3 Simple Retirement Mistakes to Avoid

As with so much in life, retirement planning is an exercise in which you win by not losing.

You don’t have to be the world’s greatest stock picker or the second coming of Warren Buffett. Given a lifetime of saving and investing, you can generally reach your retirement goals by simply avoiding a handful of easily avoidable mistakes that will cost you big when compounded over the years.

And I’m not talking about trading strategies or a “surefire way” to avoid the next bear market. I’m talking about basic planning that can be done by anyone with the basic skills to balance a checkbook.

So with no further ado, here are three easily avoidable retirement mistakes that you should watch out for.

Retirement Mistake #1: Not Taking Advantage of 401k Matching

This might sound like an odd statement given my line of work, but the stock market is not always the best option for your investment dollars. If you have patience and the willingness to get your hands dirty, starting a small side business or buying rental properties can give you returns far in excess of what you can reasonably expect to earn in a 401k mutual fund portfolio.

That said, it’s hard to beat instant 100% returns. And that is precisely what you get when your employer matches your 401k contributions.

Look, unless you have a compelling investment opportunity that trumps the stock market — such as those small businesses and rental properties I was talking about — I recommend you max out your annual 401k contributions. In 2014, that amounts to $17,500. Realistically, you can expect something along the lines of 7% to 10% annual returns from your 401k, if history is any guide. But when your employer matches your contribution, you are getting instant 100% returns, not including any change in the market value of the investment.

You might not be able to afford to max out your 401k. For many Americans — and particularly young Americans — $17,500 is simply too much to part with in a given year. But you can afford to put in the 3% to 6% that your employer is willing to match. And if you can’t … well, you probably need to re-evaluate some of your lifestyle choices. That 3% to 6% compounded over a working lifetime can make the difference between retiring in style and moving in with your kids.

Retirement Mistake #2: Taking Social Security Payments Too Early

OK, this one might get a little morbid. But when you consider when to start taking your Social Security payout, you need to ask yourself how long you realistically expect to live. And I’m not talking about doctor’s estimates in a Breaking Bad scenario. I’m talking about a taking a realistic look at your family health history.

To what age did your parents and grandparents make it? Does your family have a history of heart disease or cancer? How is your health today? Have you lived a healthy lifestyle over the course of your life? Do you smoke — or did you smoke for a long period of your life?

This matters because taking Social Security early makes all the sense in the world if you have a relatively short life expectancy. But if you think that you might live well into your 90s, it makes far more sense to hold out for the larger benefit.

Take a look at this table provided by the Social Security Administration: Effect of Early or Delayed Retirement. And let’s use a person born in 1960 as an example.

A person born in 1960 is eligible for full Social Security benefits at age 67. But if you were to hold out for three additional years, you would be eligible for benefits that are 24 percentage points higher.

Let’s play with the numbers. Let’s say you’re eligible for $50,000 in annual benefits at age 67. That would mean that by age 70, you would have already collected $150,000 in benefits over the preceding three years. However, if you waited until age 70, you would be eligible for $62,000 in annual benefits. Thus, you would have to collect the higher $62,000 benefits for 12.5 years to “break even,” not accounting for the time value of money or any tax effects, and you would be ahead for any time after that. (In case you want to see the math, it looks like basic high-school algebra: 150,000 + 50,000x = 62,000x, where x is the number of years it would take to break even.)

So, if you reasonably expect to live well into your 80s, it makes sense to wait. If your family health history suggests otherwise … take the money sooner.

Retirement Mistake #3: Failing to Rebalance

The last easily avoidable mistake you should watch out for is failing to rebalance your accounts on a regular basis. An absolute nightmare scenario for any retiree is to build a retirement plan based on the assumption of, say, 4% annual drawdowns … then have a major bear market put your entire standard of living at risk.

Drawdowns of 4% are no problem at all in a raging bull market that sees the market rise 10% to 20% per year. But if you go through a prolonged bear market, taking regular drawdowns can dig deeply into the capital that you need to last for the next 20 years. The best analogy would be that of a farmer who eats his seed capital and then has nothing to plant come spring.

The traditional rule of thumb for asset allocation was to have the percentage of your portfolio allocated to equities equal to 100 minus your age. So, a 70-year-old retiree should have 30% allocated to stocks and 70% allocated to bonds and cash. (Owing to longer life expectancies, some planners suggest using 120 minus your age.)

There are a couple big problems with this rule of thumb. When it was concocted, bonds yielded significantly more than they do today. A bond portfolio yielding 5% to 7% was easily obtainable 15 years ago. That’s simply not the case today.

