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News, Retirement

Here’s How to Find Out How Much Social Security Income You’ll Receive

Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities prior to publication.

At what age will you retire? How much can you expect to receive each month when you do? These are important questions even if you are decades away from retirement, and there’s an easy way to get answers anytime. We’re going to show you how to get your Social Security benefits statement online and what to do with it once you’ve got it.

A little background:

Depending on your age, you may remember getting a printed Social Security benefits statement in the mail. Prior to 2011, the Social Security Administration (SSA) mailed statements to all workers every year. Those annual mailings were discontinued in 2011 as a cost-saving measure. The following year, the SSA made the statements available online, but their decision caused a bit of an uproar. Despite the agency’s outreach campaign, far fewer people registered for an account than there were eligible workers. So in 2014, Congress required the agency to resume sending printed statements every five years to workers age 25 and older who hadn’t registered for an online account.

That schedule remained until earlier this year when the agency announced that due to budget restraints, paper benefit statements will only be mailed to people who are 60 or older, have not established an online account, and are not yet receiving Social Security benefits. Simply put, don’t expect to get a printed statement anytime soon.

How to get your Social Security benefits statement

Accessing your Social Security benefits statement online is pretty simple, as long as you have an email address and can provide some basic identifying information.

First, go to ssa.gov/myaccount and click on “Sign In or Create an Account.”

If you’ve never created an online account with the SSA, you’ll click on “Create an Account.” If you’ve set up an account before, you won’t be able to create a new account using the same Social Security number. If you’ve forgotten your username or password, the SSA website offers tools to help recover them.

When you select “Create an Account,” the site will lead you through a few questions to verify your identity. You’ll need to provide personal information that matches the information on file with the SSA as well as some information matching your credit report.

Ryder Taff, a Certified Financial Adviser with New Perspectives, Inc. of Ridgeland, Miss., helps many of his clients set up Social Security accounts and says the questions often have to do with past residences or vehicles that may have been registered in your name.

If you have trouble setting up your account online, you can call the SSA for help at 1-800-772-1213.

Information in a Social Security benefits statement

Your Social Security benefits statement provides several valuable pieces of information:

  • A record of your earnings, by year, since you began having Social Security and Medicare taxes withheld.
  • Estimated retirement benefits if you begin claiming Social Security at age 62, full retirement age, or age 70.
  • Estimated disability benefits if you became disabled right now.
  • Estimated survivor benefits that your spouse or child would receive if you were to die this year.

Here’s a sample of what your benefits statement will look like:

Keep in mind that the estimated benefits shown are just that — estimates. The amounts shown are calculated based on average earnings over your lifetime and assume you’ll continue earning your most recent annual wages until you start receiving benefits. They are also calculated in today’s dollars without any adjustment for inflation. The amount you receive could also be impacted by any changes enacted by Congress from now until the time you retire.

What to do with your Social Security benefit statement

It’s a good idea to check your earnings record for errors once per year. It’s not uncommon for earnings from certain employers or even all of your earnings from an entire year to be missing, and you’ll want to get that corrected right away because benefits are calculated on your highest 35 years of earnings. “Any missing years will be just as damaging as a zero on a test was to your GPA,” Taff says. “Gather your documents and correct ANY missing years, even if they aren’t the highest salary. Every dollar counts!”

If you do spot any errors, grab your W-2 or tax return for the year in question and call the SSA at 1-800-772-1213. You can also report errors by writing to the SSA at:

Social Security Agency
Office of Earnings Operations
P.O. Box 33026
Baltimore, MD 21290-3026

Reading your statement is also a good reminder of how much you need to save for retirement outside of Social Security. Chances are, you won’t be happy living on just your Social Security income in retirement.

The good news is, the longer you delay taking your benefit, the higher your annual benefit will be. You can begin taking Social Security retirement benefits at age 62, but your payments will be smaller than they would be if you waited until full retirement age (FRA). Currently, your annual benefit increases by 8% for each year you delay taking your benefit from FRA until age 70.

Colin Exelby, president and founder of Celestial Wealth Management in Towson, Md., says that using your Social Security benefits statement can be particularly useful for retirement planning for couples. “Depending on your age, health, family health history, and financial situation there are a number of different ways to claim your benefits,” he says. “Each individual situation is different, and many couples have different views on the decision.”

If you are nearing retirement, you can use your benefits statement to work with a financial adviser to help you maximize total benefits, or run through various scenarios using a free online tool like the one provided by AARP.

Setting up your Social Security account is simple, free, and helpful for retirement planning, but it’s also a good security measure. It’s impossible to set up more than one account per Social Security number, so registering your account is a good way to prevent identity thieves from establishing an account on your behalf.

Take the time to set up your Social Security account and find out how much you might be entitled to receive in benefits. It could help you feel more empowered to take charge of your retirement plan.

Advertiser Disclosure: The card offers that appear on this site are 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 card companies or all card offers available in the marketplace.

Janet Berry-Johnson
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Janet Berry-Johnson is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Janet here

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Retirement

I Am a Foreign National — What Should I Do With My 401(k)?

Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities prior to publication.

Thanasis Konstantinidis didn’t know what a 401(k) was when he got his first job in the United States almost four years ago. He just thought the term sounded a bit strange.

The 34-year-old software engineer from Greece eventually learned the basics of the classic American retirement investment account. But it didn’t exactly seem like the wisest move. He was granted a temporary work visa for three years. If at the end of three years he wasn’t granted permanent residency in his host country, there was a chance he would have to leave the country all together.

“My future was very uncertain at the time, and I wasn’t sure if I’d stay in the U.S.,” Konstantinidis told MagnifyMoney.

In 2016, there were 27 million foreign-born workers in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. These workers made up nearly 17 percent of the American labor force that year, up from 13.3 percent in 2000.

Many non-native workers in the U.S. are young professionals hired by firms seeking workers with highly valued skills. In 2016, more than 870,000 foreign nationals were granted the most common temporary work visas. The U.S. has also seen a dramatic increase in the number of international students at colleges and universities in the past decade. After graduation, these students are often eligible for visas that allow them to pursue jobs in the U.S.

It is tricky enough for the average millennial to think about the future. The temporary immigration status of foreign nationals and the fact they may travel between countries in the future add additional layers of complication when it comes to retirement planning. How can they make long-term financial plans when they aren’t sure if they’ll be able to continue working in the U.S.?

In this article, we answered typical questions foreign nationals may have about 401(k)s as they pursue careers in the U.S.

Should foreign nationals contribute to a 401(k)?

The answer here may seem intuitive to those who, like Konstantinidis, think they will only stay in the U.S. for a few years. Tying up their funds in a 401(k) in a country they may be leaving soon might seem unwise. And by choosing not to participate in a 401(k) plan, they may have more cash available for their immediate needs.

In truth, there are pros and cons depending on a few factors, so you have to ask yourself a few questions first:

Do you view this 401(k) as part of a long-term investment plan or only as a short-term savings account?

When you are young and start saving early, you have a huge advantage on your side — time.

“Most of those folks who are here on a temporary visa tend to be young,” said Chris Chen, a Waltham, Mass.-based wealth strategist at Insight Financial Strategists. “They happen to be able to take the advantage of the power of compounding. That is truly a gift that you can’t get when you are older.”

It’s also an opportunity to invest in the U.S. market, which is among the strongest economies in the world and has a relatively mature and stable market with lower fund fees than many other countries.

Are you a high earner, which would increase the tax benefit of opening a 401(k)?

Another immediate and major benefit that you would lose is the tax advantage. Especially for those high-income earners, you are saving money by not paying taxes now, and when you withdraw the money at retirement, you will pay fewer taxes because ideally, you will be in a lower income bracket.

Is there an incentive to contribute to your 401(k), like a company match?

If your employer offers a match, you would be walking away from additional income if you fail to contribute. Many U.S. employers offer to match up to a certain percentage of employee 401(k) contributions.

For example, an employer may offer to match up to 3 percent of the employee’s contribution.

Let’s say you make $60,000 a year and contribute 6 percent (or $3,600) into a 401(k) for the year. Your company would match up to three percent (or $1,800) of that contribution. This means you would only contribute $3,600 to your 401(k) but end up with $5,400 thanks to the match.

“They would be leaving money on the table by giving up on the match,” said Chris Chen.

How certain are you about returning to your home country in the near future?

It may not feel like your odds of needing a U.S.-based retirement fund are certain, especially if your circumstances are anything like those of Konstantinidis.

However, Chris Chen argues that an international worker’s future isn’t all that uncertain. In fact, if anything is certain at all, it’s the fact that they will likely retire at some point.

