Summer is upon us and in full swing. While you (hopefully) have some well-deserved time off, take the necessary steps to get your financial life back on track. No matter what stage of your life you are currently in, these simple but valuable financial planning tips may help you do so.
- Take 5 minutes to check your beneficiary designations– Young or old, chances are you have some type of life insurance policy or retirement plan. And chances are, you have not taken a look at who will inherit these funds/accounts since you opened the account several years ago. Countless times I have seen clients shocked when I uncover their beneficiary designations to be an ex-spouse, a deceased family member, or even worse – a big blank line. Take the time now to check to ensure that you have the appropriate beneficiary designations in place on all retirement accounts and insurance policies. Your financial professional can help you with the tax and estate planning advantages to certain beneficiary designations for each type of account.Tip: The most common (and basic) type of life insurance most employees have is an employer-paid policy with a $50,000 death benefit (this is the most common type because the IRS requires you to be taxed on the value of employer-provided group term life insurance over this amount). More often than not, when employees go through their first-day-of-work orientation and elect their new benefits, they leave the beneficiary designation for this standard policy (and probably their 401(k) account) blank. Check it out now and make sure you have elected a primary AND contingent beneficiary.
- If you don’t know how to do taxes; it may not be a great idea to do your own taxes– It’s really as simple as that. Oftentimes, we attempt to do our own income taxes in order to save some money, but have no real knowledge of our complicated tax system. This may be a costly mistake if you are not aware of many important and ever-changing tax laws. Are you aware of all of the various deductions and credits you are entitled to? Are you aware of the rules for claiming dependents? Do you know how to properly calculate your charitable contribution deductions? Do-it-yourself tax software has made it very convenient to complete your own taxes, but tax planning is not simple and the decision to do your own taxes should not be taken lightly.Tip: One of the most common mistakes people make when they attempt to do their own taxes is failing to utilize carry-forwards from prior tax years. For example, you can carry unused capital losses (say, from a bad investment loss) forward for your lifetime. Your capital losses will offset other capital gains, and if there’s still a loss remaining, you can deduct $3,000 p/year from other taxable income. If you do not keep track of your carry-forward balances or look at your previous returns for guidance (assuming these prior returns are correct), you may miss this valuable deduction, costing you hundreds or thousands of dollars in tax savings. If you are not confident in your ability to prepare your return, consider having a professional complete them this time around.
- Can you name three investments in your 401(k) account?– If someone asked you if your car had leather seats and air conditioning, would you be able to tell them? Absolutely. Then why shouldn’t you know what your biggest retirement asset is made up of? Take the time to understand your 401(k) account as it will be an important savings vehicle for your retirement years. Explore your available investment options, know the deferral percentage rate you need to elect in order to take advantage of your employer match (if any), and ensure that your investment allocation is appropriate for your risk tolerance, time horizon and retirement goals.Tip: Some 401(k) plans allow you to automatically increase your deferral percentage each year by a desired increment. This will allow you to gradually increase your contributions effortlessly and systematically without dramatically impacting your cash flow. Consider the following example which shows the difference in ending account values between keeping a constant deferral rate compared to increasing it incrementally over the years. Both examples assume a starting account balance of $20,000 and a beginning gross salary of $65,000 p/year:
Constant 3% p/year deferral rate: $1,576,264*
Starting at 3% deferral and increasing by 2% p/year until 10%: $2,693,714*
*Assumes 3% raises p/year, 7% annual return, and a 3% employer match, for 40 years.
- Do you know what will happen to you, your children and your assets when you pass away or become incapacitated?Estate laws are complicated, ever-changing and mostly misunderstood by the average American. Not having a basic estate plan in place is like showing up to a job fair without a resume. Did you know that in 2011, over 70% of Americans did not have a basic will in place? This is one area of your life that you do not want to risk being unprepared. At the very minimum, you will want to have a will, guardianship provisions (if you have children or legal dependents), and power of attorney documents. A revocable living trust is also an important estate planning tool you will want to consider, depending on your situation, estate planning goals and objectives.Tip: Many people believe that only the very wealthy need estate planning. This is simply not true. Basic estate planning documents are important to ensure you have control of your assets and well-being during your lifetime and after your death. Do not let the state decide how your assets will be distributed or who will care for your loved ones.
- Planning for educational expenses begins at birth– Far too many parents begin to plan for their children’s college expenses when it’s far too late – when the college-bound child is sitting in their driver’s education course. At this point, the tax advantages and compounding advantages of a 529 college savings plan are greatly diminished, and the impending expenses are likely to be paid out of any cash flow and lots and lots of debt.According to the College Board, the increase in college tuition at a public four-year school was 8.3 percent between the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years. That’s over twice the inflation rate over the same period! Take actions as soon as possible to begin planning for your child’s education. All things being equal, the earlier you start saving, the longer you have for your savings to grow and compound.
Tip: Once a college savings vehicle is established, try to increase the amount you contribute each year. Aim to increase the total amount you save each year by at least 6%. For example, if you save $100 a month this year, you should save at least $106 a month next year. This will help your savings keep up with the high college inflation rate.
- Do you know what your risk tolerance is?– The old adage that says you should hold your age in bonds (as a percentage of your overall portfolio allocation) may no longer be appropriate for today’s investor, especially in today’s economy. Don’t know what your risk tolerance is? Think about the following scenario. You are given a choice between two cars to take on a cross country vacation. Option 1 is a fast, attractive, high risk sports car with very bad crash ratings. Option 2 is a slower, unattractive, safe sedan with excellent crash ratings. Which do you choose and why?Consider another scenario in which you have the option to stay in one of two resort hotel rooms. Option 1 is a suite on the 25th floor with great panoramic ocean views. Option 2 is the same sized suite, but on the first floor with convenient emergency exits. Which do you choose and why?
The amount of risk you are willing to assume for a chance at receiving a desired return can help you begin to design your overall investment portfolio. Among the various factors to consider when deciding on an appropriate allocation are: your proximity to retirement, how comfortable you are with investing, your other available income streams, liquidity needs, and your general comfort level with the financial markets.
Tip: Your risk tolerance (once you determine it) should help you and your financial professional design an appropriate and diversified investment portfolio that will help you achieve your goals and objectives. It is important that you are comfortable, knowledgeable and confident in your investment plan, or else it may be very difficult to stay on course.
By FPA member Grant Webster, MSBA, CFP®
AKT Wealth Advisors
Special to FPA