MONEY IRAs

This Simple Move Can Boost Your Savings by Thousands of Dollars

Stack of Money
iStock

Last-minute IRA savers and those who keep their money in cash are paying a procrastination penalty.

Individual Retirement Account contributions are getting larger—an encouraging sign of a recovering economy and improved habits among retirement savers.

But there is an “I” in IRA for a reason: investors are in charge of managing their accounts. And recent research by Vanguard finds that many of us are leaving returns on the table due to an all-too-human fault: procrastination in the timing of our contributions.

IRA savers can make contributions anytime from Jan. 1 of a tax year up until the tax-filing deadline the following April. But Vanguard’s analysis found that more than double the amount of contributions is made at the deadline than at the first opportunity—and that last-minute contributions dwarf the amounts contributed throughout the year. Fidelity Investments reports similar data—for the 2013 tax year, 70% of total IRA contributions came in during tax season.

Some IRA investors no doubt wait until the tax deadline in order to determine the most tax-efficient level of contribution; others may have cash-flow reasons, says Colleen Jaconetti, a senior investment analyst in the Vanguard Investment Strategy Group. “Some people don’t have the cash available during the year to make contributions, or they wait until they get their year-end bonus to fund their accounts.”

Nonetheless, procrastination has its costs. Vanguard calculates that investors who wait until the last minute lose out on a full year’s worth of tax-advantaged compounded growth—and that gets expensive over a lifetime of saving. Assuming an investor contributes the maximum $5,500 annually for 30 years ($6,500 for those over age 50), and earns 4% after inflation, procrastinators will wind up with account balances $15,500 lower than someone who contributes as early as possible in a tax year.

But for many last-minute savers, even more money is left on the table. Among savers who made last-minute contributions for the 2013 tax year just ahead of the tax-filing deadline, 21% of the contributions went into money market funds, likely because they were not prepared to make investing decisions. When Vanguard looked at those hasty money market contributions for the 2012 tax year, two-thirds of those funds were still sitting in money market funds four months later.

“They’re doing a great thing by contributing, and some people do go back to get those dollars invested,” Jaconetti says. “But with money market funds yielding little to nothing, these temporary decisions are turning into ill-advised longer-term investment choices.”

The Vanguard research comes against a backdrop of general improvement in IRA contributions. Fidelity reported on Wednesday that average contributions for tax year 2013 reached $4,150, a 5.7% increase from tax year 2012 and an all-time high. The average balance at Fidelity was up nearly 10% year-over-year to $89,100, a gain that was fueled mainly by strong market returns.

Fidelity says older IRA savers racked up the largest percentage increases in savings last year: investors aged 50 to 59 increased their contributions by 9.8%, for example—numbers that likely reflect savers trying to catch up on nest egg contributions as retirement approaches. But young savers showed strong increases in savings rates, too: 7.7% for savers aged 30-39, and 7.3% for those aged 40-49.

Users of Roth IRAs made larger contributions than owners of traditional IRAs, Fidelity found. Average Roth contributions were higher than for traditional IRAs across most age groups, with the exception of those made by investors older than 60.

But IRA investors of all stripes apparently could stand a bit of tuning up on their contribution habits. Jaconetti suggests that some of the automation that increasingly drives 401(k) plans also can help IRA investors. She suggests that IRA savers set up regular automatic monthly contributions, and establish a default investment that gets at least some level of equity exposure from the start, such as a balanced fund or target date fund.

“It’s understandable that people are deadline-oriented,” Jaconetti says. “But with these behaviors, they could be leaving returns on the table.”

Related:

 

MONEY College

Here’s How to Get Your Parents to Pay for Your Kids’ Education

Grandma opening coin purse
Getty

A 529 plan can help grandkids with their education -- and provide a tax break for Grandma and Grandpa.

Many grandparents want to help their grandchildren pay for college, but don’t know the best ways to do that. Good news: They can make those contributions while reaping financial advantages for themselves.

Nearly half of grandparents expect to contribute to their grandkids’ college savings, with more than a third expecting to give $50,000 or more, according to a 2014 Fidelity Investments study. That generosity can also be channeled toward significant tax and estate planning benefits for the grandparents.

Enter the 529 plan, a college savings investment account that provides tax-free growth as long as the money is put toward tuition and most types of college expenses such as fees and books. What’s more, grandparents can score their own financial perks, said Matt Golden, vice president of college savings for Fidelity Financial Advisor Solutions.

Grandparents can use 529 accounts to reap tax deductions or reduce the value of their taxable estates.

Furthermore, 529 plans have limits that might be comforting for grandparents who worry that their grandchildren might spend the money frivolously, or that they might end up needing it themselves. Grandchildren must use the funds only for certain college expenses, such as tuition and books. What’s more, grandparents can keep the money if they need it, subject to penalties and taxes, say advisers.

Working the Angles

For financial advisers, conversations with clients about these issues can build trust, said Charles Wareham, a Hartford-based adviser specializing in college funding strategies. Wareham’s firm holds Sunday brunches for parents and grandparents to teach them about college funding. The events have become relationship-builders, he said.

One way to showcase 529 accounts is by highlighting their advantages over other savings strategies.

“Many grandparents give EE bonds for holidays and birthdays, which can hurt more than help as far as tax purposes,” says Wareham.