I would advocate a more flexible approach of gradually rebalancing your portfolio away from “growth-oriented” investments to “income-oriented” investments. This would include bonds, of course. But it would also include dividend-paying stocks, master limited partnerships, real estate investment trusts and even more exotic options such as buying investment properties or pursuing a covered call writing strategy. The objective is to build a growing stream of retirement income that doesn’t require you to spend down your principal.

But one world of advice here: Be wary of exceptionally high yields, as these can often signal danger. In 2012, I wrote an article warning investors to stay away from RadioShack (RSH) and to avoid being seduced by its then-10% dividend yield, as I expected it to be cut (it was). Alas, so was the dividend of one of the stocks I offered as an alternative, Spanish mobile giant Telefonica (TEF).

This brings up a complementary point: As you rebalance your portfolio toward income-oriented investments, be sure to diversify among both companies and industries. Plenty of income investorsthought they were diversified in 2008 because they owned a large number of stocks. But it didn’t matter when a disproportionate number of them were banks that all ended up slashing their dividends during the crisis.

Charles Lewis Sizemore, CFA, is the editor of Macro Trend Investor and chief investment officer of the investment firm Sizemore Capital Management. Click here to receive his FREE weekly e-letter covering top market insights, trends, and the best stocks and ETFs to profit from today’s best global value plays.  This article first appeared on InvestorPlace.

3 Tax Breaks the Big Guys Use

We’ve all seen the numbers. High-income earners are subject to higher marginal rates these days: 39.6% on incomes over $400,000 for single taxpayers and $450,000 on couples filing jointly on their 2013 returns. Additionally, single taxpayers with incomes over $200,000 and married couples with incomes over $250,000 are now subject to a 3.8% “surtax” on their investment-related income as part of Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.

Yet few wealthy taxpayers pay anything close to those percentages. Data for the past two tax years is not available yet, but in tax year 2010, the top 0.1% of taxpayers — those with incomes of more than $1.6 million per year — had effective tax rates of less than 23%. That’s far below headline top marginal rate of 35% that year.

So, how do the big boys do it?

Wealthier taxpayers will probably always have access to tax breaks that rank and file Americans will never enjoy. But today, we’re going to take a few tricks out of their playbook.

Tax Deferrals

Most Americans have access to some form of retirement plan, be it a 401k, a 403k or a 457 plan. In 2013 and 2014, the contribution limits on these sorts of plans is $17,500, or $23,000 for employees aged 50 or older.

Yet self-employed taxpayers — and most wealthy taxpayers fall into that category — can contribute significantly more. The contribution limits on two popular options — SEP-IRAs and Solo 401ks — are $51,000 in 2013 and $52,000 in 2014.

Is this something that an ordinary American can take advantage of? If you have any kind of side business or part-time contract work in addition to your regular W-2 day job, then yes.

But you have to make sure you utilize the right retirement plan option. At high income levels, SEP IRAs and Solo 401k plans offer identical tax savings. But at incomes lower than $204,000, there is a big difference. In a Solo 401k plan, you can contribute the first $51,000 you earned last year. Whereas with an SEP, your contribution is based on a formula: 25% of your compensation up to $51,000.

So, in a hypothetical case in which your side business earned exactly $51,000 in 2013, you could defer taxes on the total amount using a Solo 401k plan, but only $12,750 using an SEP IRA.

Step-Up of Cost Basis

Whenever a taxpayer dies, the cost basis of investment assets gets “stepped up” to the current market value. A wealthy investor could literally have millions — or billions — in unrealized capital gains that disappear at death, giving his or her heirs a clean tax slate. (Of course, estates larger than $5,340,000 in 2014 will be subject to the estate tax, but that is another topic for another article.)

Ordinary Americans inherit much smaller nest eggs, of course, but the same principles can be put to work with a portfolio of any size. If you are doing estate planning and have highly appreciated stock that you bought years or decades ago, consider holding on to it for the remainder of your life with the understanding that your kids or grandkids can sell it and reinvest the proceeds in a diversified portfolio.

I should give one important caveat here: Avoiding taxes should not be your primary investment consideration. If a single stock or small number of stocks makes up a disproportionately high percentage of your net worth, you might be taking too much risk. Avoiding a 15% to 20% long-term capital gains tax is great, but not if it comes at the risk of losing more than that in capital losses if the stock falls in value.

Every taxpayer will need to weigh the cost and benefit on a case-by-case basis.

