First Round: Starting early versus Tax optimization

Basketball hoop

We’ve made it to the last contest of the first round, and this one is a doozy.  Yesterday we saw Savings rate take down Mortgage.  Today we have a true Kentucky versus Duke-style clash; this is a match of the real bluebloods of the investing world.  As always, check out the disclaimer.  Let’s go to the game.

bracket-game 3

Reasons for picking Starting early:

Starting early is one of the sage pieces of wisdom everyone gives, and for good reason.  The earlier you start investing, the more time you give the incredible power of compounding.  In this way, Starting early is very similar to Savings rate which we saw won the last game.  Because of the compounding the numbers seem to act “funny” (not funny “ha ha,” but funny as in not a way you would expect unless you are an expert in exponential algebra).

So let’s say Mr Grizzly just got his engineering degree at age 22 and wants to retire with $1 million on his 60th birthday.  Similar to the previous examples his starting salary is $50,000 and it gradually increases to $100,000, and he can get a 6% return on his investments.

If he starts saving at age 22, he will need to save about 9% of his salary to get to the $1 million mark by 60.  However, let’s say he can’t start right away, and instead he starts saving at age 30; now to become a millionaire by age 60 he needs to save about 13% of his income.  Wow!!!  By delaying a measly 8 years early on, he has to increase his savings rate about half again what it was.  If he puts it off until he’s 40, he needs to save 25%–that’s doubled his savings rate compared to starting at 30!!!  And if he delays starting until he’s 50, it will require he save about 67% to become a millionaire by the time he’s 60.

Starting age Savings rate to become millionaire by age 60
22 9%
30 13%
40 25%
50 67%

 

Clearly the earlier you start, the easier it is.  9% of your income isn’t trivial, but it certainly seems manageable.  On the other end of the spectrum, it seems just plain unrealistic to be able to save 67% of your income; even 25% would be a tall order for most.  So everyone can agree it’s better to start earlier rather than later.  Done deal.

But the problem with these types of analyses is saving more comes at a cost.  That $4500 you saved at age 22 (9% of your $50,000 starting salary) meant you couldn’t spend that.  Perhaps that’s not so bad if you were wasting it on clubbing and mani-pedis, but who am I to judge?  But maybe clubbing and mani-pedis are what makes life worth living.  Broadening that out, nearly all of us are making less early in our careers, so how realistic is it for us to be saving right away?

Also, early on you actually have higher expenses like repaying student debt, buying furniture for your new place, buying a work wardrobe, and just kind of experiencing life.  That’s not to say that people can’t be disciplined about those things, but there’s got to be a balance.  I personally started saving about 30% when I first started working and I think maybe I should have traveled a little bit more and enjoyed that time of my life (I was living right outside of New York City after all).

Nonetheless, Saving early is a tremendously powerful force if you can afford to do it.  There’s no doubt in my mind that the Fox family is at a comfortable place right now in large part due to the fact that I started squirreling money away so early.

 

Reasons for picking Tax optimization:

Taxes are a tremendously important part of investing.  It is a dominant force like Shaquille O’Neal on those LSU teams from the early 1990s.  Taxes impact every facet of investing—whether you’re young or old, no matter the type of account you have (401k, IRA, brokerage, Mortgage).

Shaq in college

Obviously taxes take a chunk out of nearly every financial transaction you do.  What makes Tax optimization so important is that during your earning years, that chunk can be in the 30-50% range, obviously depending on a number of factors like your income and the state you live in.  However, in retirement when you’re income is lower, that tax rate might fall to 10% or even less (of course, as my good friends Rich and Mike pointed out, no one knows what future tax rates will be—I am just assuming that tax brackets remain the same as they are today).  Many of the Tax optimization strategies to some degree involve finding ways to not pay taxes at the higher rate when you’re working, but rather pay when you’re retired and your rate is lower.

Just how big of a deal can taxes be?  Let’s look back at that example from The tax man cometh.  Mr and Mrs Grizzly are ready to save $1000 per month, either in a taxable account like a brokerage account or a tax deferred account like a 401k.  Using a regular brokerage account after 30 years (let’s assume a 2% dividend and a 5% stock increase) they have about $815k—certainly nothing to sneeze at.  However, had they invested the exact same amounts in the exact same stocks but instead in a tax deferred account, they would have had $1.12 million.  That’s almost $300k more, just for Tax optimization!!!

