Mind the Gap

How many people do you know who want to retire early, or leave their job for one reason or another? At first glance it seems like it would be awesome – plenty of free time, nobody telling you what to do, it’s like moving out of your parent’s house all over again! And I’m all for this, although I’ll be the first to admit early retirement just isn’t for me – at least not in the traditional sense. But I’m not discussing the pros/cons of early retirement – in the next few paragraphs I’d like to identify some things I think many of us overlook in our race to the finish.

First, and this is a biggie, health insurance. You are eligible for Medicare three months before your 65th birthday to 3 months after. There are some additional opportunities for those with disabilities, but let’s stick to this. If you retire before age 65, and you had been relying on your employer’s healthcare plan take a look to see what you’ll do when you leave. Does your spouse have a plan? Will it affect any of your children who may still be on your plan (under age 26 or disabled)?

I encourage everyone to make sure they (1) have identified what they’ll do and (2) are sure they can afford the option(s) chosen. It would be horrible to work off the premise you’ll use COBRA and then find out you can’t afford the premiums, or that it doesn’t cover you until you’re Medicare eligible. If leaving the work force before 65 is on your radar, healthcare should be one of the first things you consider.

Next – what are you going to do with all that time? For most of us work accounts for at least (8) hours, 5 days each week. Not counting travel time or other jobs (side-hustles) you may have. This time is occupied, even if only with “busy work”, not requiring much on your part to entertain yourself. What would 52 weeks of vacation be like for you? Could you afford it?

I urge you to consider this seriously, because I’ve heard several “rules” of thumb when it comes to retirement and I’m not fond of any of them. For example – the rule you only need 80% of what you’re currently making. This is a great rule IF, and only IF, you are in the minority of the population who is saving at least 20% of their income. If you’re not, why would you spend less when you have more free time? Sure, you may fill some of this time volunteering and with hobbies, but rather than just jumping right in try taking mini-retirements first – vacations without trips planned, because in most cases it’s not realistic in most cases you’ll be able to take trips each week – while spending what you’re spending now. 

Last, and not in any way least, understand your why. Are you doing this because it’s the “thing” to do, because you have a bigger vision you need time for, or because you want to relax and enjoy your later years? There’s no right or wrong reason, but the more connected to your why you are the more likely you’ll do whatever it takes to make it happen.

And that’s the point I want to stress – no matter what you want to do, or why; if it’s important to you treat it that way. If you want 40+ years to yourself in retirement, make sure you have enough money to fund it – even if it means making sacrifices now. Only, if it’s what you really want they won’t be sacrifices; they’ll be steps on your journey to your ideal state.

If you’re retiring before Medicare eligibility, consider investing into a side account, at least equal to your current insurance premiums, to be drawn from later. If you want to live on a beach or in the middle of the woods, would it help to pay off your current mortgage to maximize the money available to purchase these cottages? Just food for thought, and don’t feel bad if you don’t have all the answers. Talk to your advisor(s), friends and family – use them as sounding boards (but not final decision makers). Look for those with similar goals and see what they did to accomplish their goal; or have done to put themselves on track. And learn from their mistakes – not reinventing the wheel goes for the bad as well as the good.

 

Side Hustle, What?!

When I was younger if you had a second job, it was just that – a job. It wasn’t anything to celebrate, because often you were working to help pay your bills. I’m not sure what’s changed, and I fully admit I’m not 100% in touch with current lingo – but as I understand what I’ve been hearing, a “side hustle” is something people SHOULD have.

I can think of many instances when this is a good idea; for example if you have a hobby  you’re trying to become better at, in the hopes you can make it into a career (i.e. wood carver). After all, assuming the following:

1) Malcolm Gladwell’s theory it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill is accurate

2) We work and sleep on average (8) hours per day

3) We can spend (4) hours of each day (Monday – Sunday) working on our skill

It would still take us almost (7) years to become a “master” (6.85 years). That’s a long time to work on something for no reward (other than the satisfaction of becoming better). So getting paid to practice could be a great way to both stay motivated to learning and put a little extra cash in your pocket.

