The Balanced Spreadsheet-Financial News, Budget Advice, Debt help, Financial Tips, and other advice

January 28, 2010

The Financial How to series Part IV. How to start investing for retirement

Part I-How to start a budget

Part II-How to get out of debt

Part III-How to start and maintain an emergency fund

Today we are going to wrap up our “Financial how to . . . . .” series on the topic of how to start investing for retirement.  For some this can be a scary topic as it brings up many questions such as “How much do I need to save now for retirement”, “How much will I need to retire”, and “What types of investments do I put my money into.”  These are all good questions that need to be answered before you start to invest.  With that being said I am going to focus on how to get started and not give any advice on certain funds or stocks as I am far from an expert. 

What is investing?

There are three kinds of investment lengths, although as I will discuss later I think only one is truly investing.  There is short-term investing which is less than one year, intermediate investing which is between 1-5 years, while long-term investing is greater than 5 years.  I consider long-term investing the only true investing as the stock market has usually made money over any 5 year period compared to only about 60% of the time over a 3 year period which is more like speculating and as we saw as recently as 2008, investing for only 12 months is essentially gambling. 

Types of Investing

For me there are two kinds of investing, retirement and non-retirement.  Non-retirement includes investments such as a child’s college fund, saving for a down payment on a house, or investing in real estate.  Retirement investing includes vehicles such as 401(K) and IRA’s.  They have special tax advantages to them, but there is a catch as they have penalties for early withdraws, therefore the decision needs to be made ahead of time that any retirement investing is truly for retirement only.  Most of the time when people talk about investing, they are referring to retirement investing which is the main focus of this post.

Common investments

When investing in retirement accounts, there are three common investments: stocks, bonds, and cash.

Stocks are the most common investment as well as the most discussed.  That is because they have the most day-to-day volatility.  Stocks have traditionally offered the greatest reward but also the most risk.  Stocks have been way down after their highs in late 2007.  But in 2009 they have started to make a recovery.  The key to stocks is to diversify by selecting mutual funds that contain many stocks in one fund. 

Bonds have done well recently with the drop in interest rates.  They have less day-to-day change in price than stocks; however they have historically underperformed the return of stocks.

Cash is invested in things such as savings, money market, and certificates of deposit (CD).  They are “safe” investments, as you do not risk losing any principle with the return being a fixed rate.  Investing in cash to me though is an oxymoron because you are parking your money as you might be gaining 4-5% every year but you will lose most of your gain due to 4% inflation so you gain nothing. 

Commodities include things like oil, natural gas, corn, wheat, and precious metals. Commodities are historically very volatile with huge upswings and downswings. 

Things to look for when investing

Whatever you decide to invest in I would recommend you look into the following three things before investing

Diversification You need a balance portfolio and not have all your eggs in one basket no matter how great of a return you are getting.  Diversification protects against losing all of your savings on just one bad investment.  For that reason when I invest in stocks I do not investing in single stocks but rather mutual funds which are made up of various stocks.

Invest in things with long track records You do not want to start investing in something that has only been around for years.  By seeking out funds with at least a 10-15 year track record you can see how returns have been over both good and bad periods and see if they have been able to weather the storm.

Know where you money is going! Invest in things you are comfortable with.  Never put money into something you do not understand as you do not want to be pressured into something that you do not agree with.  Investing in X because “my co-worker said it was a good idea” or because “My brother-in law invests in it” does not mean it is a good idea.

As mentioned in the opening, investing can be trick and overwhelming for a lot of us.  What you need to do though is to take some time and learn about investing.  Finally, building wealth takes time; it is not an overnight process.  But you need to start soon and invest in good solid investments and not some get rich quick scheme.  The key to building a big nest egg is investing now instead of later.  You might be in your 20’s or 30’s and think you have plenty of time which you do, so use your time as an asset and not a liability.  Also if you are in the later years of your life, do not worry, you can still start today.  It is never too late.

That is the conclusion to The Balanced Spreadsheet’s January 2010 “Financial how to . . . . . .” series.  I hope you enjoyed it and we will be back soon with another series in February.

December 16, 2009

The ROTH 401 (K)

Filed under: Personal Finance, Retirement, Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — thebalancedspreadsheet @ 11:20 am

Last Friday, my employer gave me an early Christmas gift.  They sent out word that starting in 2010 they would be offering a ROTH 401(K) option along with the traditional 401(K) plan! This was very good news as I already contribute to a ROTH IRA and as I have discussed before in comparing traditional and ROTH IRA’s, the tax free growth you get with a ROTH almost always is better then the deferred growth you get with a traditional retirement plan. The differences between a traditional 401(K) and a ROTH 401(K) are very similar to the differences between a traditional and ROTH IRA.