2015-02-16 deferred taxes graphic (qd)

The only difference is when they paid taxes on the money and at what rate.  In a taxable account they were paying taxes on the $12,000 each year at their high-income tax rate (34%) and they were paying taxes on qualified dividends (thanks Rich) at a pretty high rate too.  In the tax deferred scenario, they were paying taxes on the money after they were retired which I estimated at about 2% because at that time their income is only what they are spending.

That’s just one example, and there are tons just like that where Tax Optimization can really add up to tons of money.  There’s no such thing as a free lunch, but this gets pretty darn close.  When you put your money in a tax deferred account, it gets more difficult to access if you need it right away, but that seems a pretty small price to pay compared to the massive benefits of tax deferral.

 

Who wins?

This clash of the titans was super close.  In the end I have Tax optimization winning on a Christian Laettner-esque (sorry to all my Kentucky friends) miracle shot to push it to the Final Four.

To me I think this comes down between something that is not very complex but involved sacrifice (Starting early) and something that is fairly complex to pull off but doesn’t involve a lot of sacrifice (Tax optimization).  Ultimately, when Starting early you’re taking money that could have been spent on something else and started investing it.  So long as you weren’t planning on setting the money on fire, that will involve a sacrifice.  Conversely if you do Tax optimization you really aren’t foregoing anything, except a little bit of liquidity.  All it is is being smart with taxes and setting up the right accounts.

There are a lot of pretty easy Tax optimization maneuvers like 401k, IRAs, etc., that only take a few hours to figure out and then you’re set for decades.  So you’re getting those huge benefits without a lot of effort.  But Starting early is requiring a fairly significant sacrifice in your early years that could cause quite a sting.  Put all that together and I have Tax optimization coming out on top 83-82.  I have to confess though, I think Starting early would have beaten a few of these other strategies if it had lucked out a little bit in the draw.

Well, that was a wild first round.  I hope you enjoyed this and we’ll see you tomorrow for the first match of the Final Four, Asset allocation versus Index mutual funds.

 

bracket-game 4

Going all in with stocks

buried-money

With the recent craziness in the stock market, I’ve chatted with friends about how much of their portfolio should be in stocks.  Actually the conversation goes more like:

THEM:  I am about 50% stocks, 50% bonds.  How does that sound?

ME:  50% stocks and you’re 41 years old, and you have a good job?!?!?!?  Are you crazy?  That’s way too conservative.

THEM:  But I don’t want to be too risky.

ME:  You have a lot of safe investments that you probably don’t even know about.  The investments you can invest in stocks you should so you can get the higher return over the long term.

THEM:  ??????

 

So here is what I am talking about–the hidden cash in your portfolio.

We know that you need to balance risk and return in our investments.  This is most clearly done when we choose our mix of stocks (more risky, higher average returns) and bonds (less risky, lower average returns).  As an investor gets older they want to shift their asset allocation towards less risky investments because their time horizon is shortening.  We all agree with this.  So where is this hidden pot of gold I’m talking about?

 

Let’s look at the example of Mr and Mrs Grizzly.  They are both 65 years old and entering retirement.  They worked hard over the years and socked away $1 million that will see them through their golden years.  They do some internet research and learn that a sensible asset allocation in retirement is 40% stocks and 60% bonds, so they invest $400k in stocks and $600k in bonds.  Knowing the long term average returns are 8% for stocks and 4% for bonds, they expect their $1 million nest egg to generate about $56,000 per year ($400k * 8% + $600k *4%) , knowing that some years it will be more and some years it will be less.   So far so good, right?

1 m

THEY ARE LEAVING MAYBE $20,000 PER YEAR ON THE TABLE.  That’s a ton of money.  How can this be?  They seem to be doing everything right.  The answer is they are being way too conservative with their asset allocation.  They shouldn’t be investing $600k in bonds and $400 in stocks; stocks should be a much higher percentage.

