8 Ways to Avoid Early IRA Withdrawal Penalties

An early distribution penalty isn't always inevitable. These exceptions might just apply to you.

Qualified retirement plans are designed to be used solely for retirement income. Taxable withdrawals from these plans before age 59.5 are generally assessed an additional 10% “early distribution tax” by the IRS. (The additional tax for SIMPLE IRA plans is 25% in the first two years of participation, and 10% thereafter). However, there are exceptions to this tax. Most of the exceptions apply to both individual retirement accounts and employer sponsored qualified plans, while a few only apply to IRAs. It may be possible, however, to roll a portion of your company’s retirement plan to an IRA in order to take advantage of those exceptions that only apply to IRA plans.

1. Disability

If you become disabled you can access your retirement funds without penalty, but there’s a catch. To claim the exemption, the IRS requires a “total and permanent” disability. You are only considered disabled if “you cannot engage in any substantial gainful activity because of your physical or mental condition. Additionally, “a physician must certify that the condition has lasted or can be expected to last continuously for 12 months or more, or that the condition can be expected to result in death.”

2. Education (IRAs only)

Distributions to pay qualified expenses for higher education qualify for the exemption if the student is enrolled in at least half of a full-time academic work load at an eligible academic institution. Qualified expenses include tuition, fees, books, supplies and equipment required for the education. These expenses can be for you, your spouse, you or your spouse’s child or grandchild. It is important to note that any expenses paid for with other government program funds or tax benefits are generally not eligible for this exemption. To qualify, the education expenses must be paid in the same year as the withdrawal.

3. First-Time Homebuyers (IRAs only)

Qualified first-time homebuyers can exclude up to $10,000 of penalty-free distributions from the early withdrawal tax if the proceeds are used to buy or build a primary residence within 120 days. The home can be for you, your spouse or either of your descendants. The term “first-time homebuyer” is a little misleading. According to the IRS, you are a first-time home buyer if you or your spouse did not have any ownership in a primary residence during the previous two years. So even if you have owned a home in the past, you can be considered a “first-time” homebuyer if it has been at least two years since you sold it. While this exemption can only be used once in a lifetime, both you and your spouse could each withdraw $10,000 and apply it to the same residence.

4. Unreimbursed Medical Expenses

Any unreimbursed medical expenses that exceed 10% of your adjusted gross income (Line 37 of the Form 1040) can be paid with funds from your IRA or company retirement plan without incurring the early distribution tax. The medical expenses must be paid in the same calendar year as the withdrawal to qualify.

5. Medical Insurance During Unemployment (IRAs Only)

If you lose your job and receive unemployment compensation for at least 12 consecutive weeks you may qualify to pay your medical insurance premiums with amounts withdrawn from your IRA without the early distribution tax. IRA withdrawals can be used to pay medical insurance premiums for yourself, your spouse, or your dependents without the 10% penalty. The distributions must be received in either the year you received unemployment compensation or the next year and must be withdrawn no later than 60 days after you start a new job.

6. Active Duty Military Reservist

If you are a member of the military reserves and are called to active duty for at least 180 days (or for an indefinite period) you will not have to pay the excess tax on any withdrawals made during your period of active duty.

7. IRS Levy

If the IRS places a levy on your retirement plan and you withdraw funds to satisfy the levy, you will not be charged the excess tax. If, however, you withdraw funds to pay taxes owed in anticipation of a levy, the exemption does not apply.

8. Substantially Equal Periodic Payments

If you do not meet any of the aforementioned exceptions, but still want to access your retirement plan without penalty, you can take “Substantially Equal Periodic Payments” over a period that is the longer of five years or until you reach age 59.5. The “Substantially Equal Periodic Payment” must be calculated according to complicated IRS actuarial rules. (You should consult a certified public accountant to perform the calculations.) These payments cannot be stopped or changed once they start or the 10% early distribution tax will be applied retroactively applied and you will also be charged interest.

It is important to weigh the consequences of taking distributions from plans designed to provide retirement income for non-retirement expenses. You should try to find another means to pay these pre-retirement expenses when possible. (If you plan to take out a loan, a good credit score will lead to a better rate. See where you stand before applying. You can check two credit scores for free at Credit.com.) Otherwise, make certain that you seek the advice of a competent tax adviser before making this critical decision. Mistakes can be costly.

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Ultimate Guide to Maximizing Your 401(k)

You’re probably familiar with the basics of a 401(k).

You know that it’s a retirement account and that it’s offered by your employer. You know that you can contribute a percentage of your salary and that you get tax breaks on those contributions. And you know that your employer may offer some type of matching contribution.

But beyond the basics, you may have some confusion about exactly how your 401(k) works and what you should be doing to maximize its benefits.

That’s what this guide is going to show you. We’ll tell you everything you need to know in order to maximize your 401(k) contributions.

The 4 Types of 401(k) Contributions You Need to Understand

When it comes to maximizing your 401(k), nothing you do will be more important than maximizing your contributions.

Because while most investment advice focuses on how to build the perfect portfolio, the truth is that your savings rate is much more important than the investments you choose. Especially when you’re just starting out, the simple act of saving more money is far and away the most effective way to accelerate your path toward financial independence.

There are four different ways to contribute to your 401(k), and understanding how each one works will allow you to combine them in the most efficient way possible, adding more money to your 401(k) and getting you that much closer to retirement.

1. Employee Contributions

Employee contributions are the only type of 401(k) contribution that you have full control over and are likely to be the biggest source of your 401(k) funds.

Employee contributions are the contributions that you personally make to your 401(k). They’re typically set up as a percentage of your salary and are deducted directly from your paycheck.

For example, let’s say that you are paid $3,000 every two weeks. If you decide to contribute 5% of your salary to your 401(k), then $150 will be taken out of each paycheck and deposited directly into your 401(k).

There are two different types of employee contributions you can make to your 401(k), each with a different set of tax benefits:

  1. Traditional contributions – Traditional contributions are tax-deductible in the year you make the contribution, grow tax-free while inside the 401(k), and are taxed as ordinary income when you withdraw the money in retirement. This is just like a traditional IRA. All 401(k)s allow you to make traditional contributions, and in most cases your contributions will default to traditional unless you choose otherwise.
  2. Roth contributions – Roth contributions are NOT tax-deductible in the year you make the contribution, but they grow tax-free while inside the 401(k) and the money is tax-free when you withdraw it in retirement. This is just like a Roth IRA. Not all 401(k)s allow you to make Roth contributions.

