When Things are Going Well, Watch Out!!!

 

Before you cross the street,
take my hand.

Life is what happens to you
while you’re busy making other plans.

 -John Lennon, “Beautiful Boy”

When I built my house, there were certain things I really wanted.  Unfortunately, I did not discover a money tree on the property.  I had to face reality and eliminate some “wants.”  Lately, I have been thinking about tweaking the kitchen a bit.  I would like a new countertop and maybe a tile backsplash. 

Of course, life has a way of altering your plans.  One of my cats fell ill.  In six days, I racked up a sizable bill at the vet’s office.  Sadly, she did not survive.  As devastating as the event was, it would have been even worse if I had not squirreled away some cash in an emergency fund.  Knowing that I was financially able (to a point) to do as much as I could to save her was a relief. 

We have talked many times in this blog about saving for the inevitable rainy day.  It is one of the best financial decisions you can make.  You never know when your car might need repair, when one of your kids (human or furry) might be sick, or when you may lose your job.  These events are stressful.  Not having the funds to pay for them compounds the stress.

Automatically transferring funds to an emergency account is a great way to save.  Banks and brokerage firms will allow you to sweep a pre-determined amount from one account to another.  You determine when you want to transfer to take place. 

Conventional wisdom says to save 6 to 9 months of expenses.  I found it easier to first calculate the large, recurring bills – insurance, property taxes, et cetera.  I then added a certain amount for routine savings and overall maintenance items – upkeep of house and car; vet visits; and so on.  I took that figure and divided it by 12 months.  At every payday, my bank sweeps that sum from my checking account into my savings account.  I cannot access my savings account unless I visit the bank, so I avoid the temptation of withdrawing funds for something silly.

The automatic deduction has been wonderful.  I do not “feel the loss” because the money never stays in my checking account.  My emergency fund has saved me on so many occasions. 

You can setup automatic deductions with your investment accounts too.  I also have a sweep in place for a Roth IRA contribution.  We would be happy to assist you with setting up automatic deductions into your brokerage or other investment accounts.  Please contact your advisor if you are interested.

Cristy Freeman, AAMS
Senior Operations Associate

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Scared Money Don’t Make Money

Recently, I heard the above phrase in a rap song by Pitbull.  I was surprised to hear mention of investment risk/reward in a popular song.  He did not go on to discuss European economic instability or currency valuation.  That would have been truly shocking.

The statement provokes thought, though.  People who are willing to take the most risk have the potential for greater reward – and greater loss.  It is easy to have an asset allocation of 100 percent equities in an up market.  Can you keep that allocation when the market is significantly down?  Will you still sleep at night?

On the other hand, holding money in a money market fund earning near-zero interest is also a risky proposition.  You must find some vehicle in which to invest because you cannot afford to earn nothing for your money.  Inflation continues to rise, even when interest rates are not.  The dollar you stash in a mattress will not be worth the same 10 years from now as it is today.

Finding the right allocation is very tricky.  It requires a great deal of evaluation on your part.  What is your current age?  Do you have enough time to recover from a short-term loss?  What are your investment goals for the next 5, 10, 15 years?  When do you want to retire? 

This is just a sample of some of the questions you should ask yourself.  A thoughtful review of your situation with your investment advisor will help the two of you to determine the best asset allocation.  Being brutally honest with yourself and communicating your goals, thoughts, and concerns with your investment advisor will allow you to work as a team.  The two of you will be able to find the right allocation that can help you sleep a little better at night.

Cristy Freeman, AAMS
Senior Operations Associate

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I Hate Debt

Don’t we all??  I worry about placing myself in a situation where an unexpected event (car accident, illness, et cetera) could create a financial disaster.  As a result, I carefully monitor the level of both short- and long-term obligations I have. 

With interest rates at historic lows, I decided to take a closer look at refinancing my house.  I have refinanced two times already; should I do it again?  Some of you may be considering the same thing, so I thought I would talk a bit about how I made my decision.

It is important to understand what you are trying to accomplish.  In my regard, I want to pay off my house within 15 years, while keeping the monthly payment at a reasonable level.  Others may want to tap home equity so that they can pay down loans with higher interest rates or do some repairs to the home.  If this is the case with you, calculate in advance how much you need. 

