Break Bad Financial Habits and Make Your Money Work for You in 2020

Even those of us who have the best intentions with our money can fall victim to bad financial habits, which can cause unnecessary stress and anxiety. Some of the most common bad habits we fall into include:

  • Impulse spending
  • Not budgeting (or not sticking to a budget)
  • Spending more than you earn
  • Relying on credit cards
  • Falling into the trap of convenience

Breaking bad financial habits takes time, intention, and effort. Below are some ideas for starting better habits to get your money to work for you.

Start an Emergency Savings Account

This isn’t anything you haven’t been told before, but if you want to quit the cycle of credit card debt, you’re going to need a savings account to fall back on in times of financial hardship or unforeseen costs. Start with a goal of saving $1,000 specifically for emergencies, so next time your car needs work, for example, you’ll have the funds to pay for it rather than sinking farther into credit card debt.

Budget

Nothing says “taking control of my money” like creating a budget that works for you. When you assign a purpose to every dollar, not only are you actively monitoring your income and spending habits, but you’re avoiding debt and reaching your financial goals more quickly. The trick is sticking to it. It’s important to track your spending monthly, and revisit your budget at the beginning of each month, adjusting as needed with the goal of spending less than you bring in. If you know you have a bigger expense coming up later that month, or even in a few months, you’ll have a big picture of your finances and you can begin to make a plan for saving. You can also decide what your priorities will be for that month, and start saving toward your goals.

Make a Plan to Get Out of Debt

Credit cards, student loans, and car payments eat into your budget, and limit the amount of money you can put toward retirement and other financial goals. In short, debt limits your choices.

One popular and time-tested method of getting out of debt is often referred to as the snowball method. You start by paying off the smallest debt, then once that’s paid off, you add that monthly payment toward the next smallest debt until that one’s paid off. For example, if your smallest debt is a doctor bill for $200 and you make arrangements to pay $50 per month until it’s paid off, for the next four months you’ll pay that $50 to your doctor’s office while paying the minimum on every other debt. Once the doctor bill is paid in full, you add that $50 to the monthly payment of your next smallest debt while continuing to pay the minimum on your other larger debts. As each debt is paid off, you’re adding more to the next debt and building momentum until even your largest debt is paid off.

Save for the Future and Start Investing

Once you set up an emergency savings account and pay off your debt, you can begin to save more aggressively. The first step is to bulk up your emergency savings fund to the equivalent of six months of living expenses so you’ll have something to fall back on in case of a major unexpected life event, such as a job loss. Once this is accomplished, you can grow your wealth by investing your money. You’ll need to work with a financial planner to help advise you in investments and diversify your portfolio.

Stay Focused

It’s easy to get off track and lose focus when paying off debt, keeping on track with your budget, and saving for the future, so it helps to have some goals in mind. Whether your goals include a vacation home on a tropical island, paying for you child’s college education, or achieving early retirement (or maybe all three), keep these goals at the forefront of your mind whenever you lose steam. You can even create a vision board and put it someplace where you’ll see it every day, reminding you that good financial habits will pay off in the end.

If you have questions on setting healthy financial goals or would like to discuss your 2019 tax return, please feel free to email me at pmcallister@mkrcpas.com or call 317.549.3091.

Essential Year-End Tax Tips

As the clock winds down to the end of the year, there are a few last-minute money moves to make in order to lower your tax bill.

Maximize Your 401(k) and HSA Contributions

While tax deductible contributions can be made to traditional and Roth IRA accounts until April 15 of 2020, the deadline for 401(k)s and HSA accounts is December 31 of this year. You can contribute up to $19,000 to a 401(k), 403(b), most 457 plans, and federal Thrift Savings Plans (plus $6,000 in catch-up contributions for those who are 50 or older). As for HSA accounts, the maximum contribution for 2019 is $3,500 for individuals and $7,000 for family coverage. And if you’re 55 or older you can contribute an additional $1,000.

Start Thinking About Retirement Contributions for 2020

Retirement contributions to 401(k)s have increased for 2020. Individuals can contribute $19,500 next year, and those 50 or older can contribute an additional $6,500. If you prefer to spread out your contributions evenly throughout the year, you’ll need to adjust your monthly contribution amounts by January.

Take Advantage of Your Flexible Spending Account

Funds in a flexible spending account revert back to the employer if not spent within the calendar year. Some companies might provide a grace period extending into the new year, but others end reimbursements on December 31.

Prevent Taxes on an RMD with Charitable Donations

After seniors reach age 70 ½ they must take a required minimum distribution each year from their retirement accounts (an exception to this rule is a Roth IRA account). Seniors who aren’t dependent on this money for living expenses should consider having it sent directly from the retirement account to a charity as a qualified charitable distribution, effectively preventing the money from becoming taxable income.

Consider a Roth Conversion

Because withdrawals from traditional IRAs are taxed in retirement while distributions from Roth IRAs are tax-free, you might think about converting some funds from a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA. Just be sure this move doesn’t tip you into the next tax bracket. You’ll need to pay taxes on the initial conversion, but the money will then grow tax-free in the Roth IRA.

