Don’t Panic About Proposed Public Service Loan Forgiveness Elimination

Executive Summary

Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) is a specific student loan payment strategy for individuals with high student loan debt who work for the government or a registered non-profit.  This includes government employees, employees of traditional non-profit entities, teachers, and even doctors and nurses who work at teaching hospitals.  Under this program, if you make 120 student loan payments on certain types of loans loans under a qualifying repayment plan, the remaining balance is forgiven after 120 payments.

Originally created under the Bush administration, there have been many rumored changes to PSLF program over the years.  In 2012, the Obama administration proposed putting some caps on the loan amounts that can be forgiven.  And recently, a proposed internal budget memo was leaked indicating that President Trump’s Department of Education is proposing eliminating the program all together.

In this video, I discuss the proposed threats to the PSLF program, and why I don’t think there’s any need to panic about these changes yet.  Ultimately, I believe that the chance that this proposal could become law is incredibly low both in its current form and in the current legislative climate in Washington DC.  And even if it does become law, it almost definitely would need to apply to future borrowers only.  If you’ve already taken out student loans and are counting on PSLF, you very likely have it in writing in your promissory notes that your loan servicer will honor PSLF in the first place!  Which would create massive legal challenges if the government were to revoke that at this point.

Nevertheless, it’s absolutely critical that you pay careful attention to the PSLF fine print if you are counting on this forgiveness.  To make sure you qualify for the program, you need to do a very detailed loan-level review to make sure your loans qualify for the program in the first place, since many of them don’t.  You also need to make sure your loans are on a qualifying repayment plan to be eligible for PSLF.  Finally, you need to submit an Employment Certification Form annually to your loan provider.  Ultimately, remember, this is on you to make sure you qualify!  For more information on qualifying for PSLF, click here and download my free student loan guide.

(Bill’s Note: This video, and the lightly edited transcription below, was originally released as a Facebook Live broadcast on May 18, 2017. If you want to participate in our next Facebook Live session, head to our Facebook page, hit “like”, and you’ll get the announcement the next time we go live.  Most of the content comes from questions submitted by my readers and viewers, so if you have a topic you’d like to hear more about, send a message to our Facebook page and we will get back to you as soon as we can!

Finally, click here to grab a copy of the FREE 30 page student loan guide mentioned in this video to learn more about how to qualify for Public Sector Loan Forgiveness.]

Pacesetter Planning Facebook Live Transcript

Welcome, everyone!

I was in the process of filming some things that will be going live at pacesetterplanning.com later today when I noticed the news that came out yesterday about the potential changes to the Public Sector Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program by the Trump administration.  Particularly, the proposed elimination of the Public Sector Loan Forgiveness program.  I wanted to share a few quick thoughts on this.

Trump Administration Proposes Elimination of Public Sector Loan Forgiveness

In case you missed the news, the Department of Education’s internal budget memo was leaked yesterday to the Washington Post.  And it looks like that this proposed budget will essentially eliminate PSLF.  For those of you who don’t know, this is a specific student loan program that allows people who work for non-profits, or the government, or even some hospitals to be eligible to have the balance of their student loans forgiven after 10 years.  And, essentially, it looks like the Trump administration is going to try to eliminate this program.

Interestingly, that’s not the only thing that was actually proposed in this document.  They also proposed some changes to the Income Based Repayment plans that are available as well.  Those [repayment plans] are typically for people who are either pursuing loan forgiveness or those who don’t have the necessary monthly income to pay their “standard” student loan payment every month.  Under these programs, you have the capability to peg your monthly student loan payments as a percentage of your current income.

The Washington Post leaked that the Trump administration will be changing some of the specific percentages of your monthly income that would make you eligible for this program, as well as the length of some of these income based repayment programs.

There’s nothing new in that particular proposal.  Actually, I wrote on the blog back the week that Trump was elected about that specific change in policy.  It’s something that he campaigned on.  And, I wrote about it on CNBC’s website as well a few months ago. So, there’s nothing new there.  The real news is that this Public Sector Loan Forgiveness program may end up being eliminated.

This isn’t Something to Panic About… Yet

There’s been a lot of panic about that, and justifiably so at first glance, but I wouldn’t panic about this yet. And there’s a few reasons for that.

This Proposal Needs to Go through the Standard Legislative Process to Become Law.  Good Luck with That

First and foremost is that this is not an actual budget that was released.  This is not the law of the land.  If you go back to your 8th grade social studies classes (Schoolhouse Rock, and all that good stuff!), any budget bill has to be originated in the House of Representatives, passed through the Senate, and then signed into law by the President.  So just because the Department of Education has released this as their blueprint or vision for the future, doesn’t mean that it’s actually policy. And in fact, I think it’s probably unlikely that, in its current form, it will ever become policy. I’m not a legal expert, obviously I’m not in government, but based on what I’m seeing right now, I don’t see how that the elimination of PSLF really could possibly be eliminated as they’re proposing.  At least in its current form.

Interestingly, the Obama administration a few years ago actually did try to make changes to the program.  Rather than allowing your entire loan balance to be forgiven in 10 years, they were proposing to put some caps on it as a cost savings device, and that didn’t get through.  So, if that didn’t happen a couple of years ago under the Obama administration, particularly under the legislative climate that we’re in today, I just don’t see this actually happening right now.  Which is good.

This is Unlikely to Affect Borrowers who Already Have Student Loans

And even if it does, there’s a second piece of good news for all of you out there who took out these loans, are in public sector jobs, and are counting on this loan forgiveness.  And that is, that, quite frankly, it is against all precedent in student loan policy that, if this change were to go into effect, it would affect current borrowers.

Going back through all of the different changes in student loan policy over the past 15-20 years, I can’t think of a single one off the top of my head where people who already had loans originated now were affected by the changes. Typically, when these changes go into effect, they are for new borrowers. The good news, is that if you have loans in existence right now and are on track for loan forgiveness, I would just be shocked based on the precedents that have been set and the way these things work, if this were to actually affect you.

In fact, I’ll even take it a step further. For many of you, if you go back to the promissory notes that you signed when you were 18 or 19 years old and took these loans out (you probably didn’t even understand half the stuff because they do a terrible job walking you through it…), the PSLF program is often enshrined in those documents.  So literally, for them to eliminate this program right now, in my opinion (and some of the legal experts I’ve followed since this has come out), I don’t see how they could legally do this.  And in fact, I think this would create a lot of legal programs, if they were to eliminate the program for people who have already taken out these loans and are on track for loan forgiveness.

I think it’s more likely that they might eliminate the program for future people, which certainly could be a problem for folks, but it’s certainly not at the crisis magnitude that cancelling it for people who have all this debt and are really counting on this program being around at this point.

So, I think that a lot of the panic I’m seeing, while it might be justified at face value, really doesn’t justify panic just yet, to be honest.  Because first of all, it’s not on the books. It’s not even close to being on the books at this point. And I think that it would create so many legal headaches for the government to cancel this program that they’ve promised people in writing over the past 10 years, that I just don’t see it happening.

But, You Still Need to Pay Attention to PSLF

That being said, if this is something that you’re counting on, there are a few critical things that you need to do.  And that’s really why I wanted to talk about this today while this topic is in the news.  While I would continue going forward expecting this forgiveness program to be in place until we see anything different (and if we do, we’ll talk about it), if you’re on track for it now, you need to be doing a few things to make sure you do qualify.

Part of the reason that people are so scared about this is because, well, let me ask you- if I was to ask you how many people have qualified for PSLF over the past several years… the answer would be zero.  Because, the law was passed in October 2007.  So, it hasn’t even been ten years since it went into effect.  So, nobody has been eligible to qualify yet. That’s going to be changing later this year and early next year [Note: the application for forgiveness was released in early September 2017, as predicted in this video].  The very first group of people who are eligible for this program are really reaching the end now. But because it’s never been actually implemented, there’s a little bit of uncertainty here.

And so, what I wanted to do was talk through some of the things that, driven by this uncertainty, you should be doing to make sure you’re being taken care of.

You Need to Make Sure Your Loans Qualify for PSLF Under the Current Law

First and foremost, you need to make sure you actually qualify for the program.  We know that you need to hold a public sector/nonprofit type job, but you also need to make sure that your individual student loans qualify.  Because, one of the biggest misconceptions and mistakes that I’ve seen since I founded Pacesetter Planning is people who think they’re on track for PSLF and don’t even qualify for forgiveness in the first place because their particular student loans don’t qualify.

Over the past ten years, student loan policy regulations have changed every few years.  So, you really need to do a deep, loan-level analysis to make sure that you actually qualify.

I’ve made it as easy as I can for you to do that.  Click here to download a free student loan guide that walks you through the steps you need to take. Everything you need to make sure that you can qualify for this program under the current law as it exists, is detailed in that guide.  So, I highly encourage you to download that guide (it’s free, no cost for this!) and do the analysis that is listed there to make sure that your student loans qualify for this program. Because if they don’t, that’s going to be a whole other conversation.