The next step is to take a look at your credit report.  Some people have had some dings from the Great Recession.  Resolve any reporting issues in advance of applying for a loan.  It will save you a lot of aggravation later.

Now, let’s figure out if it is feasible to refinance.  I used the calculators that are available on the bankrate.com website.  Here is a link:  http://www.bankrate.com/calculators.aspx. They have a great mortgage amortization calculator that shows you total interest paid over the life of the loan.  You can also see the impact of extra amounts paid toward principal. 

Using this tool, I entered my current interest rate and loan terms.  I analyzed the impact of the extra payments I have been making toward principal each month.  Then, I entered a 15-year term but with a lower interest rate. 

I compared the total interest expense with my current rate vs. a lower estimated rate.  The difference in total interest paid for my current loan vs. the lower interest rate loan is about $5,000, as long as I continue to make extra payments toward principal.  Closing costs and refinancing fees add up, so I suspect that net difference between the two loans would be much lower. 

As long as I continue making extra payments toward principal, I will accomplish my goal of paying off the loan within 15 years.  The lower interest rate loan would also require a larger monthly payment.  I am not comfortable with that.  With my current loan, I can keep my lower payment amount, giving me some security in the event of a serious financial crunch. 

Lower interest rates can be very enticing.  In the long run, though, you could sacrifice financial peace-of-mind just to save a few dollars.  A careful analysis of your personal situation can help you make the right decision.  If all of this seems overwhelming, we are always here to help.  Your financial advisor is just a phone call away.

Cristy Freeman, AAMS
Senior Operations Associate

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The “not-so Super” Committee

As expected, this week the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (the “Super committee”) failed to come to any agreement on what measures would be recommended to reduce the budget deficit by $1.2 Trillion. Therefore, automatic spending cuts are scheduled to begin in 2013.  The major rating agencies did not undertake a further downgrade of U.S.debt as a result of the impasse. 

Much of the deadlock revolves around whether tax increases will accompany spending cuts in order to move closer to a balanced budget.  At the same time, across many cities in the US, protestors are demonstrating against a combination of things like outrageous executive bonuses and the perception that the distribution of wealth in the country is becoming more skewed towards the top income earners.  I have seen signs both on the news and in person saying “we are the 99%”.  Before you go creating your own sign and joining the movement, let’s have a quick review of the math. 

According to a recent study going back to 1922, the peak level of wealth disparity was in 1929, when the top 1% of households controlled 44% of the country’s wealth.  In 2007, it was 34.6%.  Therefore the concentration of wealth in the country is down over the long run, although it has risen significantly since the 1976 low of 19.9%. 

Now let’s move on to income taxes.  According to the National Taxpayers Union, for the 2009 tax year, the top 1% of household incomes paid 36% of total Federal income taxes. This is approximately in proportion to the overall level of wealth that they control.  The top 10% of taxpayers paid over 70% of the total. 

In 1999, the top 10% of taxpayers paid 66% of Federal income taxes.  Therefore, over the last 10 years, the proportion of taxes paid by the top 10% of taxpayers actually increased. 

The top 10% can pay at most 100% of the income taxes.  So the current argument comes down to what number between 70% and 100% they should pay.     

The top 10% starts lower than many people might think.  For 2009, Adjusted Gross Income on your Federal tax return of $112,124 would put you in the top 10%.  This is within reach of many households, particularly for a married couple where both spouses work.  For a family of four who are fortunate enough to enjoy this level of income, I suggest their lifestyle is comfortable but not extravagant.  For the 90% below this level, things are more challenging. 

The current stalemate about taxes is annoying, and it is likely that some combination of tax increases and spending cuts will be needed to achieve any meaningful reduction in the budget deficit. 

Increasing taxes on the top 1% may be part of the solution.  Over the last 10 years, the top 1% paid a relatively stable proportion of taxes, while the tax burden on the next 9% has increased. But there are simply not that many people in the 1% to where they can be expected to pay the tax burden for the entire country. 

