MONEY stocks

WATCH: What’s the Point of Investing?

In this installment of Tips from the Pros, financial advisers explain why you need to invest at all.

MONEY 401(k)s

How Do I Choose Investments for My 401(k)?

What's the the right mix of stocks and bonds for your retirement account? Financial planners explain.

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 401(k)s

Why Your 401(k) May Only Return 4%

Faucet dripping coins
peepo—Getty Images

The biggest dilemma in retirement investing may be how hard it will be to grow our savings in the next decade.

There have been a lot of predictions from professionals lately about what kind of returns we can expect on our investments, and it doesn’t look good. In June PIMCO bond guru Bill Gross announced at the Morningstar conference (and subsequently to almost every media outlet in existence) that a close-to-zero interest rate was the “new neutral.” Gross envisions a market where bonds return just 3% to 4% a year on average, while stocks return a modest 4% to 5%.

Gross’s forecast echoes that of a number of other investment experts, including Ray Dalio, the head of Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund, who called this post-Recession era we are in “the boring years,” during which investors are likely to earn returns of just 3% for bonds and 4% for equities.

These low-return predictions are based, in part, on diminished expectations for the U.S. economy, with the IMF recently warning that our GDP growth may get stuck at 2% for the long term unless Washington adopts significant reforms.

A 4% return would be a huge decline from the historical performance of the U.S. stock market, which has earned an average annual 10% over the last 40 years. Many financial planners still use 8% to 10% as the expected return for stocks in 401(k)s and other investment portfolios. All of which presents a real predicament for those of us in the middle of our careers who have been assuming strong growth will carry us over the finish line.

You see, the real benefit of starting to invest early, the reason people in their 20s are exhorted to open retirement accounts, has always been the power of compounding in the last 10 or so years of a 40 year horizon—the hockey stick uptick on a line graph. But in order to experience that exhilarating growth curve, you need to earn an average annual return in the high single digits, not the low single digits. Compounding simply doesn’t have as much power if you start off earning 10% for 20 years and then earn only 4% for the second 20 years.

If these predictions come true—and I hope that they won’t—it will be much more difficult to make money off of money in the future. This will impact just about everybody age 40 or older: current retirees and people living off fixed incomes, those hoping to retire in five to ten years, and those in mid-career who will need to rethink their strategy moving forward.

The only real solution, as far as I can tell, is to save more and spend less. You can try to earn more, but another strange feature of this recovery-that-doesn’t-feel-like-a-recovery is that while unemployment has dropped, wages have remained stagnant. Besides, depending on your tax bracket, you would have to earn a lot more to get to the same amount after taxes that you could put aside by saving.

So while the investment pundits are making their predictions and coining their phrases, allow me to offer my own: we may now be entering the era of the New Frugal. After three decades of a declining personal savings rate, from 10% in the 1970s to 1% in the 2000s, the financial crisis of 2008 brought savings back up above 5% where it continues to hover. My prediction is that if stock market returns become stagnant, we might continue to see a reduction in consumption and an increase in savings.

What this all means for the economy as a whole I will leave to the experts to ponder. All I know is that if I can no longer expect a 10% average annual return on my retirement fund, I’m going to be a heck of a lot more conservative about how much I spend.

Konigsberg is the author of The Truth About Grief, a contributor to the anthology Money Changes Everything, and a director at Arden Asset Management. The views expressed are solely her own.

MONEY Financial Planning

Get Free Help Getting Your Retirement Off the Ground

Lipsticks in the shape of a dollar sign
Anthony Lee—Getty Images

As a millennial or Gen Xer, you face unique challenges when it comes to retirement. If you need some help getting going, share your story for a chance at a free financial makeover.

The two youngest generations of workers could use a hand with retirement planning.

Gen Xers have had a run of bad luck: a recession that slowed down their careers, a brutal bear market that hit in their early years as investors, and a housing crash that set in just as many had bought a first home.

No wonder they are feeling gloomy about retirement, according to a new survey from the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies. Only 12% of Gen X workers say they have fully recovered from the recession.

Millennials, on the other hand, are off to a strong start, outpacing Baby Boomers and Gen Xers when it comes to saving for retirement. According to the Transamerica survey, 70% of millennials with jobs are putting money aside. They began saving at a median age of 22. Still, this group faces steep student loan debts, high unemployment, and uncertain entitlement programs in the future.

If you’re like a lot of people your age, you could use some help getting started, whether it’s tips on how to tame your debts and find money to save or advice on what investments to choose and how to best allocate the funds you’ve built up.

For an upcoming issue of Money magazine and Money.com, we’ll pair several novice retirement savers with financial planners to get a full financial makeover. To participate, you should be comfortable sharing details of your financial life, and keep in mind that story subjects will be photographed for the story.