You Need to Make Sure You’re on a Qualifying Repayment Plan

Second of all, this is a little less common of a problem, but make sure you’re on a qualifying repayment plan. If you’re on a standard 10-year repayment plan, it’s very likely that you’ll have paid off your loans by the time 10 years is over. So, double check with your loan servicer what type of repayment plan you’re on, and specifically make sure that this payment plan makes you eligible for PSLF.

This is particularly an issue, I’ve found, with people who have graduated medical school, who are residents but aren’t yet “full doctors”. For those of you who don’t know much about the medical industry, people who graduate medical school typically have over $250,000 in student loan debt, then they go into three (or four, or five, or six or seven) year residency and fellowship programs, where they make a fraction of what they’ll make as full doctors.  Because having a nonprofit hospitals jobs would qualify for PSLF, what I see happen a lot is people who defer their loans while they don’t have a big income during residency, but count that, in their head at least, as counting toward that ten year PSLF qualification.

Just to be clear, that’s not going to work. Because technically, it’s not ten years that qualifies you for PSLF, its 120 payments.  You need to make 120 payments on your student loans in order to qualify for this program.  So, it’s really not enough to go into residency, put your loans on deferment, and start counting the time.  Because if you’re not actually making the payment, it’s not going to count for you. So again, make sure that you know if your payment plan is going to qualify you, and that every payment you make is going to count toward that 10 year (120 payment) goal.

You Need to File an Employment Certification Form Annually

And finally, last thing, unfortunately this is on you to make sure you qualify for this.  Your student loan servicer and the government are certainly not going to be looking out for you to make sure that you’re doing what you need to do in order to qualify.

So, the last piece I recommend is that for people who are in qualifying jobs (working for a nonprofit or the government or things like that), you need to be filling out an employment certification form.  Every year. And submitting it to your student loan processor.  It basically shows that you hold a job that will qualify you, for all the payments you are making this year, toward those 120 payments that would qualify you for PSLF.  If you don’t have that form, click here or send a Facebook message to the Pacesetter Planning Facebook page, and I will send you a copy of that form. But you absolutely need to be filling it out every year.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a study recently that said that 4 million people are “qualifying” for PSLF, but less than 1/8 of them are actually filling out that form.  I think that’s a huge mistake.  And other than having loans that don’t qualify in the first place, which I already talked about, not filling out that form and proving to the government and your student loan servicer every year that you qualify, is the number one mistake I see people make that could potentially lead to problems for them down the road.  So, definitely make sure you do that. I have no issues whatsoever with sending you this form if you send the Pacesetter Planning Facebook page a message.  I’ll make sure we get the form to you.

Conclusion: Worry About Complying with the Current Laws around PSLF, Not About Proposed Future Changes

Anyway, that’s about it.  Like I said, potential scary headlines about the future of this program.  We don’t really know what’s going to happen yet.  But based on the reasons that I detailed, I don’t think there’s any reason to panic yet.  I think it’s definitely something to keep an eye on. But, like I said, this is not law, it’s not part of the budget at all (in fact, we’re many, many months from even getting to that point). I don’t think this is likely, in fact it’s been tried in some ways before and it hasn’t gone through. Particularly with the climate in Washington DC right now, I just don’t see it happening. And more importantly, it’s against all precedent in student loan policy to affect current borrowers. If they were to eliminate the program, I think it’s much more likely that it would be eliminated for people who are taking out loans in the future, not people who are already on track.

But.

You need to make sure, if you’re counting on PSLF, you have to make sure you’re doing everything you can to qualify. You need to make sure your student loans qualify in the first place, you need to make sure you’re on the right repayment plan for those loans, and you need to filing an Employment Certifiction Form indicating that you work for a nonprofit or government agency, every year, for ten years to show that you’re qualified.

Again, if you have any questions about this, I highly encourage you to either send me a Facebook message on the Pacesetter Planning business page, or download that free student loan guide.  There’s a ton of detail in it and it’s going to give you just about everything you need to know.  Thanks for taking the time today- have a good day!

What To Do If You Have a Worse Credit Score Than Your Spouse

When most couples talk about money, the topic of credit scores usually isn’t one that gets them fired up.  It’s much more fun to focus on a goal like buying a new home than it is to dwell on your credit score.

But, building your credit is one of the most critical steps to take in your 20s, since your credit score impacts most of the other parts of your financial picture.  The interest rates on your future mortgages and car loans directly depend on your credit score.  And, credit takes time to build, so even if you don’t need to take out a mortgage soon, the time to focus on this is now.

It’s very common to see a husband and wife have very different credit scores.  What steps should the person with the lower score take?

Differing Credit Scores Can Be a Huge Challenge for Couples

There are a lot of decisions couples need to make about how they handle their finances together when they get married.  Typically, these decisions involve deciding whether (and how) to combine financial accounts, how to manage monthly cash flows, and how to save and invest.

Credit scores aren’t one of the topics that tend to come up right away.  Unless you’re in the process of buying a home, they just aren’t a topic that tends to be on the top of people’s minds.

But, this doesn’t mean that it isn’t an important topic for couples.  On the contrary, being in a marriage where one partner has a significantly higher credit score than the other can be a huge source of stress on your relationship.  And, it can complicate the process of taking out a mortgage, since you will need to use both of your credit scores when applying for the house.

It’s important, therefore, to be aware of your partner’s credit score and to get out in front of any areas for improvement before you actually need to use the credit score.

How Do You Fix It?

The good news is that this is a fixable problem.  The bad news is that it can take a good amount of time to improve your credit scores significantly.  Which is why it’s critical to start as soon as possible.
This isn’t an exhaustive list, but if you’re looking to improve your credit score, start with these strategies:

Download your Credit Reports Every Year

Knowing is half the battle.  Use a free service like Credit Karma to pull your credit reports once a year.  And, make sure to look at reports from all three credit bureaus- Equifax, Experian, and Transunion.  It isn’t common, but sometimes there can be erroneous items on one report that aren’t listed on any of the others.  You can also get your credit reports through the website of each of these credit bureaus.

Dispute Errors As Soon As Possible

We’ll touch on this in a bit, but it’s so important that I wanted to call it out right away.  You’d think that the three credit bureaus are infallible, but unfortunately, they are far from it.  I’ve caught three different errors on clients’ credit reports in the past couple months alone.  If you see something that you know is a mistake on your report, use the link on the relevant credit bureau’s website to file a dispute immediately.  These things can take some time, but it is possible to remove factually incorrect information from your reports.  And, as I said, this is unfortunately a more common problem than you’d expect.

Recognize that Making Changes to Your Available Credit Usually Involves Taking a Step Backward Before You Take a Step Forward

This is crucially important.  If you open a new credit card and use it the right way (more on that in a bit), over time your credit score will likely go up.  But, whenever you request new credit, this creates what’s called a “hard check” on your credit that causes your credit score to drop for the time being.

Again, in the long run, this will be outweighed by you using your new credit wisely, but be aware that if you’re planning to take out a loan sometime this year, now isn’t the time to be opening new credit cards.

And as an FYI, “hard checks” typically remain on your credit report for two years.

Have Enough Credit Available…

This one is particularly important for those people fresh out of undergrad or a grad school program.

Double check how much available credit you have on each of your credit cards.  Typically, most people new to the working world have credit limits in the $300-$500 range.  Frankly put, that’s not enough to build a great credit score.  Request a credit increase to give yourself more of a foundation to build your credit history.

…But Don’t Use (Much of) It

One of the primary drivers of your credit score is how much you use the credit you have available.  A good rule of thumb is to always use 30% or less of the total amount of credit you have available on each credit card.

In other words, if you have one credit card with a $10,000 credit limit, never let the balance on that card get higher than $3,000.  And of course, pay off the balance every month.  Speaking of which…

Set Reminders

It’s hard to keep track of your finances when you’re busy.  So, make it easy on yourself!  Set reminders to pay your bills every month.

One of the easiest ways to mess up your credit score is to accidentally miss a payment.  Set calendar reminders to yourself to make sure you don’t forget!

Check Your Reports for Any Overdue Bills (And Either Pay or Dispute Them Right Away)

When you do your annual review of your credit report, pay close attention to any bills (medical bills are common examples) that have accidently or allegedly gone unpaid.

If you have a bill listed as in collection that has gone unpaid, first do some research to make sure the bill is actually yours, and if it is, that it actually wasn’t paid.  John Oliver did a great report on erroneous credit reporting not too long ago that is worth taking the time to watch.

If you have a reason to contest the charge, do so as soon as possible.  If you realize that you just forgot to pay the bill, take care of it ASAP.

Don’t “Shop Around” for Loans and Credit Cards….

Or, at the very least, be careful not to get firm quotes from more than one lender at a time.

