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Alan McKnight, DBA, CFP®
January 10, 2020
This is a letter that I began composing back in 2008, and I was absolutely surprised at the positive responses received from clients. There are some new items for 2020 (primarily retirement and estate planning issues affected by the recently passed SECURE Act), but I have kept the framework the same because the basics really never change. It’s resolution time, so here we go again!
At the end of every year, I sit down and do a thorough review of my family’s personal finances for the upcoming year. This is the one resolution I always keep. I would like to share with you some of the major items that I review each December and January as well as some additional planning ideas. This list is not all inclusive, but it should give you an excellent framework of the thought process I go through. I hope this information is helpful and informative to you.
Take care of yourself first – As a “Type A” personality, this is very difficult for me to consistently achieve. In recent years, I had “resolved” change, but I have tended to drift mid-year! One can always hope!
Most of us go through life trying to do what is right while dealing with all those forces pulling us in every direction. However, this can leave us in a position where we may not be good to anyone. Remember, those folks who are pushing you to do those things that they need you to do would most likely be way worse off without you. We need to make time for ourselves, so we can actually be there when those folks truly need us.
Not only do we need to focus on our physical health but our mental and spiritual health. Simply take a look at the newspaper, Internet, TV and radio headlines. We are constantly bombarded with negative news about the economy, the markets, politics, etc. We all need a break from that type of negative feedback every once in a while. Otherwise it is difficult to impossible for us to see the many good things about the world and to make rational decisions! Remember, we never want to make important decisions based on emotion.
According to data collected from Nielson (2018), American adults (35-49) spend over 11 hours per day listening to, watching, reading, or generally interacting with media. Adults (50-64) do so at nearly a 13-hour clip! This can’t be healthy!
An interesting fact regarding media usage is that older folks tend to lean more on traditional mediums, while younger generations are often early adopters of nascent technology. However, as new technology is adopted and becomes more universal, it trickles up through the demographics.
Those of you who know me understand that I am a “Glass Half Full” guy and not a “Glass Half Empty” guy, but it is very difficult to be the former in a world where every headline is so negative.
So, go out and take a walk or run. Turn off the radio and TV every once in a while. Volunteer for your favorite charity, your church or synagogue. Take control of those things in your life that you can actually do something about and quit worrying about those things that you can’t!
The bottom line here is quit worrying so much, and please take care of yourself!
I review my cash flow and spending habits –Years ago, a client of ours needed to go on a budget although this person was of significant net worth. After using the term budget over and over again, our client asked me to not use the term budget because it seemed so negative and punitive. I agreed and decided to call it a “flexible spending account.” Psychologically it made the idea more palatable to her but still accomplished the same goal. Today we simply use the term “spending plan” with our clients.
No matter our wealth status, we all need to know how much money is coming in and how much is going out each month. I have always used Quicken software to keep my finances organized. However, any similar software will help you track your spending habits very accurately. I can assure you that a program like Quicken will make you realize just how you spend your money and where you can cut back if need be. We all have inefficiencies in our spending habits; mine continues to be eating out way too much.
Another money management tool that I have adopted more heavily over the past few years is Mint.com. This program has improved significantly since its inception. I continue to be impressed with the service. Both Quicken and Mint.com have Smart Phone Apps. Mint is constantly sending me updates and reminders on how to improve my personal financial situation.
One may look at both products and feel like they are the same, but a closer look reveals some major distinctions. In my opinion, Mint is perfect for keeping track of day-to-day spending and goal setting; it’s also free!
For me, Quicken has become somewhat antiquated, and I have relegated it pretty much to a glorified checkbook register. They have simply not been good at keeping up with the competition.
This is not a commercial for either product or service, as both have their pros and cons and require some patience to properly set up and use. What I am attempting to do is encourage you to take control of your cash flow. Whatever it takes for you to do so is fine, even if it’s an Excel spreadsheet!
I look at my liquidity and safety net –This means having cash on hand or an asset that can be converted to cash quickly and easily, without principal erosion, if needed. I have a specific amount that I like to keep in cash each year. For our clients who are still working full-time, we want to see enough cash to pay for large near-term purchases or some type of an emergency that may arise. I recommend that clients keep 3 to 6 months of living expenses on hand in the event of a job loss. However, this is only a “rule of thumb”, and individuals may need more or less depending on their ability to gain employment after the loss of a job.