For example, grandchildren who receive Series EE bonds as birthday gifts can later be socked with federal income taxes on the interest if they don’t use the funds for college, according to the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

A 529 plan, in contrast, provides for tax-free distributions for college. It also allows grandparents to give the funds to another grandchild if the intended recipient does not go to college or need the money.

Grandparents may also be eligible for state income tax deductions when they make 529 contributions – they are available in 34 states and the District of Columbia, according to FinAid, a website about financial aid. They can also take required minimum distributions from their IRA accounts and transfer those funds to the 529 plan, where they can continue to grow tax-deferred, Fidelity’s Golden says.

Savvy advisers can compare plans from various states and help their clients find the best ones, though usually tax breaks are only available to people who invest in their own state’s plan.

A 529 plan is also a unique way for grandparents to reduce the value of their estates: they can contribute up to five years’ worth of allowable gifts in one year without triggering federal gift taxes. That means clients filing jointly can invest $140,000 in one lump sum per grandchild.

One caveat: 529 accounts could make a grandchild ineligible for financial aid, says Golden. That is because the money, once withdrawn for the beneficiary, counts as income that schools use to determine financial aid awards. But grandparents can avoid the problem by waiting until the recipient’s junior or senior year to hand over the money, when students may not need as much aid, Golden says.

MONEY 401(k)s

Stock Gains (and Saving) Push 401(k)s to Record Highs

Staying the course has rarely paid off so well as average retirement account balances soar.

The financial crisis is so yesterday. Retirement savings accounts have never been plumper, according to a new survey of 401(k) plans and IRAs at Fidelity Investments.

At mid-year, the average 401(k) balance stood at a record $91,000, up nearly 13% from a year ago. The average IRA balance stood at $92,600, also a record, and up nearly 15% from the previous year.

These figures include all employees in a plan, even those in their first year of saving. Looking just at long-time savers the picture brightens further. Workers who had been active in a workplace retirement plan for at least 10 years had a record average balance of $246,200—a figure that has grown at an average annual rate of 15% for a decade.

Over the past year, the resurgent stock market accounted for 77% of the higher average balance in 401(k) plans, Fidelity said. Ongoing employer and employee contributions accounted for 23% of the gain. The typical worker socks away $9,590 a year—$6,050 from her own contributions and $3,540 from an employer match.

Of course, the financial crisis still weighs on many Americans. Employment has been an ongoing weak spot and wage growth has been all but non-existent. Meanwhile, those in or nearing retirement may have fallen short of their goals after losing a decade of market growth at just the wrong point in their savings cycle. Many had to sell while prices were down.

But the Fidelity data reinforces the value of steady savings over a long period. By contributing through thick and thin, savers were able to offset much of the portfolio damage from the crisis. They not only held firm and enjoyed the market’s robust recovery but also were buying shares when prices were low. They earned a spectacular return on new money put into stocks the last five years. In calendar year 2013 alone, the S&P 500 plus dividends rose 32%.

Despite continuing contributions, savings balances did not rise as fast as the S&P 500 due to plan fees, cash-outs and broad plan exposure to lower-return investments like bonds and cash. Roughly a third of job switchers do not roll over their plan savings; they take the money, often incurring taxes and penalties. The average 401(k) investor has 33% in fixed-income securities.

Related:

 

MONEY Estate Planning

Mom and Dad’s Money Secret (and How to Get In On It)

Stephen Swintek—Getty Images

Your Mom and Dad may be better off than you knew. But how well are they managing their finances?

Parents and their adult children often aren’t on the same page—and that’s especially true when it comes to money issues. But a new study uncovers a surprisingly big disconnect when it comes to understanding how prepared your Mom and Dad are for retirement. In many cases, the parents may be in better financial shape than their kids realize.

Three-quarters of parents and their adult children agree that it’s important to have frank conversations about wills, estate planning, eldercare and covering retirement expenses, according to Fidelity’s 2014 Intra-Family Finance Generational study out today. Yet 40% of parents surveyed say they haven’t had detailed conversations with their children about any of these topics, while 60% say they feel more comfortable talking to a financial professional than to their kids about their personal financial situation.

“Finances are always a difficult topic to broach with children. Parents want to retain their independence and they don’t want to be a burden to their children,” says John Sweeney, executive vice president of Retirement and Investing Strategies at Fidelity. “People in the sandwich generation know how tough it is from taking care of their own parents.”

The communication gap skews the expectations adult children have about taking care of their parents—and it adds to their stress about saving enough for their retirement. One out of three adults say they expect to support their Mom and Dad financially but 96% of parents say it won’t be needed.

The parents’ confidence may come in part from misunderstanding their retirement income needs. The survey found that 70% of parents don’t know exactly how much money they will have to live on in retirement, up from 65% when Fidelity did the survey two years ago.

The recent bull market may have also lulled parents into complacency. “It’s easy for people to become overconfident about their ability to manage their money,” says Ken Moraif, a senior advisor at Money Matters, a financial advisory firm in Dallas. “They don’t take into account that bull markets don’t go forever.”

Another startling gap from the survey: adult children underestimated the value of their parents’ estate by a whopping $300,000 on average. (The survey participants were an affluent group—parents were 55 or older, had children older than 30 and at least $100,000 in investable assets.)

