Key Benefits Decisions to Make When Joining a New Company

When switching jobs, it can seem overwhelming to review all of the documents related to your new company’s employee benefits. These plans include choices for medical, dental, vision, retirement, life and accidental death and dismemberment, short-term and long-term disability and many other additional benefits that may be useful.

With all of these options to navigate through, combined with the anxiety of starting a new job, it can help to focus on making a few key decisions.

Retirement plan

You don’t want to leave free money on the table, so enroll in your company’s 401(k) plan as soon as you are eligible, and set your contribution percent (deferral rate) to at least the minimum required to receive the full employer match. This may mean contributing 6% to receive the employer match of 3%.

If you don’t start out deferring at a rate above the matching percent, let’s say 3% to 6%, then try to increase your deferral rate by 1% every 6 months to increase your retirement savings. You can also make a plan to increase your contribution rate when you receive any raises.

If you’re given the option between a Traditional (pre-tax) and Roth (after-tax) 401(k), consider your age and income level, and whether you’re already contributing to an outside Roth IRA. The employer match will always be to the Traditional 401(k) portion, so you can decide whether your contributions are pre-tax or after-tax for your portion. If you think your tax rate will be much higher in retirement than it is now, Roth 401(k) contributions make sense. Sometimes splitting your contributions 50/50, where 50% goes into the Traditional portion and 50% goes into the Roth portion, is the perfect medium. This way, you receive a tax deduction for half of your contributions now, while the other half is contributed after taxes and can be withdrawn tax-free in retirement.

Health care plan

Some companies give you multiple health care plans to choose from, while others give you just one option. These options may include an HMO, PPO, POS, or high-deductible health plan (HDHP) paired with a health savings account (HSA). If you’re deciding between an HMO, PPO or POS, make sure you’re comfortable with the in-network doctors available to you and your family, as well as the level of deductibles and out-of-pocket maximums. It doesn’t make sense to choose the least expensive health plan if you can’t afford the deductible.

If it’s available, select the high-deductible health plan paired with an HSA. It can provide the best overall value of any health plan available. If the total of your and your employer’s contributions reach the maximum you can contribute, then you receive a unique tax advantage because payroll taxes, federal income taxes and most state income taxes won’t be deducted from these contributions. They grow tax free, and withdrawals can be made tax free for qualified out-of-pocket medical expenses, including dental and vision. And, unused funds in the account are not forfeited at the end of each year like with a flexible spending account, so you can invest and allow these funds to grow.

More information about the benefits of using an HSA can be found by reading my article, A New Perspective on Health Savings Accounts.

Life insurance and accidental death and dismemberment

It’s a good idea to have life insurance that’s 10 times your income, especially when you have young dependents to provide for. Group plans may not let you go higher than 5 times your income, so acquiring the remaining coverage through an individual term policy may make sense.

Be aware that group life insurance through work is contingent upon your employment at the company, so if you are no longer working there, you may experience a loss of coverage. An individual term policy would avoid this, but may be more expensive than group benefits.

Even though the chance of having an event where accidental death and dismemberment (AD&D) pays out is slim to none, it’s still a worthwhile benefit if it doesn’t cost more than a few dollars a month. Most benefits plans sign you up for it automatically.

Short-term and long-term disability

Usually you’re automatically enrolled in short-term and long-term disability benefits. However, if you’re given the choice, select the option where you can pay these premiums with after-tax dollars, versus pre-tax dollars from your paycheck. These premiums are often less than $25 to $30 each pay period, and are paid pre-tax, meaning not subject to tax. Paying for these premiums after tax permits you to receive benefits tax-free if you ever need to file a claim. Since these premiums are small and have minimal tax consequences, receiving tax-free benefits if you have a claimis substantially more favorable.

Employee stock purchase program

If your employer offers an employee stock purchase program (ESPP) where they allow you to buy their stock at a 10% to 15% discount during stated periods in the year, considering enrolling with up to 10% of your paycheck. To avoid concentrating too much risk in your company, i.e., human capital plus financial capital, it makes sense to sell this stock as soon as possible to pocket the after-tax gain from the discount and any appreciation to help diversify. That 10% to 15% discount is considered compensation and taxed as ordinary income. Additional profit is taxed as short-term or long-term capital gains depending on how long you end up holding the stock.