“Whether it is India or China or Europe, when you go back to your country, you are going to have to use the tools available there for retirement,” he said. “And in the meantime, you will still have an extra little [retirement fund] out there in the U.S.”

If you were to leave the U.S., you have several options on managing your U.S.-based savings, some of which will require some administrative hassle. We’ll cover these options later.

Furthermore, your plans may change. You might have planned to stay in the U.S. for just two years, but you may end up staying longer. In that case, it could be wise to start saving for retirement early.

Can your 401(k) help with non-retirement goals?

Hui-chin Chen, a financial planner with Arlington, Va.-based Pavlov Financial Planning, who works with foreign nationals in their 20s to 40s, told MagnifyMoney some have other plans for their 401(k) than just retirement.

Many of her clients stayed in the U.S. for jobs after completing their college or graduate studies here. Although some eventually left the country, they still wanted their children to have the same study abroad experience. So they considered their 401(k) an education fund.

“They think, ‘Okay, I can leave some money in the U.S. I don’t care about taking it with me,” Chen explained. “‘And if I leave the money in the U.S., I might as well get some tax benefits. I can wait until I am older and I can take that money out to pay for their college.’”

Just keep in mind that if you try to tap your 401(k) for funds before you turn 59 1/2, you will likely face early withdrawal penalties and could be hit with income taxes.

The disadvantages of contributing to a 401(k)

While financial planners encourage foreign nationals to invest in their 401(k) in general, they would advise against the idea in some cases.

For those who are certain that they are just staying in the U.S. for a very short time, are in a relatively low tax bracket, and don’t see 401(k) as a long-term savings plan, experts suggest they open a taxable account — like a brokerage or savings account — or send money back home if they have better investment choices over there.

But do take note that you are a considered a U.S. resident from the tax perspective as long as you live in this country. This means if you invest outside the U.S., your income from those investments are still subject to U.S. taxes.

The tax benefits could justify the administrative hassle for those who have worked in the U.S. for a long time and have a big 401(k) balance. That’s because they are able to save a potentially significant sum of money without paying taxes upfront. And when they withdraw those funds later, they will likely be at a lower tax bracket and, hence, enjoy big tax savings.

For international workers whose stay in the U.S. is shorter, however, that tax benefit doesn’t necessarily pack the same punch, especially if their account has a smaller balance.

“It’s OK if [your 401(k) is worth] $200,000. If it’s $18,000, the benefit is offset,” said Andrew Fisher, president of Worldview Wealth Advisors, a financial advisory firm that specializes in working with cross-border individuals with U.S. connections.

How much should I invest and where do I invest?

If you’ve decided to open a 401(k) with a U.S. company, the next challenge is figuring out how much to save and where to save it.

The answer to the first question — how much to save — is simple if your company offers a match.

Sirui Hua, 26, a producer with a New York-based digital media company, told MagnifyMoney that he saves 4 percent of his income in his 401(k). His employer offered to match up to 4 percent of his income and he didn’t want to give that up.

“If I don’t save the money now, I’d have nothing when I go back,” Hua said. “At least I would have a little something one day I go home.”

Hua, originally from China, was recently approved for his work visa by his employer, which allows him to continue working in the U.S. for up to six years. Knowing that he has a full six years of stable work ahead of him, he is planning to increase his 401(k) contribution. He’s still not sure if he’ll use it as a retirement account if he returns home to China, but he would rather take the opportunity while he has it.

At least contribute enough to capture the full match. From there, consider increasing your contribution based on your other financial goals.

Depending on your personal goals and future plans, contribute more if you are able to. Just remember the legal contribution limit for 401(k)s is $18,500 in 2018.

It may also make sense to save cash in a standard savings account so that you can access money in an emergency. Remember, early 401(k) withdrawals come with potential tax penalties.

What do I do with my 401(k) if I leave the country?

This is the question that has deterred many foreign workers from investing in their 401(k) accounts.

There are basically two solutions: You can either leave it in the U.S. or take the money out and deal with the tax and early withdrawal penalties — and the potential hassle of getting a U.S.-based bank to transfer funds to an international account.

Leaving your 401(k) in the U.S.

You can leave your 401(k) with your employer’s plan administrator or you can roll it over into an IRA.

In general, pros recommend that you do not cash out your 401(k) before age 59 1/2 (to avoid penalty) if you don’t have to. Keeping your 401(k) is the easiest solution.

“It’s less likely that [the plan providers] will say, ‘We have to close your account,’” Hui-chin Chen said. ”Because as long as you are still a plan participant, they cannot kick you out unless there is plan provision specifying it.”

That being said, you will want to check in every now and then to be sure your investments are properly allocated based on your needs. Hui-chin Chen notes that companies may offer good low-cost index funds with balanced asset allocations for employees. However, it’s important to be sure your investments are well-balanced and you’re not taking on more risk than is suitable for your age and goals.

You can keep your 401(k) with most plan providers even after you leave the company, she added. However, there are exceptions. Check with your HR department and read the details in your plan documents to find out specific plan rules.

Rolling it over into a traditional IRA

Another option for workers who leave the country is to roll the funds into a traditional IRA (Individual Retirement Account) that you can control yourself. Just like a 401(k), you may be able to defer paying taxes on money contributed to an IRA.

A major difference between an IRA and a 401(k) is that you are limited to a total annual contribution of $5,500 ($6,500 for those over age 50) with the IRA. But an IRA may potentially offer a wider variety of investment choices than a typical employer-sponsored 401(k).

The challenge with opening an IRA for foreign nationals is that not many plan providers work with people with foreign mailing addresses because they are seen as a potential risk, experts said. You should check with brokerage firms to see whether they will hold accounts for people with international addresses.

The advantages of keeping your 401(k) in the U.S.

Potential tax benefits

When you withdraw your 401(k) funds from a U.S.-based account, it’s likely that your home country will not treat it as taxable income.

Tax laws in different countries vary. There is a grey area whether other countries respect the tax benefits of the U.S.-based 401(k) or IRA.

Fisher of Worldview Wealth Advisors explains that in his experience, most countries have not expressly accepted or denied the tax-deferred status of funds held in a 401(k) or IRA, but most foreign tax preparers are treating it as such. In other words, you may continue to enjoy a tax-free growth investment vehicle even if you move overseas. But you want to check your country’s tax laws to make sure this is the case.

The magic of compounding

Before you take this road, remember you could face a 10% early withdrawal penalty plus a hefty income tax bill.

If you’re a younger worker, you’re also missing out on potentially decades’ worth of growth that you might enjoy if you leave your funds where they are.

Let’s say you save $18,000 in a 401(k) over your time working in the U.S. It might seem like peanuts to you. But consider this: If you never contribute another penny to the account, you could grow that savings to over $317,000 over the next 40 years (assuming an average annual return of 7.2%).

“It’s no longer peanuts,” said Chris Chen. “When you take [the money] out, think of that $18,000, what are you going to do with it? People often do that without much savings, so they will end up spending it.”

Cashing out your 401(k)

If you don’t want to leave the money in the U.S. to invest for the long run, there are more tax complications and administrative hassle to contend with.

You’re allowed to withdraw the money from your 401(k) when you leave the country, experts say. The amount you withdraw will count as taxable income unless you’re 59 1/2 or older. You’ll also face a 10 percent penalty.

You have to notify your plan provider when you leave that you are no longer a U.S. tax resident. The provider most likely will withhold taxes on the money withdrawn, and you will have to file a U.S. tax return for that income the following year, Hui-chin Chen said.

If you want to save money on taxes, Hui-chin Chen suggests you wait until the year after you leave or even later to take the funds out. When your U.S. income becomes just the amount of money you withdraw from your 401(k), you may be put in a lower tax rate than when you had full employment income in the U.S., Hui-chin Chen said.

But note that you need a bank account to receive the distribution, and not every provider may be willing to mail a check to an overseas address. It is likely that you probably have to keep a checking account open in the U.S., which is also easier said than done — banks don’t like clients with foreign addresses, either, Hui-chin Chen said.

“In the grand scheme of things, [for] most people, if they don’t stay in the U.S. for the long term, taking the money with them is probably not that difficult the year they leave or the year after they leave when they still have some leverage with the bank,” she said.

If you have a sizeable 401(k), taking a small distribution each year to pay zero-to-minimum amount of taxes is doable, experts say. But then you are facing far more complicated ongoing maintenance, which includes filing taxes every year, and keeping a U.S. bank account and address live. You may also be subject to some state taxes depending on your resident country, Fisher said.

