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Investing Blog Roundup: Less Time Working, More Deep Work

This week I enjoyed two articles discussing workplace experiments about how different changes to the workday (or workweek) affect productivity.

At least for me, whether it’s writing, research, or coding, I cannot come remotely close to cranking out 8 consecutive hours of productivity with only a brief break for lunch (at least not on a regular basis). I tend toward starting work early, getting in a few hours of really good work, then taking a long break doing something completely different — riding my bike, climbing at the gym, or walking around the neighborhood or our local Botanical Garden. Then I have another few good hours in me, and that’s it.

Other Recommended Reading

Thanks for reading!

2020 Tax Brackets, Standard Deduction, and Other Changes

Last week the IRS published the annual inflation updates for 2020. As was the case for 2019, it’s really just regular inflation adjustments, as opposed to the major legislative changes we had two years ago (i.e., effective for 2018).

If you have questions about a particular amount that I do not mention here, you can likely find it in the official IRS announcements: Rev. Proc. 2019-44 (which contains most inflation adjustment figures) and Notice 2019-59 (for figures relating to retirement accounts).

Single 2020 Tax Brackets

Taxable Income
Tax Bracket:
$0-$9,875 10%
$9,875-$40,125 12%
$40,125-$85,525 22%
$85,525-$163,300 24%
$163,300-$207,350 32%
$207,350-$518,400 35%
$518,400+ 37%


Married Filing Jointly 2020 Tax Brackets

Taxable Income
Tax Bracket:
$0-$19,750 10%
$19,750-$80,250 12%
$80,250-$171,050 22%
$171,050-$326,600 24%
$326,600-$414,700 32%
$414,700-$622,050 35%
$622,050+ 37%


Head of Household 2020 Tax Brackets

Taxable Income
Tax Bracket:
$0-$14,100 10%
$14,100-$53,700 12%
$53,700-$85,500 22%
$85,500-$163,300 24%
$163,300-$207,350 32%
$207,350-$518,400 35%
$518,400+ 37%


Married Filing Separately 2020 Tax Brackets

Taxable Income
Marginal Tax Rate:
$0-$9,875 10%
$9,875-$40,125 12%
$40,125-$85,525 22%
$85,525-$163,300 24%
$163,300-$207,350 32%
$207,350-$311,025 35%
$311,025+ 37%


Standard Deduction Amounts

The 2020 standard deduction amounts are as follows:

  • Single or married filing separately: $12,400
  • Married filing jointly: $24,800
  • Head of household: $18,650

The additional standard deduction for people who have reached age 65 (or who are blind) is $1,300 for each married taxpayer or $1,650 for unmarried taxpayers.

IRA Contribution Limits

The contribution limit for Roth IRA and traditional IRA accounts is unchanged at $6,000.

The catch-up contribution limit for people age 50 or over does not get inflation adjustments and therefore is still $1,000.

401(k), 403(b), 457(b) Contribution Limits

The salary deferral limit for 401(k) and other similar plans has increased to $19,500.

The catch-up contribution limit for 401(k) and other similar plans for people age 50 and over has increased to $6,500.

The maximum possible contribution for defined contribution plans (e.g., for a self-employed person with a sufficiently high income contributing to a solo 401(k)) is increased to $57,000.

Child Tax Credit

The child tax credit ($2,000 per child) and the related phaseout threshold ($200,000 of modified adjusted gross income, $400,000 if married filing jointly) do not get inflation adjustments. The portion of the credit that can be refundable (up to $1,400 per child) does receive inflation adjustments, but it is still $1,400 for 2020.

Capital Gains and Qualified Dividends

For 2020, long-term capital gains and qualified dividends face the following tax rates:

  • 0% tax rate if they fall below $80,000 of taxable income if married filing jointly, $53,600 if head of household, or $40,000 if filing as single or married filing separately.
  • 15% tax rate if they fall above the 0% threshold but below $496,600 if married filing jointly, $469,050 if head of household, $441,450 if single, or $248,300 if married filing separately.
  • 20% tax rate if they fall above the 15% threshold.

Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT)

The AMT exemption amount is increased to:

  • $72,900 for single people and people filing as head of household,
  • $113,400 for married people filing jointly, and
  • $56,700 for married people filing separately.

Estate Tax

The estate tax exclusion is increased to $11,580,000 per decedent.

Pass-Through Business Income

With respect to the 20% deduction for qualified pass-through income, for 2020, the threshold amount at which the “specified service trade or business” phaseout and the wage (or wage+property) limitations begin to kick in will be $326,600 for married taxpayers filing jointly and $163,300 for single taxpayers, people filing as head of household, or married people filing separately.

For More Information, See My Related Book:


Taxes Made Simple: Income Taxes Explained in 100 Pages or Less

Topics Covered in the Book:
  • The difference between deductions and credits,
  • Itemized deductions vs. the standard deduction,
  • Several money-saving deductions and credits and how to make sure you qualify for them,
  • Click here to see the full list.

A testimonial from a reader on Amazon:

"Very easy to read and is a perfect introduction for learning how to do your own taxes. Mike Piper does an excellent job of demystifying complex tax sections and he presents them in an enjoyable and easy to understand way. Highly recommended!"

Investing Blog Roundup: The Best Predictor of Stock-Fund Performance

Morningstar’s John Rekenthaler recently wrapped up a three-part series about a piece of research that found a metric for selecting mutual funds that has considerably better predictive value than simply picking funds with low expense ratios. I would encourage you to read the series in its entirety though. The first two articles are interesting, but the real lessons come in the final article.