As mentioned above, every time a lender does a credit check on you regarding issuing you a credit card or loan, this creates a “hard check” on your credit that hurts your score.  If you go to five different credit card companies requesting a credit card, that’s five “hard checks” that will appear on your credit report, even if you only open one card.

By all means, do your homework and shop around, but only begin the application process once you’ve made a decision.

Beware Retail Credit Cards

I’ll confess- I’ve goofed on this one myself.

Stores generally offer pretty good perks to entice you to open up a store credit card.  But, having retail credit cards directly impacts your credit score, and not in a good way.

Lenders view retail credit cards as a negative indicator, so it’s almost always a best practice to say no to the discounts that the retail stores offer you in order to save money on your mortgage down the road.

Give it Time

In most areas of financial planning, we can usually implement a pretty quick fix.  Whether it’s acting on a need to save more for retirement or to refinance a loan, usually the recommendations I provide to my clients can be acted on quickly and you can see immediate results.

Unfortunately, improving your credit score just doesn’t work that way.

Don’t get me wrong, there are things you can and should do today to improve your credit score.

But, it’s not a quick fix- it might be two years before you see substantial improvement.  Trust the process and give it time, and your score will improve if you manage your credit the right way.

 

Whole Life Insurance Is a Terrible Investment For Most Millennials

Several months ago, I wrote a post on this blog that was… shall we say, somewhat critical of using whole life insurance as an investment.  To be clear, that’s not to say that I think life insurance itself is bad.  Life insurance is important if you have a spouse or children who depend on your income, or if have a mortgage.

But, there’s a big difference between getting life insurance because you actually need insurance versus getting a whole life insurance policy as an investment.  If you have an insurance need, you absolutely have to get a term life insurance policy to cover that need.  I emphasized this in my original post, and I’ll touch on it again below. If you are considering whole life insurance as an investment vehicle – or worse, if a life insurance salesman is trying to convince you that you need one – well, to borrow a phrase from my last article, you should run like hell.

Turns out, saying this didn’t win me a ton of fans in the insurance sales business.  I heard from a few people who make their living from selling these whole life insurance policies, who had a lot of arguments against what I said in my last post.  I even spoke to two of them on the phone to hear their point of view.

The points they made in favor of investing in whole life insurance (I’ll detail them all, with my responses, below) sound good at the surface, but their arguments flat out don’t hold up for almost all millennial investors.  In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that while there are some specific cases where whole life insurance could make theoretical sense for a handful of people out there, these cases are so few and far between that 95% of my readers shouldn’t even consider it.  If someone tries to sell you a whole life policy, and you aren’t a member of the 1% or trying to set up your estate for your heirs to inherit, you should run like hell.  Quickly.

Simply put, if you have an insurance need, you should buy term insurance.  It’s significantly cheaper, so you can invest the difference between the whole life premium and the term life premium.  With the right investment strategy, you should come out light years ahead of where you’d be with a whole life policy, as we’ll see below.

And if you don’t need insurance, just invest the money until you get married, have a child, or get a mortgage.  No need to buy a whole life insurance policy if you don’t need the insurance piece to begin with.

There’s a lot of information here, but it’s important.  I hope you use this post as a reference in the future as needed.

The Sales Gimmicks Life Insurance Salesmen Use are Just That- Gimmicks

A good salesman wouldn’t get very far without some good stories to convince (or worse, to scare) you into buying a whole life insurance policy. When I discussed my previous article with two sales reps from reputable life insurance companies, I heard several common reasons that they use to convince people to invest with them.  Let’s walk through them one by one – consider this your one stop shop for turning away a whole life insurance salesman.

Reason 1: Withdrawals from Life Insurance Investments are Tax Free

I start with this one because, frankly, it’s the best argument out there in favor of investing in life insurance.  It’s true- when you invest in life insurance, the policy builds up a “cash value” from which you can withdraw on a tax-free basis.  This “cash value” is the investment component of a whole life insurance policy.

Is it the only tax free investment out there?  Absolutely not.  In fact, there are several other options out there if you’re looking for a way to have tax free income in the future:

  • Roth IRAs are by far the most common type of tax-free accounts. There are annual contribution limits ($5,500 per year for millennials) and income limits (you have limited eligibility to contribute to a Roth IRA if your income exceeds $118,000 for individuals and $186,000 for couples in 2017).  But, if you are eligible to contribute to a Roth, this is my recommended tax-free-growth investment of choice.
  • Municipal bonds are investment vehicles that allow you to lend money to cities or towns, in exchange for interest payments. Those interest payments are tax free at the federal, state, and local level.  These aren’t particularly good long term growth investments (although we’ll compare their performance to whole life policies in a little bit). But if tax free income is what you’re after, a series of good, investment-grade municipal bonds will do the trick.
  • There are several other investment options that aren’t completely tax free, but are significantly tax-advantaged compared to more traditional mutual funds. Specifically, these include:
    • US Government bonds (taxable by the federal government, but not state and local governments)
    • Dividends– Investing in high-dividend, blue chip stocks that pay dividends isn’t tax free, but stock dividends are taxed at much lower rates than your standard income tax for most investors.  (As a side note, a “dividend” is like an interest payment that some companies pay to investors who own their stocks).

Yes, investing in whole life insurance gives you some tax advantages down the road.  But, so do other investments – and these alternatives don’t have the disadvantages of whole life that we’ll address at the end of this post.

Oh yeah, and did the life insurance salesman you were talking to about one of these policies mention that even though the withdrawals are tax free, you’ll be charged interest when you draw down the cash value of your life insurance policy?

I didn’t think so.

Reason 2: Whole Life Insurance Investments are a Good Way to Diversify

I get it, this sounds appealing at the surface.  “I’m putting most of my money into stock and bond mutual funds, and I know I shouldn’t put all of my eggs into one basket, so why not put a portion of my investments into a life insurance policy?”

Nope.  This one doesn’t work at all, for two reasons:

  1. If you put 20% of your portfolio into a life insurance policy, that means you are entrusting a single company with 20% of your assets. What if the life insurance company who runs the policy goes bankrupt in 10 years?  What happens then?   It might be a different type of investment vehicle, but you shouldn’t let a large percent of your portfolio ride on the successes of any one company.
  2. The way whole life insurance policies work is that you give your money to the insurance company, they invest the money for you, and direct a portion of it to build your cash value in the policy (the “investment” component), a portion to cover the policy’s death benefit (the “insurance” component), and a portion to cover their operating expenses.  How are they investing your money?  In the same stock and bond mutual funds that the rest of your investments are in.  If all of your money is invested in the same stuff, it doesn’t matter that the life insurance agency is the middle man.  Adding the middle man doesn’t really diversify you.  And remember, you’re losing a portion to cover their business expenses.

Next.

Reason 3: Everybody Needs Insurance

No, no they don’t.  I addressed this one in my last article.

If you have a family member (spouse, child, etc.) who depends on you for income, you need life insurance.

If you have a large debt that needs to be paid off (like a mortgage) even if you were to pass away, you need life insurance to cover that debt.

If you don’t have any financial obligations that would need to be covered if you were to die, you don’t need life insurance.  Period.  That might change in the future, but you don’t need it now.

But even if you do need life insurance, a term life insurance policy will do just fine for almost everyone.  In a term insurance policy, you specify how long you want the coverage to last.

Which is a good thing.  And, in fact, the entire point.  Most people don’t need life insurance in their 80s and 90s.

Once you’re retired, most people don’t need life insurance.  If your mortgage is paid off, your kids are grown and supporting themselves, and you’re living off of your retirement assets and managing them well, there’s no need for you to have insurance.  So, why pay for a whole life insurance policy that will be many multiples more expensive than a term insurance policy, if you won’t need the insurance coverage when you’re most likely to die?  It’s just a waste.

Reason #4: Whole Life Insurance Is a Good Investment for Some People

Sure.  Maybe.

But not for your typical millennial.

Whole life insurance policies can be a good way to transfer money to your heirs.  If you don’t have heirs (or a ton of money to leave them), like most people who read this blog, this doesn’t apply to you (yet).

And, as we’ll discuss in a bit, two of the three big downsides to investing in whole life insurance are that the premiums are very expensive, and you’re essentially locked into paying them for life.  You might be able to afford to pay these insurance premiums now, but what happens if you lose your job?  Or when you have children?

Simply put, there’s too much uncertainty about how the future will play out for millennials to invest in something like whole life insurance.

Reason #5: Life Insurance Salesmen Tout the Investment Benefits of Whole Life Insurance, but You’re Better Off Investing Elsewhere

The last common thread I heard when debating whole life insurance with these salesmen is that life insurance is a good part of an investment portfolio is that it’s “safe” or “guaranteed”.  We need to do a deeper dive into this one.

Yes, there are some guarantees associated with the buildup of cash value in a whole life insurance policy.  But, are they really better than the alternatives?  Let’s take a look:

Whole Life Investment Performance is Hard to Verify

In most cases, the performance of the underlying investments in your life insurance policy don’t match the stated rates of return that the company projects.  In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a whole life policy who’s actual investment return matches the projections the salesman showed you when (s)he tried to sell you the policy.  Finding the actual returns usually involves submitting an official request to the insurance carrier.

