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Saving Strategies

April 13th, 2007 at 01:21 am

Do you have any advice for a teenager with a steady job who would like her savings to grow. I have paid for my college education without taking out student loans. I contribute to an RRSP and I carefully keep track of all my income and expenses. I am not sure what to do with my savings. I set aside 10% of my income, but it is currently in a basic savings account because I don't know what to do with it. I was wondering what the best investment strategy would be for someone of my age. Any help you could give me would be great! -- Anita

Wow! Anita sure is off to a good start. Contrary to what a lot of people think, the young adult years are often the easiest time to save money. They often see their income grow faster than their financial responsibilities. That gives them an excellent opportunity to save.

Anita has already started down that path. So what's the best place for her to park the 10% of her salary that's she's saving? The answer to Anita's question has less to do with her age than what she plans on doing with that savings. The decision making process is the same for any age. The first thing Anita needs to do is to decide what she's saving for.

Why is that true? Her use will determine how quickly she might need it. And, that urgency will affect her investment choice.

Let's look at two simple rules of investing. First, you earn a higher return by assuming more risk. For instance, stocks are riskier than savings accounts.

The Journal of Financial Planning cites studies that show the real rate of return for the S&P 500 (stocks) from 1950 to 1999 was 10.3%. At the time this was written, a short term CD (6 months to a year) would pay about 4.0% and a five-year CD closer to 4.5%. An interest bearing checking account earns 1.0% while money market funds are about 2.8%.

So the earnings difference can be significant. To illustrate, suppose that Anita puts away $1,000 each year for the next 50 years (ages 20 to 70). If she earns 2% on the money, at the end of that time, it will be worth $89,000. But, if it earns 10%, it will grow to $1.4 million. Quite a difference!

That means we need to learn about the second rule of investing: risk can be minimized. Either by diversification or through a longer time frame.

Diversification is a fancy word that means owning more than one stock. If all of your money is in one company and the stock goes down 50%, you have a disaster. But, if you spread your money among 10 different stocks and one drops 50%, you've only lost 5% of your investment. Not nearly as bad. In fact, it's possible that one or more of the other stocks could go up and offset the loser.

The longer time frame reduces risk much the same way. The stock market does have bad years. Sometimes even two or three in a row. But, for the last 100 years, if you took any 10-year period, the return was positive. So you might have lost money in one year. But if you could afford to wait awhile to sell, you would have gotten the losses back. Combined, time and diversification allows Anita to get the higher returns without increasing her risk.

Now let's apply all of this to Anita's situation. We'll assume some life events. The first reason that she might need to access her nest egg is for an unexpected bill (think auto repair). For that she needs money that's accessible immediately. Like in a savings or checking account.

Once she's saved more than enough to cover immediate needs, she's ready for a second investment account. Suppose Anita is also planning on buying a new car or making a down payment on a home in two or three years. Savings earmarked for those purposes would earn more if they were put into CDs.

Longer term, Anita will want to save for her retirement. She already has an RRSP account. For our U.S. readers, an RRSP (Registered Retirement Savings Plan) is a Canadian account very similar to an IRA. A mutual fund investing in stocks would be an appropriate selection here.

Anita is off to a fine start. All she needs to do is to decide why she's saving, how much she needs for that purpose, and then select the type of investment that matches her goal. At the rate she's going, in a few short years, she'll be giving others advice on how to accumulate money!

How 401k Money Is Distributed

March 21st, 2007 at 09:25 am

How will my money be given out to me from my 401k when I retire? Will a portion be given monthly or will it be given in a lump sum? I would like to get a big wad as soon as I retire for a new home in a new location. -- Owen

Owen's not the only one asking this question. According to the Wharton School of Business, in the next 10 years, over 10 million people will reach age 65. So quite a few folks will be looking for an answer.

First here's a disclaimer. Before making decisions that could significantly affect your taxes, it's wise to see a qualified tax professional. This is a big decision. Don't risk making a big mistake.

The distribution options on your 401k are governed first by the tax laws and then by the plan's rules. Some plans don't offer every option that's available by law.

If Owen really wants the money, he can get it now, either through a loan or by taking a distribution. You can take money out of your 401k anytime you want. It's just a matter of whether you want to pay the penalty.

If you withdraw money before age 59 1/2, you'll pay a 10% early withdrawal penalty. There's an exception if you leave your company after age 55. Then, a lump sum distribution is not subject to the penalty. But, it will still be taxed.

On the other end of the calendar, you must begin withdrawing part of the account at age 70 1/2. The amount will be determined by life expectancy.

Next, let's look at what choices Owen will have when he retires. The decision will largely be his. The law allows for five different alternatives for a 401k account at retirement. The options include lump-sum distribution, continue the plan, roll the money into an IRA, take periodic distributions, or use the money to purchase an annuity. Owen's particular plan will allow for some or all of them.

The fastest way for Owen to get his "big wad" of money is to take a lump-sum distribution. He'll get the money quickly. But there are two disadvantages. First, he'll pay ordinary income taxes on the entire amount withdrawn. Second, the money will no longer be growing tax-free.

If Owen does take a lump-sum distribution, he'll be subject to 20% withholding. That means the IRS will take 20% of the money distributed now and apply to his tax bill next April. Owen can thank the "Unemployment Compensation Amendments Act of 1992" for that idea.

Owen could decide to leave the money in the account. It will continue to grow tax-free. That can make a big difference in how much is available to him during retirement. Many retirees choose to spend taxable accounts first saving IRA's and 401k's until they need the money or are forced by law to begin distributions.

Another possibility would be to roll the 401k into an IRA. That would give Owen the largest number of investment options. He could still withdraw the money when he wants or choose to let it grow tax-free.

Owen may also choose to take a regular, scheduled distribution from the 401k. Scheduled withdrawals are not subject to the 20% withholding. Most plans allow for a monthly or quarterly distribution. The amount can be adjusted annually if you choose. That can be handy if inflation causes your expenses to increase.

The final option, an annuity, takes the investment work out of the equation. An annuity can be purchased with part or all of the 401k money. It would pay Owen a regular income for the rest of his life.

Owen's goal is to buy a home. Depending on how much he has in his 401k, he has a couple of possibilities. He mentioned the first option. Taking all the money, paying the taxes due and paying cash for his new home.

But he might want to consider withdrawing just enough from his 401k for the down payment. The balance of the account could be set up on regularly scheduled distributions. He could control the investments and distributions. Or Owen could choose to buy an annuity and let them do the investing and checkwriting.

Those regular distributions would cover the mortgage payments. The advantage for Owen is that he won't have a spike in taxable income. Also he might be able to take a tax deduction for the mortgage interest at the same time that he is earning money without taxes within the retirement account.

Owen should speak with his accountant to find our which choice is best for him. Hope he enjoys his retirement and his new home!