Although Konstantinidis didn’t contribute to his previous 401(k) plan, his employer invested 3 percent of his income in a 401(k) for him for free. Konstantinidis, who lived through nearly a decade of financial crisis in Greece, is ultimately skeptical about the stock market.

Now, the self-acclaimed “paranoid” computer scientist is considering contributing 3 percent of his income to the 401(k) with his current employer as he awaits his green card — he is settling down.

“I’ve actually seen my 401(k) go up,” he said. “That’s really impressive. Now I am convinced.”

401(k) Frequently Asked Questions

401(k) is the name of an account U.S. workers can use to save for retirement through their employer. The name 401(k) comes from the section of the U.S. tax code that it was derived from in the 1980s.

The traditional 401(k) allows workers to set aside part of their pre-tax income to save for retirement. It’s up to the individual to decide how much to save. Even if you are not an American citizen, you are eligible to participate in a 401(k) plan, experts say.

There is also a Roth 401(k) option, which is becoming increasingly common. With a Roth 401(k) you would contribute funds and pay taxes on them right away, with the ability to withdraw funds in retirement tax-free.

When an employee signs up for a 401(k) plan, they’re typically given a choice of different investments, such as mutual funds, stocks, or bonds. The benefit of a 401(k) is that you not only avoid paying income taxes on your savings now but you’ll have a source of additional income later when you are ready to retire.

The legal maximum amount you can save in your 401(k) is $18,500 in 2018.

Employers may offer to match employees’ contributions up to a certain percentage.

For example, an employer may offer to match up to 3 percent of the employee’s contribution. Say you make $60,000 a year and contribute six percent (or $3,600) into a 401(k) for the year.Your company would match up to three percent (or $1,800) of that contribution. This means you would only contribute $3,600 to your 401(k) but end up with $5,400 thanks to the match.

Some employers may vest your match immediately. That means as soon as they contribute to your 401(k) the funds belong to you. However, others may have a vesting schedule, which is a set timeline that dictates how long it takes for you to own the money your employer contributes.

Generally speaking, you can start taking money out of your 401(k) account when you reach age 59 1/2. There are ways to tap into your 401(k) sooner, but you’ll face an additional 10 percent early withdrawal penalty and you could owe income taxes on the amount withdrawn.

Advertiser Disclosure: The card offers that appear on this site are 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 card companies or all card offers available in the marketplace.

Shen Lu
Shen Lu |

Shen Lu is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Shen Lu at shenlu@magnifymoney.com

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Mortgage, News, Retirement

How Can Baby Boomers Tackle Their Housing Debt Faster?

Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities prior to publication.

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Unlike people of her father’s generation, Lauren Beale, 60, said she never expected to own a house outright at retirement. 

Beale, a former journalist who retired in 2015, pays $2,063 a month for a mortgage for her home in Palos Verdes Estates, Calif., in Los Angeles County, where she lives with her husband. The couple bought the house for $800,000 in 2002.  

They now owe $268,000 on the mortgage. And Beale said she had no plans to double up on her payment and pay it off faster. “What if you need that money for some kind of emergency down the road?” she asked. “We are comfortable with some mortgage payment. It doesn’t make sense to draw from the nest egg, the retirement accounts, to pay it down soon.” 

Beale, now a freelancer and novelist, said she would rather keep her savings as a safety net: “I think boomers are feeling less secure about our medical futures.” 

Retired with a mortgage 

The Federal National Mortgage Association, known as Fannie Mae, recently released an analysis concluding that baby boomers — those born between 1946 and 1965 — were 10 percentage points less likely to own their homes outright than pre-boomer people who were the same age in 2000.  

The report says the rise in housing debt among older homeowners is increasingly worrisome. There are concerns that having mortgage obligations could weaken seniors’ financial security in retirement and put them at greater risk for foreclosure, among other potential problems. 

Still, Beale is not concerned. Her family’s monthly mortgage bill is just roughly 20 percent of the total household income. They have no other debts, nor do they have major monetary needs. Her financial goal at this stage is to have enough money to live comfortably in retirement, pay all the bills and be able to travel. 

To be sure, not every boomer is as financially confident as Beale. Nationwide, boomers carried an average housing debt of about $68,400 in 2016, according to Federal Reserve data analyzed by MagnifyMoney. National statistics also revealed that a hefty 2.5 million people ages 55 and older became renters between 2009 and 2015, up 28 percent from 2009, the biggest jump among all age groups. RENTCafe.com, a nationwide apartment search website, said the notable change in renter profile could be that empty-nesters changed lifestyles, got hit hard by the housing slump or can’t afford to own homes. 

How to pay off your mortgage faster 

For those who do care about paying mortgages off before retirement, here are some ways to handle those debts faster and stay motivated to reach your goals: 

Paying off debt? It’s like earning more money 

Leon LaBrecque, a Michigan-based certified financial planner, said roughly half of his clients — mostly middle-class Americans — are able to pay off mortgages approaching retirement. A boomer himself, he is all for paying off mortgages as soon as possible to achieve  better cash flow. 

“Debts are an anti-asset,” said LaBrecque. “Removing an anti-asset is the same as having an asset. So If I got a 4 percent mortgage, I pay it off, I made 4 percent.” 

He added: “It’s very hard to make 4 percent now. The fixed-income market is so constrained that there are not a lot of good alternatives to debt reduction.” 

Pay off other debts. High-interest debt, in particular. 

Before paying down a mortgage or paying it off, get rid of other high-interest-rate debts first. Think student loans and credit card balances.  

LaBrecque offered this example:  Say you have a 4 percent rate on your mortgage and an auto loan with a $350 payment and a 5 percent interest rate — you should pay the car note off first. Then you can put an extra $350 toward your mortgage each month. 

Find money from other sources 

iStock

If you have cash idling somewhere, with no particular purpose, pay off your mortgage. Remember: If you go and pay off a loan, there is an immediate return for what you’ve repaid. 

“You got $125,000 sitting in the bank, making nothing, and you owe $80,000 on the mortgage; pay the mortgage off,” LaBrecque has been telling his elderly clients lately. 

Also, if you have money in the market, consider getting rid of a sub-performing investment and put the resources into the mortgage, he said. 

Improve the cash flow 

Be conscious of how you spend your money. If paying off housing debts is your primary goal, prioritize it and allocate your money accordingly.  

“We always talk about having a good cash-flow management system for our younger population, but we don’t get a lot of that on the older population,” said Juan Guevara, a Colorado-based certified financial planner. “We always think that, ‘Well, those guys have figured it out.’ Well, maybe not.” 

Take a look at your cash flow holistically. When you track your spending, you can watch for opportunities to put more money toward your mortgage. For example, if you were helping your children pay student loans, see if they can take on the responsibility and redirect that budget toward your housing debt. As you approach retirement, consider using any bonuses or pay raises you receive to pay down debt.  

Break down big goals. Baby steps. 

It’s easier to make big goals and separate them into little pieces, experts say. Guevara advises that boomers divide their monthly house payment by 12 and add that amount to their payment each month.  

If your monthly payment is $1,500, for instance, “now you’re looking at a goal of having to add another $125 to each payment every month, instead of having to come up with $1,500 at the end of the year,” Guevara said. 

Refinance your mortgage 

Once you’ve managed a good cash flow, it’s likely that you are able to apply extra funds to your mortgage every month. This is when you may to consider refinancing the mortgage to get a lower rate or a shorter term. 

LaBrecque said he suggests that clients take out 30-year mortgages but pay them off sooner.  

“You can always turn a 30-year mortgage into a 15 but you can’t turn a 15-year mortgage into a 30,” he said. “I’m a big fan of having the obligation as low as possible on a monthly but also have the flexibility to pay it off.” 

Shorter home loans generally have lower interest rates, so you’ll not only pay off your mortgage faster, you’ll also pay less in interest.  

Beale has refinanced her mortgage twice to lower the monthly payment. Her current 20-year mortgage now carries an interest rate of about of 3.88 percent, significantly lower than the original 30-year loan. (It came with a rate above 5 percent.) 

You can learn more about this tactic in our guide to refinancing your mortgage. 

Educate your children  

iStock

Guevara said he has seen an increasing number of parents spending beyond their means for their children: They’re taking on student loans, supporting sons and daughters after they finish school or offering other assistance. Those expenses chew up a significant amount of the money they could be putting toward the mortgage.  

“It’s not my place to tell them to stop,” he said. “It’s my place to show them, ‘Look, this is what happens if you don’t stop or if you continue on the path that you are on now.’” 

If you want to own your house outright earlier, Guevara said it’s worth starting to teach your children about the value of money and helping them become more financially responsible in an early stage. 

