Gift Card Scams & Stolen Emails

Gift Card Scams & Stolen Emails

Holidays and long weekends are a popular time for email scammers to strike. Recipients of scam messages are more likely to believe urgent pleas for money or assistance from an acquaintance on vacation who says they are unreachable by phone. Meanwhile, victims are less likely to check their email on their day off to discover strange replies that might tip them off that their account has been hacked and used to send scams to their contacts.

That might help explain why this morning after Independence Day weekend, I have already heard from several people who received an email from a known contact who claims to be travelling and in urgent need of a birthday gift for a relative (warning bells!)

In this scam, the contact asks the recipient as a favor to purchase a several hundred dollars in gift cards and email them to the relative with the promise of repayment as soon as they return from their trip. Of course, many people can identify this as a scam and know that they should not purchase the gift cards (which are commonly requested by scammers in lieu of wire transfers), but a more serious concern is that the sender’s email account has very likely been compromised and used to send this scam to dozens of their personal and business contacts without their knowledge.

Is there anything you can do?

If you ever receive one of these messages from a friend or colleague, you may wish to notify them via telephone (not by email – you’ll see why in a bit) that their email password may have been stolen and their email account compromised. They should immediately change their password, and if they have reused the same password on other online systems, they should change it there as well, preferably using a unique password on every system.

Why not just reply to the email?

In many cases the attackers perpetuating these scams will also create email filter rules to automatically delete or redirect inbound emails to an external mailbox that they control. This prevents the real account owner from being alerted to the compromise and allows the attacker to monitor the email remotely for signs that they’ve been discovered. So after changing the email password, users should also check their email filtering rules for any suspicious rules that were created without their knowledge. Filter rules are a feature that most users don’t access frequently, so these links may help finding the setting for several common email providers:

How can users protect their accounts?

Everyone can follow a few basic precautions that will help avoid a compromised online account:

1. Use a password manager to generate and securely store random, unique passwords for each and every site so that one stolen password does not jeopardize multiple accounts.

2. Enable two-step verification (also known as two-factor authentication) on all accounts that offer it, but especially for email and banking accounts. This makes it much more difficult for an attacker to log in with a stolen password. Instructions depend on your provider, but most email and banking services offer this option now:

 

3. Never type a password into a website that was accessed via an email link. Attackers steal passwords by forging email from a well-known website with a link to a fake login form. The login page may look exactly like the real site, but the password is sent to the attacker instead. The forgery might even log into the legitimate site afterword to avoid raising suspicion.

How to report a backdoor Roth IRA contribution on your taxes

How to report a backdoor Roth IRA contribution on your taxes

Updated June 25, 2019

By: Geoff Curran & Jeff Barnett

When you are thinking about how to put your hard-earned dollars to work, it’s important to consider every avenue for tax-advantaged savings. Backdoor Roth IRA contributions are great tools for high earners to take advantage of Roth IRAs even after passing the income limits for standard contributions, and the steps for making backdoor Roth IRA contributions are pretty simple. However, the documentation and tax forms for the process can be confusing, and you may run into trouble when it comes time to report everything to Uncle Sam. Whether you work with a professional tax preparer, use tax software such as TurboTax or complete your taxes by hand, understanding the mechanics of the money movements can help ensure you file your taxes correctly. 

Let’s walk through each step in the backdoor Roth IRA process to illustrate the moving parts. You got here by making too much money to deduct Traditional IRA contributions or to contribute to a Roth IRA normally. However, there is no income limit on converting a Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA, which is the crux of the backdoor Roth IRA.

Step one of the Backdoor Roth IRA is making a non-deductible contribution to your Traditional IRA. It’s your responsibility to report the non-deductible contribution to your Traditional IRA at tax time on IRS form 8606, Nondeductible IRAs. Form 8606 helps track your basis and avoid paying additional tax on your non-deductible contribution as you convert the balance to a Roth IRA.

