Category Archives: Retirement Planning

Ideas to help preserve and grow your money

10 Retirement Decisions You Will Regret Forever

My Comments: This list comes from Kiplinger, and is relevant to many of the people I talk with daily. I’ve only include two of the ten here. To to find the rest you’ll need to click on any of the images which will take you to the Kiplinger site. If for any reason, they block you out, let me know and I’ll figure out a work around for you.

By Bob Niedt

As more and more baby boomers start eyeing the coastline of retirement, thoughts turn from the daily worry over the Monday-through-Friday commute to concerns about how to fund the golden years.

How prepared are you? Do you know the ins and outs of your pension (if you’re lucky enough to have one)? How about your 401(k), IRA and other retirement accounts that make up your nest egg? Do you have a good handle on when to claim Social Security benefits? These are some of the questions you will have to contemplate as the work days wind down. But long before you punch out, make sure you are making the right choices.
To help you out, we’ve compiled a list of retirement decisions some of you may regret forever. Take a look to see if any sound familiar.

Planning to work indefinitely
Many baby boomers like me have every intention of staying on the job until 70, either because we want to, we have to, or we desire to maximize our Social Security checks. But that plan could backfire. You could be forced to retire early for any number of reasons.

Consider this: One in four U.S. workers expects to work beyond age 70 to make ends meet, according to a recent Willis Towers Watson survey. Yet, you can’t count on being able to bring in a paycheck if you need it. While 51% of workers expect to continue working some in retirement, found a separate 2015 survey from the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies, only 6% of actual retirees report working in retirement as a source of income.

Whether you work is not always up to you. Three out of five retirees left the workforce earlier than planned, according to Transamerica. Of those, 66% did so because of employment-related issues, including organizational changes at their companies, losing their jobs and taking buyouts. Health-related issues—either their own ill health or that of a loved one—was cited by 37%.

The actionable advice: Assume the worst, and save early and often.

Putting off saving for retirement

The single biggest financial regret of Americans surveyed by Bankrate was waiting too long to start saving for retirement. Not surprisingly, respondents 50 and older expressed this regret at a much higher rate than younger respondents.

“Many people do not start to aggressively save for retirement until they reach their 40s or 50s,’’ says Ajay Kaisth, a certified financial planner with KAI Advisors in Princeton Junction, N.J. “The good news for these investors is that they may still have enough time to change their savings behavior and achieve their goals, but they will need to take action quickly and be extremely disciplined about their savings.”

Morningstar calculated how much you need to sock away monthly to reach the magic number of $1 million saved by age 65. Assuming a 7% annual rate of return, you’d need to save $381 a month if you start at age 25; $820 monthly, starting at 35; $1,920, starting at 45; and $5,778, starting at 55.

Uncle Sam offers incentives to procrastinators. Once you turn 50, you can start making catch-up contributions to your retirement accounts. In 2016, that means older savers can contribute an extra $6,000 to a 401(k) on top of the standard $18,000. The catch-up amount for IRAs is $1,000 on top of the standard $5,500.

CONTINUE-READING

How Much Will Your Health Expenses Be In Retirement?

Cost-of-careMy Comments: Having access to medical care is a big deal. Having access to medical care that you can afford is a big deal. And it becomes a bigger deal when you are no longer employed and attempting to live the rest of your life with some degree of financial freedom.

By Glenn Ruffenach July 15, 2016

Question: My wife and I are trying to set up a budget for retirement, and we’re wrestling, in particular, with health-care expenses. How can we estimate what our medical bills will look like in the future?

An important — and vexing — question. For instance, a healthy person will have fewer and/or smaller medical bills in later life, right? Well…maybe not. As a recent study, “An Apple a Day: The Impact of Health Conditions on the Required Savings” noted, “Excellent health, ironically, can actually raise an individual’s lifetime health spending needs because of the likelihood that healthy 65-year-olds will live much longer.”

