MONEY Taxes

5 Things to Do Now To Cut Your Tax Bill Next April

If you want to owe less for 2014, start your year-end tax planning today.

When everyone else starts loading their backpacks and shopping the back-to-school sales, I know it is time for me to dive back into TurboTax.

That’s because fall is the perfect time to plan my approach to the tax forms I won’t file until next April. By using the next four months strategically, I may be able to reduce the amount I have to pay then.

This is a particularly easy year to do tax planning, because the rules haven’t changed much from 2013. If you do your own taxes on a program like Intuit’s TurboTax or TaxAct, you can use last year’s version to create a new return using this year’s numbers, and play some what-if games to see how different actions will affect your tax bill.

If you use a tax professional, it’s a good time to ask for a fall review and some advice.

Here are some of the actions to take now and through the end of the year to minimize your 2014 taxes.

1. Feed the tax-advantaged plans. Start by making sure you’re putting the maximum amount possible into your own health savings account, if you have one associated with a high-deductible health plan. That conveys maximum tax advantage for the long term. Also boost the amount you are contributing to your 401(k) plan and your own individual retirement account if you’re not already contributing the maximum.

2. Plan your year-end charitable giving. You probably have decent gains in some stocks or mutual funds. If you give your favorite charity shares of an investment, you can save taxes and help the charity. Instead of selling the shares, paying capital gains taxes on your profits and giving the remainder to your charity, you can transfer the shares, get a charitable deduction for their full value and let the charity—which is not required to pay income taxes—sell the shares. Start early in the year to identify the right shares and the right charity.

3. Take losses, and some gains. If you have any investment losses, you can sell the shares now and lock in the losses. They can help you offset any taxable gains as well as some ordinary income. You can re-buy the same security after 31 days, or buy something different immediately. In some cases, you may want to lock in gains, too. You might sell winners now if you want to make changes to your holdings and have the losses to offset them.

4. Be strategic about the alternative minimum tax. Did you pay it last year? Do you have a lot of children, medical expenses and mortgage interest payments? If so, you may end up subject to the alternative minimum tax, which taxes more of your income (by disallowing some deductions) at a lower tax rate. Robert Weiss, global head of J.P. Morgan Private Bank’s Advice Lab—a personal finance strategy group—says there are planning opportunities here. If you expect to be in the alternative minimum tax group, you can pull some income into this year—by exercising stock options or taking a bonus before the year ends—and have it taxed at the lower AMT rate. It’s good to get professional advice on this tactic, though. If you pull in too much money you could get kicked out of the AMT and the strategy would backfire.

5. Look at the list of deductible items and plan your approach. Many items, such as union dues, work uniforms, investment management fees and more are deductible once they surpass 2% of your adjusted gross income. Tax advisers often suggest taxpayers “bunch” those deductions into every other year to capture more of them. Check out the Internal Revenue Service’s Publication 529 to view the list, and try to determine if you want to amass your deductions this year or next. Then shop accordingly.

Do you have a personal finance question for our experts? Write to AskTheExpert@moneymail.com.

MONEY financial advice

Where to Go for the Best Financial Advice

Wall of paint chips
Carolyn Hebbard—Getty Images/Flickr Open

Seeking help with investments or retirement planning? Here's how to sort through the overwhelming number of options you face.

The financial advice business is changing dramatically in every aspect, from how advisers spend their time, to what they charge, to how they label and promote themselves.

The result? Further confusion for consumers who probably sought help to find clarity in the first place.

“Brokers” who used to pick stocks and sell mutual funds at firms like Morgan Stanley and Bank of America Merrill Lynch are now more likely now to call themselves “financial advisers” and manage portfolios for fees instead of (or in addition to) commissions.

Independents who used to offer comprehensive advice are now more likely to focus on investment management and call themselves “wealth managers.”

Charles Schwab, the online brokerage that made its name catering to do-it-yourself investors, now is pushing its own stable of are “financial consultants” and preaching the value of face-to-face (or at least Skype-to-Skype) connections.

New to the scene are “robo-advisers” — algorithmically driven online money management firms that will automate your investment decisions.

Further complicating consumer choice is the fact that most firms have a variety of ways in which they offer financial advice to clients.

At Vanguard, for example, a firm which promotes simplicity in investing, there are nine different advice platforms. They vary, based on whether a client is investing through a retirement account or directly, how much advice a client needs or wants, and how much money the client has to invest.

How can someone seeking financial advice navigate their way through this complex field and make sure they get the right advice? Here are a few things you should know now:

Needs Assessment

Assess your own needs. The first step is to figure out what you want a financial professional to do for you. Do you want comprehensive investment management? A whole-life plan that includes everything from how to pay for college to tax reduction to retirement planning? Just a reality check on your retirement readiness?

