Archives for January 2019

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A Rough, General-Purpose Retirement Plan

For a few years now I’ve been talking about a basic “cookie cutter” sort of Social Security plan (i.e., an approach that works reasonably well in most cases) and about factors that would suggest that a person or couple should make adjustments to such a plan.

I’ve been thinking recently that it might be fun/useful to extend that same type of thinking to a broader range of retirement planning areas. So here’s my attempt to do just that.

And just to be super clear about something that is hopefully obvious given the brevity of this article: there are many, many cases in which the suggestions below would not be the best approach for an actual person, due to their personal circumstances. I have mentioned some of the circumstances that would suggest alternative approaches, but in each of the topics below there are plenty of potential factors that I have not mentioned.

Social Security

If you’re single, delay claiming benefits until somewhere in the 68-70 range. If you’re married, the spouse with the higher earnings record files at 70, and the spouse with the lower earnings record files as early as possible (62 and 1 month in most cases).

Some of the circumstances that would suggest an adjustment to such a strategy include:

  • You are single and are in very poor health (in which case you should file earlier),
  • You are married and both spouses are in good health (lower earner should file somewhat later) or very bad health (higher earner should file somewhat earlier),
  • The lower earning spouse is working beyond age 62 (in which case they should usually wait to file until they quit work or have reached full retirement age),
  • You have minor children or adult disabled children (may be a reason for the higher earner to file earlier), or
  • You or your spouse will be receiving a government pension (could affect the decision in either direction).

Tax Planning (Retirement Account Distributions)

Try to “smooth out” your taxable income over the course of your retirement.

For example, if you retire at age 60 but don’t plan to take Social Security until 70, you have a 10-year window during which your income will be markedly lower than it has been in the past (because you’re retired) and lower than it will be in the future (because neither Social Security nor RMDs have started yet). So it’s likely wise to spend from tax-deferred accounts and likely do some Roth conversions during that 10-year window — with the goal being to shift income from future years (which would otherwise be higher-income years) into the current lower-income years (i.e., smoothing out your taxable income over time).

To be clear, that’s somewhat of a simplification. In reality you want to try to smooth your marginal tax rate — rather than taxable income — over time. That is, if your marginal tax rate now is lower than it will be later, try to shift income from future years into this year. (And it’s key to remember that your marginal tax rate is often quite different from your tax bracket, especially during retirement.)

Spending Rate

Firstly, set aside (in something safe, such as a short-term bond fund) enough money to fund any Social Security delay that will be happening. For example, if you are forgoing $150,000 of Social Security benefits by waiting from 62 until 70, set aside $150,000 in something safe in order to fund the extra spending necessary until age 70. Then, from the remainder of the portfolio, use the IRS RMD table (i.e., “Uniform Lifetime table“) to calculate a spending amount each year. And for years prior to 70, use the same overall age-based approach — with a lower rate of spending the younger you are.

We discussed this overall strategy last year, and you can find a paper here from Steve Vernon that discusses it in more depth. Broadly speaking though, basing spending on RMD percentages has two main advantages:

  • It adjusts spending over time based on portfolio performance, rather than spending a fixed inflation-adjusted amount each year of retirement, and
  • It adjusts spending based on your remaining life expectancy (i.e., it accounts for the fact that you can afford to spend a larger percentage of your portfolio per year when you are age 90 than when you’re age 60).

Circumstances that could suggest an adjustment to such a strategy:

  • You have an unusually long or short life expectancy,
  • Real interest rates are very high or very low,
  • Market valuations are very high or very low, or
  • Your portfolio makes up a relatively small part of your overall financial picture. (For instance if you have a government pension that covers all of your major needs, you can spend from your portfolio at a faster rate, if you so desire — because, unlike many retirees, you would not be in an especially bad situation if you depleted, or nearly depleted, your portfolio.)

Asset Allocation

There’s a huge range of asset allocations that could be reasonable for a retirement portfolio (i.e., the portfolio that does not include the fixed sum that is set aside for the purpose of delaying Social Security).

  • Want a 70% stock, 30% bond portfolio? Go for it.
  • Prefer a 30% stock, 70% bond portfolio? That’s cool too.
  • Want to exclude international stocks completely? Sure.
  • Prefer to have a heftier 30-50% international stock allocation? Knock yourself out.
  • Want to use only Treasury bonds for your fixed-income holdings? That’s reasonable.
  • Prefer to use a “total bond” fund instead? Super.

One key point — something that surprises many people — is that a higher stock allocation (or any allocation decision that shifts things toward more risk and more expected return) tends to result in only a relatively modest increase in the amount you can safely spend per year early in retirement. The higher expected returns are, to a significant extent, offset by the increased unpredictability. (For related reading, here’s Wade Pfau’s 2018 update to the Trinity Study — though of course that has to be considered with all the usual caveats about using historical returns to try to plan for the future.)

