Historically, consumer prices have risen about 2-3% per year. Your retirement fund should be growing at least that much annually; if not, your income and savings could effectively remain at current levels, while the goods and services you rely on grow more expensive. This implies a compromise to your lifestyle.

The lesson here is that you may be taking a risk if you turn away from equity investments – the risk of losing purchasing power. While the market’s ups and downs can be pronounced, the growth potential of stocks and other equity investments remains strong through market cycles. You also need to account for inflation as you save for retirement – you may need to save more than you think to help counteract inflation’s effect. If inflation hypothetically stays at just 2% a year for the next 25 years, today’s $50,000 in cash will buy the equivalent of $30,476 worth of goods and services in 2043.1

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Weekly Economic Update for 3/12/2018

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FEBRUARY SAW A HIRING SURGE

Payroll growth was truly impressive last month. According to the latest Department of Labor report, employers added 313,000 net new jobs, including 61,000 in the construction industry; economists polled by Reuters projected a total February gain of 200,000. With the labor force participation rate reaching a 6-month high, the headline jobless rate stayed at 4.1% and the broader U-6 rate at 8.2%. Yearly wage growth declined to 2.6%.1

SERVICE BUSINESSES ARE THRIVING

The Institute for Supply Management’s February snapshot of service industry growth was quite positive. ISM’s non-manufacturing purchasing manager index did wane slightly, losing 0.4 points to 59.5, but the reading shows a very healthy service sector. January’s 59.9 mark was the best seen since August 2005.2

WTI CRUDE TOPS $62

As Wall Street’s closing bell sounded Friday, oil settled at $62.04. A 3% Friday gain left the commodity up for the week, even after the Energy Information Agency said that daily U.S. output had increased to nearly 10.4 million barrels, a record.3

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Catching Up on Retirement Saving

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Do you fear you are saving for retirement too late? Plan to address that anxiety with some positive financial moves. If you have little saved for retirement at age 50 (or thereabouts), there is still much you can do to generate a fund for your future and to sustain your retirement prospects.

Contribute and play catch-up. This year’s standard contribution limit for an IRA (Roth or traditional) is $5,500; common employer-sponsored retirement plans have a 2018 contribution limit of $18,500. You should try, if at all possible, to meet those limits. In fact, starting in the year you turn 50, you have a chance to contribute even more: for you, the ceiling for annual IRA contributions is $6,500; the limit on yearly contributions to workplace retirement plans, $24,500.1

Look for low-fee options. Lower fees on your retirement savings accounts mean less of your invested assets going to management expenses. An account returning 6% per year over 25 years with an annual expense ratio of 0.5% could leave you with $30,000 more in savings than an account under similar conditions and time frame charging a 2.0% annual fee.2

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How Retirement Spending Changes With Time

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New retirees sometimes worry that they are spending too much, too soon. Should they scale back? Are they at risk of outliving their money? 

This concern is legitimate. Many households “live it up” and spend more than they anticipate as retirement starts to unfold. In ten or twenty years, though, they may not spend nearly as much.1

The initial stage of retirement can be expensive. Looking at mere data, it may not seem that way. The most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics figures show average spending of $60,076 per year for households headed by Americans age 55-64 and mean spending of just $45,221 for households headed by people age 65 and older.1,2

Affluent retirees, however, are often “above average” in regard to retirement savings and retirement ambitions. Sixty-five is now late-middle age, and today’s well-to-do 65-year-olds are ready, willing, and able to travel and have adventures. Since they no longer work full time, they may no longer contribute to workplace retirement plans. Their commuting costs are gone, and perhaps they are in a lower tax bracket as well. They may be tempted to direct some of the money they would otherwise spend into leisure and hobby pursuits. It may shock them to find that they have withdrawn 6-7% of their savings in the first year of retirement rather than 3-4%.

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2018 Retirement Account Limits

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In 2018, you have another chance to max out your retirement accounts. Here is a rundown of yearly contribution limits for the popular retirement savings vehicles.

IRAs. The 2018 limits are the same as in 2016: $5,500 for IRA owners who will be 49 and younger this year and $6,500 for IRA owners who will be 50 or older this year. These limits apply to both Roth and traditional IRAs.1

What if you own multiple IRAs? This $5,500/$6,500 limit applies to your total IRA contributions for a calendar year. So, for example, should you happen to have five IRAs, you could make an equal contribution of $1,100 (or $1,300) to each of them in 2017 or unequal contributions to them not exceeding the applicable $5,500/$6,500 limit.2

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Are Your Beneficiary Designations Up To Date?

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Here’s a simple financial question: who is the beneficiary of your IRA? How about your 401(k) or annuity? You may be saying, “I’m not sure.” It is smart to periodically review your beneficiary designations.

Your choices may need to change with the times. When did you open your first IRA? When did you buy your life insurance policy? Was it back in the Nineties? Are you still living in the same home and working at the same job as you did back then? Have your priorities changed?

While your beneficiary choices may seem obvious and rock-solid when you initially make them, time has a way of altering things. In a stretch of five or ten years, some major changes can occur in your life and may warrant changes in your beneficiary decisions.