Waaaaiiiiiiiittttttttt!!!  But didn’t we agree that about 60% of their portfolio should be in less risky investments?  Yes, we did.  Are you confused yet?

 

Hidden cash

Here’s what I didn’t tell you.  Mr and Mrs Grizzly have other investments that act a lot like bonds that aren’t included in that $1 million.  Both Mr Grizzly and Mrs Grizzly are eligible for Social Security with their monthly payments being $2000 each.  If Mr Grizzly (age 65) went to a company like Fidelity and bought an annuity that paid him $2000 each month until he died (doesn’t that sound a lot like Social Security), that would cost about $450k.  So in a way, Mr Grizzly’s Social Security payments are acting like a $450k government bond (theoretically it would be worth more than $450k since the US government has a better credit rating than Fidelity).  And remember that Mrs Grizzly is getting similar payments, so as a couple they have about $900k worth of “bond-ish” investments.

Also, Mr and Mrs Grizzly own their home that they could probably sell for $300k.  They don’t plan on selling but if they ever needed to they could tap the equity in their home either by selling it or doing a reverse mortgage.  So in a way, their house is another savings account for $300k.

If you add that up, all the sudden the picture looks really different.  They have about $950k of Social Security benefits that have the safety of a government bond.  Plus they have that $300k equity in their house.  That’s $1.25 million right there.

 

Investing your portfolio

So now let’s bring this bad boy full circle.  Remember their $1 million nest egg they were looking to invest?  Look at that in the context of their Social Security and house.  Now their total “assets” are about $2.25 million.  If you believe that the Social Security and house kind of feel like a bond, just those by themselves account for 55% of their portfolio.  If on top of that if you invest 60% of their $1 million nest egg in bonds, they have over 80% of their money in bonds, and that seems way too high.

2 25 m a

On the other hand, let’s say they only put $100k of their nest egg into bonds and the rest into stocks, after you include their social security and home, they’d be at about 60% bonds and 40% stocks.  Isn’t that what they were aiming for the whole time?

2 25 m b

Wow.  It took a long time to get there, Stocky.  The punchline better be worth it.  Remember that with $600k in bonds and $400k in stocks, they had an expected return of about $56,000 per year.  However, if they have $100k in bonds and $900k in stocks, because stocks are more volatile but have a higher expected return, they can expect about $76,000 ($900k * 8% + $100k *4%).  THAT’S $20,000!!! 

But aren’t they taking on a lot more risk to get that extra $20k?  Remember, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.  For sure, but if you look at it in the context of their Social Security benefits and their home, they have a fair amount of cushion from “safe investments” to see them through any rough patches in the stock market.

 

I wrote this post to show that people really need to take account all the financial resources they have.  In the Grizzly’s case, it was their Social Security benefits and their home.  Others of you may be getting a pension (Medtronic is generous enough to offer the Fox family one) or a second home or a dozen other things like that.

When you take those cash flows into account, all the sudden it seems a lot more reasonable to invest the rest of your money a little more heavily in stocks which you know over the long haul will give you a better return.

I screwed myself by rolling over my 401k

rollover-ira

Kind of, but not really.  I wanted to put a dramatic headline up to see if that would drive more traffic.  However, I did lose a little bit of money by rolling over my 401k from Medtronic into my IRA with Vanguard.  Here’s my story:

 

As you know, I left my job at Medtronic a while back.  Whenever you leave a job, there’s actually a lot of work involved with your finances.  You have to move them from the accounts set up by your company, to your own individual accounts.  Best case is it’s a pain in the butt; worst case is you can forget about some of it and lose it forever.  So it’s an important process.

So when I left Medtronic I knew I had to take my 401k account and roll it over into an IRA.  But there wasn’t a lot of urgency because Medtronic had their 401k at Vanguard, and all our other accounts are at Vanguard, so it seemed fine.  But then the Medtronic/Covidien merger happened, and as part of that, Medtronic switched from Vanguard to Aon Hewitt.  I wanted to keep all my money in one place for convenience sake, so I called Aon and initiated the rollover.