Parents say a big reason they don’t talk to their kids about their personal finances is that they don’t want their kids to count too much on their future inheritance. Of course, that doesn’t mean parents will be passing on that wealth to their kids. Only half of American retirees are planning to give an inheritance to their children, according to a recent HSBC survey.

There’s also a big misunderstanding about who will care for Mom and Dad if they become ill. Nearly half of adult children expect to take care of a parent but only 6% of parents expect their kids to do that, the survey found.

“Adult children may plan to take care of their parents at the expense of other financial goals. If they know how those things will be funded, they can make better decisions about their own retirement,” says Sweeney.

Have these conversations before a health issue or financial problems crop up. “It’s much easier before there is a crisis,” says Moraif.

Of course, the hardest part is getting the conversation started. You could share a story about a friend who ran into problems because her father passed away before letting his children know how to find important documents. Another approach is to talk about your own plans for retirement and then inquire about how they are preparing.

“Tread lightly but sincerely with your parents. If they feel you’re coming from a place of love and caring, they’ll be more open. If they think you just want to know how much money they have for your inheritance, it’s not going to be a good conversation,” says Moraif.

Related: The Tough Talk Worth Having With Your Parents This Weekend

MONEY financial advisers

Investment Start-Ups Shake Up Financial Industry

Companies targeting mass-market millennials say they're forcing lower prices and greater transparency.

Led by a group of start-ups that have emerged in the last two years to offer previously expensive and exclusive financial services on a low-cost basis to a mass audience, the financial services industry is starting to adapt its ways.

The changing way of doing business is resulting in lower fees and more transparency about services, leaders of the start-ups say. And instead of failing or being gobbled up by larger entities, these online money management and investment product companies have been growing exponentially.

A snapshot of the growth revealed recently at the Reuters Global Wealth Management Summit in New York:

  • Wealthfront.com, a provider of low-fee investment management aimed at tech-savvy millennials, born after 1981, recently crossed $1 billion in assets under management, achieving that feat in two years. (Its closest cohort in the space, Betterment, now has $630 million under management.)
  • SigFig.com, which aggregates accounts and offers investing advice, but does not directly take in assets under management as its main service, tracks $200 billion. The company is on its way to tracking $1 trillion in the next year, said chief executive Mike Sha.
  • Hedgeable.com, which provides low-fee alternative investment products directly and has broad distribution on many traditional platforms such as Fidelity and TDAmeritrade, has $400 million in assets under management. With just six employees, the company is cash-flow positive and developing new products all the time.

For anyone thinking that sounds like a good target for an acquisition, Hedgeable’s chief executive, Michael Kane, said, decidedly, “We are not for sale.”

Already, the companies see their influence in fee slashing industrywide as well as on greater transparency. Firms like LPL Financial, Wells Fargo, and Edward Jones are trying to lower fees by offering bundled services, Kane said.

In five years, 90% of these companies will be offering flat-fee pricing for all of the services they offer a retail client, Kane predicted.

Change is also at hand as traditional firms rethink their pricing model, going from a percentage of assets under management to flat fees. SigFig has helped move this along by showing customers exactly how much they are paying in fees yearly. For clients who have money in traditional mutual funds at a brokerage, fees average $7,000 per year. More than 90% of those costs are avoidable, Sha said.

“Over 30 years, that’s staggering,” Sha said.

Another shift: how firms service customers who don’t have huge account balances. While traditional advisers often have high minimums of $500,000, Wealthfront accounts start at $5,000. In the last few weeks, the company has added about $100,000 in assets under management, all without needing to grow their 40-person staff.

Wealthfront chief executive Adam Nash understands why the big firms still mostly go after baby boomer clients, who control $15 trillion in wealth versus $2 trillion for millennials, a third of whom are still in college.

But Nash sees growth for Wealthfront as millennials age, and wants to engage them as early as possible. The company recently fielded a slew of complaints from college students who couldn’t sign up accounts, so the company lowered its minimum age to 18 from 21.

MONEY Health Care

The Retirement Decision That Could Cost You $51,000

An early retirement may be good for reducing stress but it will also shrink your nest egg.

If you’re worried that health care costs will take a big bite out of your retirement income, don’t retire early.

Couples retiring at age 65 will spend an average $220,000 on health care expenditures, according to the 2014 Retiree Health Care Cost Estimate by Fidelity Investments.

But if you leave the job before 65, you’ll face even higher costs. A couple retiring at 62 would pay $17,000 a year in insurance premiums and out-of-pocket expenses—a total of $51,000—before reaching Medicare eligibility at 65, Fidelity calculated. That would push your total retirement health care costs to $271,000.

“If you have to buy health insurance when you’re older and you’re not on Medicare yet, it’s going to be a lot more expensive,” says Carolyn McClanahan, a doctor and a certified financial planner in Jacksonville, Florida. Even under the Affordable Care Act, older people spend $500 to $1,000 more a month than younger people do in premiums, she points out.

All the more reason to delay your retirement as long as you can. If you wait till age 67, you could save $10,000 a year on your medical expenses. That’s assuming you stay employed and your company pays the majority of your health care costs, which allows you to delay taking Medicare. “On average, Medicare picks up much less than the typical employer plan,” says Sunit Patel, senior vice president of Fidelity Benefits Consulting.