In fact, you might want to review them annually. Here’s why: companies frequently change custodians when it comes to retirement plans and insurance policies. When a new custodian comes on board, a beneficiary designation can get lost in the paper shuffle. (It has happened.) If you don’t have a designated beneficiary on your retirement accounts, those assets may go to the “default” beneficiaries when you pass away, which might throw a wrench into your estate planning. An example: under ERISA, your spouse receives your 401(k) assets if you pass away. Your spouse must waive that privilege in writing for those assets to go to your children instead.1

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Monthly Economic Update for March, 2018

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THE MONTH IN BRIEF
Investors certainly received a wake-up call in February. A correction hit Wall Street for the first time in nearly two years, and benchmarks overseas were also challenged. Two weeks later, though, the S&P 500 had gained back more than half of what it had lost in the dive. Prices of important commodities sank early in the month, but recoveries followed. While the latest readings on fundamental indicators were largely upbeat, reports on retail sales and home sales disappointed. As the Jerome Powell era began at the Federal Reserve, investors wondered if four rate hikes would occur this year rather than the three the central bank had envisioned, given inflation pressure.1

DOMESTIC ECONOMIC HEALTH 
While the rollercoaster ride taken by equities dominated the news stream last month, inflation was also a hot topic. According to the Department of Labor, the Consumer Price Index advanced 0.5% in January, leaving annualized inflation at 2.1%. The monthly number was the concern: the half-percent gain represented the largest single-month inflation jump in a year. The core CPI rose 0.3% in a month, which it had not done in nearly 13 years. Producer prices climbed 0.4% in January, with their year-over-year increase at 2.2%. Did the January numbers amount to an aberration, or was inflation pressure now stronger than it had been in some time? February’s data, due in mid-March, may shed further light on the matter.2,3

The Conference Board’s monthly barometer climbed another 6.5 points to a remarkable reading of 130.8. Also rising, the University of Michigan’s consumer sentiment index posted a mark of 99.9 during February; it had been at 95.7 when January ended. Consumer spending advanced 0.2%, and consumer income, 0.4%, in the opening month of 2018; retail sales, on the other hand, weakened 0.3%. The federal government’s final estimate of Q4 growth also came in at the end of the month: 2.5%.3

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Weekly Economic Update for 3/5/2018

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CB: PLENTY OF CONFIDENCE IN THE ECONOMY

The Conference Board’s monthly consumer confidence index soared to 130.8 in February – the highest reading seen since November 2000. In January, the gauge was at 124.3. (In the middle of the Great Recession, the index hovered near 25.)1

SOLID READINGS ON SOME KEY INDICATORS

Further fundamental economic data released last week looked strong. Personal incomes improved 0.4% in January, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis; that matched the December increase. Personal spending advanced 0.2% last month. The Institute for Supply Management’s manufacturing purchasing manager index reached 60.8 in February, up 1.7 points from its impressive January level. Lastly, the BEA made its third, concluding estimate of Q4 GDP last week: 2.5%.2

NEW HOME SALES RETREATED 7.8% IN JANUARY

This decline occurred even as new home inventory reached a 9-year high. With mortgage rates reaching 4.4% and the median new home price up 2.5% in a month to $323,000, prospective buyers were deterred. The Census Bureau says the rate of new home purchases was down 1.0% year-over-year through January.3

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Why You Want a Retirement Plan in Writing

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Many people save and invest vaguely for the future. They know they need to accumulate money for retirement, but when it comes to how much they will need or how they will do it, they are not quite sure. They will “wing it,” hope for the best, and see how it goes. How do they know they are really contributing enough to their retirement accounts? Would they feel less anxious about the future if they had a written plan? 

Make no mistake, a written retirement plan sharpens your focus. It can refine dreams into goals and express a strategy to pursue them. According to a Charles Schwab study, just 24% of Americans plan their financial futures according to a written strategy. Here is why you should join their ranks, if you are not yet among them.1,2

You can figure out the “when” of retirement planning. When do you think you will retire and start drawing income from your taxable and tax-advantaged accounts? At what age do you anticipate you will start to collect Social Security? How long do you think you will live? No, you cannot precisely know the answers to these questions at this point – but you can make reasonable assumptions. Your assumptions may be altered, it is true – but a good retirement plan is an evolving document, one that can be revised with changing times.

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Less SALT for Taxpayers to Subtract

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Have you routinely itemized your federal tax deductions? In 2018, you may decide to take the standard deduction instead. One possible reason: the new limit on state and local tax deductions set by the federal government.

The SALT deduction is now capped at $10,000. The standard deduction is now $12,000 ($24,000 for a married couple). So, your incentive to take the SALT deduction might be gone. Even if you live in a wealthy suburban area, a high-tax state, or a state that charges no income tax, you might not see any point in claiming it. The Tax Policy Center estimates that 3.5 million households will quit itemizing in 2018 simply because of this one revision to the Internal Revenue Code.1,2

High-earning households have usually claimed SALT deductions. Research from the TPC’s Briefing Book shows that 93% of households earning $200,000-$500,000 took the deduction in 2014. In fact, more than 40% of taxpayers in Connecticut, Maryland, and New Jersey made use of the tax break that year. In 2015, the average SALT deduction for taxpayers in California and New Jersey was around $18,000; in New York, it topped $22,000.1,3

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Weekly Economic Update for 2/26/2018

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FEWER HOMES ARE SELLING

Demand is high, prices are high, and inventory is slim. In view of these factors, the 4.8% year-over-year fall for existing home sales just reported by the National Association of Realtors is not surprising. It represents the largest annual decline seen since August 2014. Other January NAR data showed homebuying down 3.2% from December levels and a median sale price of $240,500, up 5.8% in 12 months.1

FED MINUTES EMPHASIZE THE “GRADUAL”

Minutes from the January Federal Open Market Committee meeting appeared Wednesday, and while FOMC members saw “substantial underlying economic momentum,” they also stated that “gradual policy firming would be appropriate.” To many investors and economists, that hinted at a March rate increase. The CME Group’s FedWatch tool puts the odds of a quarter-point March move at 83.1%.2,3

OIL ADVANCES FOR A SECOND STRAIGHT WEEK

A 1.2% Friday climb left WTI crude 3.3% higher than it had been seven days earlier on the NYMEX. Oil settled at $63.55 a barrel Friday, still down 1.8% for February.4

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The Value of a Stop-Loss Strategy

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What is a stop-loss strategy, and how can it potentially aid an investor? Savvy investors use stop-loss orders as a kind of “insurance” against stock market losses. Simply explained, a stop-loss order is an order you give to a brokerage to sell a stock when the share price falls to a certain level.