For those who have never done it, it’s a pretty simple process.  You set up an IRA account where you want the money to go (Vanguard in my case).  They’ll ask you how you want to fund the IRA and you click on a choice that says something like “Rollover”.  Then you call up the place where you’re money is at (Aon in this case) and start the process.  Usually they’ll send you a check which YOU DO NOT CASH, but instead just send it on to Vanguard.  Overall the process takes about two weeks.

But that two weeks is what screwed me a little bit.  During those two weeks your money is not in the market.  As you know from many posts I have done, the stock market is really unpredictable in the short-term, so it’s impossible to time the rollover process to your advantage.  Ideally, that two week process would coincide with a brief downturn in the market.  Conversely, you hope that two week period isn’t when the market stages a blazing recovery.

Based on the title of this post, you can probably guess what the case was for me.  As we know, the first few weeks of the year were really bad for stocks, and then they started a slow recovery.  If I could predict the future, that would have been the time to do my rollover, at the beginning of the year right before stocks fell 10% over the course of a couple weeks.  Of course, if I could predict the future, I would own my own island in the Caribbean.

I took the plunge in mid-February, and as you can see, stocks started inching up.  It was a perverse feeling: of course I like when stocks go up because we have so much invested in stocks.  But on the other hand, I felt that part of my portfolio was missing out on those gains.  Following the stock market too closely can really mess with your head.  Anyway, after a week, I got my check from Aon, which I promptly sent to Vanguard.  In that week, stocks were up about 0.8%.  My 401k from Aon was worth about $140,000, so missing out on that 0.8% gain cost me about $1100.

Once I put the check in the mail to Vanguard, the investing gods decided I needed to be further humbled, so in the next week stocks went on a major tear, rising about 3.2%.  Of all the times, why then?  My being out of the market for that week cost me another $4400.

Roll over IRA

Add that up and you’re talking a decent chunk of change.  My timing for doing the rollover couldn’t have been worse, and in the end I missed out on about $5500 in market gains.  That sucks.

But you win some and you lose some.  I am sure that I have come out ahead some of the other times I’ve transferred accounts, but as Matt Damon’s character said in Rounders: you tend to remember your spectacular loses more than your amazing wins.  Just human nature I guess.

That said, there’s definitely a lesson there, which is you need to stay in the market.  As we have discussed ad naseum, the market is very unpredictable in the short term often times with wild swings.  But over the long term it has a relentless upward march.  I had to get out of the market for a pretty unavoidable reason, so maybe I get a pass.  But what about those people who got spooked by the January plunge and then missed out on the February recovery?  They got crushed and could have really hurt their financial plan.

 

So there you go.  I hope you were entertained by my misfortune.

Your portfolio’s hidden cash

buried-money

 

When I wrote my three ingredients post, a few of you commented that I was crazy to have so much of our portfolio in stocks and so little in bonds (less than 1% in bonds).  Did I have a death wish or something?  What if I told you that I think a ton of people are leaving  gobs of money on the table because they are investing too conservatively?  Tell me more, you say.

We know that you need to balance risk and return in our investments.  This is most clearly done when we choose our mix of stocks (more risky, higher average returns) and bonds (less risky, lower average returns).  As an investor gets older they want to shift their asset allocation towards less risky investments because their time horizon is shortening.  We all agree with this.  So where is this hidden pot of gold I’m talking about?

 

Let’s look at the example of Mr and Mrs Grizzly.  They are both 65 years old and entering retirement.  They worked hard over the years and socked away $1 million that will see them through their golden years.  They do some internet research and learn that a sensible asset allocation in retirement is 40% stocks and 60% bonds, so they invest $400k in stocks and $600k in bonds.  Knowing the long term average returns are 8% for stocks and 4% for bonds, they expect their $1 million nest egg to generate about $56,000 per year ($400k * 8% + $600k *4%) , knowing that some years it will be more and some years it will be less.   So far so good, right?

1 m

THEY ARE LEAVING MAYBE $20,000 PER YEAR ON THE TABLE.  That’s a ton of money.  How can this be?  They seem to be doing everything right.  The answer is they are being way too conservative with their asset allocation.  They shouldn’t be investing $600k in bonds and $400 in stocks; stocks should be a much higher percentage.

Waaaaiiiiiiiittttttttt!!!  But didn’t we agree that about 60% of their portfolio should be in less risky investments?  Yes, we did.  Are you confused yet?

