MONEY Ask the Expert

The Surefire Way Not to Lose Money on Your Bond Investments

Ask the Expert Retirement illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I am leaning toward buying individual bonds and creating a bond ladder instead of a bond fund for my retirement portfolio. What are the pros and cons?—Roy Johnson, Troy, N.Y.

A: If you’re worried about interest rates rising—and many people are—buying individual bonds instead of putting some of your retirement money into a bond fund has some definite advantages, says Ryan Wibberley, CEO of CIC Wealth in Gaithersburg, Maryland. There are also some drawbacks, which we’ll get to in a moment.

First, some bond background. Rising interest rates are bad for fixed-income investments. That’s because when rates rise, the prices of bonds fall. That can cause short-term damage to bond funds. If rates spike and investors start pulling their money out of the fund, the manager may need to sell bonds at lower prices to raise cash. That would cause the net asset value of the fund to drop and erode returns.

By contrast, if you buy individual bonds and hold them to maturity, you won’t see those daily price moves. And you’ll collect your interest payments and get the bond’s face value when it comes due (assuming no credit problems), even if rates go up. So you never lose your principal. “You are guaranteed to get your money back,” says Wibberley. But with individual bonds, you will need to figure out how to reinvest that money.

One solution is to create a laddered portfolio. With this strategy, you simply buy bonds of different maturities. As each one matures, you can reinvest in a bond with a similar maturity and capture the higher yield if interest rates are rising (or accept lower yield if rates fall). All in all, it’s a sound option for retirees who seek steady income and want to protect their bond investments from higher rates.

The simplest and cheapest way to create a bond ladder is through government bonds. You can buy Treasury securities for free at TreasuryDirect.gov. You can also buy Treasuries through your bank or broker, but you’ll likely be charged fees for the transaction.

Now for the downside of bond ladders: To get the diversification you need, you should hold a mix of not only Treasuries but corporate bonds, which can be more costly to buy as a retail investor. Generally you must purchase bonds in minimum denominations, often $1,000. So to make this strategy cost-effective, you should have a portfolio of $100,000 or more.

With corporates, however, you’ll find higher yields than Treasuries offer. For safety, stick with corporate bonds that carry the highest ratings. And don’t chase yields. “Bonds with very high yields are often a sign of trouble,” says Jay Sommariva, senior portfolio manager at Fort Pitt Capital Group in Pittsburgh.

An easier option, and one that requires less cash, may be to build a bond ladder with exchange-traded bond funds. Two big ETF providers, Guggenheim and BlackRock’s iShares, now offer so-called defined-maturity or target-maturity ETFs that can be used to build a bond ladder using Treasury, corporate, high-yield or municipal bonds.

Of course, bond funds have advantages too. You don’t need a big sum to invest. And a bond fund gives you professional management and instant diversification, since it holds hundreds of different securities that mature at different dates.

Funds also provide liquidity because you can redeem shares at any time. With individual bonds, you also can sell when you want, but if you do it before maturity, you may get not get back the full value of your original investment.

There’s no one-size-fits all strategy for bond investing in retirement. A low-cost bond fund is a good option for those who prefer to avoid the hassle of managing individual bonds and who may not have a large sum to invest. “But if you want a predictable income stream and protection from rising rates, a bond ladder is a more prudent choice,” Sommariva says.

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

Read next: Here’s the Retirement Income Mistake Most Americans Are Making

MONEY home improvement

The Best Kitchen Countertop for Your Money

For Sale sign illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I’ve been dreaming of granite countertops for years, but now that I’m finally planning my kitchen redo, I’m seeing “quartz” in all the showrooms. What exactly is it, and should I use it instead?

A: Quartz is another way of referring to “engineered stone” countertops—manmade surfaces created from chunks of stone mixed with resins and coloring. (This is not to be confused with “quartzite” or “natural quartz,” both of which refer to a solid-stone alternative to granite.)

Manufactured quartz is now the leading countertop material in the land, according to the National Kitchen and Bath Association. It surpassed granite in 2014, at least for kitchens created by NKBA members. (We’re betting granite still wins if you count all of the kitchens built without a professional designer.)