A good starting point (and a study worth reading in full) is the “2015 Retirement Health Care Costs Data Report” from HealthView Services Inc., a provider of health-care planning tools in Danvers, Mass. According to HealthView, a healthy 65-year-old couple can expect to pay, on average, $266,589 for insurance premiums and $128,365 for related expenses (dental, vision, copays and out-of-pocket bills) over their lifetime.

Another good resource—one with an emphasis on prescription-drug costs—is “Amount of Savings Needed for Health Expenses for People Eligible for Medicare” from the Employee Benefit Research Institute in Washington. The study estimates that a couple, where both spouses have median drug expenses, would need $259,000 to have a 90% chance of having enough money to cover health-care bills in retirement.

Note: Neither report accounts for possible long-term-care expenses. For that piece of the puzzle, check out Genworth Financial’s GNW, +2.72% 2016 “Cost of Care Survey.”

I am due to begin required withdrawals from my retirement savings. What are the advantages and disadvantages of an annual lump-sum withdrawal as opposed to a monthly payout?

In most cases, a required minimum distribution, or RMD, in the form of a single annual payout causes fewer problems — if you have a good amount of self-discipline.

Yes, monthly withdrawals act like a regular paycheck. But, to take a worst-case scenario, if you die midyear, your family must withdraw the remaining RMD, says Carolyn McClanahan, founder of Life Planning Partners Inc. in Jacksonville, Fla. Figuring out how much has already been withdrawn and how much remains to be withdrawn can (at times) be a hassle.

With a single lump sum, you can deposit the funds in a savings account and then arrange for monthly transfers to your checking account, creating (in effect) a regular paycheck. And if you wait until November or December to take an RMD — when you have a clear picture of all your income for that year — you can calculate your tax withholding on the withdrawal more accurately.

The one cautionary note about a single annual withdrawal: willpower, or the lack thereof. “Some people spend it all at once if they take it as a lump sum,” McClanahan says.

I have a question about paying my grandchildren’s tuition. I understand that if I pay the institution directly there is no tax consequence for my grandchild or me. Does this apply only to tuition or does it include room and board?

The answer: just tuition. But you have some flexibility here.

To start, the “tax consequence,” in this case, is the federal gift tax. You can give as much as $14,000 in cash or other assets to as many people as you wish each year, and those gifts won’t count against your (the giver’s) lifetime exemption. (In all, you can give away $5.45 million before gift taxes kick in.) If you exceed the $14,000 ceiling in a given year, you have to file a gift-tax return. That said, there are exceptions to these rules.

Under section 2503(e)(2) of the Tax Code, “any amount paid on behalf of an individual as tuition to an educational organization” is exempt from gift taxes. Note the wording: “tuition.” Period. There’s no mention of associated costs, like books, room and board, etc.

This shouldn’t stop you, however, from paying the grandchild’s tuition — and then either gifting him $14,000 to pay room and board, or paying room and board up to $14,000 directly, says Barry Kaplan, chief investment officer at Cambridge Wealth Counsel in Atlanta. And if both grandparents are alive, each can gift $14,000, for a total of $28,000.

My husband started taking Social Security at his full retirement age, but continued to work. He is now 75 and still working full time. Over the past 10 years, his benefit has gradually increased because of cost-of-living adjustments and his continuing contributions (via his paychecks) to Social Security. I am nearing full retirement age and am trying to figure out how much I would receive as a spousal benefit. I know that — at my full retirement age — I can qualify for half of my husband’s benefit. But do I get half of what he started receiving 10 years ago, or half of what he is receiving now, including the adjustments to his benefit?

Your spousal benefit would be based on your husband’s current payout, including the cost-of-living adjustments and any increases tied to his continued wages. To get a better idea of how much the spousal benefit will be, says Darren Lutz, a public affairs specialist with the Social Security Administration, your husband can create a “my Social Security” account at socialsecurity.gov/myaccount to see what his full benefit is, before deductions for Medicare premiums, etc. Then you can visit the agency’s retirement planner for spouses to learn more about potential benefits.

