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Retirement Plan Options When You’re Self-Employed

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone and is not intended to be a source of investment advice. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.

Self-employment is a dream for many who crave the flexibility and sense of autonomy being your own boss provides. No more worrying about taking those long lunches or running out of vacation days. On the flipside, it also means you’re on your own when it comes to saving for retirement. There are no company-sponsored plans or matching funds, and no human resources department to consult about your best options — it’s all up to you.

The good news is there are a host of great investment tools to help you plan for your future and build a solid nest egg for retirement, many of which have similar benefits as employer-sponsored plans. Here are six of the most common retirement plans for self-employed individuals.

1. Traditional Individual Retirement Account (IRA)

How it works

There are several types of Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) you can establish if you’re self-employed. First up is a traditional IRA, which allows you to deposit money in an investment account before paying taxes on it. Your funds then grow — tax-deferred — over the years until you reach retirement, at which point you will have to pay taxes on the funds as you withdraw them.

IRAs are more flexible than 401(k)s in that you can withdraw money from them at any time without paying a penalty to cover certain costs, including higher education, buying your first home and medical costs. You will, however, need to pay taxes on the funds in the year in which they’re withdrawn with a traditional IRA. You also can’t leave your funds in an IRA forever. Required minimum distributions begin at age 70 and a half.

Contribution limits

You can invest up to $6,000 in a traditional IRA in 2019 (an increase of $500 in 2018). If you’re over the age of 50, you can contribute an additional $1,000 a year ($6,500 in 2018 and $7,000 in 2019) as “catch-up” contributions. Note: This is the total yearly limit for all Roth and traditional IRA contributions.

Some additional limitations may apply depending on your income and you or your spouse’s participation in other work-sponsored retirement plans.

How it’s taxed

A traditional IRA allows you to invest the maximum amount for growth (as opposed to paying taxes up front, which is the case with a Roth IRA) because the funds aren’t taxed until after they’re withdrawn.

Your contributions may also be fully or partially tax deductible in the year in which you make them, so that may also decrease your taxable income.

Who it’s best for

Typically, traditional IRAs are a good option if you’re currently in a higher tax bracket and expect to be in a lower one when you retire. They’re also an attractive option if you want the ability to access funds before retirement for certain expenses without paying a penalty.

2. Roth IRA

How it works

A Roth IRA works much like a traditional IRA, but there’s one big difference: when you actually pay taxes. With a Roth IRA, you pay taxes on your contributions in the year in which they’re made. Those funds then grow tax-free over the years until you reach retirement. When you’re ready to withdraw them — as long as you’ve reached the age of 59 and a half — they’re yours, tax-free.

IRAs are more flexible than 401(k)s in that you can withdraw money from them at any time without penalty to cover certain costs, including higher education, buying a home and paying for medical costs. There are no required minimum distributions.

Contribution limits

You can invest up to $6,000 in a Roth IRA in 2019 (an increase of $500 from 2018). If you’re over age 50, you can contribute an additional $1,000 a year ($6,500 in 2018 and $7,000 in 2019). Note: This is the total yearly limit for Roth and traditional IRAs combined.

How it’s taxed

Contributions to a Roth IRA aren’t tax-deductible, so you don’t get a tax break in the year they’re made. However, because you pay taxes up front, those funds are not counted as taxable income when you retire.

Who it’s best for

In general, Roth IRAs are a good option if you’re currently in a lower tax bracket and expect to be in a higher one when you retire. They’re also good if you want the ability to access your funds before retirement for certain expenses without paying a penalty or paying taxes on the funds when needs arise.

3. Solo-401(k)

How it works

A solo-401(k), also referred to as a one-participant 401(k) plan, works much like a traditional, employer-sponsored 401(k); however, it’s designed for individual business owners or the owner and their spouse. It allows you to invest funds in a retirement savings account that then grows tax-deferred — traditional solo-401(k) or tax-free (Roth solo-401(k) — over the years until you withdraw them at retirement.

Penalties apply for early withdrawal if the account is less than five years old and you haven’t reached the age of 59 and a half. However, you may be able to take out a loan from your 401(k).