Quartz has many advantages over granite, including that it’s impervious to stains and stands up to acidic foods, and it does this without ever needing to be sealed. It’s also far more scratch and chip resistant—and it’s generally considered a greener choice because it’s made from waste stone and therefore doesn’t require mining slabs or shipping them around the globe, both of which are carbon-intensive processes for natural granite and marble.

The downside to quartz—at least for some people—has always been that the patterns looked so uniform and consistent that they don’t quite pull off the look of real stone. But lately manufacturers have figured out how to create irregularity in their quartz, effectively mimicking the natural-looking variegation of granite and even the swirls of marble, in a nearly indestructible material.

“Gone are the days of flecked quartz countertops,” says Sacramento kitchen designer Kerrie Kelly. “Now there is movement and veining that mimics the look of real stone.” She no longer even displays granite in her showroom and only shows marble as a backsplash material. “It’s all about functionality today,” she says. “From furniture fabric to tile grout to countertops, low maintenance is the trump card.”

Quartz generally runs about $80 per square foot (installed), Kelly says, putting it right in the middle between granite (about $75) and marble (about $85). Some of the leading brand names include Silestone, Zodiaq, Cambria, and Caesarstone.

If you’re curious, here are the countertop materials most commonly specified by kitchen designers last year, according to the NKBA:

  • Quartz—88%
  • Granite—83%
  • Marble—43%
  • Solid surface—43%
  • Butcher block—35%
  • Other wood—29%
  • Other stone—26%
  • Recycled countertops—22%
  • Stainless steel—17%
  • Concrete—13%
  • Glass—11%
  • Tile—6%
MONEY Ask the Expert

How to Pick an Appraiser to Value Your Heirlooms or Collectibles

Ask the Expert - Family Finance illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: “I inherited quite a large stamp collection. I am sure there are a few valuable ones in there, but aside from quitting my job to spend eight hours a day sorting through them one at a time, what are my options for getting it appraised?” — Russell, Melbourne, Fla.

A: The key thing you need to beware of when seeking out an expert to value an heirloom is conflict of interest: You don’t want the person evaluating your property to have an active interest in purchasing it.

So rather than simply walking into any antique shop or auction house and asking for an appraisal, instead hire a certified appraiser. You’re more likely to get a fair judgement from such an individual because it’s a violation of his or her professional ethics to offer to buy an item he has been hired to appraise.

You can find a certified appraiser in your area specializing in stamps—or any other type of collectible, antique or valuable—via the websites of the three major appraiser organizations: International Society of Appraisers, American Society of Appraisers, or Appraiser Association of America. Each member’s profile should list his or her certification level and background in appraising property similar to yours.

Appraisers might charge a flat fee or an hourly rate starting at $150, says Cindy Charleston-Rosenberg, president of the International Society of Appraisers. (You should avoid those who charge a fee based on a percentage of the item’s value.) Depending on location and the level of expertise your property requires, the total bill may be $400 or more.

For that fee, you’ll get a written report that includes the object’s value, the procedure used to estimate this, and a full description of the item.

Be aware that an item can have different values for different purposes: For insurance or estate taxes, you need to know its retail value, or what it would cost today to purchase. For selling, you need the fair-market value or what a buyer would pay you.

If your item has a minimal value and doesn’t require a full written appraisal, Charleston-Rosenberg says she and the vast majority of appraisers will tell you its ballpark worth and waive the service fee.

“An honorable appraiser will turn away a project when an object is not worth it,” says Charleston-Rosenberg.

Often by calling an appraisal office, you can get a rough idea of whether to pursue a full consultation. Charleston-Rosenberg says she knows of appraisers who request an emailed image of an heirloom to determine if their services are actually needed.

Because your heirloom is not a single object but a larger collection, however, you will probably need to have an appraiser view the stamps in person.

More from Money 101:

Do I need an accountant to do my taxes?

What if I need more time to file my taxes?

How do you know if it makes sense to itemize?