For more on whether you should make traditional or Roth contributions, you can refer to the following guide that’s specific to IRAs but largely applies to 401(k)s as well: Guide to Choosing the Right IRA: Traditional or Roth?

Maximum personal contributions

The IRS sets limits on how much money you can personally contribute to your 401(k) in a given year. For 2017, employee contributions are capped at $18,000, or $24,000 if you’re age 50 or older. In subsequent sections we’ll talk about how much you should be contributing in order to maximize these contributions.

2. Employer Matching Contributions

Many employers match your contributions up to a certain point, meaning that they contribute additional money to your 401(k) each time you make a contribution.

Employer matching contributions are only somewhat in your control. You can’t control whether your employer offers a match or the type of match they offer, but you can control how effectively you take advantage of the match they do offer.

Taking full advantage of your employer match is one of the most important parts of maximizing your 401(k). Skip ahead to this section to learn more on how to maximize your employer match.

3. Employer Non-Matching Contributions

Non-matching 401(k) contributions are contributions your employer makes to your 401(k) regardless of how much you contribute. Some companies offer this type of contribution in addition to, or in lieu of, regular matching contributions.

For example, your employer might contribute 5% of your salary to your 401(k) no matter what. Or they might make a variable contribution based on the company’s annual profits.

It’s important to note that these contributions are not within your control. Your employer either makes them or not, no matter what you do.

However, they can certainly affect how much you need to save for retirement, since more money from your employer may mean that you don’t personally have to save as much. Or they could be viewed as additional free savings that help you reach financial independence even sooner.

4. Non-Roth After-Tax Contributions

This last type of 401(k) contribution is rare. Many 401(k) plans don’t even allow this type of contribution, and even when they do, these contributions are rarely utilized.

The big catch is again that most 401(k) plans don’t allow these contributions. You can refer to your 401(k)’s summary plan description to see if it does.

And even if they are allowed, it typically only makes sense to take advantage of them if you’re already maxing out all of the other retirement accounts available to you.

But if you are maxing out those other accounts, you want to save more, and your 401(k) allows these contributions, they can be a powerful way to get even more out of your 401(k).

Here’s how they work:

Non-Roth after-tax 401(k) contributions are sort of a hybrid between Roth and traditional contributions. They are not tax-deductible, like Roth contributions, which means they are taxed first and then the remaining money is what is contributed to your account. The money grows tax-free while inside the 401(k), but the earnings are taxed as ordinary income when they are withdrawn. The contributions themselves are not taxed again.

A quick example to illustrate how the taxation works:

  • You make $10,000 of non-Roth after-tax contributions to your 401(k). You are not allowed to deduct these contributions for tax purposes.
  • Over the years, that $10,000 grows to $15,000 due to investment performance.
  • When you withdraw this money, the $10,000 that is due to contributions is not taxed. But the $5,000 that is due to investment returns — your earnings — is taxed as ordinary income.

This hybrid taxation means that on their own non-Roth after-tax 401(k) contributions are typically not as effective as either pure traditional or Roth contributions.

But they can be uniquely valuable in two big ways:

  1. You can make non-Roth after-tax contributions IN ADDITION to the $18,000 annual limit on regular employee contributions, giving you the opportunity to save even more money. They are only subject to the $54,000 annual limit that combines all employee and employer contributions made to a 401(k)..
  2. These contributions can be rolled over into a Roth IRA, when you leave your company or even while you’re still working there. And once the money is in a Roth IRA, the entire balance, including the earnings, grows completely tax-free. This contribution rollover process has been coined the Mega Backdoor Roth IRA, and it can be an effective way for high-income earners to stash a significant amount of tax-free money for retirement.

How to Maximize Your 401(k) Employer Match

With an understanding of the types of 401(k) contributions available to you, it’s time to start maximizing them. And the very first step is making sure you’re taking full advantage of your employer match.

Simply put, your 401(k) employer match is almost always the best investment return available to you. Because with every dollar you contribute up to the full match, you typically get an immediate 25%-100% return.

You won’t find that kind of deal almost anywhere else.

Here’s everything you need to know about understanding how your employer match works and how to take full advantage of it.

How a 401(k) Employer Match Works

While every 401(k) matching program is different, and you’ll learn how to find the details of your program below, a fairly typical employer match looks like this:

  • Your employer matches 100% of your contribution up to 3% of your salary.
  • Your employer also matches 50% of your contribution above 3% of your salary, up to 5% of your salary.
  • Your employer does not match contributions above 5% of your salary.

To see how this works with real numbers, let’s say that you make $3,000 per paycheck and that you contribute 10% of your salary to your 401(k). That means that $300 of your own money is deposited into your 401(k) as an employee contribution every time you receive a paycheck, and your employer matching contribution breaks down like this:

  1. The first 3% of your contribution, or $90 per paycheck, is matched at 100%, meaning that your employer contributes an additional $90 on top of your contribution.
  2. The next 2% of your contribution, or $60 per paycheck, is matched at 50%, meaning that your employer contributes an additional $30 on top of your contribution.
  3. The next 5% of your contribution is not matched.

All told, in this example, your employer contributes an extra 4% of your salary to your 401(k) as long as you contribute at least 5% of your salary. That’s an immediate 80% return on investment.

That’s why it’s so important to take full advantage of your 401(k). There’s really no other investment that provides such an easy, immediate, and high return.

How to Find Your 401(k) Employer Matching Program

On a personal level, taking full advantage of your 401(k) employer match is simply a matter of contributing at least the maximum percent of salary that your employer is willing to match. In the example above that would be 5%, but the actual amount varies from plan to plan.

So your job is to find out exactly how your 401(k) employer matching program works, and the good news is that it shouldn’t be too hard.

There are two main pieces of information you’re looking for:

  1. The maximum contribution percentage your employer will match – This is the amount of money you’d need to contribute in order to get the full match. For example, your employer might match your contribution up to 5% of your salary as in the example above, or it could be 3%, 12%, or any other percentage. Whatever this maximum percentage is, you’ll want to do what you can to contribute at least that amount so that you get the full match.
  2. The matching percentage – Your employer might match 100% of your contribution, or they may only match 50%, or 25%, or some combination of all of the above, and this has a big effect on the amount of money you actually receive. For example, two companies might both match up to 5% of your salary, but one might match 100% of that contribution, and one might only match 25% of it. Both are good deals, but one is four times as valuable.

