The Best Investment for Your Lump Sum

Whether your lump sum arrived as a tax return, a bonus, an inheritance or a larger-than-expected gift, here are some suggestions for what to do with it.

Money doesn’t usually come out of nowhere, but when it does, it’s nice to have some idea of how to use it. Whether your lump sum arrived as a tax return, a bonus, an inheritance or a larger-than-expected gift from a family member, Shelly-Ann Eweka, a Denver-based financial adviser with TIAA, has suggestions on what to do with it, depending on the amount and how much money you’ve already saved.

Her suggestions apply to two different scenarios: One, if you haven’t maxed out your savings potential and are carrying around some debt and two, if you’re debt-free and have managed to shore up adequate savings. Experts suggest tucking away enough to cover three to six months of expenses in case of emergency, as well as approximately 10% to 15% of your income in retirement savings. So if you’re behind, now’s the time to get started.

If You’re Trying to Save & Have Debt

Here’s how Eweka suggested investing various dollar amounts if you’re behind on your savings and carry debt:

$100

If you have no savings at all, Eweka said to either open an account using the lump sum or split it between a savings account and your favorite charity. Even $50 in an account will start you down the road to saving — sometimes all you need is a push. Be sure the charity is a 501(c)(3) for potential tax benefits, she said.

$500

To grow that $500, Eweka suggested opening an IRA. “Talk to a financial adviser about the benefits and whether your qualify for a Roth and traditional IRA,” she said. “An IRA can offer a great way to help build additional savings for retirement.” If you don’t have a financial adviser, you can learn more about IRAs here.

$1,000

This amount can go a long way when it comes to debt, so Eweka said to focus on that. “Allocate any extra cash directly toward paying down debt, whether from credit cards or student loans,” she said. “Paying down debt as quickly as possible, while also saving for retirement, is critical to avoid high interest.” (Paying down debt can also improve your credit standing. You can see how by viewing two of your scores for free on Credit.com.)

$10,000

If you have no savings, plunking the full $10,000 into an account will make a great start. “To be safe, you should have enough money in your emergency fund to cover all your necessary expenses for [at least] three months,” Eweka said. “That amount will vary from person to person, but you should have enough saved up to cover your necessities in case of a financial catastrophe.”

If You Already Have Savings 

If you’ve maxed out your savings and retirement options, you have more flexibility. Eweka suggested putting the money toward things that will advance your career.

$100

Consider having your resume professionally written and critiqued. Getting ahead in your career is a way to jump-start your personal wealth, and creating the best resume possible can help you climb the corporate ladder.

$500

Use your $500 to have a professional photograph taken, especially if you have a professional website, use social media or need to submit your bio and photo for business purposes, .

$1,000

Most people could stand to make updates to their wardrobe. If you’ve received a $1,000 lump sum, go through your closet and donate anything that no longer fits, is outdated or you haven’t worn in more than a year. Throw out things that are beyond repair or stained. Then use your lump sum to restock with clothing and accessories for a more polished and professional look.

$10,000

Enroll in research classes or certificate programs to enhance your career options. These will help you keep up with your skill set and look fantastic on your resume.

Image: StockRocket

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What Should I Do With My Retirement Plan When I Change Jobs?

When you terminate employment, you need to make some critically important decisions regarding your retirement plan.

When you terminate employment, you need to make important decisions regarding your retirement plan. Generally, you have three choices that allow you to continue to defer income taxation: leave the investments with your current employer, move them to your new employer or transfer them to an Individual Retirement Account (IRA). Of course if you are permanently retiring, the new employer plan is not an option.

Another choice is to cash out your account and pay income taxes on the withdrawal. This is usually not a good alternative since taxes will reduce the amount available for retirement and withdrawals prior to age 59 ½ will generally incur an additional 10% penalty.

There are several factors to consider when making this important decision, including investment options, investment costs, simplicity and the ability to borrow from the plan. Here are four things to keep in mind.

1. Investment Options

Most employer retirement plans have a limited number of investment choices. This can be good and bad. Plans with an abundance of choices can overwhelm the participant with difficult decisions. However, too few choices can limit the participant’s ability to properly diversify assets or select options that reflect their goals and objectives.

It is important to evaluate the options available in the previous plan as well as the new plan. Moving the assets to an IRA allows the participant to invest in a nearly unlimited number of options.

2. Investment Costs

One of the advantages of large employer plans is that investment costs may be lower than those charged in a smaller IRA account. Large employers have more leverage to offer investment classes with lower management fees than an individual can access. However, some larger plans may actually have higher fees than those charged in IRA accounts due to plan administrative expenses.

One way to evaluate the investment costs is to visit the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority Fund Analyzer. This free tool can illustrate the total fees paid over several years and can be accessed online.

3. Simplicity

If you are like most Americans, you will probably change jobs several times over your lifetime. (Here’s what to leave off your resume when that happens.) Each new employment stop creates a new plan to monitor after you move on. Companies merge, change investment options and change plan administrators.

Each of these changes requires you to set up new investment choices and website logins. Keeping up with all of these changes among several retirement plans can be burdensome. Transferring the assets to a new employer or to a single IRA account can simplify your life since your retirement investments will be situated in one central location.

4. Plan Loans

Employer retirement plans may offer the ability for the participants to borrow from their account (loans are legally available to most employer plans, but not all plan sponsors elect to offer them, and some plan types cannot offer them). Retirement plan loans are limited to less than 50% of the account value or $50,000. While there may be an administrative fee charged for the loan, the interest paid by the participant goes directly into the account, rather than to the plan.

Tax regulations do not allow loans from IRA accounts, so retirement plan loans can be a reason to move assets to your new employer. It is important to recognize that plan loans normally must be repaid upon separation from the employer. Any unpaid balance is considered a taxable distribution, subject to taxation and the early withdrawal penalties previously discussed.

Financial decisions vary for each individual and there is not a one-size-fits-all answer that is right for everybody. You should weigh each of the four aspects of this question to determine the best option for you. (Get a look at your financial health by checking your free credit report snapshot on Credit.com.) Retirement plans and taxation are complex, so we recommend seeking the advice of a certified financial planner and a certified public accountant before making your elections. (Disclosure: I am a financial planner.)

Image: FatCamera

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8 Financial Choices You’ll Regret in 5 Years

Financial success will come easier if you can avoid these common mistakes.

If your goal is getting ahead financially, the formula for success is simple: Maximize tax-advantaged retirement accounts early, boost your savings with a Roth or traditional individual retirement account, choose investments you feel comfortable with and avoid debt like the plague. If you do those four things, you’re bound to enjoy less stress and more wealth over time.

But is it always that easy? Absolutely not. As you move through the various stages of life, you’ll encounter myriad pitfalls and temptations that can knock you off track – some of which can seem like a smart idea at the time.

Speeding toward financial independence is easier when you know which financial choices can slow you down. I spoke to a handful of top financial advisers to get their takes on the most common financial choices their clients live to regret. Here’s what they said.

1. ‘Investing’ in a New Car

“At first blush, buying the latest and greatest version of the ultimate driving machine may seem like a value worthy of your hard-earned money,” says California financial advisor Anthony M. Montenegro of Blackmont Advisors.

Unfortunately, new cars depreciate the moment they leave the lot, and continue dropping in value until they’re worth almost nothing. If you finance the average new car priced at more than $30,000 for five years, you’ll pay out the nose for a hunk of metal worth a small percentage of what you paid. (Remember, a good credit score can qualify you for lower interest rates on your auto loan. You can see two of your scores for free on Credit.com)

Pro tip: Buy a used car and let someone else take the upfront depreciation, then drive it until the wheels fall off. Once five years has passed, you won’t regret all the money you never spent.