Take Stock of Losses

Sell any losses in stocks for a deduction of up to $3,000, but be aware that purchasing the same or a substantially similar stock within 30 days of the sale would violate the wash-sale rule. If that happens your capital loss would be deferred until you sell the new shares.

Meet with a Tax Advisor

If you’re unsure whether or not you’re ending the year in a favorable tax bracket, check in with an advisor who can identify actionable steps to reduce taxable income through retirement contributions or itemized deductions.

Tips for Year-End Business Tax Planning

With additional guidance and regulations released consistently since President Trump signed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 into law, one thing remains clear: strategic tax planning is key to lowering a business’s total tax liability. Read on for some moves on lowering your 2019 business tax bill.

Establish Tax-Favored Retirement Plan

Current tax rules allow for significant deductible contributions, so if your business doesn’t already have a retirement plan in place, it’s worth considering. Small business retirement plan options include 401(k), SEP-IRA, SIMPLE-IRA, and the defined benefit pension plan. Some of these plans can be established up until December 31 and allow for a deductible contribution for the 2019 tax year, except for the SEP-IRA and SIMPLE-IRA, which mandate a set-up deadline of October in order to make a contribution for the same year.

Review Your Reports

The end of the year is typically a time for businesses to begin goal setting for the next year, so it’s crucial to have a firm grasp on how your business performed financially this year. Make sure your books are up to date and accurate so you have a clear picture before diving into next year’s plan.

Defer Income If It Makes Sense

Depending on where your income level is, you can potentially cut your tax bill by postponing any end-of-the-year income until January 1 or later. Ask your accountant if shifting receivable income to the new year makes sense for your business.

Purchase Business Essentials to Take Advantage of Deductions

Upgrade equipment and furniture, stock up on office supplies, take care of repairs, and make vendor payments in advance in order to maximize deductions. And thanks to the TCJA, you can claim 100% bonus depreciation for qualified asset additions that were acquired and put in place in 2019.

Make Charitable Contributions

Tis the season for giving…and claiming a deduction for the fair market value of your donations. In addition to money, think outside the box and contact a program that sponsors families for the holidays. They often need food, bedding, toys, cookware, and clothing. It’s a great way for employees to feel like they’re making a difference too. Just don’t forget to get the necessary documentation and receipts to keep with your records.

Start Preparing for Next Year

If you put these tips into action, you’ll be better prepared at this time next year. For instance, you’ll already have a retirement plan in place. By going through the process of tax preparation this year, you have the opportunity to create systems for organization that will expedite the process next year.

How to Claim Social Security Survivor Benefits

The Social Security Administration sends survivor benefits to about 6 million Americans every month, directed to widows, widowers, and children who have experienced the loss of someone who has paid into the social security program. Read on to find out who is eligible to receive survivor benefits and how to collect them.

Who is Eligible to Receive Survivor Benefits?

If you were married to your spouse for at least nine months before their death, you are eligible for social security survivor benefits. (The one exception to this length-of-marriage stipulation is if you are caring for a child of the deceased who is under 16 years old). Children of the deceased who are under 18 years old may also receive survivor benefits, as can disabled children under the age of 22. Finally, parents, stepparents, or adoptive parents who are at least age 62 and were dependent upon the deceased could potentially qualify for survivor benefits.

When Can You Begin Social Security Survivor Benefits?

Surviving spouses can begin collecting survivor benefits as early as age 60, but this will result in only about 70% of the amount the survivor could get if they wait until their survivor full retirement age, which is 66 for people born between 1945-1956 and gradually increases to age 67 for those born in 1962 or later. There are some exceptions to this as well: if you are disabled, you may begin collecting survivor benefits at age 50; any surviving spouse can collect a one-time death benefit payment of $255 at any age; and as noted above, survivors who are caring for a child of the deceased who is under age 16 can collect at any age.

How to Claim Social Security Widow and Widower Benefits

First, the death needs to be reported, which is a task that most funeral homes include as part of their service as long as the social security number of the deceased is provided. Documents needed to apply for Social Security survivor benefits include:

  • Proof of death for the deceased in the form of a death certificate
  • Social Security number of the deceased
  • Social Security numbers of the survivor and any dependent children
  • Your birth certificate
  • Your marriage certificate
  • Most current W-2 forms of the deceased
  • Bank information for direct deposit

Once everything is submitted, you’ll be notified of your eligibility to receive survivor benefits.

How Much Will You Receive?

The amount you receive is determined by the deceased’s earnings and whether or not the deceased was collecting benefits (either full or reduced) at the time of death. The basic breakdown looks like this:

  • For couples who hadn’t started receiving benefits: it’s recommended for the highest earner of the two to wait until age 70 to begin Social Security benefits. This generates a larger monthly benefit amount that becomes the survivor benefit if and when the first spouse passes away.
  • If both spouses had already started claiming: the higher benefit amount becomes the survivor benefit while the lesser of the two benefit amounts will stop.
  • If the deceased spouse had already begun benefits, but the survivor had not:

The surviving spouse will need to decide when they will claim survivor benefits in a way that is likely to give them more lifetime income.