 

Hidden cash

Here’s what I didn’t tell you.  Mr and Mrs Grizzly have other investments that act a lot like bonds that aren’t included in that $1 million.  Both Mr Grizzly and Mrs Grizzly are eligible for Social Security with their monthly payments being $2000 each.  If Mr Grizzly (age 65) went to a company like Fidelity and bought an annuity that paid him $2000 each month until he died (doesn’t that sound a lot like Social Security), that would cost about $450k.  So in a way, Mr Grizzly’s Social Security payments are acting like a $450k government bond (theoretically it would be more than $450k since the US government has a better credit rating than Fidelity).  And remember that Mrs Grizzly is getting similar payments, so as a couple they have about $900k worth of “bond-ish” investments.

Also, Mr and Mrs Grizzly own their home that they could probably sell for $300k.  They don’t plan on selling but if they ever needed to they could tap the equity in their home either by selling it or doing a reverse mortgage.  So in a way, their house is another savings account for $300k.

If you add that up, all the sudden the picture looks really different.  They have about $950k of Social Security benefits that have the safety of a government bond.  Plus they have that $300k equity in their house.  That’s $1.25 million right there.

 

Investing your portfolio

So now let’s bring this bad boy full circle.  Remember their $1 million nest egg they were looking to invest?  Look at that in the context of their Social Security and house.  Now their total “assets” are about $2.25 million.  If you believe that the Social Security and house kind of feel like a bond, just those by themselves account for 55% of their portfolio.  If on top of that if you invest 60% of their $1 million nest egg in bonds, they have over 80% of their money in bonds, and that seems way too high.

2 25 m a

On the other hand, let’s say they only put $100k of their nest egg into bonds and the rest into stocks, after you include their social security and home, they’d be at about 60% bonds and 40% stocks.  Isn’t that what they were aiming for the whole time?

2 25 m b

Wow.  It took a long time to get there, Stocky.  The punchline better be worth it.  Remember that with $600k in bonds and $400k in stocks, they had an expected return of about $56,000 per year.  However, if they have $100k in bonds and $900k in stocks, because stocks are more volatile but have a higher expected return, they can expect about $76,000 ($800k * 8% + $100k *4%).  THAT’S $20,000!!! 

But aren’t they taking on a lot more risk to get that extra $20k?  Remember, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.  For sure, but if you look at it in the context of their Social Security benefits and their home, they have a fair amount of cushion from “safe investments” to see them through any rough patches in the stock market.

 

I wrote this post to show that people really need to take account all the financial resources they have.  In the Grizzly’s case, it was their Social Security benefits and their home.  Others of you may be getting a pension (Medtronic is generous enough to offer the Fox family one) or a second home or a dozen other things like that.

When you take those cash flows into account, all the sudden it seems a lot more reasonable to invest the rest of your money a little more heavily in stocks which you know over the long haul will give you a better return.

The power of a single percentage

2014-02-18 (1 percent)

“How can something so small be so impressive?” –Belinda Heggen

1% doesn’t seem like a lot.  It’s the extra sales tax my city adds, hoping I don’t notice it.  It’s the maximum amount of gross stuff food companies can put in packaged food without having to tell us (I don’t know it that’s true or not).  But in investing 1%, while so easy to overlook, can make a huge difference.  Here we’re going to find out how we can get that 1% to help us.

Let’s go back to my neighbors, Mr and Mrs Grizzly.  Each year they will save $10,000, investing it in a stock index mutual fund with an expected annual return of 6%.  After 30 years, they expect to have $790,581 saved (good time for the disclaimer that I am not predicting future stock performance, just giving an example), a tidy little sum to help see them through their golden years.

However, Mrs Grizzly starts playing with her spreadsheet and changes the annual return from 6% to 7% just to see what happens.  She’s astounded to see that the $790,581 that she gets with a 6% return balloons to $944,608 if she assumes a 7% return; that increase in the annual return of 1% led to an increase in her nest egg of 19%.  Tempting fate she sees what happens with an 8% return: $1,132,832.  She’s a millionaire now.  Cranking the return up to 9% made her nest egg $1,363,075; just increasing her return 3% nearly doubles how much she and Mr Grizzly will have to retire on.  Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the power of compound interest!!!