MONEY Ask the Expert

Are Robo-Advisers Worth It?

Investing illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I downloaded the app from Personal Capital to get a better look at my finances. Is it worth the money to use their advisory service? I had a free discussion with one of their advisers and liked what they had to say, but I have a complex portfolio inherited from my parents. — Dan in Gillette, Wyo.

A: Over the last several years a new breed of technology-based financial advisory services — sometimes referred to as robo-advisers — have come on the scene in an attempt to serve investors who otherwise wouldn’t seek or couldn’t afford professional advice. Many investors don’t meet the minimum required by traditional advisers, while others are, understandably, reluctant to pay the typical 1% management fee for hands-on financial advice.

Enter the likes of Personal Capital, Wealthfront, Betterment and other services that help investors allocate, invest, monitor and rebalance their assets.

Personal Capital offers a free app that aggregates financial information on a single dashboard, and in turn uses that information to call on clients who may benefit from their advisory service, which melds technology with traditional human advice; clients and advisers communicate via phone, text, instant message and Skype.

Here’s the catch: At 0.89% for the first $1 million, the fee for Personal Capital is nearly as high as what you’d pay for a traditional advisory relationship.

“Is it worth it? We think there are several other options available that may be a better fit,” says Mel Lindauer, co-author of “The Bogleheads’ Guide to Investing” (Wiley) and a founder of the Bogleheads Forum, which focuses on low-cost, do-it-yourself investing à la Vanguard Group founder Jack Bogle.

If you’re primarily interested in help with asset allocation, he says, there are more affordable services worth checking out. Vanguard Personal Advisor Services, for example, charges 0.3% for its service. On a $1 million portfolio, that’s the difference between $8,900 a year and $3,000 a year, says Lindauer. An even cheaper option yet: target date funds, which peg their portfolios to investors’ retirement date.

Of course, asset allocation is only one piece of the financial puzzle. A good adviser can help you with everything from budgeting and taxes to estate planning.

Personal Capital advisors do work with clients on broader issues, but if your situation is truly complex, you may be better served sitting down with a traditional fee-only adviser.

MONEY Ask the Expert

How to Collect Child Support from an Ex’s Social Security Benefits

Ask the Expert - Family Finance illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: “Can I collect unpaid child support from my ex-husband’s Social Security?” — Carol

A: That depends on the kind of benefit your ex receives. If it’s Supplemental Security Income (SSI), you’re out of luck. But if he collects any other type of benefit, you can get the money you’re owed.

Because SSI is considered a welfare benefit—rather than an earned Social Security benefit like retirement, disability, or survivor benefits, which individuals pay into over their lifetimes—the federal government does not allow this income to be garnished for child support payments, says Vicki Turetsky, commissioner for the Office of Child Support Enforcement.

For other Social Security benefits, however, if your ex is collecting and is either not paying child support or owes back support, you can request that your local Social Security office garnish those benefits. (In certain circumstances, you can also make a claim if an application for Social Security is pending).

In order for the agency to do this, you’ll need to send an income withholding order issued by a judge. So you must go to court and prove that your ex has failed to fulfill his child support obligations.

If your children are still minors, you can apply for child support services offered by the state. The typical application fee is $25. This service will walk you through the legal process and is the “inexpensive route” to getting those child support funds, says Turetsky.

If your children are fully grown, you will need to hire a private attorney to help you go through the process—unless you applied for child support services when your children were minors, in which case you may be able to use the services.

Once your local Social Security office has this order, it will enter the data about your case into their database and begin withholding the child support payment, or a percentage of the total back child support that’s owed, from your ex’s benefit payments. If no benefit payments are being made, the garnishment order will remain on file, and those deductions will resume if he begins collecting again.

Under federal law, the Social Security agency can only withhold up to 65% of your ex’s monthly benefit. It may be less depending on your state law and whether your ex is supporting another child or spouse. “The government also has the authority to take your ex’s entire bank account; however, some states look at the overall financial circumstances of the noncustodial parent,” says Turetsky. “This may be the only money he has to survive on.”