I spent more time than I’d like to admit trying to go through data to find a good data set to show actual performance of a sample whole life insurance policy.  Turns out, this isn’t data that the big companies like to advertise.  I could only find one set of data that looked reasonably accurate based on my experience in the industry, for a hypothetical 35 year old taking out a $100,000 whole life insurance policy:

A few things to notice here:

  • The average annual return for the policy from age 35 – 83 was about 5.5%. Not great, but not terrible for a conservative investment, right?
  • But, notice that the breakeven point (the point where your cash value is the same as the amount you pay in every year) doesn’t occur until about year ten! That means, this investment is guaranteed to lose money for you for the first ten years you have it!
  • The good returns don’t kick in until after the person who holds the policy is expected to die!
  • The premiums are expensive! On that note…
Investing in Whole Life vs. Buying Term Insurance and Investing the Difference

It’s time to get down to business.  I’ve made theoretical arguments about why investing in life insurance is a bad idea.  Let’s see some numbers to back it up.

I’m coming at this analysis from the perspective that if you’re considering investing in whole life insurance, you a) like the idea of investing conservatively, or b) like the idea of tax free investments.  So, the investment models I outline below aren’t my typical recommendations – instead, they are made with these specific goals in mind.

Simply put, can we come up with an investment portfolio with these qualities that is projected to beat the performance in the table above while also buying term insurance to make sure you’re fully insured?

Let’s take a look at two cases:

Case 1: Buy Term and Invest the Rest in Municipal Bonds

We’ve already discussed that municipal bonds are tax free, and, like “guaranteed” life insurance investments, are also appealing to risk-averse investors.  How does a municipal bond portfolio compare to a whole life insurance investment?

Take a look at the table below.  Here, we’re comparing the value of the same whole life policy we saw before with a comparable 20 year term life policy.  Notice the premium for the term life policy is about 10% of the whole life premium.  We’re taking the difference between the premiums and investing them into a municipal bond portfolio.  Since the historical average return on a good municipal bond is about 5% (rates are lower than that right now, but they’re rising), we’re assuming that the portfolio will pay 5% interest a year, tax free. Let’s take a look at how the portfolios would compare, if the investments perform as they have in the past (which, of course, is not a guarantee):

Twenty years later, the whole life policy is still underperforming a tax free municipal bond portfolio.  All while getting the insurance coverage you need.

Case 2: Buy Term and Invest in Dividend Paying Stocks

Municipal bonds are all well and good, but what if you’re a relatively conservative investor, still concerned about taxes, who wants to dabble in the stock market?

Let’s run the numbers one more time, this time against a portfolio of ten of the most boring stocks I can think of.  First, a disclaimer:  I like investing in individual stocks, but only as a complement to a more well-diversified portfolio.  You shouldn’t put 100% of your investments into the kind of portfolio I’m about to show below.  But, if you’re thinking about putting 20% of your portfolio into a life insurance policy as an investment, something like this might be an alternative worth considering for a small portion of your money.

What counts as a boring stock?  Specifically, I’m thinking of massive companies with a long track record of success that generate reliable dividend payments to investors every year.  In this analysis, we’re looking at big companies across many industries: Chevron, Aqua America, John Deere, Wells Fargo, Pepsi, AT&T, McDonalds, Johnson & Johnson, Disney, and Proctor and Gamble.  Pretty boring companies, right?  (Ok, maybe Wells Fargo has been less boring of late.  But you get my drift).

The average annual return for these stocks, combined, over the past 20 years?

8.96%

Again, past performance does not equal future returns.  But given that the 8.96% takes some good years (the late 1990s and the past five years) and some bad years (the early 2000s and of course the market crash in 2008-2009), it’s not the worst point of comparison against how this particular whole life insurance policy performed.

So, what does this comparison look like?

Now, keep in mind that this portfolio is taxable.  So, taxes will reduce these numbers a bit.

But, hopefully I’ve made my point.  There are better long term ways to invest than either of the options I presented here.  But starting from the perspective that a) you need to have insurance, and b) we want to invest in either tax free and relatively safe ways (municipal bonds) or in relatively secure companies (my “boring stocks”), whole life insurance just doesn’t hold up.

Whole life insurance is a bad investment.  Period.

A Bonus Three Reasons to Hate Whole Life Insurance

In my conversations with life insurance salesmen, there are three key points that they didn’t bring up as reasons to invest in their policies, even though they are critically important.  See if you can figure out why they might not have emphasized these characteristics to me…

Whole Life Policies are Complex

If you’ve made it this far, you’ve seen a lot of information on whole life insurance policies and are possibly (or even likely) overwhelmed with the details of these policies.  How does cash value build up in a life insurance policy?  Wait- what exactly is cash value in the first place?

There’s a lot to these policies.  It’s way more complex to invest in life insurance than it is to invest in just about anything else.  And, in my opinion, complexity doesn’t give you any value here.  It actually does the opposite.

In the spirit of Newton and Archimedes, I’d like to call this Nelson’s First Principle of Personal Finance:

“The more complex the investment, the worse it is for the average investor”

And whole life insurance policies are certainly on the “complex” end of the spectrum.

You’re Locked into Whole Life Policies

If you buy a whole life policies, you’re typically locked into paying these high premiums until you’re 100 years old.  If you miss a payment, your policy will lapse.  And, you could lose the “benefits” that made you buy the policy in the first place.

If you’re a young investor, this should scare you.  If you don’t know for sure where your life will be in 10 or 15 years (spoiler alert: you don’t), you shouldn’t mess with locking into a policy that (as we’ve seen) has poor returns for the first several years.

I’ve already shown how your investment returns could be greater by buying term and investing the difference.  And that analysis assumes that you don’t let your policy lapse.  If you do, the difference is all the more clear.

Life Insurance Salesmen Have Huge Incentives to Sell Whole Life Insurance (And Have No Incentives to Sell You Term Insurance)

I point blank asked a life insurance salesman how much more he gets paid to sell a whole life policy than a term life policy.  They didn’t even know, because their pay for selling term life insurance is so low that they’ve never bothered to sell one.

This is a HUGE problem.  Life insurance agents are paid way more to sell whole life policies than term life policies.  A “financial advisor” who works for a life insurance company has zero incentive to show you a portfolio of term life insurance and a municipal bond portfolio like the one I showed you before.  Zero.

There’s a reason that trust in the financial services industry typically polls somewhere around levels of the criminal justice system.  And selling bad life insurance policies to people under the age of 40 is, in no small part, a reason why.

This is a huge part of the reason I started my own firm, among many others.  I believe that the best financial advice you can receive is paid based on a level fee.  In other words, the fees you pay should not vary depending on what the advisor recommends to minimize conflicts of interest.  Life insurance salesmen don’t operate that way.

Conclusion

There’s a lot here.  But this stuff is important.

It can be very easy to be talked into investing in life insurance.  The facts and figures salesmen use make it seem appealing.

But unless you’re in the top 1%, you should get your insurance needs covered with a term policy.  There are better investment options elsewhere.

How to Take Control of Your Finances after Graduation

[Don’t miss the two free giveaways in this post!  Click here to access our new retirement calculator, and click here to download our comprehensive student loan guide!]

The first 90 degree day of the year (at least here in Philadelphia) means a lot of things to different people.  Memorial Day Weekend.  Weekends at the park or pool.  And, of course, graduation season.

Congratulations to everyone in Class of 2017! If you are finishing your undergraduate career this month, welcome to the working world!  If you are finishing a masters or professional degree program, congratulations on finally (probably?) being doing with school!  And if you didn’t graduate this year, stick around anyway- I have some information here for you, too.

As the excitement of your graduation weekend ends and you begin to take the next steps on your journey, whatever they may be, I recommend that you take a step back and take an assessment of your current financial landscape.  Your life is changing (for the better!), and as such, you should take some time to reflect and take action to set yourself up for financial success in your new endeavors.

There’s a lot to take in here – if you have any challenges in any of these areas, I recommend that you reach out to schedule a free consultation about a one time, quick start session!

Congratulations again, and let me know how you are doing as you progress through this list!

Negotiate Your Salary

If you’re still working on lining up your first job out of school, make sure you prepare yourself to negotiate your salary before you accept a job.  If you already have a job lined up, file this one away for your next performance review.

I’ve discussed this in much more detail before, but it’s absolutely critical that you negotiate your salary when starting a new job.

Over 60% of millennials aren’t negotiating with employers at all regarding their salary.  And the worst part?  Three out of four employers have room to negotiate salary by as much as 10%- but only if you ask for it.  And, truthfully, hiring managers and HR are expecting you ask for it.

I know it’s uncomfortable, but you have to do it.

Set a Student Loan Paydown Plan

The bad news? T-minus six months until your first student loan payment is due.