How about increasing taxes on the top 10%? The problem here is that the top 10% includes many dual-income families, and this group already pays a disproportionate amount of Federal income taxes (9% of taxpayers are paying about 44% of the taxes). 

Another part of the solution might be to replace part of the income tax with a consumption tax.  This would capture some tax revenue from the underground economy of people currently working for cash, when they eventually go to a store and spend the money they have earned but not declared as income.  As the election approaches over the next 12 months, particularly in light of the Super committee’s failure, taxes are going to be a pivotal issue.  Hopefully there is a chance for true reform.

Bill Hansen, CFA

Managing Partner

November 23, 2011

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Where Does The Time Go?

When I was a little kid, it seemed to take FOREVER for Christmas to get here.  The tree would be up for ages, the presents underneath teasing me.  When my parents were at work, I would shake the presents and try to determine the contents.  I confess I sometimes lifted the corner on some of the packages.  It’s a great way of learning whether or not you are getting that Barbie you wanted.  It worked well until my little sister tattled.  No one likes a snitch, Amanda.

In my adult life, time flies by.  It seems like only yesterday we were celebrating a new year; now Thanksgiving is almost here, and the holiday madness is about to begin.  Everything kicks into overdrive as we rush from holiday party to family event.  We spend hours in the kitchen, preparing dishes that will be engulfed in minutes and forgotten almost as quickly.  It seems that chaos reigns during the holiday season.

In the midst of all this activity, let’s not forget our financial lives.  If you plan to donate appreciated stock to charity or give it to relatives, take care of it now.  Do not wait until late December.  Go ahead, and cross it off your list.  The later you wait, the more difficult it becomes to process the transaction before December 31.

It is also important to take a look at your portfolio.  Do you have any gains that could be offset by losses?  Do you anticipate any big financial events next year (i.e. your child will be starting college; you plan to remodel your home; et cetera)?  A quick conversation with your financial advisor sets up for a smooth start to 2012.

Take a deep breath.  It will be okay.  The holidays will be over before you know it!  I hope you and your family have a happy, healthy, and peaceful holiday season.

Cristy Freeman, AAMS
Senior Operations Associate

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The Asset Allocation for College Funds

Asset allocation, the proportion of stocks, bonds and cash in a portfolio, is one of those topics that financial advisors think about constantly.  Because we have clients with such a variety of needs and changing financial scenarios, we are always working with someone to help them find the appropriate investment allocation for their personal situation.  For the typical investor however, it shouldn’t be so hard.  Once you’ve chosen the appropriate allocation, you should stick with it as long as your financial or life circumstances haven’t changed much.  This type of “set it and forget it” mentality is the mark of a disciplined investor.

But what about the asset allocation for a college fund?  For a newborn child you only have 18 years before you have to pay out a significant portion of the fund, which you will then deplete over 4 years.  If you start saving later, the time frame is even shorter.  This is very different from a retiree who will often have a longer time frame than 18 years.  Also, for a retiree, typically the intention is to spend around 4 to 5% of the retirement portfolio value every year, so that the retirement funds continue to grow over time.  This isn’t the case with a college fund.  It can be both long-term (18 years to grow) and short-term (all paid out over 4 years) at the same time.  It makes the asset allocation decision a conundrum.  Now throw in the fact that somehow children grow up faster than you can possibly imagine and each year the time until payout grows exponentially closer, requiring more frequent allocation tinkering.

If you are able to save when your children are babies, the allocation decision is fairly easy.  With an above-average risk tolerance you might choose 100% equities.  Once kids are in their teens though, you could switch to a more conservative allocation with a mix of stocks and bonds.  As they approach their final year of high school, you could move to all fixed income.  There is no easy solution here, and often it depends on the parents outside resources.  If the parent is entirely dependent upon the college funds to pay for college, the fund should be more conservative as they approach age 18.  The give up is potentially less money for college if the stock market is doing well during these years.

If you have multiple children with 529 plans for each, and outside resources in addition to this, you may choose to stay with a higher equity allocation.  If the stock market doesn’t perform well during the college years, the parent could choose to pay some expenses out of pocket and then roll any excess 529 funds to younger siblings.