With those two pieces of information in hand, you’ll know how much you need to contribute in order to get the full match and how much extra money you’ll be getting each time you make that contribution.

As for where to find this information, the best and most definitive source is your 401(k)’s summary plan description, which is a long document that details all the ins and outs of your plan. This is a great resource for all sorts of information about your 401(k), but you can specifically look for the word “match” to find the details on your employer matching program.

And if you have any trouble either finding the information or understanding it, you can reach out to your human resources representative for help. You should be able to find their contact information in the summary plan description.

Two Big Pitfalls to Avoid When Maximizing Your 401(k) Employer Match

Your 401(k) employer match is almost always a good deal, but there are two pitfalls to watch out for: vesting and front-loading contributions. Both of these could either diminish the value of your employer match or cause you to miss out on getting the full match.

Pitfall #1: Vesting

Clock time deadline

Employer contributions to your 401(k) plan, including matching contributions, may be subject to something called a vesting schedule.

A vesting schedule means that those employer contributions are not 100% yours right away. Instead, they become yours over time as you accumulate years of service with the company. If you leave before your employer contributions are fully vested, you will only get to take some of that money with you.

For example, a common vesting schedule gives you an additional 20% ownership over your 401(k) employer contributions for each year you stay with the company. If you leave before one year, you will not get to keep any of those employer contributions. If you leave after one year, you will get to keep 20% of the employer contributions and the earnings they’ve accumulated. After two years it will be 40%, and so on until you’ve earned the right to keep 100% of that money after five years with the company.

Three things to know about vesting:

  1. Employee contributions are never subject to a vesting schedule. Every dollar you contribute and every dollar that money earns is always 100% yours, no matter how long you stay with your company. Only employer contributions are subject to vesting schedules.
  2. Not all companies have a vesting schedule. In some cases you might be immediately 100% vested in all employer contributions.
  3. There is a single vesting clock for all employer contributions. In the example above, all employer contributions will be 100% vested once you’ve been with the company for five years, even those that were made just weeks earlier. You are not subject to a new vesting period with each individual employer contribution.

A vesting schedule can decrease the value of your employer match. A 100% match is great, but a 100% match that takes five years to get the full benefit of is not quite as great.

Still, in most cases it makes sense to take full advantage of your employer match, even if it’s subject to a vesting schedule. And the reasoning is simply that the worst-case scenario is that you leave your job before any of those employer contributions vest, in which case your 401(k) would have acted just like any other retirement account available to you, none of which offer any opportunity to get a matching contribution.

However, there are situations in which a vesting schedule might make it better to prioritize other retirement accounts before your 401(k). In some cases, your 401(k) employer contributions might be 0% vested until you’ve been with the company for three years, at which point they will become 100% vested. If you anticipate leaving your current employer within the next couple of years, and if your 401(k) is burdened with high costs, you may be better off prioritizing an IRA or other retirement account first.

You may also want to consider your vesting schedule before quitting or changing jobs. It certainly shouldn’t be the primary factor you consider, but if you’re close to having a significant portion of your 401(k) vest, it may be worth waiting just a little bit longer to make your move.

You can find all the details on your 401(k) vesting schedule in your summary plan description. And again you can reach out to your human resources representative if you have any questions.

Pitfall #2: Front-Loading Contributions

In most cases, it makes sense to put as much money into your savings and investments as soon as possible. The sooner it’s contributed, the more time it has to compound its returns and earn you even more money.

But the rules are different if you’re trying to max out your 401(k) employer match.

The reason is that most employers apply their maximum match on a per-paycheck basis. That is, if your employer only matches up to 5% of your salary, what they’re really saying is that they will only match up to 5% of each paycheck.

For a simple example, let’s say that you’re paid $18,000 twice per month. So over the course of an entire year, you make $432,000.

In theory, you could max out your annual allowed 401(k) contribution with your very first paycheck of the year. Simply contribute 100% of your salary for that one paycheck, and you’re done.

The problem is that you would only get the match on that one single paycheck. If your employer matches up to 5% of your salary, then they would match 5% of that $18,000 paycheck, or $900. The next 23 paychecks of the year wouldn’t get any match because you weren’t contributing anything. And since you were eligible to get a 5%, $900 matching contribution with each paycheck, that means you’d be missing out on $20,700.

Now, most people aren’t earning $18,000 per paycheck, so the stakes aren’t quite that high. But the principle remains the same.

In order to get the full benefit of your employer match, you need to set up your 401(k) contributions so that you’re contributing at least the full matching percentage every single paycheck. You may be able to front-load your contributions to a certain extent, but you want to make sure that you stay far enough below the annual $18,000 limit to get the full match with every paycheck.

Now, some companies will actually make an extra contribution at the end of the year to make up the difference if you contributed enough to get the full match but accidentally missed out on a few paychecks. You can find out if your company offers that benefit in your 401(k)’s summary plan description.

But in most cases you’ll need to spread your contributions out over the entire year in order to get the full benefit of your employer match.

When to Contribute More Than Is Needed for Your Employer Match

Maxing out your 401(k) employer match is a great start, but there’s almost always room to contribute more.

Using the example from above, the person with the $3,000 per-paycheck salary would max out his or her employer match with a 5% contribution. That’s $150 per paycheck. Assuming 26 paychecks per year, that individual would personally contribute $3,900 to his or her 401(k) over the course of a year with that 5% contribution.

And given that the maximum annual contribution for 2017 is $18,000 ($24,000 if you’re 50+), he or she would still be eligible to contribute an additional $14,100 per year. In fact, this individual would have to set his or her 401(k) contribution to just over 23% in order to make that full $18,000 annual contribution.

3 big questions to answer:

  1. Do you need to contribute more in order to reach your personal goals?
  2. Can you afford to contribute more right now?
  3. If the answer is yes to both #1 and #2, should you be making additional contributions to your 401(k) beyond the employer match, or should you be prioritizing other retirement accounts?

Questions #1 and #2 are beyond the scope of this guide, but you can get a sense of your required retirement savings here and here.

Question #3 is what we’ll address here. If you’ve already maxed out your employer match and you want to save more money for retirement, should you prioritize your 401(k) or other retirement accounts?