“Money is a taboo in our society, and it shouldn’t be,” Guevara said. “It should be something that we talk about at the dinner table.” 

Look forward to financial freedom

Beale and her husband will be debt-free in 13 more years if they stay in the same house and continue making payments as they’ve been doing. But she doesn’t seem to look forward to that day. 

“I think as we age, things that might seem like a happy occasion might be more of a sense of finality,” she said. 

But she also finds a silver lining — the financial freedom that comes when debt is paid off. 

“Who knows at that point; what if I have grandkids?” she said. “Maybe I’ll say: ‘Hey, my bills are paid. Maybe I’ll start taking that $2,000 and putting it into a college fund or something.’” 

Advertiser Disclosure: The card offers that appear on this site are 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 card companies or all card offers available in the marketplace.

Shen Lu
Shen Lu |

Shen Lu is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Shen Lu at shenlu@magnifymoney.com

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College Students and Recent Grads, Featured, Investing, News, Retirement

Where the Wealthiest Millennials Stash Their Money

Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities prior to publication.

There’s been much talk about millennials being fearful of the stock market. They did, after all, live through the financial crisis, and many are shouldering record levels of student loan debt, while grappling with rising fixed costs.

The truth is that historically, young people have always shied away from investing. A whopping 89% of 25- to 35 year-old heads of household surveyed by the Federal Reserve in 2016 said their families were not invested in stocks. That’s only two percentage points higher than the average response since the Fed began the survey in 1989.

MagnifyMoney analyzed data from the 2016 Survey of Consumer Finances, conducted by the the Federal Reserve, to determine exactly how older millennials — those aged 25 to 35 — are allocating their assets.

In 2016, wealthy millennial households, on average, owned assets totaling more than $1.5 million. That is nearly nine times the assets of the average family in the same age group — $176,400. Included were financial assets (cash, retirement accounts, stocks, bonds, checking and savings deposits), as well as nonfinancial ones (real estate, businesses and cars).

While the wealth of each group was spread across just about every type of asset, the biggest difference was in the proportions for each category.

To add an extra layer of insight, we compared the savings habits of the average millennial household to millennial households in the top 25% of net worth. We also took a look at how the average young adult manages his or her assets to see how they differ in their approach.

Millennials and the stock market

Despite significant differences in income, we found that both sets of older millennial households today (average earners and the top 25% of earners) are investing roughly the same share of their financial assets in the market – about 60%.

Among the top 25% of millennial households, those with brokerage accounts hold more than 37% of their liquid assets, or about $224,000, in stocks and bonds and an additional 26%, or $154,000, in retirement accounts. Meanwhile, just over 14% of their assets are in liquid savings or checking accounts.

By comparison, the average millennial household with a brokerage account invests a little over $10,000 in stocks and bonds, or 22% of their total assets, and they reserve about 21% of their assets in checking or savings accounts.

Millennial households invest most heavily in their retirement accounts, accounting for around 38% of their financial assets, although they have only saved $18,800 on average.

Wealthy millennials carry much less of their wealth in checking and savings, compared with their peers. Although wealthier families carry eight times more in savings and checking than the average family — $84,000 vs. $10,300 — that’s just roughly 14% of their total assets in cash, while for the ordinary young family that figure is around 20%

The Fed data show that those on the top of the earnings pyramid are able to save far more for the future, even though they’re at a relatively early stage of their careers.

Across the board, older millennial families hold the greatest share of their financial assets in their retirement accounts. Although that share of retirement savings is smaller for wealthier millennial families (26% of their financial assets, versus 38% for the average older millennial family), they have saved far more.

When looking at the median amount of retirement savings versus the average, a more disturbing picture emerges, showing just how little the average older millennial family is saving for eventual retirement.

The median amount of money in higher earners’ retirement account is $90,000 (median being the middle point of a number set, with half the available figures above it and half below). But the median amount is $0 for the typical millennial family, meaning that at least half of millennial-run households don’t have any retirement savings at all.

Millennials and their nonfinancial assets

Most of millennial households’ wealth comes from physical assets, such as houses, cars and businesses.

While nearly 60% of young families don’t own houses today, the lowest homeownership rate since 1989, homes make up the largest share of the family’s nonfinancial assets, Fed data show.

For the average-earning older millennial family, housing represents more than two-thirds of the value of its nonfinancial assets — 66.4%. On average, this group’s homes are valued at $84,000.

The homes of rich millennial households are worth 4.6 times more, averaging $470,000 — though they represents a lower share of total nonfinancial assets — 50%.

Cars are the second-largest hard asset for the average young family to own, accounting for about 14% of nonfinancial assets.

While rich millennials drive fancier cars than their peers — prices are 2.4 times that of average millennials’ cars — their $42,000 car accounts for just 4.5% of their nonfinancial asset. In contrast, they stash as much as 31% of their asset in businesses, 20 percentage points higher than the ordinary millennial.

It’s worth noting that young adults in general are not into businesses. A scant 6.3% of young families have businesses, the lowest percentage since 1989, according to the Fed data. (Among those that do have them, the businesses represent just over 11% of their total nonfinancial assets.)

The student debt gap

Possibly the starkest example of how wealthy older millennials and their ordinary peers manage their finances can be seen in the realm of student loan debt.

A significant chunk of the average worker’s household debt comes in the form of student loans, making up close to 20% of total debt and averaging $16,000. In contrast, the wealthiest cohort carries about $2,000 less in student loan debt, on average, and this constitutes just about 4.6% of total debt.

With less student debt to worry about, it’s no surprise wealthier millennial families carry a larger share of mortgage debt. About 76% of their debt comes from their primary home, to the tune of $233,500, on average. This is 4.5 times the housing debt of a typical young homeowner.

In some cases, the top wealthy have another 11% or so of their total debt committed to a second house, something not many of their less-wealthy peers would have to worry about — affording even a first home is more of a struggle.

When is the right time to start investing?

For many millennials the answer isn’t whether or not it’s wise to save for retirement or invest for wealth but when to start. Generally, paying off high interest debts and building up a sufficient emergency fund should come first. Once those boxes are ticked, how much young workers invest depends on their tolerance for risk and their future financial goals.

“It’s never too much as long as you’ve got money for the emergency fund, and as long as they are funding their other goals not through debt,” says Krista Cavalieri, owner and senior advisor at Evolve Capital in Columbus, Ohio.

The biggest mistake that Cavalieri has seen among her young clients is that very few have been able to establish an emergency fund that will cover at least three to six months’ worth of living expenses.

Kelly Metzler, senior financial advisor at the New York-based Altfest Personal Wealth Management, said older millennials may not be able to save outside of retirement accounts yet, which can be a concern if they want to buy a house or have other large purchases or unexpected expenses ahead.

Cavalieri said that’s because young adults’ money is stretched thin by the varies needs in their lives and the lifestyle they keep.

“Their hands are kind of tied at where they are right now,” she said. “Everyone could clearly save more, but millennials are dealing with large amounts of debt. A lot of them are also dealing with the fact that the lack of financial education put that in that personal debt situation.”

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Mortgage, News, Retirement

The Risky Way Retirees Use Reverse Mortgages for Extra Income

Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities prior to publication.

If you’re approaching retirement, you’re probably already aware that taking Social Security at age 62 results in getting a much smaller benefit than someone who waits until full retirement age. For most retirees today, full retirement age is 66 or 67, but you can earn an even larger pay out if you can wait till age 70 to start tapping in to your benefits.

Living off your existing savings while you wait the extra eight years to start receiving Social Security benefits can be challenging. For that reason, an increasing number of financial experts are encouraging retirees to use a reverse mortgage as a source of additional income while they wait to start drawing on their Social Security benefits.

Using a reverse mortgage for extra income in retirement can be risky — so risky, in fact, that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) recently spoke out against it.

“A reverse mortgage loan can help some older homeowners meet financial needs, but can also jeopardize their retirement if not used carefully,” CFPB Director Richard Cordray said in a statement. “For consumers whose main asset is their home, taking out a reverse mortgage to delay Social Security claiming may risk their financial security because the cost of the loan will likely be more than the benefit they gain.”

Still, retirees with significant equity built up in their homes might be tempted to tap into that equity to bridge the gap between when they retire and when they can maximize their Social Security benefit.

A quick recap of what a reverse mortgage is and how it works:

A reverse mortgage is a special type of home loan that allows homeowners age 62 and over to withdraw a portion of the equity they have in the home. Instead of paying interest and fees each month that amount is added to your overall loan balance. When you no longer live in the home, the total loan must be paid back and you will pay no more than the value of the house. With a reverse mortgage you are no longer responsible for the regular monthly payments on your mortgage loan but you are required to keep the home in good condition, as well as paying the property taxes and homeowner’s insurance.