Regardless of the allocation you choose, you are taking a risk.  If you’re too conservative you may not have enough money to pay for college.  Conversely, if you’re too aggressive, you stand the chance of losing money you’ve saved all along just at the time that you need to withdraw it.  My advice is to discuss the allocation with your financial advisor.  Your risk tolerance will be the main driver in this decision.  Other important factors will be outside resources for paying for college, as well as your family’s unique circumstances.

Harli L. Palme, CFA, CFP®

Financial Advisor

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I Bonds Revisited

With interest rates remaining at very low levels, there are few options for earning any sort of a return on cash balances.

 Current yields:

Schwab Bank High Yield Savings                    0.40%

1 Year CD National Average                            0.46%

5 Year Treasury Note                                   1.85%

5 Year TIPS Note                                         -0.32% (plus inflation)

10 Year TIPS Note                                        0.70% (plus inflation)

Series I Savings Bonds                                4.60% (for the next 6 months)

One thing to consider for smaller balances is Series I Savings Bonds (“I Bonds”) issued by the U.S. Government.  The new rates came out May 1, and I was surprised to see that I Bonds are currently earning an annual rate of 4.60% for the next 6 months.  Please refer to my earlier blog posting “How to Make a Little More Money on Your Excess Cash (with a Bit of Work on Your Part)” or visit www.treasurydirect.gov for a more detailed description of I Bond features.

The earnings rate for I Bonds is a combination of a fixed rate, which applies for the life of the bond, and an inflation rate that changes semi-annually (think “I” as in “inflation”). The 4.60% earnings rate for I Bonds purchased through October 31, 2011 will apply for their first six months after issuance. I Bonds cannot be redeemed for 12 months after issuance, and there is a penalty of 3 months’ interest if they are redeemed before 5 years.  Purchases are limited to $5,000 per Social Security Number in electronic bonds and $5,000 in paper bonds, so a couple could purchase up to $20,000 annually.

If you act by October 31, you are in effect creating a 1 year CD with a yield of at least 2.30%.  For the next six months, I Bonds will earn interest at an annual rate of 4.60%.  The inflation rate will then reset.  Since the fixed rate is zero for the life of the bond, the earnings rate for the next 6 months will be the inflation rate.  If the semi-annual inflation rate stays the same at 2.30%, the earnings rate for the next 6 months will also be an annual rate of 4.60%.  In this case, you would earn about 3.83% for 1 year after factoring in the penalty for early redemption.  Even if the inflation for the second 6 months is zero, which is unlikely, you would earn a return of 2.30% over the next year versus 0.46% in a bank CD.

What if there is an emergency and you need the money?  Since you cannot redeem the bonds for 12 months, you need to leave some liquid cash on hand.  After 12 months, a penalty of 3 months’ interest is deducted from the redemption value.  But even after paying the penalty you would still be ahead of a bank CD, and considerably ahead if the change in inflation continues at its current level. In addition, I Bond interest is exempt from State income taxes and is tax-deferred until you redeem the bond.  Also, if you buy the bonds on the last day of the month, you still get interest for the full month.

All I Bonds have the same inflation component.  The only difference is in the fixed rate that each bond offers.  If the fixed rate increases significantly in the future, just redeem some bonds and pay the penalty.  Then buy some new bonds with the higher fixed rate (but remember the $10,000 annual limit on purchases for each Social Security Number).  After 5 years, there is no penalty on redemption. 

Another possibility is a short-term, high quality bond fund.  However, these do carry some interest rate risk.  For example, a popular short-term bond fund has a current yield of 1.41% and an effective duration of 1.85 years.  This means that if interest rates were to suddenly move up by 1%, the value of the fund would be expected to fall by about 1.85%.  This would wipe out over a year’s worth of interest, making it a less attractive alternative for cash balances.

Bill Hansen, CFA

May 13, 2011

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An Unexpected Windfall

At the start of every new year people make resolutions to lose weight, alter bad habits, or save more money.  While I cannot help you with some of those issues, I can offer a little advice on saving money.