Let’s dive in.

What Other Retirement Accounts Are Available to You?

Your 401(k) is almost never the only retirement account available to you. Here are the other major options you might have.

IRA

An IRA is a retirement account that you set up on your own, outside of work. You can contribute up to $5,500 per year ($6,500 if you’re 50+), and just like with the 401(k) there are two different types:

  1. Traditional IRA – You get a tax deduction on your contributions, your money grows tax-free inside the account, and your withdrawals are taxed as ordinary income in retirement.
  2. Roth IRA – You do not get a tax deduction on your contributions, but your money grows tax-free and can be withdrawn tax-free in retirement.

You can read more about making the decision between using a Roth IRA or a traditional IRA here: Guide to Choosing the Right IRA: Traditional or Roth?

The big benefit of IRAs is that you have full control over the investment company you use, and therefore the investments you choose and the fees you pay. While some 401(k)s force you to choose between a small number of high-cost investments, IRAs give you a lot more freedom to choose better investments.

The only catch is that there are income limits that may prevent you from being allowed to contribute to an IRA or to deduct your contributions for tax purposes. If you earn more than those limits, an IRA may not be an option for you.

Health Savings Account

Health savings accounts, or HSAs, were designed to be used for medical expenses, but they can also function as a high-powered retirement account.

In fact, health savings accounts are the only investment accounts that offer a triple tax break:

  1. Your contributions are deductible.
  2. Your money grows tax-free inside the account.
  3. You can withdraw the money tax-free for qualified medical expenses.

On top of that, many HSAs allow you to invest the money, your balance rolls over year to year, and as long as you keep good records, you can actually reimburse yourself down the line for medical expenses that occurred years ago.

Put all that together with the fact that you will almost certainly have medical expenses in retirement, and HSAs are one of the most powerful retirement tools available to you.

The catch is that you have to be participating in a qualifying high-deductible health plan, which generally means a minimum annual deductible of $1,300 for individual coverage and $2,600 for family coverage.

If you’re eligible though, you can contribute up to $3,400 if you are the only individual covered by such a plan, or up to $6,750 if you have family coverage.

Backdoor Roth IRA

If you’re not eligible to contribute to an IRA directly, you might want to consider something called a Backdoor Roth IRA.

The Backdoor Roth IRA takes advantage of two rules that, when combined, can allow you to contribute to a Roth IRA even if you make too much for a regular contribution:

  1. You are always allowed to make non-deductible traditional IRA contributions, up to the annual $5,500 limit, no matter how much you make.
  2. You are also allowed to convert money from a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA at any time, no matter how much you make.

When you put those together, high-earners could make non-deductible contributions to a traditional IRA, and shortly after convert that money to a Roth IRA. From that point forward the money will grow completely tax-free.

There are some potential pitfalls, and you can review all the details here. But if you are otherwise ineligible to make IRA contributions, this is a good option to have in your back pocket.

Taxable Investment Account

While dedicated retirement accounts offer the biggest tax breaks, there are plenty of tax-efficient ways to invest within a regular taxable investment account as well.

These accounts can be especially helpful for nearer term goals, since your money isn’t locked away until retirement age, or for money you’d like to invest after maxing out your dedicated retirement accounts.

How to Decide Between Additional 401(K) Contributions and Other Retirement Accounts

With those options in hand, how do you decide whether to make additional 401(k) contributions, beyond the amount needed to max out the employer match, or to contribute that money to other accounts?

There are a few big factors to consider:

  • Eligibility – If you’re not eligible to contribute to an IRA or HSA, a 401(k) might be your best option by default.
  • Costs – Cost is the single best predictor of future investment returns, with lower cost investments leading to higher returns. You’ll want to prioritize accounts that allow you to minimize the fees you pay.
  • Investment options – You should prioritize accounts that allow you to implement your preferred asset allocation, again with good, low-cost funds.
  • Convenience – All else being equal, having fewer accounts spread across fewer companies will make your life easier.

With those factors in mind, here’s a reasonable guide for making the decision:

  1. Max out your employer match before contributing to other accounts.
  2. If your 401(k) offers low fees and investments that fit your desired portfolio, you can keep things simple by prioritizing additional contributions there first. This allows you to work with one account, at least for a little while, instead of several.
  3. If your 401(k) is high-cost, or if you’ve already maxed out your 401(k), a health savings account may be the next best place to look. If you can pay for your medical expenses with other money, allowing this account to stay invested and grow for the long term, that triple tax break is hard to beat.
  4. An IRA is likely your next best option. You can review this guide for a full breakdown of the traditional versus Roth debate.
  5. If you’re not eligible for a direct IRA contribution, you should consider a Backdoor Roth IRA.
  6. If you maxed out your other retirement accounts because your 401(k) is high-cost, now is probably the time to go back. While there are some circumstances in which incredibly high fees might make a taxable investment account a better deal, in most cases the tax breaks offered by a 401(k) will outweigh any difference in cost.
  7. Once those retirement accounts are maxed out, you can invest additional money in a regular taxable investment account.

The Bottom Line: Maximize Your 401(k)

A 401(k) is a powerful tool if you know how to use it. The tax breaks make it easier to save more and earn more than in a regular investment account, and the potential for an employer match is unlike any opportunity offered by any other retirement account.

The key is in understanding your 401(k)’s specific opportunities and how to take maximum advantage of them. If you can do that, you may find yourself a lot closer to financial independence than you thought.

The post Ultimate Guide to Maximizing Your 401(k) appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

7 Ways to Manage Money Better than Your Parents Did

Don't let your parents' bad habits become yours. Here's how to do money the right way.

Every generation has their own habits when it comes to money. Whether it was our parents stashing cash in paint cans or their bedroom mattresses, or our great grandparents balking at investing after the Great Depression, generational events help mold how we manage our lives.

Sometimes it’s a good thing. Learning to be frugal after living through hard times can leave you better off, for example. Then again, some financial habits from decades ago have absolutely left people worse off.

If your goal is avoiding many of the financial pitfalls your parents (or their parents) fell into, you should strive to learn positive money habits while unlearning any lessons that stifle wealth.

I spoke to several financial planners to hear their thoughts on how the younger generation can do better than their parents. (Full Disclosure: I am also a certified financial planner.) Here’s what they said.