Other popular benefits like legal aid, group long-term care insurance and identity theft protection can also be valuable benefits, but make sure you aren’t already receiving these benefits through another source. Group long-term care insurance is becoming more common, but it’s worth shopping around to make sure you’re getting a favorable rate. Also, one caution about group long-term care is that the insurance provider doesn’t have to get permission from the state regulators to raise premiums like they do for individual policies.

When evaluating benefits, we recommend contacting an advisor to review your options.

Teaching Kids About Cash and Credit

As we get to know our clients, we always ask about the goals they have for their children and grandchildren. Over and over we hear a variation on a theme: I want them to have enough to do something, but not enough to do nothing. How do we go about teaching our kids and grandkids the value of a dollar, while giving them opportunities to have fun and enjoy what financial freedom can give? Moreover, how do we teach them about credit and borrowing money in a way that will encourage them to only spend what they have, and no more? We’ve found some useful tools to help young people learn the skills of budgeting and spending wisely, both with cash and credit.

Debit Cards

To teach your teenager about spending, consider the American Express Serve prepaid debit card. The card requires no credit check or minimum balance, and has minimal fees. Parents can set up an account in their name, called a “Master Account,” and from there create up to four subaccounts for children aged 13 or older. Your child is issued a personal debit card with access to the funds in their subaccount, which can be used at merchants that accept American Express, as well as ATMs. They can also request funds from you, as well as send funds back from their account to yours.

Parents can view their child’s transaction history and set spending limits. Parents and children both have access to budgeting tools through American Express to see transactions divided into categories, or view each category as a percentage of their total spending. This is a great way to give kids power over how their allowance is spent, while being able to oversee spending and encourage good habits. These prepaid accounts can’t be overdrawn, offering another safeguard, and they do not affect the cardholder’s credit history.

Consider contacting your local credit union to see if they offer similar products with no fees.

What About Credit?

One of the best ways to teach your kids about credit, while also helping them build their credit history, is a secured credit card. Many major banks offer secured credit cards, which come with many of the same perks and services as traditional credit cards. Cardholders deposit funds into a checking or savings account. That deposit is then put on hold by the bank and used to secure the credit line on your credit card. iStock_89087687_XSmallA $300 deposit, for example, would become equivalent to a $300 credit line. The held funds continue to earn interest in the depository account, but can be spent using the secured credit card. Minimum payments are due monthly, and balances carried forward each month accrue interest charges just like with a traditional credit card. Balances and payments on a secured credit card are reported to the three credit bureaus, so making on-time payments is just as important.

After holding a secured card and making regular purchases and payments for a year, many banks will reassess the cardholder’s credit and, if strong enough, free up the funds used to secure the card, converting the account to a traditional card issued on credit. This type of card offers kids the ability to take time to learn about using credit cards, including the importance of making payments on time, as well as the process of billing cycles, interest charges, and spending only what they can afford to pay off each month. Some secured cards even offer rewards like traditional cards.

For something more traditional, college-age kids may consider the Discover it® for Students Card, which offers credit tracking and a reward for a good report card. A GPA of 3.0 or higher each school year will earn you $20 in rewards, and certain categories earn up to 5% cash back throughout the year. This card is also a great option for college kids who might be spending a semester studying abroad, as it charges no foreign transaction fee. Be sure to remind your student that while they may not see a fee for using their card abroad, they may still get less-than-favorable exchange rates on currency when using any credit card in another country. Lastly, in the event the card is misplaced, your student can freeze the card using an on/off feature accessible online and through the mobile app.

Cash and credit are both important tools for young people to feel comfortable using, and offering kids the freedom and responsibility to use them from an early age can make a huge difference in how careful they are with money down the road.

Realizing Gains Without Having to Pay Capital Gains Taxes

iStock_88017445_XSmallGain harvesting is where investors in the 15% tax bracket or lower can sell taxable investments with long-term capital gains and not owe capital gains taxes. For 2016, you must have taxable income below $37,650 if single, $75,300 if married filing jointly and $50,400 if head of household to stay in the 15% tax bracket. Any long-term capital gains above this taxable income threshold will be subject to the regular 15% tax on long-term capital gains, while the gains below the threshold are tax free. Income is often much lower in retirement, especially before taking the required minimum distributions from retirement accounts at age 70.5, so many retirees have room to realize gains without tax consequences.