The second step after making your non-deductible Traditional IRA contribution is converting your Traditional IRA balance to a Roth IRA. You will owe tax on any earnings in the Traditional IRA before converting, but from that point on, those dollars are now Roth IRA assets and aren’t subject to future tax. Use Form 8606 for calculating the taxable amount from the conversion if you had any earnings in the Traditional IRA.

Around tax-time, you’ll receive a 1099-R from your custodian showing the distribution from your Traditional IRA that was converted to your Roth IRA the previous year. Later in the year you’ll also receive an information reporting Form 5498 that shows the contribution you made to the Traditional IRA and the amount that was converted to Roth. We recommend keeping Form 5498 for your records, but you don’t need to report Form 5498 in your tax filing.

Now that we have walked through the steps, let’s look at an example of how to report a backdoor Roth IRA contribution. Tom, a 35-year-old physician in the Pacific Northwest and diehard Seahawks fan, is working on his Married Filing Jointly tax return after making a $6,000 non-deductible Traditional IRA contribution last year that he converted to his Roth IRA. Tom didn’t have any other Traditional IRA assets aside from his non-deductible contribution in 2018, and he didn’t have any earnings in his Roth IRA conversion. Part 1 of Tom’s Form 8606 is filled out below.

Next let’s look at Part 2 of Tom’s Form 8606, where the conversion portion is reported. If line 18 is 0, as it is in this example, none of the conversion ends up being taxable.

 

 

 Note: Our example uses the increased 2019 IRA contribution limit ($6,000 for individuals under age 50) on the 2018 tax year forms. The 2019 tax year forms won’t become available until January 2020.

Tom won’t end up owing any taxes on his Backdoor Roth IRA, and his correct reporting of the contribution and conversion will avoid running afoul of the IRS. However, tax forms and reporting can be a daunting challenge. If stressors like tax law changes, new forms and confusion around the whole process keep you from sleeping soundly, reach out to a Merriman advisor to discuss whether a backdoor Roth IRA makes sense for you. You might even have other options available for tax-advantaged savings that you haven’t considered. Check out Mega Backdoor Roth Explained to see how you might be able to do a backdoor Roth in your employer 401(k) plan. We love navigating complex issues like these and giving guidance to elevate your finances.    

 

 

References:

Internal Revenue Service. (2018, November 1). About Form 5498, IRA Contribution Information (Info Copy Only). Retrieved from https://www.irs.gov/forms-pubs/about-form-5498

Internal Revenue Service. (2019, February 27). About Form 8606, Nondeductible IRAs. Retrieved from https://www.irs.gov/forms-pubs/about-form-8606

Internal Revenue Service. (2019, April 18). About Form 1099-R, Distributions From Pensions, Annuities, Retirement or Profit-Sharing Plans, IRAs, Insurance Contracts, etc.. Retrieved from https://www.irs.gov/forms-pubs/about-form-1099-r

Restricted Stock Units (RSUs)

Restricted Stock Units (RSUs)

Restricted stock units (RSUs) play a big role in compensation packages, especially for high-tech companies. Thanks to the tech industry, RSUs have become increasingly popular as many employers offer them as part of their compensation package. It’s important to understand what RSUs are and how they work, to ensure you’re not leaving any money on the table when negotiating your salary, and to help you determine when/how to sell them for cash needs or diversifying your investments.

RSUs are issued by an employer to an employee in the form of company stock. They’re restricted because you can’t sell them until they vest, meaning you don’t really own them yet. Vesting typically occurs after you’ve been with your company for a pre-determined length of time or have hit pre-determined performance goals. The shares either vest in stages (grading) or all at once (cliff). When your RSUs vest, they’re considered income and are taxed as such. Your employer will hold back a certain amount of your shares to pay your income taxes, and you’ll receive the rest. Your taxable income is the market value of the shares at vesting. Once your shares vest, you can sell them.

 

We always recommend that folks sell their RSUs once they vest to better diversify their risk. You already rely on your company for your paycheck and many other benefits that it’s best to limit how much of your wealth is dependent on your company. It’s also best to diversify your investments and avoid concentrated positions in any one stock regardless. If you do choose to hold your RSUs when they vest rather than selling them, any future gains will be taxed at current capital gains rates.