The worse news? The vast majority of millennials are told by their loan servicer how much they owe and automatically start paying the bill, without double checking to make sure they’re paying down their loans in the smartest way possible.

The good news?  You have the power in your hands to make sure you’re handling your student loans with the care they deserve.

I highly recommend downloading my free guide on managing student loan payments. In it, you will learn:

  • How to review each of your student loans and determine what payment plans each is eligible for.
  • How to know if you are eligible for a loan forgiveness program, and what you need to do to qualify for the program under current law.
  • When you should refinance your student loans, and when you absolutely should NOT refinance your loans.
  • How to set goals around your student loan payment strategy (i.e., should you try to pay down your loans as fast as possible, or should you try to minimize your monthly payment?)
  • … and much, much more!

Go ahead and grab your free copy of “13 Steps to Take Before You Make Your Next Student Loan Payment” today.  It will be worth your while to work through the guide in order to set you up for success with your student loans.

Set Financial Goals for the Next Five Years

I remember graduating college like it was yesterday.  The last thing I wanted to do was to try to imagine what the future was going to be like.  I just had the best four years of my life, and was scared to face all of the responsibilities that I knew would fall on my shoulders in the real world.  If you had told me back then to spend some time setting goals for my first few years in the working world, I probably would have laughed at you.

But, I wish I had taken that advice.  I’ve improved my own personal financial situation significantly after I started setting financial goals for myself. (Not too long after I started my first job, luckily!)  And I recommend you do the same.

Take some time and imagine what you want your life to be like in one, three, and five years from now.  Will you be going back to school to get a graduate or professional degree?  Do you want to buy a new car or, a little while down the line, a new house? Are you gunning for a quick promotion at work, or maybe even thinking about launching a business or side hustle someday?

All of these things are great, and they are much more likely to happen if you (literally) put pen to paper to clearly articulate what you want your life to look like.  And, once you have done this, you can manage your finances accordingly to begin to make progress against these goals.

Set Up Your 401(k)

It can be easy, in the flurry of paperwork that accompanies a new job, to accidentally forget or neglect to set up contributions to your 401(k).  Don’t forget, it’s critically important.  At a minimum, you should contribute at least to your firm’s matching point.

So, if your firm matches up to 3% of your salary, you should contribute, at a bare minimum, 3% to your 401(k).  Not contributing up to your firm’s matching point is, quite literally, turning down free money.

And unfortunately, it’s not enough just to set up how much you want to contribute to your 401(k).  You need to choose how you’d like to invest the money you put into your retirement plan, too.

Unfortunately, firms usually give very little guidance to their employees on how to do this.  Which is why I’ve wrote about how to choose investments in your 401(k) in more detail on this blog.

…And If You Can, Save Beyond The Minimum for Retirement

Retirement might be a long way away (spoiler alert: it is a long way away), but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start saving aggressively for it now.  In fact, due to the beautiful thing that is compound interest, the more you save for retirement in your early working years, the much better your retirement picture will be.

There are other things you should be saving for as well (we’ll get to that in a bit), but if you have some discretionary income, I can’t recommend highly enough that you put some of that into a retirement account.  What type of retirement account – either increasing contributions to your 401(k), opening a Traditional IRA, opening a Roth IRA, or even a nonretirement investment account – can vary significantly depending on your circumstances. This is probably something we should talk one on one about, if you have questions.

If you’re wondering how much you should be saving for retirement, I recommend inputting your data into the free retirement calculator I have right here on my website.  And, particularly, if there’s a big gap between the yellow and blue lines or if you portfolio is projected to run out in the early stages of your retirement, we should talk about ways to close the gap.

Build an Emergency Fund

Like I said, retirement isn’t the only thing you should be saving for.  It’s critical that you gradually build an emergency fund so that if you were to lose your job, you have a way to support yourself during the transition.

The rule of thumb is that you should have enough saved to support yourself for six months (living on reduced expenses, of course – you probably won’t spend as much as you are today if you don’t have an income, after all).  But, when you’re first getting started, I think it’s silly to dwell on six months of savings.  That’s a pretty big and intimidating number for most people.

So instead, start by trying to save up to cover one month of your minimum living expenses.  Once you’ve saved that much, make your next goal to be to save an additional month of living expenses.  And so on, until you’ve hit that six month goal.  By breaking it up into pieces like this, it gives you a very clear way to take small steps, starting now, to work your way up to this major goal in the future.

Keep Your Living Expenses at College-Level For As Long As You Can

If you’re like me, there’s a good part of you that’s sad to be leaving college.  College is hard, sure, but it’s fun!

Do you have that same bittersweet feeling I did about leaving school behind as you enter the real world?  Good!  Hold on to it.  Embrace it.  And channel it into how you manage your finances.

Simply put, if you had a blast in college living on a minimal income, there’s no reason to change that up now that you have a salary.

Sure, you can have some peace of mind that you have some discretionary money at your disposal if you ever were to need it. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with splurging every now and then.

But, since you’re used to keeping your living expenses low, you should continue to do that as much as possible.  Have friends in your new hometown?  Try to get them to sign on as roommates!   Have some more free time on the weekends now that you’re not constantly writing papers and completing homework?  Spend a little of that time learning how to cook so you don’t need to order takeout seven or eight times a week.

Simply put, it’s much easier to maintain your current standard of living today than it is to increase your standard of living, realize you’re overspending, and then try to cut spending back.  You’re better off keeping your monthly spending where it is today, and saving the rest, rather than allowing your lifestyle costs to rise with your income.

And Speaking of Spending…

Yes, you need a budget for yourself.

I’m not the type of person to go through my clients (or my own) spending with a fine-toothed comb, analyzing every little expense here and there.  It’s not fun; it’s not productive; and it’s not an effective, long term, healthy way to manage your finances.

Instead, you should set budget parameters for yourself to make sure you know where your money is going, and track against those.  A free tool like www.mint.com is great for this.

You don’t need to worry if you go a dollar or two over any particular budget category each month.  But, you should pay close attention to your biggest spending areas, and try to find ways to cut back on these highest impact spending areas first, if you’re having a hard time finding the money to save for retirement and build your emergency fund.

Budgeting should be a common-sense driven exercise.  Don’t drive yourself crazy with it, but know your budget numbers and stick to them as best you can.

Increase Your Available Credit (But Don’t Use It)

It can be hard to build your credit score while you’re in college.  After all, most financial institutions aren’t in the business of giving huge lines of credit to college students who have a minimal, if any, income.

But now that you’re out of school, that changes in a big way.  As soon as you have documentable proof of income, you should open up a credit card and use it wisely to start to build your credit score.

Whatever the bank gives you for a credit limit, always keep your credit card balance below 30% of this limit.  Always pay off your bill every month.  In other words, don’t rely on your credit card to bail you out if you don’t have the cash available to make a purchase.  Instead, use it as a tool to begin to build your credit history as an excellent manager of credit.  When you’re ready to buy a house several years down the line, you’ll be happy you did.

An even better way to do this?  Find a credit card that offers some great perks. If you like to travel, find a card that gives good points toward airfare or hotel stays.  If you’d rather just have the cash, find a card that pays you cash back bonuses when you use the card.  There are a lot of options out there, and some of them are fantastic.  If you want to get some more ideas on great credit cards to use, give me a call.

This Isn’t a One-Time Thing

As you can tell, there’s a LOT here.  As you transition in the work force, it’s ultimately on you to set yourself up for financial success.

Start today by downloading my free student loan guide and plugging your numbers into my retirement calculator.  Create a budget, open a credit card, and manage your cash flow (both income and spending) wisely.

But ultimately, most of these things aren’t just for when you make the transition from school to a job.  You should periodically review each of these items to make sure you’re still on track.  Set up a free call with me to talk through how we can implement a system to address each of these items, and more.

What Millennials Need to Learn from the ESPN Layoffs

Well, this is a bummer.

The big news this week is that ESPN, once considered the fastest growing and most stable news organization in sports, is laying off numerous reporters and on-air personalities.

Layoffs are a cruel reality of the world we live in.  Unfortunately, reports of companies cutting jobs pop up in the news far more frequently than they should.  And there’s something about how public ESPN’s move was that makes it hit home all the more.

But there are a few important lessons in this story for all of us, particularly for millennials who are relatively new to the workforce.

There’s No Such Thing As 100% Job Security

No matter how quickly your company is growing, no matter how good your last performance review was- in today’s day and age, job security flat out isn’t something that we can count on.

Sure, there are a limited number of exceptions.  Tenure can help if you work in higher education.  Unions can, too.  But for the most part, it’s a mistake to treat a job as completely stable.