If you’d like to participate, please fill in the form below. Briefly tell us how you’re doing and what your biggest challenges are. And include a little about your family’s finances, including your income, assets, and debts. All of this information will be kept confidential unless we follow up with you for an interview, and you agree to appear in the story.

We look forward to hearing from you.

MONEY

Tell Us: What Would You Do With $1,000?

$1000 bill
Travis Rathbone

See how other readers would use a grand—then share your own grand ideas by tweeting with the hashtag #ifihad1000.

In coming up with 35 Smart Things to do with $1,000, MONEY put the question out to our readers via Facebook: What smart—or not so smart—thing have you done with that amount of money? What would you recommend someone else do with those funds? Or, what would you do if by some amazing stroke of luck, a grand fell magically into your lap today?

Some of your answers follow, but we’ll also be adding to this post in the next few days. So you still have a chance to share your money move, be it spending or saving, in earnest or good fun. Share your $1K fantasy with us on Twitter, using the hashtag #ifIhad1000.

“The first thing anyone should do before investing $1000 is to pay off revolving credit (credit cards) that’s a 15% to 20% return.”
—Danny Day
……….
“For a $1000, I purchased Bank of America stock.”
—Natalie TGoodman
……….
“It’s all about goals. Fund an emergency savings account, pay off debt, fund a retirement plan at least up to the employers match, pay down/off mortgage, save for college, etc. Needs before wants.”
—Nereida Mimi Perez Brooks
……….
“$1,000 would go into my money market as it really isn’t that much.”
—Paul Mallon
……….
For about $1,000 we purchased a last-minute 5-day Bahamas cruise for our family of four during the off-season month of September.”
—Marc Hardekopf
……….
“Put it in a casino and it doubled.”
—Norma Sande
……….
“I was given $1000 from my grandpa when I went to college. I started trading stocks in ’10 and made about $10,000 from it. Then in 2011 I bet it all on one stock with no stop loss, and it crashed overnight when the FDA shut them down. Lost 90%.”
Jaycob Arbogast
……….
“I would bank it to have savings for a rainy day.”
—Naomi Young Hughes
……….
“With $1000, all small debts were paid, which then made cash available to pay off a larger debt.”
Ana Chinchilla
MONEY 401(k)

3 Things to Know About Your 401(k)’s Escape Hatch

ladder leading to a bright blue sky
Alamy

More and more 401(k)s offer a formerly rare option—a brokerage window. That's raising questions from Washington regulators. Here's what you should watch out for.

While 401(k)s are known for their limited menu of options, more and more plans have been adding an escape hatch—or more precisely, a window. Known as a “brokerage window,” this plan feature gives you access to a brokerage account, which allows you to invest in wide variety of funds that aren’t part of of your plan’s regular menu. Some 401(k)s also allow you to trade stocks and exchange-traded funds, including those that target exotic assets such as real estate.

No question, brokerage windows can be a useful tool for some investors. But these windows carry extra costs, and given the increased investing options, you also face a higher risk that you’ll end up with a bad investment. All of which raises concerns that many employees may not fully understand what they’re getting into with these accounts. Earlier this week the U.S. Labor Department, which has been fighting a long-running battle to make retirement plans cheaper and safer for investors, asked 401(k) plan providers for information about brokerage windows.

You may wonder if a brokerage window is something you should use in your 401(k). To help you decide, here are answers to three key questions:

How common are brokerage windows?

Not long ago these features were rare. As recently as 2003, just 14% of large plans included offered a brokerage window, according to benefits company Aon Hewitt. But they’ve grown steadily more popular over the past decade, with about 40% of plans offering this option as of 2013. Interestingly, the growth has taken place even as more 401(k)s have opted to take investment decisions out of workers’ hands by automatically enrolling them in all-in-one investments like target-date funds.

Those two trends aren’t necessarily at odds. Experts say companies often add brokerage windows in response to a small but vocal minority of investors, who, rightly or wrongly, believe they can boost returns by actively picking investments. But overall just 5.6% of 401(k) investors opt for a window when it is offered. The group that is most likely use a brokerage window: males earning more than $100,000, about 9% of whom take advantage of the feature, according to Hewitt. (Not surprisingly, this group also tends to have the corporate clout to persuade HR to provide this option.) By contrast, only about 4% of high-earning women use a window.

When can brokerage windows make sense for the rest of us?

That depends in part on whether the other offerings in your 401(k) meet your needs. If you want an all-index portfolio, for example, a brokerage window may come in handy. Granted, more plans have added low-cost index funds, especially if you work for a large or mid-sized company. Today about 95% of large employers offer a large-company stock index fund, such as one that tracks the S&P 500, according to Hewitt.