So what’s included in taxable income?

Taxable income is the total of your sources of income, which includes earned income, investment income, retirement distributions, the portion of social security that is taxed and pension income. Once these sources of income are added up, you can then subtract deductions and exemptions to arrive at your taxable income.

If you’re receiving Social Security benefits and filing jointly with a combined income between $32,000 and $44,000, then 50% of your Social Security benefits is taxable. If your combined income is above $44,000, then 85% of your benefits is taxable. Combined income is your adjusted gross income, plus nontaxable interest (municipal bond interest), plus half of your Social Security benefit. If this amount is above $44,000, then 85% of your Social Security benefit is included in calculating your taxable income. If 85% of your Social Security benefits is not already included in your taxable income, be aware that realizing capital gains may increase the taxability of your Social Security benefits, effectively pushing you into the 25% marginal tax bracket. To remain in the 15% tax bracket, you may need to reduce the amount of capital gains realized.

Why sell something that has increased in value?

At times it can appear counterintuitive to sell investments that have significantly increased in value to buy investments that have fallen in value. However, more often than not, those investments have grown to be a significant part of one’s portfolio, thereby reducing overall diversification and increasing portfolio risk. In other words, gain harvesting provides a tax-efficient way to rebalance your portfolio to long-term targets. It also allows you to free up cash to cover expenses or gifts without incurring any capital gains taxes.

As an example, consider a retired couple, both age 66, living off of Social Security benefits, retirement account distributions, and dividends and capital gains from their taxable investment account. This couple has a $1 million taxable investment account with $400,000 in long-term capital gains. As you can imagine, their portfolio has probably drifted out of balance due to the significant capital gains. To move their portfolio back to its long-term targets for their risk tolerance, they want to sell enough stocks to rebalance their portfolio with minimal tax consequences, if any.

The following scenarios illustrate the tax implications of this couple selling investments in their taxable investment account for a gain with varying levels of taxable income.

Scenario 1

The couple has taxable income of $40,000. They can realize $35,000 in long-term capital gains without owing any capital gains taxes.

Scenario 2

The couple has taxable income of $70,000. They can realize $5,000 in long-term capital gains without owing any capital gains taxes. Any gains realized above this amount are subject to the 15% long-term capital gains tax.

Scenario 3

The couple has taxable income of $100,000. Their taxable income is already above the 15% tax bracket, so they are not able to realize any capital gains without owing capital gains taxes. Long-term capital gains realized above this point will owe 15% capital gains taxes.

Parting thought

Since taxes can eat away a significant part of the value and return of your portfolio over time, taking advantage of benefits in the tax code in years where your income may be lower, whether in between jobs or in retirement, is a prudent move. This is especially important when your portfolio has drifted away from long-term targets.

A New Perspective on Health Savings Accounts

iStock_71137267_XSmallEven though they first became available in 2003, health savings accounts (HSAs) paired with high-deductible health plans are becoming more popular and are being offered by more employers. These accounts receive a unique triple-tax advantage, whereby contributions are made pre-tax (federal, most states and payroll taxes), can grow tax free and can be withdrawn tax free for qualified medical expenses at any time. Unspent funds aren’t forfeited at the end of each year like a health flexible spending account, so they can be accumulated and invested during your working years and spent in retirement to cover healthcare expenses.

A recent Fidelity study estimated healthcare costs for couples in retirement is $245,000, and this figure doesn’t even include the cost of long-term care. Rather than drawing down cash reserves or taking retirement account distributions to cover healthcare costs in retirement, why not accumulate and invest the funds in an HSA to spend tax free later?

So what is a high-deductible health plan paired with an HSA?

