MONEY Ask the Expert

How to Invest an Inheritance

Investing illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I’m 22 years old and inherited quite a bit of money from a parent who passed away. What is the best thing to do with the money in terms of investing and long-term growth? — Val

Step One:
Before all else, you want to look at how this money fits into your overall finances, says Ken Moraif, a certified financial planner and senior advisor with Dallas wealth management firm Money Matters.

Do you have high-interest debt, such as a car loan or credit cards? If you do, it makes sense to use some of this gift to pay off the debt, says Moraif — but don’t use it as a license to overspend.

On the other hand, if you have a mortgage outstanding, hang onto that. After factoring for low rates and tax deductions for interest on that loan, your inheritance is better put to work elsewhere. Ditto for student loans, for which interest may also be tax deductible.

Step Two:
Take a look at your cash cushion. If you don’t have one, consider tucking away a small portion of your inheritance in a savings account. Ideally, you want to set aside enough to cover three to six months of expenses. By keeping some cash on the sidelines, you won’t have to tap your investments (perhaps at an inopportune time) if you get into a bind.

Step Three:
Before you think about specific investments, you’ll want to figure out the best investment vehicle for you. If you have access to a tax-advantaged 401(k) retirement plan, bump up your contributions so you’re on track to contribute the maximum ($18,000 in 2015).

The money will need to come from your paycheck, says Moraif, but you can use some of your inheritance to supplement your income if need be. Likewise, you can also set up a Roth IRA and tuck away up to $5,500 a year.

In a Roth, you won’t be able to make tax-free contributions, but your investments will grow tax free and won’t be subject to tax when you withdraw – assuming you do so after age 59½. “You want to take full advantage of any tax breaks,” says Moraif. “Those are grand slams.”

Step Four:
With the ground work laid, then you can finally look at where exactly to invest your money. The answer will depend on how much you inherited and how much you ultimately think you need.

If you are looking for a single place to park your inheritance over the long term, look for a low-cost index fund that offers broad, inexpensive exposure. The Vanguard Total Market Index fund (VTSMX), for example, holds more than 3,700 U.S. stocks of all sizes, across virtually all sectors.

This is a good place to start, but you will eventually want to look at further diversifying with international stock fund, alternative funds and even bond funds. If your retirement plan or brokerage offers target-date funds, this is one way to get the right balance. These funds base their allocation (mix of stocks and bonds) for your target retirement age and automatically shift the allocation as you get closer to your retirement date.

Of course, depending on just how large of an inheritance you’re talking about, you may want a more tailored allocation – one that is just aggressive enough to get your nest egg to where you need it.

“Your asset allocation should be a function of your hurdle rate,” he says. “You only want to take as much risk as is necessary to accomplish your financial goals.”

Read next: Buying or Selling a Home in 2015? Here’s What You Need to Know

TIME stocks

Biggest Gains for U.S. Stocks in Years

Traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on Dec. 18, 2014.
Traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on Dec. 18, 2014. Andrew Burton—Getty Images

The rally marked the biggest two-day increase for the Dow Jones index in three years

U.S. stock indexes surged Thursday, with the Dow rallying over 400 points, driven higher by reassurances from the Federal Reserve that it won’t imminently raise interest rates.

The broad S&P 500 index posted its biggest jump in nearly two years, extending a Fed-fueled rally from the previous day, as tech shares gained after stronger-than-expected results from business software giant Oracle.

The Dow Industrials also posted big gains following a rally in the prior trading session, marking the biggest two-session percent increase for blue-chip index since November 2011, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The Dow Jones industrial average closed the day up 421 points, or 2.4%, while the S&P 500 gained 48 points, or 2.4%, and the Nasdaq composite added 104 points, or 2.2%.

Stock indexes rallied as investors continued to find good cheer in the Federal Reserve’s accommodative approach to monetary policy. On Wednesday, the Fed said it would be patient about the timing of its first rate hike, suggesting its expected increases will be slow and steady.

—Reuters contributed to this report.

This article originally appeared on Fortune.com

MONEY Federal Reserve

Fed Leaves Rates Unchanged, Signals Cautious Stance

Janet Yellen
Federal Reserve Bank Board Chairman Janet Yellen Chip Somodevilla—Getty Images

The Federal Reserve kept interest rates near zero -- and surprised many by not hinting at higher rates.