Contribution limits

Like a traditional 401(k), you can contribute up to $19,000 in 2019 ($18,500 in 2018). If you’re over the age of 50, the limit increases to $25,000 in 2019 ($24,500 in 2018).

One notable upside to this plan is you’re allowed to contribute additional funds because you act as both the employer and employee when you’re self-employed. Total contributions can’t exceed $56,000 for 2019 ($55,000 for 2018), unless you’re over the age of 50, when there are allowances for “catch-up” contributions.

How it’s taxed

Like IRAs, you can choose either a Roth or a traditional solo-401(k). With a traditional solo-401(k), taxes are deferred on the money you contribute to your account until you withdraw funds in retirement.

If you choose to designate some of your funds as Roth contributions, however, you will pay taxes on them up front, with tax-free withdrawals in retirement. Contributions to a traditional solo-401(k) aren’t counted as taxable income in the year they are made, while Roth solo-401(k) contributions are.

Who it’s best for

A solo-401(k) is a good option if your income surpasses the IRA limits and you want to invest more for your future.

4. Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees (SIMPLE) IRA

How it works

Traditional and Roth IRAs are funded entirely by employee contributions, whereas SIMPLE IRAs allow contributions from both the employer and employee, which means you’re playing both roles if you’re self-employed.

Like with other IRAs, there are penalties for early withdrawal (before the age of 59 and a half), and there are exceptions for many expenses, including education, health care costs and buying a first home. If you withdraw funds before your plan is two years old, however, that withdrawal is subject to a hefty 25 percent tax penalty.

Contribution limits

You can contribute up to $13,000 in 2019 (an increase of $500 from 2018) to a SIMPLE IRA, but not more than the amount you earn. Additional “catch-up” contributions up to $3,000 can be made if you’re 50 or older.

As the employer, you can also contribute dollar-for-dollar matching funds up to 3 percent of your net earnings or make an additional non-elective contribution equal to 2 percent of your income, up to $280,000 in 2019 (an increase of $5,000 from 2018).

How it’s taxed

Contributions to a SIMPLE IRA aren’t taxed in the year in which they are made, but they are taxed when they’re withdrawn in retirement. Contributions are also tax deductible by the employer in the year in which they are made.

Who it’s best for

A SIMPLE IRA is a good option if you want to contribute funds in excess of the limits of traditional and Roth IRAs. They’re also worth considering if you have 100 employees or less, as they’re easy to set up and don’t come with the same startup and operating costs that other plans may have.

5. Simplified Employee Pension (SEP) IRA

How it works

Like other IRAs, a SEP IRA allows you (as the employer) to invest funds, tax-deferred, until you need them in retirement. There are penalties for early withdrawal (before the age of age 59 and a half) and there are minimum distribution requirements.

There are two primary differences that set the SEP IRA apart from others:
1. A SEP IRA has higher contribution limits than traditional and Roth IRAs, and;
2. If you have employees who meet certain qualifications, you must make contributions to their SEP IRA in equal amounts for all employees. Contributions are only made by the employer (which is you) if you’re self-employed.

Contribution limits

You can contribute up to 25 percent of your net earnings to a SEP IRA, up to a certain limit. In 2019, the limit is $56,000, an increase of $1,000 from the prior year (2018). There’s no extra allowance for catch-up contributions as there is with other retirement accounts.

How it’s taxed

Contributions to a SEP IRA are tax deductible, as funds are taxed when they’re withdrawn in retirement. There’s no Roth option to pay taxes up front, as the contributions are made by the employer.

Who it’s best for

A SEP IRA is a good option if you’re self-employed and want to save a large amount of money for retirement. It’s also a good option if you have 100 employees or less and want to establish a retirement plan without the associated costs of other plans.

6. Defined benefits plan

How it works

Like an employer-sponsored pension, an individual defined benefits plan lets you put away a certain amount of money for a guaranteed return in retirement. The amounts are based on a formula that takes into account the number of years you’ve worked and how much you earn. You must enlist the help of an actuary to help determine your contribution and benefits.

Contribution limits

The amount you may contribute is based on a formula and will vary from person to person. Generally, however, the annual benefit can’t be more than the highest salary they were paid for three years in a row, or surpass the annual limit of $225,000 in 2019 (a $5,000 increase from 2018).