Some best practices to help deal with this unfortunate reality:

  • Talk to that recruiter who just hit you up on LinkedIn. Even if you aren’t looking for a new job right now, it never hurts to have the conversation and build a relationship with someone who has the capability to make hiring decisions. If you’re ever out of a job on short notice, you’ll be happy to have these connections!
  • Update your resume. If you’re anything like me, your resume hasn’t been updated since your last job interview.  A best practice is to update your resume – and LinkedIn bio – once a year.  That way, it’s ready to go whenever you need it.
  • Network, Network, Network. There’s many ways to do this one, but you absolutely have to be networking in your industry.  Attend a conference that caters to professionals with your particular area of expertise.  Use a site like Meetup or Eventbrite to find local networking events in your city.  Building relationships is the name of the game.
  • Mind your finances. Of course, there are huge financial concerns with the risk of job loss too.  Which brings us to our next major point…
You Absolutely Must Have an Emergency Fund (In Cash)

As a financial planner, I help people meet a wide variety of financial goals.  From retirement, to paying down student loans, to buying a home– there are a ton of different ways to allocate your money to improve your financial future.

But none of those things happen until you have an emergency fund.

You read that right.  Of course, you need to meet you minimum financial obligations.  Pay the minimum on your student loans each month, don’t miss credit card payments, contribute to your 401(k) until the match point.  You know the drill.  But, before you start looking to invest any “extra” money, you need to work to build an emergency fund.

The golden rule is to (eventually) build up to the point where you could support yourself for six months, without holding a job, just from your emergency fund.  But I wouldn’t focus on that right away- that’s a pretty intimidating goal for most people to reach.

Instead, calculate your average spending for one month, and focus on accumulating that much money in your emergency fund.  Once you have that much, focus on doubling it.  And so on, until you get to six months.

In other words, being so far away from reaching your emergency fund savings goal isn’t an excuse to not try to reach it in the first place.  Start small, and focus on saving a month’s worth of expenses at a time.

And one more thing- I don’t care how low savings rates are, you need to keep your emergency fund in cash.  If you invest your emergency fund and you were to immediately lose your job just as the stock market crashes, it won’t do you much good.  Set a goal for your emergency fund, and keep it in cash.  Preferably, in a separate savings account from the rest of your savings, so you won’t be tempted to spend it.

What’s More Secure: A “Side Hustle”, or a Full Time Desk Job?

If you were to ask 100 people whether it’s safer to have a full time job with an employer, or to work for yourself, I’m guessing that over 95% would say that it’s safer to have a full time desk job.

That may well be true.  It takes a lot of work to build your own revenue streams from the ground up.

But if you start your own business as a “side hustle”, and slowly grow it over time to the point where it could become a full time endeavor for you, I’m not so sure that this type of model is less secure than working for a “real” company.

Let’s put it like this.  Pretend that you have experience designing websites and writing code.  Would it be more secure for you to A) work for a company that does web design and be paid a salary, or B) to work as a freelancer part time and (over time) build up to 50 web design clients, enough that you could quit your full time job?

In Scenario B, if a client were to “fire” you, you would lose a total of 1/50 of your income, or 2%.  In Scenario A, if your employer were to lay you off, you’d lose 100% of your income.

The point of this isn’t to try to convince you to quit your full time salaried jobs.  Rather, I’d encourage you to revisit the way you think about your income and job security.  Finding a side hustle that you are passionate about and can sell to other people is a great way to diversify your income streams.  Just as you wouldn’t invest all of your money into one stock, it’s a best practice to diversify your income sources as well.

Hopefully, This is Never Relevant to You

Obviously, I hope you’re never in a situation where you’ve been laid off for a job.  But just in case, following the steps I outlined above will leave you more prepared to handle this situation.

The Why, When, and How of Combining Your Finances With Your Spouse

“Now that we’re getting married, how should my partner and I manage our money together?”

It’s one of the most common questions I get from my engaged and newlywed clients. It can be hard enough for us to manage our own money. Adding a second person to the mix makes things all the more complicated.

First and foremost, there’s the challenge of how to manage your money together with your spouse. Which accounts to use, how to monitor your finances together- there are a lot of questions here. Enough that I created a guide to walk you through my methodology for combining accounts.

But before we get into the how of managing your money together with your spouse, we need to take a step back.

Start with Why

Whenever I discuss combining money with your spouse, the very first question I typically ask is- why do you want to combine your accounts together?

Is it a matter of convenience? It’s certainly easier for you to keep track of your family finances if everything is in one place. Or is a philosophical matter? You’re one family, after all, and many people want to manage their finances as such.

Do you and your partner want financial autonomy in your day to day lives? Or, do you view your financial future as being completely intertwined with each other. Or maybe somewhere in between?

There’s no right or wrong answer here. But the approach you should take is largely dictated by your answers to these questions.

One Important Note

Pacesetter Planning provides financial advice, not legal advice. Before you decide to completely integrate your financial accounts with your spouse, it is recommended that you consider speaking with an attorney. If you decide not to completely combine accounts, you can certainly still use my framework for managing money together.

If you do decide to keep your accounts separate, you should add your spouse as a beneficiary to your accounts as soon as possible. This way, if something were to happen to you, your spouse will inherit the assets without legal complications.

That being said, my personal philosophy is that if you’re getting married, you should be “all in”. So, I don’t have a problem if couples want to completely integrate their accounts- as long as they want to for the right reasons, as discussed above.

The Next Question- When Should You Combine Finances

You shouldn’t actually combine your financial accounts with your partner until you’re married. Period.

Couples in our generation operate differently than our parents and grandparents. These days, it seems like the norm is to take big steps, like moving in together, before you are engaged. I know and I get it- I lived with my wife for over a year before we got married.

But just because some societal norms are changing, doesn’t mean that everything should change. Particularly when it comes to legal issues.

You might view yourself as “basically married” to your boyfriend or girlfriend, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. But, you bank won’t view you as married until you’re actually legally married. Nor with the courts, if you were to break up. These situations become much more complicated if you have shared financial assets that you’re trying to split between two non-married people.

There’s nothing wrong whatsoever with jointly managing your finances with your boyfriend or girlfriend if you are living together. In fact, I usually encourage it. My guide on managing your finances with your partner will show you how. But managing your finances together doesn’t mean you have to actually combine your accounts. One more time for good measure: don’t do that until you actually get married.

Hopefully, it just means you’ll have separate accounts for a few more months or years. But in the worst case scenario, it can save you a ton of trouble by waiting.

How Do We Go About Merging our Finances?

You’ve talked about why you want to combine finances with your spouse. You are, in fact, spouses, so it’s an appropriate time to merge your money. Now, how do you do it?

I have a three-tiered framework for how to combine finances with your spouse. You’ll get a step by step walkthrough of this in my free guide. In this guide, you’ll learn how to:

1. Identify your shared financial goals with your spouse, and why these are so critical to keep in mind when you set up your joint financial accounts

2. Inventory each of your current financial accounts, and create an account map that shows you exactly where your money is today and how it’s being used.

3. Choose which accounts to use and Confirm you have enough accounts in line with your goals.

There are a lot of steps to combine your money the correct way, and it’s critical that you take the time to make sure that nothing falls through the cracks. Download my free guide on combining your finances today, and you and your spouse will have a roadmap to make sure you’re set up for success.

When Does It Make Sense for Married Couples to File Taxes Separately?

Nobody likes filing taxes every spring.  It takes a lot of time to receive all of your paperwork, and even more time to calculate and review to figure out whether you’re due money back.  And let’s face it- it’s not exactly exciting stuff.

But when you get married, this process can get even more complicated.  In addition to having double the amount of information to review, you need to decide the best way to file your taxes with your spouse.

Married couples have two options when it comes to filing their taxes- to file jointly with their spouse, or to file separately.  As the name implies, filing jointly with your spouse means that income and deductions for both you and your spouse are reported on one tax return.  When you file separately, each of you files a separate tax return with just your personal information on your own return.

But which option is the right one to choose?

Most Couples Choose to File Jointly

As with most tax-related questions, the answer to this question will vary depending on your personal situation.  But, the better option for most couples is to file jointly. There are several reasons for this:

  • Married couples who file separately hit higher tax rates at lower income levels. So, your effective tax rate between you and your spouse is typically higher for couples who file separately rather than jointly
  • The standard deduction is lower for couples who file separately, and many itemized deductions are reduced or completely eliminated if you file separately rather than jointly.
  • There are more tax breaks and credits available for joint filers, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit

So, this should be a fairly easy decision for most couples.  However, there are a few key situations where it makes sense to file separately from your spouse.  I highly recommend either calculating your taxes due both filing jointly or separately, or seek the assistance of a CPA, if you have doubts as to which would be best for you.

When Would It Make Sense to File Separately?

This is not an exhaustive list, but there are a few key scenarios where it may make sense to file separately from your spouse

You are on an student loan income-driven repayment plan. If your student loans are on an income-driven repayment plan, the amount you pay per month is tied to your annual income.  Whether or not your annual income is just your personal income, or includes your spouses as well, depends on whether you file jointly or separately.