Workers at small companies are less likely to enjoy the same access, however. These index funds are on the menu only about 65% of the time in plans with fewer than 50 participants, according to the Plan Sponsor Council of America, a trade group.

Moreover, even in large plans investors seeking to diversify beyond the broad stock and bond market can find themselves out of luck. Only about 25% of plans offer a fund that invests in REITS. And only about two in five offer a specialty bond fund, such as one that holds TIPS.

But even if a window allows you to diversify, you need to consider the additional costs. About 60% of plans that offer a brokerage window charge an annual maintenance fee for using it, according to Hewitt. The average amount of the fee was $94. And investors who use the window typically also pay trading commissions, just like they do at a regular brokerage.

Where does that leave me?

Before you decide to opt for a brokerage window, check to see if the fees outweigh the potential benefits. Here are some back-of-the-envelope calculations to get you started:

If you have, say, $200,000 socked away for retirement, paying an extra $100 a year to access a brokerage window works out to a modest additional fee of 0.05%. While the brokerage commission would increase that somewhat, you can minimize the damage by trading just once a quarter or once a year.

If your plan includes only actively managed mutual funds with annual investment fees in the neighborhood of 1%, the brokerage window could allow you to access ETFs charging as little as 0.1%. That means you could end up paying something like 0.15% instead of 1%.

If your plan has low-cost broad market index funds, however, a brokerage window offers less value. Say you want to add more more specialized investment options, such as a REIT or emerging market fund. Even if you have $200,000 in your 401(k), you’ll probably only invest a small amount in these more exotic investments—perhaps $5,000 or $10,000. So a $100 brokerage fee would increase your overall costs on that slice of your portfolio to 1% to 2%. Plus, you’ll pay brokerage commissions and fund investment fees. In that case, better to leave the escape hatch shut.

MONEY Ask the Expert

Here’s How to Protect Your 401(k) from the Next Big Market Drop

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Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: Bull markets don’t last forever. How can I protect my 401(k) if there’s another big downturn soon?

A: After a five-year tear, the bull market is starting to look a bit tired, so it’s understandable that you may be be nervous about a possible downturn. But any changes in your 401(k) should be geared mainly to the years you have until retirement rather than potential stock market moves.

The current bull market may indeed be in its last phase and returns going forward are likely to be more modest. Still, occasional stomach-churning downturns are just the nature of the investing game, says Tim Golas, a partner at Spurstone Executive Wealth Solutions. “I don’t see anything like the 2008 crisis on the horizon, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see a lot more volatility in the markets,” says Golas.

That may feel uncomfortable. But don’t look at an increase in market risk as a key reason to cut back your exposure to stocks. “If you leave the market during tough times and get really conservative with long-term investments, you can miss a lot of gains,” says Golas.

A better way to determine the size of your stock allocation is to use your age, projected retirement date, as well as your risk tolerance as a guide. If you are in your 20s and 30s and have many years till retirement, the long-term growth potential of stocks will outweigh their risks, so your retirement assets should be concentrated in stocks, not bonds. If you have 30 or 40 years till retirement you can keep as much as 80% of your 401(k) in equities and 20% in bonds, financial advisers say.

If you’re uncomfortable with big market swings, you can do fine with a smaller allocation to stocks. But for most investors, it’s best to keep at least a 50% to 60% equities, since you’ll need that growth in your nest egg. As you get older and closer to retirement, it makes sense to trade some of that potential growth in stocks for stability. After all, you want to be sure that money is available when you need it. So over time you should reduce the percentage of your assets invested in stocks and boost the amount in bonds to help preserve your portfolio.

To determine how much you should have in stocks vs. bonds, financial planners recommend this standard rule of thumb: Subtract your age from 110. Using this measure, a 40-year old would keep 70% of their retirement funds in stocks. Of course, you can fine-tune the percentage to suit your strategy.

When you’re within five or 10 years of retirement, you should focus on reducing risk in your portfolio. An asset allocation of 50% stocks and 50% stocks should provide the stability you need while still providing enough growth to outpace inflation during your retirement years.

Once you have your strategy set, try to ignore daily market moves and stay on course. “You shouldn’t apply short-term thinking to long-term assets,” says Golas.

For more on retirement investing:

Money’s Ultimate Guide to Retirement

MONEY 401(k)s

Ignore This Savings Plan at Your Peril

Workers often think signing up for their 401(k) is all they need to do. But millions fail to enroll right away or raise their contributions, and they'll pay a heavy price.