Glenn Ruffenach is a former reporter and editor for The Wall Street Journal, and co-author of “The Wall Street Journal Complete Retirement Guidebook.” Email your questions and comments to askencore@wsj.com.

11 Medicare Mistakes to Avoid

healthcare reformMy Comments: If you are 65 and older, Medicare is fantastic. Okay, it has its limitations, but coupled with what is known as a MediGap or MedSup plan, it’s fantastic.

You can argue all you want about how this country is slowly sinking into a socialist morass, but when you reach my age, health issues surface almost weekly, not annually. Being able to seek advice from medical professionals without first thinking how it might break the bank, is a huge component of financial freedom. HUGE, I say.

July 18, 2016 By Ginger Szala

First, let’s generally define the Parts of Medicare. Part A, referred to as original Medicare, focuses on hospital coverage. Part B is medical coverage. Part C (also called Medicare Advantage) is a different way of putting Parts A and B into one plan, offered by private companies. Part D is prescription drug coverage.

The rules of Medicare are complicated and laden with deadlines that are costly to miss. Via Kiplinger, here are 11 common Medicare mistakes to avoid:

1. Not reviewing your Part D Plan annually
Medicare Part D is a headache for many to keep on top of. But remember these key points:
• Open enrollment runs from Oct. 15 to Dec. 7 every year.
• During open enrollment it’s essential to review options because there might be changes to your current plan, meaning your cost and coverage would vary. Be leery of plans that increase premiums, increase your percentage of cost for drugs, or other requirements, like having to use a specific pharmacy, to be covered.
• Make sure you check if any drugs you’re on have gone generic, as you might get a nice price reduction.
• Medicare also helps you to compare plans. Check out the various links on Medicare.gov or AARP.org for more information, guidance and price comparison tools.

2. Picking the same Part D plan as your spouse
Not all Part D plans are alike, and just because a plan works for you it might not be the same for your spouse, who may be taking different prescriptions. Use the Medicare Plan Finder to determine your out-of-pocket costs on each plan. Also keep in mind that some plans require the use of specific pharmacies.

3. Going out of network on private Medicare Advantage plans
If using private Medicare Advantage plans, similar to PPOs or HMOs, you’ll need to utilize the network of doctors and hospitals within the plan to get the lowest co-payments. Be wary that if you go out of network, there may be no coverage at all.

4. Not knowing how to switch Medicare Advantage plans anytime if needed
Even outside the annual open enrollment period, it’s possible to switch plans for life-changing events, like moving to a place that isn’t in your current plan’s geographical coverage. And if you’re in the five-star plan, you can make a switch any time during the year. Also, from Jan. 1 to Feb. 15, you may be able to switch from Medicare Advantage to traditional Medicare plus Part D prescription-drug plan.

5. Not considering Medigap within 6 months
Once enrolling in Medicare Part B, you have six months to buy any Medicare supplement plan in your area even if you have pre-existing conditions (and at age 65, who doesn’t?). But after six months, insurers can reject you or charge more depending on your health. It depends on your state rules and insurer’s policies. Check at Medicare.gov for your options.

6. Not opting for Medicare when you turn 65 (most of the time)

Forever young, so who needs Medicare? Well, you’re smart to take advantage of what the government is giving you, often for free. If you are getting Social Security already when you turn 65, you’ll automatically be enrolled in Medicare Part A and Part B. But if you aren’t receiving Social Security benefits, you’ll have to act on your own to sign up. There are reasons to delay: for example, you or your spouse have a full-time job and already get health care coverage as a part of that. Be aware that if you aren’t collecting Social Security benefits, there’s a seven-month period to sign up for Medicare, which runs from three months before the month you turn 65 to three months after.

