The Lessons I Learned by Not Hiring a Professional from the Start

The Lessons I Learned by Not Hiring a Professional from the Start

As many of you know, my wife and I had our first child earlier this year. As such, we’ve been slowly working on improvements around our house to make it more kid safe. One project was to upgrade our garage door openers to the 21st century to include the safety reverse sensors. To fund this project, we used the money set aside from the monthly contribution to our home improvements fund. So far so good, right?

What happened next is similar to what many people do when deciding whether to hire a professional to help them.

For this project, I decided to replace my garage door openers on my own. I had never done it before, but I convinced myself that I could do it because of the following considerations:

  • Time – I’d need to be home while the installation pro was there anyway, so why not just use that time to install them myself? Importantly, I could do it when it wouldn’t impact my wife or son.
  • Cost – I didn’t want to pay for a professional to install the garage door openers. By doing it myself, we could save our hard-earned money and put it in savings or toward other projects.
  • Privacy – I simply didn’t want a stranger in my home, even if it was only for a couple of hours in our garage.
  • Resources –With all of the YouTube how-to videos, forums, and step-by-step guides available online, I thought it would easy to figure out how to do it. Clearly, many others with similar skills had been successful.

Here’s what I learned the hard way after spending 10 plus hours on this project, without installing even one garage door opener successfully:

  • Time – The project ended up taking four times what I thought it would, without success! I wasn’t very popular with my wife as she had to pick up my slack on the weekend chores and baby duty.
    • Lesson 1 – A professional could have installed each garage door opener in 45 minutes. I could have spent my time (our most limited resource) in far better ways.
  • Cost – I ended up paying a professional to install the garage door openers. I was left with a tough choice of paying a small fortune to get them installed right away (my car was outside since I removed a garage door opener) or wait for their regular scheduling. And, I had to replace a couple of parts that I damaged (argh!) and buy a wrench set that I likely won’t use.
    • Lesson 2 – Focusing only on cost is a mistake. It’s super important to also consider the value of your time. It might have made sense for me to take on this project if it took just two hours to complete, but 10 plus hours – no way!
  • Privacy – I was anxious about this at first, but the benefit of not having to do it myself eased my mind (especially after what I’d gone through!).
    • Lesson 3 – A professional is licensed, insured, experienced, and vetted. While my apprehension may lead me to believe that having a stranger in my home is a risk, this was not the case with a professional.
  • Resources – In hindsight, all the video tutorials and guides in the world wouldn’t have made this project easier. The actual installation was infinitely more difficult than the installation videos made it look.
    • Lesson 4 – Implementing a task, project or plan is the hardest part of any process. Too often, one part does not go according to plan, throwing everything off. There’s simply no substitute for expertise.

The last consideration I overlooked, which could have been the costliest, is risk. The risks include:

  • I could have installed the safety sensors or garage door opener incorrectly, causing a family member to be seriously injured. Or, the car could have been damaged.
  • The garage door opener could have fallen on me during the removal of my old opener and the installation of the new one (especially since we didn’t have the right height of ladder as recommended in the instructions – I didn’t want to buy a new ladder).
  • I could have injured myself with the disassembly of the old garage door opener or during the assembly of the new garage door opener. Mistakes and injuries happen more often than we think with DIY projects.
  • I could have damaged major parts (beyond what I already did!), which could have cost me a lot more money. Warranties and store policy exchanges don’t protect against negligence and true ignorance.

We hired a professional to minimize these risks for our family. 

As a note: My wife recommended from the start that we hire a professional to install the garage door openers. I learned my lesson here, too! As such, I had to park my car out in the cold until my garage door was fixed. Going forward, I will forever remember these lessons because time is our most finite resource and we need to be more intentional with how we spend it.

How Early is Too Early to Buy a House?

How Early is Too Early to Buy a House?

Home ownership is a goal for many Americans. After all, there’s nothing quite like going home to a place you know is truly yours. But when it comes to buying a house, the right time differs for everyone.

The problem is that buying a home can often feel like an uphill battle. Statistics from the US Census Bureau show that home ownership remains highest among those aged 65 years or older, which means that it remains a pipe dream for many others.