Percentage graphic

The point here is that a seemingly small 1% change in your investment return can make a huge difference over time.  By tailoring your investment strategies to collect as many “1% coupons” as possible, you can substantially increase, even double, the value of your nest egg.

So how do we get those higher returns?  Most people will default to higher stock returns: “It’s a no-brainer.  Instead of investing in the stocks and mutual funds that return 6%, let’s invest in the ones that return 7%.”  Unfortunately, after reading A Random Walk Down Wall Street we know this isn’t so easy.  For any given level of risk, our investment return is probably going to be what it will be.

Now that changing the actual investment return is out, what are our options?  Fortunately there are a lot of other things that affect our total return beyond just what our investments give us.  We’ll dive into each one of these with its own blog post, but a few to think about at a high level are:

  1. Mutual fund management fees: Each year mutual funds charge between 0.05% all the way up to 1.50% or more for management fees.  Going from high-cost mutual funds to low-cost funds can easily get us a 1% coupon.
  2. Financial planner fees: There are a lot of people out there who are more than willing to tell you how to invest your money for a small fee.  Except that fee doesn’t tend to be all that small: about 1-2% of your total assets.  Do-it-yourself investing can absolutely give you that 1% coupon, and the results you produce will probably be similar to those your investment adviser would.
  3. Being smart with taxes: You know Uncle Sam is going to take his cut.  However, you can delay when he takes his share with IRAs, 401k’s, etc.  This allows you to keep the money longer, and it allows to you be taxed on the money later in your life when you will probably be in a lower tax bracket.  Being smart with your taxes can easily get you a 1% coupon.
  4. Take the “free money” offered to you: Many of us work for companies that match 401k contributions.  Except they only give you the extra money if you invest in your 401k.  So at least putting in up the minimum amount of get the match can absolutely give you one or two 1% coupons.
  5. Proper asset allocation: We all know that some of your investments should be in higher return, riskier investments like stocks and some should be in lower return, less risky investments like bonds.  Properly assessing your portfolio to know how much you already have in less risky investments (especially things like pensions, Social Security, your home equity, etc.), can allow you to safely put more money in investments like stocks.  Over the long term, this could easily increase your return each year and get you a 1% coupon.
  6. Fully investing: So many people I talk to have $10,000 or $20,000 or $50,000 in their checking account that they’re “just waiting to figure out what to do with it.”  These are certainly Champagne problems, but they are also fertile ground to find 1% coupons.  Just taking that money and putting it in a bond fund instead of a checking or money market account could easily give that extra 1% or more; investing in a stock fund will provide even greater returns over the long run.

Those are just a few examples of how you can squeeze an extra 1% or more from your investment returns.  You’ll notice that none of those strategies include “outsmart Wall Street and pick the stocks that are going to do the best.”  I’m not that smart; I wish I was because then the Fox family would own its own island in the Caribbean next to Johnny Depp’s island.  These are all really simple strategies that anyone can do, and each of which takes less than a couple hours to set up, and can lead to hundreds of thousands of dollars over your investing lifetime.  The Fox family has benefited by these little strategies probably to the tune of 4-5% extra return each year over what seems typical among your average American investor, and that has equated to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

So here’s the bottom line:  As you read this blog, we’ll constantly be finding “extra 1% coupons” that you can redeem to increase your overall investment returns.  As Mrs Grizzly showed, even one of those can add $150k to your nest egg.  If you can gather two or three or even more, you can double your nest egg.

How to get started saving for retirement

BXP135660

So many people I talk to love the idea of investing for retirement and know they need to be doing it, but they just don’t know how to start the journey.  As a result, they don’t do anything, months and then years go by and they’re still at square one, but now they’re pissed because they missed out on the red-hot stock market that increased 50% over the past few years.  So here is what I would do in order of “Stockiness” (stockiness is a word I just made up that loosely translates to investing wisely).

