A Time of Thanks and a Time of Giving

Give - iStock Photo

by Allyson Hauss

Can you believe it is almost time for the holidays? We will soon be eating turkey and making gift lists for family and friends. And don’t forget decorating and planning parties. I can almost smell gingerbread cookies, a crackling fire, and fresh cut pine trees!

It truly is the most wonderful time of the year – and a great time for giving! Whether we are giving of our time or resources, the holidays bring out the giver in all of us as we look for ways to help our neighbor or be a blessing to those in need.

The most rewarding benefit of charitable giving, of course, is the joy of contributing to a good cause, a strong belief, or a great need. But there is an extra bonus in charitable giving when that gift can also reduce your federal and state income tax, reduce your estate tax, and/or possibly reduce or eliminate capital gains tax.

For purposes of charitable giving, charities are classified as public or private, and there are deduction limits determined by the type of charity and the type of property. Keep in mind, however, that you must itemize to deduct a charitable gift, and only contributions made to qualified charitable organizations qualify for an income tax deduction. In addition, the gift must be made prior to the close of the taxable year for the gift to be deductible in that year.

If a charitable gift is made in cash, the amount of cash given is the deductible amount of the gift, up to 50% of the donor's adjusted gross income (AGI). The rules for gifts of other kinds of assets can become a little more complex. One of the more common options includes gifting appreciated stock. The charity receives the full market value of the gift, the donor receives a charitable deduction - and avoids long term capital gains!

When a gift of tangible personal property or real estate is made to a charitable organization that will use that property in their charitable function, the deduction for income tax purposes is generally the fair market value of the property on the date of the gift. If the property is subject to depreciation recapture, the fair market value is reduced by the potential depreciation recapture on the asset. The IRS has many rules covering income tax deductions for charitable contributions by individuals, which is why it is important to be knowledgeable as you choose where and how to give. IRS Publication 561 Determining the Value of Donated Property and IRS Publication 526 Charitable Contributions are great resources and a good place to start.

Concerning gifts to family and friends, every person may gift transfer-tax-free per donee up to the annual exclusion for the year, which for 2017 is $14,000. This means you can give up to $14,000 to as many related or unrelated people as you would like each year. So, if you have 2 children and 5 grandchildren, you can gift $98,000 in tax free-gifts this year. As a married couple, you can double that amount to $196,000 with each spouse giving half!

You can also make a tax-free gift by making a payment for qualified medical expenses or tuition for someone else. You must pay the qualifying medical care provider or educational organization directly to qualify for the exclusion, but what a great way to give a much-needed gift this season. Contributing to a 529 education savings plan is another great way to give the gift of education! 

Giving and gifting – so many choices! What a wonderful time to celebrate in a purposeful way as the leaves change and the cold weather moves in!

Remember that however you decide to give or gift as we quickly approach the holidays, it is best to have a plan. Each person is unique, and your financial plan should be driven by your values and what is meaningful to you and your loved ones. Your tax advisor and financial planner can help assist and guide you to determine the wisest way to achieve your giving goals that will bring joy to you and your family, bring hope to those around you, and be an integral part of your overall financial plan.

 

This article is for information purposes only and does not constitute a recommendation.

 

Choosing Peace over Profit can be Expensive

Ripple Effect

Ripple Effect

At some point, I realized that there is no such thing as “normal”. Working with families means understanding that what’s perfectly reasonable and an inherent ‘fact’ in one family, may be unreasonable in another. 

Despite all our financial differences, there’s a theme that is common in many conversations. It was recently explained in a perfect way by a client. They said, “My spouse and I have chosen ‘Peace over Profit’.

What they were describing was that they had both known for a while that despite good income and a wealth of assets, they were on an unsustainable financial trajectory. They also knew that if they discussed it or asked each other (or their children) to change their financial habits, it would cause turmoil in the family. It was easier to stay with the status quo than it was to make changes to their financial habits that would benefit them in the long run. Well, easier until it wasn’t.

Issues that keep being swept under the rug will eventually need to be addressed. The longer we wait, the harder it will be to have the conversation and the harder it will be to change habits.

It’s nearly impossible to separate money from emotions. We all bring our own history, stories, and biases into the decisions we make. But, when we take the time to have meaningful conversations and develop a plan to address our biggest dreams and worst fears, we gain freedom. We gain the opportunity to have peace AND profit.

This family has already taken some bold steps to get back on track and has included their children in the conversation. I have no doubt this transition will continue to be difficult for a time. I also have no doubt that they’ll never regret their choice to take back control!