Giving Gifts to Charity

Charitable giving is always going to be more beneficial to a high-income earner than to a regular American for two reasons:

  1. Most Americans take the standard deduction on their tax return, as their itemized expenses are not high enough to justify itemizing. The standard deduction in 2013 for a married couple filing jointly is $12,200.
  2. The charitable deduction reduces your tax burden at whatever your marginal tax rate is. The same $10,000 contribution will be worth $3,960 to the taxpayer in the 39.6% bracket but just $2,500 to the taxpayer in the 25% tax bracket.

Still, while this deduction is more beneficial to higher-income earners, that doesn’t mean it can’t be used to your advantage come tax time. If you like the idea of supporting a charity, church or even your old alma mater, you might as well get a tax break from it. Keep track of all cash donations you make as well as any clothes or other items you give. Cleaning out your closet of clothes you no longer wear can save you hundreds or maybe even thousands in taxes while also decluttering your house.

Regular Americans might never get to enjoy tax breaks to the extent that the wealthy do. But that’s OK. By following the same ideas, we can at least knock a few percentage points off of our effective tax rates — and every dollar saved in taxes is a dollar that can be spent on something you actually enjoy.

Charles Lewis Sizemore, CFA, is the editor of Macro Trend Investor and chief investment officer of the investment firm Sizemore Capital Management. Click here to receive his FREE weekly e-letter covering market insights, global trends, and the best stocks and ETFs to profit from today’s exciting megatrends.  This article first appeared on InvestorPlace.

3 Key Points in President Obama’s New myRA Plan

State of the Union speeches are generally pretty heavy on talk and light on practical action, and President Barack Obama’s 2014 was no exception. There was the usual backslapping and finger-pointing we’ve all grown to expect over the years from any sitting president. But there was one proposal made by Obama that got Wall Street’s attention: a new retirement savings vehicle for low- and middle-income Americans dubbed “myRA.”

From Obama’s State of the Union speech:

“Let’s do more to help Americans save for retirement. Today, most workers don’t have a pension. A Social Security check often isn’t enough on its own. And while the stock market has doubled over the last five years, that doesn’t help folks who don’t have 401ks. That’s why, tomorrow, I will direct the Treasury to create a new way for working Americans to start their own retirement savings: myRA. It’s a new savings bond that encourages folks to build a nest egg.”

President Obama went on to say that savers would have “no risk” of losing what they put in, which will make the plan palatable for Americans who lack the stomach for equity investment.

The plans for myRA are still somewhat nebulous, but here are three key points you should take away:

#1: myRA is essentially a Roth IRA invested in long-term bonds

According to the White House’s fact sheet, the myRA accounts will be offered within a Roth IRA vehicle, though unlike current Roth IRAs, this product will be offered via employers, and employees will be given the ability to have a portion of their checks automatically deducted and deposited. Currently, Roth IRAs are offered by banks, brokerage houses and other financial institutions.

The assets on offer will be “like savings bonds,” backed by the U.S. government. There is no indication at this time whether equities or other riskier assets will be allowed, though given the explicit government guarantees, it’s unlikely.

#2: myRA appears to be largely riskless for employers

Offering a 401k plan is expensive, cumbersome and carries certain fiduciary risks for employers — this is why most small businesses don’t offer them. Only 68% of American workers have access to a retirement plan, and only 54% actually participate.

The Obama administration has been accused of being hostile to business and of being insensitive to regulatory burden. From what is available so far, it does not appear that myRA will be a burden for employers.

#3: myRA is not exactly “riskless.”

If the account is essentially a bond ladder within a Roth IRA, then it is safe to say that there is no principal risk. But remember, as with all bond investments, there is the risk of lost purchasing power due to inflation. It remains to be seen what kinds of yields are offered, but it is hard to imagine the federal government paying more to American savers than it does to its existing bondholders.

At time of writing, the 10-year Treasury yields 3.62%. The current rate of inflation is 1.2%, though the Fed would like to see it closer to 2%. Subtracting the Fed’s policy objective inflation rate from the current yield gets you a real, inflation-adjusted yield of 1.62%. And over the course of a lifetime, inflation might prove to be a lot higher than that.

It certainly has during the past 100 years; the average inflation rate has been about 3.2%.

Bottom Line

A cynic might say that the U.S. government is trying to fleece its citizens into financing its chronic budget deficits. Hey, what can I say, there is probably some truth to that sentiment … but I believe that President Obama is sincere in wanting to help Americans save for their golden years.

Any savings, even at a low rate of return, are better than no savings at all. And given the long-term funding needs of Social Security, every little bit helps.