If RSUs are a part of your compensation package and you’d like help to better understand how to make them work for your needs, please reach out to us.

Debt Repayment: Alleviate your money from its obligation to the past

Debt Repayment: Alleviate your money from its obligation to the past

There is a good chance you, or a close family member, carry debt. It’s common for the typical American household to carry amounts exceeding six figures (Tsoie & Issa, 2018). Debt can be mysterious in the sense that individuals might owe a similar amount, but perspectives on how to repay debt vary dramatically. Debt is also not always negative and can provide strategic benefits in your financial plan. Consider a home mortgage for example, the underlying asset is likely to increase in value. Mortgages often offer a valuable source of leverage, but loans on depreciating assets like cars can quickly end up with negative equity. Other loans, like high interest credit card debt, can be especially menacing.  This article will focus on consumer debt repayment and we will highlight a few common approaches to help the borrowers make real progress on eliminating debt.

Many households across the country have debt related to auto loans, credit cards and even personal loans. The decision to take on debt is personal and the need or desire for debt means different things to just about everyone. Below are some common questions to consider when developing a debt repayment plan.

  • How do you organize debt?
  • Which debt should be paid first?
  • Should debt be paid off ahead of investing for retirement?

One strategy that many people find effective for debt elimination is using rolling payments. Rolling payments involves focusing on aggressively paying off one loan at a time, while making the minimum payments on other debt. With rolling payments, you throw as many excess dollars in your budget as possible toward repaying one loan. Once the target loan is paid off, roll that loan payment into paying off the next debt beyond the monthly minimums. Keep rolling your payments to the next loan on your list until the ball and chain of your bad debt is paid in full. To illustrate a couple different ways to prioritize your debt list, we are going to look at three approaches for prioritizing debt, including, an interest rate approach, a behavioral approach and a combination strategy that factors in retirement savings.

When evaluating debt repayment from an interest rate approach, order all debts from highest interest to lowest, and attack the highest rate first. Focusing on interest rates makes sense because you are reducing the debt with the highest interest rate drag. Although progressive, the downside to this approach is that it might take months or even years until you finally check a loan off your list. Many people become worn out and lose motivation to follow the plan. There will also be cases where a loan with a lower interest rate, but larger balance will be more impactful on the overall repayment plan than a small loan with a higher rate. However, prioritizing debt strictly by interest rates ignores that.

Interest Rate Approach Example

Let’s meet Steve, who has three outstanding debts. Steve has student loans totaling $22,000 at 6%, a car note of $15,000 at 3.5% and $8,000 of credit card debt at 17% annual interest. Utilizing the interest rate approach, Steve will prioritize his debts according to the table below and use the rolling payment method, we discussed for repayment.

Illustrating the Behavioral Approach

Now let’s consider Steve’s situation from the behavioral approach. This behavioral method prioritizes starting with the smallest loan regardless of interest rates. Compared to the interest rate approach, you will likely end up paying more interest overall with the behavioral strategy, but the small wins along the way provide motivation and reason to celebrate. This method has been popularized by the personal finance personality, Dave Ramsey, who consistently recommends focusing on behavior. He refers to this approach as the “debt snowball”. You can still take advantage of rolling payments with the behavioral strategy, so once each loan is paid off, roll the payment to the next debt on the list.

Combining Perspectives: Debt Repayment and Retirement Savings

The power of compounding interest reveals its best to contribute early and often towards retirement savings for maximum growth. If your debt is not too overwhelming, it can be valuable to continue retirement savings while paying down loans. With this in mind, we can utilize a combination approach that addresses both debt reduction and retirement savings. One method is to target either a specific debt reduction or savings goal. Use your primary goal as a minimum benchmark then throw as many extra dollars in the other direction (debt or savings) as possible. Combining goals of retirement savings and debt elimination is best utilized when loan interest is less than the expected return of investments for retirement. Focusing on both savings and paying off debt can be helpful for identifying opportunities to “beat the spread” by investing versus paying off debt.