To be sure, there is some wisdom behind waiting until you’re financially secure before buying a house. If home ownership is part of your plan down the line, it’s best to work backwards in order to plan out just how you’ll get there.

Consider the types of houses available

Do you want to buy a house as soon as possible, or would you rather wait it out in order to get a larger property? As our post ‘Do I Need to Buy a Home to Be Successful?’ details how thinking ahead and considering your career path can help you determine whether you’d like to settle in a smaller or bigger space. It will also determine how much you are willing to spend.

In addition, you should also consider whether or not you’re planning to move any time soon. The Miami Herald found that millennial mobility is currently low, which can be beneficial when it comes to finding a home due to less competition. Millennials are also gravitating towards apartments and co-ops as this allows them peace of mind if they plan on moving; this leaves the market open for those who want to delve into houses. Therefore, knowing whether or not you’ll be settling down somewhere can help kickstart the home ownership process.

Check your mortgage

The Washington Post’s survey on financial care experts shows that there’s a lot of anxiety surrounding all the factors that go into buying a house. People get so caught up with the promise of owning a house that they forget the practical considerations that dictate what kind of property they can afford. You’ll also need to plan out your short and long-term financial goals in order to see how buying a home fits into these plans, which is where professional help comes in. A financial planner can take stock of your current finances as well as your goals in order to come up with the best housing loan for you. Research from Maryville University shows that financial experts now complement market knowledge with insights on investment strategies, which is why getting a consultation early on is hugely beneficial. The kind of mortgage you can take out depends on your financial standing, how much debt you owe, and your monthly income — all of which can be analyzed by a professional to make sure you get the best deal.

Spend time to find the best lender

On the subject of professional help, cultivating relationships with financial experts can help you own a home sooner rather than later. Real estate writer Julia Dellitt suggests seeing mortgage lending as akin to speed dating, where you get to know a handful of lenders before committing to one. Dellitt emphasizes that a difference in 0.5% interest may look small on paper, but it makes a huge difference in the total amount of interest paid over the lifetime of the loan. Giving the lender a full account of your finances allows you to narrow your search down to the best options.

Keeping your financial records in order also goes a long way in proving to lenders that you’re trustworthy. These steps will allow you to get pre-approved for a loan, which is an important requirement for many sellers.

The real estate market tends to be relatively stable, which means you shouldn’t consider jumping the gun once you see a dip in mortgage rates — especially if you aren’t ready. Since home ownership is a lengthy process, it’s worth asking early on whether or not it’s a journey you’re prepared to embark on soon.

 

Exclusively written for merriman.com

By Juliet Baesler

Fall Items to Check Off Your List

Fall Items to Check Off Your List

With fall fast approaching, it’s time to take care of a few things before year end that can also set you up for the start of next year.

    • Retirement contributions and withdrawals – Just as it’s important to make the necessary contributions to your retirement plan based on your financial plan, you must also take your required minimum distribution (RMD) by December 31 to avoid any penalties if above age 70 ½ or own an inherited IRA. The Merriman Client Services team is hard at work making sure these are all completed for clients. Contributions: The deadline for 2018 Roth IRA and Traditional IRA contributions is April 15, 2020.

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The Ins and Outs of Deferred Compensation Plans

The Ins and Outs of Deferred Compensation Plans

Executives and other highly compensated employees might notice a different option in their benefits plan, beyond the usual 401(k). Some employers also offer Section 409A nonqualified deferred compensation plans to high earners, which have their own mix of rules, regulations and potential drawbacks to navigate. However, when you’re earning income in the hundreds of thousands, it’s important to consider every option for saving on taxes and setting aside a larger nest egg for retirement. Contributing to the usual bevy of IRAs and 401(k) might not be enough to see you through your golden years, and tools like deferred compensation plans could also help you bridge the gap of early retirement.