How it’s taxed

Taxes are deferred up front and paid on the funds when they’re withdrawn during retirement. The contributions are tax deductible in the year in which they are made.

Who it’s best for

A defined benefits plan may be a good option if you’re a high earner and want to save aggressively for retirement.

How to open a self-employed retirement plan

To open any of these retirement plans, there are numerous online brokerages that can help, or if you prefer a more personal approach, you can seek out a financial advisor in your area. Banks can also help you establish some of these accounts as well. It may also be wise to work with an accountant to make sure you file the proper forms and pay the correct amount of taxes.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

Julie Ryan Evans
Julie Ryan Evans |

Julie Ryan Evans is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Julie here

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Review of LPL Financial

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone and is not intended to be a source of investment advice. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.

LPL Financial is the largest independent broker-dealer in the United States based on gross revenue. Dually registered as an investment advisor, the firm supports a network of over 16,000 affiliated advisors who operate their own businesses. LPL Financial is based in Boston, and it also has offices in San Diego and Fort Mill, S.C. The network of advisors it supports are located throughout the country. The firm’s advisors oversee nearly $159.1 billion in assets under management (AUM).

All information included in this profile is accurate as of January 23rd, 2020. For more information, please consult LPL Financial’s website.

Assets under management: $159,099,423,965
Minimum investment: Varies by service and portfolio type
Fee structure: Percentage of AUM, hourly fees, fixed fees and commissions
Headquarters: 75 State Street
22nd Floor
Boston, MA 02109

Overview of LPL Financial

LPL Financial was founded in 1989 after the merger of two smaller brokerage firms, Linsco and Private Ledger. With 16,109 advisors and 17,205 licensed insurance agents on its staff, LPL has $159.1 billion in assets under management LPL Financial is owned by LPL Financial Holdings, a publicly traded firm.

Advisors often choose to affiliate with LPL to tap into the firm’s technology, investment research and business building support, for which the firm earns a fee. LPL advisors maintain their own relationships with clients and negotiate their own fees and service offerings independently. LPL does not sell any of its own proprietary financial products, so advisors are free to recommend whichever investments and financial products they believe are in their clients’ best interests.

What types of clients does LPL Financial serve?

LPL Financial’s advisors serve mostly individual investors. In addition, the firm serves:

  • High net worth individuals
  • Trusts and estates
  • 401(k) plans
  • Individual retirement accounts
  • Pensions and profit-sharing plans
  • Charitable organizations
  • State and municipal entities
  • Corporations

The minimum amount of assets required to work with an LPL advisor varies depending on the service you receive. LPL does not have a minimum asset requirement for its financial planning, consulting or research services. For customized investment advisory plans, the investment minimum is up to the discretion of the advisor and is detailed in the client agreement.

Clients who opt to use one of the firm’s portfolio programs will be subject to minimum requirements that vary by program. Minimums start as low as $5,000 for Guided Wealth Portfolios and go up to $250,000 for Personal Wealth Portfolios (see more details on these options below).

Services offered by LPL Financial

LPL’s financial advisors offer the full gamut of financial planning and advisory services, such as budgeting, financial projections and selling insurance, though not all advisors offer every type of service. Among the services LPL advisors may offer are:

  • Investment advisory services and portfolio management
  • Wrap programs
  • Financial planning
  • Insurance
  • Retirement plan and pension consulting
  • Selection of other advisors
  • Workshops and seminars
  • Brokerage services

In addition to the services that LPL advisors provide directly to clients, when advisors affiliate with LPL, they get access to a range of services to help them build and manage their businesses. This includes business building ideas, compliance and technology support, investment research and the execution of trades.

How LPL Financial invests your money

Because LPL’s advisors work independently, investment approaches and strategies vary from advisor to advisor and client to client. Advisors can offer customized investment advisory services, and LPL also provides advisors with programs for investing client funds.

One option offered by LPL is the Strategic Asset Management program, which allows a high level of customization so clients can choose to exclude certain investments or emphasize others. The program offers access to a full range of investment options, including mutual funds, exchange-traded funds, equities, fixed income and alternative investments, such as non-traded real estate investment trusts and non-traditional exchange-traded funds.