7. Not signing up for Part B if you have retiree or COBRA coverage
Again, there are many tricky steps in the Medicare signup game. Unless you or your spouse are receiving insurance through a current employer (who has 20 or more employees), Medicare is considered your main health insurance coverage. Retiree coverage, COBRA or severance benefits are NOT primary, and if you don’t sign up for Medicare, you might have gaps in coverage and be late on your Part B premium. So pay attention.

8. Missing the Part B enrollment deadline after leaving your job

It’s an alphabet jungle out there, but this one is easy: if you still have insurance through a job when you turn 65, that’s fine. You don’t need to worry about Part B premiums. But within eight months of leaving your job, you need to sign up or you might have to wait for the next enrollment period, meaning a gap in coverage. Then there is also the possibility of a 10% lifetime late-enrollment penalty.

9. Ignoring income thresholds
Most people pay the minimum of $140.90 a month for Part B premiums and $12.30 per month for Part D. This goes higher depending on your adjusted gross income. So if you are bringing in more than $85,000, that Part B premium could more than double per month, where as Part D could jump fivefold. Be mindful when you are withdrawing from tax-deferred accounts that you don’t go over the income threshold if possible.

10. Not fighting surcharge changes for the year you retire
The Social Security Administration uses your tax returns from the most recent two years to determine if you are subject to an income surcharge, that is you are making more than $85,000 a year. But you can protest it if you prove life-changing events, such as divorce, death of a spouse or retirement.

11. Not minding your HSA contributions

You can’t contribute to HSAs if you are getting Medicare, but if you or your spouse have health insurance through a job (with 20 or more employees) and haven’t applied for Medicare or Social Security benefits, you still can continue to add to your HSA. That said, be careful about contributions in the year you leave your job and sign up for Medicare, as your HSA must be prorated by number of months on Medicare.

Will You Regret Taking Social Security ASAP?

SSA-image-3 My Comments: Too many people choose to take early benefits. If you need the money, hate your job, don’t have a job, plan to die soon, or simply don’t have confidence in your life, then maybe it’s OK. But it usually turns out to be a mistake. There is a do over, but you have to take it within 12 months. Most don’t and then when they discover they are 75, there’s not enough money.

By Casey Dowd Published June 30, 2016 The Boomer FOXBusiness

Attention Baby Boomers who will soon be turning age 62 and are planning on taking Social Security benefits early, be sure to do your homework before you sign the paperwork.

A Nationwide Retirement Institute survey of 909 U.S. adults aged 50 or older found that many of those who claimed their Social Security benefits early wish they could change their decision – and the top reason is to maximize their benefit. Meanwhile, of those who wouldn’t change their decision, many say they had no choice – saying they needed the money.

“Social Security is undoubtedly one of the most complex retirement topics facing American workers,” says Dave Giertz, President of Sales and Distribution at Nationwide. “Even those who can identify the factors that will impact their benefit are likely unable to grasp the thousands of rules that apply to Social Security. The complexity makes it extremely difficult for retirees to maximize their benefit on their own.”

Giertz discussed with FOXBusiness.com what you need to know.

Boomer: What impact has claiming Social Security early had on American workers?

Giertz: American workers are potentially missing out on hundreds of thousands of dollars in retirement income by claiming Social Security early. Instead of leaving money on the table, retirees need to consider all of their filing options to help understand how Social Security can fit into their overall retirement income plan.

Maximizing your Social Security benefit is more important than ever because, for most, it is the only source of retirement income. Only 36 percent of future retirees we surveyed have pensions, compared to 54 percent of recent retirees and 60 percent of the oldest retirees. Preparing for retirement holistically by working with online tools and advisors can help retirees face challenges posed by lack of retirement income, health care costs and other obstacles.

Boomer: What surprises typically come up in retirement?

Giertz: Seven out of 10 retirees who have health problems say the problems came sooner than they expected, increasing the impact on their retirement and their wallets. Additionally, almost two in five retirees (37 percent) say health problems keep them from living the retirement they expected.