There is some good news in Fidelity’s latest analysis. Health care expenses have moderated in recent years, so this year’s $220,000 lifetime expense is unchanged from 2013. That slowdown is the result of reduced costs for long-term prescription drugs covered by Medicare Part D, as well as lower per-enrollee Medicare expenditures.

Still, whether you retire at 62 or 67, health care is a big-ticket item—and you need to plan for more than just the medical bills. Fidelity’s estimates don’t include the cost of paying for long-term care services, such as a home health aide or a nursing home, in the event you become disabled.

Of course, the timing of your retirement isn’t always something you can control. About half of retirees report that they left the workforce earlier than planned because of health issues, a layoff, or to care for an elderly relative, according the Employee Benefit Research Institute.

If you want to retire early, or think you’ll be forced to leave the workforce, be sure to estimate your health care costs and budget that into your retirement spending. If you’re in ill health or have a chronic condition such as diabetes, you may need to set aside more money for doctor visits and prescription drugs. And take whatever steps you can to improve and maintain your health. “If you’re in your 50s, this is the time to take good care of yourself,” says McClanahan.

MONEY 401(k)s

Whoops! I Forgot to Rollover My 401(k)

The hidden costs of keeping a retirement plan with a former employer.

Up until recently I had two old 401(k) plans from former jobs, one that I haven’t contributed to since leaving the company 10 years ago. I used to have three such dormant accounts, but then I started having anxiety dreams about “losing” one of them—I felt like someone who had too many children to keep track of at an amusement park. So I converted the 401(k) account from my first job into a Roth IRA long ago.

As for the other two accounts, I had kept them in place because I liked the investment options, they performed well, and there seemed to be no reason to do otherwise. In fact, I was always a bit wary of the rollover marketing letters that would arrive after leaving a job—suspicious that if I left the corporate plan, with its bargaining power, I would fall prey to higher fees. And I felt kind of savvy knowing that I didn’t have to rollover.

It turns out that sense of savvy was actually semi-informed inertia. Yes, it’s true that no-load and low-fee funds have now become standard at all the IRA platforms, thanks in part to a fierce rivalry between Fidelity and Vanguard, the top 401(k) providers. But companies have actually become less generous about continuing to house former employees in their employee-sponsored 401(k)s and have begun passing on administration fees.

And yet people are still a bit more likely to leave their money in plans with their former employers than they are to rollover, according to a survey of job changers over 50 published last month by the Employee Benefit Research Institute. More than 27% left money in their old 401(k)s vs 25% who rolled over. Only 0.5% transferred the money to a new employer’s plan—but I don’t have that option as I’m freelancing at the moment. (Some 26% elected to start receiving benefits since they were retiring, and 17% withdrew the money, which, in case you don’t know, is a VERY BAD IDEA.)

You might be very surprised to learn that you may be paying administration fees for the record-keeping and custody of your dormant plans on top of the costs of the underlying investments. I certainly was. As soon as I got that tip-off, which I found in an investing book, I quickly called the retirement benefits offices for my two dormant accounts to find out if I was being charged.

The first, a large media company, acknowledged that it cost me $42 dollars a year for the privilege of keeping my money in the account that they sponsor through Fidelity, whereas I could roll over that money into a Fidelity IRA invested in the exact same funds with no administration charges. That $42 was a stealth fee (or at least, I hadn’t noticed it), and while not large, it deeply offended my sense of transparency and disclosure.

Can you guess whom I called next? 1-800-FIDELITY. It only took a few minutes to arrange for the rollover. The money was available in a few days to invest, at which point I created a similar portfolio, with some rebalancing between domestic and international equity funds, which was probably a good idea anyway.

The second company, also a large media conglomerate, told me that there are custodial costs for administering their plan through T. Rowe Price but that I was not being billed for them. My hunch is this company, being privately owned, has not been under quite as much pressure to cut benefits costs. Or perhaps it’s because I signed up for the plan in 1998, and as such I have been grandfathered into a more generous version. I’m leaving that 401(k) in place for now. There’s no way of really knowing why one employer bills dormant account holders and another doesn’t, but I have a feeling that I won’t have many more jobs where they won’t.

Ruth Davis Konigsberg, a fortysomething journalist and consultant to Arden Asset Management, writes weekly about retirement planning.

 

 

 

MONEY College

Grandma’s Willing to Pay $50,000 of College Tuition—if Only You’d Ask

New survey finds that more than half of grandparents want to help with 529 savings, according to Fidelity. Here's hoping your folks are in that generous majority!

With college admissions season behind us, many high school seniors are eagerly anticipating heading to college in the fall—while parents, on the other hand, are likely be anxious about how they’ll pay for it. Fortunately, many of them appear to be getting help from their own parents: According to a new study by Fidelity Investments, many grandparents are contributing to 529 college savings plans to help finance the high cost of education.

The study found that 53% of grandparents are either already saving or plan to save to assist in paying for their grandchildren’s college costs. Among those who have been socking away money, the median contribution is $25,000, though 35% said they expect to contribute at least $50,000. That’s enough to cover more than two years tuition, room and board at an in-state public college, and more than a year at a private college.