Advisors who want to take a more hands-on approach with their high net worth clients can use a separately managed account wrap program from LPL called Manager Select. With this program, LPL reviews and recommends outside institutional portfolio management firms for inclusion.

For advisors who don’t want to create customized portfolios, there is also the option to invest clients’ money in one of LPL’s model portfolios. These portfolios — which include Personal Wealth Portfolios, Model Wealth Portfolios, Optimum Market Portfolios and Guided Wealth Portfolios — are professional asset allocation strategies that are created, managed and monitored by LPL. Mutual funds and ETFs make up the investments within these portfolios, but the exact mix will depend on a client’s responses to an online questionnaire about their financial goals, investment horizon and risk tolerance.

Portfolio Name Investment Strategy
Strategic Asset Management
($25,000 minimum)
Open architecture program that allows advisors to invest client assets in mutual funds, ETFs, individual equities, variable annuities and other investments.
Manager Select
($50,000 minimum)
Separately managed wrap program for high net worth clients that uses LPL-researched and monitored institutional portfolio managers.
Personal Wealth Portfolios
($250,000 minimum)
Asset allocation investment program that combines mutual funds, ETFs and investment models for high net worth investors.
Model Wealth Portfolios
($10,000 minimum)
Program that uses strategic asset allocations to take advantage of market opportunities that will persist for the next 3 or 5 years; designed for more aggressive investors.
Optimum Market Portfolios
($10,000 minimum)
Suite of model portfolios that invests in up to six mutual funds from the Optimum Funds family.
Guided Wealth Portfolios
($5,000 minimum)
Digital investment platform for low-balance investors.

Fees LPL Financial charges for its services

It’s up to LPL advisors to determine how to charge for their services. Advisors use several fee models, including a percentage of assets under management, hourly fees, fixed fees and commissions. Fees are negotiated between clients and their advisors and detailed in the client agreement. All fees are paid directly to LPL, and LPL then shares a portion with the independent advisor representative.

That said, the firm typically charges for financial planning consulting services on an hourly or per plan basis, which is a flat rate. The maximum hourly fee that LPL advisors will charge is typically $400 per hour, while the maximum flat fee is typically $15,000.

For customized advisory services, LPL typically charges based on a percentage of assets under management. A client’s rate will be set out in their agreement with the firm. LPL states in its Form ADV that the maximum rate it generally charges is 1.50%.

For clients who opt to participate in one of the programs offered by LPL that’s laid out above, they will also pay a fee based on a percentage of assets under management. The maximum account fee is generally 2.50%.

Along with the account fees, clients may pay other miscellaneous administrative or custodial-related fees and charges. Clients are notified of these fees when they open an account, and LPL provides clients with a list of fees on its website.

LPL Financial’s highlights

  • Awards and recognition: LPL advisors consistently appear on top advisor lists. In 2019, for example, 65 LPL advisors ranked among the best advisors in their states in Forbes’ list of Best-in-State Wealth Advisors. Deborah Danielson, an advisor based in Las Vegas, ranked No. 3 in her home state on Barron’s list of 1,200 Top Financial Advisors in 2019.
  • Advisors for all types of clients: Because LPL has a vast network of advisors across the U.S., clients are likely to find an advisor whose specialty matches their needs. In addition to one-on-one advice with advisors, clients can also tap into technology-assisted portfolio management platforms similar to what they might find at a robo-advisor.
  • Inclusive workplace: Human Rights Campaign gave LPL a 100% score in its Corporate Equality Index as one of the “Best Places to Work for LGBT Equality.”

LPL Financial’s downsides

  • Advisor defections: Over the last few years, several big RIA firms have left LPL, citing the firm’s lack of service to their advisor groups. These groups included Retirement Benefits Group, which managed $10 billion, and Resources Investment Advisors, which oversaw $5 billion.
  • Potential conflicts of interest: Some LPL advisors are dually registered, meaning that they are able to charge fees for financial advice as well as for products they recommend, such as 12b-1 fees, paid to cover distribution costs for mutual funds. This could incentivize advisors to sell certain products. One way that LPL has attempted to mitigate these potential conflicts is to credit back certain fees to client accounts, thus eliminating the financial incentive.
  • Numerous disclosures: Over the years, LPL has been fined on several occasions for failing to supervise its brokers carefully, leading to sales of inappropriate and complex investment products.