For many current retirees, health care expenses are eating up a majority of their Social Security benefit. The average American claiming their Social Security at 62 will spend about 61 percent of their Social Security benefits on health care costs, according to a case study comparing data from Nationwide Retirement Institute’s Social Security 360 Analyzer and Health Care Costs Assessment tools. That’s before factoring in long-term care costs.

Meanwhile, according to the same case study, if an average American waits until age 70 to claim Social Security, they have more money left over and end up spending just 47 percent of their benefit on health care costs.

Boomer: How can Baby Boomers project what their benefit will be, so as not to be surprised when they retire?

Giertz: As a start, don’t guess. About a quarter of Americans who haven’t claimed Social Security say they are either guessing or don’t know the amount they will receive in their monthly benefit check. As a result, many Baby Boomers are overstating the amount they might receive. Those approaching retirement say they expect to get $1,610 in monthly Social Security benefits, while in reality recent retirees report their actual monthly benefit is about $1,378, and those who have been retired longer report receiving just an average of $1,185 per month.

Only 11 percent of current retirees used an online calculator to estimate their benefit; however, among Baby Boomers approaching retirement, the use of these tools is becoming much more prevalent. More than four in 10 future retirees (42 percent) have used a Social Security calculator to estimate their benefit.

While the development of Social Security calculators is helping close the Social Security knowledge gap, Americans should work with a financial advisor to create a holistic retirement income plan that includes Social Security. Retirees who work with an advisor are much less likely than those who don’t to say health care costs keep them from living the retirement they expected (11 percent vs. 29 percent).

Boomer: With the increase in the cost of living and inflation in retirement what should future retirees be doing now to support the increase?

Giertz: Nearly two in five Americans nearing retirement (38 percent) expect their living expenses will go down in retirement.

However, changes in the cost of living and inflation are the top reasons expenses increase in retirement, according to the retirees we surveyed. Of those retired 10+ years say the cost of living (79 percent) and inflation (62 percent) are the leading factors impacting their living expenses retirement.

In addition to saving more, maximizing your Social Security benefit is key to coping with cost of living increases and inflation.

Boomer: How can Boomers maximize their Social Security benefit?

Giertz: Eighty-six percent of future retirees cannot correctly identify the three basic factors that the Social Security Administration uses to determine their benefit amount, and, as a result, many retirees do not know how to maximize their Social Security. Understanding how your age, benefit start date and marital status work together to determine the amount in your benefit check every month is a great start.

However, the combinations of different ages, benefit start dates and marital statuses make every individual or family’s ideal filing strategy different – and many Baby Boomers may want to consider a variety of strategies with different benefit start dates.

While life events force many Americans to take Social Security early, those who are willing or able to wait get rewarded for their patience. According to the Social Security Administration, American workers receive and extra 8 percent per year for every year they postpone collecting benefits beyond their full retirement age amount – up to age 70.

Can You Afford to Live Longer?

retirement-exit-2My Comments: Many of you know that I’ve recently started a series of workshops that focuses on how the Social Security system works. It’s an attempt to help those who will soon become eligible, or are already eligible, better understand a very complex and not user friendly institution in American life.

One assumption that is new to me, but but critical to the planning process, is to assume everyone will live to be 100. Obviously that’s not going to happen, but it’s a conservative approach to making the necessary decisions about your future life style and how you are going to pay for it.

This article from Casey Dowd might be helpful if any of you think this applies to you.

By Casey Dowd, Published June 16, 2016

According to the National Institute on Aging, in 1950 a man retiring at age 65 could expect to live another 13 years and a 65-year-old woman another 15 years. Today, according to data from the Society of Actuaries, there is a 43 percent chance that retirees could live to at least age 95.

Allianz Life conducted a study with the Stanford Center on Longevity to explore the topic of longevity, what it means for retirement planning and how advances are leading people to consider alternative life-path possibilities.