2. Not Watching Your Everyday Purchases

While big purchases like a new car can eat away at your wealth, the little purchases we make every day can also do damage, says Maryland fee-only financial adviser Martin A. Smith. If you’re spending $10 per day on anything — your favorite coffee or lunch out with friends — your seemingly small purchases can add up in a big way. (If you must feed a coffee habit, the right credit card can help make it more worthwhile.)

Keep in mind that $10 per day is $300 per month, $3,600 in a year and $18,000 after five years. While you may not regret your daily indulgences, you may regret the savings you could have had.

3. Not Refinancing Your Mortgage While Rates Are Low

While refinancing your mortgage is anything but fun, now may be the perfect time to dive in. That’s because interest rates are still teetering near lows, says Colorado financial adviser Matthew Jackson of Solid Wealth Advisors LLC.

Even one percentage point can cost you – or save you – tens of thousands of dollars in interest over the years. Since rates will eventually go up, you “don’t want to miss the opportunity now,” says Jackson.

4. Buying Too Much House

Buying the ideal home may seem like a smart idea, but does your dream home jive with your financial goals?

Unfortunately, buying more house than you need can lead to regret and financial stress, says Vancouver, Washington financial planner Alex Whitehouse.

“Too much income going to housing payments makes it difficult to fully furnish rooms, keep up with rising taxes, and often leads to struggles with maintenance and utility costs,” notes Whitehouse.

Banks may be willing to lend you more than you can reasonably afford. If you want to avoid becoming house-poor, ignore the bank’s numbers and come up with your own.

5. Borrowing Against Your Retirement Account

While you can borrow against your 401K plan with reasonable terms, that doesn’t mean you should. If you do, you may regret it for decades.

“Millennials often ask if it’s okay to access their 401K or IRA early (before age 59 ½) to buy a home, travel or pay off debt,” says Minnesota financial adviser Jamie Pomeroy of FinancialGusto.com.

However, there are numerous reasons to avoid doing so.

Not only do you normally have to pay a penalty to access retirement funds early, but you’ll pay taxes too. Most important, however, is the fact you’re robbing your future self. You will regret the lost savings (and lost compound interest) when you check your retirement account in five years.

6. Not Using a Budget

While many people buy the notion that budgets are restrictive, the reality is different. If used properly, budgets are financial tools you can use to afford what you really want in life.

“I would suggest that you create a budget that you stick to,” says financial planner David G. Niggel of Key Wealth Partners in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. “At the end of the year, you have the chance to evaluate your spending habits and make some serious changes if necessary.”

If you don’t, your finances could suffer from death by a thousand cuts.

7. Not Saving as Much as You Can

While it’s easy to think of your disposable income as “fun money,” this is a decision you could live to regret in five years.

The more money you have saved later in life, the more flexibility you’ll have, notes fee-only San Diego financial adviser Taylor Schulte. And if you don’t get serious about saving now, you could easily regret it in the future.

According to Schulte, you should strive to “play it safe” when it comes to your savings.

“I’ve never heard anyone regret having too much money,” says Schulte. “But, I’d be willing to bet we have all heard far too many people complain about not saving enough or not starting earlier.”

8. Not Buying Life Insurance When You’re Young

If you are married, own a home, or have children, you need life insurance coverage. Unfortunately, this is one purchase that becomes more difficult – and more expensive – as you age.

If you don’t buy life insurance when you’re 25, you can expect to pay a lot more for coverage when you’re 30, 35, 40 and so on. And if you wait long enough, you may not even be able to buy it at all, says New York financial planner Joseph Carbone of Focus Planning Group.

As Carbone notes, if you develop a chronic health condition before you apply for life insurance coverage, you could easily become uninsurable. To avoid regretting inaction in five or 10 years, most people would benefit from applying for an inexpensive, term life insurance policy as soon as they can.

Image: Ridofranz

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17 Questions Every College Graduate Has (But Is Afraid to Ask)

If you're graduating from college, your work is only beginning. Here are some of life's questions for which you'll need answers.

May is a big month for college graduates. There’s all the last-minute details with finishing school – finals, papers, moving, selling stuff. There’s the family, the cap and gown, the parties, the sad farewells. Then after all that, there are the questions. What now? Where will I go? What will I do? We can’t answer all of them for you (you’ll have to decide to keep or dump that college sweetheart on your own). But here’s a good start at answering some of the questions you may have when it comes to money.

1. What Should I do With Graduation Money I Get From my Family?

Lucky you! Resist the urge to spend it all upgrading your hostels to hotels on that summer trip to Europe. Instead, use half of it to pay down debt or pay for your move to a new city, and the other half to invest for the future, preferably, retirement. Really. Read the parable of the Two Twins. In short, it shows that people who put away money for retirement in their twenties — and stop by age 30 — end up with more money than those who save nothing in their twenties but save from age 30-65. It seems impossible, but it’s true. Those who invest in their early twenties have an amazing advantage over everyone else.

2. When do I Have to Start Making Student Loan Payments?

Most student loans come with a six-month grace period, meaning the first payment is due seven months after graduation. For most of you, that means this November, unless you’re headed to graduate school.

3. Should I Go to Graduate School?

That depends. While it’s tempting to put off “real life” (and student loan payments) for a few more years, many people can benefit from working for a few years before returning to school. Studies can be more focused when students are sure they are studying a field they plan to pursue. A few years working as a paralegal in a law firm can disavow you of the notion you want to be a lawyer, which will save you a lot of money and strife through law school. Of course, in some fields, like medicine, graduate school is a prerequisite, so attending right away can make more sense. But it’s important to remember: The majority of folks who are drowning in excessive student loan debt incur that debt in graduate school, not during undergraduate studies, so poorly-planned grad school can become a real problem.

4. If I Must Start Repaying my Loans, Can I Lower my Payments?

Yes. There are many ways to do this, but all of them can have negative consequences. With federal loans, the simplest way is to select a “graduated repayment plan.” This allows borrowers to pay less now, and more later – payments usually go up every two years —  with the assumption that recent grads will earn more as time goes on. All borrowers are eligible, but it means borrowing more money for longer, which means more interest paid. Beyond that, the Department of Education has numerous plans available to borrowers. Consolidation loans can extend payment terms for up to 25 years – but of course the interest paid will soar. There are also various income-based repayment or loan forgiveness programs. These can be reviewed at the Department of Education websites. You can learn more about what happens if you do default on your student loans here.

5. What Should I Do to Prepare for a Job Interview?

Google yourself. Clean up your social media accounts. Erase, or at least make private, those keg stand pictures.  Then, prepare, prepare, prepare. Learn everything you can about the company you are about to interview with (and even the person if that information is available to you). Read the job description carefully and at least appear to be excited about the specific tasks that will be required of you. Know that while the ad may say “Join an exciting team and help build a life-changing product,” you could be spending nine hours a day composing social media posts. At least, at first. Embrace that. And, maybe get a new suit. You can find 50 more steps grads can take to find their first job here.

6. It’s my First Job, What Salary Should I Ask for?

The average starting salary for college grads this year is $49,785, according to advisory firm Korn Ferry. That’s not a bad starting reference point. And it’s up 3% from last year. Some professions get more, some less. Software developers earn 31% above average; customer service reps, 28% below. Check out more numbers from the Korn Ferry analysis.