A stop-loss strategy may be used to preserve gains and alleviate downside risk. Say you buy 10 shares at $60 a share, and eight months later the price is at $68 a share. You place a stop-loss order with your broker, telling your broker you want to sell if the share price dips to $66. One day, the share price falls to that level, and the stop-loss order becomes a market order authorizing a trade. If the market (or market sector) dives quickly, you may not be able to sell your shares for $66, but you will likely be able to sell them near that price.1 

You can also employ trailing stops as part of a stop-loss strategy. This can be useful with a growth stock. As an example, suppose you buy into a company at $20 a share, and two years later, the share price stands at $35 and seems poised to rise further. Is it time for profit-taking, or should you hang on to those shares a bit longer?

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Why You Should Have an Online Social Security Account

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Could your personal information soon be stolen? The possibility cannot be dismissed. Sensitive financial and medical data pertaining to your life may not be as safe as you think, and thieves may turn to a vast resource to try and mine it – the Social Security Administration.

Consider three facts, which in combination seem especially troubling. One, Social Security’s databases contain sensitive personal information on hundreds of millions of Americans, both living and dead. Two, more than 34 million Americans interact with the SSA online. Three, nearly 100% of Social Security benefits are disbursed electronically.1

The more you reflect on all this, the more you realize that cybercrooks could take advantage of you by creating a bogus online Social Security account in your name, in order to steal your benefits and/or your personal data.

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Wise Money Moves Young Women Can Make

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As a young woman, you have an opportunity to make some major financial strides. You truly have time on your side when it comes to investing, saving, and harnessing the power of compounding. Now is the time to pay yourself first and do those things that could make you wealthy in the future.

Your first move should be debt reduction. This frees up money for the other moves you can make and lessens the amount of money you pay to others, instead of yourself, each month.

Consider attacking your highest-interest debts first rather than your largest debts. If you have big credit card balances, high-interest car loans, or similar financial obligations, that borrowed money may be extremely expensive. Credit bureau Experian says that monthly household credit card balances in this country hover around $6,375. According to personal finance website NerdWallet, the average interest rate on a credit card right now is 14.87%, and the average U.S. household pays out $904 a year just in credit card interest. A constant debt of $6,000 is bad enough, but having to pay roughly another $1,000 a year just for the opportunity to borrow? That really hurts.1

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Weekly Economic Update for 2/19/2018

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INFLATION SUDDENLY INTENSIFIES

The Consumer Price Index rose 0.5% in January, its greatest month-over-month advance since January 2017. Core inflation (minus food and energy prices) increased 0.3%, marking the largest monthly gain in almost 13 years.1

RETAIL SALES PACE SLOWS

Contradicting perceptions that the economy might be overheating, retail purchases fell 0.3% in January. Minus car buying, retail sales would have been unchanged for a second straight month, as a Department of Commerce revision rendered the previously announced December gain flat.2

DEVELOPERS BUILT MORE IN JANUARY

Groundbreaking increased 9.7% last month, according to a Census Bureau report. The first month of the year also brought a 7.4% rise in building permits.3

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Good Reasons to Retire Later

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Are you in your fifties and unsure if you have enough retirement savings? Then you have two basic financial choices. You could start saving and investing more of your pay than you currently do, or you could work longer so you have fewer years of retirement to fund.

That second choice might be more manageable, and it may also work out better financially.

Research suggests that working longer might be a good way to address this shortfall. Last month, the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) published a paper on this very topic, and its conclusions are significant. The four economists writing the report maintain that when you reach your mid-sixties, staying on the job just one more year could help you greatly. Waiting a little longer to file for Social Security also becomes a plus.1

What was the most noteworthy finding? By the time you are 66, staying on the job just an additional three to six months will do as much for your standard of living in retirement as if you had contributed 1% more to your retirement plan for 30 years.1

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Retirement In Sight for February, 2018

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After 55, Double-Check Your Preparations for Retirement

When you enter your mid-fifties, your retirement plan enters its countdown phase. This is the time to examine key aspects of your retirement strategy.

As you near retirement age, you want to evaluate your risk exposure. If a market downturn leads to a couple of years of investment losses starting when you are 60, your portfolio may have only a few years (or less) to recover by the time you retire. It may be time to shift from your longtime investment approach to another. This is also the ideal time to crunch numbers with the help of a financial professional and determine how much you have saved, how much income you think you will need once retired, and how much income may be produced from those savings, Social Security, and optional part-time work. A projection of your income tax rate is also vital. Lastly, while you may not be able to enter retirement debt-free, you want to pay off as many high-interest debts as you can, or at least transfer balances on high-interest credit accounts to accounts with smaller interest charges. Recent Federal Reserve data shows that households headed by those aged 55-64 have average total debt of about $131,900.1

Should You Look at a Life Plan Community?

Affluent couples and individuals do not always have a chance to “age in place” near family caregivers and convenient medical services. Life plan communities have emerged to respond to that reality. About 2,000 of these developments can be found in North America, designed to help seniors age nicely in a resort-style environment.