“As Americans come to terms with the fact that they’ll likely live an extra 30 years, they have the opportunity to look back and evaluate their past decisions and consider the newfound possibilities for the future afforded by time,” said Katie Libbe, Allianz Life Vice President of Consumer Insights.
While it’s good news that you can expect to live longer in retirement, can you financially afford it? Libbe discussed with FOXBusiness.com what you need to know.

Boomer: How can Baby Boomers plan for living 30 more years in retirement, both socially and financially?

Libbe: We found that people are incredibly optimistic about longevity and also that they have interest in alternative life paths that differ from the traditional and linear “school-work/marriage/kids-retirement” track that has been the de facto life template for generations. When asked to design their ideal longer life, nearly half of Americans said they would prefer a nontraditional model that is unique to their interests – where they might work, take career breaks, go back to school, volunteer and try different things in no set order.

Although boomers may not have as great an opportunity to make widespread changes to their life path as younger generations, they can still use the conversation about longevity to consider new possibilities for their retirement years, including encore careers or continuing education. As they explore these new possibilities, they should also think about their financial plan and what it may take to build a strategy that supports an alternative to a traditional retirement.

Boomer: What regrets are boomers finding about chances not taken and dreams not realized?

Libbe: Although the topic of longevity was met with extreme optimism by the majority of boomers – 94% were positive on the prospect of living 30 extra years – the process of thinking about longer life caused many boomers to look back and identify some regrets about choices made and opportunities missed.

Nearly 20% of boomers noted they would “take more risks in life,” a common theme among the one-third of Americans who said they regretted many of their major life decisions. Included among those top regrets for boomers are not following their dreams, not taking risks with their career and not taking risks with their lives in general (new jobs, going back to school, etc.). Nearly a third also said they wish they’d been more gutsy in their choices and done things they really wanted to do.

Boomer: How does this change traditional retirement planning?

Libbe: For many Americans, including boomers, having more time opens the door to new opportunities. Boomer respondents confirmed a desire to explore different life paths: pursuing a dream like starting a new business, having a second career doing something they truly enjoy, volunteering/supporting the environment, or retiring later by working fewer hours but for more years overall. Nearly half of all respondents feel a longer life can enable a totally different view of how and when major life choices are made.

While many Americans expressed interest in embracing the possibilities of a longer life, they also understand the need for better planning in order to fund those different goals/life paths. More than nine in 10 boomer respondents agreed that people will need to be more thoughtful about how they plan for longer lives, and nearly the same percentage agreed that major changes would be needed in how people think about funding longer lives. In addition, a full 94% of boomers agreed that, with 30 extra years, it’s not enough to just put aside money for retirement – people would need a much broader, more goal-specific plan – a longevity plan, that falls outside the confines of traditional financial planning.

Boomer: Is our parents’ “traditional” retirement gone forever?

Libbe:
Traditional retirement is not gone forever, but new conversations about longevity are forcing people to consider whether a traditional retirement is truly right for them. Of course, if you prefer spending time on a beach or at the golf course, there is nothing wrong with developing a plan to help you achieve those more traditional retirement goals. But it’s important to understand that there are many other possibilities that come with longer life – from extending your working years doing something you love, to taking a sabbatical now in order to pursue a passion project while you still have the time and energy to make it a reality.

It certainly takes careful planning to achieve these objectives, and most Americans seem to understand that a new paradigm is needed to think about, plan for and fund a longer life. A good first step is to meet with a financial professional and discuss how you may be able to achieve different short- and mid-term goals while saving for retirement, opening up the freedom to try different things, pursue passions and explore alternative life plans.

How to Invest in Mutual Funds

InvestMy Comments: Mutual funds have been around for about 100 years. Some genius decided to create a new investment model, a stand alone investment. With one investment you now could own shares of hundreds of stocks, in smaller amounts. And the rest is history.

Today there are more funds to choose from than you can imagine. Some have good records and some not so good. None of them are free; employees and rent has to be paid, and that ultimately comes from whomever owns shares of the fund. But the costs you think you pay are only those costs that the regulators determine must be reported. There are costs that escape disclosure which you can only guess about. Buyer beware.