The more dramatic impacts of higher-risk, higher-expected return allocations are that they tend to mean more volatility (duh) and a greater chance of either a) leaving a large sum to your heirs or b) increasing spending later in retirement.

Insurance

If you are retired, you probably don’t need life insurance, as it’s likely that you have no dependents anymore. One noteworthy case in which you likely would want life insurance as a retiree would be if you still have minor children or if you have an adult disabled child. Another case in which a retiree might want life insurance is if they’re married and a major portion of their total income comes from a pension with a small survivor benefit amount.

If you are retired you almost certainly don’t need disability insurance. Disability insurance exists to replace income that you’d be unable to earn if you’re unable to work. But if you aren’t working anyway (i.e., you’re retired), you don’t need it.

Health insurance is a must-have. If retiring prior to Medicare eligibility, make sure you have a very specific, well-researched plan for health insurance. The Affordable Care Act makes it possible to get insurance, but make sure you have a good idea of the cost, and make sure you have researched plans to know what they cover — though of course it’s subject to change every year.

Long-term care insurance is a genuine predicament, regardless of what decision you make. If you don’t buy it, you could potentially be on the hook for huge costs. If you do buy it, you might be faced with premiums that rise rapidly and unpredictably. (Other related products to consider are “hybrid” long-term care annuities or long-term care life insurance, but those both have their problems as well.)

Having proper liability insurance (including an umbrella policy, in many cases) continues to be important. In fact, it’s likely more important than at any prior point, given that during retirement you are more dependent on maintaining your assets than you are at earlier stages.

As far as longevity risk (i.e., the risk of outliving your money, because you live well beyond your life expectancy), lifetime annuities (whether immediate or deferred) can provide protection. The downside is that they reduce your liquidity/flexibility, reduce the amount you’re likely to leave to your heirs, and usually come with significant inflation risk. Delaying Social Security provides the same type of protection at a much better cost — and with an inflation adjustment. So purchasing such an annuity generally only makes sense if you are already age 70 and still want additional longevity protection (or if you are already planning to delay Social Security to 70 and still want additional longevity protection).

Retiring Soon? Pick Up a Copy of My Book:

Can I Retire Cover

Can I Retire? Managing a Retirement Portfolio Explained in 100 Pages or Less

Topics Covered in the Book:
  • How to calculate how much you’ll need saved before you can retire,
  • How to minimize the risk of outliving your money,
  • How to choose which accounts (Roth vs. traditional IRA vs. taxable) to withdraw from each year,
  • Click here to see the full list.

A Testimonial from a Reader on Amazon:

"Hands down the best overview of what it takes to truly retire that I've ever read. In jargon free English, this gem of a book nails the key issues."

Investing Blog Roundup: Remembering Jack Bogle

As you have likely heard by now, Jack Bogle died this week.

There have been an abundance of great articles about him in the last two days — not just about what he achieved professionally (as monumental as those achievements were), but about what he was like as a person. That’s no coincidence. Many of us have personal stories to share.

He founded a massive company, and he revolutionized an industry, but he was as approachable as anybody I’ve met. He’d ask you what you were working on. He’d tell you about what he’d been reading lately. He’d sit next to you at lunch and discuss Social Security — sharing his opinions (he had opinions!), but also listening intently to yours.

If you’re feeling moved to do something in his memory, I have two suggestions:

  1. A donation to the National Constitution Center (Bogle served as chairman of the Center’s board for several years and often bragged about the work that they do), and/or
  2. A donation to the John C. Bogle Center for Financial Literacy.

And this is probably as good a time as any to suggest that you consider signing up to be an organ donor, if you have not yet done so. It’s easy, costs nothing, and could save somebody’s life — much as Jack’s life was saved in 1996 by somebody’s generous decision to be an organ donor.

Recommended Reading

Thanks for reading!

Open Social Security Update: Child Benefits, Retroactive Applications

A few days ago I rolled out an update for the Open Social Security calculator that includes a few new pieces of functionality:

  • Child benefits (now for married couples as well as single people),
  • Child-in-care spousal benefits, and
  • Retroactive applications.

This update took about three months of work, mostly because the “combined family maximum” rules and child-in-care spousal benefit rules are pretty complicated. (And the calculator has to be prepared to deal with any combination of uncommon complicating factors.)

If you are using the child benefit-related functionality, please be aware that the calculator will take somewhat longer to run. When minor children or disabled children are in the picture, your computer has to do a lot more math in each month of the simulations.