7. How do I Make a Budget?

Budgets don’t have to be complicated. Type into a spreadsheet the costs you know (or guess) for rent, utilities, TV/video, Internet, car, phone, student loan repayments, food, entertainment and whatever else applies. Add it all up, then compare it to your take-home pay. If the first number is higher than the second, you’re going to have to make some cuts, so start figuring out what you can live without. At the end of the month, take out the credit card bill and see how realistic your projections were. Then add lines where you missed things – lines for travel, or savings, or emergencies (they happen, sometimes monthly). Then repeat, every month. You’ll get it. It might be painful, but keep at it.

8. Should I Put Money in a 401K or Pay Down Debt Instead?

Yes! You should do both —save and pay down debt at the same time. It’s a BIG mistake to pay extra to lower your student loan balance at the expense of contributing enough to your 401K to at least maximize your company match. That’s free money you should never leave on the table.

9. Should I Live With Roommates?

For most people, housing is the biggest monthly expense. Ideally, rent will cost no more than one-third of your income. Keep in mind, though, that it’s essentially impossible to afford an average-priced two-bedroom apartment one a single average income anywhere in the U.S. One bedrooms also can be are expensive, so while you may be tired of living with roommates, your best strategy is to live like you are in college for a few more years and save your money. Living with roommates can be the quickest route to owning a home in your thirties.

10. How Much Money Do I Need to Buy a House?

The median home price in the U.S. right now is $189,000. To make a traditional 20% down payment on that would be $37,800. A 5% down payment, accepted in many situations with higher fees, would be about $9,500. Of course, in many populous cities, prices are much, much higher. For example, the median home price in Washington, D.C., is $549,000 – a 20% down payment there is $109,000, and 5% down is $27,500. Some mortgage programs, like FHA loans, allow first-time home buyers to have even less money down, but those come with other fees, and of course, the monthly payment will be higher. Speaking of monthly payments, would-be buyers need to remember house payments also come with insurance and property taxes. Then, there’s maintenance and surprise repair costs. So, save while you can.

11. How Much Does a Wedding Cost?

From $100 to $100,000, or more. Seriously. You can Google the cost of an average wedding, and you’ll quickly find averages in the range of $25,000 to $30,000. But these numbers are based on online surveys, which are self-selecting. Averages are skewed by extremes, plus an “average” wedding in New York will cost more than one in St. Louis. You, you can spend as little or as much on your nuptials as you choose, but guess which one is financially smarter. You can go simple and put that cash toward a down payment instead.

12. How Much Money do I Need to Start a Family?

That’s not an easy question to answer, but here are a few data points. It costs $233,610 to raise a single child through age 17 (not including college), according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That’s just one child. Of course, you don’t need it all at once. A kid costs about $12,000-$14,000 annually. Costs will vary regionally, and on your taste in clothes and schools, and on your health insurance plan. Kids are expensive – the average cost of just having a baby in the U.S. is about $10,000, and that’s without any complications.

13. OK, Then. How do I Make More Money?

The easiest way is moonlighting in the gig economy. Drive an Uber one night per week (do it on a weekend night and you’ll save by not spending!) Rent out your place on AirBNB. Sell things on eBay or Etsy. Volunteer for overtime.  Most of all, hone a skill that’s desirable, like software coding. And don’t forget the most obvious: Ask for a raise at your current job …

14. How Do I Ask for a Raise?

Never forget that how much compensation you get from a company is a simple business negotiation. You don’t get to ask for more money because you need it. You have to ask for more money because you are worth it. Do your research. Go to places like Salary.com, Indeed, or Glassdoor and learn if you are paid commensurate with others in your profession. If you aren’t, that’s a good starting point. Chiefly, do a quiet job hunt and see what others in the market might pay you. The best way to get a raise is to get a counter-offer.

Also, note these two disturbing trends in many salary surveys: Workers often don’t get raises any more, they get bonuses, which help corporations keep down their long-term liabilities (it’s easier to kill a bonus than lower salaries when times get hard). And many workers today find the only way to get a real raise is to change jobs.

15. There Are no Jobs in my Major. What Should I Do?

Don’t give up your first love, but be realistic. Right now, the best-paid American workers and the most plentiful jobs are in software, engineering, and health care. Can you switch to one of those fields, and pursue your love of music or the arts on the side? Can you sell what you make on Etsy, but still have a day job? Could you write code during the day, and tutor children at night to fulfill your love of teaching? Creative thinking is your friend here.

16. What Do I Do if I Can’t Find a Job?

Start with part-time work. Research professions that offer piecework which might be similar to the field you wish to enter. FlexJobs maintains a list of jobs you can do from home. Consider joining the gig economy for a while.

17. I Don’t Know What I Want to Do. What Should I Do?

Read. Read a lot. Read books like What Color is Your Parachute. Talk to people. Talk a lot. Most important – DO SOMETHING. Anything. Work in fast food, or work at a Walmart. You can learn something at any job. Even if you hate it, that’s one thing you can cross off your list. And just maybe, you won’t hate it. But above all, don’t do nothing.  Wracking up credit card debt and student loan interest during your twentiess can haunt you for the rest of your adult life. Whatever you do, earn money and tread water. You’ll figure it out.

Image: pixelfit

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Earnest: Personal & Student Loans for Responsible Individuals with Limited Credit History

Earnest - Personal & Student Loans for Responsible Individuals with Limited Credit History

Updated January 24, 2016

Earnest is anything but a traditional lender for unsecured personal loans and student loans. They offer merit-based loans instead of credit-based loans, which is good news for anyone just starting to establish credit. Their goal is to lend to borrowers who show signs of being financially responsible. Earnest is working to redefine credit-worthiness by taking into account much more than just your score.

They have a thorough application process, but it’s for good reason – they consider different variables and data points (such as employment history, education, and overall financial situation) that traditional lenders don’t.

Earnest*, unlike traditional lenders, says their underwriting team looks to the future to predict what your finances will look like, based upon the previously mentioned variables. They don’t place as much emphasis on your past, which is why a minimal credit history is okay.

Additionally, as their underwriting process is so thorough, Earnest doesn’t take on as much risk as traditional lenders do. With their focus on the financial responsibility level of the borrower, they have less defaults and fraud, which allows them to offer some of the lowest APRs on unsecured personal loans.

Personal Loan (Scroll Down for Student Loan Refinance)

Earnest offers up to $50,000 for as long as three years, and their APR starts at a fixed-rate of 5.25% and goes up to 12.00%. They claim that’s lower than any other lender of their type out there, and if you receive a better quote elsewhere; they encourage you to contact them.

Typical loan structure

How does this look on paper? If you needed to borrow $20,000, your estimated monthly payment would be $599-$638 on a three- year loan, $873-$911 on a two- year loan, and $1,705-$1,744 on a one-year loan. According to their website, the best available APR is on a one-year loan.

Not available everywhere

Earnest is available in the following 36 states (they are increasing the number of states regularly, and we keep this updated): Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, Washington D.C., West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

Get on LinkedIn

Earnest no longer requires that you have a LinkedIn profile. However, if you do have a LinkedIn profile, the application process becomes a lot faster. When you fill out the application, your education and employment history will automatically be filled in from your LinkedIn profile.

What Earnest Looks for in a Borrower

Earnest AppEarnest wants to lend to those who know how to manage and control their finances. They want borrowers to know the importance of saving, living below their means, using credit wisely, making timely payments, and avoiding fees.

They look at salary, savings, debt to income ratio, and cash flow. They want borrowers with low credit utilization – not those maxing out their credit cards and experiencing difficulty in paying.