The Federal Reserve’s Open Markets Committee left interest rates unchanged Wednesday. But in a minor surprise, the central bank declined the opportunity to drop a widely expected hint that it was inching closer to raising rates.

Many on Wall Street and in the financial media had expected the central bank, which wrapped up a two-day meeting in Washington on Wednesday, to prepare markets for higher rates by changing the language of its closely watched economic statement.

The Fed had previously and repeatedly reassured investors that rates would remain low for “a considerable time.” With the U.S. economy steadily improving, many economists expected the phrase to be dropped. But it reappeared in Wednesday’s release.

The Fed’s language did change ever so slightly. The committee, it said, “judges that it can be patient in beginning to normalize the stance of monetary policy.” But it went on to add that it viewed this new assessment as “consistent” with its previous reassurances that the hike would come after a “considerable time.”

The tweaks to the Federal Reserve’s assessment come at a time when the U.S. economy is finally showing signs of sustained strength, with robust third-quarter GDP growth of 3.9% and a November jobs report that was widely regarded as one of the best in months.

But the Fed may have found reason for caution in the stock market’s recent skittishness. Prompted by plunging oil prices and a brewing crisis in Russia, shares have fallen about 5% since December 5. Investors appeared to react positively to the announcement. The Dow had already rallied about 150 points early Wednesday afternoon as news broke that the U.S. planned to normalize relations with Cuba. Immediately following the Fed’s announcement, the Dow was at 17,340, up about 272 points.

 

 

 

 

MONEY Taxes

How to Keep Stock Gains From Hiking Your Tax Bill

By following a few simple steps, you can make sure gains in your portfolio don't result in a big gain in your tax bill.

MONEY Millennials

How to Make Money Off Millennials in 2015

People doing "the wave" in a stadium
Doug Pensinger—Getty Images

In 2015, the oldest wave of millennials turns (gulp) 35—a milestone with significant implications for the job market, stocks, and the economy at large.

You hear a lot about the drag that the graying of the baby boomers could have on long-term economic growth. What’s often overlooked, though, is the fact that the U.S. will be golden on another demographic front: The biggest birth year in the bigger-than-boomer millennial generation turns 25 in 2015, while the oldest wave turns 35. These are significant milestones not only for those who get a slice of birthday cake but for the economy at large.

After all, 25 is when one’s career starts to get into full swing. While the unemployment rate for 20- to 24-year-olds is 11%, it’s 6% among 25- to 34-year-olds. For those with college degrees, the rate drops to 5%. Meanwhile, the mid-thirties are “when you hit higher-earning years, are more inclined to get married, and start putting money into the stock and real estate markets,” says Alejandra Grindal, senior international economist for Ned Davis Research. Plus, “productivity growth tends to peak when workers are 30 to 35,” says Rob Arnott, chairman of investment firm Research Affiliates.

Here’s how you can profit from millennial-driven growth.

Favor U.S. stocks. The stock market has tended to take off when the number of workers 35 to 49 has surged. Boomers aging into this bracket, for example, coincided with one of the longest bull markets, from 1982 to 1999.

As a metric, investment pros look at the M/Y ratio, which is “mature” workers (ages 35 to 49) divided by young ones (20 to 34). The U.S. M/Y ratio has been declining since 2000 but will begin rebounding in 2015 and is expected to climb through 2029. “Certainly this improves opportunities here relative to Europe and Japan,” where the ratio is in decline, says Arnott.

Research from Vanguard shows you get almost as much of the diversification benefit of keeping 40% of your stock portfolio overseas by having just 20% abroad. So in 2015, shift to the low end, especially since Europe and Japan may be headed for recession (again).

rescue

Profit off their nesting. Three-quarters of Gen Y-ers surveyed last year by the Demand Institute planned to move in the next five years, many out of their parents’ homes. Capitalize on this trend by buying home-related stocks. Gain exposure via SPDR S&P Homebuilders ETF, which counts Bed Bath & Beyond, Home Depot, and Williams-Sonoma among its top holdings besides homebuilders. The ETF’s stocks trade at about 10% less than consumer stocks in general, owing to the slower-than-hoped real estate rebound.

Shoot for the middle on college. With the bulk of millennials past their undergrad years, college enrollment has been falling since 2011. Many schools are discounting tuition to lure students. If your child is applying, “don’t get your heart set on universities in cities on the coasts,” says Lynn O’Shaughnessy, author of the College Solution blog. Schools in the middle of the country, less in demand, may offer better deals. Also consider smaller mid-tier colleges, adds Robert Massa, former head of admissions at Johns Hopkins.

