Guide to Renters Insurance: When You Need it and When You Don’t

If you’re currently renting, you may not have given much thought to buying insurance for your place. After all, your landlord is the one who owns it. Shouldn’t he be the one buying insurance?

The truth is that while your landlord almost certainly does have insurance, it doesn’t cover all the risks that you personally face. And that’s where renters insurance comes in.

Renters insurance is inexpensive and provides a number of financial protections you can’t get elsewhere. It’s something that just about every renter should consider, and in this guide we’ll cover the following:

  • What Is Renters Insurance?
  • What Does Renters Insurance Cover?
  • How to Get Renters Insurance

What Is Renters Insurance?

If there was a fire in your place, or if someone broke in and stole something, who would be responsible for the damages?

Your landlord almost certainly has an insurance policy that would cover the cost of repairing the apartment itself. His insurance would pick up the tab for fixing or replacing the walls, floors, ceilings, and other structural components of the apartment. He would restore it to the empty apartment that existed before you moved in.

But, of course, you don’t live in an empty apartment. You own most of what’s inside it, furniture, clothes, your laptop, and everything else.

That’s where renters insurance comes in. Renters insurance covers the financial loss you could personally face if your apartment was damaged or burglarized.

Specifically, renters insurance covers:

  1. The cost of replacing your possessions.
  2. The cost of living somewhere else if your rental becomes temporarily unlivable.
  3. Your financial liability if someone gets injured while at your apartment, or if you accidentally injure someone or their property while you’re away from your apartment.

And the good news is that all of that coverage comes pretty cheap. According to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, renters insurance premiums average just $15-$30 per month, though your specific premium will depend on where you live and what you’re covering.

So, how exactly do each of those protections work? Let’s dig in.

Renters insurance only protects you from certain kinds of damages. These are called named perils, and while every policy differs, here’s a list of common perils that are covered:

  • Fire and lightning
  • Windstorm or hail
  • Accidental discharge or overflow of water or steam
  • Earthquake
  • Explosion
  • Smoke
  • Aircraft
  • Vehicles
  • Collapse of building
  • Theft
  • Vandalism and malicious mischief
  • Riot and civil commotion
  • Falling objects
  • Sudden and accidental tearing apart, cracking, burning, or bulging
  • Freezing
  • Sudden and accidental damage from artificially generated electrical current
  • Volcanic eruption

This is just a generic list, and your specific policy may name different perils or define them slightly differently. Whatever your named perils are though, your renters insurance will only cover damages that result from one of those perils that is specifically listed in the policy. If damage results from some other cause, it will not be covered.

Certain types of perils, like flooding, may not be covered by your base policy but could be covered by an additional policy. You’ll have to review the details of your policy to see what is specifically covered, and what, if any, additional perils you may want to insure against.

Now let’s get into the specific protections that renters insurance offers.

Protection #1: Your Property

While you don’t own your home, you do own most of what’s inside of it. And when you add up the value of all your clothes, furniture, electronics, dishes, appliances, and everything else, you probably own a significant amount of property.

If any of that property was damaged or stolen, your renters insurance would help pay to replace it. Your landlord’s insurance would not.

When you buy renters insurance, you buy a certain amount of personal property coverage. For example, you might get $30,000 of coverage, in which case your renters insurance would reimburse you up to $30,000 for damage caused to your personal property. Without that coverage, you would have to foot the bill yourself.

Wisconsin’s Office of the Commissioner of Insurance offers a Personal Property Home Inventory form that can help you determine how much personal property coverage you need and create a record that can be used if you ever need to file a claim. Keeping photos of particularly valuable items is also a good idea, just in case your insurance company asks for more proof.

It’s worth noting that most renters insurance policies have coverage limits for certain types of property like jewelry and artwork. For example, it’s common for the policy to limit its jewelry coverage to $1,000 per item.

In that case, you can add a rider that covers specific pieces of property that exceed those limits. So if you have a $5,000 engagement ring, you would have to ask the insurance company to add coverage specifically for that item, which would come with a small increase in premium.

You will also likely have a deductible on your policy, which is the amount of money you would have to pay out of pocket before your insurance kicks in. For example, a $500 deductible means that you would be responsible for paying the first $500 in damages, and your renters insurance would reimburse you past that amount, up to your total personal property limit.

Protection #2: Your Cost of Living

Let’s say that there was a fire and your home became temporarily uninhabitable. While you wouldn’t be responsible for repairing the house or apartment, you would be responsible for finding somewhere else to live in the meantime.

This is the second big area where your renters insurance would kick in.

Renters insurance has something called loss of use coverage that would provide payments to help you cover that cost. Essentially, it would pick up the tab for any excess expense above what you would normally pay while living in your home.

For example, let’s say that your rent is $1,500 per month and you’re temporarily forced to stay in a hotel that charges $150 per night. That’s an excess cost of about $3,000 per month, which would be covered by your loss of use coverage.

You may also face additional food, utility, and transportation expenses, which could all be reimbursed under that same coverage.

Typically there’s a maximum dollar amount that will be paid out under this coverage and a maximum time limit for payments, and your insurer will likely also set limits on what constitutes reasonable additional expenses.

Payments will end once your home is habitable, once you find a new place to live, or once you’ve hit your coverage limits.

Protection #3: Your Liability

In addition to protecting your property and making sure you can afford a place to live, renters insurance can provide a substantial amount of liability coverage.

Liability coverage protects you from the financial consequences of accidentally injuring someone or damaging their property. And your renters insurance coverage protects you both against incidents that happen in your home and against certain incidents that happen away from it.

For example, imagine that your landlord sends someone to fix your refrigerator and that person trips over your child’s walker and seriously injures himself. That could be a significant financial loss for him, both in terms of medical bills and missed work, and he would have the right to seek reimbursement from you. In that case, the liability coverage on your renters insurance policy would kick in to pay the financial damages and to pay any legal costs you might face.

As another example, maybe you’re out for a walk with your dog and he bites someone. Again, you could be financially responsible for the consequences, and your renters insurance would be there to pick up the bill.

While the odds of something like this leading to a major financial liability are likely pretty small, the potential costs could be high. And with renters insurance you can get several hundred thousand dollars of liability protection for an average of $15-$30 per month.

It’s inexpensive coverage that protects you from the risk of a big financial loss.

How to Get Renters Insurance

If you don’t have renters insurance, how can you go about getting it?

If you already have auto insurance, the easiest way to get renters insurance is through that same company. They will almost certainly provide renters insurance as well, and you may be able to get a discount for having multiple policies with the same company.

But getting renters insurance is a good opportunity to shop around. Because you may be able to get a better deal on both your renters insurance AND your auto insurance by switching insurance companies.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Google “renters insurance STATE”, replacing STATE with your state of residence.
  2. Get a phone number for each of the major insurers providing coverage in your state.
  3. Call each insurance company directly and ask for quotes for both renters insurance and auto insurance. You should have a copy of your current auto insurance policy on hand so that you can get a quote for the same level of coverage.
  4. If you have any possessions that are particularly valuable, such as jewelry or artwork, ask how much it would cost to get additional coverage for those possessions.
  5. Make sure to ask if they offer a multi-policy discount and, if so, to get the premiums quoted with that discount applied.
  6. If there are any particular threats in your region, such as flooding or earthquakes, ask about their coverage of those specific threats.
  7. Compare the coverage and cost from each insurance company, including your current insurer. If you can get a better deal elsewhere, it should be relatively easy to switch.