For retirees or those living off their investments, we recommend that they keep in fixed income an amount equivalent to, at least 5 years (preferably 10 years), including an inflation factor of 3% or 4% per year) of withdrawals they anticipate taking from their portfolio over that time period.
For example, if you are withdrawing $2000/month from your investments, we would recommend $2000 X 12 months/year X 10 years = $240,000. However, if you consider inflation and figure that it would average 4% over the next 10 years, you would need to have approximately $294,500. This calculation can be performed easily with any financial calculator with a Time Value of Money (TMV) function built in.
This amount should be placed in safe haven investments such as cash, CD’s, high quality bonds or bond mutual funds. That way, we don’t have to worry so much about the more volatile but very important investments such as stocks or stock mutual funds over that time period. I have found this rule to work very well in my over 20 years of practice.
I review my credit – Having good credit is always important. In the longer-term wake of the 2008 and early 2009 financial meltdown, the credit markets have certainly been thawing, but it can still be tougher than in the past to obtain a loan, even with good credit history and especially with marginal credit! You may have heard that the new 680 Fair Isaac Corporation (FICO) score is now a 740 FICO score. What this means is that to get optimal credit terms, you really need to have a FICO score in the mid-700s.
You may have excellent credit, but that should not keep you from obtaining a copy of your credit report one to two times per year, including your FICO score. This is especially important due to many of the security breaches that have occurred with some major retailers over the past year or two. It certainly seems as though identity theft is on the rise. So be careful with your personal information!
If you are not actively applying for credit, you may even want to contact the three major credit agencies (Equifax, TransUnion and Experian) and have them freeze your credit. This will keep thieves from being able to apply and obtain credit in your name.
Over the years, I have found small discrepancies in my various credit reports from Equifax, TransUnion and Experian. In my own situation, discrepancies have been minor such as changing old home addresses to new home addresses, but we had a situation arise years ago where the rating agencies had confused my wife with another woman of the same name who had a horrible credit history. Any inaccuracies should be reported to the particular agency in writing and corrected.
Additionally, knowing your credit score will let you know how lenders view you as a risk. Again, you may have excellent credit, but you need to know where you stand at all times. A few years ago, I had applied for a personal loan at a big national bank, and the woman over the phone said that my credit score was one number when I knew it was much higher. I knew this because I had just pulled my scores from all three credit ratings services. These numbers can vary significantly, so don’t be surprised when you compare them.
To obtain a free credit report and/or to get your FICO score, just go to annualcreditreport.com. I have personally used freecreditreport.com, but it is not “free” if you use it longer than the trial period. I also like the free service Credit Karma at creditkarma.com. You may even want to check with some of your credit card providers. I have AMEX, Discover and VISA cards that update my FICO each month for free!
When thinking about credit, it is also important for us to think about any debt we have. Over the years, I have had clients ask me what I consider to be the “one” most important thing that an individual could do to protect themselves financially, and I always answer it the same way; get out and stay out of debt! This is especially important if you are paying high interest rates on consumer-oriented loans like credit cards and auto payments! Quoting consumer finance expert Dave Ramsey, “Debt is the biggest enemy of your financial future.” I agree!
I review my portfolio asset allocation –Though we monitor ours and our clients’ individual investments daily, it is crucial that we all review our broader asset allocation at least annually. Your goals, tolerance for risk and overall personal financial situation may have changed completely over the last year. Generally, this means you should reexamine your mix of investments. What was good for you a year ago may be inappropriate or unsuitable now. Two common mistakes I see investors make is either being too conservative or too aggressive for their personal circumstances. Extremes are typically never good, and a proper balance should be maintained between all appropriate asset classes.
Chances are very good that many of your stock investments have outperformed your fixed income investments over the past few years. If you have not done so, now is the time to rebalance your portfolio to your prescribed percentages. Rebalancing each year forces you to sell off high shares (take gains) and buy into low shares. We all know the old adage of “buy low/sell high”, but no one does this automatically, and that’s what rebalancing does for you.