LPL Financial disciplinary disclosures

LPL has had a long history of disciplinary disclosures, many of which are centered around the firm’s failure to properly supervise its brokerage practices. The firm has been ordered to pay fines and restitution as a result.

Among the most serious instances of wrongdoing, LPL was fined $26 million in 2018 for failing to establish and maintain reasonable policies and procedures to prevent the sale of unregistered, non-exempt securities to its customers.

In 2015, the firm was fined $11.7 million for “broad supervisory failures” in a few key areas, such as non-traditional ETFs, variable annuities, non-traded real estate investment trusts and other complex investment products. The firm was ordered to pay an additional nearly $1.7 million in restitution directly to clients who had bought non-traditional ETFs.

LPL Financial’s onboarding process

Advisors have their own onboarding process when they sign on new clients. LPL has recently streamlined its sign up process by reducing the number of fields clients must fill in and introducing a progress bar.

If you are interested in working with an LPL advisor, you can find one near you by searching on the firm’s website. You can either search for a specific advisor by name or take a look at the advisors in your area.

Is LPL Financial right for you?

With LPL’s vast network of affiliated advisors, potential clients should be able to find an advisor who can address their needs. However, LPL’s size does bring downsides — indeed, the firm has faced numerous disciplinary actions in recent years. Further, some of LPL’s advisors are dually registered as brokers and receive commissions for sales, which could create potential conflicts of interest. Some investors may prefer a smaller, more intimate advisory practice with fewer potential conflicts of interest and a more personalized feel.

Before choosing a financial advisor, it’s always important to do your research and compare several options to ensure your advisor is the right fit for you.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

Ilana Polyak
Ilana Polyak |

Ilana Polyak is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Ilana here

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Everything You Need to Know About Bonds

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone and is not intended to be a source of investment advice. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.

When it comes to investment news, stocks tend to dominate the headlines. Yet, bonds are just as important for investors looking to create a diversified investment portfolio. Since bonds aren’t covered as much in the news, and can be harder to understand, they can be intimidating to invest in for the first time. This guide aims to explain what you need to know about bonds as a personal investor.

What are bonds?

Government entities, public corporations and private companies issue bonds to raise money. A bond works like a loan: When an investor buys a bond, they agree to give a set amount of money to the bond issuer for a fixed amount of time. During this time period, the bond issuer pays the investor a set rate of interest, either at regular intervals or in a single installment. At the end of the bond term, the organization pays the investor back the original sum of money they lent out.

For example, you buy a $1,000 10-year bond from Google with a 5% interest rate. Every year, you will receive $50 in interest ($1,000 x 5%). At the end of 10 years, Google will give you the $1,000 back.

What’s the difference between bonds and stocks?

Companies can raise money by issuing both stocks and bonds. When you buy stock, you become a part owner of the company and get to share in their profits. When you buy a bond, you are a lender. The company agrees to pay you interest in good times and bad — it’s not based on their profits.

Stocks are riskier because your return is not guaranteed. If the company doesn’t earn a profit, you won’t receive money and your investment could lose money. With bonds, you receive the interest payments each year, plus your money back at the end of the term (unless the company runs into financial trouble). However, stocks historically have a higher long-run return than bonds. It’s a tradeoff between risk and return.

What are bond credit ratings?

Besides the interest rate, another key factor for bonds is their credit ratings. While the bond issuer promises to pay interest and your money back at the end of the term, if they run into financial trouble, they might not be able to make all the interest payments. Even worse if they go bankrupt, you might lose part or even all of your initial deposit.

That’s why as part of your research, you should check the credit rating of any organization issuing a bond. Independent agencies — Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s and Fitch are the most prominent ones— review the finances of different organizations and give them a letter score based on what they see.

If a government or company is in strong shape financially and very likely to pay the money back, they will have a high rating like AAA. Riskier bonds will have a lower rating to show they are more likely to miss payments. Bonds with a rating below BBB- on the Standard & Poor’s system lower are called junk bonds because of their extra financial risk.