Other than the work needed to shop around, getting renters insurance should be relatively quick and easy.

Are You Covered?

Renters insurance is one of those things you hope you never need but could pay off significantly if you did. In a worst-case scenario, it would help you replace all of your possessions and maintain a place to live without depleting your savings or resorting to debt.

It’s big protection at a small cost.

The post Guide to Renters Insurance: When You Need it and When You Don’t appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

3 Things to Know About Long-Term Care Insurance

Long-term care insurance is designed to save you money later in life if you need medical care, such as hospice or round-the-clock assistance from nurses.

But some long-term care insurance policyholders are feeling the financial crunch because of a rise in premiums.

An estimated 7.2 million Americans held long-term care insurance policies in 2014, according to The State of Long-Term Care Insurance 2016, a report by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners and the Center for Insurance Policy and Research. An estimated 15 million Americans will need long-term care by 2050, the report notes.

Here are three things to consider about purchasing long-term care insurance.

Long-term care insurance is only getting more expensive

In 2016, insurance companies raised premiums, outraging policyholders. Customers in Pennsylvania saw a 130% increase in their premiums, and New Yorkers under Genworth’s policy faced a 60% premium increase. Federal government employees, insured by John Hancock Life and Health Insurance Co., saw their premiums rise by an average of 83%.

“The rising costs for long-term care insurance are directly linked to the rising costs of long-term care,” says James Carson, Daniel P. Amos Distinguished Professor of Insurance at the University of Georgia. “Insurers vastly underestimated costs associated with long-term care, and subsequently revised upwards their insurance premium structures, even on existing policies.”

While the increases in premiums were legal and authorized by the state, this left many policyholders unhappy, Carson says.

Since its emergence in the 1970s, expenditures in the long-term care market have grown. Less than $20 billion was spent on long-term care when it appeared in the marketplace. By 1980, these expenditures had grown to $30 billion.

Now more than $225 billion is spent on long-term care, according to The State of Long-Term Care Insurance 2016. As more long-term care is demanded, these expenses are pushed onto the insurance companies, resulting in rising incurred claims costs.

Meanwhile, Americans are living longer and spending more on health care. Americans aged 55 and up accounted for 55% of all health spending in 2014, even though they represent only 28% of the U.S. population, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

“Millennials should start paying attention to the looming costs associated with long-term care, and possibly also long-term care insurance, because they are going to live a really long time,” Carson says. “Health costs tend to get much larger when we get older.”

Once in retirement, the average American is expected to spend as much as $250,000 on medical expenses, says Tony Steuer, founder of the Insurance Literacy Institute, based in California.

Like any insurance, the trade-off with long-term care insurance is the leverage provided. If you can’t afford the premium and it doesn’t provide good leverage, investing in long-term care insurance might be unwise, says Steuer, also a member of the National Financial Educators Council Curriculum Advisory Board.

Timing is everything

Unlike traditional health insurance, long-term care insurance covers health services in late stages of life, alongside Medicare. Medicare may not cover all the services you need after it kicks in once you turn 65, especially if you are battling illnesses such as dementia or cancer.

For example, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services projects that an American who turned 65 in 2016 will incur $138,000 in future long-term care expenses. About half of those costs will be paid for out of pocket, and the other half will come from private insurance and government assistance programs, such as Medicaid.

Purchasing long-term care insurance now can protect you from paying so much out of pocket at a time when medical needs are greater and often more expensive.

Long-term care insurance is most beneficial for those who can’t perform two out of six daily activities of living, such as eating, bathing, dressing, and walking. The insurance reimburses policyholders up to a preselected limit daily, so customers receive the services that get them through activities of daily living.

Services covered by long-term care insurance become more necessary as life expectancy increases and retirement funds drain.

Typically, long-term care insurance is purchased by those over the age of 50, says R. Vincent Pohl, assistant professor of economics at the University of Georgia, whose research interests include health economics.

“For a monthly premium that may depend on age and health, insured individuals get nursing home stays and other forms of [long-term care] paid for by the insurance,” Pohl says. “Long-term care insurance can only be bought before someone enters a nursing home for the first time.”

Steuer advises those who expect a need to purchase a long-term care policy after the age of 40. But purchasing long-term care insurance in your 40s also could save you hundreds of dollars in premium costs, compared to doing so in your 50s.

One way to consider your need for long-term care insurance is to look at your family’s medical history. For example, if a parent or grandparent has Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease, long-term care insurance is something to consider. Once a debilitating condition develops, you may not qualify, or it may be more difficult to find a provider.

Long-term care insurance helps you pay now for options later

In these cases, knowing about long-term care insurance and having invested in it before your health started to decline can prove to be beneficial.

Joanne Westwood, who lives in Ohio, learned the value of long-term care insurance when her father developed Alzheimer’s disease, and her stepmother, the primary caregiver, became ill.

“We needed to get [my father] in a place with consistent caregiving, and we needed to take it off of [my stepmother] because she was killing herself trying to be his caregiver,” Westwood says. “If he didn’t buy long-term care health insurance 20 years ago, we’d all be in a heap of trouble right now.”

Westwood’s father, now in his mid-80s, qualifies for Medicare, but Westwood says it isn’t enough. Medicare offered the bare minimum, not enough for him to stay in a facility without paying out of pocket.

Long-term care insurance gave the family options.

“It’s a lot of peace of mind and comfort,” Westwood says.

Westwood, 57, is now trying to purchase long-term care insurance for herself. After doing the research, she expects to pay much higher premiums than her father did 20 years ago, since she’s getting started in her late 50s and because of rising costs.

She says she wishes she had purchased long-term care insurance at a younger age. Even though you’re paying for a longer time, the premiums are much lower, she adds.

Pros & Cons of Long-Term Care Insurance

The Pros:

  • Future medical costs will be lower. Long-term care insurance can help you pay for the health care expenses not covered by Medicare or Medicaid. One in six individuals, or 17%, will pay at least $100,000 out of pocket for future long-term care services and support, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
  • You could buy a bit of peace of mind. If you’re investing in retirement accounts, a long-term care insurance policy provides another layer of confidence that if significant medical costs arise, it won’t eat into your nest egg.

“Living longer means an increased chance of needing long-term care,” says Kerstin Osterberg, a spokeswoman for Northwestern Mutual. “It’s critically important that individuals have a financial plan in place to protect their assets and cash flow if they should need long-term care.”

  • Buying a policy in your high earning years could cut the costs later on. Peak earning years for most people are in their late 30s to early 50s. You’ll pay more if you wait until your 50s, 60s, or 70s to sign up for long-term care insurance, and even risk not finding an insurer willing to give you coverage.