 

401k or 403b

If you work for a company that offers a 401k or a 403b, that is probably the best and easiest place to start investing.  First, most companies have it set up so it’s pretty easy to sign up and get started.  Also, since they deduct the money out of your paycheck, it might be easier for some people to save the money “without having to do anything”.  Plus there’s the benefit that most of these plans don’t have any minimum amounts you have to start an account with, so you can sign up, have then deduct your 4% or 10% or whatever, and you’re set.

Of course we’ve saved the best for last—there are two MAJOR advantages of 401k and 403b accounts that really help you boost your nestegg.  First, both are tax-deferred (much more on this in a later post) which means that you don’t get taxed on your contributions.  So when you put $10,000 into your 401k this year, you don’t pay taxes on that money; had you not used your 401k then you would be taxed at normal income rates which could go all the way up to 40% or even higher, depending on what your situation is—that’s $4000 right there.  Certainly, you’ll have to pay taxes when you withdraw the money in retirement but it’s pretty likely you’ll be paying a much lower tax rate then, compared to the tax rate you’re paying while you’re working.

The other MAJOR advantage of these accounts is that most companies offer some type of matching.  It’s typically something like they will match $0.50 for every dollar you put into your 401k up to 6% of your salary.  Every company is different on their match but there is one thing they all have in common—they’re giving you free money if you’re willing to take it.  Like so many things in investing, over time this matching can add up to a lot— tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars for this little jewel.

As with all things, if it seems too good to be true, you should probably read the fine print.  There are a lot of rules associated with 401k and 403b accounts (as I said in the disclaimer, I’m not an expert here).  The big one is when you can withdraw the money.  The government allows those great tax advantages at the cost of limiting your ability to get at the money; the idea is to have you save that money for your retirement, not your next car or next Berkin handbag (which can cost as much as a car—totally blew me away when Foxy Lady told me that).  If you’re in a pinch you can get the money sooner, but it is a major pain in the butt, and often times there are penalties.  So the general rule is: put money in your 401k or 403b that you won’t need until your late 50s.

 

Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs)

If your job doesn’t offer a 401k or 403b, the next best thing is probably an IRA.  They are similar to 401k accounts in that they have tax advantages that can really add up over time, so that is one of the MAJOR advantages.  Unfortunately, they don’t have the matching feature which is a bummer.  Also, similar to 401k and 403b accounts, these are meant for retirement savings (and have similar penalties for early withdrawal) so it’s best to put money here that you don’t plan on needing until your 50s or 60s.

Unlike 401k and 403b accounts, you have to set these up on your own.  It’s not difficult, but it certainly isn’t as easy as if you just check a box at work.  The first thing you’ll need to do is pick between a Roth IRA or a traditional IRA.  There’s a ton of debate on which is better, but as a general rule I would go with a traditional IRA.  Ironically, when I made that decision for myself 15 years ago I went with a Roth IRA and I think I made the wrong decision.

Then you’ll need to set up an account with Vanguard or Fidelity or one of a hundred other firms.  Another unfortunate feature of IRAs compared to 401k accounts is that they tend to have a minimum amount required to open an account.  For Vanguard it tends to be about $3000, so that may take a little while to gather before you can get started, but it’s still definitely worth the effort.

But there is a nice advantage that IRAs have over 401k accounts—you have many more investment options.  With a 401k you are limited to the mutual funds that the company has set up.  My experience with 401k accounts is that you have a good variety—bond funds, domestic stock funds, international stock funds, target retirement funds—but you may only have 10 or so choices.  With an IRA you can choose from almost any mutual fund there is (just to put that in perspective, Vanguard has 100 funds to choose from).

 

Brokerage account

If neither of the above options work for you (and that would seem really odd that they wouldn’t, but I guess you have your reasons), then you can open a regular brokerage account with Vanguard or Fidelity or others.  Here you could invest in all the same mutual funds that are available to you with IRA accounts.

As you’d expect, the major drawback on these is that they don’t have the tax advantages of the 401k, 403b, or IRA accounts and that can be a pretty huge deal.  On the other hand, they do not have any of the penalties associated with early withdraws, so that might be something attractive depending on what you have on the time horizon.

 

So there you go.  Investing is a long journey, but as some poet who’s been deal a long time said, “Every journey begins with a first step.”  So the first step is opening an account so you can start investing.

 

How did you get started investing?  We’d love to hear your story.