Typically, a bond with a worse credit rating pays a higher interest rate — otherwise, investors wouldn’t buy them. On the other hand, safe bonds can get away with paying a lower interest rate.

How do bonds compare against CDs?

There are certain similarities between bonds and certificates of deposit (CDs). They are both I.O.U.s from an issuer, which promises to pay you interest plus your original deposit. Still, there are also some important differences between bonds and CDs.

First and foremost, CDs issued by banks are insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). If the issuing bank goes out of business, the FDIC will in most circumstances return your money, up to the legal limit per account. Bonds do not have this protection, so if the issuer goes bankrupt, you could lose your money.

Another difference is that you can sell bonds to other investors for a profit or loss after buying them. With bank CDs, you can take your money out early in exchange for paying a penalty fee, but generally you can’t sell the CD to another investor (unless you buy brokered CDs).

According to Steven W. Kaye, CFP and managing director of Wealth Enhancement Group, CDs are much simpler, as they only have two components, “interest rate and the term of the investment,” adding that they are “two dimensional” and “completely predictable as long as you stay within the FDIC limits.” However, he pointed out that bonds typically have better returns.

What are the different types of bonds?

The bond issuer is the main differentiator among the types of bonds: is it a company, the federal government, a state? Some of the more common bond types include:

  • Corporate bonds: Corporate bonds come from private companies like Google, Ford or Exxon. Companies in good financial condition will have a higher credit rating, whereas struggling companies will have a low credit rating.
  • Treasury bonds: Bonds from the U.S. federal government are called treasuries. They have different names based on their terms: treasury Bills have a term of one year or less, treasury notes last between two and 10 years, and treasury bonds have a term of 30 years. These are some of the safest investments in the world because they are backed by the U.S. government. You can also buy bonds issued by other national governments.
  • Savings bonds: Savings bonds are also issued by the federal government, and they pay a set interest rate on your investment. You can buy these bonds for as little as $25, much lower than other categories. Another difference is that you cannot sell a savings bond to another investor. Instead, you can redeem them early with the U.S. Treasury, in exchange for forfeiting some of your interest.
  • Municipal bonds: When state and local governments raise money, they sell municipal bonds. These can be safe, but you’ll need to check the rating, as not every state or town is in good financial shape. To help state and local governments raise money, the IRS gives municipal bonds a tax advantage: You do not need to pay federal income tax on the interest from most municipal bonds. They also may be free of state and local taxes, depending on where you live.
  • Zero-coupon bonds: While most bonds pay interest, you could also find zero-coupon bonds that do not. Instead, you buy these bonds at a lower price initially and then get more money back at the end. For example, you pay $800 and get $1,000 back in five years. That larger lump sum payment at the end can be nice, but the downside is these bonds don’t pay out interest income each year.

How do you buy bonds?

One way to buy bonds is through an investment brokerage account like Fidelity or E-Trade. If you have a retirement account like a 401(k), you could also use money in that account to buy bonds.

One way to buy bonds is directly from an organization when they release them for the first time, known as a primary issue. You can also buy and sell bonds on the secondary market from other investors. For example, you buy a 3-year old Google bond that still has seven years left of payments from an investor. This can give you more options as companies aren’t issuing new bonds every day.

Finally, there are bond mutual funds and exchange traded funds (ETFs). These are professionally managed funds that build a portfolio of many different bonds for a large group of investors. By buying into the fund, you get a small piece of the entire portfolio.

Kristi Sullivan, a CFP from Denver, thinks that funds are the best option for beginner investors because they help you get more exposure with a smaller investment.

“There are different areas of the bond market (investment grade, high yield, foreign, and various maturities) and many bond funds specialize in these sub-asset classes,” said Sullivan. “You can also buy individual bonds, but they sell for about $1,000 per bond so it takes more money to create a diversified bond portfolio that way.”

What sets the price of bonds?

When organizations issue bonds, they typically set the price for each one at $1,000. However, after the initial issue you can buy and sell bonds on the open market and the price can change.

One major factor is market interest rates. When interest rates go up, the prices of old bonds go down. If you have an old bond paying 4% but now people can go out and buy a brand-new one for 5%, you need to give them a price discount for them to accept the lower interest payments. This is called selling at a discount.