With regard to child-in-care spousal benefits, I expect to do a more thorough writeup of how they work in the not-so-distant future. But for now, a simplified explanation is that they’re like regular spousal benefits, with a few major differences:

  • You don’t have to be age 62 to receive them,
  • There is no reduction for entitlement prior to full retirement age, and
  • Filing for (and entitlement to) child-in-care spousal benefits does not trigger a deemed filing for retirement benefits.

As far as retroactive applications, the calculator now recommends them when a person is eligible for such and when such would be helpful. A simplified explanation of the retroactive application rules is that a person beyond FRA can backdate their application up to 6 months (or 12 months in some disability-related cases) — but no earlier than the month in which they reached full retirement age.

Want to Learn More about Social Security? Pick Up a Copy of My Book:

Social Security cover Social Security Made Simple: Social Security Retirement Benefits and Related Planning Topics Explained in 100 Pages or Less
Topics Covered in the Book:
  • How retirement benefits, spousal benefits, and widow(er) benefits are calculated,
  • How to decide the best age to claim your benefit,
  • How Social Security benefits are taxed and how that affects tax planning,
  • Click here to see the full list.

A Testimonial from a Reader on Amazon:

"An excellent review of various facts and decision-making components associated with the Social Security benefits. The book provides a lot of very useful information within small space."

Investing Blog Roundup: How Important is Sequence of Returns Risk?

I recently encountered an article from the Early Retirement Now blog, discussing just how much sequence of returns risk matters in retirement. The article isn’t new (May 2017). And it’s pretty math-heavy. But it’s worth a read.

One noteworthy finding: over a 30-year retirement, only 31% of the variation in safe withdrawal rates is explained by the average return earned by the portfolio over that 30-year period. 64%, however, is explained by the sequence of those returns.

If the math intimidates you, I would still encourage you to at least click over to the article and find the second table — the one with a column of green-highlighted cells. What these cells are showing you is how important each 5-year window of returns is in determining safe withdrawal rate.

It’s quite striking how much less important each 5-year window of returns is, relative to the prior 5-year window. For example, years 0-5 explain more than 28% of the variation in safe withdrawal rate. Years 5-10 explain another 19%. Years 10-15 explain another 13%. And so on.

Key takeaway being: the returns that your portfolio earns in the first several years of retirement matter a lot.

Other Recommended Reading

Thanks for reading, and Happy New Year!

How to Calculate Self-Employment Tax

(The following is an excerpt from my book Independent Contractor, Sole Proprietor, and LLC Taxes Explained in 100 Pages or Less.)

The self-employment tax is a tax that gets added to your normal income tax. The tax is calculated by multiplying your earnings from self-employment by approximately 15%.

Why the Self-Employment Tax Exists

At first glance, it seems unfair that entrepreneurs — the most important driving force behind our economy — would be forced to pay an additional tax. In reality, however, sole proprietors are simply paying this particular tax instead of another one.

If you’ve had a job where you were paid a salary or an hourly wage, you’re probably familiar with the fact that part of your income was withheld for taxes. A portion of the amount withheld from an employee’s wages goes to pay the Social Security and Medicare taxes.

The way these taxes are structured, the burden is shared equally between the employee and the employer. The employee’s share is calculated as 6.2% of the employee’s wages for Social Security tax and 1.45% for the Medicare tax. At the same time, the employer also pays both taxes, calculated at the same rate. As a result, an amount equal to 12.4% (or 6.2% + 6.2%) is paid in total for Social Security tax, and an amount equal to 2.9% (or 1.45% + 1.45%) is paid in total for the Medicare tax.

Given that you are self-employed, there is no employer with whom you can split the burden. You are therefore responsible for paying both halves of the Social Security and Medicare taxes, or 15.3% in total. We simply call the tax something different; we call it the self-employment tax.

How to Calculate Your Self-Employment Tax

As long as your “net earnings from self-employment” are $400 or more, you will be responsible for paying the self-employment tax — calculated as 15.3% of your net earnings from self-employment.

To calculate your net earnings from self-employment, subtract your business expenses from your business revenues, then multiply the difference by 92.35%. (This odd multiplication figure is the result of the fact that you’re allowed to deduct 50% of your self-employment tax when calculating the income upon which the tax will be charged.)

It’s important to note that the 12.4% Social Security tax only applies to the first $132,900 of earned income per year. (This limit is updated annually. The figure here is for 2019.) The 2.9% Medicare tax, however, does not have a limit.

(For more information, see the book on Amazon: Independent Contractor, Sole Proprietor, and LLC Taxes Explained in 100 Pages or Less.)

The Importance of Business Expenses (Schedule C Deductions)

Now that you’re self-employed, you have an additional, extra-valuable level of deductions: business deductions. The reason business deductions are so valuable is that they reduce not only your taxable income (and thus your regular income tax), but also your earnings from self-employment, thus reducing your self-employment tax as well.