So, if you have a significant loan balance and are on one of these payment plans, if you file separately, you can base your payments on your income alone.  But, as soon as you file your taxes jointly with your spouse, your spouses income will be included the calculation used to determine your loan payments.

You still may be better off filing jointly and paying the extra amount per month toward your student loans, but you should definitely keep these consequences in mind while making your decision.

I talk about this in my free eBook, “13 Steps to Take Before Making Your Next Student Loan Payment”.  Subscribe to my newsletter, and I’ll send you a copy for free!

Either You or Your Spouse Has Significant Medical Expenses

The current tax code allows you to deduct any medical expenses that are over 10% of the income reported on your tax returns.  This income number includes your spouse’s if you file jointly, but doesn’t if you file separately.  So, if you had high medical expenses this year, you may end up paying less taxes by filing separately, depending on the numbers on the rest of your return.

For example, say that your annual salary is $75,000, and your spouse’s annual salary is $125,000.  And, let’s say that you had a medical issue last year that cost you $10,000 total.

If you file jointly, your total income reported on your tax return would be $200,000.  Since your total medical expenses ($10,000) is less than 10% of your income ($200,000), you wouldn’t be able to deduct any of these expenses.

But, if you file separately, your income on your tax return is only $75,000.  Since you spend over 10% of this on medical expenses, you would qualify for this deduction.

You and Your Spouse Have (Very) Different Salaries

If you earn significantly more than your spouse (or vice versa) it may work in your favor to calculate each of your tax burdens separately rather than combining your incomes.  If you also have a lot of investment income, such as capital gains or dividends, this scenario applies even more.

Again, in this case, I’d recommend you calculate your tax burdens both ways- jointly and separately- and compare the total taxes due in order to decide.  But if, for example, you make $250,000 a year and your spouse makes $30,000, I wouldn’t recommend automatically filing jointly.  Take the time to calculate your total tax bill by filing separately as well, and choose which one works out best for you.

Your Spouse Has Tax Debt 

If your spouse hasn’t paid their taxes in the past, the second that you file jointly, this becomes your debt, too.  If you file separately, you won’t be held legally responsible for this debt.  This is still not a good situation for your family, of course, but filing separately can give you some legal protection in the event of an audit.

Generally speaking, if you have concerns about your spouse’s financial situation, maintaining some degree of legal separation with your money might not be a bad idea while helping them to work through it.  This certainly would include filing taxes as well, even if it means you pay a bit more.

Seek Help

Particularly if you think that any of the above scenarios apply to you, I don’t recommend doing this on your own.  Either use a self-guided program like TurboTax, or seek the help of a CPA, to review your specific circumstances and analyze your potential tax burden both if you file jointly or separately.

It’s no fun, and it adds a layer of work, but there’s too much money on the table to not do your due diligence.

If you have further questions or want to talk about any of the above ideas, don’t be afraid to reach out.  I don’t prepare tax returns, but I can help you find someone that I trust to review your situation and get you the answers you need.

 

Are Health Savings Accounts A Good Deal?

Health insurance is back in the news again. While the American Health Care Act proposed by Congressional Republicans probably faces serious legislative hurdles, it seems likely that health care is in for some major changes over the coming years.

As usual, the politics of the issue are outside the scope of this blog.  Instead, I want to take a closer look at Health Savings Accounts (HSAs), which Obamacare made much more commonplace.  And, any Republican change to the law is likely to increase the prevalence of HSAs going forward.

What is a Health Savings Account?

Health Savings Accounts are savings and investments accounts designed to pay for medical expenses.  Sometimes, employers may choose to make contributions for you as they would in your 401(k).  But more commonly, it’s on you to actively contribute to these accounts.

In order to qualify for an HSA, you need to be enrolled in a High Deductible Health Plan.  These plans have lower premiums, but require you to pay a higher amount of your health expenses than a traditional plan. A discussion of the different types of health care plans probably warrants an entire separate article, but you should confirm you are in a High Deductible Health Plan before attempting to open an HSA.

Using an HSA, you will save each month and use that money to pay for your health care costs, up to your annual limit, when you get sick.

One other important qualification note: in order to have an HSA, you can’t be listed as a dependent on someone else’s tax return.  In other words, if you are living with your parents house or someone else provides you with financial support, you may need to confirm with them whether or not they claim you as a dependent.

How Do Health Savings Accounts Work?

You can set up your direct deposit to contribute a portion of your income directly into your HSA. But, there’s a maximum for how much you can contribute annually.  If you’re single, you can contribute up to $3,400 in 2017.  If you’re married, the contribution limit is $6,750 per family.

Once the money is in your account, you can either keep it as cash, or invest the money in the stock market.  Investing this money is great if you’re planning on using your HSA to cover healthcare expenses in your retirement.  But, if you’re looking for a way to save for short term medical expenses, it’s best to keep your account in cash.  The more risk you take with the money in your HSA, the higher the likelihood that your account could go down in value.

A common misconception about HSAs has to do with how long you can use the money you contribute.  I often hear people cite rumors that you have to use the money you put into an HSA by the end of the year, or it expires.  Simply put, this is not true.  Money you contribute this year carries forward to the following year, and so on.  This can make HSAs a great vehicle to save for your healthcare expenses in the future, even if you’re perfectly healthy today.

And, when you change jobs, you still have access to the account.  Just like a 401(k), when you leave you can either keep your account with your old employer and spend it as needed, or you can open a separate HSA and transfer the money.

But why not just keep your money in a regular savings account?  What’s the purpose of having a separate health care savings account at all? Aside from the fact I typically recommend you have separate savings accounts for each of your savings goals, there’s one key benefit to HSAs that we haven’t addressed yet…

HSAs Come With Big Time Tax Benefits

Simply put, HSAs are one of the most tax efficient savings vehicle out there.  What they lack in flexibility (i.e., you need to use the money in the account on healthcare expenses), they make up for in tax benefits.

Money you contribute to an HSA isn’t taxed when you contribute it.  In other words, every dollar you put into your HSA (up to the annual limit) directly decreases your taxable income for the year.  In this way, these accounts work in a similar way to your 401(k).

But, that’s just the beginning.  Not only are the contributions not taxed, but neither the growth of the investments in your account or your withdrawals are taxed. The only catch is that there’s a tax penalty if you don’t use the money you withdraw on medical expenses.

To recap: money contributed to an HSA isn’t taxed when it goes into the account.  Growth isn’t taxed.  And withdrawals aren’t taxed (if spent appropriately).

Simply put, saving in an HSA is one of the best tax incentives out there.

A New Way To Save For Retirement

One of the most common questions I get from millennials has to do with how to appropriately account for health care expenses when they save for retirement.  With the future of Medicare and Social Security in doubt, our generation needs to do a better job saving for these types of expenses than our parents or grandparents did.

An HSA can be a fantastic way to save for these type of expenses.  If you are relatively healthy now and have low medical costs, consider using your HSA as a retirement savings vehicle to cover your medical costs as you get older.

In other words, treat your HSA the same way you treat your 401(k).  Regularly contribute money each month, and invest that money in a portfolio that aligns with your tolerance for risk and long term growth objectives.  As you get older, shift the investments into a more conservative portfolio.  If you do this correctly, by the time you retire, you’ll have a great source of money to cover retirement medical costs.

But, There’s a Catch

The strategy above is a great one, but only for specific people.  If you are relatively healthy now, HSAs can be a great way to save for retirement expenses.  But, if you have a lot of medical expenses now, this probably isn’t the right strategy for you.

The problem with HSAs for people who have high medical costs goes back to the beginning of this article- in order to have an HSA, you need to have a High Deductible Health Plan.  These plans can sometimes require that you pay $10,000 or more of your medical costs per year before your insurance kicks in to cover your expenses.  If you’re likely to spend a lot on heath care, it might be better for you to opt for a lower deductible health plan and skip the HSA altogether.  Or alternatively, to use the money in your HSA for your current medical expenses, rather than saving it for the future.

In other words, I think HSAs are a great option for most people, but if you have a lot of medical expenses, it may not be the best one for you.  If you’re in this boat, I recommend sitting down and comparing the tradeoff between paying a higher premium for more comprehensive health insurance vs. paying a lower premium with a higher deductible.  Let this analysis drive your decision.

I help my clients make these decisions all the time.  If you need help, give me a call.

Should You Buy Snapchat Stock?

No.

No, you shouldn’t.

Unlike a lot of financial planners out there, I love to invest in individual stocks.  I typically include some individual stocks in a portion of my clients’ portfolios, in addition to widely diversified, low-cost ETFs or index funds.

But that being said, you need a strategy for choosing which stocks to buy.  And quite frankly, IPO stocks should rarely, if ever, fit that strategy.

What is an IPO?

IPO stands for Initial Public Offering.  In other words, a stock’s IPO is the process by which the company issues its first shares of stock to the public.

