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Calculators and Tools
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The 3 most important factors that determine real estate prices: location, location and location. See how much housing costs where you live now, or where you'd like to live in the future.
Investing for Retirement
Investing can come in many different forms. The professionals on Wall Street use sophisticated analysis methods, and at times, take on significant risk to achieve their investment goals. For the average person, investing is a much different and much simpler process. The goal of retirement investing is to accumulate a large sum of money, over many decades, so that you can live comfortably for a long time after you leave the workforce.
A common and simple approach is to implement a buy and hold strategy. John C. Bogle, the founder of Vanguard Group, argues that the best way to retire comfortably is to invest in low cost, diversified mutual funds and simply leave them alone until you retire. A common mistake amateur investors make is to respond excessively to short-term market movements. When people see the market move significantly lower in a short amount of time, it’s natural to panic a little. Many people run for safety and sell at the lower market prices, thinking their investments are ‘trending’ downward and they need to stop the bleeding. The problem is, you don’t really know where the bottom is until it’s gone. Even Warren Buffett admits he can’t predict short term market fluctuations. What you can do though, is keep your costs low by investing in low cost funds, make consistent contributions to your retirement account, and only buy and sell to make strategic asset allocation changes (e.g. moving to lower risk assets as you get closer to retirement). Retirement investing is a long-term goal and you should treat it as such.
One of the most important concepts in retirement investing is diversification. This concept is important because it will protect you from major losses should one of your assets rapidly deteriorate in value. The idea is to allocate your money across many different assets and asset classes (e.g. stocks, bonds, commodities, cash, etc.) so that if one asset class performs poorly it will not drag your entire portfolio down. This is nothing more than the law of large numbers you probably learned about in school. You take many uncorrelated (or loosely correlated) random variables (asset price movements), add them together, and you end up with something that has significantly less variance (risk) than the components taken individually.
If all asset prices were completely independent, you could mitigate virtually all risk simply by diversifying your portfolio. Unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in. We have home prices in one state that affect home prices in another. We recently saw a drop in home prices across the country cause a huge drop in average American wealth, which caused a drop in consumer spending and deeply affected many businesses. The stock market as a whole has its good years and bad years. Same for the bond market and same for just about any other market you can think of. That’s why it’s important to also consider the risk of individual assets within your portfolio. Bonds are generally considered lower risk than stocks. Within the stock market, larger, so called ‘blue chip’ companies are generally considered safer than smaller, newer ones.
Both 401(k)s and IRAs are very similar. They’re both accounts that allow you to defer taxes on contributions until the money is withdrawn. Where they differ is mostly in income and contribution limits.
Let’s start with the 401(k). This has the higher annual contribution and income limits of $18,000 (2016) and $265,000. That means if you make between $18,000 and $265,000 within a year, you can put $18,000 into a 401(k), have a taxable income of $18,000 less. In addition to your $18,000 limit, some employers choose to make a matching contribution, usually on only part of the $18,000. You won’t pay any taxes on the money you put into a 401(k) until you withdraw from the account, usually in retirement, at which time your withdrawal will be taxed similar to income as if it were earned in retirement. Workers over 50 can add an additional $6,000/year ‘catch up’ contribution to their 401k, for a total of $24,000.
IRAs are taxed the same as 401(k)s. The biggest difference is that you can only contribute $5,500/year (plus an additional $1,000/year if you’re over 50). There’s also a much lower income limit. Contribution limits are phased out for single individuals with incomes between $116,000 - $131,000 and married couples filing jointly between $183,000 - $193,000. That means if you’re single and you want to contribute $5,500/year, you must make at most $116,000 in income. Otherwise, you won’t be allowed to deduct the contribution, which is the whole point of having an IRA. A single person making more than $131,000 won’t be able to deduct anything, and someone with an income between $116,000 and $131,000 will be able to deduct somewhere between $0 and $5,500.
Traditional retirement accounts work as I’ve just described above. Roth retirement accounts, on the other hand, are a little different. When you contribute to a Roth IRA or 401(k), you don’t deduct your contributions from your taxable income. Why would anyone choose to do that? The trade off is that you can withdraw from the accounts without paying any taxes. If you think you’ll be in a higher tax bracket when you retire (maybe you’re going through a rough time now and you have unusually low income, or many deductions that you won’t have later, etc.), a Roth account is a good way to go. You’ll pay taxes on all the money while you’re in a low bracket and be able to withdraw tax free when you’re in a higher bracket later in life. Of course, that’s not the case for most people, especially for those able to contribute to a retirement account. Usually you contribute to your retirement account during your peak earning years, which are usually your peak taxable income years as well. For those people, a traditional account usually makes the most sense.