Charles Lewis Sizemore, CFA, is the chief investment officer of the investment firm Sizemore Capital Management. As of this writing, he did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities. Check out his new premium service, Macro Trend Investor, which includes a free copy of his e-book, The New Megatrend Investor: The Ultimate Buy-and-Hold Strategy That Will Make You Rich. This article first appeared on InvestorPlace.

How to Get Your Retirement Planning in Order

January tends to be an eventful month for investors engaged in retirement planning. In addition to the usual New Year’s resolutions to save more and live more frugally, January is a great month to rebalance your portfolio and to make your annual IRA or Roth IRA contribution.

I recently touched on IRA contributions and portfolio rebalancing in “A Portfolio To-Do List for January.” Now, I’m going to take this retirement planning conversation to the next level: I’m going to give you a pair of steps to help you organize your investments across your retirement accounts to lower your overall tax bill and avoid some potential tax landmines.

Retirement Planning Step #1: Simplify, Simplify

If you’re like me (and most investors), your investment dollars are spread across several retirement accounts. You probably have a current 401k that you are contributing to, and perhaps a rollover IRA or two from previous jobs. You might also have a Roth IRA, and you probably have at least one taxable brokerage account that you own personally or jointly with your spouse.

My first recommendation is that you consolidate accounts. This won’t make any difference to your taxes, per se, but it will make your tax planning easier in that you will have fewer accounts to manage. The easier you make your tax planning, the more effective you will be.

So, if you have multiple legacy 401k plans from old jobs, either consolidate them into your current 401k plan, or better, roll them into an IRA. A rollover IRA will generally have better flexibility and a wider selection of investment options than a 401k, and it is a more flexible tool for estate planning (your heirs can generally postpone taxation longer with an IRA).

Retirement Planning Step #2: Organize Your Baskets

Once you have your accounts consolidated, it’s time to decide which investments go where.

I regularly see investors segment their investments by perceived risk, putting safer, more conservative investments in their IRA and putting riskier assets in their taxable accounts with the thinking that IRA dollars are more precious and should therefore be treated more carefully. While I understand this thinking, it’s very bad retirement planning.

With no further ado, here are the steps to building a properly tax-managed portfolio:

  1. Sketch out your asset allocation. This will include standard investments, such as stocks, bonds and real estate, and perhaps alternative investments or even hedge funds and other private partnerships if you are an accredited investor.
  2. Rank each of the asset classes in your allocation by the amount of taxable income you expect them to generate. For example, stock index funds that you intend to hold for over a year have virtually no expected taxable income beyond dividends and capital gains distributions — which are taxed at a favorable rate. MLP distributions are often considered a return of capital and are thus non-taxable in the year they are paid. A fund with high portfolio turnover will generate a lot of taxable gains, as would options strategies or high-yield bonds. And capital gains on certain alternative investments — particularly coins or artwork — are taxed at a higher “collectibles” rate of 28%, though you would only generate taxable income if you sold them.
  3. Implement your allocation. “Fill up” your IRA accounts with the least-tax efficient investments first, saving the most-tax efficient for the taxable brokerage accounts.

As you’d expect when talking about retirement planning across millions of Americans, every investor’s allocation is going to look a little different. But in practice, most will look something along the lines of this:

In your IRA accounts (including Roth IRAs):

  1. Bonds
  2. High-yield bonds
  3. High-turnover, actively managed mutual funds, ETFs, or accredited investor products
  4. Collectibles you may want to sell within the next few years
  5. Real estate investment trusts (see below).

Outside of your IRA:

  1. Index stock funds and ETFs
  2. Master limited partnerships
  3. Collectibles you intend to hold indefinitely
  4. Investment real estate properties (income is often “tax-free” return of capital, and capital gains can be avoided via 1031 exchanges)

One gray area is real estate investment trusts. Like MLPs and investment real estate, REIT payouts often benefit from tax deferral as “return of capital.” Yet any portion of the dividend that is not covered as return of capital (or a long-term capital gains distribution) is considered ordinary income and is taxed at your marginal tax rather than at the qualified dividend tax rate.

How do you address this in your portfolio? If you have room in your IRA, then that is where I would recommend including REITs. But I would stuff the IRA full of the other asset classes I listed first.

Charles Lewis Sizemore, CFA, is the chief investment officer of the investment firm Sizemore Capital Management. Check out his new premium service, Macro Trend Investor, which includes a free copy of his e-book, The New Megatrend Investor: The Ultimate Buy-and-Hold Strategy That Will Make You Rich. This article first appeared on InvestorPlace.