Borrowers must be over 18 years old and have a solid education background. Ideally, they attended college or graduate school, have a degree, and have a history of consistent employment, or at least a job offer that gives them the opportunity to grow.

Overall, Earnest wants to make sure borrowers are taking their future as seriously as they are. After all, they’re investing in it! The team at Earnest knows that money often holds people back when it comes to being able to achieve their dreams and goals, and they’re all about helping borrowers get there.

For that reason, Earnest seeks to learn more about those that apply for loans with them. They review every line of your application, and they want to develop a lifelong relationship with their borrowers. They genuinely want to help and see their borrowers succeed.

The Fine Print – Are There Any Fees?

Earnest actually doesn’t charge any fees. There are no late fees, no origination fees, and no hidden fees.

There’s also no penalty for prepaying loans with Earnest – they encourage borrowers to prepay to reduce the amount of interest they’ll pay over the life of the loan.

Earnest states that one of its values is transparency (and of course, here at MagnifyMoney, that’s one of ours as well!), and they are willing to work with borrowers who are struggling to make payments.

Hala Baig, a member of Earnest’s Client Happiness team, says, “We would work with the client to make accommodations that are appropriate to help them through their situation.”

She also notes that if borrowers are late on payments, they do report the status of loans on a monthly basis.

What You Can Do With the Money

The $30,000 loan limit is enough to pay off debt such as an undergraduate student loan, medical debt, or consumer debt, relocate for a job, improve your home or rental property, help you fund a down payment, or further invest in your education.

Earnest’s APR is much, much better than you’ll receive on many credit cards, and it could be a viable way to decrease the burden of debt you’re currently experiencing.

Earnest logo 1

Apply Now

The Personal Loan Application Process

Earnest does a hard inquiry upon completion of the application. They’re very open about this on their website, stating that hard inquiries remain on credit reports for two years, and may slightly lower your credit score for a short period of time.

Compared to Upstart, their application process is more involved, but that’s to the benefit of the borrower. They aim to underwrite files and make a decision within 7 business days – it’s not instantaneous.

However, once you accept a loan from Earnest and input your bank information, they’ll transfer the money the next day via ACH, so the money will be in your account within 3 days.

Student Loan Refinance

When refinancing with Earnest, you can refinance both private and federal student loans.

The minimum amount to refinance is $5,000 – there’s no specific cap on the maximum you can refinance.

We encourage you to shop around. Earnest is one of the best options, but there are others. You can see the best options to refinance your student loans here.

Earnest offers loans up to 20 years. Unlike other lenders, Earnest allows borrowers to create their own term based on the minimum monthly payment you’re comfortable making. Yes, you can actually choose your monthly payment, which means the loan can be customized to your needs. Loan terms start at 5 months, and you can change that term later if needed.

You can also switch between variable and fixed rates freely – there’s no charge. (Note that variable rates are not offered in IL, MI, MN, OR, and TN. Earnest isn’t in all 50 states yet, either.)

Fixed APRs range from 3.75% to 6.64%, and variable APRs range from 2.76% to 6.24% (this is with a .25% autopay discount).

If you refinance $25,000 on a 10 year term with an APR of 5.75%, your monthly payment will be $274.42.

The Pros and Cons of Earnest’s Student Loan Refinance Program

Similar to SoFi, Earnest offers unemployment protection should you lose your job. That means you can defer payments for three months at a time, up to a total of twelve months over the life of your loan. Interest still accrues, though.

The flexibility offered from being able to switch between fixed and variable rates is a great benefit to have should you experience a change in your financial situation.

As you can see from above, variable rates are much lower than fixed rates. Of course, the only problem is those rates change over time, and they can grow to become unmanageable if you take a while to pay off your loan.

Having the option to switch makes your student loan payments easier to manage. If you can afford to pay off your loans quickly, you’ll benefit from the low variable rate. If you have to take it slow and need stability because you lost a source of income, you can switch to a fixed rate. Note that switching can only take place once every 6 months.

Earnest also lets borrowers skip one payment every 12 months (after making on-time payments for 6 months). Just note this does raise your monthly payment to adjust for the skipped payment.

Beyond that, Earnest encourages borrowers to contact a representative if they’re experiencing financial hardship. Earnest is committed to working with borrowers to make their loans as manageable as possible, even if that means temporary forbearance or restructuring the loan.

Lastly, if you need to lower your monthly payment, you can apply to refinance again. This entails Earnest taking another look at your terms and seeing if it can give you a better quote.

Who Qualifies to Refinance Student Loans With Earnest?

Earnest doesn’t have a laundry list of eligibility requirements. Simply put, it’s looking to lend to financially responsible people that have a reasonable ability to pay their loans back.

Earnest describes its ideal candidate as someone who:

  • Is employed, or at least has a job offer
  • Is at least 18 years old
  • Has a positive bank balance consistently
  • Has enough in savings to cover a month or more of regular expenses
  • Lives in AR, AZ, CA, CO, CT, FL, GA, HI, IL, IN, KS, MA, MD, MI, MN, NC, NE, NH, NJ, NY, OH, OR, PA, TN, TX, UT, VA, WA, Washington D.C., and WI
  • Has a history of making timely payments on loans
  • Has an income that can support their debt and routine living expenses
  • Has graduated from a Title IV accredited school

If you think you need a little help to qualify, Earnest does accept co-signers – you just have to contact a representative via email first.

Application Process and Documents Needed to Refinance

Earnest has a straightforward application process. You can start by receiving the rates you’re eligible for in just 2 minutes. This won’t affect your credit, either. However, this initial soft pull is used to estimate your rates – if you choose to move forward with the terms offered to you, you’ll be subject to a hard credit inquiry, and your rates may change.

Filling out the entire application takes about 15 minutes. You’ll be asked to provide personal information, education history, employment history, and financial history. Earnest takes all of this into account when making the decision to lend to you.

The Fine Print for Student Loan Refinance

There aren’t any hidden fees – no origination, prepayment, or hidden fees exist. Earnest makes it clear its profits come from interest.

There are also no late fees, but if you get behind in payments, the status of your loan will be reported to the credit bureaus.

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Who Benefits the Most from Earnest

Those in their 20s and 30s who have a good grip on their finances and are just getting started with their careers will make great borrowers. If you’re dedicated to experiencing financial success once you earn enough money to actually achieve it, you should look into a loan with Earnest.

If you have a history of late payments, being disorganized with your money, or letting things slip through the cracks, then you’re going to have a more difficult time getting a loan.

Amazing credit score not required

You don’t necessarily need to have the most amazing credit score, but your track record with money thus far will speak volumes about how you’re going to handle the money loaned from Earnest. That’s what they will be the most concerned about.

What makes you looks responsible?

Baig gives a better picture, stating, “We are focused on offering better loan alternatives to financially responsible people. We believe the vast majority of people are financially responsible and that reviewing applications based strictly on credit history never shows the full picture. One example would be saving money in a 401k or IRA. That would not appear on your credit history, but is a great signal to us that someone is financially responsible.”

Conclusion

Overall, it’s very clear that Earnest wants to help their borrowers as much as possible. Throughout their website, they take time to explain everything involved with the loan process. Their priority is educating their borrowers.

While Earnest does have a nice starting APR at 4.25%, remember to take advantage of the other lenders out there and shop around. You are never obligated to take a loan once you receive a quote, and it’s important to do your due diligence and make sure you’re getting the best rates out there. If you do find better rates, be sure to notify Earnest. Otherwise, compare rates with as many lenders as possible.