Because long-term care insurance premiums are based on several factors, such as age, sex, policy, and location, costs vary from person to person. Even if two people purchase insurance at the same age in the same state, they’re likely to pay different rates.

A 55-year-old male in Georgia will pay an annual premium of $2,645 to receive $200 of coverage a day over four years, according to Genworth’s long-term care insurance calculator. In comparison, a 40-year-old male in Georgia will pay $2,272.40 annually for the same policy. The Genworth calculator assumed a 90-day elimination period.

“In the world of insurance, you can almost always find someone willing to insure you. The problem then arises — is the coverage enough to support you?” says Jeremy Pierce, who has worked as a financial planner in Georgia. “In many cases, when you wait too long, that cost simply isn’t affordable.”

The Cons:

  • You may not need to use it. Long-term care insurance requires that you pay now to have coverage when you are older. If you don’t need medical care when you are a senior, you paid for something you won’t use.
  • You may not be able to meet the requirements. To use the benefit, you have to be unable to perform two of six activities, such as bathing or feeding yourself. Your health may not be poor enough to use it as a result. “It is likely that a claim won’t be made until someone reaches their 70s,” Steuer says.
  • You may not be able to afford it right now. If you have student loans and other expenses that have placed you in debt, paying for a long-term care insurance premium simply may not be possible. Steuer advises those who expect a need to purchase a long-term care policy after the age of 40 and if you have assets between $1 million and $5 million. “Someone who either has less than $1 million or more than $5 million should not consider it,” he says.

The post 3 Things to Know About Long-Term Care Insurance appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

What is a Required Minimum Distribution?

For workers or retirees who have not begun to withdraw funds from their retirement accounts by age 70½, the IRS requires that they start withdrawing funds. The RMD requirement applies to all tax advantaged retirement accounts, from traditional IRAs and 401(k)s to 403(b)s and SEP IRAs. The RMD does not apply to Roth IRAs or Roth 401(k)s.

Here’s a full list of retirement accounts subject to the RMD rule:

  • Traditional IRAs
  • SEP IRAs
  • SIMPLE IRAs
  • 401(k)s
  • 403(b)s
  • 457(b)s
  • profit-sharing plans
  • other defined contribution plans

How do I figure out how much to withdraw?

Just like filing your taxes, it falls on your shoulders to remember to take the RMD once you reach 70½. You can do the math yourself (we’ll explain below) to figure out what your required minimum distribution will be, or you can ask for help from a tax professional or financial adviser.

To calculate your RMD, you need to know exactly how much you’ve got saved up in each account as of Dec. 31 of the previous year. Next, use this table from the IRS to find your “distribution period” score, which is based on your life expectancy.

Most people can calculate their RMD by dividing their total retirement account balances by the distribution period that corresponds with their age.

Let’s say you turned 70½ in Dec. 2016 and had a balance of $1 million in your eligible retirement accounts on Dec. 31. You would then find the distribution period that corresponds to your age in Table III.

According to the table, your distribution period number is 27.4. When you divide $1 million by 27.4, you get an RMD of $36,496.35. That is the minimum withdrawal you must make from that account by April 1, 2017.

When do I have to start taking an RMD?

If you are already retired, you are required to take distributions by April 1 of the year after you turn 70½.

If you are still working at age 70½ and you carry a traditional 401(k) or 403(b) account with your employer, you do not have to take an RMD unless you own 5% or more of the company. However, if you are still working at age 70½ and you have individual retirement accounts outside of your employer retirement account, you will need to make an RMD from those IRAs.

You do not have to take your RMD as one lump-sum payment. The IRS will allow you to take out the funds in chunks throughout the year, which allows your money to keep growing tax free. As long as the total meets the RMD for the year, you’re in the clear.

What happens if I don’t take my RMD?

If you don’t take your RMD during the year after you turn 70½, you’ll be slapped with a 50% excise tax on the amount that was not distributed when you file taxes.

For example, if your RMD was $10,000, but you only took out $5,000, you will be assessed the 50% tax on the $5,000 that you did not withdraw.

You can delay your first RMD. If you choose to do so, you’ll be required to take two in the next year, which will affect your gross income.

 

What if I don’t need to live off of the distribution?

You are required to take your RMD beginning at 70½ , but you that doesn’t mean you have to spend it.

“A lot of clients believe that they must take an RMD and spend it. In reality, all the IRS cares about is that you remove it from the account, declare it as income, and pay taxes on it,” says Riverside, Calif.- based financial planner Breanna Reish.

You are actually free to use the money however you’d like.

One way to meet your RMD requirement is by making a qualified charitable distribution paid directly from the IRA to a qualified charity. The charitable distribution can satisfy all or part of the amount you are required to take from you IRA.

What if I have multiple retirement accounts?

If you have more than one retirement account, things can get a little more complicated. You still need to take an RMD, but you don’t have to take one out of each account. You’ll need to add up the amount you have in all of your qualifying retirement accounts, then use that figure to determine your RMD using Table III.

Again, it’s probably a good idea to seek advice from a tax or financial adviser professional who can help make the wisest decision for your finances.

The post What is a Required Minimum Distribution? appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

The 3 Secrets to Retiring Early

You’ve likely read articles about people retiring early. Is it possible for you, and if so what will it really take? First let’s establish the age at which most people retire. According to a 2016 Smart Asset survey, most people retire between the ages of 62 and 65. By age 63, half of adults are no longer working.

The definition of early retirement can be pretty subjective. You cannot draw from Social Security until age 62, but under certain circumstances you can begin withdrawing from your 401(k) at age 55 (age 50 if you’re a public safety employee like a firefighter). So for the purposes of this conversation we’ll peg early retirement as any age before 50.

The key to retiring early? Low expenses, no debt, and high income.

Retiring early is no easy feat, and in most situations it will require several events to occur, some of which you may not have control over. In the vast majority of cases you will need to keep your current cost of living extremely low, earn a high salary, and have little to no debt. These barriers automatically make it harder for the 44 million Americans with student loan debt; the class of 2016 alone had an average of about $37,000 in loans.

Though debt always plays a factor, cost of living may be the biggest hurdle to overcome on your path to early retirement. Peter Adeney, who runs a very popular financial blog called Mr. Money Mustache, retired at 30 and has become one of the most popular names behind the FIRE (Financial Independence Retire Early) movement. (Pete does not reveal his last name to media to protect his family’s privacy).

But he is hardly kicking back at an island villa sipping cocktails all day. According to an interview in MarketWatch, his family of three subsists on $25,000 per year in Longmont, Colo. Not everyone is able (or willing) to cut back their expenses to fit under such a low threshold. Where you choose to live can determine how much of your income you can save. MagnifyMoney recently analyzed over 200 U.S. cities to find the best and worst places to retire early.

Choosing the right career with a high salary on the front end can be a huge boost, Travis and Amanda of the blog Freedom with Bruno saved $1 million by 30 and retired to Asheville, N.C., according to Forbes. Thanks to a career in tech they were earning a combined income of $200,000. Jeremy of Go Curry Cracker, who made nearly $140,000 per year at Microsoft, saved 70% of his income, and lived on less than $2,000 per month, also retired at 30. It is also important to know that Pete and his wife (mentioned earlier) were also in the tech industry.