However, I question if this is why most people have a side hustle – I think for many it’s a way to increase their income. Nothing wrong with this, if you’re honest with yourself and you know what you want the money for. If it’s being used to cover monthly expenses, then I encourage you to revisit your spending habits. On the other hand, if you’re using it to save for a specific goal; just to have some extra cash; or as I postulated above, to get better at a skill more power to you!

Here’s where I become an old fuddy duddy (as proven by using the words “fuddy duddy”). When you consider a side hustle, and are determining how much money you’re going to make – please consider the associated expenses. This means if you’re driving for one of the ride share apps consider the increased frequency of required maintenance (oil changes, detailing, brakes, etc); the same goes if you’re renting a room or your house – typically there are additional expenses, including insurance, that often go overlooked.

If you’re “earning” $500 per month, but spending an extra $300/mth doing so evaluate if it’s really worth it. Many of the side hustles I’ve seen people do have the potential to be very lucrative; but like anything if you don’t know what it’s costing you you cannot be sure you’re really making a profit.

If you’re not sure how much you’re really making, track your cash flow. This is nothing more than the money coming in vs the money going out. You can set up a tracker in basic tracker in excel or talk to a financial advisor.  I like to see my clients saving at least 20% of money coming in for goals (not just retirement, things like trips to Disney & new cars as well). If you can’t, even with the side hustle, I would encourage you to evaluate where your money is going – and not just take on something else. And remember, although I’ve only talked about money; there’s another cost to be considered – time. Use it wisely, I don’t know of anyone who died wishing they’d spent more time working.

The Catch-22 of Taxes and Social Security

I don’t think anybody likes taxes – in fact I think it’s safe to say we would all prefer not to pay them. To that end, we do whatever we can to reduce what Uncle Sam sees as our taxable income; and why not – after all we work hard for what we earn! Unfortunately, not very many companies offer pensions, so it’s up to the individual to save for his or her retirement. Add a child with a disability, and you’re saving for at least two generations; and this is where the catch-22 comes into play.

If you reduce your taxable income your reducing the amount you pay into social security. Social Security considers the average of 35 years of wage history, with any years not reported counted as $0 income. This average is used to determine what they will pay you, the worker, in the event you become disabled or retire. The lower the amount you pay in, the lower the amount you receive. This will be even further reduced by taking social security before your full retirement age (FRA).

So what,  you may be saying. Well, remember what I said in the first paragraph about most of us not receiving a pension. Without Social Security, 2 in 5 elderly Americans would have incomes below the poverty line – that’s 40% of people aged 65 and up (source Center of Budget and Policy Priorities). If you decrease the amount you “earn”, without saving for your retirement, you’re also reducing your retirement income; not to mention what you’ll leave behind for your spouse or disabled child.

Disabled adult children become eligible to receive SSDI, provided they were disabled before the age of 22, paid on their parent’s Social Security earnings record. There are additional requirements (found here); but the point I want to make is YOU control what your child will receive. In 2017 the maximum earnings subject to Social Security payroll tax is $127,200. This means if you’re married or head of household you’d be in the 25% federal tax bracket.

In my opinion it’s worth it (to me) for my son to receive the highest amount of SSDI possible. I’m not a fan of paying taxes, but I do want to ensure my son’s quality of life doesn’t drop when I’m gone. I’m not counting just on social security, I have life insurance and I’m fortunate to transfer some of my military pension to him as well. Each of us needs to make our own decisions, there is no right or wrong answer. However ensure you are making an informed decision. Weigh the pros/cons of taxes, and consider what you’re doing to help yourself, and if applicable, your disabled child.

This, like many financial decisions, doesn’t have to be made in a vacuum. Talk to your advisor and/or accountant; get their input. The solution is not necessarily always reducing your taxable income, especially if you’re a self-employed business owner and you’re reinvesting everything you make back into the business (not saving for retirement).

When Is Your “Independence Day”?

July 4th is Independence Day for those of us living in the United States, and it brings to mind thoughts of what independence means – is it the same for everyone; or, as I suspect, do each of us hold our own ideal close to our heart – perhaps never sharing?

Certainly, the freedoms guaranteed by our Constitution mean a LOT to me, I’m proud of the years I served in the Navy; but I don’t consider myself truly “independent”; at least, not yet. In my mind I won’t be “independent” until I’m confident my son will be able to have a life worth living on his own – this should not be confused with “surviving”. Until this happens, he’ll be dependent upon me; which to me means I’m not “free”.

