Archives for November 2019

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Investing Blog Roundup: Financial Therapy

I hope you all enjoyed your Thanksgiving holiday yesterday.

For decades the field of behavioral economics has been pointing out that we are not simply spreadsheets with arms and legs. The decisions we make are frequently at odds with what a perfectly rational analysis would recommend.

A newer field, however, is the field of financial therapy. Financial therapy essentially takes as a starting point the fact that emotional factors play a huge role in our financial decisions. And it then asks, “given that, how can we help people to make better financial decisions (i.e., financial decisions that will better serve their overall well-being)?” In other words, the financial therapist uses a blend of financial competencies and therapeutic competencies to actually help people enact behavioral change.

Other Recommended Reading

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Monte Carlo Analysis: Understanding What You’re Dealing With

A reader writes in, asking:

“What are the pros and cons of using the Monte Carlo tool for retirement planning?”

I wouldn’t focus so much on the pros and cons of Monte Carlo simulations, because there’s so much variation among how the Monte Carlo simulation concept is applied. Instead, I would focus on knowing what is going into (and coming out of) a specific Monte Carlo tool — or a study based on such.

For instance, what assumptions are being made about returns? Is the analysis using historical mean return as the mean return for each asset class? Or is it making a downward adjustment to account for today’s relatively low interest rates and high valuations? And what type of distribution is being assumed about returns? (For instance, many Monte Carlo tools assume a normal distribution for stock returns, which significantly understates their risk.) And what assumption is being made about reversion to the mean? That is, are the simulations assuming that several bad years in a row increases the likelihood that the next year is a good year? A set of simulations that does include such an assumption will have fewer very bad scenarios than a set of simulations that does not include such an assumption.

And what assumptions are being made about mortality? Are you (and your spouse, if married) assumed to live precisely to your life expectancy but no longer? Or is age at death one of the variables that the simulation is allowing to fluctuate? Or is mortality completely ignored, and the analysis is simply looking at a fixed length of time, such as 30 years?

And what assumptions are being made about spending? Most analyses don’t account for the possibility of spending shocks (i.e., an unanticipated and unavoidable large amount of spending in a given year). That’s fine, but it is important to recognize then that the analysis is leaving out one significant type of risk that exists in real life.

Overall point being, if you don’t know what assumptions are being made by the tool (or if you’re reading a study/article based on a set of simulations the writer performed and you don’t know what assumptions were made), it’s hard to get a lot of value out of the conclusions.

And what metrics are coming out of the simulations? For instance, if the simulations are regarding retirement strategies (i.e., a combination of spending decisions and asset allocation decisions — and possibly Social Security/tax decisions), does the tool give us something other than simply “likelihood of running out of money”? For instance, a few other metrics that are useful to know are:

  • In scenarios in which the portfolio is depleted, when is it depleted (e.g., does the average/median depletion occur 15 years into retirement or 25 years into retirement)?
  • In scenarios in which the portfolio is not depleted, what is the average/median bequest?
  • If the strategy allows spending to fluctuate based on market performance, how much does it end up fluctuating?

(See this excellent paper paper from Wade Pfau, Joe Tomlinson, and Steve Vernon for a more thorough discussion of useful metrics for evaluating retirement plans.)

In short, one Monte Carlo analysis can vary significantly from another. So I wouldn’t worry so much about the pros and cons of Monte Carlo analysis in general, but rather make sure you understand what you’re dealing with when you use a given Monte Carlo tool or read about a Monte Carlo-based study. What types of risk are being excluded from the analysis? And what information is being left out of the output?

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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

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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.

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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

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