Similar to other health care plans, where you have an annual deductible that can be anywhere from $250 to $10,000, a high-deductible health plan has an annual deductible of at least $1,300 for an individual and $2,600 for a family. Contributions limits to an HSA for 2016 are $3,350 for an individual and $6,650 for a family, and those 55 or older can contribute an extra $1,000. Many employers contribute the deductible on your behalf and permit you to make contributions to reach the contribution limits. And, maximum out of pocket expenses are $6,550 for individuals and $13,100 for families. Once you reach this maximum, your health insurance provider will cover all remaining costs for the year.

You can’t make contributions to an HSA once you enroll in Medicare. However, if you’re still employed after reaching age 65 and want to stay on your employer’s health plan, you can postpone enrolling in Medicare and continue to contribute to an HSA. Keep in mind that you must enroll in Medicare within eight months after you retire and/or lose group health coverage to avoid paying any penalties.

What can the account be spent on?

The account can be spent tax free on out-of-pocket qualified medical expenses. You can also use an HSA to pay for a portion of your long-term care insurance premiums (based on your age), continuation coverage through COBRA, and Medicare premiums, except Medigap. You can’t use an HSA to pay for regular medical premiums, though, unless you’re unemployed and receiving federal/state unemployment benefits.

Investing an HSA

HSAs often have investment options similar to a 401(k). Some of these plans may carry high expenses, so be mindful of fees when reviewing options.

If not needed for health care costs in retirement, HSA funds can be used after turning age 65 for non-medical expenses; however, withdrawals will be subject to ordinary income tax. Funds withdrawn for non-medical related use before 65 are subject to a 20% penalty plus ordinary income tax. They can also be rolled over to a new employer’s HSA.

A high-deductible health plan paired with an HSA can provide the best overall value of any health insurance option, especially if invested during your working years to cover medical costs in retirement tax free.

First Things First – How to Go About Prioritizing Your Savings

iStock_000084090749_XSmallDeciding how to best prioritize your savings can seem overwhelming, and the decisions you make can lead to very different long-term outcomes. It’s especially difficult to know where to start with all of the different account types and savings vehicles available to you. As with all goals, developing a plan you believe in and can consistently apply will greatly improve your success rate.

Use the following steps as a starting point for prioritizing your savings. If a step doesn’t apply to you, simply move on to the next step.

Step 1 – Contribute enough to your 401(k) to receive the full employer match

This is one of the few places in life where you can receive money by simply participating. Some employers require you to contribute 3% of your salary to receive a 100% employer match. This means your contribution is effectively doubled, at no extra cost to you. A few plans will match 50% up to 6% of your salary. In other words, you have to contribute 6% to receive their 3% matching contribution. Contributing this amount from each paycheck can put stress on a tight budget, but there’s no better alternative.

Step 2 – Pay down your highest interest rate credit cards

With the sky high interest rates charged by credit card companies, it makes sense to attack these debts before moving to the next step. Since credit card interest rates can be anywhere from 12% to 24%, it’s unlikely you will find an investment that can earn a return anywhere in this ballpark, let alone while taking on outrageous risk. Consolidating your credit card debt and even seeking help from a debt counselor may be appropriate if it’s a problem.

Step 3 – Build up at least three months’ worth of emergency cash

When you have unexpected expenses, like those associated with a job loss or a major house repair, an emergency fund can help fill the gap so you don’t have to turn to credit cards or withdraw from a retirement account. Holding three months’ worth of expenses in an emergency fund at the bank is a good start. For some, it may be necessary to have three months’ worth of your take-home pay or six months of expenses.

This fund should be increased over time as your income and living expenses grow.

Step 4 – Max out health savings account (HSA)

If your employer offers an HSA, this is an amazing savings vehicle used to pay medical expenses now and in retirement. These contributions are not subject to federal and state income taxes, or payroll taxes and withdrawals for medical expenses are tax-free. The excess cash in the account, usually balances in excess of $3,000, can be invested and grown over the long term. Considering this recent Fidelity study, which found that a couple in retirement spends $245,000 on healthcare, not including the cost of long-term care, saving in tax-advantaged accounts for these expenses is a must.

Think of an HSA account like any other retirement account. To accumulate the necessary funds to cover medical expenses in retirement, it makes sense to pay out of pocket for reasonable healthcare expenses while still employed to allow the HSA account to grow.