 

Big Success Starts with Small Habits

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by Allyson Hauss

In the past few months, both of my daughters have come to me with financial questions. You guessed it – they have an end goal in mind (more money) and are eager to find out the smartest and easiest way to attain it.

The youngest is 19 and a sophomore in college. Her goal is to have more money left over at the end of her sophomore year than she had at the end of her freshman year. Our agreement is that the money she earns in her part-time job during the school year goes toward her tuition, and income from her summer job can be used for extra expenses at college and savings. She found out during her freshman year how fast that money can be spent! Therefore, she wanted a plan for this year.

My first-born is 28 and a new mommy. She and myson-in-law are already planning for the education of their11-month-old boy. Her goal is to accumulate a college fund without sacrificing living now while giving to others in need.

For each of these goals and for so many more, my mantra is the same: whatever amount you can, big or small, start sooner rather than later and invest regularly.

Every person makes decisions every day that affect every part of their future. What are your needs? Whom do you want to bless? What can you do today that will bring about the tomorrow you envision? Through the power of time, discipline, and compounding interest, you can do it! No, you will not be able to do it overnight or without forgoing some wants; however, patience is not only a virtue – it pays big dividends!

So, you may ask where do I start? The best place to start is right where you are. What is your need/goal? What is your income, what are your expenses, and what is your surplus/deficit? Begin with your current budget and work toward spending less than you make. How much do you need? Maybe you can only start with $25 a month. Then save $25 a month! There are diversified investments that will allow you to begin with a small amount. No matter what amount you start with, be consistent and when you get a raise or pay off a debt, contribute more.

At $25 per month, starting at age 25 and earning an interest rate of 8% compounded monthly, in 20 years you will have $14,725; at $100 per month, $58,902; and at $750 per month, $441,765. Albert Einstein said, “Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. He who understands it, earns it … he who doesn’t … pays it.”

 

The choice is up to you. You can pay someone else the interest through high interest credit cards and consumer loans; OR you can choose to pay off credit cards, build an emergency fund, save for purchases, and pay yourself the interest while investing toward your goals.

 

Your goal may be paying off student loans, going back to college to pursue a new profession, building an emergency fund, starting your own business, taking that dream vacation, or saving for retirement. If you are saving for retirement or a health plan, you may be able to have it deducted from your paycheck and - BAM - enjoy tax-deferred savings in addition to compound interest! If your employer matches a portion of contributions, then time and compounding works even more in your favor with the bonus of free money! And anytime you can have the money automatically withdrawn, whether it is from a paycheck or just from your checking account, it is easier to save when you never have the chance to spend it.

If you are new to investing, a good place to start might be with a mutual fund.  I recommend dollar cost averaging which is just a fancy way of saying make regular monthly contributions directly to a fund. Making it consistent builds a great habit and takes the work out of saving and investing. When you enroll in automatic investing, you avoid per transaction trade commissions. By purchasing in monthly increments, you take advantage of ups and downs in the market, buying more shares at lower prices which can give you a better return in the long run. Mutual funds can be purchased within retirement accounts, 529 plans, and many other investment vehicles. If you were to increase your monthly contributions with every pay raise you receive, this can be a painless way to accumulate more over time while achieving diversification. A qualified financial advisor can help you choose mutual funds that meet your objectives, risk tolerance and fit with your comprehensive financial life needs.

My husband and I have been surprised over the years at what small monthly investments have enabled us to do. No, we are not without financial struggles, but we have been able to take a few special family vacations, help our children with college tuition and weddings, and put some money toward retirement. So whether you are just starting out like my college student with dreams of traveling and seeing the world or a young couple starting your family developing a financial strategy for the future, you can achieve your goals by harnessing the power of regular monthly investing.

 

It's Time for Employee Benefits Review!

Image from iStock Photo License

Image from iStock Photo License

About this time each year, Human Resource departments across the country are buzzing with activity around the next year’s employee benefits.

From an employee perspective, often that means that you’re given a small window of time to verify your benefits for the coming year. It’s easy to check off the boxes that keep everything as-is without regard to new or different options and the coordination of these benefits with the rest of your financial plan.

Please don’t rush through the process this year. Your decisions may have impact far longer than the coming year!

Employee Benefits can be a broad topic. They can include:

  • Health Insurance

  • Vision

  • Dental

  • Paid Leave

  • Vacation

  • Sick time

  • Family Medical Leave

  • Group Life Insurance

  • Group Disability Insurance

  • Short term disability

  • Long term disability

  • Retirement Savings

  • 401(k)

  • Profit Sharing

  • Employee Stock Option Plan

  • Deferred Compensation

This isn’t a comprehensive list of all potential employee benefits, but should cover the majority of common options. 