No matter how you decide to repay debt, take comfort in knowing the best strategy is one you can commit to and stick with during tough times. Here at Merriman, we believe in the power of committing to a sound plan for guidance throughout your financial life. If you’re lost on where to start, please take a few minutes to read First Things First by Geoff Curran, which provides a guide toward prioritizing your savings. If you have questions or would like to learn a bit more, please contact a Merriman advisor who can help navigate your specific situation.

 

 

References:

Tsosie, C., & Issa E.E. (2018, December 10). 2018 American Household Credit Card Debt Study. Retrieved from https://www.nerdwallet.com/blog/average-credit-card-debt-household/

Mega Backdoor Roth Explained!

Mega Backdoor Roth Explained!

By: Geoff Curran & Jeff Barnett

Everyone thinks about saving for retirement, and not many people want to work forever. However, have you thought about the best way to save for the future? If you are setting aside the yearly max in your 401(k) and channeling extra savings to your brokerage, you might be missing out on powerful tax-advantaged saving opportunities. In this article, we will show you how we help clients maximize savings, minimize taxes and secure their future using the Mega Backdoor Roth IRA.

 

Most people know they can contribute to their employer’s retirement plan from their paychecks through pre-tax and Roth contributions up to $19,000 a year ($25,000 if age 50 or older; IRS, 2018). What people miss is whether their retirement plan allows for additional after-tax contributions beyond this limit. Enter the supercharged savings!

It turns out that some company plans permit you to contribute up to the IRS maximum for total contributions to a retirement plan, which is $56,000 in 2019 ($62,000 with catch-up contributions; IRS, 2018). The IRS maximum counts contributions from all sources, including pre-tax employee deferrals, employer matching contributions, and even after-tax contributions for the Mega Backdoor Roth. That means you might be able to contribute an additional $20,000 or more after-tax each year after maxing your elective deferral and receiving your match. You can then convert the extra after-tax savings to Roth dollars tax-free. This more than doubles what most individuals can contribute to their retirement plan, and you won’t have to pay taxes on your Roth account distributions in retirement. This benefit is even greater when both spouses have this option available through their employers, so be sure to check both plans.

Retirement plans like those at Boeing, Facebook, and Microsoft permit easy conversions of after-tax to Roth dollars within the retirement plan. Other companies offer a variation where you can make in-service distributions and move after-tax dollars into a Roth IRA. Make sure to check with your benefits team to find out if your company’s retirement plan supports after-tax contributions and Roth conversions, the steps involved and the maximum amount you can contribute to the after-tax portion of your retirement plan. It’s important not to run afoul of plan rules or IRS requirements, so also be sure to consult experts like your accountant or financial advisor if you have any questions.  

Why contribute extra after-tax?
Now that we have covered the high-level view, let’s hammer down the why. The benefit of contributing to your employer’s after-tax retirement plan is that those contributions can subsequently be converted to Roth tax-free. This is sometimes called a ‘Mega Backdoor Roth,’ whereby you can contribute and convert thousands of dollars per year depending on your retirement plan. Once converted, these Roth assets can grow tax-free and be distributed in retirement tax-free. After several years of Mega Backdoor Roth contributions, you can amass a meaningful amount of wealth in a tax-free retirement account

How do I contribute?
1. Log in to your employer’s retirement plan through their provider website, such as Fidelity.

2. Find the area where you change your paycheck and bonus contributions (i.e., deferrals).

3. Find “after-tax” on the list showing how much you elected to contribute pre-tax, Roth, or after-tax to your 401(k).

4. Enter a percentage to have withheld after-tax from your upcoming paychecks and bonuses that works for your budget.

5. Select an automated conversion schedule, such as quarterly (Microsoft’s retirement plan even offers daily conversions!). If your plan doesn’t offer automated periodic conversions, contact your retirement plan provider regularly throughout the year to convert the assets.

6. Remember to select an appropriate investment allocation for your retirement account that aligns with your overall investment plan.