This is not a pity party or a complaint, but it is my reality – and I think for many of you reading this there is a similar reality. I think we plan our whole lives for when we don’t have to answer to anyone, when we can just do what we want when we want (well, I KNOW this was my plan). However, reality is seldom so black and white.

My “independence day” is on the horizon, and I have a strong belief I will live to see it – my son’s own independence continues to grow in leaps and bounds; and thanks to technology things we once thought would be insurmountable can either now be done, or will be achievable in my lifetime, without much more effort than it takes to open an app.

For those of you reading this – what does freedom mean to you? Are you doing everything you can to achieve it; or are you waiting for someone else to give it to you? If you’re waiting, don’t! To the best of my knowledge independence has never been achieved without a LOT of effort from those desiring it. I’m not suggesting you storm the ramparts or take up arms against the establishment; but if you don’t at least contribute the achievement of your goals will you truly value them? Heck, will you even recognize when they come true?

So set your sights on what freedom means to you, and map out a strategy to get there and get moving. If you’re fortunate enough to have achieved your freedom, extend a hand and help others – encouraging words go a LONG way, so don’t be shy or afraid to offer praise. Celebrate the little victories, and don’t let losses bog you down – learn the lessons they are meant to teach and forge ahead. Finally, remember it’s hard to know you’ve arrived at your destination if you’ve never identified where you are going.

ABLE Accounts & You

One of the most frequent questions I still get is “should I get an ABLE account or a Special Needs Trust”? And the answer is, generally, both. There is a lot of potential to use them in a complimentary fashion, although there may be some instances where it’s more effective to just get the Special Needs Trust.

As a brief recap, or intro for those that are not familiar with ABLE accounts, here is a quick overview. The ABLE National Resource Center has done an amazing job compiling information about ABLE accounts, including a map allowing you to select each state; and run a comparison of various accounts. If you haven’t yet, I encourage you to check it out, here’s the link: http://www.ablenrc.org/. I will deliberately not be diving into what an ABLE account is, how you set one up, or its requirements in here.

ABLE accounts allow individuals with disabilities to accumulate up to a maximum of $100,000 while receiving SSI. Should the individual’s account exceed $100k, their SSI benefits will be suspended – but they will maintain their Medicaid. As of June 2017 you can only contribute $14k per year to an ABLE account.

Some ways I would incorporate them into a family’s plan include:

1) Saving an individual’s wages.

2) When charging a family member rent to maximize SSI, gift up to $14k back.

3) Use as a mid to long term investment vehicle for larger purchases insurance doesn’t cover; for example assistive or adaptive technology.

4) Housing or food costs (using a trust could jeopardize SSI).

These are examples, and don’t come anywhere near touching on everything it could be for. ABLE accounts are designed to help individuals with disabilities increase their level of independence and do more than just “survive”. Individuals do not have to justify their spending to a trustee, although they should be tracking what they spend the money on – and from what I’ve seen the accounts themselves provide tools for this on their websites.

In my opinion, ABLE accounts are fantastic tools; but do not replace the need for a Special Needs Trust. I encourage families to think outside the box – instead of focusing on what our children/siblings can’t do let’s start imagining what they could do, with the right supports. Disability rights momentum is gaining, there are opportunities for our children now which didn’t exist just 10 years ago; and it’s my hope this continues exponentially.

You can do your part by having a willingness to accept there may be failures, and the change may not be pretty. Sure, there is a possibility the money in an ABLE account may be spent frivolously; but in my opinion that’s just part of being independent (not that I’d be happy about it). Can any of us honestly say we’ve never wasted any of our money?

All I ask is this. Instead of immediately saying to yourself “my son/daughter could never…”; replace it with “I will let my son/daughter try ___________, and though they may not be successful right away (few of us are) I will continue to be supportive”. The reality is there will still be things outside of their capability, at least for now. But technology is evolving, providing capabilities I never would’ve considered. As one example – the app “Be My Eyes“.

Circling back to the ABLE account, you don’t need a financial advisor/planner to set one up; I opened my son’s in Virginia (Maryland’s isn’t available yet) and I found it very user friendly. If you’re not sure how an ABLE account will tie into your overall plan, or if it’s right for you, then consult with an advisor/planner – but make sure they understand special needs planning; because we are not the same.