Pay for What You Eat

Once you know what you want, it’s easier to find the right adviser. For a spot check or limited amount of planning, consider hiring a by-the-hour adviser — you can find one through the Garrett Planning Network (www.garrettplanningnetwork.com).

Want a comprehensive soup-to-nuts life financial plan? Look for a fee-only certified financial planner through the CFP Board of Standards (www.cfp.net) or the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (www.napfa.org).

Learn the Lingo

“Fee only” means that the adviser is not paid to sell products and, if that person is a certified financial planner, it also means she doesn’t even own a small share in a financial company that does sell products.

“Fee-based” is a meaningless term of art, typically used by advisers who charge fees and reap commissions.

Watch Your Wallet

There’s a huge discrepancy in the amount of fees advisers charge.

At Vanguard, investors willing to stick with Vanguard funds can get basic fund choice advice for free and a comprehensive financial plan for 0.3% of the assets they invest with Vanguard.

Traditional brokerage firms will offer broader portfolios and go fee-only but at costs that can top 2% a year.

In the middle are most independent financial advisers, who tend to charge fees near 1% of assets, more for small accounts and less for bigger ones.

An extra percent or two, pulled from an account every year, can cost a long-term investor hundreds of thousands of dollars at the end of the day, so fees do matter.

Consider Generic Advice

A lot of lip service is given to selling the idea that everyone needs personalized and customized financial advice.

That’s true for people who have ultra-high net worth, with businesses, estates, tax issues and the like to manage. It’s also true of people who have very special situations, such as handicapped children who will need lifelong care.

But it may not be true of the average Joe and Jane, who simply need tips on how to invest their 401(k) or IRA fund.

Companies like T. Rowe Price, Vanguard and Fidelity will give you basic fund guidance for free, or close to it.

Remember the Robots

Companies like Wealthfront, Betterment and Hedgeable will invest your money for you in diversified portfolios regularly rebalanced and managed, if you need that, to minimize taxes.

They will charge pennies on the dollar of what a face-to-face individualized money manager will charge, and in some cases offer that for free.

They offer a reasonable solution for investors who know how much they have to invest, don’t need hand-holding, and are comfortable turning their finances over to an algorithm and sticking with passive index-linnked investing.

Here’s encouragement: Over long swaths of time, those passively-managed portfolios tend to beat the active investment managers.

MONEY women and investing

Why Wall Street Is Wooing Women and Their Future Wealth

Businesswomen in a black car
Riccardo Savi—Getty Images

Women will receive 70% of inherited wealth over the next two generations, and Wall Street wants their business. Here's what you—and the advisers wooing you—need to know.

Is there a target on the back of my dress? Because it feels like there is a target on the back of my dress.

It was painted there by the financial services industry, which has grown hyper-aware of the fact that women have a lot of money and are about to have a lot more.

According to a 2009 study from the Boston College’s Center on Wealth and Philanthropy, women will inherit 70% of the money that gets passed down over the next two generations, and that excludes the increasing amounts they earn on their own. Women already own more than half of the investable assets in the United States.

Companies like Bank of America’s Merrill Lynch, Prudential Financial, and TD Ameritrade are studying the investing behavior of women, in the hopes of winning more of our dollars.

They know that when a husband dies, his widow often switches money managers.

Indeed, the Certified Financial Planning Board of Standards is trying to lure more women to the business of financial advice.

Sallie Krawcheck, who ran Merrill at Bank of America, recently bought a women’s network and started a mutual fund that seeks to invest in companies led or heavily influenced by women.

Last week, Barclay’s Bank moved in the same direction, creating a Women in Leadership index and related investments.

It’s great to be wooed, but it’s also scary to be the focus of a great marketing effort. It could all end badly if the industry simply pink-washes inferior financial products.

Here are a few bits of advice for women and Wall Street, as they circle each other warily:

Questions

There will be questions. Women are infamous in some financial advisory circles because we ask so many more questions than men. That is good. Do not invest in something you don’t understand. Advisers who want us to invest in complex products and services need to be willing to explain them clearly and simply.

Female Advisers Not Necessary

We don’t need our advisers to be women. It’s not like going to a gynecologist. A male financial adviser is fine with me, as long as he’s competent, straightforward and good with my money.

We also don’t need pink folders for our statements or ladies’ investment products. We like green, and want the products and services that will secure our money and make it grow.

Funds that invest in women-led companies may do well in the future; there’s some research that diverse boards govern winning companies. But women and men should be cautioned not to be over-dependent on niche funds and not to overpay for them.

Keep Costs Low

Women control most household income and tend to be price and budget conscious. So don’t try to win us with high-priced mutual funds when there are less expensive ones that do the job.

Don’t charge us a lot to recommend a generic plain-vanilla index fund portfolio we could find on our own.