Shopping around within the span of 45 days isn’t going to make a huge dent in your credit; the bureaus understand you’re doing what you need to do to secure the best loan possible. Just make sure you’re not applying to different lenders once a month, and your credit will be okay.

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Best Ways to Spend Your Graduation Money

Sure you can just spend it, but here's how to ensure your future self will thank you.

Graduation is right around the corner and that diploma may not be the only piece of paper graduates are excited to receive. If you’re among them, it’s likely your family and friends are eager to celebrate your accomplishment, and you may be expecting some gifts in the form of checks or cash. As tempting as it may be to go out and spend this money right away, here are a few ways you may be able to put your graduation money to better use.

Begin Paying off Loans

While the stress of tests and papers will soon be off your mind, in comes the anxiety of having to repay those student loans. You’re not alone. Many students rely on loans to help them achieve their degree — the rising student loan debt is proof. Your graduation money may not be able to cover your entire loan, but it could be a good start. Since some loans accrue interest during the grace period, this money may be able to tide you over in the meantime.

You also may want to consider paying down credit card debt. If you racked up credit card debt during college and had only been making minimum payments, now is a good time to pay off any remaining balances so you can begin working on your student loan debt. (You can see how your student loan balances are already affecting your credit scores by using Credit.com’s free Credit Report Summary.)

Invest in Yourself

There are many ways you can invest in yourself after your college graduation. For example, you can pay to speak with a professional like a financial planner or debt attorney. These professionals can help you determine your financial goals and help you sort out your student loans so you can begin the repayment process. Another great investment in yourself is to join a networking group. This can be an opportunity to meet industry professionals and begin making a name for yourself. Speaking of making a name for yourself, consider investing in some professional attire!

Build an Emergency Fund

You may also want to consider “paying yourself first.” Now may be a good time to start saving your money and begin creating the perfect emergency fund. Storing your money away in a savings account can give you time to decide how you would like to best spend your graduation money. Just be careful not to dip into this when you’re looking for quick cash, as you may deplete your savings before you have a chance to put the money to good use!

When starting out in the workforce, things may be uncertain. You may look to change jobs or pursue a different career. An emergency fund can keep you afloat while you’re figuring this out. Consider putting away at least three to six months worth of living expenses.

Invest

Consider using your graduation money to make even more money. Investing in mutual funds, stocks, an individual retirement account or other investment tools while you’re young gives your money more time to compound, which can mean even more money for your future! These funds can be used later to help make larger purchases such as paying for a wedding or making a down payment on a home. Before looking to build your portfolio, consider speaking with a financial planner who can place your money in places that align with your financial goals.

Treat Yourself

You may want to set aside some of that money to treat yourself. After all, you’ve worked hard to earn that diploma and there’s no harm in celebrating this accomplishment with a gift to yourself. Consider using some of your graduation money on a purchase or experience that will remind you of all your hard work in college. This isn’t to say you should blow all this money on a frivolous or impulsive purchase, but life’s accomplishments should be celebrated. Your college graduation is no exception.

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The Best Strategies for Investing

Get your stocks and bonds on.

No single investment strategy is right for everyone. As your goals change and you approach retirement, it’s wise to reconsider your current strategy to ensure it’s going to get you where you want to be.

Here are some of the best strategies for investing.

1. Balance Risk & Return

There are numerous investment options to choose from, each with different risks and different rates of return. Generally speaking, the higher the chance of making money, the higher the risk of losing some (or all) of your investment.

One example of a high-risk investment is a small startup company with a stock price that goes up and down significantly every week. Low-risk investments usually offer a more modest rate of return, but you could lose money to inflation over time. Low-risk investments often include bonds and stocks — also known as equities — in larger, more established firms like blue chip companies.

2. Diversifying Investments

Diversification is an important element in any investment portfolio, usually a mix of both high-return and low-risk investments. Mutual funds are an example of a diversified portfolio because your investment is spread across a broad mix of stocks and bonds. Growth-oriented funds represent a higher risk, but also a greater chance of growth. Bond funds represent a low risk and low growth. Balanced funds usually find harmony between the two.

3. Investing in the Early Years

For anyone just entering the workforce, Robert Johnson, CFA, CAIA and president of The American College of Financial Services, strongly recommends investing in stocks for a good rate of return.

“Simply put, the greatest advantage for an investor is time,” he says. “A person just entering the workforce should invest in the equity markets, as they provide the highest returns over a long period of time. While equity returns are highly variable, over time equity investors outperform bond investors by a wide margin.”

From his experience, Johnson says millennials are overly risk-averse and focus on savings rather than investing their money.

“This may seem like a subtle difference,” he adds, “but the difference has significant ramifications. When people save, they take little risk. When people invest, they take [more] risk.”

Despite the greater number of years they have to absorb risk and generate greater returns on their investments, Johnson says, millennials are actually more conservative than older generations.

4. Investing in the Retirement Red Zone

As you approach retirement, you can begin lowering risk in your portfolio by reducing the amount invested in equities and putting more money into fixed-income securities, Johnson advises. He compares the years just before retirement to the red zone in a football game.

“When one is within a few years of retirement — say five — they are entering the retirement red zone,” he explains. “Just as a football team can’t afford a turnover when inside the opponent’s 20-yard line, an investor can’t afford a turnover when they are within a few years of retirement.”

A recent example, Johnson says, would be someone who was due to retire after the 2008 stock market crash.

“If they were invested solely in a diversified S&P 500 index fund, they would have seen the value of their portfolio drop by 37%,” he says.

Regardless of what stage of life you’re in, a portion of your savings and investments should be quickly accessible in case of emergency. Racking up big debts will hurt your bank account and your credit. (You see where you currently stand by pulling your credit reports from each of the three major credit reporting agencies for free every 12 months at AnnualCreditReport.com and viewing two of your credit scores, updated every 14 days, for free on Credit.com.)

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This Is Not Your Father’s 401K: The Retirement Product You Should Know About

Want guaranteed income for life? Here's how you can get it.

Chances are you’re like most Americans and, regardless of your age, you aren’t saving enough for retirement, if you’re actually saving anything at all.

Nearly 40 million U.S. households (45%) have no retirement assets, according to a recent report by the National Institute on Retirement Security, and half of those households are headed by someone aged between 45 and 65. In fact, savings rates are so bad that many Americans are dying with an average of $62,000 in debt.

Even if you are saving enough for retirement, you might still wonder if that money will last your entire lifetime. Defined contribution plans like 401Ks are great at helping employees save for retirement, but they provide no guarantee of income as pensions do. On top of that, most 401Ks are self-directed, meaning those who do a poor job handling their investments could end up with significantly less money than they need in retirement.

But what if you could guarantee yourself income for life, just like ubiquitous company pension plans used to provide (and government pension plans still do)?

Well, you can. Here’s how.

Back in 2014, the Treasury Department started an initiative focused on “putting the pension back” into 401K retirement savings. (Need to brush up on retirement lingo? Here’s a handy guide.) Through loosened restrictions and some tax-law changes, the Treasury made it easier to convert funds from retirement savings into plans known as longevity income annuities, or LIAs, that provide guaranteed lifetime income.

Income for Life

LIAs are deferred annuities and, while they’ve been for a while, they’ve only recently become a part of mainstream retirement planning. The Treasury initiative could even cause them to become an integral part of 401K target funds. Here’s how they work: Say you have $100,000 in retirement savings. At age 65, you use $10,000 of that money to purchase an LIA. “Even in the current low-interest-rate environment, a deferred single-life annuity purchased at age 65 for a male costing $10,000 can generate an annual benefit flow from age 85 onward of $4,830 ($3,866 for a female) per year for life,” a recent National Bureau of Economic Research working paper concluded.