Not everyone can relocate to an inexpensive region of the country due to their job or the need to be close to their family, nor do most Americans have the privilege of a six-figure salary, but there are some great lessons that can be applied to your situation, no matter your income or age.

What you would need to retire early

Regardless of salary, debt, or cost of living, having a clear and defined goal is what gives people the confidence to retire early. Without it, they wouldn’t know the amount needed to leave their jobs. You will need to know how much you should be saving toward retirement each year and how much you will need while in retirement. Bankrate has a free retirement calculator here to help you visualize your retirement savings.

The typical rule of thumb is to live off of 4% of your total retirement savings. If you can live comfortably off of $40,000 per year in retirement, you would need about $1 million by the time you retire. If you could live comfortably off of about $25,000, you would only need about $600,000; this is what Pete from Mr. Money Mustache saved when he retired. Another easy way to get to that number is by multiplying your ideal retirement income by 25. So someone needing $55,000 in retirement would need $1,375,000. Once you figure out what you would be comfortable living on, you’ll need to select quality, low-cost investments. For many early retirees this comes in the form of index funds.

If you’re looking into cutting your cost and putting more toward retirement, you may have to get creative or put some serious efforts into increasing your income. This may include keeping a car on the road that’s 19 years old, cooking for every single meal, or moving in with your adult siblings to pay off your debts. Early retirement will require serious commitment and discipline. If you’re in the right position to do it, then this may be the path for you.

The post The 3 Secrets to Retiring Early appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

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.

Term vs Whole Life Insurance

If you’re shopping for life insurance, there are two main types you’ll likely encounter: term life insurance and whole life insurance.

Depending on who you talk to, you’ll hear different arguments for and against both types, which can make it difficult to figure out which type of life insurance will provide the right protection for you and your family.

This guide breaks it all down so that you can make the best decision for your specific situation.

What Is the Purpose of Life Insurance?

Before getting into the debate over term versus whole life insurance, let’s take a step back and remind ourselves why life insurance is important to begin with.

While there are some rare exceptions, life insurance primarily serves one main purpose: to provide financial protection to people who are financially dependent upon you.

In other words, life insurance makes sure that there will always be money available for the people who depend on you financially, even if you’re no longer there to provide for them.

A good example of this is a couple with young children. A toddler obviously cannot support herself financially, and life insurance makes sure that there would be financial resources to care for her no matter what happens to the parents.

Other examples of financial dependents might include a spouse who would struggle to handle all the bills on his or her own, or parents who have co-signed for your student loans.

So before you start thinking about which type of life insurance you need, ask yourself the following two questions to better understand why you’re getting life insurance at all:

  1. Is there anyone who would struggle financially without your support? If not, you probably don’t need life insurance.
  2. If so, for how long will they be dependent upon you? Is it a fixed time period or is it relatively permanent?

Your answers to those questions will help you sort through the term versus whole life insurance debate with a clearer, more personal viewpoint.

The Basics of Term Life Insurance

Term life insurance is coverage that lasts for a set amount of time, typically 5-30 years. Once that period is up, the policy expires and your coverage ends.

That expiration may sound like a problem, but it’s actually similar to most other types of insurance. Things like auto insurance and homeowners insurance are typically annual policies that have to be renewed each year, and you would cancel your coverage if you no longer had a need. Similarly, term life insurance is meant to provide coverage only for as long as you actually need it.

Let’s look at the pros and cons.

The Benefits of Term Life Insurance

It’s Inexpensive

Term life insurance is typically the most cost-effective way to get the protection you need. In fact, it’s often 10 times less expensive than whole life insurance for the same amount of coverage, especially if you’re relatively young and healthy.

The main reason for the price difference is that term life insurance eventually expires, meaning it has a smaller chance of paying out. And again, that may look like a downside, but…

The Coverage Period Lines Up with Your Need

Most people only have a temporary need for life insurance. Your kids will eventually grow up and be self-sufficient. Your spouse can eventually rely on retirement savings and Social Security income. Your joint debt will eventually be paid off.

Term life insurance provides financial protection for the amount of time that you need it and no more. You should hope it doesn’t pay out, because that just means that you didn’t die early. Like your car insurance, it’s good to have in case of an emergency, but the best case scenario is never having to file a claim.

In addition, if for some reason your situation changes and you no longer need life insurance, you can simply cancel your term life insurance policy and be done with it. Again, it’s coverage for as long as you need it and no more.

It’s Easy to Shop Around

Term life insurance policies are fairly simple and therefore pretty generic. As long as you’re looking at insurance companies with a strong financial rating, you can largely shop on price alone.

My two favorite sites for comparison shopping for term life insurance policies are PolicyGenius and Term4Sale, both of which only list policies from reputable companies.

For example, using the Term4Sale quote engine, a 34-year-old nonsmoking male in New York City with “Preferred” health status could get a $1 million 30-year term life insurance policy for as little as $939.98 per year or as much as $1,255.30 per year. And again, because term life insurance is fairly generic, you can compare those premiums with the confidence that your policy would be just as good either way.

You Can Typically Convert to Whole Life

What happens if you end up needing life insurance coverage longer than you originally thought? Since term life insurance eventually runs out, wouldn’t that be a problem?

It is a risk, but most term life insurance policies allow you to convert your policy to whole life insurance without medical underwriting as long as you do it before the policy expires. Your premium would increase significantly upon such a conversion, reflecting the increased liability the insurance company is taking on by providing permanent coverage. And if for some reason your policy did require medical underwriting at the time of conversion, there would be the risk of an even bigger premium increase if your health has declined since you originally got the policy.

Not all policies have this conversion feature, but those that do remove the risk that you wouldn’t be able to get permanent coverage later on if you need it.

The Downsides of Term Life Insurance

It’s More Expensive as You Get Older

Term life insurance is typically inexpensive if you’re relatively young, but it gets more expensive as you get older, especially if you’re looking at policies with longer terms. And the reason is simply that your odds of dying increase as you age, which means the insurance company faces a bigger risk.

For example, a 54-year-old male looking for the same $1 million, 30-year term life insurance policy we mentioned above is looking at an annual premium of $5,894 to $6,780 per year.

If you’re in your 50s or above and looking for life insurance, a term policy may or may not end up being a cost-effective way to get it.

It May Not Last as Long as You Need

Life is hard to predict, and it’s certainly possible that you end up needing life insurance for longer than you originally expected. If that happens, your term life insurance policy likely won’t have a lot of flexibility that allows you to extend it, beyond converting it to whole life.

There are also some insurance needs for which permanent protection is simply better. Those are rare, but we’ll talk about them below.

The Basics of Whole Life Insurance

Whole life insurance has two primary features:

  1. It provides permanent coverage, meaning that it will never expire as long as you continue to pay the premiums.
  2. It includes a savings component that builds up over time and can eventually be used for a variety of purposes.