Step 5 – Contribute to a Roth IRA retirement account

Since contributions to this account grow and can be withdrawn tax-free in retirement, contributing to a Roth IRA makes a lot of sense. This is especially true when you consider the impact of compound interest over long investment periods for those earlier on in their career.

You can also withdraw Roth IRA contributions tax-free for an emergency or for a house down payment, and this can be done at any age. Be careful, however, to avoid touching earnings since they lead to tax consequences. Lastly, keep in mind that if your income is above IRS limits, your ability to contribute to a Roth IRA may be reduced or eliminated.

Step 6 – Save for house down payment

The number of first time home buyers is starting to pick up. Having at least a 5% down payment saved up in addition to your emergency fund is a good starting point. If you plan on buying a home in the next three years, keeping these funds in cash versus investing in stocks is a prudent move.

Once you own a home, increasing your emergency fund to six months expenses will be necessary as roof repairs and miscellaneous expenses that always seem to come up as a homeowner can quickly eat into your savings.

Step 7 – Pay extra toward your student loans

Since many are graduating with significant student loans these days, paying extra toward these loans can lead to significant savings. This is especially true with unsubsidized government student loans and private loans that have interest rates greater than 6%. Since there isn’t a guaranteed 6% plus return available, prioritizing paying off these student loans is a must.

Step 8 – Max out 401(k) plan

Being able to contribute the maximum consistently without jeopardizing your finances or being at risk of having to take an early withdrawal pays off long-term. Not only will you receive the tax-deduction up front on any contributions, the funds will grow tax-deferred throughout your career, providing a greater balance to draw from in retirement.

Step 9 – Contribute to a 529 College Savings Plan

If you have children or expect to have children, there’s never a better time to start saving in a 529 plan. The funds in the plan grow and can be distributed tax-free for college and graduate school expenses. This article discusses the benefits of 529 plans further.

Because your children might receive grants or scholarships to cover their higher-education expenses, we always prioritize retirement savings first.

Step 10 – Invest in a non-retirement account

Now that you’ve maxed out your tax-advantaged accounts, excess savings can be invested in a taxable account. These funds can be invested and used to accomplish a long list of long-term goals. Whether you’re saving toward a future vacation home, early retirement or a child’s wedding in five years, these extra savings can make a big difference.

Parting thoughts

This list isn’t a one size fits all, but it can provide a framework for developing a long-term savings plan that you can expand upon each year. The earlier you can progress through these steps in your career, the better chance you have of being financially fit and having a high probability of success when you retire.

Continuing Healthcare Coverage After Leaving an Employer

iStock_67785693_XSmallSo you’ve accepted a job offer at a new company, but you want to take some hard-earned time off before you start. The problem is that your current employer will only pay your medical premiums through the end of your last month on the job, and you’re starting the new job in the middle of the following month. So what do you do for the two weeks in between?

COBRA, short for Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, bridges this gap by providing workers and their families with continued group health benefits during this transition. Once you leave an employer, your plan administrator will send you information regarding your rights under COBRA, stating that you have 60 days from whichever of the following happens last: receiving this notice, the last day on the job or the last day of health care coverage at the end of the month. If elected within the 60-day window, the coverage becomes retroactive.

If you have a medical claim during the two weeks before you start with your new employer, you can elect for coverage after the fact within that 60-day window and pay one month’s worth of medical premiums to receive insurance coverage. Note that this could cost as much as 102% of the cost of the medical premium that was previously split between the employer and you. Still, this is much cheaper than paying thousands of dollars in medical expenses if you’re not covered. One suggestion is to put off any non-emergency medical visits for your family until after this two-week period.

It’s also important to know when your medical coverage for the new job starts. Many employers start these benefits on your first day, but some may have a 30-day waiting period.

Other COBRA Scenarios

Continued coverage under COBRA also applies in the following situations.

  • Leaving a job voluntarily
  • Becoming eligible for Medicare
  • Having a dependent child who loses dependent status
  • Having the number of hours you work reduced
  • Death of the covered employee
  • Divorce or other big life events

For a termination or reduction in hours worked, you and your family will be eligible for 18 months of continued coverage under COBRA, while the other scenarios qualify for 36 months of coverage. More information can be found on the Department of Labor website.

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