The stock in question- Snapchat- has their IPO set for Thursday, March 2.  In other words, starting on 3/2, you’ll be able to own shares of Snapchat stock.  The starting share price is expected to be $17 per share.  However, this IPO price is only good for the second the stock launches.  After that, it will trade based on the supply and demand of the stock market. And be warned- typically, prices can be very volatile immediately after an IPO.

Up until this point, Snapchat was a private company. But now, if you buy shares of Snapchat stock (the stock ticker symbol is “SNAP”), you’ll be able to participate in their future growth.

If the value of the company continues to grow over time, you’ll be able to earn money based on the growth if you buy some of the stock.  On the other hand, if the company struggles, you could end up losing money.

Investing in IPOs Has a Mixed Track Record- At Best

So, why shouldn’t you buy SNAP shares on Thursday (March 2)? I’m not a big believer in speculating what’s going to happen in the stock market.  There’s certainly a decent chance that Snapchat will grow quickly in the next few years.  But, historically speaking, IPOs tend to have a poor track record.

Take a look at the historical stock prices of a few big companies that had highly publicized IPOs in the few years following their debut: Facebook, Twitter, Visa, Alibaba, and Groupon:

Facebook

Twitter

Visa

Alibaba

Groupon

Notice a trend here?

Some of these stocks have done incredibly well over a long time period- Facebook and Visa in particular.  But on the other hand, Groupon is still struggling today- as of this writing, its current price  is 84 percent lower than the trading price immediately after it went public.

In the short term, IPOs tend to be very volatile in price.  More often than not, the market views the stock as overvalued when it is initially launched.  For this reason alone, I don’t recommend buying shares of just about anything the day it’s released.  Snapchat included.

Of course, past market performance doesn’t necessarily reflect what will happen in the future.  And even people who bought Facebook when it debuted, and held it through today, have done very well.  But frankly, this misses the broader point.  I view investing in stocks like SNAP as a gamble- it could pay off, or you might lose big.  I prefer an alternative method to gambling in the stock market…

You Need an Investing Strategy and Methodology

I don’t recommend that you invest in companies by chasing the proverbial shiny object.  Instead, set some investing goals for yourself, and use a methodology to help guide your investments to meet these goals.

What are you trying to accomplish with your investments?  How much risk are you willing to take?  How long will you keep the money invested?  If your investments were to fall by 10 or 20 or 30 percent, what would you do?  These are critical questions that you need to ask yourself to guide what investing strategy you should follow.

If your goal is to build long term wealth through your investments, I’d posit that taking a bet on a company like Snapchat might not be the best idea.  Even if it does happen to double or triple in value in the next ten years, the risk associated with an IPO like this might not make it a good choice for your long-term strategy.

Instead, I like to focus on stocks that a) have good, long track records, b) pay a steady, reliable income, c) have a history of growing this income every year, and d) appear to be well positioned for the future.  Investing in companies like this, done correctly and monitoring and adjusting your portfolio as market situations change, will position you well for long term success.

And, of course, don’t forget the need to diversify.  No matter how good a particular stock looks, you should never have more than 5% of your total investments be in any particular company.

I’m going to be sharing a lot more about this sort of framework on my upcoming webinar next week.  Register today!

And in the meantime, think long and hard before investing in a new stock like Snapchat.  Don’t gamble in the stock market- develop your investing framework, and stick to it!

What Do I Do With My 401(k) When I Leave My Job?

The average millennial changes jobs four times before they reach the age of 32.  Generally speaking, this is a great thing from a financial perspective- salary tends to go up whenever you change jobs.

There are a few situations that can arise when we hop from job to job, though.  For example, what should you do with your 401(k) once you leave a job behind?  Too often, this step gets lost in the shuffle, and it can be easy to lose track of these accounts if you aren’t careful.  So, what should you do with your employer-sponsored retirement account once you leave?

Four Options

There are typically four options that you can pursue.  There’s no universal right or wrong answer here (although one option is significantly worse than the others). But, the most important thing is to develop a system to keep track of these accounts as you move from job to job.  I have a dedicated framework that can help with this- and I’m sharing it for free on my webinar on March 7.  The bottom line- whatever you do, make sure you are able to keep track of where all of your retirement accounts are!

With that being said, let’s discuss the four options in detail.

The Two Not-So-Good Options

Your first option is to cash out your 401(k).  As in, when you leave your current job, you technically can withdraw all of the money from your 401(k) to spend it today.

That being said, this is generally a terrible idea.  Retirement accounts should be kept until you’re ready to, you know, retire.  And, you’ll pay a hefty tax penalty by cashing out of your 401(k) early.  Just because it’s technically one of your four options, doesn’t mean you should actually do it.

Your second option is to leave it with your old employer.  There are some employers that force you to move it to an IRA if it’s a small account, but in most cases you can leave your old 401(k) with your old job.

That being said, there are a few reasons I typically don’t recommend this approach:

  • This is probably the easiest way to lose track of your account. If you leave all of your 401(k)s at old jobs, it can become difficult to monitor all of them.  And, of course, you really should be keeping an eye on your investments over time and adjusting them as you get closer to retirement.  As you have more and more 401(k)s, it can be harder to keep tabs on all of your different investments if they are scattered across account with your old employers.
  • Typically, employers charge fees on 401(k)s for people who are no longer employed with their company. Why pay that fee, that you aren’t getting any service for, if you don’t have to?

If your old 401(k) has great, low cost investments, it might not be a bad idea to keep your account there, but that generally is the only time I recommend this.

The Two Better Options

Two options down, two to go.  And luckily, these options are typically better.

Your third option is to consolidate your old 401(k) into your new one, if your new employer will let you.  The idea here is simple- why have two accounts to keep track of when you could combine them all into one account?  Moving your old 401(k) balance into your new job’s 401(k) is a great way to streamline your accounts.

This doubly goes if the fund options in your new 401(k) are good ones.  If you have good investment options that have low fees associated with them in your new 401(k), combining the two accounts is a no brainer.  You’ll be limited to the funds available in your company’s plan, but if they’re good, that might not matter too much.

Unfortunately, many 401(k)s use high fee accounts that can really eat into your retirement returns over time, and you aren’t getting anything in return for the fee you’re paying.  Which leads us to option four:

You can move your 401(k) into an IRA.  To do this, you’ll need to open up a brand-new IRA for yourself (unless you have one already, of course), and then request your former employer to transfer the balance to your new IRA.  You’ll then need to select the investments you’ll want to use in your IRA, and monitor their performance over time.

A few notes here:

  • When you request your old employer to move the funds to your IRA, make sure they know that you’re moving it to an IRA. Moving a 401(k) to an IRA is not taxable, but if they think you are just withdrawing your 401(k) to your bank account, you’ll need to pay a penalty to the IRS.  So, make sure they address the transfer to your IRA.
  • Make sure the account is a Traditional or Rollover IRA, not a Roth IRA. Transferring a 401(k) to a Roth IRA will cause you to be taxed on the entire balance of the account.  This can be beneficial for some people, but you definitely want to consult with a financial planner before you do this.  The key point- make sure that you don’t open up a Roth IRA by mistake!
  • One of the benefits of moving a 401(k) to an IRA is that you have full freedom over the investments in the account. You aren’t limited to a few funds in your 401(k), you can choose anything.  But, taking this approach means that you’ll need to screen your investments and rebalance your accounts over time.  I’d be happy to chat about this if you have any questions about how to do this.
How to Decide between Consolidating and Transferring to an IRA?

So, let’s take it for granted that you’re trying to decide between the last two options- combining your 401(k)s, or moving your old 401(k) to an IRA.  How should you go about making this decision?  A few key things to consider:

What are you Paying in Fees?- there are some great 401(k)s out there, but unfortunately, many of them aren’t so great.  Many 401(k) accounts only have a few funds to invest in, and they tend to have high fees associated with them.

Use a site like www.personalfund.com to evaluate how much you are paying for fees in your 401(k). If your new 401(k) has a lot of low fee options, it might make sense to combine.  If you have a lot of high fee options, it probably makes sense to go with the IRA.

Do you Need Help? Do you feel ok self-managing your investments, or do you want the help of a professional?  Most financial planners don’t provide direct investment advice on 401(k)s (although I do!), so if you want some help with your investments, usually you’ll need to move it to an IRA.  But keep in mind, that will come with an extra cost.

On the other hand, if you feel confident managing your investments yourself, you could pick either route.  It’s just a matter of which funds you’d like to invest in.  Speaking of which…

What Funds are Available?  As I’ve alluded to multiple times, 401(k)s typically provide some convenient funds to invest in, but they tend to be limited and higher in cost.  If you want a more extensive investment option, including stocks and index funds, you should probably move to an IRA.

There’s No Universally Right Answer

Ultimately, when you review the items listed above, you might find that you probably can’t go wrong between options 3 and 4.  It all comes down to personal preference, and how much you care about investment options and fees.  Ultimately, do your homework, and you should be able to sleep soundly with your decision.

And if you have further questions about retirement preparation, sign up for my webinar on March 7th to discuss these strategies in more detail!