Now that you have invested early and often, bought and held, diversified, and discovered which retirement accounts work best for you, it is time to enjoy the fruits of your labor. But what if you still have concerns about your money lasting as long as you do? This is where fixed income investments come into play. Fixed income investments are designed to provide you with a steady income with very little risk. If you are looking to boost your income well into retirement, these investments will work great for you. Bonds pay you a percentage of the total investment every year until maturity, when you are paid back the entire amount you invested. Annuities are another type of fixed income investment that are bought through insurance companies. These also pay out a fixed amount, and they usually pay out for the rest of your life but not a second longer. At the moment, bonds and annuities do not pay out large sums of money because interest rates are so low. A slightly riskier option that may offer a better return is to invest in low risk, high dividend stocks. Many retirees live off dividend streams and hold onto the underlying asset to leave to their heirs.
Investing for Retirement
Homeownership as an Investment
A home can be one of the most significant investments you make in your entire lifetime. A home is a place where you can store your personal property, have freedom to live your own lifestyle, raise a family, and accumulate wealth in the time you are enjoying those benefits.
Below is a chart of how the Home Price Index has changed on a quarterly basis over the past 15 years. The Home Price Index is a broad home price measurement across various geographical locations, which is produced by the Federal Housing Finance Agency.
As you can see, home prices have moved upwards (I.e. any quarter above the black line) the large majority of the time. Out of the 102 quarters in this chart, home prices declined in value in only 19 of them. This data includes the late 2000's as well, which was the worst housing crisis the US has ever seen. As an example, if you bought an average US home in 1991 for $100,000 and held it through the worst housing crisis in US history, it would be worth around $234,000 today.
Should I rent or should I buy a home? This is a question that most people will eventually come to in their adult lives. There are many things to consider before making this difficult decision. It is not as simple as comparing monthly rent payments with monthly mortgage payments. When you own a home, you must consider property taxes, property insurance, homeowners association fees and maintenance costs. Maintenance costs can be extremely expensive and are often underestimated by homeowners. You must seriously weigh these factors before making the leap from renting to buying a home.
The main benefit of buying a home, rather than renting, is the fact that you will build equity in your home to increase the value of your investment over time. Let's go over a quick example to see how much money you could save by buying instead of renting.
Let's start by using the average cost of a US home (about $200,000) and the average cost of US rent (about $1,000 per month). Also, buying a new home requires a down payment, usually between 10% and 20%. Let's assume a 20% down payment to be safe. Let's also assume that it is a 30-year mortgage. You can see how we set up the rest of the calculation in the image below.
We used a very modest home appreciation of 2%, but you can see from the example in the previous section that home prices can appreciate much faster than 2% a year. In this very modest example, you would break even after 10 years of homeownership. After 15 years, you would have saved $16,586 ($92 per month) and you would be able to sell your home for $269,175. So, you would not only save more money than the renter, you would be able to sell your home for a nice profit, which is something a renter would never be able to do.
When considering homeownership as an investment, make sure that you intend to stay in your home for at least five years and that you will continue to make a steady income to pay your mortgage during that period. You should also make sure that the home is in a location that you will be happy with for a while. Shop around to find a home that perfectly suits your needs. If you are in a stage of your career where you may be required to move around a lot, homeownership may not be the best investment for you. Consider all the extra work and expenses that homeownership requires. Renting will get you used to people paying for and fixing things that make your living situation comfortable. Homeownership requires you to spend the money and make the effort to keep your residence in nice condition. If you are willing to make the sacrifices and put the necessary time in, you can reap the rewards of a great investment.
According to US Census Bureau statistics, home equity makes up the majority of American’s net worth. In fact, a staggering 73% of total net worth comes from home equity. Adults under 35 years old is the only age group where total net worth is not made up primarily of home equity. As people get older, and presumably their homes appreciate, home equity makes up a higher and higher portion of their overall net worth. If you have considered all the responsibilities of owning a home and you are ready to make a long-term investment, homeownership could be a great way to build wealth.
Homeownership as an Investment
8 Individual Tax Breaks You Might Not Know About
A Tax Break is an advantage allowed by the government in which you are able to pay less in overall taxes. The goal of any taxpayer should be to reduce the total amount they pay in taxes so that they can invest that money back into their own lives the best way they see fit. Tax Breaks are not always obvious, so we have put together a list of the top 8 that you might not know about but could save you money.