Most reverse mortgages are federally insured by the Home Equity Conversion Mortgage (HECM) program, which requires a strict set of rules and regulations that must be met in order to qualify. Some of those requirements include: occupying the property as your principal residence, continuing to live in the home and not being delinquent on any federal debt. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has a full list of requirements here.

The pros of using a reverse mortgage

Using a reverse mortgage can provide some additional, predictable income during retirement. Whereas relying solely on your investments could result in unstable returns depending on your portfolio. But a reverse mortgage loan isn’t a bottomless source of cash.

The amount of money you can receive from a reverse mortgage first depends on your principal limit. That’s the amount a lender will be willing to loan you based on a several factors, like your age, the value of the home and the interest rate on your loan. This is where older borrowers have an advantage. According to the CFPB, “loans with older borrowers, higher-priced homes, and lower interest rates will have higher principal limits than loans with younger borrowers, lower-priced homes, and higher interest rates.”

Another big advantage of reverse mortgages are that the proceeds are generally tax free and will not affect Medicare payments.

The risks of a reverse mortgage

It reduces the amount of equity you have in the home, which can complicate a future sale. The equity in your home is generally defined as the amount of ownership you have in a property less any remaining debt. With a regular mortgage you borrow money from the bank and pay down the balance over time. With each payment the loan balance goes down and your equity increases.

You’ll lose home equity. Since a reverse mortgage allows you to borrow from the equity you have in the home, your debt on the home increases and the equity is lowered. A reverse mortgage may limit the options for someone looking to sell their home in retirement, because the loan must be paid upon the sale and there may not be enough equity left to purchase a new home.

It increases your overall debt. As seen in the images above, a reverse mortgage reduces the amount that you own in your home and adds that amount back into your loan balance. This increases your overall debt.

The cost of a reverse mortgage can outweigh the benefits of increasing your Social Security payments. Though you are borrowing from the money you’ve paid into your home, a reverse mortgage isn’t free. Just like your regular initial mortgage you will have to pay interest and fees. Reverse mortgages are very similar and usually include costs such as: mortgage insurance premiums (MIP), interest, upfront origination fees, closing costs and monthly servicing fees.

In the figure above, the CFPB estimates a reverse mortgage will cost $21,600 for someone who uses the option from age 62 to age 67; but the lifetime gain in Social Security from 62 to 67 is $29,640.

Monetarily, in this scenario a reverse mortgage makes sense. However most borrowers use a reverse mortgage for seven years not five as in the previous example. This would bring the cost to $31,900, approximately $3,900 which is more than the lifetime benefit of waiting until 67 for Social Security.

You’re putting your home at risk. You could also lose your home if you no longer meet the loan requirements. This includes not living in the home for the majority of the year for non-medical reasons or living outside of the home for 12 consecutive months for healthcare reasons.

You’re putting your heirs at risk.  When you pass away your heirs will have to pay back the loan, usually by selling home. If there is money left over after the sale, they can keep the difference. However, if the loan balance is more than the value of the home and they want to keep the home they will need to pay the full loan balance or 95% of the appraised value, whichever is less according to the CFPB.

When does it make sense to use a reverse mortgage for income in retirement?

In general, Chartered Financial Analyst Joseph Hough says reverse mortgages are best for retirees who are in good health and expect to live long after retirement. Also, it can be one of the few options retirees have when their retirement income is simply not high enough to cover their basic needs.

Speak with a financial advisor who can help you weigh the particular pros and cons with your specific situation. Every person is different, and there is no one size fits all answer.

When does it not make sense?

A reverse mortgage may not be a good fit for those in bad health due to the risk of losing the home. If you’re planning on selling your home, having a reverse mortgage can complicate the issue because it reduces the amount of equity you have. You could be left in a scenario where the proceeds of the sale do not cover a purchase of a new home because of the cost and fees associated with reverse mortgages.

What are some other ways I can maximize my SS benefit?

Working beyond 62 may be the best option to maximize your Social Security benefit. Doing so allows more time to save for retirement and pay off any debt. You could potentially increase your overall Social Security benefits if your latest year of earnings is one of your highest. Also, if you’re married, consider coordinating your Social Security decisions with your spouse. Other alternatives to a reverse mortgage include selling your home and downsizing to a less expensive place or selling your home to your adult children on the condition you get to live rent-free, says Houge.

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Investing, Life Events, Retirement, Strategies to Save

Think Twice Before You Max Out Your 401(k)

Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities prior to publication.

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Financial planners can’t emphasize the importance of saving for retirement enough: The earlier you start saving and the more you contribute, the better. But should you max out your retirement account? And if so, how do you do it? 

Unfortunately, there’s no solution suitable for all; every individual has a different financial situation.  

But let’s start with the basics: The maximum amount of money you can contribute to your 401(k), the retirement plan offered by your company, is currently $18,000 a year if you are under age 50, and $24,000 if you are 50 or older. If you were starting from scratch, you would have to tuck away $1,500 a month to max it out by year’s end.  

This is a big chunk of money. And although there are multiple benefits to saving for retirement, you may want to think twice before hitting that maximum.  

Remember, this is money that, once contributed, can’t be withdrawn until age 59.5 without incurring penalties (with some exceptions).  

What’s more, putting away a significant portion of their savings to max out their retirement fund doesn’t make much sense for some workers.  

If you are fresh out of college and your first job pays $50,000 annually, you’d need to save 36 percent of your paychecks to max out your 401(k) for the year.   

“Everyone needs to save for retirement, and the more dollars you could put in, the earlier, the better, but you also need to live your life,” says Eric Dostal, a certified financial planner with Sontag Advisory, which is based in New York. “To the extent that you are not able to do the things that you want to accomplish now, having a really really robust 401(k) balance will be great in your 60s, but that would cost now.”  

A few things to consider BEFORE you max out your 401(k)

  1. Do you have an emergency fund for rainy-day cash? If not, divert any extra funds to establish a fund that will cover at least three to six months’ worth of living expenses.  
  2. Do you have high-interest debt, such as credit card debt? High-interest debts, like credit cards, might actually cost you more in the long run than any potential gains you might earn by investing that money in the market.  Still, if you can get a company match, you should try to contribute enough to capture the full match. It never makes sense to leave money on the table.  
  3. Do you have other near-term goals? Are you planning to buy a house or have a child anytime soon? Do you want to travel around the world? Do you plan to pursue an advanced degree? If so, come up with a savings strategy that makes room for your nonretirement goals as well. That way you can save money for those big-ticket expenses and will be less likely to turn to credit cards or other borrowing methods. 

Maximize your 401(k) contributions

If your emergency fund is flush, your bills are paid and you’re saving for big expenses, you are definitely ready to beef up your retirement contributions.   

First, you’ll want to figure out how much to save.   

At the very least, as we said above, you should contribute enough to qualify for any employer match available to you. This is money your employer promises to contribute toward your retirement fund. There are several different ways a company decides how much to contribute to your 401(k), but the takeaway is the same no matter what — if you miss out on the match, you are leaving free money on the proverbial table. 

If you are comfortable enough to start saving more, here is a good rule of thumb: Save 10 percent of each paycheck for retirement, though you don’t have to get up to 10 percent all at once.  

For instance, try adding 1 percent more to your retirement fund every six months. Some retirement plans even offer automatic step-up contributions, where your contributions are automatically increased by 1 or 2 percent each year. 

Larry Heller, a New York-based certified financial planner and president of Heller Wealth Management, suggests that you increase your contribution amount for the next three pay periods and repeat again until you hit your maximum.  

“You will be surprised that many people can adjust with a little extra taken out of their paycheck,” Heller said.   

Once you’re in the groove of saving for retirement, consider using unexpected windfalls to boost your savings. If you get an annual bonus, for example, you can beef up your 401(k) contribution sum if you haven’t yet met your contribution limit.  

A word of caution: If you’re nearing the maximum contribution for the year, rein in your savings. You can be penalized by the IRS for overcontributing. 

If your goal is to save $18,000 for 2017, check how much you’ve contributed for the year to date and then calculate a percentage of your salary and bonus contributions that will get you there through the year’s remaining pay periods.  

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Shen Lu is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Shen Lu at shenlu@magnifymoney.com

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Life Events, News, Retirement

Why Sabbaticals Could Be the New Pre-Retirement

Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities prior to publication.