There are several types of whole life insurance that have slightly different features and serve different purposes, like universal life insurance, variable life insurance, and equity-indexed life insurance. For the purposes of this article we’ll focus on the basic whole life insurance that most people will come across, and for the most part, all of the following pros and cons would apply no matter which type you’re talking about.

The Benefits of Whole Life Insurance

It Can Handle a Permanent Need

If you have a permanent or indefinite need for life insurance, whole life insurance is the way to get it.

For example, if you have a child with special needs who will likely be dependent upon others for his or her entire life, whole life insurance may make sense. Or if you will have multiple millions of dollars to pass on to your heirs, whole life insurance can help with estate taxes and preserve your family’s wealth.

Most people don’t have these kinds of permanent needs, but if you do, then whole life insurance can be valuable.

It Can Be a Form of Forced Savings

For people who struggle to consistently save money, whole life insurance can be a way to force yourself to build long-term savings while also providing financial protection.

It may not be the most efficient savings account, as we’ll talk about below, but having some savings is better than having none, and the savings you do accumulate can be withdrawn for any reason. Taxes are also deferred while the money is inside the account, which can be a benefit for high-income earners who have already maxed out their other tax-advantaged savings accounts.

It’s Can Be Structured to Meet Your Goals

If you work with a life insurance professional who really knows what they’re doing, you can specially structure a whole life insurance policy to serve specific purposes.

For example, if your main goal is permanent life insurance protection, you can structure it to minimize the savings component and make that protection as cheap as possible. If your main goal is to build savings, you can structure it to minimize other costs and front-load your contributions to grow your savings as quickly as possible.

If you can find a life insurance agent who’s willing to work with you in a fiduciary capacity, meaning they put your interests ahead of their own, you can get fairly creative and structure your whole life insurance policy to meet your specific needs.

The Downsides of Whole Life Insurance

It’s Expensive

Whole life insurance is an expensive way to get the financial protection you need. For example, remember the 34-year-old male who would pay $939.98 per year for a $1 million 30-year term life insurance policy? According to LLIS, a team of independent insurance advisers, a $1 million whole life insurance policy for the same individual would be $11,240 per year. That’s 12 times more expensive for the same amount of coverage. (Though, to be fair, for a longer coverage period.)

There are also a lot of hidden fees that add to the cost, from the sizable commission paid to the agent who sells you the policy to the management fees associated with the policy’s savings account.

Unless you truly have a permanent need for coverage, whole life insurance is probably not the most cost-effective way to get it.

Most People Don’t Have a Permanent Need

The simple fact is that most people don’t have a need for permanent life insurance coverage. As your children age and your savings grow, the financial impact of your death decreases until there’s little to no risk.

It might be nice to know that whole life insurance will eventually pay out, but is that something you need? And if not, is it worth paying those big premiums over all those years instead of putting that money elsewhere?

Don’t be fooled into thinking that your insurance has to pay out for it to be valuable. If you don’t have the need for permanent coverage, you shouldn’t pay for it.

It’s Not an Efficient Savings Vehicle

The savings component of whole life insurance might sound attractive, but the truth is that it’s not an especially efficient way to save money.

It takes a long time for the cash value to build up. It’s often 7-10 years just to break even, and even over long periods of time in the best of circumstances the return is likely to be low.

Not only that, but withdrawals from your account are actually loans, meaning you’re typically charged interest for the right to use your own money. Can you imagine if your savings account at the bank charged you interest each time you took money out?

Finally, unlike other savings accounts where you can simply decide to pause or decrease your contributions for a while if you hit a rough patch, your whole life insurance premiums are due like clockwork no matter what. Your policy can lapse if you fail to pay your premiums, losing you both the protection you need and the savings you’ve built up.

The truth is that unless you’ve already maxed out all your other tax-advantaged savings accounts — like your 401(k), IRAs, health savings accounts, and 529 accounts — the tax benefits of saving within a life insurance policy likely aren’t worth it. And even then you may be better off using a taxable brokerage account, depending on your specific goals and circumstances.

Which Type of Life Insurance Is Right for You?

If you’re purely looking for the financial protection that life insurance provides, and if your need is temporary, then term life insurance is likely the best option for you. It’s the cheapest way to get the protection you need, leaving more room in your budget for your other goals and obligations.

And for most people, quite honestly, that’s the end of the discussion. Most people don’t have a need for permanent coverage and will be better off putting their savings elsewhere, like regular savings accounts for short-term needs and dedicated retirement accounts for long-term investments.

But there are a few situations in which some kind of whole life insurance can make sense.

If you have a truly permanent need for life insurance, such as a child with long-term special needs, then a whole life insurance policy specially designed to provide the protection you need at the lowest cost possible may be well worth it.

And if your income is very high and you’re already maxing out all other tax-advantaged investment accounts, a whole life insurance policy can be a way to get some additional tax-deferred savings. Again, you’d ideally want it to be specially designed to minimize fees and maximize the amount that goes toward savings.

In any case, remember to focus on the reason why you’re getting life insurance in the first place and to make decisions around that need. The right type of life insurance will likely be pretty clear as long as you keep your personal goals at the forefront.

The post Term vs Whole Life Insurance appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

How to Pay for Uber and Lyft Rides With Your Employee Commuter Benefits

Ride-share users, your employee commuter benefits package just got a little better. Earlier this year, Lyft became the latest ride-sharing app to give riders the chance to pay using employee commuter benefits.

That means riders can now use pre-tax dollars to pay for Lyft rides the same way commuter benefits can be used to cover transit costs or parking expenses. Lyft isn’t the first ride-sharing app to add commuter benefits — Uber beat them to it back in August — but Lyft’s addition of commuter benefits signals a trend that could save big-city commuters time and money on the way to work each day.

Right now, it’s not possible for workers to use commuter benefits to pay for regular cabs — including regular Uber or Lyft rides. But Uber and Lyft found a clever way around this. Benefits can be used when riders select Lyft Line or uberPOOL, the apps’ carpooling options.

If you’re curious about this benefit and whether or not it’s worth linking your Uber or Lyft account to your commuter benefit account, we’ve got you covered.

What are commuter benefits?

Commuter benefits are an employer-provided benefits program that lets you set aside pre-tax dollars in an account to be used for your commute costs. Employees can use these benefits to pay for public transportation — trains, subways, buses, even parking passes — used on their daily commute with pre-tax dollars. The amount of money you set aside to pay for your commute doesn’t count as income, so you’re not taxed on it.

Which benefits programs are included?

Each ride-hailing service has partnered with select benefits programs, although there is some overlap. For example, if your company’s benefits package is with Zenefits or TransitChek, you can use them with Lyft, but not with Uber. On the other hand, if you are with EdenRed or Ameriflex, you can only pay with your benefits on the Uber app. The lucky commuters with benefits under WageWorks, Benefit Resource and Navia can use their benefits on either rideshare app.

How do I sign up for commuter benefits?

Workers have to sign up for commuter benefits in order to receive them. You will be asked to select how much money you want to set aside from your paycheck each month to cover your transportation costs.