 

Walk before you Run

I don’t think very many of us step foot into the gym after a prolonged absence and decide to push yourself as hard and as fast as you can – at least not more than once, especially if you’re older than 40. We know, or at least have a fair idea, if we did it would not be pleasant (to put it mildly). Yet many of us are so quick to think other aspects of our lives, specifically financial, would be any different.

I get it, I hear many of the same “experts” telling us we need to save more and spend less – and we do! But, and this is a very big but, you should not think you can suddenly do a complete shift and sustain it. You need to train yourself, just as you would if you were going to run a marathon.

Saving/spending are just as much habits as smoking or making coffee every morning (my personal vice). Yes, in a perfect world all of us would be saving at least 20% of every check towards clearly defined goals (retirement being just one of them); but this isn’t a perfect world – we all have other “stuff” going on that can distract us. So rather than try to make a drastic change, and then quit because it’s too hard, start smaller.

Although transportation and housing make up a significant portion of our spending, many of you reading this are probably not in the market at this time – so there probably isn’t much opportunity to reduce your spending here. However, if you are in the market, or if you haven’t looked into refinancing and you’re mortgage rate is over 5%; here are a few things you can do to help yourself.

Aim at keeping the house and auto payment down. If you have to finance a car for 60 or 72 months, consider a less expensive option. Cars are depreciating assets – meaning you will never get the money you put into it back. Refinancing your mortgage could free up some cash – and since you’re used to not having it go ahead and put it directly into a savings/investment account; don’t spend it.

For the rest of us, track how often you buy something every day/week. For now, don’t worry about how much you’re spending, this is to determine your purchasing habits. For everything you buy make a note of “need” or “want”. What drives your purchases? Are there certain times of the day you are buying more frequently, is it just super easy because your card info is saved on the website? These are the types of questions you should be asking yourself.

From here, pick one thing to change and commit. Maybe it’s deleting your card info from Amazon Prime, or you don’t hop on the computer right after work because it leads to retail therapy. Whatever it is, just make (1) small change and stick with it for at least (3) months. Easy way to track – Federal holidays. If you start something around the 4th of July, next step is reevaluate around Labor Day or Thanksgiving. No reason to make it super complicated, the easier it is the more likely you’ll follow through.

What you shouldn’t do: don’t suddenly increase your 401(k) from 2% to 15%; that’s too much of a shock to your system. Don’t tell yourself “I’m just not going to shop anymore”. That’s a punishment, not a constructive realignment of your attitude and behaviors (fancy talk for making yourself miserable). If you’re in a committed relationship with joint finances – don’t make any changes on your own. Have an open dialogue, and if necessary, use an impartial 3rd party to help steer it. Pick a pace that leaves you a little uncomfortable and get started. There’s no better time than now.

 

Nothing Wrong with Simplicity

I think we make our lives more difficult than we need to – in all aspects. Almost like we think we’re doing something wrong if we can explain ourselves in one sentence. But in my opinion, this is what we should be striving for. Life is complicated enough, I don’t feel like it needs any help from me.

More often than not I’ve found the mantra “keep it simple” has steered me in the right direction – even (or especially) when I’m working with clients. To be clear, you must absolutely do your due diligence when considering alternatives, but I’ve found those that you can easily understand and require the least amount of effort will often work.

This shouldn’t necessarily be applied when pursuing a degree or picking a home to live in for the rest of your life – because there is usually a lot of other things to take into consideration. But how you pay for school, or the home, shouldn’t be that complicated or fancy.

Call me boring, but I like to set things in place and then forget about them – secure in the knowledge that it’s doing what it’s supposed to do. Saving for college in a 529 plan – why not pick a target date fund with the year closest to when you’ll need the money? The same goes for your current employer sponsored retirement plan. Both of these will likely have a bunch of other options available, and not necessarily anyone available to help select what works best for you.

Alternatively you could hire someone to take care of it for you; my only input being make sure you understand what they are doing. This can apply to having a housekeeper, landscaper or financial advisor – in each case you’ll want to be very clear of your expectations, and understand what they will be delivering. Once the ground rules are laid, you can shift your focus to other things – circling back periodically to check on things.