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Weekly Economic Update for 2/12/2018

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WALL STREET SEES ITS FIRST CORRECTION SINCE 2016

On Friday, the S&P 500 settled at 2,619.55, down 5.16% for the week. Thursday, it entered correction territory just nine days after its January 26 record close. The Dow Jones Industrial Average made even bigger headlines last week by taking two 1,000-point drops within four days, the second occurring Thursday.1,2

Last Monday, U.S. equities took their largest single-session fall in more than six years as higher interest rates for bonds and inflation concerns strengthened selling pressure. To add to the anxiety, two of the financial industry’s top ‘roboadvisor’ websites crashed during Monday’s rout, frustrating individual investors. The Dow retreated 5.21% for the week to 24,190.90, while the Nasdaq Composite slid 5.06% to 6,874.49.1,3

SERVICE SECTOR GREW RAPIDLY IN JANUARY

At a mark of 59.9, the Institute for Supply Management’s latest purchasing manager index for the service sector bettered the forecast of analysts polled by Briefing.com, who expected a small climb to 56.7. The index was at 56.0 for December.4

EARNINGS LOOK STRONG

FactSet’s latest analysis of corporate profits shows a 14% Q4 earnings growth rate and a Q4 sales growth rate of 8.0% for the S&P 500. Through Friday, 65% of S&P 500 companies had reported quarterly results.5

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Cybercurrencies, A Risky Choice

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Bitcoin. Ethereum. Litecoin. Ripple. Ether. As 2017 ended, the prices of these cybercurrencies were soaring. In early 2018, they have plummeted. Opportunistic investors have been left to wonder: Are these digital currencies really the next big thing, or the scariest investment around?

The answer to that question may vary per day, week, month, or year. These altcoins are classified as commodities, not currencies, by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. Like all commodities, their value can quickly change.1

Since last spring, bitcoin has been on a wild ride. On May 1, 2017, a single bitcoin was worth $1,402.18. On December 1, the value had soared to $10,859.56. Fifteen days later, it hit a peak of $19,343.04.2

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Keeping This Correction in Perspective

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Are you upset by what is happening on Wall Street? It may help to see this pullback within a big-picture context. Corrections have become so rare as of late that when one occurs, emotion threatens to influence investment decisions.

So far, February has been a rough month for equities. At the close on February 8, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was officially in correction territory after a slide occurred, which included two 1,000-point descents within four days. Additionally, nearly every U.S. equity index had lost 7% or more in the past five trading sessions.1,2

This drop is troubling, yes – but not as unsettling as it may first seem. The market has been up for so long that it is easy to dismiss the reality of its occasional downs. Last year’s quiet trading climate could legitimately be characterized as “abnormal.”

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The Wild Ride of Bitcoin

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The ups and downs of bitcoin have amazed investors. Back on April 1, 2017, one bitcoin was valued at $1,089.51. Five months later, the price had risen to $4,950.72. On December 16, the price hit a historic peak at $19,343.04.1

With the price of bitcoin jumping nearly 1,800% in less than nine months, the air in the commodities markets grew thick with hype: bitcoin was “unstoppable.” Well, not quite. By December 30, bitcoin’s price had sunk to $12,629.81. After rebounding to $17,135.84 a week later, it then stair-stepped down to $6,914.26 on February 5. Who knows what a bitcoin will be worth by the time you read this?1

We do know one thing: bitcoin is one of the riskiest investments around.

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The Dow Dropped. Do Not Drop Out of the Market

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On February 5, the Dow Jones Industrial Average took an unprecedented fall. The benchmark dropped 1,175 points, and it was down 1,500 points at one moment during the trading day.1,2

Monday’s Dow loss was severe, but not as catastrophic as certain headlines trumpeted. The index fell 4.6%, which is today’s equivalent of a 652-point dive back in October 2007 when the Dow reached its pre-recession closing peak of 14,164.43. For some recent perspective, consider that the Dow took a 610-point dive the day after the United Kingdom voted for the Brexit in 2016 – and over the following 20 months, it ascended to record heights.1,2,3

The Dow actually witnessed an intraday correction Monday. At the bottom of the plunge late in the trading session, it was at 23,923.88, which was 10.1% beneath its last record close of 26,616.71 on January 26. It finished Monday’s trading day off 8.5% from that January peak.1,3

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Monthly Economic Update for February, 2018

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THE MONTH IN BRIEF
Bulls took charge of Wall Street as 2018 began: the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 5.79% in the first month of the year, even with a mild selloff on the verge of February. Foreign equity benchmarks largely advanced as well. Oil and gasoline futures surged, while bitcoin continued to rollercoaster. Personal spending, manufacturing, and consumer confidence data encouraged investors. Home sales weakened as home prices surpassed a pre-recession peak and mortgage rates increased. Analysts kept warning that Wall Street was overdue for a pullback; while indices did slip late in the month, optimism was little shaken.1

DOMESTIC ECONOMIC HEALTH
America’s economy is largely driven by the consumer, and as the Bureau of Economic Analysis noted, consumers spent generously in December. There were 0.4% improvements in both personal income and personal spending. Retail sales rose by 0.4% in the last month of 2017, even with vehicle and gasoline purchases factored out. The BEA released its first estimate of fourth-quarter GDP in late January – a respectable 2.6%.2

Consumer confidence index readings varied from extremely impressive to above average. The Conference Board’s monthly index rose from 123.1 to 125.4 in January. In contrast, the University of Michigan’s gauge of consumer sentiment weakened from a final December mark of 95.9 to 94.4. (It was four points higher a year earlier.)2,3

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Weekly Economic Update for 2/5/2018

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WAGE GROWTH PICKS UP AT LAST

In January, average hourly pay was 2.9% higher than it was a year earlier. That was the key takeaway from the Department of Labor’s latest jobs report, which noted the addition of 200,000 net new workers last month. In January, the headline unemployment rate stayed at 4.1%; the broader U-6 rate, which counts the underemployed, ticked up to 8.2%.1

ISM: FACTORY SECTOR IN GREAT SHAPE

The Institute for Supply Management released its January purchasing manager index for the manufacturing industry last week, and the reading of 59.1 surpassed the forecast, made by economists surveyed by MarketWatch, by half a point. A reading approaching 60 indicates significant expansion.2