Other Recommended Reading

Thanks for reading!

Why It’s Hard to Pick Stocks

A friend (who works in a field as far removed from finance as a field can be) recently asked me why I do not invest in individual stocks. Rather than trying my normal direct explanation, I replied with the following analogy. It’s not perfect, but I think it got the point across. Hopefully you’ll find it entertaining or useful.

Imagine that a friend asks you to go with him to an antique show/fair that’s going to be in town this weekend. It’s a decent-sized one. There’s going to be several thousand items for sale.

You’re not particularly interested in acquiring anything for your own use. But you decide to go along, hoping that you can find a “deal” — something that’s significantly underpriced, which you can sell on eBay for considerably more than you’ve paid for it.

What’s going to affect your likelihood of finding such a deal?

Here are a few factors that I can think of:

  • How early you arrive.
  • How many other shoppers there are.
  • How well informed the other shoppers are.
  • Whether you have any relevant expertise (e.g., if you have an encyclopedic knowledge of rare coins, that could be helpful).

You arrive at the market as soon as it opens, Saturday morning.

But you promptly learn that your friend misread the advertisement. The show opened yesterday. Thousands of shoppers — including many experienced antique bargain hunters — have already been through, picking over all the items.

In fact you learn from another shopper that many of the vendors themselves shopped around at other booths, buying items they thought were underpriced, and then putting them back up for sale at their own booths, at higher prices that they considered more appropriate.

How optimistic are you at this point that you’re likely to find a bargain worth buying?

Not very, probably.

That’s the stock market. Except in the case of the stock market, the market has already been open for many years. There are literally millions of other shoppers. Thousands of professional bargain hunters, shopping every day. And there’s a good chance that you have no particularly relevant expertise.

Investing Blog Roundup: Finding Good Financial Advice, at a Fair Price

How do I find a financial advisor? How much should financial planning services cost? How do I evaluate financial advisor candidates?

These and other similar questions come up a lot in my email inbox.

Jim Dahle recently provided a balanced take on the topic of finding/evaluating an advisor.

From the article:

“The rule of thumb is that high-quality financial advice costs a four-figure amount per year, ie, between $1,000 and $10,000. If you are paying more than $10,000 per year, you can almost surely get the same (or better) advice and service for less money. If you are paying less than $1,000 per year, you are unlikely to actually be receiving high-quality, personalized advice.”

I’ve never heard such a rule of thumb before, but I think it’s pretty good — not perfect, but helpful in most cases.

Other Recommended Reading

Thanks for reading!

Vanguard’s Upcoming “Digital Advisor” Program

In the last couple of weeks several readers have requested that I discuss Vanguard’s upcoming Digital Advisor program.

So far, we don’t really have any information other than what is included in the brochure Vanguard filed with the SEC with regard to the program.

As far as what the program is, it looks like a standard robo-advisor platform, which in this case implements portfolios consisting of the ETF versions of Vanguard’s four “total market” funds (i.e., Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF, Vanguard Total International Stock ETF, Vanguard Total Bond Market ETF, and Vanguard Total International Bond ETF).

The program has a 0.20% all-in cost (i.e., advisory fee + cost of underlying ETFs) regardless of what allocation you have, which means that the advisory fee is roughly 0.15%.

Relative to the existing Vanguard Personal Advisor Services platform, noteworthy differences are:

  • It costs about half as much,
  • It’s robo-only (no human advisor), and
  • It has a smaller account minimum ($3,000 instead of $50,000).

In terms of the underlying holdings, it’s super similar to Vanguard’s LifeStrategy or Target Retirement funds. It would be slightly more expensive than such a fund. (The difference in cost would grow if the LifeStrategy and/or Target Retirement funds eventually get less expensive due to switching to underlying ETFs or Admiral Shares instead of Investor Share versions of index funds.)

What will the Digital Advisor program offer that one of those all-in-one funds doesn’t offer?

The brochure includes the following statement:

“When requesting that Digital Advisor manage your enrolled accounts, you’ll have the ability to impose reasonable restrictions on the management of your Portfolio by personalizing the inputs into your retirement accumulation goal beyond standardized defaults.”

It’s hard to tell without seeing the interface and without anybody actually having gone through the program, but the above makes it sound to me like there will be some option to customize the allocation among those 4 funds somewhat. (For example, I personally would appreciate the option to reduce the allocation to the international bond fund. It sounds like that would probably be a choice, but it’s not super explicit.)

One thing that the new program will offer is implementation of a basic asset location plan. The brochure includes the following statement:

“For Portfolios containing both taxable and tax-advantaged accounts, our investment strategy will aim to optimize the tax efficiency of the Portfolio by recommending or allocating investments strategically among taxable and tax-advantaged accounts. The objective of this ‘asset location’ approach is to hold relatively tax-efficient investments, such as broad-market stock index products, in taxable accounts while keeping relatively tax-inefficient investments, such as taxable bonds, in tax-advantaged accounts.”

So based on the incomplete information available at this time, it largely strikes me as “LifeStrategy/Target Retirement replacement for people with assets in taxable accounts” or “LifeStrategy/Target Retirement replacement for people who want some allocation among those 4 underlying holdings that is not available via those all-in-one funds.”

But I suppose we’ll learn more once the program is actually available.

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