1. Avoid Placing Blind Trust in Financial Advisors

Your parents and their parents likely met with a financial planner during their lives. They didn’t have as much information at their disposal as we do today, so they hired professional help.

Unfortunately, many placed too much trust in the financial professionals they hired. Without much oversight, old school financial advisors were able to line their own pockets at their client’s expense, usually by selling them high-cost investments with low returns they didn’t understand.

To avoid falling victim to bad advice, you should learn as much about investing as you can, says Colorado financial advisor Matthew Jackson of Solid Wealth Advisors.

“Dedicate yourself to learn about investing so you can make educated decisions about your retirement rather than risk being led down a wrong and costly path,” Jackson said.

“In the age of technology, educating yourself about finances can be free and done in the comfort of your own home,” he continued.

You should still consider hiring a financial advisor, however. Just don’t trust them blindly. Brian Hanks, a financial advisor and author of How to Buy a Dental Practice said  your best step is to find an independent, helpful, fee-only advisor who is paid a flat fee to offer comprehensive advice.

By avoiding advisors who are paid commissions for the investments they sell, you can ensure you’re getting unbiased advice meant to benefit you.

2. Diversify Your Investments

Many people from the older generation have a narrow view of what it means to invest. Unfortunately, they tend to believe their way is the best way – even if it’s not the best way for their kids.

“If the parents are risk averse, they tell their kids to save their money in bank CDs, pay down debt, and avoid things like equities,” said financial advisor Joseph A. Azzopardi of The Well Planned Retirement. “If the family’s wealth was primarily made in private business, they encourage their children to focus their capital on business ownership.”

While many of these strategies can be successful when it comes to building wealth, there is no single best strategy. That’s why Azzopardi and many other advisors suggest their clients diversify instead of putting all their eggs in one basket.

“Diversifying a family’s balance sheet is a valuable way to lower overall risk and create multiple sources of income,” he said.

3. Switch Employers When it Benefits You

Our parent’s generation was strikingly loyal to a single employer, often to their detriment. Even when they had the opportunity to make more money, they often eschewed that option based on a misguided sense of duty.

“Many people just put their heads down and went to work every day, never thinking that there might be a better opportunity across the street,” says financial planner for business owners, Grant Bledsoe.

While loyalty is admirable, the advice to stick with a single employer for life is rather outdated today.

“You can be loyal to your employer of course, but need to be more strategic about your career advancement,” says Bledsoe. “You can really boost your earnings by continuing to improve your skill set and taking calculated risks along the way.”

4. Plan for a Lengthy Retirement

These days, people are living significantly longer. For the younger generation, that means we need to save up more cash to retire.

“As life expectancy continues to grow, present and future retirees will need to plan for a retirement that could span the course of several decades,” said Seattle Financial Advisor Josh Brein.

Whether you sit down with a financial advisor or plan your investments yourself, make sure you’re planning for a lengthy and expensive retirement. According to the Social Security Administration, men and women who reach the age of 65 can expect to live until ages 84.3 and 86.6, respectively.

5. Put Your Own Financial Health First

Our parents placed a lot of faith in higher education, so much so that many worked hard to pay for their children’s college education while neglecting their own retirement needs. This is a mistake, said financial advisor Joe Carbone of Focus Planning Group.

No matter what, you should remember you can’t borrow money for retirement. And, once you reach retirement age and find you’re short on cash, it’s too late.

6. Learn Basic Financial Education Early

In many families, the topic of money has always been taboo. You don’t speak of it because it’s “rude,” or because it’s an adult topic that shouldn’t be discussed with the kids.

But, not talking about money can be devastating for young people who reach adulthood without basic financial knowledge. Because of this, most financial advisors agree today’s parents should teach their kids money basics like budgeting and how to manage credit scores.

“Let’s face it, it almost completely falls on the parents to be the money professor since it’s rarely touched upon in our education system,” said Kansas City Financial Planner Clint Haynes.

If you don’t teach your kids about money, you can expect them to learn their lessons the hard way.

7. Build a Lifestyle That Doesn’t Require Debt

Today’s climate of cheap and easy credit started decades ago. Unfortunately, many of our parents embraced the idea of borrowing money to buy things they couldn’t afford.

This has led to the acceptance of ideas like the “perpetual car payment” and huge mortgages.

Albuquerque financial planner Jose Sanchez said his dad fell into the trap of financing an expensive car long ago when car loans first came into play. After getting his first job, he went out and bought a new 1968 Camaro, mostly because he thought “he deserved it.” But, after having kids and settling into working life, he realized the purchase was more of a financial burden than he thought.

Today’s workers would be wise to reject the easy credit atmosphere that is so prevalent today. The less money you owe, the more options you have.

And when it comes to building a life you truly love, the more options you have, the better off you’ll be.

Image: Zinkevych

The post 7 Ways to Manage Money Better than Your Parents Did appeared first on Credit.com.

7 Money Moves New Empty Nesters Should Make Now

Raising one child to age 17 costs a middle-income married couple on average $233,610, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Once your kids leave the nest, all of the money you spent feeding, clothing, and entertaining them is suddenly up for grabs. But if empty nesters don’t earmark their newfound savings for specific goals, it’s easy to fall into the so-called “lifestyle creep” trap — when your lifestyle suddenly becomes more expensive as soon as your discretionary income increases.

A 2016 study by Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research found that a couple collectively earning $100,000 per year should be able to put an additional 12% toward their retirement savings after their children fly the coop. But in reality, researchers found that same couple would only increase their 401(k) contribution by 0.3 to 0.7 percent.

Covington, La.- based certified financial planner, Lauren Lindsay encourages empty nesters to put their extra pocket money to work.

“In general, when people have money ‘available’ they tend to spend it and not even be conscious about how they’re spending it,” Lindsay told MagnifyMoney. “I think it’s really important to refocus our goals now that we are in a different stage and, hopefully, on that home stretch towards retirement.”

Lindsay says the empty-nester stage is a really good time to circle back and revisit your budget to focus and make a plan for your financial goals. “Depending on where you are in the scale of retirement, you could use the extra funds to pay off a car, pay down the mortgage, save towards a trip, fund the emergency fund, or other goals,” she says.

As a new empty nester, there’s likely an endless list of purchases and lifestyle upgrades your newfound savings could go toward. You may even think you deserve a new car or boat, or to go on a luxury vacation every year after 18 or more years of child-rearing.