HOUSEHOLDS SPEND MORE, REMAIN OPTIMISTIC

Personal spending and incomes rose 0.4% in December, according to a Department of Commerce report. The Conference Board’s consumer confidence index climbed 2.3 points to 125.4 in January, while the University of Michigan’s final January consumer sentiment index came in at 95.7 Friday, 1.3 points above its prior reading.2

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The Blended Retirement System Rolls Out

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The U.S. military has made a major change to its retirement program. Many active duty, Reserve, and National Guard members are eligible to choose between two retirement savings and pension options: the new Blended Retirement System (BRS) and its predecessor, now termed the Legacy Retirement System (LRS). Service members who have spent fewer than 12 calendar years in uniform have until December 31, 2018 to make their decision.1,2

Why was the BRS introduced? The military needed to update its longstanding retirement system to acknowledge a reality; few service members have military careers exceeding 20 years.1

Generally speaking, service members can count on a pension equal to at least 50% of their base pay under the LRS, provided they serve for at least 20 years. If they leave the military sooner, they say goodbye to that possibility.1,3

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The Retirement Mindgame

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What kind of retirement do you think you’ll have? Qualitatively speaking, what if the success or failure of your retirement begins with your perception of retirement?

A whole field of study has emerged on the psychology of saving, spending, and investing: behavioral finance.  Since retirement saving is a behavior (and since other behaviors influence it), it is worth considering ways to adjust behavior and presumptions to encourage a better retirement.

Delayed gratification or instant gratification? Financially speaking, retiring earlier has its drawbacks and may lead you into the next phase of your life with less income and savings. 

If you don’t love what you do for a living, you may see only the downside of working longer rather than the potential boost it could provide to your retirement planning (i.e., claiming Social Security later or tapping retirement account balances later and letting them compound more). If you see work as a daily set of unfulfilling tasks and retirement as an endless Saturday, Saturday will win out, and your mindset will lead you to retire earlier with less money. 

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Try the Bucket Approach

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Stocks sometimes retreat. That reality can be overlooked in a long bull market. Bear markets do appear, and a deep downturn could force you to sell securities in retirement, so you can pay for necessary expenses.

Right now, you might have too much money in stocks. Years of steady gains may have unbalanced your portfolio and heightened your risk exposure. If you are 60 or older, that constitutes a warning sign, especially given this bull market’s age. What would a downturn do to your retirement fund and your retirement income?

If you are wondering how to respond to this risk, consider the bucket approach to retirement income planning.

The bucket approach may help you through different market cycles in retirement. This investing strategy, credited to a Florida financial planner named Harold Evensky, has simple and complex variations. It assigns fixed-income and equity investments to different “buckets” with the goal of providing sufficient cash flow to retirees during different stages of their “second acts.”1,2

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Managing Student Loan Debt

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Are you dealing with student loan debt? Have you explored ways to try and restructure it or have it forgiven?

No one wants to carry five figures of education debt into middle age or retirement, but some do. The burden is not just financial. Last fall, the Madison Capital Times asked student loan borrowers in the state of Wisconsin how they felt about their education debt. Sixteen percent said they were “terrified” of it, and another 30% indicated they felt only slightly less so. Fortunately, you may have possibilities to manage and reduce the debt load and the anxiety it breeds.1

For a better chance of refinancing a student loan, lift your credit score. The average credit score for borrowers able to refi in 2017 was 764, according to online education loan marketplace LendEDU. A 764 score means you have excellent credit; 850 is as high as you can go, and 700 is considered an “average” FICO score. If you are offered new terms, you may or may not like them; LendEDU says that the average interest rate on a newly refinanced loan last year was 5.56%.2

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Weekly Economic Update for 1/29/2018

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THE ECONOMY EXPANDED 2.6% IN Q4

The Department of Commerce’s first estimate of fourth-quarter gross domestic product was 0.6% below the Q3 number, but still well above the 2.1% rate the nation has averaged in the recovery from the Great Recession. America saw 2.3% economic growth in 2017, according to the report.1

HOME SALES RETREATED DURING THE HOLIDAYS

Winter chill possibly encouraged the decline as much as high prices and low inventory. The National Association of Realtors noted a 3.6% slump in resales in December, while the Census Bureau said that new home purchases fell 9.3% last month. Existing home sales improved 1.1% during 2017; new home sales, 8.3%.2

OIL REBOUNDS, REACHES $66

WTI crude advanced 4.5% in five trading days, settling at $66.14 Friday on the NYMEX. That was its highest close in more than three years. Crude prices have risen for five of the past six weeks.3

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For Retirement, Income Matters as Much as Savings

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Steady income or a lump sum? Last year, financial services firm TIAA asked working Americans: if you could choose between a lump sum of $500,000 or a monthly income of $2,700 at retirement, which choice would you make?1

Sixty-two percent said that they would take the $2,700 per month. Figuring on a 20-year retirement for today’s 65-year-olds, $2,700 per month comes to $648,000 by age 85. So, why did nearly 40% of the survey respondents pick the lump sum over the stable monthly income?1

Maybe the instant gratification psychology common to lottery winners played a part. Maybe they ran some numbers and figured that the $500,000 lump sum would grow to exceed $648,000 in twenty years if invested – but there is certainly no guarantee of that. Perhaps they felt their retirements would last less than 20 years, as was the case with many of their parents, making the lump sum a “better deal.”

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A New Day for 529 Plans

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Do you have a 529 college savings plan? Have you thought about opening a 529 plan account? If the answer to either question is “yes,” you should know about two major changes that broaden the possibilities for 529 plans. They may give your family some new options.

