MONEY stocks

10 Smart Ways to Boost Your Investing Results

stacks of coins - each a different color
Alamy

You don't have to be an investing genius to improve your returns. Just follow a few simple steps.

Recent research shows that people who know their way around investing and finance racked up higher annual returns (9.5% vs. 8.2%) than those who don’t. Here are 10 tips that will help make you a savvier investor and better able to achieve your financial goals.

1. Slash investing fees. You can’t control the gains the financial markets deliver. But by sticking to investments like low-cost index funds and ETFs that charge as little as 0.05% a year, you can keep a bigger portion of the returns you earn. And the advantage to doing so can be substantial. Over the course of a career, reducing annual fees by just one percentage point can boost the size of your nest egg more than 25%. Another less commonly cited benefit of lowering investment costs: downsizing fees effectively allows you to save more for retirement without actually putting aside another cent.

2. Beware conflicted advice. Many investors end up in poor-performing investments not because of outright cons and scams but because they fall for a pitch from an adviser who’s really a glorified salesman. The current push by the White House, Department of Labor and Securities and Exchange Commission to hold advisers to a more rigorous standard may do away with some abuses. But the onus is still on you to gauge the competence and trustworthiness of any adviser you deal with. Asking these five questions can help you do that.

3. Gauge your risk tolerance. Before you can invest properly, you’ve got to know your true appetite for risk. Otherwise, you could end up bailing out of investments during market downturns, turning paper losses into real ones. Completing a risk tolerance questionnaire like this one from RealDealRetirement’s Retirement Toolbox can help you assess how much risk you can reasonably handle.

4. Don’t be a “bull market genius.” When the market is doing well and stock prices are surging, it’s understandable if you assume your incredible investing acumen is responsible for those outsize returns. Guess what? It’s not. You’re really just along for the ride. Unfortunately, many investors lose sight of this basic fact, become overconfident, take on too much risk—and then pay dearly when the market inevitably takes a dive. You can avoid such a come-down, and the losses that accompany it, by leavening your investing strategy with a little humility.

5. Focus on asset allocation, not fund picking. Many people think savvy investing consists of trying to identify in advance the investments that will top the performance charts in the coming year. But that’s a fool’s errand. It’s virtually impossible to predict which stocks or funds will outperform year to year, and trying to do so often means you’ll end up chasing hot investments that may be more prone to fizzle than sizzle in the year ahead. The better strategy: create a diversified mix of stock and bond funds that jibes with your risk tolerance and makes sense given the length of time you plan to keep your money invested. That will give you a better shot at getting the long-term returns you need to achieve a secure retirement and reach other goals while maintaining reasonable protection against market downturns.

6. Limit the IRS’s take. You should never let the desire to avoid taxes drive your investing strategy. That policy has led many investors to plow their savings into all sorts of dubious investments ranging from cattle-breeding operations to jojoba-bean plantations. That said, there are reasonable steps you can take to prevent Uncle Sam from claiming too big a share of your investment gains. One is doing as much of your saving as possible in tax-advantaged accounts like traditional and Roth 401(k)s and IRAs. You may also be able to lower the tab on gains from investments held in taxable accounts by investing in stock index funds and tax-managed funds that that generate much of their return in the form of unrealized long-term capital gains, which go untaxed until you sell and then are taxed at generally lower long-term capital gains rates.

7. Go broad, not narrow. In search of bigger gains, many investors tend to look for niches to exploit. Instead of investing in a broad selection of energy or technology firms, they’ll drill down into solar producers, wind power, robotics, or cloud-computing firms. That approach might work, but it can also leave you vulnerable to being in the wrong place at the wrong time—or the right place but the wrong company. Going broader is better for two reasons: it’s less of a guessing game, and the broader you go the lower your investing costs are likely to be. So if you’re buying energy, tech or whatever, buy the entire sector. Better get, go even broader still. By investing in a total U.S. stock market and total U.S. bond market index fund, you’ll own a piece of virtually all publicly traded U.S. companies and a share of the entire investment-grade bond market. Throw in a total international stock index fund and you’ll have foreign exposure as well. In short, you’ll tie your portfolio’s success to that of the broad market, not just a slice of it.

8. Consider the downside. Investors are by and large an optimistic lot, otherwise they wouldn’t put their money where their convictions are. But a little skepticism is good too. So before putting your money into an investment or embarking on a strategy, challenge yourself. Come up with reasons your view might be all wrong. Think about what might happen if you are. Crash-test your investing strategy to see how you’ll do if your investments don’t perform as well as you hope. Better to know the potential downside before it occurs than after.

