Holiday Spending: Make a Financial Plan and Avoid Going into Debt

With fall in full swing, it’s the perfect time to start drafting a financial game plan for the holidays in order to avoid overspending, plunging into debt, and piling stress on top of an already stressful season. Here’s how you can hatch a holiday plan for this year and start saving for next year.

Create a Holiday Budget

You’ll first need a solid understanding of your financial situation. How much do you have in savings, and how much of that can be allocated to holiday spending? Or maybe you don’t have enough in savings, or you don’t want to dip into savings, preferring to rely on your discretionary income after monthly bills have been paid? Once you have a full picture, create a budget that works with your current financial circumstances.

It also helps to be mindful of optional spending over the next couple of months. For example, cut back on dining out and retail therapy. You could even cancel some monthly subscription services until after the holidays.

Next, using your budget as a guide, make a list of the items that you’d like to get for everyone on your list along with a set price point for each item. This might take a little research, but having a specific gift in mind and knowing the average market price will help to avoid making impulse purchases. This will also help to cut through the noise of holiday ads and promotions and hone in on sales and discounts for only the items on your list.

Don’t Lose Sight of Additional Holiday Spending

Keep in mind that gifts aren’t the only expense that will cut into your budget. Plan to be frugal with holiday meal shopping, including extra treats and baked goods. Don’t purchase something simply for the sake of tradition and try instead to tailor your holiday meal planning around the actual likes of the people who will be attending your get-togethers. This cuts back on both food waste and money waste. Other often overlooked expenses include gift wrap, holiday cards, mailing costs, and travel expenses.

Make a Plan for Next Year

To make a plan for next holiday season, start by tracking your spending during this holiday season to get a blueprint for average expenses. Then, decide on which strategies you’ll employ for next year’s savings. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Open a holiday savings account. These are typically offered by credit unions, and they are often locked so you can’t access them until the holiday season.
  • Set aside a portion of every paycheck specifically for holiday spending. You can even set up automatic transfers into a separate savings account, building the habit of saving in a “set it and forget it” way.
  • Try the popular 52-week savings challenge. Start by saving $1 the first week of December, then $2 the next week, $3 the following week, and so on. By next holiday season you’ll have nearly $1,400 saved.

With a little foresight and preparation, holiday expenses don’t need to add stress to the festivities of the season.

How to Maximize a 529 Plan Amidst Increasing College Costs

Enrolling in a 529 plan is the first step toward conscious planning for your child’s college education, but don’t stop there. With college costs rising steadily — over 168 percent over the last 20 years, according to U.S. News — it’s important to maximize the value of your plan to ensure you reach your college savings goals.

First, it’s important to know the specifics of 529 plans. For instance, there are two different types of these state-sponsored plans available:

  • Probably the most well-known, the college savings plan allows your money to be invested in a variety of ways, such as mutual funds and the like, and it will compound interest over time. The account will go up or down in value based on the performance of the investment options.
  • A pre-paid tuition plan allows savers to purchase units on a credit-based system to put toward tuition and fees for campus living, excluding secondary expenses such as room and board. Because prepaid plans allow you to lock in current tuition prices, if budgeting is a priority, this plan might be the best fit. Just be sure to check which colleges and universities participate in the plan because not all do.

Start early

Because 529 plans compound tax-free over time, starting early gives you an advantage. The longer the money is in the account, the more time it has to grow.

Take Advantage of Automatic Contributions

Automatic contributions to 529 plans can commonly be withdrawn from a linked checking or savings account. This makes it easier to stay on track to reach your goal. If financial situations change, account holders can adjust this setting in their account and continue to make contributions when it’s practical.

Be Mindful of Rules and Fees

Like IRAs, you make yourself vulnerable to penalty fees if you withdraw earnings from a 529 plan too soon, like withdrawing funds before the beneficiary’s tuition bill is due, which could incur a 10% penalty fee. Likewise, withdrawing more than allotted for qualifying expenses that year will prompt a fee. Though non-qualifying expenses, like medical bills, will provoke a penalty fee, there are some exceptions to this rule, such as if the beneficiary receives a scholarship or another type of educational assistance.

Both prepaid and college savings plans typically include enrollment and administrative fees when you withdrawal funds, but college savings plans may also add an assessment management fee.

Cut the Middle Man—You

An effective way to use your 529 funds to ensure that you’re not taking out more than your expenses, and thereby causing a tax liability, is to have the plan pay the costs directly to the school with direct payment.

Know How Your State Operates

Individual states make their own rules for 529 plans, so in whichever state you set up your 529 plan, it’s important to understand that state’s benefits, drawbacks, rules, and fees. State income tax deductions will also vary by state.