You may be able to pay K-12 tuition with 529 plan funds. The legislation popularly known as the Tax Cuts & Jobs Act authorized this change: under federal law, up to $10,000 of 529 plan assets can be withdrawn for this purpose annually, for each of the named beneficiaries of a 529 plan account. The funds may be used for tuition at both secular and religious schools. (While 529 plan assets can pay for a variety of “qualified” higher education expenses, tuition is considered the only “qualified” expense at the K-12 level.)1,2

Unfortunately, not all states are on board with this change yet. 529 plans are administered at the state level, and at present, less than half the 50 states (and the District of Columbia) treat 529 plan assets in a way that conforms to federal tax law.1

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Weekly Economic Update for 1/22/2018

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CONSUMER SENTIMENT READING COOLS

The initial January University of Michigan consumer sentiment index came in at 94.4 last week, 1.5 points beneath its final reading of 2017 and 4.1 points under its level of one year ago. Without prompting, 34% of respondents to the latest UMich survey brought up the subject of the recent federal tax reforms; 70% of them felt the reforms would have a positive effect on their lives; 18%, a negative effect.1

WINTER WEAKENS HOUSING STARTS

New Census Bureau data shows groundbreaking decreased 8.2% in December after a (revised) 3.0% November gain. Building permits ticked down 0.1% last month.2

BITCOIN PLUMMETS & RECOVERS; OIL DESCENDS

Commodity investors watched the premier digital currency crest above $14,000 Monday, sink under $10,000 Wednesday, and rebound to a price of $11,400.35 as Wall Street’s trading week ended. Friday, the International Energy Agency predicted U.S. oil output would near a 50-year peak in 2018. That hurt prices and left WTI crude 1.5% lower for the week; it fell to $63.37 at Friday’s closing bell.3,4

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Bad Money Habits to Break in 2018

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Do bad money habits constrain your financial progress? Many people fall into the same financial behavior patterns year after year. If you sometimes succumb to these financial tendencies, the New Year is as good an occasion as any to alter your behavior.

#1: Lending money to family & friends. You may know someone who has lent a few thousand to a sister or brother, a few hundred to an old buddy, and so on. Generosity is a virtue, but personal loans can easily transform into personal financial losses for the lender. If you must loan money to a friend or family member, mention that you will charge interest and set a repayment plan with deadlines. Better yet, don’t do it at all. If your friends or relatives can’t learn to budget, why should you bail them out?

#2: Spending more than you make. Living beyond your means, living on margin, whatever you wish to call it, it is a path toward significant debt. Wealth is seldom made by buying possessions; today’s flashy material items may become the garage sale junk of 2027. That doesn’t stop people from racking up consumer debts: a 2017 study conducted by NerdWallet determined that the average U.S. household carries $15,654 in credit card debt alone.1

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The Major Retirement Planning Mistakes

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Much has been written about the classic financial mistakes that plague start-ups, family businesses, corporations, and charities. Aside from these blunders, there are also some classic financial missteps that plague retirees.

Calling them “mistakes” may be a bit harsh, as not all of them represent errors in judgment. Yet whether they result from ignorance or fate, we need to be aware of them as we plan for and enter retirement.

Leaving work too early. As Social Security benefits rise about 8% for every year you delay receiving them, waiting a few years to apply for benefits can position you for greater retirement income. Filing for your monthly benefits before you reach Social Security’s Full Retirement Age (FRA) can mean comparatively smaller monthly payments. The FRA varies from 66-67 for people born between 1943-59. For those born in 1960 and later, the FRA is 67.1,2

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Retirement Questions That Have Nothing to Do With Money

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Retirement planning is not entirely financial. Your degree of happiness in your “second act” may depend on some factors you cannot quantify. Here are a few of those factors as well as the questions they may end up provoking in your mind.

Where will you live? This is a major factor in retirement happiness. If you can surround yourself with family members and friends whose company you enjoy, in a community where you can maintain old friendships and meet new people with similar interests or life experience, that is a definite plus. If all this can occur in a walkable community with good mass transit and senior services, all the better. Moving away from the life you know to a spread-out, car-dependent suburb where anonymity seems more prevalent than community may be a bad idea. 

How will you get around in your eighties and nineties? The actuaries at Social Security project that a quarter of today’s 65-year-olds will live to age 90. Some will live longer. Say you find yourself in that group. What kind of car would you want to drive at 85 or 90? At what age would you cease driving? Lastly, if you do stop driving, who would you count on to help you go where you want to go and get out in the world?1

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Think Total Return

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More than a century ago, an American financial archetype emerged – the household that lived on the interest earned by its investments, never touching its principal.

Times have changed. While the Vanderbilts, Carnegies, and Rockefellers could do that back in the Gilded Age, you will likely face a tough challenge trying to do the same in retirement. The reason? Low interest rates.

The federal funds rate has not topped 3% since the winter of 2008. In fact, the nation’s benchmark interest rate has been under 2% since October 2008. In today’s interest rate environment, you will need a substantial investment portfolio to live solely on income and dividends in retirement. In some parts of the country, a million-dollar portfolio might not generate enough income and dividends to help you maintain your lifestyle.1

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Weekly Economic Update for 1/15/2018

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RETAIL SALES ROSE IN DECEMBER

Consumers spent freely during the holidays: the latest Census Bureau report shows a nice advance for retail purchases. They improved 0.4% last month, with core retail sales up by the same amount.1

PRODUCER PRICES UNEXPECTEDLY RETREAT

In December, wholesale inflation declined for the first time in 18 months. Even with that 0.1% dip, the Producer Price Index advanced 2.6% for 2017, compared with 1.7% in 2016. Households contended with 2.1% inflation during 2017 according to the Consumer Price Index, which ticked up 0.1% last month. Core consumer prices rose 0.3% in December, so the 2017 core CPI gain was 1.8%.1,2

OIL CLIMBS AGAIN

Last week, prices benefited from reduced reserves and extensions of U.S. sanctions relief against Iran. West Texas Intermediate crude settled at $64.30 Friday on the NYMEX, advancing 4.7% across five trading days. That was its highest price since December 2014.3

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A Look at HSAs

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Why do higher-income households inquire about Health Savings Accounts? They have heard about what an HSA can potentially offer them: a pool of tax-exempt dollars for health care, a path to tax savings, even a possible source of retirement income after age 65. You may want to look at this option yourself.