For 2011, the IRS has reduced the employee-paid portion of the Social Security tax from 6.2 to 4.2 percent.  While that may not seem like a large amount of money on a per-paycheck basis, it can add up to a nice sum for the year.  If you earn the maximum Social Security wage limit of $106,800, 2 percent represents $2,136.

Before you grow accustomed to having a few extra dollars in your paycheck, I recommend you implement a plan now.  Here are a few suggestions:

  • Deposit the funds into your emergency savings account.  Everyone needs an emergency savings account.  Opinions vary about the amount.  Some suggest 3 months’ worth of routine expenses.  Other say 6 to 9 months are needed.  
  • If your emergency savings account is well funded, apply the dollars to debt.  You could apply the extra money toward the smallest debt, if you want to experience the rush of the early payoff.  However, you will be financially better off if you to apply it to the account with the highest interest rate.  Reducing debt levels is always a great idea.
  • Fund a Roth IRA if you qualify.  If not, apply the savings to another retirement vehicle, such as your company’s 401(k) or a traditional IRA account.

I recommend that you use automatic bank drafts for any of the above options.  It is a simple way to transfer the funds from your account before you can spend them.  Parsec can assist you with setting up an automatic transfer into your brokerage accounts.

I hope you have a safe, healthy new year and wish you the best of luck in accomplishing your goals!

Cristy Freeman, AAMS
Senior Operations Associate

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There are No Loans for Retirement

In preparing for a child’s college education, parent’s can plan for the future expense in one of three ways: hope for scholarships, pay for part of it, or pay for all of it.

As I watched my 4 year old daughter play her favorite game over the snowy holiday, I began to consider what her future holds.  I can’t help but chuckle at some of the sayings she comes up with. Some of her other favorite games include tea party and art, though I must admit, it gets a little old when she plays “teacher” and is in charge of the crayons.  After all, one can only find so many uses for a single color. 

While I can’t be sure what she’ll choose as a career, a dentist, teacher, pre-school director, or stay-at-home-mom, my wife and I have started saving for her future through the North Carolina 529 college savings program and that is what brings me to this writing.  College is hopefully in her future, but if not we have the option of changing who the beneficiary is on the account.  We are comforted in the knowledge that if she chooses not to further her education, the funds can be used to pay for another member of the family (including a cousin).  Also, saving with the benefit of a tax deduction is a nice feature.  When considering what savings program to choose, an investor basically has three philosophical options:

  • Do nothing and hope for scholarships
  • Save for part of the expense
  • Save for, or pay for, all of the expense

 We chose to save for part of the expense.  We got a bit of a late start on having a family so our daughter will be entering college right about the same time that we are going to be slowing down for retirement.  We are faced with an interesting dilemma: We can sacrifice our future savings goals so that she can graduate college with little to no debt, or we can allow her to grow and accept responsibility for her own education through loans and work study programs.  Our philosophy for her education is best described as follows: we will save what we think we can afford and if we are in a position to help by paying down or paying off student loans when she graduates, then we will.  But one thing is for sure: there are no loans for retirement.

Neal Nolan, CFP(R)

Financial Advisor

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2010 Roth IRA and Regular IRA Contributions

The deadline to contribute to your Roth or Traditional IRA for the tax year 2010 is April 15, 2011. You can contribute $5,000 or the amount of earned income for the year, whichever is less. If you’re over 50, you can contribute an additional $1,000.

Your income determines if you qualify for a tax-deductible Traditional IRA contribution, or if you qualify to make a Roth IRA contribution.

Do you qualify to deduct your Traditional IRA contribution?
 If your income is less than the beginning of the phase-out range, you qualify.  If your income is over the phase-out range, you do not.  If your income falls inside the range, you partially qualify.
  Modified Adjusted Gross Income                                          Phase-Out Range
Single, participates in an employer-sponsored retirement plan      $56,000 – $66,000
Married, participates in an employer-sponsored retirement plan      $89,000 – $109,000
Married, your spouse participates in an employer-sponsored retirement plan, but you do not.  $167,000 – $177,000
 
Do you qualify to contribute to a Roth IRA?
Single $105,000 – $120,000
Married, filing jointly     $167,000 – $177,000

 

Harli L. Palme, CFP®

Financial Advisor

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