I calculate my Net Worth – When I teach personal financial planning classes to my college students, one of the first things we do is to sit down and determine our net worth. Our net worth is defined as total assets minus total liabilities. In other words, subtract all your debts from what you own. If the number is positive, you are solvent and have the assets to cover your financial obligations. If the number is negative, you are insolvent and could not cover your financial obligations in the event you have to sell everything you own. Again, this can all be done and maintained by software such as Quicken or Mint.com. So, tracking your net worth will allow you to know whether or not you are building real wealth.
When your wealth or your net worth becomes really large, you could end up with a large estate tax liability while attempting to pass those assets to your heirs. As you may or may not know, for 2020 the official estate tax limits moved up to $11.58 million per individual from the $11.4 million threshold in 2019. This means that an individual can leave $11.58 million to their heirs and pay no federal estate tax, while a married couple would be able to do the same with $23.16 million. If you are ultrarich, there are some estate planning opportunities here. For everyone else, this simply serves as a reminder we still need to do proper estate planning. I will talk about that later.
According to the Tax Policy Center, in 2018, there were only 1,890 taxable estates. Just to give you a comparison, there were approximately 52,000 taxable estates way back in 2000 when the exemption was $675,000.
Don’t let the $23.16 million number fool you. The rules for married couples are a little tricky. Yes, married couples each get their own exemption, meaning a couple will be able to give away $23.16 million tax-free in 2020 (assuming they haven’t made any prior lifetime gifts), but it is not automatic! The unlimited marital deduction allows you to leave all or part of your assets to your surviving spouse free of Federal estate tax; however, to use your deceased spouse’s unused exemption, a rule called “portability”, you will have to elect it on the estate tax return of the first spouse to die, even when no tax is due. The issue here is that if you don’t know what portability is and how to elect it, you could be hit with a surprise federal estate tax bill.
Sure, I know what you’re saying, most families and individuals will not be affected by estate taxes. However, I always remind folks, this figure has always been a “moving target” and can be changed (higher and most likely lower) at any time depending on which political party controls the House, Senate and/or White House. Keep in mind that the so-called Trump tax cuts are scheduled to expire at year-end 2025, with the ultimate goal of a full repeal of the estate tax.
One final note on death taxes, 17 states plus Washington DC have their own death taxes. If the federal government does not get your estate at death, your state may!
I update my investment and savings accounts – Many times I meet with folks with multiple savings and brokerage accounts. I once encountered an individual with dozens of individual brokerage accounts. I asked him why he had so many, and he said that “He was told to diversify”; he did not want to have all his money at one institution in case of financial failure. I can certainly understand anyone’s concerns, but this should no longer be one since most brokerage firms carry not only the required Securities Investor Protection Corporation (SIPC) insurance on your account but additional amounts through third party insurers. Remember, SIPC insurance does not protect you against loss of principal but against losing your account if the brokerage firm goes under. Most folks would do well to consolidate their accounts and have one good banking and one good brokerage relationship.
After the past few years, I would say that it is still more important to diversify your specific investments rather than to worry so much about where they are held. Most investors’ mistakes are made on specific investments, not where the money is held. Of course, there are exceptions. Choose a solid custodian like Charles Schwab, and don’t get so worked up about spreading it around to multiple institutions. Additionally, you may want to find yourself a good local bank or credit union for your FDIC/NCUA deposit accounts such as checking and basic savings.
If you are looking for a bank that will actually pay you some level of interest on your parked cash, you may want to go to one of the online providers such as Ally Bank (this is who I use), Capital One, Discover Financial, Simple, or Synchrony. Currently, they all pay right under 2% Annual Percentage Yield (APY) and offer FDIC insured savings accounts.
It is simply a good idea to organize and consolidate all of your accounts. This would include brokerage, mutual fund, bank, credit union and retirement accounts. It would also be a good idea to locate and organize all of your life insurance policies and estate planning documents. I’ll speak to those last two items in a minute.
This type of information would be important if you were to die or become incapacitated. In my own situation, anyone should be able to log into my Quicken or Mint.com accounts to see what I own and what I owe within minutes. I have seen many a widow or surviving adult child try to put together the pieces of their spouse’s or parent’s personal finances, and it wasn’t pretty.