About 26 million Americans now have HSAs. You must enroll in a high-deductible health plan (HDHP) to have one, a health insurance option that is not ideal for everybody. In 2018, this deductible must be $1,350 or higher for individuals or $2,650 or higher for a family. In exchange for accepting the high deductible, you may pay relatively low premiums for the coverage.1,2

You fund an HSA with tax-free contributions. This year, an individual can direct as much as $3,450 into an HSA, while a family can contribute up to $6,900. (These contribution caps are $1,000 higher if you are 55 or older in 2018.) Some employers will even provide a matching contribution on your behalf.1,2

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Retirement In Sight for January, 2018

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3 Important Retiree Tax Considerations

After you retire, your tax situation will change. Recognizing that oncoming change is crucial. Some ideas that may seem smart from a pre-retiree standpoint might be ill-advised once you have transitioned into retirement. Other retiree tax concerns may not yet be on your mind. 

For example, tax-loss harvesting can be handy when your capital losses outdo your capital gains – when that occurs, you can use up to $3,000 of losses annually to offset ordinary income. You can also carry forward losses exceeding $3,000 to upcoming years to offset future income. If a bear market strikes when you are 40, this tactic has great merit – but if you incur, say, a $60,000 bear market loss in your seventies, it will take you 20 years to get the full tax benefit from harvesting since you can only carry forward a maximum of $3,000 in losses, annually. Consider that Social Security income is partly taxable once your provisional income (adjusted gross income + tax-free interest + 50% of Social Security benefits) tops thresholds of $25,000 (single filer) and $32,000 (joint filers). Lastly, while most retirees never withdraw more than the Required Minimum Distribution from a traditional IRA each year, you may want to if your IRA is large, out of concern for your heirs. They might face a big tax bill if they withdraw an entire Inherited IRA balance.1

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Weekly Economic Update for 1/8/2018

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LOW UNEMPLOYMENT, BUT LESS HIRING

The Department of Labor’s latest jobs report announced a headline unemployment rate of only 4.1% in December, but it also showed companies adding just 148,000 net new workers last month. Even so, net payroll growth averaged 204,000 during the last three months. In hiring terms, the health care sector grew more than any other industry in 2017, expanding by 300,000 jobs. Wages rose 2.5% last year. The broader U-6 jobless rate, encompassing the underemployed, ticked up a tenth of a point to 8.1%, which was still half a percent below its level of a year ago.1

MORE FACTORY ACTIVITY DURING THE HOLIDAYS

December saw U.S. manufacturers pick up their pace. The Institute for Supply Management’s purchasing manager index for the factory sector surprised to the upside with a fine reading of 59.7. Economists polled by Briefing.com had projected the PMI to decline 0.2 points to 58.0. ISM’s non-manufacturing PMI fell in December, weakening 1.5 points to a reading of 55.9.2

WTI CRUDE CONTINUES TO RALLY

Finishing at $61.41 on the NYMEX Friday, it advanced 1.7% last week. Investor concern over anti-government protests in Iran and stateside data showing smaller crude reserves helped. Oil settled at $62.01 Thursday, which was a peak unmatched in roughly three years.3

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What Do You Have in Reserve for 2018?

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How much does the average American household have in the bank? Estimates vary, but the short answer to this question is “not enough.”

Last year, a GoBankingRates poll discovered that 57% of U.S. households had less than $1,000 in deposit accounts (although, 25% reported having at least $10,000). A 2017 analysis from Moebs Services, a research firm consulting banks and credit unions, noted that the average U.S. checking account contained around $3,600.1,2

Eyeing these numbers, you get the sense that – in an emergency – most households have less than a month before their liquid savings run out. Is this true for your household? Hopefully, your cash reserve is much larger; if that is not the case, now is as good a time as any to bolster your emergency fund.

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Monthly Economic Update for January, 2018

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THE MONTH IN BRIEF
Financially speaking, the last month of 2017 was also the year’s most newsworthy. Congress reformed federal tax law to a degree unseen since the 1980s, the Federal Reserve raised the benchmark interest rate, and bitcoin took its investors for a wild ride. Hiring, retail sales, and personal spending numbers were all impressive, as were consumer confidence index readings. The residential real estate market showed more momentum. Oil closed above $60 again. Emerging stock markets rallied; European equity benchmarks struggled. As all this transpired, the S&P 500 gained nearly 1%.1

DOMESTIC ECONOMIC HEALTH
On December 22, President Trump signed the Tax Cuts & Jobs Act into law. The new legislation amounted to a dramatic rewrite of key federal tax code provisions: it doubled the individual estate tax exemption to $11.2 million, raised the standard income tax deduction to $12,000, and eliminated the personal exemption as well as scores of deductions favored by taxpayers who itemize. The law also cut the corporate tax rate to 21% and permitted most pass-through businesses to take a 20% deduction on earnings. Most of these changes are scheduled to expire after 2025, unless Congress preserves them.2

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Quarterly Economic Update for 4Q, 2017

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THE QUARTER IN BRIEF
The final quarter of 2017 was a great one for stocks: the Dow Jones Industrial Average, S&P 500, and Nasdaq Composite all posted 3-month gains of better than 6%. Landmark federal tax reforms were approved and signed into law. Bitcoin was welcomed to two major futures exchanges, and it surged and plunged crazily. Oil and gold prices rose. Home buying accelerated, even though mortgages grew more expensive and listings remained thin. Domestic indicators showed continued strength in consumer spending and hiring as well as a pickup in economic growth. The Federal Reserve made another interest rate hike and started to reduce its balance sheet, while the European Central Bank prepared to wind down its long-running stimulus. All in all, it was an eventful and positive quarter for investors.1