If you cannot collect sufficient payments from your ex-spouse’s Social Security benefits, your state’s child support enforcement office may be able to help you get the funds you’re owed by withholding the amount from state or federal tax returns also.

MONEY Ask the Expert

When Selling Winning Stocks Makes Sense

Investing illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: Is there a benefit to taking profit on a stock that has done well over several years? It was $24 when we bought it and is $64 now. We will be in the lowest tax bracket this year and should be in a higher bracket in a later year. A planner suggested selling some, paying taxes on the profit, and repurchasing it. — Viola C.

A: “Taxes should never be the sole reason to trade a stock,” says Scott Bishop, director of financial planning at STA Wealth Management in Houston. Likewise, you can get into trouble holding a security longer than you should simply for the sake of saving a bit on taxes.

That said, there are times when selling in one year may be more opportune than selling in another.

First, you need to understand how any gains from the sale of stock will be taxed.

If you had held the shares for less than a year, they would be taxed at your marginal tax bracket, in which case an early sale would probably do nothing to improve your tax situation.

Since you’ve owned these shares for several years they will be taxed at your long-term capital gains rate. “Currently the tax rates on long-term capital gains vary depending on your income level,” says Bishop.

If you’re in the 10% or 15% marginal bracket, your long-term capital gains will be nothing. Obviously, there would be a benefit to selling before the end of this year if you expect to be in either of those brackets in 2015.

If you’re in the 25% to 35% bracket, your rate will be 15%. And if you’re in the 39.6% bracket, you’ll be taxed 20% on the gains; plus you may owe an additional 3.8% of net investment income tax stemming from the Affordable Care Act.

It’s probably helpful to do the math and see how the decision translates to dollars.

Say you own 100 shares of stock that has appreciated $40 a share. If you’re in the lowest brackets this year, selling will save you $600 versus waiting until the following year and paying at the 15% rate. If your long-term rate is 15% and you think it will be 20% next year, the difference is only $200.

“Some people get stuck in this analysis when they are talking about a pretty small dollar amount,” says Bishop, noting that you should be sure to factor for the transaction costs of a sale.

If you decide to sell, there are no rules preventing you from buying the very same stock the next day. (The only time you need to worry about this is when you sell a stock at a loss and hope to write that off against a gain.)

That said, if you wouldn’t buy the stock again at today’s prices, says Bishop, consider putting the proceeds to work somewhere else. “Don’t let biases drive the decision to buy the stock again,” he says. Just because the stock has done well so far doesn’t mean it will continue to do so.

Finally, if you’re looking at taking advantage of a lower tax bracket to sell a single stock, ask yourself if you should use this window to make more substantial changes to your portfolio. For example, maybe you’d benefit from converting some of your IRA holdings to a Roth IRA.

In doing so, you’ll owe income taxes now but have the benefit of tax-free withdrawals later. Over time, that could translate not just to hundreds of dollars in savings but possibly thousands.

MONEY home improvement

7 Things Every Remodeling Contract Must Have

Q: The builder who’s doing my family room addition handed me a fill-in-the-blanks form contract with handwritten details and numbers. It looks about as unofficial as can be. Is that a problem? What should a remodeling contract include?

A: A contract doesn’t have to be printed off a computer—or contain a bunch of legalese—to get the job done. But it should clearly state the arrangement that you and your contractor have about the project, and it sounds like this document probably doesn’t do that very well.

“Putting everything in writing helps clarify both parties’ expectations at the beginning,” says Fairfield, Conn., construction attorney Neal Moskow. “And it’s much easier to fulfill your expectations at the end if they’re clearly stated from the start.”

The safest bet is to have your attorney draw up a contract for you. But even if you choose a less formal approach, here are the basic elements Moskow recommends including—either by typing up a new document or just making handwritten changes on the existing form, as long as both you and the contractor initial each change.