I run retirement cash flow projections - This can be a very revealing exercise but one that needs to be done. Whether you are in your 30s, 40s, 50s or 60 plus, you need to make sure you are keeping up with your long-term goals. If you are younger, you may be wondering if you will have enough to make it to retirement, and if you are retired, you may be worried if you’ll outlive your money. These are certainly legitimate concerns so let’s not put our heads in the sand. Let’s take a look at our portfolios and see how we can fine tune our investments.
In good markets or bad, these basic rules of thumb still apply. If you are in your pre-retirement years and have not started saving yet, a good “rule of thumb” for an individual in their twenties should be saving about 10% of their gross income; a person in their thirties should be saving about 15% of their gross income, and someone in their forties should be saving about 20% of their gross income. If you are in your fifties and have not saved anything for retirement, don’t panic. Just make sure you are making retirement savings a top priority. Please don’t put your children’s college funding ahead of your retirement savings. Remember, they will not be paying for your retirement, and there are many economically feasible ways to pay for a college education.
I frequently run retirement projections for our 30 and 40-year-old clients knowing that these projections are just estimates, but they do give us a relative idea of how good a job of saving they are doing towards retirement. I recommend that these projections be done every year or two prior to retirement because things can happen to sidetrack your plan.
I also make it a habit of running regular cash flow projections for retired clients to make sure they are still on track. I always ask new retirees how much they need to cover their expenses on a monthly basis. This is obviously important because we need to make sure that all their sources of income such as Social Security, pensions, and investment accounts will provide them with lifelong income. Many people tend to underestimate their life expectancy, but an individual retiring at age 65 should plan on at least a 30-year retirement.
I get this question all of the time, “Should I include Social Security payments in my long-term cash flow and retirement projections?” The answer is “yes” because there is actually a very good chance that Social Security will be around for quite a while, contrary to “conventional wisdom.” Most likely the issues with funding will be solved by incrementally increasing the normal retirement age for individuals, means testing and/or simply lifting or raising the income threshold on current workers.
At the end of 2015, the government started shoring up Social Security by eliminating a popular maximization strategy called “file and suspend” after May 2016 and eliminating the filing of restricted applications for those not reaching age 62 by the beginning of 2016.
Generally speaking, with respect to Social Security, I recommend that folks delay taking Social Security for as long as they can. The logic being that every year you delay receiving Social Security beyond your normal retirement age and up to age 70, your payout increases by 8%. However, the reality is that most Americans cannot afford to wait as the statistics bear out.
A good financial advisor can review your situation and maximize your payout. This is not a one size fits all planning decision. It should be done individually and in concert with all of your other sources of income and investment assets.
Review your Risk Management and Insurance – We all tend to focus on the management of our assets but NOT the protection of those assets. Getting sick, becoming disabled, dying too soon or getting sued, to name a few, could be catastrophic to our personal finances. Here is some financial food for thought:
Homeowners/Auto/Liability Insurance: We should all review these policies every year to make sure that basic coverage is in line such as insuring your home for at least 80% of its replacement cost, having the correct amount of auto coverage and having at least a $1 to $2 million of personal liability coverage through an umbrella policy.
Disability Insurance: What if you can’t work in the event of a temporary or permanent disability? How will you replace your income? This is what disability insurance is all about. If your employer provides this benefit, please make sure that you know how much and what kind you have. If you have none or an insufficient amount through your employer, you may need to obtain an additional private policy.
Life Insurance: If your family does not have the resources to maintain their current lifestyle in the event of your death, you probably need life insurance. As a general rule of thumb, I like to see working individuals have 10 to 15 times their gross annual income in coverage. For non-working spouses, I would recommend at least 3 times the breadwinner’s gross annual income. Basic items to cover would include funeral costs, pay-off of debts, pay-off mortgage, replace income, fund college, etc. There is no reason to shortchange your family on total death benefit. For most individuals and families, Level Premium Term Insurance will work just fine, and it is still at very affordable levels for most folks.