Illinois Institute of Technology, DePauw University, and Rockhurst University are three Midwest schools on MONEY’s Best Colleges list that recently offered first-year students average grant aid of at least 50% of published tuition, according to government data.

Read next:
5 Ways to Prosper in 2015
Here’s Why 2015 Will Be a Good Year for Stocks
Here’s What to Expect from the Job Market in 2015

 

MONEY Federal Reserve

What Will the Fed Do Today? These Five Numbers Can Tell Us

With the economy and job markets finally looking healthy, the Federal Reserve may signal its first interest rate hike in years.

While you’ve been doing your Christmas shopping, the Federal Reserve’s Open Markets Committee — the club of officials who set short-term interest rates — has been meeting in Washington.

With the economy finally humming along, and interest rates still close to zero, market watchers are wondering how much longer the Fed will hold out before signaling its first rate hike since before the financial crisis.

That step isn’t likely to be taken Wednesday, when the two-day meeting concludes and the Fed issues an official statement. But economists do expect a significant change in the language that the Fed uses to telegraphs its policies.

In particular, the central bank has consistently stated that it will keep rates low for a “considerable time.” But a recent survey conducted by Bloomberg found that four-fifths of economists believe the Fed will drop the phrase today in order to signal a more aggressive time table — and that rates are actually likely to rise in the middle of next year.

In the meantime, here are five data points the Committee is likely discussing. The statement comes out at 2 p.m.

 

GDP

GDP

The economy is growing at a healthy pace. After a blip earlier this year — widely attributed to 2013’s severe winter — the economy grew 3.9% in the third quarter. Hiking interest rates would presumably help fight off unwanted inflation. But it would also slow economic growth and could even throw the country back into a recession. That was a much bigger risk when growth was crawling along at 1% to 2% rate. With growth close to 4%, the Fed may finally be getting ready to move.

 

Payroll

Jobs

Of course, GDP growth doesn’t mean much if you can’t actually get a job. And the employment picture has been downright sluggish in recent years, even at times when the broader economy was showing signs of life. But that’s finally started to change. The most recent jobs report, which showed the economy adding 321,000 jobs in November, was widely regarded as one of the best in years.

 

Inflation

Inflation

While GDP and jobs growth may be robust enough to justify an interest rate hike, the Fed may remain cautious for several reasons. The first one is that there is not much forcing its hand. Interest rates hikes are the central bank’s main weapon for fighting inflation. But with prices rising at less than 2%, there’s not much inflation to fight. That’s good news, meaning the Fed has flexibility to keep rates low if it seems helpful.

 

stocks

Stocks

Like the economy more broadly, the stock market is doing well — up about 12% so far this year. Nonetheless the Fed will want to avoid roiling markets with unexpected news. That’s what happened during 2013’s “taper tantrum” when markets slumped after the Fed let slip plans to taper off its stimulative bond purchases. Since economists are widely expecting the Fed to hint at higher interest rates, that seems unlikely this time…but markets are always fickle.

 

oil

Oil

While the U.S. may be looking rosier, there’s still plenty to worry about in the rest of the world. One dramatic manifestation of these fears: the sudden, sharp drop in oil prices. Booming economies tend to use a lot of energy. Weakening ones less so. In many ways cheap oil helps the U.S. It’s certainly been a boon to Detroit. But it can also have destabilizing effects. It’s the key reason the ruble has crashed in the past few days. It’s also the prime suspect in the U.S. stock market swoon in past two weeks. Shares have fallen nearly 5% since Dec. 5, including 112 points on Tuesday. Those jitters are one more reason the Fed may choose to tread carefully.

MONEY Food & Drink

Chipotle CEO Freely Admits He’s Unsure About the Company’s Future

A restaurant worker fills an order at a Chipotle restaurant in Miami, Florida.
Joe Raedle—Getty Images

And that's great news for investors.

When Chipotle Mexican Grill CHIPOTLE MEXICAN GRILL INC. CMG -0.6376% released third-quarter results in October, the numbers were awe-inspiring.

Revenue jumped 31.1% year over year to $1.08 billion, helped by an amazing 19.8% increase in comparable-restaurant sales. Meanwhile, restaurant level operating margin climbed by 200 basis points to 28.8%, cash generated from operating activities rose 41.4% to $549.8 million, and net income increased a whopping 56.9% to $130.8 million.