From now on, whenever you learn that a particular expenditure can be deducted, it will be important for you to determine whether that expenditure counts as a personal expense, or if it can be classified as a business expense, thereby saving you even more money.

In order for an expense to be deductible for your business, it must be both “ordinary” and “necessary.” The IRS considers an ordinary expense to be one that is both common and accepted in your field. A necessary expense is one that is helpful and appropriate for your business. (Note that this means that an expense does not have to be absolutely indispensable for it to be considered necessary.)

Deduction for One-Half of SE Tax

Each year, when calculating your income tax, you are allowed a deduction (specifically an “adjustment to income”) equal to 50% of the amount you pay as self-employment tax.

Simple Summary

  • The self-employment tax exists simply to take the place of the Social Security and Medicare taxes that you and your employer would be paying if you had a job as an employee.
  • The tax is calculated as 15.3% of your net earnings from self-employment (or 2.9% for amounts beyond the annual maximum amount subject to Social Security tax).
  • Business deductions (sometimes called Schedule C deductions) are more valuable than either adjustments to income or itemized deductions. This is because business deductions reduce your earnings from self-employment, thereby reducing your regular income tax and your self-employment tax.
  • Each year, you are allowed an adjustment to income (i.e., a deduction) equal to 50% of the amount you pay for self-employment tax.

For More Information, See My Related Book:

Independent Contractor, Sole Proprietor, and LLC Taxes Explained in 100 Pages or Less

Topics Covered in the Book:
  • Estimated tax payments: When and how to pay them, as well as an easy way to calculate each payment,
  • Self-employment tax: What it is, why it exists, and how to calculate it,
  • Business retirement plans: What the different types are, and which one is best for you,
  • Click here to see the full list.
A testimonial from a reader on Amazon:
"Quick and easy read. No fluff, just straight to the point and gives you more helpful information that you might imagine. If you are looking to get the bottom line information you need to start your business right then this book is a must have."

How Do I Calculate My Income Tax Refund?

The following is an excerpt from my book Taxes Made Simple: Income Taxes Explained in 100 Pages or Less.

Many taxpayers in the U.S. have come to expect a sizable refund check every tax season. To some people who don’t prepare their own tax returns, it’s a mystery how the refund is calculated.

The idea is really quite simple. After calculating your taxable income, you use the information in the tax tables to determine your total income tax for the year. This amount is then compared to the amount that you actually paid throughout the year (in the form of withholdings from your paychecks). If the amount you paid is more than your tax, you are entitled to a refund for the difference. If the amount you paid is less than your tax, it’s time to get out the checkbook.

Withholding: Why It’s Done

If you work as an employee, you’re certainly aware that a large portion of your wages/salary doesn’t actually show up in your paycheck every two weeks. Instead, it gets “withheld.”

The reason for this withholding is that the federal government wants to be absolutely sure that its gets its money. The government knows that many people have a tendency to spend literally all of the income they receive (if not more). As a result, the government set up the system so that it would get its share before taxpayers would have a chance to spend it.

The amount of your pay that gets withheld is based upon an estimate of how much tax you’ll be responsible for paying over the course of the year. (This is why you are required to fill out Form W-4, providing your employer with some tax-related information, when you start a new job.)

Withholding: How It’s Calculated

At this point you may be thinking, “OK. Well I just learned that I’m in the __% tax bracket, and it’s obvious that my employer is withholding way more than that!”

You’re probably right. That’s because your employer isn’t just withholding for federal income tax. They’re also withholding for Social Security tax, Medicare tax, and (likely) state income tax.

The Social Security tax is calculated as 6.2% of your earnings, and the Medicare tax is calculated as 1.45% of your earnings. Before you’ve even begun to pay your income taxes, 7.65% of your income has been withheld.

Your refund is determined by comparing your total income tax to the amount that was withheld for federal income tax. Assuming that the amount withheld for federal income tax was greater than your income tax for the year, you will receive a refund for the difference.

EXAMPLE: Nick’s total taxable income (after subtracting deductions) is $32,000. He is single. Using the tax table for single taxpayers, we can determine that his federal income tax is $3,646.

Over the course of the year, Nick’s employer withheld a total of $8,500 from his pay, of which $4,000 went toward federal income tax. His refund will be $354 (i.e., $4,000 minus $3,646).

Simple Summary

  • Every year, your refund is calculated as the amount withheld for federal income tax, minus your total federal income tax for the year.
  • A large portion of the money being withheld from each of your paychecks does not actually go toward federal income tax. Instead, it goes to pay the Social Security tax, the Medicare tax, and possibly state income tax.

For More Information, See My Related Book:

Book3Cover

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!"
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My new Social Security calculator (beta): Open Social Security