First of all, some of the decisions are made for you already. Typically, a business will have standardized policies regarding paid leave and base levels of provided life insurance, for example.

As for healthcare, I get a lot of questions about HSAs (health savings accounts), so let’s cover a few basics about them.

To be eligible to use an HSA, you must opt into a high deductible health care plan. If you choose a high deductible plan, in 2017 you can contribute up to $3,400 (individual) or $6,750 (family) pre-tax into an HSA (don't worry if you don't use it all - the balance will be available for future health care needs)! Also, you are allowed to contribute $1,000 more if you are 55+. While premiums are lower in a high deductible health care plan, they typically have higher out of pocket expenses associated with them (up to $6,550 for an individual, or $13,100 for a family).

When is it advantageous to opt into a high deductible plan and HSA?

That depends on your (and your family’s) health and cash flow. If you tend to only need preventive health care and don’t have a lot of annual expenses, a high deductible plan with an HSA account can be useful because any unused HSA funds can remain available for future use! However, if you tend to need a lot of medical care or could not currently cover the max out of pocket expenses from savings or cash flow, you may decide that higher premiums and lower out of pocket limits are more manageable for you and your family.

Retirement plans are also top of mind for many people. These may include 401(k), 403(b), SEP, SIMPLE, and other kinds of tax advantaged retirement accounts. While each of these types can be slightly different, there are a few similarities. First, they each offer some level of employer match and/or contributions (aka FREE MONEY!). Please take advantage of maximizing your benefit available from your employer match or contributions! If you don’t, you’re leaving money on the table. Consider increasing your contributions each year along with your pay increases. Even a 1-2% higher contribution can make a big difference over time.

Also, they have to offer diversified investment options. Many plans have adopted target date retirement funds as choices within their plans. If you are unsure of where to start, they can be a great way to become diversified with little effort. If you have several options, or have enough in the plan to want more than a target date fund, ask your financial planner for help determining the proper allocation.

Many plans have started to offer the Roth option. If you’re considering it, keep in mind employer contributions/matches will continue being placed into the traditional account, while your contributions will be placed into the Roth account. Generally speaking, the younger you are, and the lower tax bracket you are, the more advantageous the Roth account can be since you’ll be paying taxes now for tax-free growth and income later. Again, to be sure, please contact your financial planner, since everyone’s personal financial life is different!

Life Insurance and Disability Insurance is one of the most misunderstood parts of employee benefits. Many companies provide a limited amount of group life and/or disability insurance to their employees. During open enrollment, employees often have the opportunity to purchase additional coverage for themselves and their family members. Sometimes, it may also include Long Term Care insurance.

While insurance coverage is an important part of any financial plan, it is important to understand the differences between a policy that is available under a group plan versus one that is purchased individually based on underwriting health and risk screening.

Group insurance policies are often not portable, meaning your group coverage doesn’t continue beyond your employment. Please read your coverage carefully or ask your HR representative for help understanding the nuances of your benefits.

If it is important for your financial plan to have certain levels of insurance in place, it is important to evaluate the best kind of policy to meet the need. Keep in mind, if your health or risk ratings change during your employment, insurance may become more expensive or unavailable later.

These are all reasons I encourage my clients to keep me informed when they receive open enrollment documents. It may seem like an easy task to re-enroll as-is from last year, but your decisions can have a long lasting impact. Please see your financial planner if you have any questions about your benefits.

 

All written content is for information purposes only. Opinions expressed herein are solely those of Bridge Financial Planning, LLC, unless otherwise specifically cited.  Material presented is believed to be from reliable sources and no representations are made by our firm as to another parties’ informational accuracy or completeness.  All information or ideas provided should be discussed in detail with an advisor, accountant, or legal counsel prior to implementation.
 

Funding Future Education Expenses

Summer is coming to a close (Ok, Ok - Winter is Coming!). A lot of families have switched from juggling careers, vacations, and summer camps to juggling careers, school schedules, and kid’s sports.

It’s usually a bit of a shock when a child goes from elementary, to middle, and then on to high school. And then there’s college… It happens faster than we’d like to admit. This is a common time of year for many people to have school and future education funding on their mind.

Many parents I work with are dedicated to providing some education support to their children. There are several different options for funding education, so let’s review some of the basics.