However, the market was much less enthusiastic about Chipotle’s guidance, driving shares down 7% after the burrito maker called for 2015 comparable-restaurant sales to increase in the low- to mid-single digit range. During the subsequent conference call, analysts unsurprisingly grilled Chipotle management on exactly how they reached that range. After all, it seemed especially conservative considering Chipotle’s Q3 performance had just capped a six-quarter streak of accelerating comps growth.

Chipotle doesn’t have a clue

Here’s how Chipotle Chairman and co-CEO Steve Ells responded:

We don’t spend a lot of time trying to predict how we are going to leap over that number. What we do is, we take our current sales trends and we literally just push them out over the next 14 months — for the rest of this year and then for all of 2015. … This is the way we have always predicted comps. … [W]e really don’t have a magic approach or a crystal ball to predict how you are going to exceed like a 19% comp, for example.

Translation? Chipotle is happily ignorant when it comes to determining precisely what future comps will be. The company simply extrapolate sales trends out, as it always has, to get a rough ballpark figure of what the coming year might look like.

Why this is a great thing

And to be honest, though that might seem unsettling, I think Chipotle investors should be perfectly happy with this approach for two reasons.

First, though it’s true comps give us an idea of how effectively Chipotle is drawing in new customers and keeping them coming back for more, it’s far from a perfect metric to gauge the long-term prospects of the business. Comps tend to naturally ebb and flow with irregular events like price increases, as well as difficult (or easy) year-over-year comparisons. In the end, I’m relatively unconcerned that Chipotle’s not-so-scientific approach at modeling comps predicts it may finally decelerate growth from 19.8% — which, by the way, was its best result since going public in 2006.

On the other hand, I suppose near-term disappointments with comparable-store sales do create buying windows for opportunistic investors.

Second, note Chipotle is focusing on what really matters instead. Ells elaborated:

We are constantly working on improving our customer experience, we are constantly working on improving our people culture, and we are constantly looking to upgrade the quality of our ingredients. … So we are constantly working on the things that will enhance the dining experience. And over the years it has paid off, so that when we do a good job, when we have great teams, and when they do a good job of providing a great dining experience, customers want to come back to Chipotle more often.

Notice nowhere in that comment were actual comps mentioned. Rather, Ells has a singular focus on improving the Chipotle experience for customers, from fostering its amiable culture all the way down to improving the quality of its already excellent food.

In short, he’s thinking about Chipotle Mexican Grill not just as a stock ticker or piece of paper, but rather as the living, thriving, growing business it truly is. From an investor’s standpoint, it’s hard to think of a better way to create shareholder value than that.

MONEY Markets

Why Russia Is Destroying Its Own Economy

A woman walks past a board listing foreign currency rates against the Russian ruble outside an exchange office in central Moscow on December 16, 2014. The Russian ruble set a new all-time record low on Tuesday after bouncing back briefly despite an emergency move by Russia's central bank to raise interest rates to 17 percent.
Kirill Kudryavtsev—AFP/Getty Images

In short, because Russia has a problem more urgent than its declining GDP.

Things aren’t exactly going well in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Oil prices have fallen to $59 a barrel and the nation’s economy is on pace to contract between 4.5% and 4.7%—more than twice the contraction caused by our own Great Recession—if that price remains at $60 or below. Meanwhile, Russia is straining against American and European sanctions that are putting even more pressure on the country’s finances.

When the United States was facing recession, our Federal Reserve lowered interest rates to near-zero levels—and has kept them there. That stimulated the economy by making spending and investing more attractive (credit was cheap) and turning saving into a losing proposition (on top of low interest payments, money in the bank could potentially be eaten away by inflation).

But Russia has apparently adopted the opposite strategy. Instead of lowering rates to spur investment, the nation’s central bank has raised its key rate to a whopping 17%. That means simply leaving rubles in the bank will lead to extraordinarily high risk-free returns. Unless businesses can find an investment opportunity that will make them even higher returns, a very tall order, there’s no point in withdrawing any money. Why spend on a new store or factory when you’ll make more just letting your cash sit in a vault?

Read more Gorbachev Blames the U.S. for Provoking a ‘New Cold War’

It’s very likely, in other words, that Russia’s higher interest rates will slow its already slowing economy. Rosnef, a state-owned oil company, has already accused the central bank of “pushing Russia towards recession.”