You can certainly treat yourself if you’d like, but you should make sure to get your financial house back in order before celebrating your freedom.

Here are a few things you can do to make sure your empty-nest savings go to the right places.

Put a number on what you’re saving now that the kids are gone

You may not be aware of exactly how much money you are really saving now that there are fewer mouths to feed at home. Creating or revising your budget gives you an opportunity to see the numbers behind the decrease and adjust your spending to maximize potential savings.

Peachtree City, Ga.-based certified financial planner Carol Berger suggests new empty nesters take the opportunity to complete a cash flow analysis — either on your own or with a financial adviser.

“This will allow you to identify how much discretionary income you have and then develop a plan on how to use it,” says Berger. Tally up the reduction in your spending to get an idea of how much potential cash you could be diverting to your own financial goals.

Shrink your lifestyle

If you’ve spent decades shopping for a family of three or more, it’s hard to break that habit right away. You might still be shopping for more groceries than you really need, for example, and wasting money in the process.

It might be time to take an even bigger step toward minimizing your housing costs — downsizing. Not only could this reduce your overall housing costs, but it’ll give you an opportunity to shop around for a home that better fits your needs as you age or to consider a residence in an active adult community with homes and amenities designed specifically for those ages 55 and older.

Check out what you’re paying for utilities, too. While you may have needed the tricked-out cable package when your kids were living at home full time, you may not care about paying for premium channels any longer. Call your provider and negotiate a less-expensive package. Try using a service like BillFixers or Trim to renegotiate or cancel bills and features you may no longer have use for.

Review your insurance policies

The same goes for your insurance policies like car and health insurance. Under the current health care law, kids can stay on their parents’ health insurance plan until they turn 26. But if your adult child already has employer-provided insurance, you don’t need to pay for their coverage anymore.

Contact your employer’s human resources department to discuss removing members from your family plan, or switching to a lower-cost individual plan when you’re on your own. The same goes for any vision or dental insurance plans you may still be paying the family price for.

If you’re still paying for your child’s life insurance policy, you may want to speak with them about transferring the plan into their name or canceling the plan if they have access to a better one through an employer.

It couldn’t hurt to ask for a discount on your car insurance or switch to lower-cost coverage because the kids aren’t there to drive your car.

Put your newfound money toward any outstanding debts

Saving for retirement is important and paying off your outstanding debts should be your top priority. The interest rates on unsecured debts like credit cards are generally higher than any returns you’d receive on potential savings. So if you pay off your debts first, you’ll actually save yourself more money in the long run.

According to a 2017 Consumer Financial Protection Bureau report, the number of Americans 60 and older with student loan debt rose from 700,000 to 2.8 million individuals between 2005 and 2015. The average amount of student debt owed by older borrowers almost doubled during that time, from $12,000 to $23,500.

One of the worst things you can do for retirement planning is ignore past-due debts. If debts go unpaid for too long, you could see your wages or even your future Social Security benefits garnished. The same CFPB report shows the number of retirees who had their benefits cut to repay a federal loan rose from about 8,700 to 40,000 borrowers over the 10-year period.

Don’t sacrifice your retirement goals to pay for college

College has never been more expensive. But remember: Your kids can take out a loan for school and pay it off as their income grows. You can’t necessarily take out a loan for your retirement.

That’s why financial planners often advise parents not to put themselves at financial risk by sacrificing their nest egg to pay for their child’s college education — unless they can afford to take the hit.

“Many people believe that they must send their kids to college, and they pay a hefty sum for that — sometimes at the expense of their retirement,” says Oak Brook, Ill.-based certified financial planner Elizabeth Buffardi.

If you’ve covered your debts and have room to save more, you still have plenty of time to contribute to your retirement funds.

Let’s say a married couple has $200,000 already saved for retirement with 15 years left to go. They collectively earn $100,000 per year, and they have diligently been saving 15% of their monthly pre-tax income for retirement. If they double their savings to 30% — putting away $2,500 each month — and their investment grows at an average annual rate of 6%, they could have well over $1 million saved by retirement.

Plan for long-term health care needs

A couple retiring today will spend an estimated $260,000 on health care needs in retirement, according to Fidelity.

Think of what other health care needs you could have in retirement. Buffardi says she always asks clients if they are worried about needing long-term care in the future. While most workers will qualify for Medicare once they turn 65, Medicare does not cover all long-term care needs. If you know you have a family history of dementia or other age-related illnesses that may require long-term care, this may be a concern for you. You may consider taking out a long-term care insurance policy or setting aside funds in a regular savings account.

Learn to say NO

Even after your kids move out, they can still treat you like the Bank of Mom and Dad. They may come to you for a wedding loan or to ask you to co-sign something they can’t afford, like a mortgage. Even though their pleas may pull at your heartstrings, consider your own financial needs first.

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I’m About to Retire. What Accounts Do I Withdraw From First?

It can vary, but there are a few rules of thumb to consider when it comes to paying taxes on your retirement funds.

Q. I’m confused about how to decide which accounts to take money from when I retire next year. I’m 61. I have $730,000 in my 401K, $129,000 in a Roth, $200,000 in taxable mutual funds and about $50,000 in cash accounts. I will have about $24,000 a year in Social Security but not until age 65.
— Almost there

A. Congratulations on your upcoming retirement.

The good news is that you are permitted to start taking distributions from your 401K without penalties once you reach age 59 1/2. So next year when you retire, you are permitted to take money out of all of these accounts without any tax penalties, said Marnie Aznar, a certified financial planner with Aznar Financial Advisors in Morris Plains, N.J.

She said you should keep in mind that distributions from your 401K will be subject to ordinary income taxes, while distributions from your Roth IRA will not be subject to income taxes upon distribution.

The money that you have accumulated in taxable funds is also available, but if there are embedded capital gains in these holdings, you will incur taxable capital gains upon sale of the funds, Aznar said. If you have any capital loss carry-forwards, you could use them to offset future capital gains on your tax returns.

If your taxable account is generating some interest and dividends that you could have transferred into your checking account automatically each month, Aznar suggests you start with that in terms of covering your basic living expenses.

“The longer that you are able to leave the money within your 401K plan or IRA rollover — if you choose to roll it over — the longer it will remain invested on a tax-deferred basis,” Aznar said. “This means that you can avoid paying taxes for longer which will result in accumulating more funds.”