DOMESTIC ECONOMIC HEALTH
Without question, the fourth quarter’s major story was the passage of the Tax Cuts & Jobs Act. The new law created night-and-day changes in the Internal Revenue Code, nearly all effective January 1. Its most dramatic changes were arguably the ones benefiting businesses: it slashed the corporate tax rate to 21% and let the majority of pass-through companies deduct the first 20% of income. The legislation also took the individual estate tax exemption north to $11.2 million, put the standard deduction at $12,000, and did away with dozens of longstanding deductions, plus the personal exemption. In 2019, it removes the individual mandate for health insurance. Most of the above changes are set to expire after 2025, barring renewal in Congress.2

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Weekly Economic Update for 1/1/2018

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CONSUMER CONFIDENCE DECLINES

In December, the Conference Board’s monthly index fell sharply from its lofty November reading of 128.6. That number was a 17-year high. Economists polled by Bloomberg expected a retreat to 128.0; instead, the gauge dropped to 122.1, which was still one of its best readings in the past 15 years. Lynn Franco, the Conference Board’s director of economic indicators, noted that consumer expectations remain at “historically strong levels, suggesting economic growth will continue well into 2018.”1

OIL ENDS 2017 ABOVE $60

The yearlong comeback of light sweet crude culminated in a December 29 NYMEX close of $60.42, marking the commodity’s best settlement since the spring of 2015. Signs of reduced output and supply disruptions helped oil rally last week.2

HOME PRICES UP 6.2% IN 12 MONTHS

That is the conclusion of the October S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller home price index, a survey of home values across 20 U.S. regions released last week. In other housing news, the National Association of Realtors pending home sales index rose 0.2% in November, taking its annualized gain to 0.8%. The small advance is understandable; across the 12 months ending in November, existing home inventory thinned by nearly 10%.3

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Things to Consider if You Plan to Retire Before 60

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By choice or by chance, some people wrap up their careers before turning 60. If you sense this will prove true for you, what could you do to potentially make your retirement transition easier? As a start, you may need to withdraw your retirement funds strategically.

The I.R.S. wants you to leave your retirement accounts alone until your sixties. To encourage this, it assesses a 10% early withdrawal penalty for most savers who take money out of traditional retirement accounts prior to certain ages. For a traditional IRA, the penalty applies if you withdraw funds prior to age 59½; for a workplace retirement plan, the penalty may apply as early as age 55.1

You may be able to avoid that 10% penalty by planning 72(t) distributions. Under a provision in the Internal Revenue Code, you can withdraw funds from a traditional IRA prior to age 59½ in the form of substantially equal periodic payments (SEPPs) over the course of your lifetime. The schedule of payments must last for at least five years or until you reach age 59½, whichever period is longer. Once the schedule of periodic payments is established, it cannot be revised – if the payments are not taken according to schedule, you will be hit with the 10% early withdrawal penalty. All 72(t) distributions represent taxable income.1,2

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Ways to Fund Special Needs Trusts

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If you have a child with special needs, a trust may be a financial priority. There are many crucial goods and services that Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income will not pay for, and a special needs trust may be used to address that financial challenge.

In planning a special needs trust, a pressing question must be answered. When it comes to funding the trust, what are the options?

There are four basic ways to build up a third-party special needs trust. One method is simply to pour in personal assets, perhaps from extended family as well as immediate family. Another possibility is to fund the trust with permanent life insurance. Proceeds from a settlement or lawsuit can also serve as the core of the trust assets. Lastly, an inheritance can provide the financial footing for this kind of trust.

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The Risk of Being a Suddenly Single Woman

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On average, women outlive their husbands. According to the Social Security Administration’s estimate, the average 65-year-old woman will outlive the average 65-year-old man by more than two years, dying at age 86½. Averages aside, it also estimates that about a quarter of today’s 65-year-olds will live into their nineties. Around 10% will live to age 95 or beyond.1

Eyeing these figures, it is easy to deduce that some women may outlive their spouses by five years or longer and contend with complex financial issues after age 85. There is one detail, however, that all these facts and figures leave out.

The average age of widowhood in the U.S. is 59. A widow might spend 30 or more years managing her finances. Is she prepared for this possibility?2

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Everyone Is Talking About Bitcoin

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Investors are excited about bitcoin – perhaps too excited. Their fervor is easy to understand. On December 18, bitcoin closed at $17,566. Back on September 22, bitcoin was valued at only $3,603.1

Yes, you read that correctly – the price of bitcoin jumped nearly 500% in three months. Thanks to this phenomenon, investors everywhere are asking if they should buy bitcoin or invest portions of their retirement funds in the cybercurrency. The air is filled with hype: bitcoin is “unstoppable,” it is “the answer,” it is “the future.”

It may also be heading for a crash.

Bitcoin has crashed before. It is highly volatile. On Thanksgiving 2013, a single bitcoin was worth $979; by April 2014, the price was at $422. In late August 2017, it settled at $4,673; by mid-September, it was back at $3,783 immediately before its amazing fourth-quarter climb.1

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The Many Benefits of a Roth IRA

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The Roth IRA changed the whole retirement savings perspective. Since its introduction, it has become a fixture in many retirement planning strategies. Here is a closer look at the trade-off you make when you open and contribute to a Roth IRA – a trade-off many savers are happy to make.

You contribute after-tax dollars. You have already paid income tax on the dollars going into the account, but in exchange for paying taxes on your retirement savings contributions today, you could potentially realize greater benefits tomorrow.1

You position the money for tax-deferred growth. Roth IRA earnings aren’t taxed as they grow and compound. If, say, your account grows 6% a year, that growth will be even greater when you factor in compounding. The earlier in life that you open a Roth IRA, the greater compounding potential you have.2

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