Statistics tell us that approximately 75% of Americans are underinsured. That doesn’t surprise me because I have met with hundreds of families over the past 20 years, and many have been underinsured for one reason or another.
Long Term Care Insurance: If you are concerned about protecting your assets in the event of an illness that would cause you to incur substantial homecare or nursing home expenses, you may want to seriously consider this type of insurance. Right now, statistics tell us that slightly over 40% of those reaching age 65 will need some type of nursing home or other custodial care.
Review Your Estate Plan – Statistics show that well over 30% of all Americans do not have a Will. Not only should most folks have a Will, they should have a Living Will, Healthcare Power of Attorney and Financial Power of Attorney.
If you are the other 70% or so that have these estate documents, they should be reviewed every three years with a qualified estate planning attorney. So, make sure you dust off those old documents and have them reviewed this year. Any changes can be made easily by an estate planning attorney through the use of a “codicil.”
Not setting up, or improperly setting up, an estate plan could cost your heirs thousands in taxes or lost wealth.
This is probably the one financial planning item that I continually follow up with clients on because it does take time and money to set up a proper estate plan. If you are unorganized or simply procrastinate like many of us do, you should at least put together what we refer to as a Letter of Instruction to your surviving spouse, partner or significant other.
I have been a financial advisor for over 20 years, and the one life changing event that I unfortunately witness often is the loss of a spouse. When a spouse dies, there is going to be some level of breakdown in the routine operations of the household. During this time of loss and grief, the pain can be compounded by having to sit down and sift through all of the financial statements, insurance policies and other records that you may not have even thought of for 20 or 30 years.
One thing that I have observed over the years is that those spouses who are more dependent on their deceased spouse experience more stress and trauma. However, it is always difficult no matter the level of dependence.
Remember, if you are the person responsible for the family finances, your knowledge disappears the moment you die. So, here is what I recommend that you include in your Letter of Instruction:
NOTE: After the passage of the SECURE Act, it is especially important that you review your retirement account beneficiaries since the new law requires most non-spousal beneficiaries to distribute the entire account within 10 years after the year of the death of the primary account owner. The ability of the non-spousal beneficiary to grow and preserve the account by “stretching” the retirement account over their own life expectancy is now gone with the exception of surviving spouses, minor children up to age of majority, individuals within 10 years of the age of the deceased, and the chronically ill and disabled.
As stated earlier, all beneficiary designations should be reviewed to make sure they still match up with your intend goals. However, if the original intent was to give a non-spousal beneficiary (many times a child) the ability to take lifetime income from the account, another strategy (such as a charitable remainder trust) or different beneficiary designation may want to be considered.
Finally, if you have named a trust as beneficiary of a retirement plan with the idea that the trust beneficiary only receives or has access to the Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) each year, this will most likely cause a problem as there is now only one RMD, and that is not until after year 10 of the account owner’s death. Thus, the funds are frozen until year 10 resulting in a potentially very large taxable event when distributed.
Consider converting to a Roth IRA – Way back in 2010 and 2011, we held multiple workshops and spoke to many clients about Roth conversions. Basically, withdrawals from Roth IRAs are tax free as long as you follow the rules (The Roth account must be held the longer of 5 years or to age 59-1/2). This could save you and your heirs tens of thousands of dollars in taxes if executed properly. Keep in mind though that each conversion has its own five-year clock.
Beginning in tax-year 2010, any individual could convert all or part of their traditional IRA to a Roth IRA regardless of their Adjusted Gross Income (AGI). The old rules prohibited anyone making above $100K AGI from converting to a Roth IRA. Many folks do not realize that current rules waive this income threshold indefinitely.
The implementation of both the Tax Cut and Jobs Act (TCJA) and the SECURE Act may now make Roth IRA conversions more attractive since current income tax rates are lower in many cases. As well, even though beneficiaries are also required to take RMDs from an inherited Roth IRA, those distributions are not typically taxable.
Therefore, conversions can be very beneficial to a retiree by potentially maximizing long-term wealth and minimizing taxes at retirement.
However, I would still argue that the crux of whether you should convert or not hinges upon whether 1) you think tax rates will be higher in the future, 2) when you need the money, and 3) if you have a separate source of funds to pay the taxes created by the conversion. Since the tax laws are everchanging and complex, an individual analysis will need to be done on a case by case basis.