The 529 accounts specifically are an attractive option for grandparents because of the flexibility they offer, said Keith Bernhardt, vice president of college planning at Fidelity. Earnings are not taxed as long as the money is used toward education expenses. Additionally, grandparents are free to change the beneficiary of the account or take the contributions back at any point should they find themselves needing the money for their own retirement. (They will, however, owe income taxes and a 10% penalty on any earnings withdrawn.)

While 529s offer many benefits, families should understand the difference between how parent and grandparent accounts are treated in financial aid assessments. Any distribution from a grandparent-owned 529 counts as untaxed income on the following year’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Parent accounts, on the other hand, are counted as assets on the FAFSA— not as income—and factor into determining the Estimated Family Contribution.

“Income is assessed much more heavily,” said Joe Hurley, head of Savingforcollege.com.

Because grandparent accounts have a larger impact on financial aid, he added, owners of these accounts might want to wait to use the account until the final year of college, or they could shift the ownership to the parent.

While the amount and frequency of 529 contributions depends on individual financial circumstances, Mary Morris, chair of the College Savings Foundation and CEO of Virginia529, said she’s seen an overall increase in grandparents getting involved education expenses. Anecdotally, she estimated that 20% of Virginia accounts are owned by grandparents. Many contributions are made as gifts on special occasions, a pattern Morris expects to see more often going forward

Despite the trend, however, “there’s a real disconnect” between generations when it comes to communication about finances, Hurley said. According to the Fidelity survey, 90% of grandparents said they would likely make a contribution to a college savings plan—if asked.

“Parents feel it’s their responsibility to help their children if necessary,” Hurley said. So they’re “reluctant” to ask for help.

But the price tag of higher education has made that conversation one worth having.

“Parents cannot save enough, on average, to pay the full cost of college,” Bernhardt said. “Grandparents recognize that and want to chip in.”

MONEY credit cards

Best Credit Cards

BCC_10_13_A
MDI Digital

Get a better deal from your plastic with these top 15 credit card picks for rewards junkies, balance carriers, frequent travelers, college students, and small business owners. What's the best card for you? MONEY and NerdWallet teamed up to find it.

THE QUANTITY—and quality—of the credit card offers in your mailbox has likely changed in recent months.

That’s owed to the fact that four years after the Great Recession officially ended, banks are finally opening the lending gates again. Until recently, issuers had marketed mainly to low-risk consumers with credit scores of 750-plus. Now card delinquencies are at their lowest level since 1994, TransUnion reports, and Americans are borrowing more than in any year since 2009. So banks are reaching out to a broader swath.

That’s great news for folks who were on the edge of qualifying for the best cards before (FICO scores of around 690 to 749). It’s not so great for those of you who were the target of issuers’ fancy for so long. More qualified borrowers means it’s more of a seller’s market. As a result, the perks you had grown to expect are weakening: Sign-up bonuses are down a bit from their post-recession highs; some issuers have put caps on cash back; and certain rewards are less rewarding (good luck getting 5% on gas anymore, for example).

“What we’re seeing is a reflection of the credit cycle,” says Anisha Sekar, vice president at Nerd-Wallet.com, a site that collects data and offers advice on credit cardsand other financial products.

With all that’s changed, you probably need some help sorting out the credit chaff from the really prime plastic. Et voilà! MONEY teamed up with NerdWallet and combed through its database of more than 1,700 cards to find the best options for five kinds of users: rewards seekers, travelers, borrowers, students, and small-business owners. (For a closer look at the methodology, see page 85.) There’s a card here that’s right for you.

BORROWING

It’s more expensive to carry a balance, with annual percentage rates on new cards averaging 15.31%, up from 14.30% in 2010, according to Bankrate. On the plus side, 0% intro periods have gotten longer, going from eight to 11 months on average over the same time, NerdWallet reports. You can save hundreds—even thousands—by transferring a debt and paying it off within the interest-free window. Or you can take advantage of the 0% trend to pay for a big-ticket purchase over time, at no cost.

1) BEST FOR BALANCE TRANSFERS

Chase Slate (chase.com)

APR: 13% to 23%

INTRO APR: 0% on purchases and balance transfers for 15 months

ANNUAL FEE: $0

BALANCE TRANSFER FEE: $0 if you transfer in the first two months, 3% after that

WHY IT’S A WINNER: Longest 0% period among balance-transfer cards that also have no annual fee and, more important, no balance-transfer fee (a charge that can undercut the benefits of changing cards).

THE CAVEATS: You have to act fast to move the balance or you’ll pay a fee of 3% on the amount you shift over. Also, while Slate offers 0% on new purchases as well, you can get a longer term with the Simplicity (below).

2) LOWEST ANNUAL PERCENTAGE RATE

Lake Michigan Credit Union Prime Platinum Visa (lmcu.org)

APR: 6.25% and up

ANNUAL FEE: $0

WHY IT’S A WINNER: Ideal for those who regularly carry a balance, since it offers the lowest possible APR among no-fee cards (6.25% for applicants with FICO scores of 760-plus).

THE CAVEATS: You have to be a member of the credit union, but you can join with a $5 donation. Not for those who pay in full, since this is a no-frills card.