Many people are now switching to more energy efficient appliances to try and help make a positive impact on the environment. The US government now offers tax credits to individuals who decide to clean up the environment by using energy efficient home appliances. You can get a tax credit of up to $500 by switching to more energy efficient stoves, heat pumps, central air conditioning, water boilers, fans, insulation, roofs, water heaters and many other household appliances. You can also get a tax credit, with no upper dollar limit, for geothermal heat pumps, small residential wind turbines and solar energy systems.
The federal government also rewards people who ditch fossil fuel vehicles for electric vehicles. You can now get a tax credit of up to $7,500 when you purchase an electric vehicle. Your taxable income must be at least $7,500 to receive the full tax credit. If you purchase a new electric vehicle and your taxable income only reaches $5,000, your tax credit will only be worth $5,000. Some states also have additional tax credits available on top of the federal tax credit. For example, Colorado offers an additional $6,000 tax credit for electric vehicle purchases. Imagine driving around in a brand new Tesla while saving thousands of dollars that you would have otherwise spent on a brand new gas powered car.
Higher education is a great way to invest in yourself and earn Tax Breaks at the same time. Higher education Tax Breaks can come in the form of tax credits, tax deductions and tax free savings plans. If you are pursuing a college degree, you may be eligible for the Lifetime Learning Credit of up to $2,000 per year if your income does not exceed $55,000 per year ($110,000 per year for married couples). If you do not meet the eligibility requirements for the Lifetime Learning Credit, you may be eligible to receive a tax credit of up to $2,500 per year through the American Opportunity Tax Credit if your income does not exceed $80,000 per year ($160,000 per year for married couples). You can also take advantage of tax deductions for things like tuition, books, room and board, and traveling expenses, which can reduce the amount of your taxable income by up to $4,000. Finally, you may qualify for an education savings plan where you can make tax free contributions to help you save for college related expenses.
Paying it forward is a great way to reduce your payments to the IRS. Donating to charity can give you huge Tax Breaks by reducing your taxable income by up to 50% in some cases. The IRS is very specific on the types of organizations you can donate to in order to receive these tax deductions. In most cases, it must be a United States organization. These organizations can be a community chest, corporation, trust, fund, foundation, church or other religious organization, war veterans' organization, nonprofit volunteer fire company, civil defense organization, domestic fraternal society or a nonprofit cemetery company. Deductions can also include things like the cost of ingredients for a dish you baked for a soup kitchen or traveling expenses related to charity work. Make sure to consider all expenses you incur while volunteering your time and services.
The job market is tough these days and job searches can go on for an extended period of time. If you are currently looking for work, you can rest a little easier knowing that you can also get tax deductions while you look. To deduct job hunting expenses, these expenses must be at least 2% of your gross annual income. These expenses include, but are not limited to, transportation expenses ($0.57 per mile driven plus parking fees and tolls), food and lodging expenses if your search takes you away from home, cab fares, employment agency fees, and the costs of printing resumes, business cards, and postage stamps.
Healthcare costs continue to rise at high rates and they can be very burdensome for individuals and families. Fortunately, there are numerous tax deductions you can take for medical related expenses. These deductions are especially useful for medical emergencies that are not covered by your insurance. The IRS allows you to deduct all medical expenses that exceed 10% of your gross annual income. You can deduct costs associated with preventive care, treatment, surgeries, vision care and dental care. You can also deduct costs associated with prescription medications and devices such as glasses, contacts, dentures and hearing aids. You are not allowed to deduct costs that will be reimbursed by your insurance or employer.
With interest rates near all-time lows, it has become increasingly difficult for low and average income people to put their money into a savings account and expect a decent return in the future. With the Saver’s Credit, it becomes much more profitable to save through the means of an IRA or 401(k). By saving through one of these accounts, you can earn a tax credit up to $1,000 per year. You can save for your future and get paid to do so. People who make $45,000 or less per year are eligible for this tax credit, which allows for a deductible of up to 50% for the first $2,000 you save through a retirement account. And, of course, 401(k)s and IRAs also have other tax advantages, most notably the ability to defer paying any tax until you withdraw from the account.
Owning a home can provide many Tax Breaks that you should be aware of. The biggest Tax Break for homeowners comes from deducting interest payments that you have made toward your mortgage. When you are in the early stages of home ownership, the bad news is that the majority of your mortgage payment will be in interest, not principal. The good news is that interest payments are 100% deductible up to $1 million. If you own multiple properties, you can deduct interest payments on those properties as well. Your second property does not have to be a house either. It can be a boat or an RV as long as it has cooking, sleeping and bathroom facilities. You should also be aware that you must spend at least 14 days at your second property, or more than 10% of the number of days you rent it out (whichever is longer) to be eligible for the deduction.
8 Individual Tax Breaks You Might Not Know About