It’s easy to see how helpful this kind of guaranteed income could be, particularly given larger investment amounts. Of course, it’s a hedge that you’ll live long enough to take advantage of those funds, but some programs provide for reimbursement should you die before accessing all of your money. More on that in a minute.

According to Olivia S. Mitchell, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and a co-author of the working paper mentioned above, LIAs are available to investors but are not yet tied to defined-contribution plans.

“There has been discussion about including them in the target-date suite of funds, and some employers are actively looking for options,” she said in an email. “Relatively few insurers have them available as yet.”

“One reason annuities or lifetime income streams are not a standard feature of 401K plans is that many people don’t understand these products,” she wrote in an article for Forbes. “For instance, some older individuals tend to underestimate their chances of living a long time, so they don’t take proper precautions against outliving their assets. Others don’t understand financial concepts, and so they’re reluctant to take unfamiliar financial decisions. After all, retirement is usually a once-in-a-lifetime event!”

Just because they aren’t directly tied to defined-contribution plans just yet doesn’t mean LIAs aren’t easily accessed. AARP, for example, has been offering its Lifetime Income Program through New York Life since 2006. AARP’s plan has a cash refund feature so, as we mentioned earlier, if you die before your payments equal your annuity purchase price, your beneficiary will be paid the difference.

Is an LIA Right for Me?

As with most financial tools, some people will benefit from an LIA more than others. “People in poor health might not want to elect deferred annuities, particularly if they have a poor survival prognosis,” Mitchell said. “Some very wealthy people will not need the LIA as they can self-insure against outliving their assets. Retirees with a (well-funded) defined benefit pension probably don’t need additional annuitization. And people with a very small nest egg might not find it worthwhile to annuitize, say, $10,000. But much of the middle class could benefit.”

In considering LIA plans, Mitchell recommends asking how highly rated the insurer is who provides it. She also suggests knowing how well the state insurance guarantee fund is being run and the maximum amount you’d recover should the insurer go bankrupt. (As you’re planning your retirement, you should also make sure you have a full picture of your finances, including your credit. You can get a free snapshot of your credit report on Credit.com.)

So how much should you consider putting into an LIA? “Older individuals would optimally commit 8% to 15% of their plan balances at age 65 to a LIA, which begins payouts at age 85,” Mitchell, et al, wrote in their working paper.

As for timing, it doesn’t really make sense for someone who isn’t at or near retirement age to purchase an LIA. For one thing, you can’t access your retirement funds without penalty until age 60.

“It makes sense to decide how much to devote to the LIA in your mid-60s, since that gives 20 years over which the annuity value can build up,” so you can begin taking payments at age 85, Mitchell said.

Of course, there are a variety of annuity products to suit different personal needs, such as earlier payout options, so it’s a good idea to speak with a financial professional who can help you decide what product might be best for your financial situation.

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4 Questions to Ask Before Buying a Rental Property

This quick review can help you figure out if you've got what it takes and, if not, how you can get it.

If you’re obsessed with HGTV, remodeling and regularly use phrases like “reclaimed wood” and “farmhouse feel,” you’ve probably kicked around the idea of buying investment property. The popular TV niche has given birth to a group of people who are motivated to improve their incomes with do-it-yourself projects and tenants in tow.

While it may seem simple and fulfilling on the small screen, buying rental property carries the same risks as purchasing your primary home. The following questions are some you’ll want to answer as you consider possible investment strategies.

1. What Are Your Financial Goals?

Are you hoping to earn extra monthly income, or do you view rental property as an attractive long-term investment? Being clear about your expectations is crucial to nailing down whether investment property is a wise choice. According to Mark Ferguson, Realtor, real estate investor and voice of InvestFourMore.com, many buyers fail to think beyond square footage.

“The biggest mistakes I see are investing in a property that loses money while hoping for appreciation, paying all cash for properties when you don’t have to and trying to manage (properties) yourself without skills or time,” Ferguson said.

It’s a good idea to make a list of short- and long-term goals as well as deal-breakers for any investment you choose. Creating rules will help you stay focused.

2. Can You Afford Extra Expenses?

Maintaining rental property takes work and extra cash, and while it’s tempting to focus on the best-case scenario, you shouldn’t discount the hefty expense of rental property taxes, association dues, management, maintenance and repairs. It’s possible to cut expenses by taking on a few handy projects yourself, but it won’t eclipse the costs entirely.

It’s wise to build a reserve fund in anticipation of your property’s needs according to Scott Trench, real estate broker and vice president of operations at BiggerPockets.com. “If you have $10,000, or even $20,000-plus in a bank account set aside for reserves, you can buy your way out of many problems associated with small rental properties,” Trench said.

With that in mind, you may want to consider building an emergency fund for your business investments in addition to your personal savings account. Separating your expenses is necessary for tax purposes, and you’ll need two accounts to maintain personal and professional independence.

3. Which Real Estate Market Is Right For You?

Although analysts predict a healthy rental market in 2017, value is still subjective, and you might consider looking outside your ZIP code to see if there are better buying options elsewhere.

“Certain metropolitan areas are most attractive to the country’s largest population groups—millennials and boomers — and are growing much faster than others,” said Alex Cohen, commercial specialist for CORE, a real estate brokerage firm based in New York City.

“Some of these markets have relatively low land and housing construction costs like Dallas and Houston. But other markets, particularly on the coasts, have much higher land and construction costs, which means less housing will be built in these metros,” Cohen said. “The flip side of this phenomenon is that in these housing-supply-constrained markets, values of homes and rents are likely to rise faster than in the rest of the country.”

While some experts suggest buying in up-and-coming locations, others swear that a good deal can lead to better returns and the ability to expand. “My 16 rentals have increased my net worth by over $1 million dollars through appreciation and buying cheap to begin with,” Ferguson said.

It’s a good idea to research all your options — from foreclosures to new construction — to determine which property could produce the best income and overall bang for your buck. Don’t be afraid to venture beyond your own backyard.

4. Are Your Finances & Credit In Good Shape?

If you are a homeowner, you may feel like a pro when it comes to applying for a mortgage, closing the deal and upgrading your property. While you may have some valuable experience, buying investment property comes with its own set of rules. Unlike purchasing your primary home, most rental mortgages require a larger down payment with a few exceptions.

“The way to minimize the additional costs — particularly higher down payment requirements of an investment property — is to take out an FHA loan, for which a down payment of as low as 3.5% of the purchase price may be possible,” Cohen said. “FHA loans are available to investors in properties with up to four units, as long as the borrower’s primary residence will be one of the apartment units.”

Not familiar with the Federal Housing Administration? You can find our full explainer on FHA loans here.

If you don’t plan to live in the rental property, you’ll need to secure a standard mortgage loan with a host of federal requirements that include financial reserves based on property value and the number of rentals you own, assets required to close and creditworthiness.

The latter requirement is perhaps the most important factor in securing an affordable investment. A high score will help you find the best interest rates and save money long before you decide to buy a rental home. It’s a good idea to order free copies of your TransUnion, Experian and Equifax reports from AnnualCreditReport.com to review your information. Highlight any negative items or errors that may be affecting your scores and consult with an expert about the best way to take action. You can also view two of your credit scores for free, updated every 14 days, on Credit.com.