Is any part of the conversion taxed?
For retirement plans that don’t convert after-tax contributions to Roth daily, there may be growth in the account prior to conversion. This growth is subject to taxation at ordinary income tax rates. For example, if you converted $22,000 ($20,000 contributions + $2,000 investment growth over the period), you’ll owe income tax on the $2,000.

We suggest speaking with a Merriman advisor to determine if your retirement plan allows additional after-tax contributions, how to fit it within your budget and its impact on your retirement savings goals.


References: Internal Revenue Service. (2018, November 2). Retirement Topics – 401(k) and Profit-Sharing Plan Contribution Limits. Retrieved from https://www.irs.gov/retirement-plans/plan-participant-employee/retirement-topics-401k-and-profit-sharing-plan-contribution-limits

Lessons From The Lost Decade (2000-2009)

Lessons From The Lost Decade (2000-2009)

“Past performance is no guarantee of future results” is a required compliance disclosure used by money managers when reporting performance. Unfortunately, it is truer in the world of investments than almost anywhere else. When you find a 4.5-star restaurant on Yelp, there is a high probability that you will have a positive experience. Statistically, funds that had the best performance over the past three years (or one year) are no more likely to outperform the following three years than any other fund.

The same is true at the portfolio level. In the late 1990s, U.S. growth stocks were the best performing asset class and investors flocked to the S&P 500. We introduced the Merriman MarketWise All-Equity Portfolio in 1995 in the middle of this period. After the first five years, the cumulative return of the Vanguard 500 Index Fund was more than 2.5 times that of MarketWise, as Figure 1 shows. What happened over the next decade from 2000 through 2009? The exact opposite.

 

Over the tumultuous decade from 2000 to 2009, the MarketWise All-Equity Portfolio (after fees) was up 70% compared to the Vanguard 500 Index fund which had lost -10%, as Figure 2 shows. That 10-year period during which the S&P 500, cumulatively lost money is commonly referred to as the lost decade. It was a painful period for many investors. Their faith in the S&P 500 had been strengthened by nine straight years of positive returns (six years exceeded 20%) and by watching it outperform major indices around the globe.

While it was a difficult period, the investors who suffered most were those who switched investments based on past performance. Figure 3 starkly illustrates the effect of “chasing” good recent performance. The blue and orange lines show the cumulative returns of the MarketWise All Equity Portfolio and the Vanguard 500 Fund. The gray line shows the cumulative growth of funds invested in the MarketWise All-Equity Portfolio from the 1995 inception through 1999 and then in the Vanguard 500 fund from 2000 through 2009. While after fees, the MarketWise All-Equity Portfolio slightly outperformed the Vanguard 500 Fund, investing in either approach yielded solid growth. The investor who switched from MarketWise to the Vanguard 500 Fund at the top of 1999 ended up with less investment growth than the investor who stuck with either strategy throughout the whole period.

2009 to 2017 the S&P 500 again delivered nine straight years of positive returns and outperformed most major world indices. In 2018, the index was down -6.6% but has quickly rebounded in 2019. No one knows what the next ten years will bring. History suggests that past performance is no guarantee of future results and that tides turn, but when that will happen is anybody’s guess.

IMPORTANT DISCLOSURES: The performance results shown are for the Merriman-managed MarketWise All Equity (100%) Portfolio and the nonmanaged Vanguard 500 Fund, during the corresponding time periods. The performance results for the MarketWise All Equity Portfolio do not reflect the reinvestment of dividends or other earnings, but are net of applicable transaction and custodial charges, investment management fees and the separate fees assessed directly by each unaffiliated mutual fund holding in the portfolios. The performance results do not reflect the impact of taxes. Past performance is not indicative of future results. No investor should assume that future performance will be profitable, or equal either the previous reflected Merriman performance or the Vanguard 500 Fund’s performance displayed. The S&P 500 is a market capitalization-weighted index of 500 widely held stocks often used as a proxy for the U.S. stock market. The Vanguard 500 Fund is a core equity index fund that offers investment exposure to the companies represented by the S&P 500 index. Source of VFINX data is Morningstar.