On the other hand, if interest rates go down, the price of old bonds go up. You could sell your original $1,000 bond for more than that, like $1,100. This is called selling your bond at a premium. To get an approximate value of how much your bond is worth based on its interest rate versus market rates, you can use an online calculator like this one.

Investors buy and sell bonds to each other through financial markets so the actual price you’ll receive depends on what someone else is willing to pay for your bond.

Another factor is the underlying finances of the bond issuer. If the bond issuer runs into financial trouble after you sign up, investors are going to be reluctant to buy that old bond so the price will fall to make up for the extra risk.

Are bonds a safe investment?

Bonds are a moderately safe investment, especially compared to stocks. While there is a chance you might not get your money when an issuer runs into financial trouble, if you buy higher-grade bonds you are relatively secure against facing losses. In other words, you should receive the interest plus your money back. However, as Kaye pointed out, there are other types of risk as well.

“CDs and high-quality bonds are safe in terms of default risk but have inflation risk,” he said. Recently for these kinds of investments, “rates have been so low that after you subtract income taxes and inflation, you could actually have a negative return.” Stocks, on the other hand, with their higher potential return, “provide inflation protection.” This is why a diversified portfolio has a mix of different assets, so you get all their advantages.

What are strategies for investing in bonds?

We asked financial advisors whether they had any tips for investing in bonds; here are a few they thought worth considering.

  • Stick with high-quality bonds. Kaye believes that beginners should stick with high-quality bonds, those with a high credit rating. That way you can feel confident that your interest income will come in each year and that you won’t lose your initial investment. While the higher interest rates on junk bonds may be tempting, they are more likely to lose money.
  • Avoid micromanaging: With so much research and daily news out there, beginner investors can overreact to market changes. “I am a buy-hold-annual-rebalance advisor, so I’d say don’t micromanage your bond investments,” said Sullivan. So after buying a bond, wait a year before making any buy/sell decisions.
  • Consider bond funds for lower budgets: “For those who do not have enough money to buy individual bonds, there are investments like BulletShares, which is a basket of bonds with specific maturity dates for smaller investors,” suggests Kaye.
  • Keep in mind tax breaks from municipal bonds. Marguerita Cheng, CFP and CEO of Blue Ocean Global Wealth, sometimes sees people misusing the tax breaks on municipal bonds. “It doesn’t make sense to have municipal or tax-free bonds in tax-deferred accounts, such as IRAs. The benefit to investing in municipal bonds is that they are exempt from federal & state taxes.” Since municipal bonds are already tax-free, you should keep them in a regular brokerage account while saving your retirement plan tax breaks for taxable bonds.She also says you should watch out for your state’s rules for bond taxes. “In states like Virginia, Virginia residents can purchase Virginia municipal bonds and not be subject to state or local income tax. While they can purchase bonds from another state, those would not be exempt from Virginia taxes.”
  • Consider a bond ladder. One risk with bond investments is that interest rates will change after you sign up. To get around this, you could set up a bond ladder, where you buy bonds with different maturities. For example, rather than putting all your money in 5-year bonds, you divide it up between 1-year, 3-year and 5-year bonds.If interest rates go up after you buy, you’ll be able to renew the 1-year bonds soon at a better rate. If interest rates go down after you sign up, you’ll still keep the higher rates on your longer-term bonds. By getting a mix of short and long-term bonds, you cover yourself in both scenarios.

How can someone get help investing in bonds?

If you still need some help figuring out how to trade bonds, there are ways you can prepare. First, you can see whether the broker selling the bonds can give you advice. FINRA, an investment regulatory agency, recommends that you look for a broker that specializes in bond trading so you can get this support.

Another option is to buy bond funds and ETFs. The fund prospectus will list the types of investments and fees so you can find one that’s appropriate for your situation. For more hands-on support, you could hire a financial advisor, who could recommend a suitable bond portfolio for your goals and even personally manage it for you. You would need to pay for this advice, either as an hourly fee or as a percentage of your portfolio every year.

Whichever system you use, you will be adding a valuable asset class to your portfolio that balances out your stocks. With a little research and the information in this guide, you can feel more confident about your bond investing decisions.

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David Rodeck
David Rodeck |

David Rodeck is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email David here