9. Keep it simple. You can easily get the impression that you’re some kind of slacker if you’re not filling your portfolio with every new fund or ETF that comes out. In fact, you’re better off exercising restraint. By loading up on every Next Big Thing investment the Wall Street marketing machine churns out you run the risk of di-worse-ifying rather than diversifying. All you really need is a portfolio that mirrors the broad U.S. stock and bond markets, and maybe some international exposure. If you want to go for more investing gusto, you can consider some inflation protection, say, a real estate, natural resources, or TIPS fund. But I’d be wary about adding much more than that.

10. Tune out the noise. With so many investing pundits weighing in on virtually every aspect of the financial markets nearly 24/7, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with advice. It might make sense to sift through this cacophony if it were full of investing gems, but much of the advice, predictions, and observations are trite, if not downright harmful. If you want to watch or listen to the parade of pundits just to keep abreast of the investing scuttlebutt, fine. Just don’t let the hype, the hoopla, and the hyperbole distract you from your investing strategy.

Walter Updegrave is the editor of RealDealRetirement.com. If you have a question on retirement or investing that you would like Walter to answer online, send it to him at walter@realdealretirement.com.

More From RealDealRetirement.com:

 

MONEY retirement savings

Borrowing From Your 401(k) Might Not Be Such a Bad Thing

carton of gold eggs, some are empty
GP Kidd—Getty Images

Most loans get paid back. It's cashing out that's the problem.

“Leakage,” using 401(k) or IRA savings to pay for anything other than retirement, has become something of a bad word in the personal finance world. One policy wonk, Matt Fellowes, the founder and CEO of HelloWallet, took the metaphor even further when he wrote that “the large rate and systematic quality of the non-retirement uses of DC [defined contribution] assets indicates that these plans are now being ‘breached.’ This is a massive systematic problem that now affects 1 out of every 4 participants, on average—which is more like a gaping hole in the DC boat than a pesky ‘leak.’

But leaks come in different shapes and sizes, and it turns out that some of them—such as taking loans from your own account, which you then pay back with interest—are less dangerous to your future financial security than others. Data from Vanguard shows that 18% of people participating in plans offering loans had a loan outstanding in 2013, and about 11% took out a new loan that year, which sounds like a very high rate. But the average loan was about $9,500 and most of it gets repaid, so it actually doesn’t represent a permanent drain on retirement savings. “Loans are sometimes criticized as a source of revolving credit for the young, but in fact they are used more frequently by mid-career participants,” note Alicia Munnell and Anthony Webb of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

The real problem is what is known as a “cash-out,” when employees take a lump-sum distribution when they change jobs, instead of keeping their savings in their employer’s plan, transferring it to their new employer’s 401(k), or rolling it into an IRA. These cash-outs are subject to a 10% early withdrawal penalty (if you’re under the age of 59½) and a 20% withholding tax. Vanguard reports that 29% of plan participants who left their jobs in 2013 took a cash distribution. Younger participants with lower balances are more likely to cash out than older ones.

Equally risky, although more difficult to obtain, are “hardship withdrawals,” which allow 401(k) plan participants to access funds if they can prove that they face an “immediate and heavy financial need,” such as to prevent an eviction or foreclosure or to pay for postsecondary tuition bills. As with cash-outs, these withdrawals are subject to a 10% penalty as well as 20% withholding for income tax. (You can take a non-penalized withdrawal if you become permanently disabled or to cover very large medical expenses.) Employees must prove that they’ve exhausted every other means, including taking a loan from their 401(k). The rules governing IRAs are much more relaxed and include taking penalty-free withdrawals of up to $10,000 to buy, build, or rebuild a first home or even to pay for medical insurance for those unemployed for 12 weeks or more—situations one might argue it would be better to have established a six-month emergency or house fund to cover instead of taking from your IRA.

Policy watchers such as Munnell and Webb recommend tightening up regulations to reduce leakage, arguing in particular that allowing participants to cash out of 401(k)s when they change jobs is “hard to defend” and that the mechanism could be closed down entirely by changing the law to prohibit lump-sum distributions upon termination. It would also make sense to make the rules for withdrawals from IRAs as strict as those from 401(k)s, since more and more assets are moving in that direction as people leave jobs and open rollover IRAs.

But perhaps the biggest lesson of leakage is that if people are reaching into their retirement funds to pay for basic needs such as housing or health insurance, they may be better off not participating in a 401(k) until they have enough emergency savings under their belt. Contributing to a retirement plan is important, but not if you turn your 401(k) into a short-terms savings vehicle and ignore basic budgeting and emergency planning.