Once you’re enrolled, you may receive a benefits card (it can be used like a regular debit or credit card) to make transportation purchases. Otherwise, you can purchase transportation expenses using your regular credit or debit card and then submit a claim to be reimbursed through your benefit provider.

Reach out to your employer’s human resources department to find out how to take advantage of your commuter benefits program.

How much can I really save?

Depending on your current tax bracket, you could have up to 40% more to spend on your commute. For example, if you’re in the 35% tax bracket and contribute $200 each month to your commuter benefits account, you’re getting an extra $70 to spend on your commute each month. That’s an extra $840 per year.

But here’s the catch: Commuter benefits contributions are capped at $255 per month. So if you are already relying on your benefits to finance your monthly subway pass or parking garage expenses, you may not have much left over to use on Lyft or Uber rides.

What are Lyft Line and uberPOOL?

To use commuter benefits to pay for Lyft or Uber rides, you have to select the apps’ carpooling options — either Lyft Line or uberPOOL. Carpool vehicles seat six or more passengers. Both Uber and Lyft use algorithms to place riders going toward the same area together. Because you’re carpooling, however, you may or may not have a shorter commute, depending on traffic in your city and how many other riders get picked up or dropped off during your trip.

How to use commuter benefits on Lyft

First, you need to add your commuter benefits card to your profile.

  1. When you open the Lyft app, tap “Payment” in the left-hand side menu to see your payment options.
  2. Select “Add credit card,” enter your commuter benefits card information, and save. The card will have a “Commuter” distinction.
  3. Next, set the card as your default payment method. There are two ways to do this:
    1. Select the card as your default payment method for your personal profile under the “payment defaults” section in the “Payment” menu.
    2. When you open the app, set your location and destination. You’ll then see the last four digits of the card is being used to pay for the trip. Tap the numbers to change your payment method to your commuter benefits card. You should see a rectangular icon with a diamond in its center when using your benefits card.
    3. Select “Lyft Line & Ride.”
      You can only use your benefits to pay for carpools under Lyft Line. Select the pooling option to be matched with a car with six or more seats, and you’ll be all set.

How to use commuter benefits on Uber

Add your commuter benefits card to your profile by going to the left-hand menu and adding your commuter benefits card under “Payment.” You can also add the card after setting your location and destination under uberPOOL, shown below.

Tap on your card information to set or add your commuter card as a payment option.

Your benefits can only be used to pay for carpools under uberPOOL. Select the pooling option to be matched with a car with six or more seats, and you’ll be good to go.

Pros

Using pre-tax dollars saves you up to 40%

The most obvious perk of using your commuter benefit is that you’re using pre-tax dollars, so your dollar goes up to 40% further. If you’re already paying out of pocket for your commute, this could be a huge benefit.

Cut back on driving

If you drive to work, a 2014 Trulia analysis found you likely spend about 30 minutes in the car each way. If it’s more affordable for you to use a ride-sharing app, you can use that time to read or catch up on work or a nap while you ride.

Reduce your carbon footprint

Legally, commuter benefits can only be used with efforts to reduce your commuter footprint, so ride-sharing counts only when you’re placed in a car that seats six or more passengers. If you drive to work, this cuts down your footprint and takes the hassle out of organizing a carpool.

Cons

Lyft Line or uberPOOL only

You may want to put your pre-tax dollars elsewhere if you’re not into making new friends each morning. You’ll be placed in a vehicle that seats six or more people when you use your benefits card, and other riders may have various personality types.

Limit on contribution

Your contribution is limited to $255 a month, which may or may not be a month’s worth of commuting, depending on how much your commute costs. For example, a LendingTree analysis found the average monthly cost of commuting with Uber’s non-pool service UberX in New York City is more than $700. Still, $255 pre-tax will help cut down on your monthly spending for the trip to work.

Only available in select major cities

The apps’ commuter benefits options are only available in select major cities so far. Here’s a breakdown of where you can use yours.

Lyft: New York City, Boston, Seattle, and Miami

Uber: New York City, Boston, Chicago, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Philadelphia, Las Vegas, Denver, Atlanta, Miami, Los Angeles, San Diego, Seattle, and New Jersey (state).

The post How to Pay for Uber and Lyft Rides With Your Employee Commuter Benefits appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

What Is Mortgage Amortization?

Mortgage concept by money house from the coins

Owning a home can feel good. But is it a good financial decision?

There’s a lot that goes into answering that question, and one of the biggest factors is something that sounds both incredibly boring and incredibly confusing: mortgage amortization.

It’s not the sexiest financial topic in the world, but it has a big impact on your personal finances. In this post we’ll break it down so that you understand what it is and how it should factor into your decision about whether to buy a house.

What Is Mortgage Amortization?

Each time you make your monthly mortgage payment, that payment is split between paying interest and paying down principal (reducing your loan balance). Amortization is simply the process by which that split is calculated.

See, your payment isn’t split the same way throughout the life of your mortgage. It’s actually different with each payment, with your earliest payments going primarily toward interest.

For example, let’s say you buy a $250,000 house, put 20% down, and take out a 30-year, $200,000 mortgage with a 4% interest rate. That means your monthly payment would be $955.

To calculate how much of that first payment goes toward interest, you simply divide the interest rate by 12 to get a monthly interest rate and multiply that by your outstanding loan. Here’s how it looks in this example:

  • (4% / 12) * $200,000 = $667

That means $667 of your initial mortgage payment is used to pay off interest, while the remaining $288 reduces your mortgage balance to $199,712.

Next month the same calculation is run again, but this time with your slightly lower mortgage balance. That leads to a $666 interest payment and $289 going toward reducing your loan.

And that’s how it works. Your early payments are primarily used to pay interest, but over time it slowly shifts so that more and more of your monthly payment is used to reduce your mortgage balance.

You should receive an amortization schedule when you apply for a mortgage, and you can also run the numbers yourself here: Zillow Amortization Calculator. This will show you exactly how much of each payment goes toward interest, how much goes toward principal, and how much interest you’ll pay over the life of the loan.

What Does That Mean for You?

Okay, great, so you have the technical explanation for how mortgage amortization works. But how is that actually relevant to you? Why should you care?

There are two big implications to keep in mind as you consider whether or not to buy a house.

The first is this is one of the reasons it often requires you to stay in your house for several years before your home purchase pays off versus renting. People often talk about renting as if you’re “throwing money away,” but they forget that you’re doing something very similar in those early years of your mortgage as well.

Remember, those interest payments you’re making, which are the majority of your early mortgage payments, aren’t building equity in your home. That money is going straight to your lender and will never be yours again. It usually takes a while before your home equity really starts to grow.

The second is buying a house costs much more than most people realize. Take the example above. You might think of it as just a $250,000 purchase, but when you include all the interest you pay over the life of that 30-year mortgage, the total cost rises to $393,739.

And that doesn’t even include the cost of homeowners insurance, property taxes, repairs, upgrades, and everything else that comes with owning a home.

The bottom line is buying a house is expensive, and in many cases renting is actually a better financial move, especially if you aren’t committed to staying in the house for an extended period of time. You can run the numbers for yourself here: New York Times buy vs. rent calculator.