Call them victims of inertia. These are folks who are slow to sign up for their employer-sponsored savings plan or who, once enrolled, don’t check back for years. Their numbers are legion, and new research paints a grim picture for their financial future.

More than a third of 401(k) plan participants have never raised the percentage of their salary that they contribute to their plan, and another 26% have not made such a change in more than a year, asset manager TIAA-CREF found. The typical saver stashes away just 8% of income—about half what financial planners recommend. Without escalating contributions, these workers will never save enough.

More than half of plan participants have not changed the way their money is invested in more than a year—including a quarter that have never changed investments, the research shows. This suggests many are not rebalancing yearly, as is generally advised, and that many others are not paying attention to their changing risk profile as they age.

At companies without automatic enrollment, a quarter of workers fail to enroll in their 401(k) for at least a year and a third wait at least six months, TIAA-CREF found. These delays may not seem like a big deal. But the lost returns over a lifetime of growth add up. Based on annual average returns of 6% and a like contribution rate over 30 years, a worker who enrolls immediately will accumulate nearly double that of a worker who starts two years later. Even a mere six-month delay is the difference between, say, $100,000 and $94,000, according to the research.

Employer-sponsored 401(k) and similar plans have emerged as most people’s primary retirement savings accounts: 42% of workers say it is their only savings pool and a similar percentage say the plans are so critical they would take a pay cut to get a higher company match, according to a Fidelity survey. So any level of mismanagement is troublesome.

There is a bright spot, however—younger workers have been quicker to catch on. Millennials are the most likely group to boost their percentage contribution after each pay raise, and among millennials who do not boost the percentage, 23% say it is because they already contribute the maximum. Millennials are also most likely to check back in and adjust their investment mix.

That’s not entirely good news. In general, millennials are not investing enough in stocks, which have the highest long-term growth potential. But it reinforces the emerging picture of a generation that understands what Baby Boomers and Gen Xers were slow to grasp: financial security is not a birthright. Millennials will need to save early and often—on their own—and pay attention for 30 or 40 years to enjoy a happy ending.

MONEY Ask the Expert

Here’s One Good Reason To Borrow From Your 401(k)

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Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: Should I use my 401(k) for a down payment on a house?

A: Let’s start with the obvious. It’s rarely a good idea to borrow from your retirement plan.

One major drawback is that you’ll give up the returns that the money could have earned during the years you’re repaying the loan. Your home isn’t likely to give you the same investment return, and it’s difficult to tap real estate for income in retirement. There’s also a risk that you’ll lose your job, which would require you to pay back the loan, typically within 60 days, though home loans may have a longer repayment period.

Still, 401(k) borrowing has undeniable advantages. For starters, “they’re easy loans to get,” says Atlanta financial planner Lee Baker. You don’t have to meet financial qualifications to borrow, and you can get the money quickly. Interest rates for these loans are generally low—typically a percentage point or so above prime, which was recently 3.25%. Another big plus is that you pay yourself back, since the rules generally require you to fully repay within five years; 10 years if you buy a house. (Otherwise, the amount will be taxable, plus you will pay a penalty if you’re under 59 1/2.) So you eventually do replace the money with interest. Be aware, most plans limit your borrowing to $50,000 or 50% of your account balance, whichever is less.

Given how easy it is to get a 401(k) loan, it’s no wonder many workers tap their plans for home buying, especially Millennials. About 10% of home buyers borrow from their 401(k) and another 4% use funds from IRAs, according to the National Association of Realtors. And overall some 17% of Millennials report borrowing from their company plan, according to a 2014 Ameriprise study, Financial Tradeoffs. “It is where they have accumulated most of their savings,” says Baker.

All that said, when it comes to buying a home, a 401(k) loan can make sense. If you can put together enough cash for a 20% down payment, you may able to avoid avoid mortgage insurance, which can your lower monthly bill. And with interest rates still low, having a down payment now can enable you lock in a good rate compared with waiting till you have more money when mortgage rates may be higher.

If you go this route, though, take a close look at your financial resources both inside and outside your plan. Will you have to tap all your savings, leaving you vulnerable if you have a financial emergency? Do you have enough cash flow to meet your monthly payment and pay the loan? Is your job relatively secure or do you have to worry about a layoff that will trigger the automatic repayment provision?

And if you borrow, don’t forget to keep saving. A common mistake people make is halting regular contributions during the pay back period, which puts you further behind your retirement goals. At the very least, says Baker, contribute enough to get your employer match.

More on Home Buying:

Should I Pay Off Loans or Save for a Down Payment?

Single and Thinking of Buying a Home? Here’s Some Advice

“At 27, I’m the First of My Friends to Own a Home:” A Buyer’s Story

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