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 Ask the Expert

When Investment Growth, Income, and Safety Are All Priorities

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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

25 Ways to Get Smarter About Money Right Now

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John Lund—Getty Images

Small steps that can make a big difference.

Retirement planning is serious business that requires diligence and patience. But a quick tip, or even an irreverent one, can sometimes be helpful, too. Here are 25 observations from my 30 years of writing about retirement and investing that may spur you to plan more effectively (or to start planning if you’ve been putting it off).

1. If you’re not sure whether you’re saving enough for retirement, you probably aren’t. You can find out for sure pretty easily, though, by going to this Am I Saving Enough? tool.

2. There’s an easy way not to outlive your money: die early. But I think most people would agree that coming up with a realistic and flexible retirement income plan is a more reasonable way to go.

3. If your primary rationale for doing a Roth 401(k) or Roth IRA instead of a traditional version is that “tax free is always better than tax-deferred,” you need to read this story before doing anything.

4. Some people put more thought into whether to have fries with their Big Mac than deciding when to claim Social Security benefits. Unfortunately, giving short shrift to that decision may put those same people at greater risk of having to work behind a fast-food counter late in life to maintain their standard of living.

5. Yes, stocks are risky. But if they weren’t, they wouldn’t be able to generate the high long-term returns that can help you build a sizeable nest egg without devoting a third or more of your income to saving.

6. Just because the mere thought of an immediate annuity makes your eyes glaze over doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider one for your post-career portfolio. When it comes to retirement income, boring can be beautiful.

7. What do rebalancing your retirement portfolio and flossing have in common? We know we ought to make both part of our normal routine, but many people don’t get around to either as regularly as they should.

8. Lots of people (especially in the media) complain that we’d all be better off if companies would just go back to giving workers check-a-month retirement pensions instead of 401(k) plans. But that’s not gonna happen. So focus your efforts on how to maximize your 401(k) or other savings plan.

9. Target-date funds’ stock-bond allocations can’t match your risk tolerance exactly. But guess what? You don’t need an exact match to invest successfully for retirement. And for most people an inexact target-date portfolio is a lot better than anything they’d build on their own.

10. A really smart fund manager can beat an index fund. Problem is, there’s no way to tell in advance whether a manager is one of the handful who’s truly smart or one of the many who look smart but are just lucky or having a few good years. That’s why you’re better off going with index funds in your retirement portfolio.

11. Your employer’s 401(k) match isn’t really “free.” It’s part of your compensation. Which makes it all the more puzzling why anyone wouldn’t contribute at least enough to his 401(k) to get the full company match.

12. Investing in a fund with high fees is like betting on a racehorse being ridden by a fat jockey. Sure, the horse could still be good enough to win. But do you want to put money on it? A low-cost fund effectively allows you to boost your savings rate and gives you a better shot at building an adequate nest egg and making it last throughout retirement.

13. Every time you move to a new house or apartment do you leave all your furniture and other possessions behind? Then why do so many people fail to consolidate their old 401ks into their current plan or a rollover IRA? (Okay, if the old plan’s investing options are unmatchable, that’s a reason. But seriously, how often is that the case?)

14. A reverse mortgage can be a good option to supplement retirement income if your other resources are coming up short. But be sure to consider a trade-down as well. In fact, you may be able to trade down and then do a reverse mortgage in the future.

15. No rule of thumb can be a substitute for detailed retirement planning. But some rules of thumb are better than no planning at all. And going with a rule of thumb may at least help you get on track toward a secure retirement until you decide to get more serious about your planning.

16. Many people are skittish about investing in bonds these days because they’re worried they’ll get clobbered when interest rates rise. But you know what? Pundits have been predicting bond Armageddon for years and it hasn’t happened. Besides, as this research shows, even at today’s low yields bonds remain an effective way to hedge equity risks and diversify your portfolio.

17. People peddling high-cost variable annuities know that retirement investors love the word “guaranteed.” Which is why as soon as you hear that alluring word, you should ask what, exactly, is being guaranteed and who is doing the guaranteeing? Then ask how much you’re paying for that guarantee and what you’re giving up for it. The answers may surprise and enlighten you.

18. No retirement calculator can truly tell you whether you’re on track for a secure retirement because no tool can fully reflect the uncertainty and complexity of real life. Of course, the same goes for the most sophisticated software and human advisers, too. The reason to fire up a good retirement calculator isn’t to come away with a projection that’s 100% accurate. It’s to get a sense of whether you’re on the right course and see how different moves might improve your prospects.

19. You don’t have to be a financial wiz to invest successfully for retirement. But understanding a few basic principles can improve your investing results. Try this investing quiz to see how much you know.

20. Getting fleeced by an unscrupulous adviser or ravaged by a severe bear market can certainly wreak havoc on your retirement plans. But for most people it’s basic lapses in investing and planning that diminish their retirement prospects the most.

21. Many experts say the 4% rule is broken, that it no longer works in today’s low-return world. Fact is, the 4% rule was never all it was cracked up to be. To avoid running out of money in retirement, plug your spending, income, and investing info into a retirement income calculator capable of assessing the probability that your money will last—then repeat the process every year or so to see if you need to adjust your spending.

22. Diversifying your portfolio can lower risk and boost returns. But if you try to get too fancy and stuff your portfolio with investments from every obscure corner of the market and all manner of arcane ETFs, you may end up di-worse-ifying rather than diversifying.

23. Many retirees pour their savings into “income investments” like dividend stocks and high-yield bonds when they want to turn their savings into reliable income. But such a focus can be dangerous. A better way to go: create a low-cost diversified portfolio that generates both income and growth, and then get the income you need from interest, dividends, and periodic sales of fund or ETF shares.

24. The next time wild swings in the market give you the jitters, don’t look to bail out of stocks and huddle in bonds or cash. Market timing doesn’t work. Instead, do this 15-minute Portfolio Check-Up, and then take these 3 Simple Steps to Crash-Proof Your Portfolio.

25. Financial security is definitely important, but retirement satisfaction isn’t just a question of money. Lifestyle matters, too. Among the lifestyle factors that make for a happier post-career life: maintaining your health, staying active and engaged through occasional work or volunteering, cultivating a circle of friends…and, yes, regular sex.

Walter Updegrave is the editor of RealDealRetirement.com. If you have a question on retirement or investing that you would like Walter to answer online, send it to him at walter@realdealretirement.com.

More from RealDealRetirement.com:

Social Security: Your 3 Most Pressing Questions Answered

5 Questions To Ask Before Hiring A Financial Adviser

How To Tell If You Can Afford To Retire Early

 

 

 

MONEY College

How to Balance Saving for Retirement With Saving for Your Kids’ College Education

Parents often find themselves between a rock and a hard place when it comes to doing what's best for themselves and their children. One financial adviser offers a formula to make it easier.

It’s a uniquely Gen X personal finance dilemma: Should those of us with young children be socking away our savings in 401(k)s and IRAs to make up for Social Security’s predicted shortfall, or in 529s to meet our children’s inevitably gigantic college tuition bills? Ideally, of course, we’d contribute to both—but that would require considerable discretionary income. If you have to chose one over the other, which should you pick?

There are two distinct schools of thought on the answer. The first advocates saving for retirement over college because it’s more important to ensure your own financial health. This is sort of an extension of the put-on-your-own-oxygen-mask-first maxim, and it certainly makes some sense: Your kids can always borrow for college, but you can’t really borrow for retirement, with the exception of a reverse home mortgage, which most advisers think is a terrible idea.

The flip side of this, however, is that while you can choose when to retire and delay it if necessary, you can’t really delay when your kid goes to college. Moreover, the cost of tuition has been rising at a much faster rate than inflation, another argument for making college savings a priority. Finally, many parents don’t want to saddle their young with an enormous amount of debt when they graduate.

According to a recent survey by Sallie Mae and Ipsos, out-of-pocket parental contributions for college, whether from current income or savings, increased in 2014, while borrowing by students and parents actually dropped to the lowest level in five years, perhaps the result of an improved economy and a bull market for stocks. But clearly, parents often find themselves between a rock and a hard place when it comes to doing what’s best for themselves and their children: While 21% of families did not rely on any financial aid or borrowing at all, 7% percent withdrew money from retirement accounts.

If you’re struggling with this decision, one approach that may help is to let time guide your choices, since starting early can make such a huge difference thanks to the power of compound interest. Ideally, this would mean participating in a 401(k) starting at age 25 and contributing anywhere from 10% to 15%, as is currently recommended. Do that for a decade, and even if your income is quite low, the early saving will put you way ahead of the game and give you more leeway for the next phase, which commences when you have children (or, for the sake of my model, when you’re 35).

As soon as your first child is born, open a 529 or similar college savings account. Put in as much money as possible, reducing your retirement contributions if you have to in order to again take advantage of the early start. Meanwhile, your retirement account can continue to grow on its own from reinvested dividends and, hopefully, positive returns. Throw anything you can into the 529s—from the smallest birthday check from grandma to your annual bonus—in the first five or so years of a child’s life, because pretty soon you will have to switch back to saving for retirement again.

By the time you’re 45, you will have two decades of saving and investing under your belt and two portfolios as a result, either of which you can continue to fund depending on its size and your cost calculations for both retirement and college. You probably also now have a substantially larger income and hopefully might be able to contribute to both simultanously moving forward, or make catch-up payments with one or the other if you see major shortfalls. At this point, however, retirement should once again be the central focus for the next decade—until your child heads off to college and you have start writing checks for living expenses, dorm fees, and textbooks. Don’t worry, you still have another 10 to 15 years to earn more money for retirement, although those contributions will have less long-term impact due to the shorter time horizon.

Of course, this strategy doesn’t guarantee that your kids won’t have to apply for scholarships or take out loans, or that you won’t have to put off retiring until 75. But at least you will know that you did everything in your power to try to plan in advance.

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 IRAs

The Extreme IRA Mistake You May Be Making

A new study reveals that many savers have crazy retirement portfolios. This four-step plan will keep you from going to extremes with your IRA.

When did you last pay attention to how your IRA is invested? It’s time to take a close look. Nearly two out of three IRA owners have extreme stock and bond allocations, a new study by the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) found. In 2010 and 2012, 33% of IRA savers had no money in stocks, while 23% were 100% in equities.

Many young savers and pre-retirees have portfolios that are either too cautious or too risky: 41% of 25- to 44-year-olds have 0% of their IRAs in stocks, while 21% of 55- to 65-year-olds are 100% in stocks.

An all-bond or all-stock IRA may be just what you want, of course. Perhaps you can’t tolerate the ups and downs of the stock market or you think you can handle 100% equities (more on that later). Or maybe your IRA is part of a larger portfolio.

But chances are, you ended up with an out-of-whack allocation because you left your IRA alone. “It seems likely many investors aren’t investing the right way for their goals, whether out of inertia or procrastination,” says EBRI senior research associate Craig Copeland. An earlier study by the Investment Company Institute found that less than 11% of traditional IRA investors moved money in their accounts in any of the five years ending in 2012.

To keep a closer tab on how your retirement funds are invested, take these four steps.

See where you stand. Looking at everything you have stashed in your IRA, 401(k), and taxable accounts (don’t forget your spouse’s plans), tally up your holdings by asset class—large-company stocks, short-term bonds, and the like. You’ll probably find that the bull market of the past five years has shifted your allocation dramatically. If you held 60% stocks and 40% bonds in 2009 and let your money ride, your current mix may be closer to 75% stocks and 25% bonds.

Get a grip on your risks. An extreme allocation—or a more extreme one than you planned—can put your retirement at risk. Hunkering down in fixed income means missing out on years of growth. Putting 100% in stocks could backfire if equities plunge just as you retire—what happened to many older 401(k) investors during the 2008–09 market crash.

Reset your target. If you also have a 401(k), your plan likely has an asset-allocation tool that can help you settle on a new mix, and you may find that you need to make big changes. That’s especially true for pre-retirees, who should be gradually reducing stocks, says George Papadopoulos, a financial planner in Novi, Mich.  A typical allocation for that age group is 60% stocks and 40% bonds. As you actually move into retirement, it could be 50/50.

Make the shift now. If moving a large amount of money in or out of stocks or bonds leaves you nervous, you may be tempted to do it gradually. But especially in tax-sheltered accounts, it’s best to fix your mistake quickly. (In taxable accounts you may want to add new money instead to avoid incurring taxable gains.) “If you’re someone who’s a procrastinator, you may never get around to rebalancing,” says Boca Raton, Fla., financial planner Mari Adam. And you don’t want a market downturn to do your rebalancing for you.

Get more IRA answers in the Ultimate Retirement Guide:
What’s the Difference Between a Traditional and a Roth IRA?
How Should I Invest My IRA Money?
How Will My IRA Withdrawals Be Taxed in Retirement?

MONEY Estate Planning

The Perils of Leaving an IRA to Your Kid

141224_FF_INHERITIRA
Cindy Prins—Getty Images/Flickr RM

People with the best of intentions can make life difficult for their heirs.

Naming a child as the beneficiary to important assets like your IRA may seem like a no-brainer. Unfortunately, doing that can create several problems.

I once worked with a client who left his IRA to his daughter. When he put her on his beneficiary form, he was fairly young and healthy, so he had little concern about his decision.

When he passed away, however, his daughter was only five years old — a minor unable to inherit the account. The father had the intention of leaving his daughter roughly $40,000 to help fund an important expense or investment. Instead, a judge had to step in and appoint a custodian to manage the asset until the child reached legal age. Even though the child will eventually receive these funds, without any specific guidelines set, the young daughter could potentially make a poor investment decision much different from what her father had envisioned.

I see this problem often with single parents who, because they don’t have a spouse who might receive their assets, make their children their direct heirs. While these clients have the best intentions, I have come to realize that they often don’t understand the consequences of their actions: The courts may delay, interfere or misinterpret their true intentions if a beneficiary is a minor.

The first option I offer to those looking to leave assets to a minor is through a Uniform Transfers to Minors Act account. An UTMA account gives the owner — often the parent, though it could be a grandparent or someone else — control over selecting the custodian should the owner pass away before the child reaches the age of majority. Had my client done this, he could have avoided the involvement of the court-appointed custodian. This option, though, may not always be the best solution, since it fails to give the parent control of how the funds will be distributed.

The second option I offer to parents is to name a trust as a beneficiary. This option provides the most control of how the funds are managed and distributed – an option many parents find appealing because it could prevent the child from making a poor investment, incurring a major tax liability, or quickly running through the money.

A trust can also allow or even require distributions to be stretched over the beneficiary’s lifetime, maximizing the tax-deferred or tax-free growth for the greatest duration and overall lifetime payout for the heirs.

Using separate trusts for each child can allow each heir to use his or her own age for calculating required minimum distributions. That can make a significant difference if there is a large age variance between them. For example, let’s say a grandmother passes away and leaves her IRA to two children, ages 53 and 48, and two grandchildren, ages 12 and 2. If she has created a trust for each heir, then they can each use their own age from the IRS’s life expectancy table to calculate their required minimum distributions. If she has failed to do this, they will all be forced to calculate RMDs based on the oldest heir, age 53 – greatly shortening the stretch period of the tax benefits for the young children.

For parents with more than one child who do not want to incur the legal costs of setting up a trust but want to maximize the stretch benefits of their retirement accounts have another option: splitting the IRA into multiple IRA accounts, creating one to be left to each heir. This will not provide the control over the custodian or distribution, but will allow each heir to use his or her own age in calculating the RMDs of an inherited account.

As advisers, it’s our job not only to help our clients prepare for retirement, but also to make sure their money is taken care of after they die. By helping them properly plan for their beneficiaries, advisers can do just that.

———-

Herb White, CFP, is the founder and president of Life Certain Wealth Strategies, an independent financial and retirement planning firm in Greenwood Village, Colo., dedicated to helping individuals achieve their financial goals for retirement. A certified financial planner with more than 15 years of experience in the financial services industry, White is also life and health insurance licensed. He is a member of the Financial Planning Association and the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors.

MONEY Roth IRA

Cut Taxes and Get a Bigger IRA With This One Neat Trick

A Roth IRA is a great tool for retirement savings. Here's how to make it even better.

At the beginning of every year, we work with some of our clients to convert their IRAs to Roth IRAs, knowing, even then, that we will undo most of those conversions at the end of the year. The whole process involves a lot of paperwork and tracking of their accounts throughout the year.

So why do we go through all this trouble? It’s a great way to save on taxes.

First, let’s do a quick review. An IRA is typically funded with pre-tax dollars and grows tax-deferred. When the account holder withdraws the money from the account, those withdrawals are fully taxed as regular income. A Roth IRA, on the other hand, is funded with after-tax dollars, and withdrawals are tax-free.

When you convert an IRA to a Roth IRA, you have to pay regular income taxes on the amount you convert. By doing the conversion, thus, you’re effectively paying income taxes now so that your withdrawals later — from the new Roth IRA — will be tax-free.

There’s a twist: You’re allowed to undo the conversion in the same tax year of the conversion without incurring any taxes or penalties. It is this ability to undo the conversion which provides for a great tax planning strategy.

So when and why might you want to do a Roth IRA conversion? And why might you want to undo it?