How to Combat Amortization

To be clear, mortgage amortization isn’t a bad thing. It’s just how mortgages work, and it’s important to understand so you can evaluate the true cost of buying a house.

But if you’d like more of your money to go toward principal sooner, and therefore decrease the amount of interest you pay, there are a few ways to do it.

The first is to put more money down when you buy the house. That down payment is immediate equity in your home that will not be charged interest.

The second is to make extra payments and make sure they go toward paying down principal. You will have to double-check your mortgage’s specific terms, though, to make sure there aren’t any prepayment penalties or other clauses that would make this a bad idea.

And the third is to take out a 15-year loan (or other shorter term). Using the same example above and changing only the length of the loan from 30 years to 15 years, the monthly payment increases to $1,479, but the total cost of the house over the life of the loan decreases to $316,287. That’s a savings of $77,452 and doesn’t factor in the likelihood of getting a better interest rate in return for the shorter loan period.

Keep in mind all of these strategies can be beneficial in some situations and not in others. In some cases it can make more sense to invest your money elsewhere, so you’ll have to run your own numbers and make the best decision based on your personal situation.

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Here’s Everything You Should Know About Term Life Insurance

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The majority of healthy Americans can use term life insurance policies to get sufficient coverage in place for anywhere from $15 to $100 a month. Most (85%) American consumers believe that most people need life insurance, but just over 60% carry a policy. Even among those who carry a life insurance policy, the amount covered is frequently not enough.

Term life insurance is a low-cost way for individuals with financial dependents to meet those people’s needs even after death. But it can be confusing to understand what it is and what it covers.

When to Consider Life Insurance

Anyone who has a financial dependent should consider buying life insurance if they don’t have the assets available to cover their dependent’s financial needs in the event of their death.

There are five major events that create financial dependence and may justify the purchase of life insurance. These events include:

  1. Taking on unsecured debt with a co-signer
  2. Taking on secured debt with a co-signer
  3. Marriage
  4. Having a child
  5. Moving to a single income

How Much Life Insurance Do I Need?

Term life insurance is the cheapest form of life insurance, but carrying too much life insurance is a waste of money. The exact amount you decide to carry will depend on your risk tolerance and the size of your financial obligations. In this article we offer rules of thumb that can help you calculate the financial loss associated with your death.

Most life insurance companies and brokers also offer life insurance calculators, but these calculators rely on averages. Since each person’s situation is different, it can be valuable to create an estimate on your own.

Unsecured debt with a co-signer

If you’ve taken on unsecured debt (like student loans) with a co-signer and you don’t have sufficient cash or investments to cover the debt, then consider purchasing life insurance in the amount that is co-signed. The beneficiary of this policy should be the person who co-signed the loan with you.

For example, if your parents have taken out $50,000 in loans via a Parent PLUS Loan or private loans, then you should take out a $50,000 policy with your parents as the beneficiaries. In most cases involving unsecured debt with a co-signer, a short term (such as 10-15 years) will be the most cost-effective option for covering this debt.

Secured debt with a co-signer

Secured debts (like a mortgage or a car loan) have some form of capital that could be sold to pay off most or all of the loans, but you still might want to consider taking out life insurance for these types of debts.

While your co-signer can sell the asset, pay off the debt, and become financially whole, that may not be the right choice for your situation (especially if the co-signer is your spouse).

For example, a couple that takes out $200,000 for a 30-year mortgage may decide to each take out a $200,000, 30-year term life insurance policy. This policy will allow either spouse to continue to live in the house in the event of the other’s death.

Marriage

Marriage isn’t a financial transaction, but it brings about financial interdependence. In the event of your death, the last thing you want your spouse to be concerned about is their finances.

Couples without children who both work aren’t financially dependent on each other, but many people would still like to provide their spouse 1-3 years’ worth of income in life insurance to cover time off from work, final expenses, and expenses associated with transitioning houses or apartments.

A couple who each earn $40,000 per year, and who have $20,000 outside of their retirement accounts, can consider purchasing life insurance policies between $20,000-$100,000 in life insurance to provide for the other’s financial needs in the event of their death.

Having a child

Because children are financially dependent on their parents, parents should carry life insurance to cover the costs of raising their children in the event of a parent’s death.

The estimated cost of raising a child from birth to 18 is $245,000, so it is reasonable for each parent to carry a policy of $100,000-$250,000 per child. It is especially important to note that stay-at-home parents should not neglect life insurance since their death may represent a big financial loss to their family (manifested in increased child care costs).

The beneficiary of this life insurance policy should be the person who would care for your child in the event of your death. Sometimes this will be your spouse, but sometimes it will be your child’s other parent, or a trust set up in your child’s name.

If a couple has two children under age 5, and $50,000 in accounts outside of retirement, then each parent should have between $150,000 and $450,000 in life insurance. Parents of older children may choose to take out smaller policies or forego the policy altogether.

Income dependence

If your spouse is dependent upon your income to meet their financial needs, then it is important to purchase enough life insurance to care for their immediate and ongoing financial needs in the event of your death. If you are the exclusive income earner in your house or if you co-own a business with your spouse that requires each of you to play a role that the other cannot play, then your death would yield a tremendous financial loss for several years or more.

In order to estimate the size of policy needed in this situation, there are a few guidelines to consider. According to the well-respected Trinity Study, if you invest 25 times your family’s annual expenditures in a well-diversified portfolio, then your portfolio has a high likelihood of providing for their needs (accounting for inflation) for at least 30 years. A policy worth 25 times your annual income, less the assets you have invested outside of retirement accounts, is the maximum policy size you should consider.

Many people choose to take out even less than this because their spouse will eventually choose to return to work. A second rule of thumb is that the total amount of life insurance for which your spouse is the beneficiary should be worth 10-12 times your annual income. A policy of this size would reasonably provide money to pay for living and education expenses (if your spouse needs to re-train to enter the workforce) for many years without damaging your spouse’s prospects of retirement.

Based on these rules of thumb, if you earn $100,000 and your family’s expenses are $70,000 per year, and your spouse is a stay-at-home parent, then you should have enough life insurance to pay out between $1 million and $1.75 million (remember to subtract the values of any other policies or non-retirement assets above when calculating this amount).

How to Shop for Life Insurance

After deciding on the amount of insurance you need, and the terms you need, you can start shopping for the best policy for you. Although it’s possible to shop around for the best insurance, MagnifyMoney recommends that most people connect with a life insurance broker. For this report, every quote received from a broker was within a few cents of the quote received directly from the insurance company.

If you tell a broker exactly what you want, they can pull up quotes from a dozen or more reputable companies to get you the most cost-effective insurance given your health history. This is especially important if you have some health restrictions.

People with standard health (usually driven by high blood pressure or obesity, or many family health problems) may find some difficulty finding low rates, but brokers can help connect them with the right companies.

People with “substandard health” because of obesity, high blood pressure, or elevated cholesterol, those suffering from current health issues, or people recently in remission from major illnesses will not qualify for term life insurance.