She said you may want to consider withdrawing just enough from your 401K plan to keep your tax burden as low as possible.

Without knowing more about your situation, Aznar made some assumptions to give a more detailed example.

Let’s assume you file your tax return “married filing jointly” and have no other income starting next year.

If you then hypothetically earned $100 of interest income and $4,000 of dividend income annually and claimed the standard deduction, and if you were to withdraw $30,000 from your 401K you would be subject to a total federal and New Jersey tax bill of less than $1,500 for the year, she said. (Calculations can vary by state; consult a local tax accountant for a better understanding of the taxes you’ll be subject to.)

If you were to withdraw $20,000 from the 401K plan, this would result in avoiding federal taxes completely and paying less than $400 in New Jersey state taxes, she said.

And once you start taking Social Security, your tax situation will change.

“Determine how much you need to withdraw to live on each month and then ideally, pull from the various buckets in the most tax-efficient manner,” she said.

For more on taxes, visit out tax learning center.

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The Best Investment for Your Lump Sum

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

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

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

If You’re Trying to Save & Have Debt

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

$100

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

$500

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

$1,000

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

$10,000

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

If You Already Have Savings 

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

$100

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

$500

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

$1,000

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

$10,000

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

Image: StockRocket

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8 Financial Choices You’ll Regret in 5 Years

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

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

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

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

1. ‘Investing’ in a New Car

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

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

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

2. Not Watching Your Everyday Purchases

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

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

3. Not Refinancing Your Mortgage While Rates Are Low

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

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

4. Buying Too Much House

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

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

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

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

5. Borrowing Against Your Retirement Account

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

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

However, there are numerous reasons to avoid doing so.

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

6. Not Using a Budget

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

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

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

7. Not Saving as Much as You Can

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

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

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

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

8. Not Buying Life Insurance When You’re Young

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

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

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

Image: Ridofranz

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Here’s How to Find Out How Much Social Security Income You’ll Receive

At what age will you retire? How much can you expect to receive each month when you do? These are important questions even if you are decades away from retirement, and there’s an easy way to get answers anytime. We’re going to show you how to get your Social Security benefits statement online and what to do with it once you’ve got it.

A little background:

Depending on your age, you may remember getting a printed Social Security benefits statement in the mail. Prior to 2011, the Social Security Administration (SSA) mailed statements to all workers every year. Those annual mailings were discontinued in 2011 as a cost-saving measure. The following year, the SSA made the statements available online, but their decision caused a bit of an uproar. Despite the agency’s outreach campaign, far fewer people registered for an account than there were eligible workers. So in 2014, Congress required the agency to resume sending printed statements every five years to workers age 25 and older who hadn’t registered for an online account.

That schedule remained until earlier this year when the agency announced that due to budget restraints, paper benefit statements will only be mailed to people who are 60 or older, have not established an online account, and are not yet receiving Social Security benefits. Simply put, don’t expect to get a printed statement anytime soon.

How to get your Social Security benefits statement

Accessing your Social Security benefits statement online is pretty simple, as long as you have an email address and can provide some basic identifying information.

First, go to ssa.gov/myaccount and click on “Sign In or Create an Account.”

If you’ve never created an online account with the SSA, you’ll click on “Create an Account.” If you’ve set up an account before, you won’t be able to create a new account using the same Social Security number. If you’ve forgotten your username or password, the SSA website offers tools to help recover them.

When you select “Create an Account,” the site will lead you through a few questions to verify your identity. You’ll need to provide personal information that matches the information on file with the SSA as well as some information matching your credit report.

Ryder Taff, a Certified Financial Adviser with New Perspectives, Inc. of Ridgeland, Miss., helps many of his clients set up Social Security accounts and says the questions often have to do with past residences or vehicles that may have been registered in your name.

If you have trouble setting up your account online, you can call the SSA for help at 1-800-772-1213.

Information in a Social Security benefits statement

Your Social Security benefits statement provides several valuable pieces of information:

  • A record of your earnings, by year, since you began having Social Security and Medicare taxes withheld.
  • Estimated retirement benefits if you begin claiming Social Security at age 62, full retirement age, or age 70.
  • Estimated disability benefits if you became disabled right now.
  • Estimated survivor benefits that your spouse or child would receive if you were to die this year.

Here’s a sample of what your benefits statement will look like:

Keep in mind that the estimated benefits shown are just that — estimates. The amounts shown are calculated based on average earnings over your lifetime and assume you’ll continue earning your most recent annual wages until you start receiving benefits. They are also calculated in today’s dollars without any adjustment for inflation. The amount you receive could also be impacted by any changes enacted by Congress from now until the time you retire.

What to do with your Social Security benefit statement

It’s a good idea to check your earnings record for errors once per year. It’s not uncommon for earnings from certain employers or even all of your earnings from an entire year to be missing, and you’ll want to get that corrected right away because benefits are calculated on your highest 35 years of earnings. “Any missing years will be just as damaging as a zero on a test was to your GPA,” Taff says. “Gather your documents and correct ANY missing years, even if they aren’t the highest salary. Every dollar counts!”

If you do spot any errors, grab your W-2 or tax return for the year in question and call the SSA at 1-800-772-1213. You can also report errors by writing to the SSA at:

Social Security Agency
Office of Earnings Operations
P.O. Box 33026
Baltimore, MD 21290-3026

Reading your statement is also a good reminder of how much you need to save for retirement outside of Social Security. Chances are, you won’t be happy living on just your Social Security income in retirement.

The good news is, the longer you delay taking your benefit, the higher your annual benefit will be. You can begin taking Social Security retirement benefits at age 62, but your payments will be smaller than they would be if you waited until full retirement age (FRA). Currently, your annual benefit increases by 8% for each year you delay taking your benefit from FRA until age 70.

Colin Exelby, president and founder of Celestial Wealth Management in Towson, Md., says that using your Social Security benefits statement can be particularly useful for retirement planning for couples. “Depending on your age, health, family health history, and financial situation there are a number of different ways to claim your benefits,” he says. “Each individual situation is different, and many couples have different views on the decision.”

If you are nearing retirement, you can use your benefits statement to work with a financial adviser to help you maximize total benefits, or run through various scenarios using a free online tool like the one provided by AARP.

Setting up your Social Security account is simple, free, and helpful for retirement planning, but it’s also a good security measure. It’s impossible to set up more than one account per Social Security number, so registering your account is a good way to prevent identity thieves from establishing an account on your behalf.