 

1. A description of the project. The contract should include a project description that thoroughly outlines all of the work, materials, and products that will go into the job. That includes everything from what will be demolished to what will be constructed—and each different material and fixture that will be used, with its associated cost. It should also specify that the contractor will obtain all of the necessary permits (and close them out by getting the required certificates of occupancy) and dispose of the debris properly, and that the project is covered by his liability and workman’s compensation insurance.

2. How (and how often) the contractor will be paid. Not only should the contract state the total project price, but it should also outline the timing and amount of installment payments based on project milestones, such as when the foundation is completed, the rough plumbing and electricity are installed, or the wallboard and trim are done. Your initial payment at the start of the job should be no more than 10% of the project cost. If the contractor has to immediately place orders for expensive items such as windows or cabinets, offer to pay the supplier directly. The final payment should be at least 10%, payable only when the “punch list” (the roundup of final project details) is completed to your satisfaction.

3. Lien waivers. Here’s a scary thought: Any worker who comes to your house as part of a remodeling crew could place a lien on your property, claiming he was never paid for his work—even if you have paid the contractor in full. So write into the contract that your contractor must provide you with a “lien waver” for each installment before you pay the next one. What that means is that the invoice for each payment needs to include a signed statement indicating that the contractor used your previous payment to pay for the labor and materials described in its invoice. That gives you some legal protection against liens from him or his employees and subcontractors.

4. Approximate project dates. Discuss approximate start and end dates for the project with your contractor and write them into the contract. The point is not to hold him to an exact date but to ensure that you both have an understanding of when work will commence and—barring weather interruptions or major plan changes—about when it will be completed.

5. A procedure for changes. Write in that no changes to the original plan can commence until the contractor has given you a clear description of the new work, how much it will cost, and how it will affect the schedule—and until you have given written approval. Change orders should be done with pen and ink (or by text or email). If you ever make a verbal agreement on the fly, follow up with an email to the contractor restating the details and your approval, and ask him to respond with a confirming email that you got the details right, so you have a written record.

6. An escape hatch. Some states’ consumer protection laws give homeowners three days to rescind a contract without penalty. And it’s a good idea to write in just such protection for yourself if you’re not in one of them. This prevents you from losing your deposit if, for example, you sign the contract and then find out that there’s a problem with your credit line and you don’t have the funds you thought you did.

7. Signatures. A contract isn’t a binding legal document unless it’s signed by both parties—and in some states, it also must include the contractor’s license number and both of your addresses.

Read next: What Your Contractor Really Means When He Says…

 

MONEY Ask the Expert

When It Comes to Muni Funds, Does Location Matter?

Investing illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I live in New York state and currently invest in a high-yield municipal bond fund. Should I switch to a tax-exempt New York muni fund? — Connie

A: There are lots of considerations when weighing the pros and cons of a high-yield bond fund that invests nationally versus a state-specific municipal bond fund.

The three big ones: “You want to think about taxes, volatility and credit quality,” says Stephen DeCesare, a certified financial planner and president of DeCesare Retirement Specialists in Marlton, NJ.

Let’s start with taxes, since that is the primary perk of investing in municipal bonds, which are issued by local and state government entities to cover general expenses or fund specific projects. Most, but not all, municipal bonds are exempt from federal income taxes, which is a selling point in and of itself.

If you’re in the 28% tax bracket, for example, a 3% yield on a tax-exempt muni is the equivalent of a 4.17% taxable bond. You can run your own numbers using this simple Vanguard calculator.

There are, of course, caveats, such as if you owe the alternative minimum tax. Also, gains on principal are subject to capital gains tax. Likewise, it generally doesn’t make sense to own tax-exempt municipal bonds in a tax-deferred retirement account.

That said, because you live in a state with high-income taxes – New York’s top rate is 8.8% — narrowing your focus to New York can further sweeten the tax side of the deal.

If you lived in a state with low income taxes, however, you might be better off in a national tax-exempt municipal bond fund. Managers of those funds typically have more leeway to find opportunities without necessarily ramping up risk.

It’s always important to weigh the breadth and health of your state’s muni market against any tax break. New York has a relatively robust municipal bond market, says DeCesare, which is another reason why a state-specific muni bond fund could make sense in your case.