But if that’s true, then why is Russia pursuing such a policy? The reason is that Russia has an arguably even more urgent problem than its slowing economy. Russia’s currency, the ruble, has been in free-fall as oil prices have dropped, and is now down 47% against the dollar since the beginning of the year. This is a big problem for Russian companies that need to pay their debt in dollars, and whose rubles are now worth nothing on international markets. Worse, Western economic sanctions have prevented businesses from accessing reserves of foreign currencies overseas. Without drastic action, Russia could find its economy permanently crippled by an all-but-worthless currency.

Since people selling their rubles for dollars is what’s pushing the currency down, the central bank has raised interest rates to make holding on to rubles more attractive. That’s meant to keep the currency’s value up, even at the expense of short-term economic growth.

The plan doesn’t appear to be working, however. Even after a massive jump in interest rates, the ruble has continued to crater. Economists are now suggesting Russia may be forced to impose capital controls—policies that would make trading rubles for dollars more difficult or expensive, or require exporters to convert dollars to rubles—to prevent a further sell-off.

Ultimately, anything short of an increase in oil prices is unlikely to do much good. Oil and gas revenues make up roughly half of Russia’s budget, and without that money, the country is in for rough times. “The central bank was too late with its move,” one expert told Bloomberg. “Without oil and the economy stabilizing, the ruble won’t rise.”

Read next: What Russia’s Ruble Collapse Means for the World

MONEY stock market

Why Nobody Should Have Believed the $72 Million High School Stock Trader Rumor

disappearing stack of cash
Walker and Walker—Getty Images

We should have just done the math.

Now that high school senior Mohammed Islam has admitted to New York Observer editor (and former MONEY columnist) Ken Kurson that he completely made up that whole stock-trading boy-genius gazillionaire story, the Twittersphere is condemning New York magazine (and writer Jessica Pressler) for what’s assumed to be sloppy fact-checking.

There’s no doubt that the situation is embarrassing, and that the still-posted article — a section of the magazine’s “Reasons to Love New York” feature that already went through a headline revision Monday (“Because a Stuyvesant Senior Made $72 Million Trading Stocks …” became “Because a Stuyvesant Senior Made Millions Picking Stocks …”) — will need to be corrected further.

It now appears that there are no millions. Not the rumored 72. None.

Still, there’s an argument that Pressler and New York are not solely culpable for yesterday’s media circus. Let’s be honest: Many in the media who covered and disseminated this story (including, albeit very skeptically, MONEY) are New York-based media types, proud of our city and its if-you-can-make-it-here-you-can-make-it-anywhere mythology.

Taken at its word, the story felt like an ode to free markets and the American Dream. From hobbyists to professionals, investors are thrilled by the idea that with enough smarts and hard work anyone can go from rags to riches, no matter where they start. If an industrious first-generation American can build a massive fortune between the age of 9 and 17, you can too, right?

There’s a term for this impulse, in fact: “confirmation bias,” which is what experts call the common human tendency to seek out only information that confirms what we already think — or want to think.

The fact is, we should have done the math, as the graph and explanation below show.

Screen Shot 2014-12-16 at 8.44.58 AM
Source: MONEY calculations

In New York and other publications, Islam claimed he started trading using money from tutoring while he was in middle school. His starting age was given as either 9 or 11. Lets assume he had started at 9, in 2006. Then let’s assume he was exceptionally industrious with his tutoring, allowing him to start with $10,000 in savings. In order to end up with $72 million dollars by his senior year, Islam would have had to post average annual returns of 168% from age 9 to 17. That’s staggeringly unlikely.

But let’s take it further: Imagine that someone had spotted Islam’s prodigious talent and given him $100,000 to play with in the markets. Even then he would have had to return an average of 108% annually. That’s more than five times Warren Buffett’s average returns of 20%. And he would have had to do it every year for nearly a decade.

In other words, Islam’s story was preposterously unlikely even if we’d given him all of the benefits of all of our doubts.

Other stories of investing prodigies have come out recently, including one about a New Jersey teen who claims he turned $10,000 into $300,000 trading penny stocks, a feat that would require a one-year return of nearly 3,000% (which is improbable though not impossible). The reporter on that story seems more confident in his fact checking.

Bottom line: $72 million is an insane amount of money to make from scratch while day trading. Pressler originally did call it “unbelievable,” and that’s what it should have been, for all of us.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser