MONEY Savings

Why a New Year’s Resolution to Save More May Actually Work

piggy bank in confetti
Benne Ochs—Getty Images

The economy is up, and New Year's Resolutions are on the decline. Too bad, because making a financial commitment can really help you reach your goals.

Most New Year’s resolutions are pointless. Only one in 10 people stick with them for a year, and many folks don’t last much more than a month. But as 2015 approaches, you might consider a financial New Year’s resolution anyway. Those who resolve to improve their money behavior at the start of the year get ahead at a faster rate than those who do not, new research shows.

Among those who made a financial resolution last year, 51% report feeling better about their money now, according to a new survey from Fidelity Investments. By contrast, only 38% of those who did not make a money resolution said they felt better.

Meanwhile, New Year’s financial resolutions seem to be easier to stay with: 42% find it easier to pay down debt and save more for retirement than, say, lose weight or give up smoking. Among those who made a financial resolution last year, 29% reached their goal and 73% got at least half way there, Fidelity found. Only 12% of resolutions having to do with things like fitness and health do not end in failure, other research shows.

So it is discouraging to note that the rate of people considering a New Year’s financial resolution is on the decline: just 31% plan to make one this year, down from 43% last year. A fall financial pulse survey from Charles Schwab is slightly more encouraging: 36% say they want to get their finances in order and that working with a financial planner would most improve their life. But a bigger share say they are most concerned with losing weight (37%) and would like to work with a trainer (38%). Topping the financial resolutions list in the Fidelity survey, as is the case nearly every year, are saving more (55%), paying off debt (20%) and spending less (17%)—all of which are closely connected. The median savings goal is an additional $200 a month.

Why are financial resolutions on the decline? The stock market has been hitting record highs, unemployment has dipped below 6% and the economy is growing at its fastest pace in years. So the urgency to tighten our belts felt during the Great Recession and immediate aftermath may be lifting.

But no matter how much the economic climate has improved, Americans remain woefully under saved for retirement and paying off debt is almost always a smart strategy. In the Schwab survey, 53% said if they were given an unexpected gift this year their top choice would be cash to pay down credit cards. One key to sticking to your New Year’s pledge: track progress and check in often. Two-thirds of those who set a goal find progress to be motivating, Fidelity found. That’s true whether you are trying to lose 20 pounds or save $20 a week.

More on saving and budgeting from Money 101:

How can I make it easier to save?

How do I set a budget I can stick to?

Should I save or pay off debt?

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.

MONEY Financial Planning

The Real Purpose of Financial Planning

A chat about retirement, Italy, and The Golden Girls illustrates how financial planning can help a person uncover and achieve her deepest passions.

Our meeting started with an engaging description of her latest trip to Italy.

She had come in to see how her situation looked retiring now instead of two years from now, as we had originally planned. Approaching her late 60s, she no longer felt like dealing with her new manager, who was making work a little less tolerable than it used to be.

But in our first fifteen minutes, the focus was on the delicious food she tasted and beautiful buildings she toured while overseas with her travel partner.

By listening closely, we planners can learn a lot from the small talk at the beginning and the end of our meetings. Some of the most important parts of our job are to learn the true desires of our clients and to calculate whether their resources will be sufficient to make those dreams come true. But when asked to come up with their life’s goals, many people struggle to articulate what they are or even write down a few possibilities. This is where listening helps us; we can get insights by observing what people get most excited about.

As we began discussing the possibility of her retiring now, my client mentioned her desire to spend more in the early years while her health still allowed her to enjoy traveling. That’s a common theme among early retirees.

Analyzing that scenario, we determined she would need to lower her overall spending a bit each year or generate additional income for her plan to have the best odds of success. So we spent time brainstorming options that would prevent her standard of living from declining significantly during her retirement.

The first thought on her mind was to leverage her knowledge and experiences of Italy by starting a niche travel business that would take first-time travelers on adventures to her favorite places. She also expressed a passion for teaching English as a second language. She hadn’t had the time in the past, but felt this would be a more rewarding way to spend her time than continuing in her current job, even if her income dropped.

It became quickly apparent that this line of thinking had sparked excitement in her about the possibility of doing things she’d always wanted to try — dreams she hadn’t pursued because of her current job.

She next talked about downsizing her home as she got older. Unloading her home would allow her to join a group of girlfriends that all wanted to eventually move in to less expensive, cottage-style dwellings closer to one another. She called this plan her own version of The Golden Girls.

This story reminds us that we don’t always know what we want until we are forced to think deeper about how and why we want it. We spend so much time in our daily lives focusing on what the world measures as success that we too often overlook the things that could truly make us happy.

But when the probability of adjustment is introduced, we gain a clearer perspective of the things that really matter to us. In that mindset, we have the freedom to be creative, as we are forced to embrace the idea of being flexible in the face of potential sacrifices. We begin to prioritize with purpose.

Furthermore, realizing that our money is a tool to help us experience the things we are most passionate about can take our financial planning to a new level of fulfillment. In doing so, we are experiencing the real purpose of financial planning – answering the question, “Will I have enough to do the things I want and love to do?”

———-

Smith is a certified financial planner, partner, and adviser with Financial Symmetry, a fee-only financial planning and invesment management firm in Raleigh, N.C. He enjoys helping people do more things they enjoy. His biggest priority is that of a husband and a dad to the three lovely ladies in his life. He is an active member of NAPFA, FPA and a proud graduate of North Carolina State University.

TIME Veterans

Army Says Captains Can Now Retire With Full Benefits

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel Travels To Mideast
Mark Wilson—Getty Images U.S. troops listen to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel speak during a visit to Baghdad International Airport on Dec. 9, 2014, in Baghdad

The officers were initially forced to retire with the benefits associated with sergeants

A change in U.S. Army policy this week means that captains being forced into retirement will be granted the full benefits associated with their ranks, instead of retiring with the benefits granted to sergeants as they initially would have had to.

Lawmakers who advocated for the added benefits said the policy change would give 120 soldiers an additional $1 million each over their lifetimes, the New York Times reported.

Since the officers served as captains for less than the required eight years for full benefits, they had been told they would be given benefits consummate with their previous enlisted rank.

“We fought and sacrificed and did well,” said Captain Tawanna Jamison, who is based at Fort Bragg, N.C. “This change restores honor and treats us right.”

The Army also notified 44 officers less than two years away from reaching the 20-year tenure required to receive full benefits that they would be allowed to keep their jobs instead of being forced to retire.

[NYT]

MONEY Taxes

10 Last-Minute Ways to Save on Your Taxes This Year

woman donating clothes
JGI/Jamie Grill—Getty Images Clean out your closet by Dec. 31 and cut your tax bill.

In between your holiday shopping and New Year's plans, make time for these time-sensitive tax moves.

The window of time to cut your 2014 tax bill is closing. Before you pop open the champagne on New Year’s Eve, make sure you’ve ticked off these valuable tax tasks.

1. Be Charitable Now

Individual Americans donate some $250 billion dollars to charity every year, according to the annual Giving USA report, and December is high season for giving.

By donating to charity, you can trim next your tax bill next April. You must itemize to get a write-off, and the organization must be a qualified charity. Check at IRS.gov.

Then you simply need to get a check in the mail by Dec. 31. Or put the gift on a credit card before year-end and pay the bill in January. Make sure you have a receipt, be it a cancelled check or your credit-card statement. But if you donate $250 or more, you must get a written record from the charity.

If you give away clothes or stuff from around the house, you’ll be able to deduct the fair market value, as long as the goods are in good condition or better.

“The end of the year is a great time to donate some items to charity,” says financial planner Trent Porter. “Your good deed will be rewarded with a bigger tax refund and a clean closet”

2. Be Charitable Later

If you’re in search of a big deduction in 2014, but you’re not ready to support a single charity now, here’s a good option. With as little as $5,000, you can set up a donor advised fund with a brokerage of fund company such as Fidelity or Schwab. You get the upfront tax savings, the money is invested, and you can then donate a portion of the fund to the charities of your choice for years to come.

“These accounts make it easy to use appreciated securities and other assets to fund your philanthropy, thus avoiding paying capital gains tax on the appreciation,” says financial planner Eric Lewis.

3. Invest in Education

A year of tuition and fees at even a public college will cost you more than $23,000 today. You need all the tax breaks you can get.

If you’re saving for school in a 529 college savings plan, that money grows tax-free, and withdrawals are tax-free as long as the money goes toward higher ed.

You can’t deduct those contributions on your federal return. But in 34 states and the District of Columbia, you can qualify for at least a partial deduction or a credit on your state tax return, as long as you fund the account by Dec. 31. Look up your state’s rules at savingforcollege.com.

4. Speed Up Deductions

A popular strategy for cutting your tax bill is to move up as many deductible expenses as you can. This is especially smart if your income will be high this year—say you cashed out winning investments or sold property.

One simple way is to donate more to charity. You can also make your January mortgage payment in December, which will give you extra interest to deduct. You could also prepay your property taxes, or send in estimated state and local taxes that you would otherwise pay in January. Or pay next year’s professional dues and subscriptions to trade publications.

Don’t employ this strategy, however, if you expect to be in a higher tax bracket in 2015. In that case, the deductions will be more valuable to you next year.

5. Top Off Retirement Plans

In 2014, you can save $17,500 in a 401(k) plan, or $23,000 if you’re 50 or older. If you haven’t saved that much, see if your employer will let you make an extra lump-sum contribution before Dec. 31. If you can’t, make sure you hit the max next year by raising your contribution rate now. The limit will rise to $18,000 in 2015, or $24,000 if you’re 50 or older.

You have until next April 15 to fund a traditional or Roth IRA for 2014, but the sooner you save the more time you’ll have to get the benefit of tax-deferred growth. What’s more, planning ahead might make for better investment choices. A recent Vanguard study found that last-minute IRA investors are more likely to simply park the money in cash and leave it there.

You can contribute $5,500 dollars to an IRA in 2014, or $6,500 if you’re 50 or older.

If you run your own business and want to save in a solo 401(k), you must open that plan by Dec. 31, though you can still fund it through next April 15.

6. Look for Losers

Nearly six years into this bull market, long-term stock investors are sitting on big gains. Maybe you cashed in a profitable stock or mutual fund this year. Or you trimmed back your winners when you rebalanced your portfolio. Unless you sold within a retirement account, you’ll face a tax bill come April. And the best way to cut that is to offset your investment gains with investment losses.

By pairing gains with losses, you can avoid paying capital gains taxes. If you have more losses than gains, you can use up to $3,000 worth to offset your ordinary income, and then save the rest of the losses for future years.

However, don’t let tax avoidance get in the way of sound investing. You should sell a stock or fund before year-end because it doesn’t fit with your investing strategy, not just because you have a loss.

If you want to buy the investment back, you must wait 31 days. Do so sooner, and the IRS will disallow the write-off (what’s called the “wash sale” rule).

7. Part With Big Winners

If you donate winning stocks, bonds, or mutual funds directly to a charity, you can enjoy two tax breaks. You won’t owe any taxes on your capital gains. And you can deduct the full market value of the investment on your 2014 return.

8. Tap Your IRA

With a tax-deferred plan like an IRA, once you hit age 70 1/2 you must take out some money every year. You have to take your first distribution by April 1 the year after you turn 70 1/2. Then the annual deadline for your required minimum distribution, or RMD, is Dec. 31.

This rule doesn’t apply to Roth IRAs, and if you have a 401(k) plan and you’re still working, you can usually wait until you do retire to start withdrawing money.

The IRS minimum is based on your account balance at the end of last year and your current life expectancy. Your broker or adviser can help you with the calculation, but you’re responsible for making the withdrawal. If you fail to do so, you’ll owe a 50% penalty on the amount you should have withdrawn.

You can also donate your RMD directly to charity and avoid paying income taxes on the withdrawal. In mid-December, Congress extended that rule, which had expired, for at least one more year.

9. Spread the Wealth

Making outright gifts is a smart move tax-wise, says Ann Arbor financial planner Mo Vidwans. Your heirs are less likely to face estate taxes down the road—and you can help out your kids or grandchildren when they need it the most. In 2014, you can give as many people as you want up to $14,000 tax-free. If both you and your spouse both make gifts, that’s $28,000.

If you’re funding 529 plan, you can frontload five years worth of gifts and put $70,000 into a child’s account now.

10. Pay Taxes Now and Never Again

With a traditional individual retirement account, your contributions are tax deductible, but you’ll owe income taxes on your withdrawals. A Roth IRA is the opposite: You invest after-tax money, but your withdrawals are 100% tax free.

Before year-end, you can convert a traditional IRA to a Roth. You’ll have to pay taxes on the conversion in 2014. But then you’ll never owe taxes on that money again.

Converting to a Roth is an especially smart move if your income was down this year and you’re in a low tax bracket. “If you have a low-income year, do a Roth conversion,” says New York City financial planner Annette Clearwaters. “Whenever I see a tax return with negative taxable income I cringe, because it’s such a wasted opportunity.”

And if you later change your mind, you have until the extended tax-filing deadline next October to switch back to a traditional IRA. Clearwaters recommends undoing any conversion that puts you above the 15% federal tax bracket.

Update: This post was updated to reflect Congress’s extension of the rule allowing for direct charitable donations of RMDs.

MONEY IRAs

The Best Way to Tap Your IRA In Retirement

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

Q: I am 72 years old and subject to mandatory IRA withdrawals. I don’t need all the money for my expenses. What should I do with the leftover money? Jay Kahn, Vienna, VA.

A: You’re in a fortunate position. While there is a real retirement savings crisis for many Americans, there are also people with individual retirement accounts (IRAs) like you who don’t need to tap their nest egg—at least not yet.

Nearly four out of every 10 U.S. households own an IRA, holding more than $5.7 trillion in these accounts, according to a study by the Investment Company Institute. At Vanguard, 20% of investors with an IRA who take a distribution after age 70 ½ put it into another taxable investment account with the company.

The government forces you to start withdrawing your IRA money when you turn 70½ because the IRS wants to collect the income taxes you’ve deferred on the contributions. You must take your first required minimum distribution (RMD) by April of the year after you turn 70½ and by December 31 for subsequent withdrawals.

But there’s no requirement to spend it, and many people like you want to continue to keep growing your money for the future. In that case you have several options, says Tom Mingone, founder and managing partner of Capital Management Group of New York.

First, look at your overall asset allocation and risk tolerance. Add the money to investments where you are underweight, Mingone advises. “You’ll get the most bang for your buck doing that with mutual funds or an exchange traded fund.“

For wealthier investors who are charitably inclined, Mingone recommends doing a direct rollover to a charity. The tax provision would allow you to avoid paying taxes on your RMD by moving it directly from your IRA to a charity. The tax provision expired last year but Congress has extended the rule through 2014 and President Obama is expected to sign it.

You can also gift the money. Putting it into a 529 plan for your grandchildren’s education allows it to grow tax free for many years. Another option is to establish an irrevocable life insurance trust and use the money to pay the premiums. With such a trust, the insurance proceeds won’t be considered part of your estate so your heirs don’t pay taxes on it. “It’s a tax-free, efficient way to leave more to your family,” Mingone says.

Stay away from immediate annuities though. “It’s not that I don’t believe in them, but when you’re already into your 70s, the risk you’ll outlive your capital is diminished,” says Mingone. You’ll be locking in a chunk of money at today’s low interest rates and there’s a shorter period of time to collect. “It’s not a good tradeoff for guaranteed income,” says Mingone.

Beyond investing the extra cash, consider just spending it. Some retirees are reluctant to spend the money they’ve saved for retirement out of fear of running out later on. With retirements that can last 30 years or more, it’s a legitimate worry. “Believe it or not, some people have a hard time spending it down,” says Mingone. But failure to enjoy your hard-earned savings, especially while you are still young enough and in good health to use it, can be a sad outcome too.

If you’ve met all your other financial goals, have some fun. “There’s something to be said for knocking things off the bucket list and enjoying spending your money,” says Mingone.

Update: This story was changed to reflect the Senate passing a bill to extend the IRS rule allowing the direct rollover of an IRA’s required minimum distribution to a charity through 2014.

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

Read next: How Your Earnings Record Affects Your Social Security

MONEY retirement income

Junk Bond Selloff Is a Warning for Retirees Who Reached for Yield

Risky assets have paid off well the past few years. But tremors in the junk bond market signal time for a gut check.

In July, Federal Reserve Chief Janet Yellen warned of the “stretched” values of junk bonds. Few seemed to care, and among the unconcerned were millions of retirees who had reached for these bonds’ higher yields in order to maintain their lifestyle. Now, a reckoning may be at hand.

Yellen’s mid-summer warning on asset prices was reminiscent of the former Fed chief Alan Greenspan’s “irrational exuberance” comment regarding stock prices in 1996. Few listened then, either. It turns out that the Greenspan warning was way early. But the dotcom collapse hit later with devastating results.

Yellen’s remarks may be timelier. High-risk, high-yield corporate bond prices have been falling amid the strongest selling in 18 months. Since June, investors have pulled $22 billion out of the market and prices have dropped 8%. The pace of the decline has quickened since October.

The junk bond selloff began in the energy sector, where oil prices recently hitting a five-year low set off alarms about the future profits—and ability to make bond payments—of some energy companies. In the past month, the selling has spread throughout the junk-bond universe, as mutual fund managers have had to sell to meet redemptions and as worries about further losses in a possibly stalling global economy have gathered steam.

The broad decline means that junk bond investors have little or no gain to show for the risks they have been taking this year. Investors may have collected generous interest payments, and so not really felt the sting of the selloff. But the value of their bonds has fallen from, say, $1,000 to $920. The risk is that prices fall further and, in a period of global economic weakness, that issuers default on their interest payments.

Retirees have been reaching for yield in junk bonds and other relatively risky assets since the financial crisis, which presumably is partly what prompted Yellen’s warning last summer. It’s hard to place blame with retirees. The 10-year Treasury bond yield fell below 2% for a while and remains deeply depressed by historical standards. By stepping up to the higher risks of junk bonds, retirees could get 5% or more and live like it was 10 years ago. Many also flocked to dividend-paying stocks.

So far, taking these risks has generally worked out. Junk bonds returned 7.44% last year and 15.8% in 2012, according to Barclays, as reported in The Wall Street Journal. Meanwhile, stocks have been on a tear. But the backup in junk bond prices this fall should serve as a warning: Companies that pay a high yield on their bonds—and many that pay a fat stock dividend—do so because they are at greater risk of defaulting or going bust. That’s the downside of reaching for yield, and it doesn’t go away even in a diversified mutual fund.

 

MONEY

6 Simple Projects To Make Your Home More Retirement-Friendly

open kitchen with multi-level island
James Brey—Getty Images

Hoping to stay in your house for the long haul? These manageable changes will make your place more comfortable now—and for years to come.

Houses—especially prewar houses—can be tough places to navigate as you get older. Steep stairs, deep tubs, and narrow doorways, once just petty annoyances, can become serious obstacles.

Remodeling your home to remove those impediments is a major undertaking, likely to cost tens of thousands of dollars, says Louis Tenenbaum, an independent living strategist based in Potomac, Md. Plus, by the time these changes become a necessity, you probably won’t want to get involved in an expensive and inconvenient construction project.

A smarter strategy? Tackle these jobs early on, when you’re already planning a renovation. Whether you’re updating a fixer-upper, expanding a starter home for a growing family, or remodeling for your empty-nest years, making a few simple design choices now will help you live comfortably in your home for decades to come. Even better: Most will add little or nothing to the cost of your current project.

Making your home more retirement-friendly doesn’t have to mean sacrificing good looks. “We’re not talking about grab bars in the shower or a ramp by the front door,” says Columbus, Ohio, contractor Bill Owens, a National Association of Home Builders’ expert in so-called universal design. “The idea of universal design is that good design is people-centered and works for all ages and body types,” he says. Sought-after features like spacious bathrooms, farmhouse-table style kitchen islands, and freezer-on-the-bottom refrigerators are all examples of universal design.

Make it clear to your project designer and contractor that universal design is a priority whenever you renovate. Doing so will not only help you age-in-place gracefully, but will also increase the value of your home by making it more attractive and comfortable, says home designer and builder Mark Mackmiller, of Eden Prairie, Minn.

Ready to get started? Here are six changes to consider, as well as an estimate of what they’ll add to the total cost of your renovation project.

Open Floorplans

Removing walls between the living and dining rooms, kitchen, family room, and/or entry halls makes a house feel bigger, more modern, and more comfortable—and makes the space easier to negotiate in old age.

Cost: $3,000 to $5,000 per removed wall

Curb-Free Showers

Visit any high-end resort or flip through a glossy design magazine and you’ll notice that every shower has glass doors that go all the way to the floor, with no lip to step over. Aside from being a sleek and sophisticated look, this eliminates a major tripping hazard.

Cost: $500 to $1,000 for lowered plumbing and shower floor

Multiple Height Counters

When you redo the kitchen, include some counters at standard height (36 inches), some at breakfast bar height (42 inches), and some at table height (30 inches) with knee space for sitting. Having a range of counters will give you more options for prepping or cooking while standing or seated, all without requiring that you to bend over.

Cost: Nothing more than what you’re already spending on the renovation

Wide Doorways

Anytime you’re reconfiguring doorways, make sure the new openings are at least 32 inches wide. This makes your home feel more spacious, and will allow for wheelchair access should you ever need it later.

Cost: $50 to $400 per door

Lever-Style Doorknobs

Just as lever-style faucets have become the norm for kitchens and showers because they’re attractive and easy to operate, lever doorknobs are more ergonomic than standard round versions. They’re easier to grab and manipulate if you’re carrying a load of groceries or laundry—or if you’re aging in place.

Cost: No additional cost.

High Outlets

Left to their own devices, most electricians will install new outlets at 12 to 18 inches off the floor. But that requires bending over every time you need to plug in the vacuum. Ask for outlets 24 inches high instead, and you’ll make your house easier to use now, when you get older, and if you’re ever fighting a bad back.

Cost: No added cost.

 

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