I have heard many people, including financial advisors, say that converting to a Roth IRA is a “no brainer.” I don’t agree with this statement even though I think that everyone should at least consider doing so. Again, a conversation with your financial advisor and/or tax preparer would be in order.
One item that is as close to a no-brainer decision as possible is whether to contribute to a Roth IRA. The Roth contribution rules allow you to make a tax-year 2019 contribution up to April 15, 2019. Unlike Roth conversions, there are income limits on qualifying for Roth IRA contributions. You must also have “compensation,” which is generally your earned income, in order to make a contribution that is at least equal to the amount of the contribution.
One simple work around for folks not eligible due to income limits has been to contribute to a non-deductible traditional IRA and then immediately convert it to a Roth IRA. This could be a tax-free conversion if you have no other active IRAs or SEP IRAs. However, if you do this you will be subject to the pro rata rule making some or most of the conversion taxable. Again, you need to check with your financial advisor and tax preparer on these types of decisions.
For tax year 2019 and 2020, individuals are limited to $6000 on contributions, and if you are age 50 or older, you may make an additional $1000 catch-up contribution which is fixed.
NOTE: The SECURE Act now allows those working past 70-1/2 to contribute to a traditional deductible or non-deductible IRA. This will allow individuals and couples to take advantage of up to $7000 and $14,000 respectively in contributions depending on income, filing status, and active status in a qualified plan.
Consider making Qualified Charitable Distributions (QCDs) from your IRA – Under the TCJA, the standard deduction increased to $12,000 for singles and $24,000 for married filing jointly in 2018. It was estimated by the Tax Foundation that 9 out of 10 tax filers were expected to take the standard deduction for 2018 due to this increase. However, for those who routinely give to charity, using the standard deduction effectively eliminated their ability to take a tax deduction on those contributions. In those cases, the QCD for those 70-1/2 or older allows them to give the money directly to their charity, thus reducing the RMD amount and effectively giving the taxpayer an above the line deduction. This tax benefit can be realized even though the SECURE Act has moved the RMD age to 72, resulting in a powerful tax planning tool.
Final Thoughts - This time last year, the major stock market indices had just posted their biggest annual declines since 2008. As of the end of 2019, the Dow had climbed 22.3%, its biggest year since 2017. The S&P 500 and the NASDAQ had risen by 28.9% and 35.2% respectively, their biggest gains since 2013.
Market reversals like the one we experienced in 2019 are one reason I am always preaching against the temptation to react to the negative headlines or the balance on your most recent brokerage statement. We all need to stay focused on our long-term goals and let the markets do what they do.
What I do recommend, however, as we continue to hit markets highs is to re-examine your individual risk level and asset allocation to make sure that they still meet your unique goals and objectives. This may be as simple as a basic portfolio rebalance or the addition of safer investments. Keep in mind that bear markets are virtually impossible to predict and that radical changes to a portfolio or attempting to time the market are generally fruitless endeavors.
There is no doubt in my mind that 2020, just like the past few years, will have its own level of uncertainty. So, stay tuned, and please stay in touch with us anytime you are making any major financial planning decisions.
We hope that you and your family have a Happy and Blessed 2020!!!
Again, should you have any questions about this information and would like us to assist you in further reviewing these items, feel free to set up an appointment with your advisor by calling Kira Baffi at (770) 951-9001. This is what we are here for!
This report and Dr. McKnight’s comments are provided as a general market overview and should not be considered investment or tax advice or predictive of any future market performance.
Any security mentioned in this report may not be suitable for all investors. No investment mentioned in this newsletter constitutes a recommendation to buy, sell or hold a particular investment. Such recommendations can only be made on an individual basis after an assessment of an individual investor’s risk tolerance and personal circumstances. Past performance of any investment mentioned is not a guarantee of future performance. Statements regarding the investment concerns and merits of any company and fair market value computations are strictly the opinion of Kays Financial Advisory Corporation. Employees of KFAC and KFAC clients may have positions and effect transactions in the securities of the issuers mentioned herein.