This is a useful overview for anyone with money in the markets that is not just X shares of company A or Y certificates issued as a bond by company B or government C. If you are a relatively conservative investor or working with money that has to support your retirement, you have to first decide how much money you can lose in any given year and not have heartburn. Only then can you begin to decide if a fund choice will be a good option for your money.

by Matthew Frankel – The Motley Fool – June 25, 2016

The best mutual funds to invest in are those that fit your investment objectives without charging high fees. When choosing funds, you should look for:
1. Funds that meet your objectives.
2. No-load funds.
3. Low expense ratio — companies like Vanguard and Fidelity offer some extremely cheap funds.
4. Good Morningstar and/or Lipper ratings.
5. Strong performance history.

Decide what you want to invest in
There are mutual funds that invest in all types of stocks, bonds, CDs, commodities, and more, so the first step is to decide what you want to invest in. And there are two main types of mutual funds to choose:
• Passively managed funds track a certain index, such as the S&P 500 or the Russell 2000. These simply invest in all of the companies in an index, and don’t require too-much effort on the part of the fund’s managers. Because of this, these funds tend to come with relatively low fees.
• Actively managed funds have a manager who chooses its investments, and decides when to buy and sell. Because the main goal of actively managed stock funds is to beat the market, and because of the additional effort required, actively managed funds usually have higher fees than passively managed ones.

Lower costs = more money in your pocket
When looking for mutual funds, I automatically narrow my search to “no load” mutual funds — which means that the fund doesn’t come with a sales charge or commission. In most cases, your brokerage will clearly differentiate no-load mutual funds.

The most-important number you should look at when comparing mutual funds is known as the expense ratio. This tells you the total ongoing cost of investing in the fund on a yearly basis as a percentage of your assets.

For example, an expense ratio of 1% tells you that, if your investment is worth $10,000, you’ll pay $100 in various fees. If you’re interested, here’s a thorough discussion of what makes up an expense ratio; but for most investors, it’s sufficient to know that a lower expense ratio means a “cheaper” fund.

You may see two different expense ratios listed for a particular fund: gross expense ratio, and net expense ratio. Net expense ratio can be lower, as it includes any discounts or temporary reductions in fees. The gross expense ratio is the permanent amount, and is the primary number to pay attention to.

Small differences in expense ratios can have a big impact
It’s important to emphasize that seemingly small differences in expense ratios can make a big difference over long time periods. As a simplified example, let’s compare two hypothetical mutual funds, both of which track the same index. The only major difference between them is that the first charges an expense ratio of 0.75%, while the second charges a cheaper 0.5%.

If you invest $10,000 in each fund, and the underlying index produces average annualized returns of 8% per year before expenses, after 30 years, the first investment will be worth $81,643. Your investment in the cheaper second fund would grow to $87,550. If you ask me, a difference of more than $5,900 is well worth the effort of shopping around for a cheaper option.

This isn’t to say that a fund with a lower expense ratio is automatically better than a more-expensive one in all cases. For passively managed funds, comparing expense ratios can be a highly effective practice. However, with actively managed funds, a higher — but still reasonable — expense ratio can be justified by a strong track record of market-beating performance.

What those fund ratings mean
Two of the most-frequently used ways of rating mutual funds are the Morningstar and Lipper ratings. Morningstar ratings use a five-star system to rate funds, and take into account the fund’s past performance, the manager’s skill level, risk- and cost-adjusted returns, and consistency of performance. Five stars is best, and only 10% of the funds evaluated get the coveted rating. Regarding the rest, 22.5% get four stars, the middle 35% get three stars, the next 22.5% get two stars, and the bottom 10% get one star.

Lipper uses five criteria: consistency, preservation of capital, expense ratios, total return, and tax efficiency. With this information, the funds in a given category are broken down into quintiles — in other words, 20% get the highest rating, 20% get the next highest, and so on.