Brad N. Shaw, a Dallas, Texas-based serial entrepreneur, took a two-year sabbatical from 2011-2013 to spend more time with his family. He’s pictured here with his family in Vail, Colorado. (Photo courtesy of Brad M. Shaw)

Serial entrepreneur Brad M. Shaw made a bold decision several years ago to take two years off from work and move his family to Vail, Colo.

Taking a two-year sabbatical had its challenges, the major one being uprooting his family in pursuit of more work-life balance and a change of scenery. But overall, he says taking time off was more than worth it — both for his family and his business.

“My daughter was growing up so fast,” says Shaw, who is CEO of a web design firm in Dallas. “As a serial entrepreneur, I was always away traveling or at the office. I wanted to be a present father and play a role in her upbringing. I also wanted to show her a life outside of the Dallas suburbia bubble.”

‘No reason to wait’

The concept of taking a sabbatical is not new. People have been taking them for decades. They’re typically thought of happening in academia, in which professors are paid to take time off for research. But sabbaticals have transcended academia and have spread into the general workforce in recent decades.

Thanks to a new wave of workers who value purpose over stability, the upswing of the gig economy, and companies that offer unlimited vacation time or paid sabbaticals, taking an extended break is becoming more of a reality for many. Many major companies in the United States offer unlimited vacation time or paid sabbaticals, such as Groupon, General Electric, and Adobe.

There’s also the reality that today’s American workers are not able to retire as early as previous generations — and they’re living longer, healthier lives. So a sabbatical can serve as a mini retirement, or a chance to take a break from the grind of 9-to-5 life.

Ric Edelman, the founder and executive chairman of Edelman Financial Services, explores this topic in his new book, “The Truth About Your Future: The Money Guide You Need Now, Later, and Much Later.” He says the combination of people living longer and being healthier in old age means the notion of retiring at 65 will be gone in the near future, both because it won’t be affordable and people will get restless.

“You’ll be healthy enough to work, you’re going to want to work, and economically, you’re going to need to work,” he says. “For all those reasons, you’ll continue working. And so that notion that you’ll wait until you’re 60 to take that around-the-world cruise really won’t exist. There won’t be a particular reason to wait.”

Edelman says that instead of the traditional life path (go to school, get a job, retire, die), we’ll have a cyclical one in which people go to school, get a job, take a sabbatical, go back to school, take a different job, etc. Instead of having one big chunk of a 30-year retirement, people will take two years here, three years there, six months here, and they’ll enjoy time off throughout their life at various intervals.

Research has also proven that companies and the economy benefit when employees take sabbaticals. According to a report by Project: Time Off, an offshoot of the U.S. Travel Association, there has been a jump in employees taking time off in the last year. Unused vacation days cost the economy $236 billion in 2016 — an amount that could have supported 1.8 million jobs. In essence, employees not cashing in on their paid time off hurts the economy because employees are forfeiting money that could instead have been used to create new jobs.

Dan Clements, author of “Escape 101: The Four Secrets to Taking a Career Break Without Losing Your Money or Your Mind,” says the biggest benefit of taking a sabbatical is the perspective change it offers.

“People come back from sabbaticals with a completely different vision for how they want to live their life,” Clements tells MagnifyMoney. “They come back and they change jobs or they transform themselves in the company they’re in or they change their business.”

Upon returning to Dallas, Shaw says he made the decision to forgo scaling up his business in favor of running it on a smaller scale so he could be less stressed.

“The time away allowed me to reset my business ideas,” he says.

Clements thinks many companies have begun to offer unlimited vacation days or paid sabbaticals to keep up with the new generation entering the workforce, because by and large, millennials value purpose over stability. Companies want to keep employees happy by offering them the opportunity to find purpose in a way their 9-to-5 job might not be able to.

“You have a different generation of people entering the workforce for whom work means something different,” Clements says. “What they expect from work is not necessarily security and a paycheck, but what they expect is meaning from work more than previous generations have. Part of the way companies can supply that is to give people the time and flexibility to find it.”

Taking the plunge

Tori Tait, the director of content and community for The Grommet, an e-commerce website that helps new products launch, took a 30-day sabbatical in August. Her company offers paid sabbaticals at employees’ five-year mark. Tait, who lives in Murrieta, Calif., spent time relaxing in Huntington Beach, Calif., boating on the Colorado River, and living on a houseboat in Lake Mead, Ariz. Like Shaw, she says the biggest benefits for her were time off with family and a fresh perspective once she returned to work.

“I’m a working mom, so summers are often filled with me in the office, and [my kids] wishing we were at the beach,” she says. Tait says she enjoyed how during her month off, she didn’t have work in the back of her mind the way people often do when on a five- or six-day vacation.

Tori Tait, pictured with her daughters London, 10, and Taylor, 16, took a company-sponsored, 30-day sabbatical in August 2017. (Photo courtesy of Tori Tait)

Her biggest piece of advice for those planning a sabbatical is to not dwell on the planning aspect of it. “I grappled with trying to plan how I would spend my time,” she says. “Would I travel abroad? Volunteer? Finally do that side project I’ve been thinking about? In the end, I just thought, What is it that I always wish I had more time to do? The answer for me was: spend quality time with my family. So that’s what I did.”

Daniel Howard, the director at Search Office Space, a website that helps businesses all over the world find office space, took a sabbatical after the financial crisis in 2008. He says he took 12 months off to recharge in hopes of returning to work with more optimism and drive. His employers didn’t pay him for the time off, but promised him his job would be there upon his return.

He traveled with his then-girlfriend (now his wife) to Southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Central America. They left their phones at home and relied on physical maps to get around. Aside from the occasional email to family to check in, they were completely disconnected. The biggest benefit for him? “The ability to completely disconnect from my working life and the opportunity to become a more well-rounded person by immersing myself in different cultures and experiences,” Howard says.

Although many people take their sabbaticals overseas, one doesn’t need to travel around the world to reap the benefits. Extended time away from work and technology is beneficial no matter where you are.

“I think for a lot of people, a sabbatical is the first real vacation they’ve ever taken,” Clements says. “I tell people that taking a one-week vacation is sort of like trying to swim in a puddle. You wade in a little bit, and you’re barely wet, and then you have to go inside. When you actually get away from your life for two or three times longer than you’ve ever taken a break from work, you get this sense of perspective that I think most people don’t normally get a chance to experience.”

The 4 stages of preparing for a sabbatical

If you don’t work for a company that offers unlimited vacation days or paid sabbaticals, that doesn’t mean you can’t take one. Clements shares his steps for saving up for a sabbatical:

  1. Boost your earnings. Try to figure out if there’s a way you can earn more before taking your sabbatical. Can you finally ask for the raise you’ve been wanting? Can you do freelance work on the side? Can you rent out part of your home on Airbnb, or drive for Uber? Consider all of your options.
  2. Make it automatic. Have money automatically withdrawn from your bank account the same way you would for retirement, a mortgage or automatic bill payments.
  3. Put it out of reach. Once you set aside money in a separate account, make sure it’s out of reach. Put it in a savings account that isn’t accessible online or via the ATM. If you have to physically go to the bank to withdraw cash, you’ll be less tempted to do so.
  4. Stretch yourself. Don’t be afraid to make your automatic savings plan more aggressive than you think you can handle. Challenge yourself to save more than you think you need, because you can always change the amount if you have to.

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Featured, News, Pay Down My Debt, Retirement

Older Americans Are Getting Crushed by Debt, New MagnifyMoney Analysis Shows

Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities prior to publication.

More American seniors are shouldering debt as they enter their retirement years, according to a new MagnifyMoney analysis of data from the latest University of Michigan Retirement Research Center Health and Retirement Study release. MagnifyMoney analyzed survey data to see whether debt causes financial frailty during retirement. We also spoke with financial experts who explained how seniors can rescue their retirements.

1 in 3 Americans 50 and older carry non-mortgage debt

The Health and Retirement Study from the University of Michigan Retirement Research Center surveys more than 20,000 participants age 50+ who answer questions about well-being. The survey covers financial topics including debt, income, and assets. Since 1990, the center has conducted the survey every other year. They released the 2014 panel of data in November 2016. MagnifyMoney analyzed the most recent release of the data to learn more about financial fitness among older Americans.

In an ideal retirement, retirees would have the financial resources necessary to maintain the lifestyle they enjoyed during their working years. Debt acts as an anchor on retiree balance sheets. Since interest rates on debts tend to rise faster than earnings from assets, debt has the power to destroy the balance sheets of seniors living on fixed incomes.

We found that nearly one-third (32%) of all Americans over age 50 carry non-mortgage debt from month to month. On average, those with debt carry $4,786 in credit card debt and $12,490 in total non-mortgage debt.