3) BEST 0% DEAL ON NEW PURCHASES

Citi Simplicity (citi.com)

INTRO APR: 0% on purchases and balance transfers for 18 months

REGULAR APR: 13% to 22%

ANNUAL FEE: $0

WHY IT’S A WINNER: Longest 0% introductory period on new purchases among cards that have no annual fee—so it can be a great way to finance, say, your new kitchen appliances. Plus, it has no late fees and no penalty rates, ever.

THE CAVEAT: Not a great deal for balance transfers. Though it offers 0% for 18 months, you’ll foot a 3% fee.

REWARDS

When it comes to rewards, cash back is king, since it’s more transparent and easier to use than points. The average earn rate on cash cards has edged up from 0.83% in 2010 to 1.09% today, NerdWallet reports. But don’t get too excited: Your ability to earn is often less now, as “some attractive cards have put new limits on the amount you can get back in certain categories, like groceries,” says Alex Matjanec of MyBankTracker.com. Sign-up bonuses have been pared back a bit too, from an average of $82 in 2011 to $79 now.

1) BEST TIERED REWARDS (TIE)

American Express Blue Cash Preferred (americanexpress.com)

APR: 13% to 22%

ANNUAL FEE: $75

SIGN-UP BONUS: $150 after spending $1,000 in first three months

REWARDS:

  • 6% on groceries on up to $6,000 in purchases and 1% thereafter
  • 3% on U.S. gas stations and certain department stores
  • 1% on everything else

WHY IT’S A WINNER: Impressive rates (6% is almost unheard of) on key categories. If you charge $2,000 a month—including the $364 on groceries, $275 on gas, and $166 on department stores the Bureau of Labor Statistics finds typical for households earning $74,000 to $161,000—you’ll reap $489 a year, net the fee (excluding bonus).

THE CAVEAT: The 1% base rate is meager, so you may want to use this card in tandem with the one below.

U.S. Bank Cash Plus (usbank.com)

APR: 14% to 24%

ANNUAL FEE: %0

SIGN-UP BONUS: $50 to $100

REWARDS:

  • 5% on two categories from a list of 12 (e.g., restaurants, department stores, cell service, hotels) on up to $2,000 a quarter
  • 2% on your choice of gas, groceries, or drugstores
  • 1% on everything else
  • $25 bonus when you redeem $100 or more, once a year

WHY IT’S A WINNER: 5% is pretty sweet, particularly since you get to choose where it’s applied and there’s no annual fee on the card. If you dish out $2,000 a month and $450 of it is on restaurants and your cell plan, you’ll earn $557 a year with the redemption bonus (but not the signing bonus).

THE CAVEATS: Must elect categories quarterly—they are subject to change—or you get only 1% on everything. Can apply for card only at U.S. Bank branches.

2) BEST FLAT-RATE REWARDS (TIE)

Fidelity American Express (fidelity.com)

APR: 14%

ANNUAL FEE: $0

SIGN-UP BONUS: None

REWARDS: 2% on every purchase

WHY IT’S WINNER: Rewards are almost double the average earn rate with no limit on cash back, making this the best deal among no-fee, category-free cashcards. You’ll take back $480 a year if you spend $2,000 a month.

THE CAVEAT: Cash has to go into a Fidelity account (IRA, 529, brokerage, or cash management)—though funds can be withdrawn from the latter two.

Capital One Quicksilver (capitalone.com)

APR: 13% to 21%

ANNUAL FEE: $0

SIGN-UP BONUS: $100 after spending $500 within the first three months

REWARDS: 1.5% on every purchase

WHY IT’S A WINNER: Earn rate handily beats the average cash card, and there’s no cap. Rewards are redeemable as a statement credit, check, or gift card. Charge $2,000 a month and you’ll score $360 a year, not including signing bonus.

THE CAVEAT: Pays less than the Fidelity card, but offers easier access to the cash.

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MDI Digital

COLLEGE STUDENTS

The best plastic for your college kid probably isn’t marketed as a student card; such options have all but disappeared since 2009’s CARD Act went into effect. Among collegiate cardholders, 66% carry balances, Sallie Mae/Ipsos found. So a low APR should be a high priority.

Students must be 21 or have real income to get their own cards. Before 21, you can co-sign. A secured card—you deposit cash up to the limit as collateral—caps the damage your kid can do to your credit. But beware: With a low limit, “it’s easy to max out, which isn’t great for his credit score,” says Gerri Detweiler of Credit.com.

1) BEST SECURED

Digital Credit Union Visa Platinum Secured (dcu.org)

APR: 11.5%

ANNUAL FEE: $0

WHY IT’S A WINNER: No annual fee is rare on secured cards, and rates as low as 11.5% can soften the blow if Junior misses a payment. Digital Credit Union reports account status to the credit bureaus, so your child builds a credit history. You can set the credit limit, from $500 to as high as you wish.

THE CAVEAT: Must be a member of DCU to apply, though you can join with a $10 donation to Reach Out for Schools. Set the limit above what you think your child will need to use so as not to harm his nascent credit score.

2) BEST UNSECURED

Northwest Federal Credit Union FirstCard Visa Platinum (nwfcu.org)

APR: 10% fixed

ANNUAL FEE: $0

WHY IT’S A WINNER: Features a very low APR for a no-fee unsecured card available to those without credit history. Account status is reported to credit bureaus. Another plus: Applicants must complete an online course about credit.