Top Three Life Insurance Brokers

  1. PolicyGenius – PolicyGenius is an online-only broker with an easy-to-use process and helpful policy information. Users give no contact information until they are ready to purchase a policy. PolicyGenius’s system saves data, so users don’t have to re-enter time and again. It is very easy to compare prices and policies before applying.
  2. Quotacy – Quotacy is an online-only life insurance broker with connections to more term life insurance companies than most other life insurance companies. Quotacy offers quick and easy forms to fill out, and they do not require that you give contact information until you are ready to purchase a policy. Unfortunately, they do not fully vet out the policies, so you may need to ask an agent questions before completing a purchase.
  3. AccuQuote – AccuQuote is an online-based brokerage company that specializes in life insurance products. Unlike the online-only brokerage systems, their quotes are completed through a brokerage agent via a phone call. People who prefer some human interaction will find that AccuQuote emphasizes customer service and offers the same price points as online-only competitors.

Top Life Insurance Companies

For those who prefer to shop for life insurance without the aid of a broker, these are the top five companies to consider before purchasing a policy. Each of these companies allow you to begin an application online though you may need to connect with an agent for more details (including a rate quote).

To be a top life insurance issuer, companies had to offer the lowest rates on 30-year term insurance for preferred plus or preferred health levels, and be A+ rated through the Better Business Bureau.

  1. Allianz – Allianz offers the lowest rates for both Preferred and Preferred Plus customers, but they do require you to contact an agent or a broker for a quote.
  2. Thrivent Financial – Thrivent Financial offers the lowest rates for Preferred Plus customers, but they require you to contact an agent before they will confirm your rate.
  3. American National – American National offers among the lowest rates with Preferred and Preferred Plus customers, and they work closely with all major online brokers. You must contact an agent to get a quote directly from them.
  4. Banner Life Insurance (a subsidiary of Legal & General America) – Banner Life Insurance offers an online quote portal and very low rates for Preferred Plus customers. They also seem to be a bit more lenient on the line than other customers for considering Preferred Plus (not considering family history).
  5. Prudential – Prudential offers an online quote portal and the lowest rates for Preferred customers.

What to Expect Next

After you’ve decided to purchase an insurance policy, the policy will need to undergo an underwriting process. This will include a quick medical examination (height, weight, blood pressure, urine sample, and drawing blood) that usually takes place in your home. After that, the insurance companies will need to collect and review your medical records before issuing a policy for you.

Underwriting typically takes 3-8 weeks depending on how complete your medical records are. The company will then issue you a policy, and as long as you continue to pay, your policy will remain in effect (until the expiration of the term). Once your policy is in effect, you can rest easy knowing that your financial dependents will be taken care of in the event of your death.

 

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Will You Get Real Value from an Online Degree?

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In search of higher education, lucrative careers and better credentials, nearly 6 million Americans are enrolled in some kind of online course, according to data from the Online Learning Consortium. Distance learning programs tout online courses as an efficient and low-cost way to complete a degree. But are they worth the time and financial investment?

Here’s what to consider before you enroll in an online learning program:

What it really costs

For students looking to complete distance learning programs at in-state schools, the cost probably won’t vary much from traditional students attending classes in person. However if you’re comparing for-profit online schools to out of state public universities, for-profit schools tend to have lower tuition costs on average ($15,610 vs. $23,893 per year). Before you enroll in a for-profit university you should note that it is more difficult to obtain scholarships and grants when studying at a for-profit school.

Degree mills (for-profit schools that aren’t accredited such as American Central University or Golden State University) offer the lowest degree prices, but these institutions offer little in the way of education, and they drag down the appeal of all online degrees. Check to see if your school is accredited here.

A lower sticker price for an online degree might not translate to a lower out of pocket to you as a student. Before committing to an online institution, consider cost saving measures such as attending a Community College for two years and applying for scholarships at an in-state, public school. In many cases, this will end up being your lowest cost option.

However, if distance learning is right for you, you will qualify for subsidized loans if you attend any accredited school (this includes some for-profit online schools). If the school you plan to attend is accredited by one of the national or regional accrediting commissions (see this list to learn more), you will be eligible to receive the Pell Grant and Stafford or Perkins loans.

Online Degree Completion

Students in online only programs complete courses and degrees at a slightly lower rates than students in traditional programs. This may be due to a lower level of student support for online students, or the fact that more distance learners have both career and family demands in addition to their education.

Because online degrees have lower completion rates, you should ask yourself whether you have the time and resources that you need to complete your degree; if you don’t, it’s not worth the money. If your primary goal is to learn and continue your education, you may that Massive Open Online Course (MOOCs) through Khan Academy or Coursera fit your needs with negligible out of pocket costs.

What you won’t get from an online program

If you earn an online degree through a traditional university, employers will perceive your degree as on par with traditional degrees from that school. For example, a Master’s Degree in Statistics from Texas A&M is equally valuable if you earned the degree through their distance education program or while attending class on campus. However, not every employer views online for-profit universities favorably. Top tier online schools are working to change sentiments, but you should research the acceptance in your field before pursuing a degree from a for-profit institution.

Distance education programs offer fewer networking opportunities compared to traditional schools. Online students do not have as much access to professors or peers as traditional students which is a drawback during the learning process and the job search process, but recently, high quality online schools offer new technology to help their students network and job search.

You also shouldn’t expect as much hands-on help in your coursework as an online student. Distance learners need to be self-directed, and able to pick up complex concepts on their own. Students may need to teach themselves computer programs, and they will be expected to do labs or other physical projects on their own.

Advantages of online degrees

Online programs from top-tier online universities and not-for-profit universities offer high quality education that may increase your marketability. You can earn your degree with greater flexibility than in a traditional education model, and you may be able to earn your bachelor’s degree even while you hold down a full-time job and raise your family.

Depending on the school you choose and your financial aid package, an online degree may have a lower out of pocket cost compared to a traditional classroom setting. Online universities accept more transfer credits than traditional universities which can help you complete your degree faster and reduce your costs.

Especially for adults hoping to complete a degree, distance learning and online universities offer advantages that traditional schools cannot.

Is an online program for you?

The value of an online degree depends upon how you want to use it. If a degree will allow you to advance in your company or your industry, and you want to earn your degree while working then an online degree offers value above what a similarly priced brick-and-mortar school offers. Distance learners have increasing opportunities to study in a field that aligns with their personal and career goals.  Popular degrees for distance learners include healthcare administration, business administration, information systems and psychology, but hands on fields like nursing and elementary education continue to make inroads for students pursuing their degree online.

On the other hand, if you’re not a self-directed learner, or your industry frowns on online education then the money will be wasted. Degrees from non-accredited universities aren’t going to be worth the money for most people.

If you choose to pursue an online degree, be sure to compare the out of pocket cost to you (including fees), consider whether you have the time and resources to complete the degree, and line up your funding ahead of time. It’s also important to weigh your expected increase in income against the cost of the degree. Online degrees aren’t a slam dunk in value, but you may find that it’s the right choice for you.

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