Women, Worry Less

Survey after survey reveal that women are more afraid of managing money than men (which is not the same thing as being worse at it) and they are more afraid of market risks than are men.

Women keep a lower proportion of their money in stocks than men do, even though women live longer and the stock market has long proven itself to be the best place for long-term investors to keep money.

Advisers, Worry More

A good adviser won’t prey on those fears; she or he will help female clients overcome their worries and invest in low-cost products that balance risks and rewards.

And if they don’t? There’s another new company out there that is explicitly targeting women investors. It’s called FireMyAdvisor.com.

MONEY 401(k)s

The New 401(k) Income Option That Kicks In When You’re Old

The U.S. Treasury allows savers to buy deferred annuities in their retirement plans. But no need to rush in now.

The U.S. Treasury Department has just given a tax break and its blessings to retirement savers who want to buy long-term deferred annuities in their 401(k) and individual retirement accounts.

The new rule focuses on a particular kind of annuity. These so-called deferred “longevity” plans kick in with guaranteed income when the buyer turns, say, 80 or 85 years old. For example, a 60-year-old man who spent $50,000 on a longevity annuity from New York Life could lock in $17,614 in annual benefits when he turned 80, the company said.

Like most insurance policies and traditional pension plans, these “longevity” plans take advantage of the pooling of many lives. Not everyone will live beyond 80 or 85, so those who do so can collect more income than they would have been able to produce on their own.

That takes the worry of outliving your money off the table. It also lets you take bigger retirement withdrawals in the years between 60 and 80. A saver who put 10% of her nest egg into one of these policies could withdraw as much as 6% of her retirement account in the first year instead of the safer and more traditional amount of 4 percent, estimates Christopher Van Slyke, an Austin, Texas, financial adviser.

A fee-only planner who tends to view many insurance products with some skepticism, Van Slyke likes these longevity plans for those reasons and because they convey a tax break, too: IRA and 401(k) money spent on these policies—up to 25% of the account’s value or $125,000, whichever is less—is exempt from the required minimum distribution rules that force savers over 70 1/2 to make withdrawals that count as taxable income.

The insurance industry loves this new rule, too, so consumers can be excused for taking some time to consider all the costs and angles. Treasury official J. Mark Iwry announced the new rule—declared effective immediately— at an annuities industry conference on Tuesday, and it was a crowd pleaser.

Related: Where are you on the Road to Wealth?

For retirement savers, the math just got harder. Should you buy such a plan? If so, when and how? What should you look for? Here are some considerations.

* You don’t have to rush. The younger you are, the cheaper these annuities are. A 40-year-old male putting down that same $50,000 with New York Life would get $31,414 in monthly benefits—almost twice the payout of the 60-year-old. But there’s a downside to that: Most do not have built-in inflation protection, points out David Hultstrom, a Woodstock, Georgia, financial adviser. So if you’re buying a $1,200-a-month benefit now but not collecting it for 20 years, you’ll be disappointed with its buying power. At a moderate 3% annual inflation rate, in 20 years that $1,200 would cover what $664 buys now.

* There are other reasons to wait. These policies are relatively new, and the Treasury’s rule “will open the floodgates,” Van Slyke says. Expect heightened competition to improve the policies. Furthermore, annuity payouts are always calculated on the basis of current interest rates, which remain near historic lows. A policy bought in a few years, in a (presumably) higher interest-rate environment probably would provide higher levels of income.

* Age 70 might be a good time to jump for those with lots of assets. Those required taxable distributions start the year you turn 70 1/2, so if you’re worried about the tax hit of taking big mandatory distributions, you could pull some money out of the taxable equation by buying one of these policies with it. Your benefits would be taxable as income in the year you receive them.

* Social Security is the best annuity. Before you spend money to buy an annuity, use money you have to defer starting your Social Security benefits as long as possible. Your monthly benefit check will go up by roughly 8% a year for every year after 62 that you defer starting your benefits. Social Security benefits are inflation protected, unlike these annuities.

* Think of your heirs. Money spent to buy an annuity is gone, baby, gone, so you can’t leave it to your kids. Some of these annuities will offer “return of premium” provisions. That means that if you die before you’ve received your purchase price back in monthly checks, your heirs can get the rest back. But that will probably cost you something in the first place. New York Life, for example, shaves almost $4,000 a year of annual payout for the 60-year-old who wants to add that protection to his policy. The heirs would get only cash that has been falling in value for all the years you’ve held the policy, not any income on that cash.

* This won’t solve your long-term care problems. The more money you have tied up in an annuity when you need round-the-clock nursing care, the less you have available to pay for that care. So if you want to use a longevity annuity to give yourself some income in those later years, you should also assure you have the big bad expenses covered. That means setting aside enough other money to pay the $7,000 to $10,000 a month it can cost for full-time nursing care, or buying a long-term care insurance policy you have faith in and can afford.

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