THE CAVEATS: Must be a member of the credit union, but a $10 donation to Financial Awareness Network gets you in. Also, maximum credit limit is only $1,000, so caution Junior to spend cautiously.

SMALL BUSINESS

Entrepreneurs using a credit card to finance a startup or capital improvements should look at rates first. Biz card APRs average 13.6%, a hair lower than on personalcards. Almost half of cards also offer a 0% intro period, for an average of eight months. Nearly nine in 10 offer rewards, and a card that pays you back in the categories where you spend can make sense if your business pays in full every month, says NerdWallet’s Sekar.

1) BEST FOR CASH BACK

Chase Ink Cash (chase.com)

APR: 13%

ANNUAL FEE: $0

SIGN-UP BONUS: $200 cash after spending $3,000 in first three months

REWARDS:

  • 5% on office-supply stores, phone service, Internet, and cable on up to $25,000
  • 2% on gas and restaurants on up to $25,000
  • 1% on everything else, no cap

WHY IT’S A WINNER: Offers top-drawer cash-back rates on categories in which businesses typically spend a lot, and the Ink Cash has no annual fee. Assuming that your business spends $75,000 ($25,000 in each reward tier), you’d make back $2,000 a year, not including the sign-up bonus.

THE CAVEAT: Has a 3% fee for foreign transactions, so this is not the card to take to that conference overseas.

2) BEST FOR BORROWING

Wells Fargo Business Platinum (wellsfargo.com)

APR: 9% to 18%

ANNUAL FEE: $0 (or $50, waived the first year, if you join rewards program)

SIGN-UP BONUS: Double rewards for first six months

REWARDS: 1 point per dollar or 1% cash back, your choice

WHY IT’S A WINNER: Lowest APR for business borrowers among no-annual-fee cards.

THE CAVEAT: Rewards are subpar, especially considering the fee. Plus, cash is distributed quarterly, as opposed to on demand.

TRAVEL

The average earn rate on travel rewards cards has reached a cruising altitude of 1%, NerdWallet reports, but redeeming miles can be challenging. Unless you fly one airline a lot, go for one of the newer breed of cards that are airline agnostic. “The generic travel rewards cards don’t have blackout dates or restrictions,” says Ben Woolsey of Creditcards.com.

Go abroad a lot? More cards have no foreign transaction fee (27% vs. 4% in 2010). Only your plastic may not always work: Many countries are moving to a “chip-and-pin” technology available on few U.S. cards.

1) BEST FOR TRAVEL REWARDS

Barclaycard Arrival World MasterCard (barclaycardus.com)

APR: 15% to 19%

ANNUAL FEE: $89 (waived first year)

SIGN-UP BONUS: 40,000 bonus miles if you spend $1,000 in first 90 days (buys a $400 flight)

REWARDS:

  • Two miles per $1 spent
  • 10% miles back when you use them for travel

WHY IT’S A WINNER: Card not only comes with one of the largest sign-up bonuses but also has an impressive ongoing rewards rate of 2% with no caps. Miles can be applied as a statement credit when you spend on any kind of travel, be it flights, cruises, car rentals, or hotels. So you have a lot more leeway than an airline card. Plus, Arrival World MasterCard does not have a foreign transaction fee.

THE CAVEAT: Doesn’t have chip-and-pin technology, so it might not always work overseas. A salesperson can manually put through a magnetic strip card like this one, but you could have trouble at unmanned kiosks.

2) BEST FOR USING OVERSEAS

Andrews Federal Credit Union GlobeTrek Rewards (andrewsfcu.org)

APR: 8% to 18%

ANNUAL FEE: $0

SIGN-UP BONUS: 5,000 points with your first purchase

REWARDS: One point per $1 spent

WHY IT’S A WINNER: One of a handful of cards in the U.S. that come equipped with chip-and-pin technology while also having no foreign transaction fee and no annual fee. You can join the Andrews Federal Credit Union by first joining (for free) the American Consumer Council.

THE CAVEAT: Value of rewards on the Globe Trek is average—and they cannot be redeemed for cash, only for travel and merchandise; this card is really only for use while traveling overseas.

METHODOLOGY

MONEY decided upon the criteria to consider—which included intro and regular APRs, sign-up bonuses, annual fees, rewards, and other fees—then set parameters for what would make the best cards in each category (for example, lowest rates and no annual fee for someone who carries a balance). NerdWallet plugged the terms into its database and made several suggestions for each category, nothing the issuers from which it receives compensation when people apply through the site. MONEY made the final decisions and independently fact-checked the picks.

NOTE: APRs are rounded to the nearest percentage point and are variable except where noted. Rates are based on creditworthiness (largely FICO score) when a range is listed. Many of the winners require excellent (750+) credit.

MONEY

Building Your Own Target-Date Fund

I’m 30 years old and recently rolled my savings from a 401(k) into an IRA. I had been investing in a target-date retirement fund. But now that I have virtually unlimited investment options, I’m wondering whether I should just create the same portfolio using individual funds or ETFs. What do you think? — Brandon L., Rochester, N.Y.

Essentially, you’re asking whether you’re better off building your own target-date retirement fund or buying one off the shelf.