Pay out of pocket as expenses occur

If you have the cash flow, great! But many people don’t, especially with multiple children in school at the same time. Also, by waiting to save, the potential for future income fluctuations may impact later years. This option also does not have the tax advantages of a Coverdell or 529.

Coverdell Education Savings Account

If you’re planning to send your child(ren) to a private primary/secondary school, this is one to check out – unlike 529’s withdrawals for qualified education expenses can include K-12 expenses in addition to college and graduate school. Its main drawback is that only $2,000 per year can be contributed per child, and there are income phase-outs for the ability to contribute. IRS Coverdell Information

Also keep in mind that contributions must be made before the beneficiary reaches age 18, and the account holdings need to be used before the beneficiary reaches the age of 30.

In terms of investment options, Coverdell accounts are very flexible, although the relatively low balances may limit some investments to maximize diversification.

For purposes of financial aid, the balance of the Coverdell is considered an asset of the parents.

529 College Savings Account

529 Plans offer higher non-deductible contribution limits than other options - some plans allow $300,000+ per beneficiary. Earnings are excluded from income when used for qualified higher education expenses including: tuition, fees, books, computers and related equipment, supplies, special needs; room & board for at least half time students.

Contributions are subject to the annual gift tax limits (currently $14,000), however, the IRS allows pre-gifting up to 5 years, if no other gifts are made to the beneficiary during the 5-year period and the donor lives 5 years. Parents, aunts/uncles, friends (very good ones!), and grandparents can all contribute! Another bonus – there are no income phase-outs or limitations on income to contribute.

Balances can be used for undergraduate and/or graduate programs. Beneficiaries can be changed within the family. If there is a remaining balance, or a child decides not to attend college, that’s a handy option!

Investments for 529 accounts are limited to mutual funds available in the plan chosen. Since only one rollover to a different plan is allowed per year without triggering a 10% penalty on earnings, it’s important to carefully evaluate fees and investment options for the plan chosen.

For purposes of financial aid, the balance of the 529 is considered an asset of the parents.

529 Prepaid Tuition Plans

Just a quick note for these plans – many states have discontinued Prepaid Tuition Plans. Generally, they are more restrictive than College Savings Plans and that has led to their decline. If you have specific questions regarding the differences between a 529 College Savings and Prepaid Tuition plan, please contact your financial advisor or plan administrator for more information.

Financial Aid/Scholarships

As of 2012, 57% of undergraduate students received some form of federal financial aid, including federally subsidized loans, work-study funds, and grants. When it comes to aid, the devil really is in the details! Use the resources of high school counselors, community resources around the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), and resources from the college of choice.

Don’t let the sticker price of a college or university keep you from looking into it. Research their typical aid packages. Sometimes the out of pocket cost to a higher ‘sticker price’ school can be less than the out of pocket cost for another school with lower published rates! Check out this site to search by several factors, including the availability of aid: Big Future by The College Board

Every parent’s dream is to have their child qualify for a scholarship! A question that comes up often is, “what happens to a 529 if my child receives a scholarship?”. Great question! You have a lot of options: you can change the beneficiary to someone else in the family, keep the 529 in place in case the scholarship recipient decides to go to graduate school, or withdraw the funds. Receiving a scholarship is one of VERY few exceptions to a 10% penalty on earnings when funds are withdrawn for anything other than qualified higher education expenses.

 

Before you begin: As a parent with the best intentions and wishes for your child(ren), take a moment to answer this question: Will my financial stability be compromised (now or later) by contributing to this education fund?

It’s incredibly hard to use Spock-like levels of logic when making decisions about your children’s education. However, at the end of the day, there are a lot of ways to pay for education, but only one way to pay for retirement and health related expenses. Please consider your own financial health a top priority!

 

All written content is for information purposes only. Opinions expressed herein are solely those of Bridge Financial Planning, LLC, unless otherwise specifically cited.  Material presented is believed to be from reliable sources and no representations are made by our firm as to another parties’ informational accuracy or completeness.  All information or ideas provided should be discussed in detail with an advisor, accountant, or legal counsel prior to implementation.

 

 

Investing: The Wind in your Savings Sails

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Many articles on investing assume you’ve invested before.  But what if you haven’t? Sometimes, it’s best to start from scratch!

So, why do we invest?

Put simply, we invest because if we stack cash under a mattress (or almost as bad, in a savings account with little to no earned interest), we’ll lose money over time to inflation. Have you ever heard an older family member play the “remember when” game? Remember when gas was $0.50 a gallon, remember when bread was $0.25, etc. What they’re talking about is the effect inflation has on the buying power of a dollar over time. If they had put money under the mattress back then and believed that it would buy the same thing today, they’d be pretty disappointed!