  • Low Income Taxes: Let’s say you lost your job, and you end up having a year owing little or no income tax. You could convert some amount of your IRA to a Roth IRA without much of a tax hit. Or maybe, because you’re self-employed or work on commission, your income varies widely; in a year with very low income, you could use the conversion to move money to a Roth at very low tax rates. Whatever your situation, you can convert at the beginning of the year, then depending on your earnings over the year, you can decided to keep the conversion or undo.
  • Topping off Your Tax Bracket: Similar to the low income taxes, if you find yourself in a lower-than-expected tax bracket, you may want to keep some of the conversion to fill up that lower tax bracket.
  • Investment Performance: The more your assets increase in value after conversion, the better. Since no one can time the markets, however, the best strategy (again) is to convert at the beginning of the year. Then, as year-end approaches, you can decide if the conversion was worthwhile. Let’s say, for example, that you convert a $10,000 IRA to a Roth in January. If in December the Roth is worth $15,000, you’ll still pay taxes only on the $10,000 you converted — a pretty good deal. If, however, the account is worth only $5,000 by December, you’d still have to pay taxes on that original $10,000 you converted. So if the converted assets lose money, you can just undo the conversion and pay no taxes on it at all.

If you’re taking this wait-and-see approach, you can increase your tax advantages even further — as we do with clients — by converting IRAs into multiple Roth accounts. In this multiple-account strategy, we put different assets into each new Roth. That process lets you select the asset that had the best returns after the conversion and keep it as a Roth, while undoing the conversion of other assets with low or negative returns.

To explain this strategy, let me use the hypothetical example of Sally, a self-employed graphic designer with $40,000 in a traditional IRA. In March 2014, she converts that IRA into a Roth.

For illustrative purposes, let’s suppose that she divides up her new Roth by investing $10,000 apiece in four different index funds, each representing a different asset class:

  • US large-cap stocks
  • US small-cap value stocks
  • International large-cap stocks
  • International small-cap value

At the end of November, Sally has more business income than she expected, and she decides that she would like to convert only $10,000 to a Roth — one-quarter of the original $40,000.

Let’s take a look at where her account has ended up:

Initial Investment Total Return End Value
US Large-cap $ 10,000 12.89% $ 11,289
US small-cap value $ 10,000 0.91% $ 10,091
International large-cap $ 10,000 -2.39% $ 9,761
International small-cap value $ 10,000 -8.09% $ 9,191
TOTAL $ 40,000 0.83% $40,332

The usual approach, in this situation, would have been for Sally to convert the entire IRA into one new Roth conversion account. In such a case, since she wants to convert only one-quarter of the original amount, she will be able to keep only one-quarter of her $40,332 balance at the end of November, or $10,083.

But the strategy we use would be to open four separate Roth conversions — one for each asset class. In that case, when Sally wants to undo the conversion on three-quarters of her original $40,000, she can keep the Roth account with the best return and undo the conversion on the other three. In this particular example, she would keep the US large-cap fund in her Roth, which is now worth $11,289.

So under this four-account option, she starts out with exactly the same investments as in the original scenario, and has exactly the same tax liability on the $10,000 Roth conversion she doesn’t undo. But she also ends up with $11,289 in her Roth account, not the $10,083 she would have had by converting into a single account. That’s an extra $1,206 in the Roth, for no added tax liability.

The following year, Sally can take the $29,000 that reverted to her traditional IRA and do the conversion all over again. (IRS rules dictate that once you’ve reversed an Roth conversion, you have to wait at least 30 days, and until a new calendar year, to do another.)

Neat trick, huh?

———-

Scott Leonard, CFP, is the owner of Navigoe, a registered investment adviser with offices in Nevada and California. Author of The Liberated CEO, published by Wiley in 2014, Leonard was able to run his business, originally established in 1996, while taking his family on a two-year sailing trip from Florida to New Caledonia in the south Pacific Ocean. He is a speaker on investment and wealth management issues.

MONEY best of 2014

6 New Ideas That Could Help You Retire Better

Lightbulb in a nest
MONEY (photo illustration)—Getty Images (2)

A great new retirement account, the case for an overlooked workplace savings plan, a push to make your town more retiree-friendly, and more good news from 2014.

Every year, there are innovators who come up with fresh solutions to nagging problems. Companies roll out new products or services, or improve on old ones. Researchers propose better theories to explain the world. Or stuff that’s been flying under the radar finally captivates a wide audience. For MONEY’s annual Best New Ideas list, our writers searched the world of money for the most compelling products, strategies, and insights of 2014. To make the list, these ideas—which cover the world of investing, technology, health care, real estate, college, and more—have to be more than novel. They have to help you save money, make money, or improve the way you spend it, like these six retirement innovations.

Best Kick-Start for Newbies: The MyRA

Half of all workers—and three-quarters of part-timers—don’t have access to an employer-sponsored retirement plan like a 401(k). The new MyRA, highlighted in President Obama’s State of the Union address in January, will fill in the gap, helping millions start socking away money for retirement. Even if you are already well on your way to establishing your retirement nest egg, you could learn something from this beginner’s savings account.