Take the time to set up your Social Security account and find out how much you might be entitled to receive in benefits. It could help you feel more empowered to take charge of your retirement plan.

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Why the ‘Save 10% for Retirement’ Rule Doesn’t Always Work

To keep saving simple, many retirement experts and financial planners tout a general 10% rule for most savers: If you start saving at least 10% of your income in your 20s, you should have plenty saved up by the time you’re ready to retire.

Why save for retirement?

Social Security might not be around to help you make ends meet in retirement; that’s even more likely for millennials and the cohorts that follow. With the nation’s current birth and death rates, it’s estimated that Social Security funds will be exhausted by 2034.

Whether or not the future retirees of America will have Social Security to rely on, their benefit check alone likely won’t be enough to meet all of their needs in retirement.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, retired households need to bring an average $42,478 to meet their annual expenses.

And yet, as of March 2017, the average monthly Social Security benefit for retirees was $1,365.35, or about $16,384 annually. That’s only slightly more than the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2016 poverty threshold for two-person households 65 and older ($16,480). Even in households where two spouses are receiving Social Security income, that’s still less than $32,000 per year.

That’s why it’s so important for workers to set additional income aside during their working years. When Social Security falls short, those extra savings will be essential.

Who does the 10% retirement rule work best for?

It’s likely that 10% became the rule of thumb simply because it’s easy to remember and makes the mental math a lot easier. But it’s important to understand who the rule is targeting: younger workers.

Since younger workers have more time to let their money grow, they can afford to save a bit less in their early days. But the advice changes as workers’ savings windows narrow with age. A 40-something worker, for example, who never saved for retirement may be encouraged to save twice as much for retirement since they have a shorter timetable.

“Ten percent may be enough, it may not be enough, and it may even be too much,” depending on your age and financial picture, says Amy Jo Lauber, a certified financial planner in Buffalo, N.Y. Someone paying off student loans or high-interest credit cards simply may not be able to put away 10% of their income.

It gets increasingly complicated when you consider your personal income and ability to save as well as your retirement goals.

“Typically, younger clients do not have complex situations and can get by with simple strategies. Once there are competing priorities, such as saving for a home, kids, and kids’ college, then things get complicated and more sophisticated strategies are required,” says Howard Pressman, a certified financial planner and partner at Egan, Berger & Weiner.

As Pressman suggests, you might need to tweak the rule if you’re starting to stash away retirement funds at an earlier or later age or want to put more money away now for a more lavish retirement.

Timing is everything

This chart from JP Morgan’s 2017 Guide to Retirement demonstrates the power of saving early for retirement.

At a modest 6% annual growth rate, Consistent Chloe, a 25-year-old who puts away $5,000 a year until she reaches age 65 should have a retirement account balance of more than $820,000, according to the bank. And when all’s said and done, only $200,000 would have come out of her own pocket — the rest would have resulted from the power of compounding interest.

In comparison, Nervous Noah, a more timid 25-year-old saver, could put away the same $5,000 a year in a savings account earning far less annual interest on his cash. After the same 40-year period, he would only have a balance of $308,050.

Investing earlier can bring even greater success. If a person starts putting away $5,000 a year at 20, growing at 6%, their balance at 65 would be about $1,132,549, which we calculated using the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s compound interest calculator. That’s more than $300,000 added to Consistent Chloe’s retirement balance for beginning just two years earlier.

The final balance at 65 drops below $1 million for anyone starting after 25. As you can see above, those who begin saving will have less and less to live on in retirement.

7 retirement savings tips

  1. Start early

The emphasis of this rule is starting early. The earlier you save, the more you can take advantage of compound interest.

“Compounding is earning interest on interest earned in prior periods and is the most powerful force in all of finance,” says Pressman. To make the most of this rule, start saving 10% of your income for retirement by the time you turn 25.
Start by maxing out your 401(k) or IRA contribution limits for the year. If you still have additional funds, it might be time to meet with a financial planner to find out how to best invest your surplus.

  1. Know your options

The best place to stash retirement savings is either an IRA or a 401(k). Your money simply won’t grow enough to beat inflation if you leave it in a low-interest-bearing account like a checking or savings account.

  1. Make debt and emergency savings a priority

“Before anyone starts focusing on retirement saving, the first thing they should do is to establish an emergency cash reserve. This is to protect them from a job loss, a health emergency, or even an expensive car repair,” says Pressman. He recommends saving three to six month’s worth of expenses in a savings account.

If placing 10% of your income in a retirement account is too much of an ask because you have more pressing financial obligations like higher-interest debts, or don’t earn enough to cover your expenses, you should address those before increasing your retirement contribution.

Generally speaking, if the interest rate on any debts you owe is higher than what you’d earn on your retirement savings, you’ll make more progress toward your financial goals by addressing the higher-interest debt first.

  1. Plan differently if you have irregular income

Lauber says those who are freelancing and cobbling together a living may need to put several financial policies in place to help them navigate with irregular income.

“The 10% rule works for them but only if other measures are in place for the immediate day-to-day needs,” says Lauber. You can still create a budget with irregular income, but you might need to approach retirement saving more aggressively when income is higher, and strategize your saving to compensate for months when income is nonexistent or low. Find more tips on how to manage irregular income here.

  1. Make the most of your match

Don’t leave free money on the table. If your employer offers to match your contribution, Kristi Sullivan, a certified financial planner with Sullivan Financial Planning in Denver, Colo., advises individuals to save as much as your employer matches immediately or 6% if there is not a match. That way, you won’t miss out on free additions to your retirement nest egg.

  1. Automate your contribution

Out of sight, out of mind. Automate your retirement contribution to ensure you pay yourself first.

“Typically, once it’s done through payroll deduction, the person seldom misses it,” says Lauber.

  1. Check in regularly

Don’t just “set it and forget it.” Mark R. Morley, certified financial planner and president of Warburton Capital Management, stresses “clients must be ‘invested’ in their own plan.”

He says to check periodically on your retirement account and make adjustments where necessary. If you have a financial adviser, you may want to schedule regular progress meetings.

“When a client is engaged in their own plan and can see real results, we can work on the two variables that affect the retirement accounts: time and money,” says Morley.

The post Why the ‘Save 10% for Retirement’ Rule Doesn’t Always Work appeared first on MagnifyMoney.