The big difference is still the tax treatment.  Contributions to Traditional 401(K)’s are tax deferred while ROTH 401(K) contributions are made after taxes and have tax free growth.  That means that ROTH 401(K) contributions will result in a higher tax bill in the year you make the contribution compared to a traditional 401(K).  However, under both plans, if the company matches any of the proceeds that amount and its growth is tax deferred.

The one big advantage of the ROTH 401(K) versus the ROTH IRA is the contribution limits.  You can contribute up to $16,500 combined in 401(K)’s in 2009 compared to just $5,000 for IRA’s.  That means you can get up for $11,500 more in tax free growth a year!  There is also no income limit to participate in a ROTH 401(K) while with a ROTH IRA the limit is $105,000 for single filers and $166,000 for married filing jointly.

After crunching the numbers it looks like I will be making the switch from Traditional 401(K) to ROTH 401(K) in 2010.  I will put 9% of my paycheck into the ROTH 401(K).  My employer matches 6%, so that means I will be getting 15% of my net pay into 401(K).  I will stop contributing to my ROTH IRA in 2010.  This will increase my tax bill for 2010 but down the road I will more then make up for it.  The one thing I was worried about in contributing to a ROTH 401(K) was whether or not the tax free contributions would bump me up into the 25% tax bracket in 2010.  However it looks like I will still be in the 15% tax bracket. 

Has anybody else had experiences with a ROTH 401(K)?  Did you like it?  Hate it? Or were you indifferent?  Any feedback is appreciated.

October 15, 2009

Traditional IRA v. ROTH IRA

Filed under: Personal Finance, Retirement, Simulation — Tags: , , , , — thebalancedspreadsheet @ 3:01 pm

With the Dow Jones Industrial Average once again breaking past the 10,000 point plateau yesterday, a lot of talk right now is about investing into the market.  Usually people invest in either a 401(K) through their work or an Individual Retirement Account (IRA).  There are two kinds of IRAs, Traditional IRA and ROTH IRA.  I am going to try and give a brief explanation of each and what I recommend to use. 

Similarities

While there are some key differences between the two, there are also some similarities.  First, the maximum contributions are the same.  For 2009 you may contribute up to $5,000 ($6,000 is over 50) into either a Traditional or ROTH IRA.  Also, you can start withdrawing from you IRA with no penalty after you turn 59½.

Differences

There however are some minor differences. You can only fully contribute to a ROTH IRA if you income is less then $105,000 for single filers and $166,000 for married filing jointly.  But there are no income limits for contributions to a Traditional IRA.  But you do have to start making mandatory withdrawals starting at age 70½ with a Traditional IRA, opposed to no mandatory withdrawals with a ROTH IRA. 

The major difference though between Traditional and ROTH IRA is the different tax treatments each receive.  Traditional IRA contributions are pre-tax, meaning that all contributions and growth will be taxed at the time of withdrawals, while ROTH IRA contributions are after tax, meaning contributions are taxed at your income rate at the time you contribute.  But when you make ROTH IRA withdrawals, both the contributions and growth are tax free!

Comparison

For our comparison let’s assume you make $50,000 this year and are less than fifty years of age and contribute the $5,000 maximum.  Under a Traditional IRA you would pay Federal income taxes on $45,000 ($50,000-$5,000), while under a ROTH IRA you would pay federal income taxes on $50,000.  So under a Traditional IRA you would have an immediate tax savings.  But over the long term what would the difference be when you are ready to retire? 

If you put $5,000 each year for 30 years into an IRA averaging a conservative 10% annual rate of return you would have ~ $942,000 at the end of the 30 years!  That means you would have $150,000 worth on contributions (30 x $5,000) and ~ $792,000 of growth!  With a ROTH the $792,000 growth would be 100% tax free, while with a Traditional IRA the entire growth would be taxed on when you make withdrawals from you account.  So while you have to pay the taxes on the ROTH IRA initially up front, tax free growth on a ROTH IRA would be a better long term value at retirement then a Traditional IRA because of the tax implication.

Well that is a short and brief explanation of the difference between Traditional and ROTH IRA’s.   Hopefully this answers any questions you might have before making your 2009 contributions.

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