High-interest consumer debt erodes seniors’ ability to live a quality lifestyle, says John Ross, a Texarkana, Texas-based attorney specializing in elder law.

“From an elder law attorney perspective, we see a direct correlation between debt and institutional care,” Ross says. “Essentially, the more debt load, the less likely the person will have sufficient cash assets to cover medical care that is not provided by Medicare.”

Even worse, debt leads some retirees to skip paying for necessary expenses like quality food and medical care.

“The social aspect of being a responsible bill payer often leads the older debtor to forgo needed expenses to pay debts they cannot afford instead of considering viable options like bankruptcy,” says Devin Carroll, a Texarkana, Texas-based financial adviser specializing in Social Security and retirement.

Some older Americans may even be carrying debt that they don’t have the capacity to pay.

According to our analysis, 40% of all older Americans have credit card debt in excess of $5,000. More than one in five (22%) Americans age 50+ have more than $10,000 in credit card debt. On average, those with more than $10,000 in credit card debt couldn’t pay off their debt even by emptying their checking accounts.

Over a third of American seniors don’t have $1,000 in cash

It’s not just credit card debtors who struggle with financial frailty approaching retirement. Many older Americans have very little spending power. More than one-third (37%) of all Americans over age 50 have a checking account balance less than $1,000.

Low cash reserves don’t just mean limited spending power. They indicate that American seniors don’t have the liquidity to deal with financial hardships as they approach retirement. This is especially concerning because seniors are more likely than average to face high medical expenses. Over one in three (36%) Americans who experienced financial hardship classified it as an unexpected health expense, according to the Federal Reserve Board report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2015. The median out-of-pocket health-related expense was $1,200.

Debt pushes seniors further from retirement goals

Seniors carrying credit card debt exhibit other signs of financial frailty. For example, seniors without credit card debt have an average net worth of $120,000. Those with credit card debt have a net worth of just $68,000, 43% less than those without credit card debt.

The concern isn’t just small portfolio values. For retirees with debt, credit card interest rates outpace expected performance on investment portfolios. Today the average credit card interest rate is 14%. That means American seniors who carry credit card debt (on average, $4,786) pay an average of $670 per year in interest charges. Meanwhile, the average investment portfolio earns no more than 8% per year. This means that older debtors will earn just $4,508 from their entire portfolio. Credit card interest eats up more than 15% of the nest egg income.

For some older Americans the problem runs even deeper. One in 10 American seniors has a checking account balance with less than $1,000 and carries credit card debt. This precarious position could leave some seniors unable to recover from larger financial setbacks.

Increased debt loads over time

High levels of consumer debt among older Americans are part of a sobering trend. According to research from the University of Michigan Retirement Research Center, in 1998, 36.94% of Americans age 56-61 carried debt. The mean value of their debt (in 2012 dollars) was $3,634.

Over time debt loads among pre-retiree age Americans are becoming even more unsustainable. Today 42% of Americans age 50-59 have debt, and their average debt burden is $17,623.

Credit card debt carries the most onerous interest rates, but it’s not the only type of debt people carry into retirement. According to research from the Urban Institute, in 2014, 32.2% of adults aged 68-72 carried debt in addition to a mortgage or a credit card, and 18% of Americans age 73-77 still have an auto loan.

Even student loan debt, a debt typically associated with millennials, is causing angst among seniors. According to the debt styles study from the Urban Institute, as of 2014, 2%-4% of adults aged 58 and older carried student loan debt. It’s a small proportion overall, but the burden is growing over time.

According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, in 2004, 600,000 seniors over age 60 carried student loan debt. Today that number is 2.8 million. Back in 2004 Americans over age 60 had $6 billion in outstanding student loan debts. Today they owe $66.7 billion in student loans, more than 10 times what they owed in 2004. Not all that student debt came from seniors dragging their repayments out for 30-40 years. Almost three in four (73%) older student loan debtors carry some debt that benefits a child or grandchild.

Even co-signing student loans puts a retirement at risk. If the borrower cannot repay the loan on their own, then a retiree is on the hook for repayment. A co-signer’s assets that aren’t protected by federal law can be seized to repay a student loan in default. Because of that, Ross says, “We never advise a person to co-sign on a student loan. Never!”

How older Americans can manage debt

High debt loads and an impending retirement can make a reasonable retirement seem like a fairy tale. However, an effective debt strategy and some extra work make it possible to age on your own terms.

Focus on debt first.

Carroll suggests older workers should prioritize eliminating debt before saving for retirement. “Several studies have shown a direct correlation between debt and risk of institutionalization,” he says. Debt inhibits retirees from remodeling or paying for in-home care that could allow them to age in place.

Downsize your lifestyle

As a first step in eliminating debt, seniors should check all their expenses. Some may consider drastic measures like downsizing their home.

Cut off adult children

Even more important, seniors with debt may need to stop supporting adult children.

According to a 2015 Pew Center Research Poll, 61% of all American parents supported an adult child financially in the last 12 months. Nearly one in four (23%) helped their adult children with a recurring financial need.

Wanting to help children is natural, but it can leave seniors financially frail. It may even leave a parent unable to provide for themselves during retirement.

Work longer

Older workers can also eliminate debt by focusing on the income side of the equation. For many this will mean working a few years longer than average, but the extra work pays off twofold. First, eliminating debt reduces the need for cash during retirement. Second, working longer also allows seniors to delay taking Social Security benefits.

Working until age 67 compared to age 62 makes a meaningful difference in quality of life decades down the road. According to the Social Security Administration, workers who withdraw starting at age 62 received an average of $1,077 per month. Those who waited until age 67 received 27% more, $1,372 per month.

Retirees already receiving Social Security benefits have options, too. Able-bodied retirees can re-enter the workforce. Homeowners can consider renting out a room to a family member to increase income.

Consider every option

If earning more money isn’t realistic, a debt elimination strategy becomes even more important. Ross recommends that retirees should consider every option when facing debt, including bankruptcy. He explains, “A 65-year-old, healthy retiree would be well advised to pay down the high-interest debt now. Alternatively, an 85-year-old retiree facing significant health issues is better off filing bankruptcy or just defaulting on the debt. For the older person, their existing assets are a lifeline, and a good credit score is irrelevant.”

Don’t take on new debt

It’s also important to avoid taking on new debt during retirement. “The only exception,” Ross explains, “[is taking on] debt in the form of home equity for long-term medical care needs, but then only when all other reserves are depleted and the person has explored all forms of government assistance such as Medicaid and veterans benefits.”

Every senior’s financial situation differs, but if you’re facing financial stress before or during retirement, it pays to know your options. Conduct your research and consult with a financial adviser, an elder law attorney, or a credit counselor from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling to choose what is right for your situation.

Advertiser Disclosure: The card offers that appear on this site are 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 card companies or all card offers available in the marketplace.

Hannah Rounds
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Hannah Rounds is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Hannah here

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News, Retirement

Trump Administration Axes Government-Backed Savings Program myRA

Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities prior to publication.

The U.S. Treasury Department on Friday announced it’s ending the myRA program, a government savings program meant to encourage non-traditional workers to save for retirement, not even two years after the accounts became available nationwide in November 2015, under the Obama administration. In a press release, the department says it will start to “wind down” the program as part of Trump administration efforts to “promote a more effective government.”

“The myRA program was created to help low to middle income earners start saving for retirement. Unfortunately, there has been very little demand for the program, and the cost to taxpayers cannot be justified by the assets in the program,” said Jovita Carranza, U.S. Treasurer in today’s press release.

Carranza also noted demand for myRA had been extremely low. Currently, according to a treasury spokesperson, there are 20,000 myRA accounts with a median balance of $500 and an additional 10,000 accounts with no balance. That’s up from the 15,000 workers who were enrolled in myRA by the program’s first anniversary in November. Still, that’s not much, given the program was intended to help some 40 million working-age households that don’t own any retirement account assets.

In the press release, the department says myRA has cost American taxpayers about $70 million to maintain. The spokesperson told MagnifyMoney myRA would cost taxpayers an additional $10 million annually if continued.

What Is myRA?

The myRA account was free to open, charged no fees, and didn’t require a minimum deposit to open an account. These features were intended to appeal to workers who may not have access to traditional retirement savings accounts like a 401(k) or 403(b). Workers could contribute up to $5,500 annually, or $6,500 if they were 50 or older, up to $15,000 before having to roll the account into a private-sector Roth IRA.

myRA funds earn interest at the same rate as the Government Securities Investment Fund, which earned 2.04% in 2015 and 1.82% in 2016. That’s a larger return, on average, than savers would get keeping their funds in a typical big bank savings account today, which tend to carry fees and offer interest rates as low as 0.01% (though digital banks tend to offer a better rate of return). The single investment option also offered consumers a simpler alternative to choosing from a variety investment options within traditional retirement accounts.