Once you’ve looked at all the variables, the decision will ultimately hinge on your risk tolerance and income needs. Remember that high-yield municipal bond funds invest the majority of their assets in bonds that are rated below-investment grade or aren’t rated. These funds can put up higher total returns – even after taxes – but with that comes more credit risk and in turn more volatility.

MONEY Ask the Expert

When Investment Growth, Income, and Safety Are All Priorities

Investing illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I’m 64 and retired. My wife is 54 and still working, but I’m asking her to join me in retirement. We have about $1 million in savings, with about half in an IRA and the rest in CDs. How can try I try to preserve the principal, generate about $2,000 in monthly income until I collect Social Security at age 70, and somehow double my investment? — Rajen in Iowa

A: The first thing you need to ask yourself is what’s really more important: Growth, income, or safety? You say you want to preserve your principal – and your large cash position suggests that you are risk averse – but you also say you want to double your investment.

“Why do you need to double your investment?” asks Larry Rosenthal, a certified financial planner and president of Rosenthal Wealth Management Group in Manassas, VA. “Everybody likes the idea of doubling their investment, but there’s a high cost if it doesn’t work out.”

Given that you’re already retired, doubling your investment is a tall order. You probably don’t have that kind of time. At a 5% annual return, it would take you more than 14 years, and that’s without tapping your funds for income along the way. Nor can you afford to take on too much additional risk.

Either way, you do need to rethink how you have your assets allocated.

A 50% cash position is likely far too much, especially with interest rates as low as they are. “You’re effectively earning a negative return,” factoring in inflation, says Rosenthal.

And while cash is a great buffer for down markets, the value is lost in the extreme: The portion of your portfolio that is invested in longer-term assets such as stocks and bonds needs to do double duty to earn the same overall return.

If generating growth and income are both priorities, “look at shifting some of that cash into dividend paying stocks, a bond ladder, an annuity, or possibly a combination of the three,” says Rosenthal, who gives the critical caveat that the decision of how to invest some of this cash will depend on how your IRA money is invested.

Meanwhile, you should take a closer look at the pros and cons of claiming Social Security at full retirement age, which is 66 in your case, or waiting until you’re 70 years old.

The current conventional wisdom is to hold off taking Social Security as long as possible in order to maximize the monthly benefit. While that advice still holds true for many people, you need to look at the specifics of your situation – as well as that of your wife. The best way to know is to run the numbers, which you can do at Social Security Timing or AARP.

The tradeoff of waiting to claim your benefit, says Rosenthal, is spending down more of your savings for six years. You may in fact do better by keeping that money invested.

What’s more, “if you die, you can pass along your savings,” adds Rosenthal. But you don’t have that type of flexibility with Social Security benefits.

MONEY Ask the Expert

The Right Way to Kick Your Kid Off Your Health Insurance

140603_FF_QA_Obamacare_illo_1
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q. I am covered by my employer’s health plan, but I’m not happy with it. My son is 21 and currently covered under my plan. While I realize that I am not eligible for Obamacare, I am curious if I can terminate my son’s policy so that he might be eligible.

A. Since the open enrollment period to sign up for coverage on the state marketplaces ended Feb. 15, in general people can’t enroll in a marketplace plan until next year’s open enrollment period rolls around.

If you drop your son from your employer plan, however, his loss of coverage could trigger a special enrollment period that allows him to sign up for a marketplace plan. Whether he’s entitled to a special enrollment period depends on whether his loss of coverage is considered voluntary, say officials at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

In general, voluntarily dropping employer-sponsored coverage doesn’t trigger a special enrollment period for individuals or their family members. But if you drop your son’s coverage on his behalf without his consent, his loss of coverage wouldn’t be considered voluntary and your son could qualify, according to CMS.

Whether he’ll be eligible for premium tax credits to make marketplace coverage more affordable is another matter, says Judith Solomon, vice president for health policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

If you claim him as your dependent, he generally won’t be eligible. If you don’t claim him as your dependent, he would have to qualify for subsidies based on his own income.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

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