Both ratings are calculated over different time periods — three-year, five-year, and 10-year periods, respectively. These can be useful in your research; just remember that these ratings are based on past performance, and are not necessarily a guarantee of future results.

Past performance doesn’t guarantee future results, but…

Just because a mutual fund has performed well in the past doesn’t necessarily mean it will do the same in the future. In fact, mutual funds tell you this themselves — it’s generally written right near the historic returns section on each fund’s prospectus.

However, that doesn’t mean you should ignore that section, especially when it comes to actively managed funds — those that don’t simply track a specific index. Consistently strong fund performance over the years is one sign of good management, and a smart strategy. It’s also important to look at a fund’s performance during tough economic t After all, if you look at a fund’s performance over the past five years, take the information with a grain of salt. The S&P 500’s total return was 83% during that time, and it’s not difficult to make money in markets like that. Instead, it’s a good idea to also take a look at how the fund did during, say, 2008, in order to get an idea of how the fund’s investments hold up in bad markets.

The bottom line on mutual funds
Shopping for mutual funds can certainly be intimidating — after all, there are literally thousands to choose from. However, by determining your investment objectives, considering highly rated funds, comparing expense ratios, and evaluating past performance, you can narrow down the selection, and find mutual funds that are right for you.

Secondary Market Annuities (SMA)

Piggy Bank 1My Thoughts: Last month I posted about having stock positions in your retirement portfolio and how much was appropriate. This post is about another option where there are no stocks at all, only a promise by an insurance company to return all your money to you, over time, at a guaranteed rate of interest. Typically, the rate of return, of ROR, is 4% or more, which in today’s world is pretty good.

The are called SMAs and are discounted receivables. Somebody (an insurance company) has agreed to pay someone else a series of payments for a specified period of time. The contract that makes this happen is an annuity, where the payments are guaranteed. The difference is that the initial recipient of these payments has changed his mind and instead, wants  a lump sum and not monthly payments. So that person sells the future stream of payments to another person in exchange for a lump sum. This new person sees all this as an investment, so he/she in turn finds someone who has a lump sum but would rather have a stream of unbreakable payments. Ergo, Secondary Market Annuities.

If you, for example, own your house and have some money sitting in a bank somewhere that is earning very little, you might consider using that money to buy a favorable stream of future payments, where the return on investment (ROI) is much better than what the bank is paying you.

How Do SMAs Work?
Secondary Market Annuities are not what you would normally associate with the term, “annuities.” Annuities tend to be more complicated – involving contracts with riders, contractual terms, guaranteed rates, variable indices, and a host of other terms. By comparison, the purchase of an SMA is quite simple.

The easiest way to explain SMAs is with an example case.

Using today’s SMA yields, you can purchase a 10 year SMA case for $91,656 that begins to pay $1,000 per month for 120 months beginning on June 1, 2016 and ending on May 1, 2026. This SMA offers a guaranteed payment stream with definite dates of payment. To determine the purchase price, SMA Hub, the provider of choice, applies a discount rate to those payments, and the result is the purchase price today.

Comparing Apples To Apples
The real value of an SMA comes to light when you compare this SMA to a period certain annuity, such as a 10 year Single Premium Immediate Annuity (SPIA).

If your goal as a member of the public is to have a check every month of $1,000, you’ll find that if you purchase a SPIA with the same 10 year guaranteed income stream, it will cost about $110,254 based in today’s rates.

In our example here, if you can find an SMA to provide $1000 per month for 10 years, would you rather spend $91,656 or $110,254 to achieve the same outcome? You’ll pay roughly 20% less, provide you with the exact same income stream, and comes to you from a very high credit quality insurance carrier.

Each SMA case is like a unique, rare gem. While they are not too good to be true, they are one of a kind. Each case is offered for sale and once sold, it is gone. I have access to a weekly inventory of what is available. Talk with me if you want to further explore this idea.