Remember, whether you’re hitting up the housing market to invest or find your dream home, there are plenty of things you’ll want to do to get ready ahead of your search. Fortunately, we got a 50-step checklist for house hunters right here.

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Guide to Choosing the Right IRA: Traditional or Roth?

The Roth IRA versus traditional IRA debate has raged on for years.

What many retirement savers may not know is that most of the debate about whether it’s better to contribute to a traditional IRA or a Roth IRA is flawed.

You’ve probably heard that young investors are better off contributing to a Roth IRA because they’ll likely be in a higher tax bracket when they’re older. You’ve probably also heard that if you’re in the same tax bracket now and in retirement, a traditional IRA and Roth IRA will produce the same result.

These arguments are part of the conventional wisdom upon which many people make their decisions, and yet each misses some important nuance and, in some cases, is downright incorrect.

The Biggest Difference Between Traditional and Roth IRAs

There are several differences between traditional and Roth IRAs, and we’ll get into many of them below.

The key difference is in the tax breaks they offer.

Contributions to a traditional IRA are not taxed up front. They are tax-deductible, meaning they decrease your taxable income for the year in which you make the contribution. The money grows tax-free inside the account. However, your withdrawals in retirement are treated as taxable income.

Contributions to a Roth IRA are taxed up front at your current income tax rate. The money grows tax-free while inside the account. And when you make withdrawals in retirement, those withdrawals are not taxed.

Whether it’s better to get the tax break when you make the contribution or when you withdraw it in retirement is the centerpiece of the traditional vs. Roth IRA debate, and it’s also where a lot of people use some faulty logic.

We’ll debunk the conventional wisdom in just a bit, but first we need to take a very quick detour to understand a couple of key tax concepts.

The Important Difference Between Marginal and Effective Tax Rates

Don’t worry. We’re not going too far into the tax weeds here. But there’s a key point that’s important to understand if you’re going to make a true comparison between traditional and Roth IRAs, and that’s the difference between your marginal tax rate and your effective tax rate.

When people talk about tax rates, they’re typically referring to your marginal tax rate. This is the tax rate you pay on your last dollar of income, and it’s the same as your current tax bracket. For example, if you’re in the 15% tax bracket, you have a 15% marginal tax rate, and you’ll owe 15 cents in taxes on the next dollar you earn.

Your effective tax rate, however, divides your total tax bill by your total income to calculate your average tax rate across every dollar you earned.

And these tax rates are different because of our progressive federal income tax, which taxes different dollars at different rates. For example, someone in the 15% tax bracket actually pays 0% on some of their income, 10% on some of their income, and 15% on the rest of their income. Which means that their total tax bill is actually less than 15% of their total income.

For a simple example, a 32-year-old couple making $65,000 per year with one child will likely fall in the 15% tax bracket. That’s their marginal tax rate.

But after factoring in our progressive tax code and various tax breaks like the standard deduction and personal exemptions, they will only actually pay a total of $4,114 in taxes, making their effective tax rate just 6.33% (calculated using TurboTax’s TaxCaster).

As you can see, the couple’s effective tax rate is much lower than their marginal tax rate. And that’s almost always the case, no matter what your situation.

Keep that in mind as we move forward.

Why the Conventional Traditional vs. Roth IRA Wisdom Is Wrong

Most of the discussion around traditional and Roth IRAs focuses on your marginal tax rate. The logic says that if your marginal tax rate is higher now than it will be in retirement, the traditional IRA is the way to go. If it will be higher in retirement, the Roth IRA is the way to go. If your marginal tax rate will be the same in retirement as it is now, you’ll get the same result whether you contribute to a traditional IRA or a Roth IRA.

By this conventional wisdom, the Roth IRA typically comes out ahead for younger investors who plan on increasing their income over time and therefore moving into a higher tax bracket or at least staying in the same tax bracket.

But that conventional wisdom is flawed.

When you’re torn between contributing to a traditional or Roth IRA, it’s almost always better to compare your marginal tax rate today to your effective rate in retirement, for two reasons:

  1. Your traditional IRA contributions will likely provide a tax break at or near your marginal tax rate. This is because federal tax brackets typically span tens of thousands of dollars, while your IRA contributions max out at $5,500 for an individual or $11,000 for a couple. So it’s unlikely that your traditional IRA contribution will move you into a lower tax bracket, and even if it does, it will likely be only a small part of your contribution.
  2. Your traditional IRA withdrawals, on the other hand, are very likely to span multiple tax brackets given that you will likely be withdrawing tens of thousands of dollars per year. Given that reality, your effective tax rate is a more accurate representation of the tax cost of those withdrawals in retirement.

And when you look at it this way, comparing your marginal tax rate today to your effective tax rate in the future, the traditional IRA starts to look a lot more attractive.

Let’s run the numbers with a case study.

A Case Study: Should Mark and Jane Contribute to a Traditional IRA or a Roth IRA?

Mark and Jane are 32, married, and have a 2-year-old child. They currently make $65,000 per year combined, putting them squarely in the 15% tax bracket.

They’re ready to save for retirement, and they’re trying to decide between a traditional IRA and a Roth IRA. They’ve figured out that they can afford to make either of the following annual contributions:

  • $11,000 to a traditional IRA, which is the annual maximum.
  • $9,350 to a Roth IRA, which is that same $11,000 contribution after the 15% tax cost is taken out. (Since Roth IRA contributions are nondeductible, factoring taxes into the contribution is the right way to properly compare equivalent after-tax contributions to each account.)

So the big question is this: Which account, the traditional IRA or Roth IRA, will give them more income in retirement?

Using conventional wisdom, they would probably contribute to the Roth IRA. After all, they’re young and in a relatively low tax bracket.

But Mark and Jane are curious people, so they decided to run the numbers themselves. Here are the assumptions they made in order to do that:

  • They will continue working until age 67 (full Social Security retirement age).
  • They will continue making $65,000 per year, adjusted for inflation.
  • They will receive $26,964 per year in Social Security income starting at age 67 (estimated here).
  • They will receive an inflation-adjusted investment return of 5% per year (7% return minus 2% inflation).
  • At retirement, they will withdraw 4% of their final IRA balance per year to supplement their Social Security income (based on the 4% safe withdrawal rate).
  • They will file taxes jointly every year, both now and in retirement.

You can see all the details laid out in a spreadsheet here, but here’s the bottom line:

  • The Roth IRA will provide Mark and Jane with $35,469 in annual tax-free income on top of their Social Security income.
  • The traditional IRA will provide $37,544 in annual after-tax income on top of their Social Security income. That’s after paying $4,184 in taxes on their $41,728 withdrawal, calculating using TurboTax’s TaxCaster.

In other words, the traditional IRA will provide an extra $2,075 in annual income for Mark and Jane in retirement.

That’s a nice vacation, a whole bunch of date nights, gifts for the grandkids, or simply extra money that might be needed to cover necessary expenses.

It’s worth noting that using the assumptions above, Mark and Jane are in the 15% tax bracket both now and in retirement. According to the conventional wisdom, a traditional IRA and Roth IRA should provide the same result.

But they don’t, and the reason has everything to do with the difference between marginal tax rates and effective tax rates.

Right now, their contributions to the traditional IRA get them a 15% tax break, meaning they can contribute 15% more to a traditional IRA than they can to a Roth IRA without affecting their budget in any way.

But in retirement, the effective tax rate on their traditional IRA withdrawals is only 10%. Due again to a combination of our progressive tax code and tax breaks like the standard deduction and personal exemptions, some of it isn’t taxed, some of it is taxed at 10%, and only a portion of it is taxed at 15%.