In addition to whether or not either spouse was already receiving Social Security benefits at the time of death, the actual dollar amount a survivor receives will depend on how much money the deceased spouse paid into Social Security over their lifetime.

How to Estimate Retirement Income Needs

Depending on where you are in life, trying to anticipate your financial needs in retirement and determining how exactly to get to that point could feel like a daunting task, or even a task that doesn’t need tackling yet. In fact, according to a study completed by The Alliance for Lifetime Income, only 28% of non-retired Americans have attempted to estimate their retirement income. Not as intimidating as it sounds, read on to learn how to estimate those needs.

Start with Your Current Income

If you’re living within your means and not depending on credit cards to maintain your lifestyle, using your paycheck as a benchmark is a sufficient starting point. This, of course, excludes contributions to a traditional 401(k) account as well as health insurance premiums that are deducted from your gross pay. A common and simple approach, then, is to set your desired annual retirement income at 60% to 90% of your current income. However, it doesn’t take a financial expert to note potential flaws with this approach. What if, for example, you plan to travel extensively during retirement? Planning for 60% to 90% of your current income might not be enough to fulfill your jet setting goals.

Forecast Retirement Expenses

Your annual retirement income should be more than enough to meet your daily living expenses. Keep in mind that the cost of living will increase over time, and insurance and health care could fluctuate. Having said that, some common retirement expenses to estimate include:

  • Food and clothing
  • Housing (mortgage, homeowners insurance, rent, property updates, repairs, etc.)
  • Utilities
  • Transportation (car payments, insurance, maintenance, gas, repairs, public transportation)
  • Insurance (medical, dental, life, etc.)
  • Health care costs not covered by insurance (deductibles, copayments, etc.)
  • Taxes
  • Debts and loans
  • Recreation such as travel, hobbies, and dining out

What to Do with Your Projected Retirement Income Needs?

A standard rule of thumb when talking about estimating retirement income needs is to have 25 times your anticipated annual expenses saved up by the time you retire. This is assuming you’re planning for a 30-year retirement. Theoretically, you could then withdraw 3% to 4% of your nest egg each year.

If you’re lacking additional sources of protected lifetime income, such as pensions or annuities, you may need to tap into savings in order to bridge the gap between social security checks and what you’ll need to live on. You could also buy a simple income annuity to cover part of that funding gap. These payments continue for life, thereby removing some of the guesswork of estimating retirement income needs and providing peace of mind.

401(k) Management: Prepare to Live Golden in Your Retirement Years

“Set it and forget it” is a common approach when it comes to a workplace 401(k), yet it likely will play a substantial role in the financial security of your future. Consistently contributing to your 401(k), and learning how to manage it, will set you on the course to living golden in your retirement years. Below are some tips to help you make the most of your workplace 401(k).

Contribute to the Match

Employers often match contributions up to a certain point, which means you’re getting free money for participating in the program. You should contribute at least up to this point. Beyond this, a typical rule of thumb is to add about 15% to your 401(k) plan each year, including company contributions (i.e. if your company matches 3%, plan to contribute 12%).

Boost Your Investment Savvy

Expense Ratio? Risk Tolerance? Whether you’re going it alone or recruiting the help of a financial professional, you need to have a basic knowledge of investing. Before filing away the information sent to you by your plan, be sure to read through it and look up any terms you don’t understand.

Get Help with Account Management

Of course, having a basic understanding of investment terms will take you only so far. If your investment knowledge is shaky, it might be worth it to recruit the help of a professional. Some 401(k) plans even offer free advice from a professional, or they will provide model portfolios to follow.

Save with a Target Date Fund

The simplest approach to a 401(k) plan is to allocate savings to the target date fund with the date that corresponds to the year closest to the year you reach age 65. With this low maintenance approach, the fund automatically adjusts as you get closer to retirement.

Learn to Rebalance

If you’re not partaking in the target date fund, you will need to perform routine maintenance on your 401(k), which is what “rebalancing” means. Provided you have a mix of stocks and bonds, you will have to buy and sell assets as they move up or down in value. Generally, participants have the option to automatically rebalance through your plan’s website, typically with a quarterly or annual rebalancing.

Rethink Withdrawals

Though you may be able to take a loan from your 401(k), they usually have to be paid back within five years, with interest. The risks of borrowing from your 401(k) come when you lose your job or change employers, because the loan will be due almost immediately. If you can’t repay the loan, you’ll be taxed and burdened with a 10% penalty for early withdrawal. Not to mention, by taking out a loan on your 401(k), you are shortchanging your retirement savings in a way that could be extremely difficult to catch up.

Mix It Up

Your 401(k) should be only one prong in your retirement plan. Your home and other assets, funds from a side hustle, and other investment accounts like an IRA might be additional prongs that make a complete picture of your financial future. Spreading your assets over multiple income streams will yield better returns, so if you switch jobs at some point, consider whether rolling your 401(k) into your new employer’s plan makes the most sense for your situation, or if you should put those funds into an IRA, which may give your more investment options.