While we are currently in a very low inflation cycle, in any given year inflation can eat away substantially at your savings. In 10 of the last 16 years, inflation was above 2%, and as high as 3.85%. So, your earnings and portfolio growth needs to match that number just to stay even. Just to give you an idea of what happens to your hard-earned money if you don’t match inflation: At 3% per year inflation rate, $1 million in today’s dollars will deflate to about $412,000 in 30 years.

In a nutshell, that’s why we invest.

Ok, how am I supposed to keep up?

Historically, over the long run the best place has been in the stock market. A broad index of the U.S. Large company stock is the S&P 500 Index. Over the last 50 years, it has returned an average of 9.7%.

Stocks are fairly liquid (easy to convert to cash, compared to real estate, for example). And if you put them in an IRA, 401(k) or other tax-advantaged account, it’s a strategy that is hard to beat. They can grow on a tax-deferred or tax-free basis, depending on what type of account you pick.

But, the stock market can also be fairly volatile at times. That’s why it’s important to have a long term time horizon for investing (10+ years), otherwise a bearish market cycle could wipe out some of your portfolio’s value. In any given year, the value of a portfolio can be sharply lower or higher (2008 saw a loss of 38%, while 1954 saw a gain of 45%).

You can also help make your portfolio more stable by including other asset classes, like bonds (see below).

Be sure that you’re receiving professional advice to help target the right portfolio for your risk tolerance and time horizon. Many investors don’t actually get the returns that are cited because their risk tolerance doesn’t match their portfolio choices and they get nervous and sell when the going gets tough. In that case, you miss out on the rebound as markets improve.

What actually happens when we invest?

Well, let’s break it down by stocks (equities) and bonds (fixed income). There are other asset classes but we’ll stick to those two today. Let’s talk stocks first.

When you purchase the stock of a company, you are giving them cash to use for their business. In return, you become a partial owner in the business. When they do well, the stock goes up.  When they underperform, the stock goes down. That’s why it’s also important that you don’t ever buy just one or a few stocks, but invest in a variety of different types (like index funds or target date funds offer). It’s better to have enough stocks to give you a balance, that is, where some go up while others go down. This helps keep your portfolio more stable.

For the bond side, it’s easiest to think of it as a loan that you’re giving the company (or government). You give them your cash, they tell you when you’ll be paid back, and give you interest payments in the meantime. There are plenty of variations on this theme, but that’s the vanilla version. The interesting thing about bonds is what happens to their value if you decide to sell them prior to their maturity. If rates have gone up, you could lose money. If rates have gone down, your bonds could be worth more than the value when you purchased them. 

How can I get started?

Anyone can invest anytime, but some accounts offer tax advantages for specific purposes like education and retirement savings. As soon as someone has earned income, they can start contributing to IRAs, and opening an IRA can be a great way to start investing. See the IRS table here: IRS.gov - IRA Contribution Limits.

Most people really start investing when they get a job with an employer sponsored retirement plan. A 401(k) is one version, but there are several variations on that theme. The great thing about those plans is that contribution limits are higher than IRAs and there’s no income limit on contributions, unlike Roth IRA’s or deductibility for traditional IRA’s. Also, many employers offer a match on employee contributions. Definitely take advantage of this opportunity if you have it!

For small business owners, you have some pretty good options too: SEP IRAs, SIMPLE IRAs and other accounts that are made just for you.

The most important thing…

The most important thing is to start. Back when a bottle of Coke was a nickel, most employees could rely on pensions. Those days are gone and you’re mostly on your own for retirement savings. The value of starting early is undeniable. Just check out this recent article. Some may need more for their financial goals, some may be happy with less, but the numbers speak for themselves when it comes to investing early.

If you need some help determining the amount you should invest, and which investments are best for you, please contact a professional.

Something for women to consider:

As women, we tend to live longer than men, earn less, and to be the ones who take time away from our careers to raise children or care for aging parents. We also make a lot of the household purchasing decisions. For us, it is even that much more important that we take the time to develop a plan to help us reach financial independence and stability.

 

 

All written content is for information purposes only. Opinions expressed herein are solely those of Bridge Financial Planning, LLC, unless otherwise specifically cited.  Material presented is believed to be from reliable sources and no representations are made by our firm as to another parties’ informational accuracy or completeness.  All information or ideas provided should be discussed in detail with an advisor, accountant, or legal counsel prior to implementation.