Withdraw from the Correct Fund

If you have more than one 529 plan, be sure you’re not just randomly withdrawing from any of them, or simply withdrawing from the account with the highest balance. Gauge each plan’s growth potential to determine which one has the best investment growth rate, and tap into those savings to receive the best tax breaks.

Involve Extended Family

Relatives have the ability to contribute to or open a 529 plan to help alleviate the burden for parents and students, and the contributor is eligible to take a deduction as long as it’s offered by that state.

Knowing the ins and outs of a 529 plan can be complex, but the simplest way to maximize your plan is to start early, allowing the funds to accumulate over time.

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.

How to Avoid Paying Capital Gains Tax When You Sell Your Home

Before 1997, once a homeowner reached the age of 55, they had the one-time option of excluding up to $125,000 of gain on the sale of their primary residence. Today any homeowner, regardless of age, has the option to exclude up to $250,000 of gain ($500,000 for married couples filing jointly) on the sale of a home.

What Is Capital Gains Tax?

When you sell property for more than you originally paid, it’s called a capital gain. You need to report your gain to the IRS, which will then tax the gain. Home sales can be excluded from this tax as long as the seller meets the criteria.

Who Qualifies for Capital Gains Tax Exemption?

In order to qualify a seller must meet the minimum IRS criteria:

  • You’ve owned the home for at least two years.
  • You’ve lived in the home as your primary residence for at least two years.
  • You haven’t exempted the gains on another home sale in the last two years.

How to Calculate Gains and Losses

By keeping records of the original purchase price, closing costs, and improvements put into the home (you’ll need to present records and receipts when submitting your taxes), you can avoid being taxed on a significant amount of the profit you make when selling your property.

If, for example, you buy your home for $150,000 and put $20,000 into qualifying upgrades, your cost basis would be $170,000. If you sell the home ten years later for $300,000, the ‘gain’ on your house would be $130,000 (sale price – cost basis), which would have no tax implications because you’d have met the required criteria.

What If You Have More than $250k ($500k for married couples) of Gains?

You’ll be taxed for the amount of gains above $250,000 or $500,000 for married couples filing jointly. To help reduce this amount, keep detailed records of any improvements you put into the home as some improvements can be added to your cost basis, and will thus lessen the amount that needs to be reported.

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.

How the SECURE Act Could Affect Your Retirement

The House of Representatives recently voted to approve the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement or SECURE Act, which would expand access to retirement savings programs for part-time workers and people employed by small business owners.

If the SECURE Act Passes…

If the bill passes the Senate, which it’s expected to do, it will be placed on President Trump’s desk. If signed into law, the SECURE Act would implement the most significant changes to retirement plans since 2006.

The bill aims to entice non-savers to participate in workplace retirement programs, such as a 401(k), so some of the provisions include:

  • Raising the age that American workers must start withdrawing from retirement savings, known as the required minimum distribution age, from 70 ½ to 72. This is to reflect the fact that more Americans are working longer, and in this vein, the bill also stipulates more years for people to contribute to retirement accounts.
  • Increasing tax incentives for small business employers to offer retirement plans by increasing the tax credit for new plans from the current cap of $500 to $5,000, or $5,500 for plans that automatically enroll new workers.
  • Allowing part-time workers to participate in 401(k) plans. The current minimum requirement for part-time employees is 1,000 hours in a 12-month period, but the SECURE Act would amend this requirement to 500 hours, effective January 2021. However, this isn’t mandatory, so it would be at the discretion of the employer.

The SECURE Act would also permit parents to withdraw up to $5,000 from retirement accounts penalty-free within a year of birth or adoption for qualified expenses. Parents could also withdraw up to $10,000 from 529 plans to repay student loans.

What Does the Federal Reserve Say?

According to the Federal Reserve’s annual study, only 36% of Americans feel that their retirement savings are on track, while 25% of Americans have no retirement savings to speak of. Part of this is due to the fact that, because of the cost and complexity of putting retirement savings plans in place, many small businesses don’t offer such plans to their employees. The SECURE Act aims to incentivize small business owners to offer retirement plans by making it easier for small businesses to implement multi-employer retirement plans—where two or more employers join together to offer a plan. This would potentially give small businesses access to lower cost plans with better investment options, thereby possibly giving millions more workers an opportunity to save at work.

In short, this legislation is important because it would remove some barriers that have kept American workers from saving for retirement, specifically through employer-provided plans and incentives. If you have questions or would like to talk about how the information in this article may impact you personally, please reach out to me at sreed@mkrcpas.com and we’ll schedule a time to talk.