While you might be able to lower your expenses and thus boost your return with the DIY approach, it depends on how much you have to invest, which funds or ETFs you choose and how much work you’re willing to put into building and managing your own target-date portfolio.

To illustrate, let’s take a look at the Vanguard target-date fund designed for someone your age, the Vanguard Target Retirement 2045 VANGUARD CHESTER TARGET RETIREMENT 2045 FD VTIVX -0.3166% .

This fund invests 90% of shareholders’ money in stocks and 10% in bonds by divvying up its assets among three Vanguard index funds as follows: total stock market index (63% of assets), total international stock index (27%) and total bond index (10%). To invest in this fund, you pay annual expenses of 0.19% of assets, or $19 per $10,000 invested.

You could create a virtually identical portfolio by just investing your money in a total stock market index, a total international stock index and a total bond market index fund in the same proportion a target fund holds them. But you wouldn’t necessarily save any money by doing so.

Related: What is an index fund?

Why? Because if you prorate the expenses to reflect the percentage that each fund would represent in your portfolio — 63% of the total stock market index’s 0.18% annual expenses, 27% of international stock fund’s 0.22% cost and 10% of total bond market’s 0.22% expense ratio — you end up with pretty much the same 0.19% in total expenses. (I say “pretty much” because the total bond market fund in the target date fund isn’t available to individual investors and has slightly different expenses than the one that is.)

But there are a few ways you may be able to pay less.

One is to invest in the same three underlying index funds, but buy a different share class of those funds.

When Vanguard assembles its target portfolios, it uses “Investor” shares. Vanguard has a cheaper version — called “Admiral” shares –but doesn’t use them in its target portfolios. You, however, can build your own target fund with the cheaper Admiral shares.

There’s one, rub, though: Each of the Admiral shares requires a $10,000 minimum initial investment, as opposed to a mere $1,000 minimum for the target-date fund.

As a practical matter, that would mean you would have to create a portfolio with at least $100,000 in assets in order to meet the $10,000 minimum for the bond index fund, while at the same time assuring that the bond fund represents no more than 10% of your portfolio overall.

If you can clear that hurdle, duplicating the 2045 target fund with Admiral shares would reduce your annual expenses by almost half from 0.19% to 0.10%. But while that represents a nearly 50% reduction in expenses, in dollar terms we’re not talking about a huge difference: about $90 a year for every $100,000 invested. Whoopee!

The second way you might be able to do better is by building the equivalent of a target fund portfolio with ETFs, which many firms, including Vanguard, allow you to buy without paying trading commissions.

Vanguard requires only a $3,000 minimum investment to open a brokerage account and invest in ETFs, so by going with ETFs you can get around the $10,000 minimum for Admiral shares.

And since Vanguard’s fees on the Admiral share and ETF versions of its total stock market, international stock index and total bond index funds are identical, you could reap the same savings in annual expenses as with the Admiral shares. (Vanguard’s brokerage firm levies a $20 annual fee for accounts with balances under $50,000, but you can sidestep that by agreeing to electronic delivery of confirmations and statements.)

There’s one other move you could try: Going with the funds or ETFs of another firm, such as Fidelity or Schwab, both of which have been chipping away at the fees on their index funds and/or ETFs.

For example, Schwab now charges just 0.04% for its version of a total stock market index ETF and 0.05% for its total bond market index ETF. Schwab doesn’t offer the equivalent of a total international stock index ETF that includes small-caps and emerging markets, but you could cobble one together by combining a few separate international Schwab ETFs.

I estimate that by mixing and matching various Schwab ETFs, you could create something close to the Vanguard target-date fund for roughly 0.06% in annual expenses. That’s about 40% lower than the 0.10% or so that you would pay with Vanguard ETFs.

Again, though, the dollar savings won’t exactly blow you away.

Even on a $100,000 investment, the difference would be about $130 a year vs. the Vanguard 2045 target fund and $40 compared to a DIY target portfolio made up of Vanguard Admiral funds or ETFs. In fact, the savings could be even smaller, as ETFs have other potential costs such as the bid-ask spread and the extent to which the ETF sells at a discount or premium to net asset value.

Which brings us to the larger question: Does it really makes sense to go to the trouble of creating your own target-date portfolio?

The idea behind these funds is simplicity and ease.

A target fund gives you a diversified portfolio of stocks and bonds appropriate for your age and shifts more of its assets to bonds as you age so your savings are less vulnerable to stock-market shocks as you near and enter retirement. They’re not perfect, but target funds can provide a reasonable investing strategy that many investors may not be able to come up with or stick to on their own.

If you build your own target portfolio, you have to set your asset allocation and maintain a “glide path,” or gradually move out of stocks and into bonds.

Even if you mimic a target-date fund for someone your age, you’ve still got to do the work. That will include periodically selling shares to rebalance the mix between domestic stocks, international shares and bonds. If the funds are held outside a tax-advantaged account, such sales could mean paying tax on realized gains.

Bottom line: If you’re investing a large sum and willing to monitor and fine tune your homemade target fund, then I suppose the potential savings you can reap might be worth it. But for the overwhelming majority of investors considering a target-date fund, I think buying a target fund off-the-rack is a more realistic approach.

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