That 5% difference between now and later is why they end up with more money from a traditional IRA than a Roth IRA.

And it’s that same unconventional wisdom that can give you more retirement income as well if you plan smartly.

5 Good Reasons to Use a Roth IRA

The main takeaway from everything above is that the conventional traditional versus Roth IRA wisdom is wrong. Comparing marginal tax rates typically underestimates the value of a traditional IRA.

Of course, the Roth IRA is still a great account, and there are plenty of situations in which it makes sense to use it. I have a Roth IRA myself, and I’m very happy with it.

So here are five good reasons to use a Roth IRA.

1. You Might Contribute More to a Roth IRA

Our case study above assumes that you would make equivalent after-tax contributions to each account. That is, if you’re in the 15% tax bracket, you would contribute 15% less to a Roth IRA than to a traditional IRA because of the tax cost.

That’s technically the right way to make the comparison, but it’s not the way most people think.

There’s a good chance that you have a certain amount of money you want to contribute and that you would make that same contribution to either a traditional IRA or a Roth IRA. Maybe you want to max out your contribution and the only question is which account to use.

If that’s the case, a Roth IRA will come out ahead every time simply because that money will never be taxed again.

2. Backdoor Roth IRA

If you make too much to either contribute to a Roth IRA or deduct contributions to a traditional IRA, you still might be eligible to do what’s called a backdoor Roth IRA.

If so, it’s a great way to give yourself some extra tax-free income in retirement, and you can only do it with a Roth IRA.

3. You Might Have Other Income

Social Security income was already factored into the example above. But any additional income, such as pension income, would increase the cost of those traditional IRA withdrawals in retirement by increasing both the marginal and effective tax rate.

Depending on your other income sources, the tax-free nature of a Roth IRA may be helpful.

4. Tax Diversification

You can make the most reasonable assumptions in the world, but the reality is that there’s no way to know what your situation will look like 30-plus years down the road.

We encourage people to diversify their investments because it reduces the risk that any one bad company could bring down your entire portfolio. Similarly, diversifying your retirement accounts can reduce the risk that a change in circumstances would result in you drastically overpaying in taxes.

Having some money in a Roth IRA and some money in a traditional IRA or 401(k) could give you room to adapt to changing tax circumstances in retirement by giving you some taxable money and some tax-free money.

5. Financial Flexibility

Roth IRAs are extremely flexible accounts that can be used for a variety of financial goals throughout your lifetime.

One reason for this is that your contributions are available at any time and for any reason, without tax or penalty. Ideally you would be able to keep the money in your account to grow for retirement, but it could be used to buy a house, start a business, or simply in case of emergency.

Roth IRAs also have some special characteristics that can make them effective college savings accounts, and as of now Roth IRAs are not subject to required minimum distributions in retirement, though that could certainly change.

All in all, Roth IRAs are more flexible than traditional IRAs in terms of using the money for nonretirement purposes.

3 Good Reasons to Use a Traditional IRA

People love the Roth IRA because it gives you tax-free money in retirement, but, as we saw in the case study above, that doesn’t always result in more retirement income. Even factoring in taxes, and even in situations where you might not expect it, the traditional IRA often comes out ahead.

And the truth is that there are even MORE tax advantages to the traditional IRA than what we discussed earlier. Here are three of the biggest.

1. You Can Convert to a Roth IRA at Any Time

One of the downsides of contributing to a Roth IRA is that you lock in the tax cost at the point of contribution. There’s no getting that money back.

On the other hand, contributing to a traditional IRA gives you the tax break now while also preserving your ability to convert some or all of that money to a Roth IRA at your convenience, giving you more control over when and how you take the tax hit.

For example, let’s say that you contribute to a traditional IRA this year, and then a few years down the line either you or your spouse decides to stay home with the kids, or start a business, or change careers. Any of those decisions could lead to a significant reduction in income, which might be a perfect opportunity to convert some or all of your traditional IRA money to a Roth IRA.

The amount you convert will count as taxable income, but because you’re temporarily in a lower tax bracket you’ll receive a smaller tax bill.

You can get pretty fancy with this if you want. Brandon from the Mad Fientist, has explained how to build a Roth IRA Conversion Ladder to fund early retirement. Financial planner Michael Kitces has demonstrated how to use partial conversions and recharacterizations to optimize your tax cost.

Of course, there are downsides to this strategy as well. Primarily there’s the fact that taxes are complicated, and you could unknowingly cost yourself a lot of money if you’re not careful. And unlike direct contributions to a Roth IRA, you have to wait five years before you’re able to withdraw the money you’ve converted without penalty. It’s typically best to speak to a tax professional or financial planner before converting to a Roth IRA.

But the overall point is that contributing to a traditional IRA now gives you greater ability to control your tax spending both now and in the future. You may be able to save yourself a lot of money by converting to a Roth IRA sometime in the future rather than contributing to it directly today.

2. You Could Avoid or Reduce State Income Tax

Traditional IRA contributions are deductible for state income tax purposes as well as federal income tax purposes. That wasn’t factored into the case study above, but there are situations in which this can significantly increase the benefit of a traditional IRA.

First, if you live in a state with a progressive income tax code, you may get a boost from the difference in marginal and effective tax rates just like with federal income taxes. While your contributions today may be deductible at the margin, your future withdrawals may at least partially be taxed at lower rates.

Second, it’s possible that you could eventually move to a state with either lower state income tax rates or no income tax at all. If so, you could save money on the difference between your current and future tax rates, and possibly avoid state income taxes altogether. Of course, if you move to a state with higher income taxes, you may end up losing money on the difference.

3. It Helps You Gain Eligibility for Tax Breaks

Contributing to a traditional IRA lowers what’s called your adjusted gross income (AGI), which is why you end up paying less income tax.

But there are a number of other tax breaks that rely on your AGI to determine eligibility, and by contributing to a traditional IRA you lower your AGI you make it more likely to qualify for those tax breaks.

Here’s a sample of common tax breaks that rely on AGI:

  • Saver’s credit – Provides a tax credit for people who make contributions to a qualified retirement plan and make under a certain level of AGI. For 2017, the maximum credit is $2,000 for individuals and $4,000 for couples.
  • Child and dependent care credit – Provides a credit of up to $2,100 for expenses related to the care of children and other dependents, though the amount decreases as your AGI increases. Parents with young children in child care are the most common recipients of this credit.
  • Medical expense deduction – Medical expenses that exceed 10% of your AGI are deductible. The lower your AGI, the more likely you are to qualify for this deduction.
  • 0% dividend and capital gains tax rate – If you’re in the 15% income tax bracket or below, any dividends and long-term capital gains you earn during the year are not taxed. Lowering your AGI could move you into this lower tax bracket.

Making a Smarter Decision

There’s a lot more to the traditional vs. Roth IRA debate than the conventional wisdom would have you believe. And the truth is that the more you dive in, the more you realize just how powerful the traditional IRA is.

That’s not to say that you should never use a Roth IRA. It’s a fantastic account, and it certainly has its place. It’s just that the tax breaks a traditional IRA offers are often understated.

It’s also important to recognize that every situation is different and that it’s impossible to know ahead of time which account will come out ahead. There are too many variables and too many unknowns to say for sure.

But with the information above, you should be able to make a smarter choice that makes it a little bit easier to reach retirement sooner and with more money.

The post Guide to Choosing the Right IRA: Traditional or Roth? appeared first on MagnifyMoney.