The idea: The MyRA, rolling out in late 2014, is targeted at workers without employer plans. Like a Roth IRA, the contributions aren’t tax-deductible, but the money grows tax-free. Savers fund a MyRA via payroll deductions, with no minimum investment and no fees.

What’s to like about this baby ira: The MyRA’s investments, modeled after the federal government’s 401(k)-like Thrift Savings Plan, emphasize safety, simplicity, and low costs. Those are principles more corporate plans—and individual savers—should embrace.

Best Workplace Plan That’s Finally Come of Age: The Roth 401(k)

With a 401(k), you sock away pretax money for retirement and then pay taxes when you withdraw the funds. With a Roth 401(k), you do the opposite: take a tax hit upfront but never owe the IRS a penny again. Few workers take advantage of this option. Now that could be changing.

This year Aon Hewitt reported that for the first time, 50% of large firms offer a Roth 401(k), up from 11% that did so in 2007. Adoption levels—still only 11%—tend to pick up once plans have a Roth on the menu for several years and new hires start signing up, Aon Hewitt reports.

A recent T. Rowe Price study found that even though young workers who expect to pay higher taxes in the future reap the greatest benefit, savers of almost every age collect more income in retirement with a Roth 401(k). A 45-year-old whose taxes remain the same at age 65 would see a 13% income boost, for example. And, notes ­Stuart Ritter, senior financial planner at T. Rowe Price, “the ­money in a Roth is all yours.”

Best New Defense Against Running Out of Money

When the only retirement plan you have at work is a 401(k), you may yearn for the security you would have gotten from monthly pension checks. Pensions aren’t coming back, but the government is letting 401(k) plans be more pension-like. A rule tweak by the Department of Labor and the IRS should make it easier for employers to incorporate deferred annuities into a 401(k)’s target-date fund, the default retirement option for many. Instead of a portfolio of just stocks and bonds that grows more conservative, target-date savers would have a portion of their funds socked into a deferred annuity, which they could cash out or convert to a monthly check in retirement. Done right, the system could re-create a long-missed pension perk, says Steve Shepherd, a partner at the consulting firm Hewitt EnnisKnupp. “They are making it easier and more cost-effective to lock in lifetime income.”

Best Supreme Court Ruling

In June the Supreme Court issued a ruling that makes it easier for Fifth Third employees to sue the bank over losses they suffered from holding company stock in their 401(k)s. The share price fell nearly 70% during the financial crisis. By discouraging companies from offering stock in plans in the first place, the unanimous decision could help 401(k) savers everywhere.

For years—and especially since the 2001 Enron meltdown—experts have advised against holding much, if any, company stock in your retirement plan. Still, not everyone has gotten the memo. About 6% of employees have more than 90% of their 401(k)s in company stock, the Employee Benefit Research Institute reports. About one in 10 employers still require 401(k) matching contributions to be in company shares, according to Aon Hewitt, a benefits consulting company.

With heightened legal liability, that could finally change. The upshot, according benefits lawyer Marcia Wagner, is that fewer employers will offer their own stock in their 401(k)s. “It’s risky for them now,” she says. That’s “a tectonic shift.”

Best New Book on Retirement

You may think you’ve heard a lot the looming retirement crisis. Well, it’s worse than you think. That’s the message of a new book, Falling Short, written by retirement experts Charles Ellis, Alicia Munnell, and Andrew Eschtruth.

One of their main targets is the 401(k), whose success depends on an unlikely combo of investor savvy, disciplined saving and great market returns. As things stand now half of Americans may not be able to maintain their standard of living in retirement. Their prescription? Don’t wait for Washington to fix things. Save as much as you can, work longer, and delay Social Security to increase your benefits.

Best New Idea About Where to Retire

Whether you can stay in your home after you retire is as much about where you live as it is about your house. Yes, there are inexpensive changes you can make to age-proof your home, but is your town a good place to age? AARP is helping people answer that question. Through its Network of Age-Friendly Communities, AARP is working with dozens of cities and towns to help them adopt features that will make their communities great places for older adults. Those include public transportation, senior services, walkable streets, housing, community activities, job opportunities for older workers, and health services.

Nearly half of the 41 places that have joined the network signed on in 2014, including biggies such as San Francisco, Boston, Atlanta, and Denver. Membership requires a commitment by the community’s mayor or chief executive, and communities are evaluated in a rigorous program that is affiliated with the World Health Organization’s Age Friendly Cities and Communities program and is guided by state AARP offices. This spring, AARP will launch an online index rating livability data about every community in the U.S.

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