How Does This Affect People With myRA Accounts?

The department has posted a list of FAQs and answers for account holders on myra.gov. For the moment, account holders can continue making deposits, and their balances will continue to accrue interest. The website says the Treasury Department will reach out to all account holders with information about transferring funds from or closing the account and will notify account holders of when it will stop accepting and processing deposits.

In the meantime, account holders should log in and make sure their contact information is accurate, so they can be reached.

Advertiser Disclosure: The card offers that appear on this site are 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 card companies or all card offers available in the marketplace.

Brittney Laryea
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Brittney Laryea is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Brittney at brittney@magnifymoney.com

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Retirement, Small Business

A Comprehensive Guide to the Solo 401(k) for Business Owners

Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities prior to publication.

If you run your own business, one of the difficulties in saving for retirement is that you don’t necessarily have easy access to a 401(k).

Enter the solo 401(k). This is a retirement savings option for self-employed business owners who have no employees and their spouses. Read on to find out how it works, who is eligible, and how you can open an account.

The Solo 401(k): Explained

What Is a Solo 401(k)?

Also known as a one-participant or individual 401(k), a solo 401(k) works just like a company-sponsored 401(k) would, except it’s for self-employed individuals who don’t have any other employees other than their spouses and themselves.

Just like a traditional 401(k), you can control how your money is invested. There are different plans, with most comprising stocks, bonds, and money market funds. These are considered “free” prototype plans offered by brokerages, and you’re typically limited to investments offered by that brokerage.

However, there are options for those looking to participate in alternative investments, such as precious metals or even real estate. There are companies that help you open what’s called a self-directed 401(k) and that sponsor “checkbook control” solo 401(k) plans, meaning that individuals can control the type of investments they want to make, whether it’s stocks, bonds, foreign currency, real estate, or commodities. You do so by writing a check for investment purchases, from a bank account dedicated specifically for that purpose.

Who Is Eligible for a Solo 401(k)

Only self-employed individuals and their spouses are eligible for a solo 401(k). This plan is ideal for consultants, independent contractors, or sole proprietors. If you hire part-time workers or contractors, then you’re still safe. However, if they work for you for more than 1,000 hours a year, you cannot participate in a solo 401(k).

Furthermore, you need to have the presence of self-employment activity to be eligible, which includes ownership and operation of an LLC, C, or S corporation, a sole proprietorship, or a limited partnership where the business intends to make a profit. There are no criteria as to how much profit a business needs to generate, as long as you run a legitimate business with the intention to generate a profit.

If you are currently employed elsewhere, you can still open a solo 401(k) account if you’re serious about maximizing your pre-tax savings. If you work for an employer that offers a 401(k) plan, you can still participate in their plan alongside a solo 401(k) plan, as long as you don’t exceed the contribution limits.

Where to Open a Solo 401(k)

You can open a solo 401(k) with most major brokerages. For those looking for a custom plan, there are companies that specialize in providing those plans. Some insurance companies also offer solo 401(k) plans but only if your goal is to invest solely in annuities.

Below are some of the most popular companies offering solo 401(k) plans:

Vanguard – The individual 401(k) offers all Vanguard mutual funds. However, you cannot purchase exchange-traded funds (ETFs) or mutual funds from other companies and cannot take out a loan. There is no setup fee, but there is a $20 fee per account per year to maintain your solo 401(k).

SunAmerica – The SunAmerica Individual(k) offers mainly annuities as part of their plan. You can take out a loan (for a fee). It costs $35 to set up your account, and there is an annual maintenance fee of $75.

E-Trade – The E-Trade Individual 401(k) Plan allows Roth contributions and has a brokerage option with $9.99 trades for any ETF. They accept IRA rollovers and allow for loans. They also will pay you if you transfer your current solo 401(k) to them: $200 for $25,000-$99,000, $300 for $100,000-$249,000, and $600 for a $250,000+ plan.

How to Establish a Solo 401(k)

When opening a solo 401(k) plan, you want to choose the option best for your needs. Once you’ve selected your brokerage, you’ll need to have the necessary documents:

  • 401(k) plan adoption agreement
  • Designation of successor plan administrator, which requires a notary or a witness
  • Brokerage account application
  • Designation of beneficiary form
  • Power of attorney (optional)

If you plan on opening one for your spouse, you’ll need to do twice the paperwork (one form for each person).

Remember, you need to open a solo 401(k) account by December 31 of the tax year. You don’t need to actually fund it until the April 15 filing deadline. If you miss opening an account, you’ll have to wait until the next tax year to do so.

How Much You Can Contribute to a Solo 401(k)

Participants in a solo 401(k) plan can make contributions both as an employee and an employer.

For elective (employee) contributions, you can contribute up to 100% of your earned income, up to the annual contribution limit, which is $18,000 in 2017. Those age 50 or older can contribute an additional $6,000, depending on the type of plan, according to the IRS.

When making a contribution as an employer, you can contribute up to 25% of your earned income as an employee. Your total contributions cannot exceed $54,000 in 2017 ($53,000 for 2016), not counting extra contributions for those 50 or older.

For example, Mary earned $40,000 from her freelance business in 2016. She put $18,000 in this plan as an employee. As an employer, she contributed 25% of earnings, which is $10,000. In total, she contributed $28,000, which is the maximum she can contribute.

Remember, contribution limits are for each person, not each plan. If you are working full time for another employer and participate in that company’s 401(k) plan, combined contributions to your traditional 401(k) and solo 401(k) cannot exceed the annual limit.

To figure out the maximum contributions you can make, check the IRS website on how to calculate a more accurate amount.

Read more: 9 Essential Tax Tips for Entrepreneurs >

Learn More About Solo 401(k)s

The Pros of a Solo 401(k)

The solo 401(k) has higher contribution limits compared to other retirement savings plans. You can contribute up to $18,000 plus 25% of earned income, compared to a maximum of $54,000 or only 20% your earnings (whichever is less) with a SEP IRA. Your employer contributions are also tax deductible.

You also have the option to borrow up to 50% of your account’s value or $50,000, whichever amount is less.

The Cons of a Solo 401(k)

A solo 401(k) can get complicated to set up and maintain, particularly if you intend on opening a customized plan. Depending on the company you go with, fees can cost you at least a few hundred dollars to set up an account, not including fees to maintain the plan annually.

Even if you open a prototype plan, it can cost you. Yes, it’s free to set up, but they put many requirements on you as the owner. These requirements include filing tax return documents once a year if your plan has more than $250,000 in assets and keeping up to date with all records and transactions.

Alternatives to a Solo 401(k) Plan

There are two alternatives to a solo 401(k) plan — a SIMPLE IRA and a SEP IRA. The main difference between each is the maximum amount you can contribute to each year.

SIMPLE IRA – A Simple IRA plan is for those who as an employee (including those who are self-employed) have earned a minimum of $5,000 any two years before the current calendar year and expect to receive at least $5,000 for the current calendar year. You can contribute up to $12,500, plus an employer match of 3% of employee compensation. Those 50 or older can also contribute up to an extra $3,000. You can find more information about the simple IRA on the IRS website.

SEP IRA – A Simplified Employee Pension (SEP) plan only allows employers to contribute to the plan, unlike a solo 401(k). Employers can contribute a maximum of $53,000 or 20% of their net self-employment earnings, whichever amount is less.

Even with all its benefits, there may be a few reasons why someone is better off not opening a solo 401(k). “If you’re concerned about doing additional paperwork, a SEP IRA might also be a better choice,” advises Robert Farrington, founder of the College Investor. “If you’re working a side hustle and have a regular 401(k) at your day job, the alternatives might be easier.”

Who Solo 401(k) Plans Are Best For

While any of the above options are helpful for self-employed individuals, the solo 401(k) is best for those who are looking to invest heavily in their savings. “The solo 401(k) is best suited for a self-employed individual who wants to maximize their retirement savings,” says Farrington.

“Furthermore, if you’re a husband/wife/spouse team, your spouse can also contribute to the solo 401(k) with the same percentage of ownership, so you can get even more in tax savings and retirement contributions.”

Advertiser Disclosure: The card offers that appear on this site are 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 card companies or all card offers available in the marketplace.

Sarah Li Cain
Sarah Li Cain |

Sarah Li Cain is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Sarah Li here

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