Deferred compensation plans look a bit different than the 401(k) you already know. Like a 401(k), you can defer compensation into the plan and defer taxes on any earnings until you make withdrawals in the future. You can also establish beneficiaries for your deferred compensation. However, unlike 401(k) plans, the IRS doesn’t limit how much income you can defer each year, so you’ll have to check if your employer limits contributions to start building your deferred compensation strategy. Elections to defer compensation into your nonqualified plan are irrevocable until you update your choices the following year, and you have to make your deferral election before you earn the income. If you’re in the top tax bracket (37.0% in 2019), this can allow you to defer income now and receive it at a later date (such as when you retire) in a lump sum or a series of payments, when you expect to be in a lower tax bracket.

Unlimited contribution amounts and optional payout structures may sound too good to be true, but nonqualified deferred compensation plans also have significant caveats to consider. The big risk is that unlike 401(k), 403(b) and 457(b) accounts where your plan’s assets are qualified, segregated from company assets and all employee contributions are 100% yours—a Section 409A deferred compensation plan lacks those protections. 409A deferred compensation plans are nonqualified, and your assets are tied to the company’s general assets. If the company fails, your assets could be subject to forfeiture since other creditors may have priority. The IRS permits unlimited contributions to the plan in exchange for this risk, and the potential loss of deferred compensation can motivate company officers to maintain the health of the company.

Let’s review potential distribution options from nonqualified deferred compensation plans. A Section 409A deferred compensation plan can provide payment no earlier than the following events:

  • A fixed date or schedule specified by the company’s plan or the employee’s irrevocable election (usually 5 to 10 years later, or in retirement)
  • A change of company control, such as a buyout or merger
  • An unforeseen emergency, such as severe financial hardship or illness
  • Disability
  • Death

Once your income is deferred, your employer can either invest the funds or keep track of the compensation in a bookkeeping account. Investment options often include securities, insurance arrangements or annuities, so it’s important to evaluate the potential returns and tax benefits of your deferred compensation plan versus other savings options. Plan funds can also be set aside in a Rabbi Trust; however, those funds still remain part of the employer’s general assets.

Nonqualified deferred compensation plans have a variety of structures, rules and withdrawal options depending on how your employer builds the plan. Consider the following pros and cons of deferred compensation plans when reviewing your employer’s options.

Pros

  • You can defer a significant amount of income to better help you replace your income in retirement. The IRS does not limit contributions.
  • You have the ability to postpone income in years when you’re in high tax brackets until later when you expect to be in a lower tax bracket.
  • If your employer offers investment options, you may be able to invest the money for greater earnings.
  • There are no nondiscrimination rules for participants, so the plan can benefit owners, executives and highly compensated employees specifically. Other retirement plans may limit contributions or participation due to discrimination rules.

Cons

  • Your deferred compensation plus any investment earnings are subject to forfeiture based upon the general financial health of the company.
  • The election to defer compensation and how/when it will be paid out is irrevocable and must be made prior to the year compensation is earned.
  • Depending on the terms of your plan, you may end up forfeiting all or part of your deferred compensation if you leave the company early. That’s why these plans are also used as “golden handcuffs” to keep important employees at the company.
  • The plan may or may not have investment options available. If investment options are available, they may not be very good (limited options and/or high expenses).
  • If you leave your company or retire early, funds in a Section 409A deferred compensation plan aren’t portable. They can’t be transferred or rolled over into an IRA or new employer plan.
  • Unlike many other employer retirement plans, you can’t take a loan against a Section 409A deferred compensation plan.

The questions below are helpful for assessing whether a deferred compensation plan makes sense for you.

  • Is your company financially secure? Will it remain financially secure?
  • Will your tax rate be lower in the future when this deferred compensation is paid?
  • Can you afford to defer the income this year?
  • Does the plan have investment options? Are the fees and selection of funds reasonable?
  • Does the plan allow a flexible distribution schedule?

Section 409A deferred compensation plans have inherent drawbacks and prominent risks, but they could help you save toward your retirement planning goals. We recommend working with a Merriman advisor to review your specific plan terms and financial situation when preparing for the future. We can help you decide whether a nonqualified deferred compensation plan makes sense for your situation, weigh issues like future taxes and create a long-term plan. We want you to feel ready for everything life has to offer.

 

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

Maximizing Credit Card Rewards for Your Next Getaway

Maximizing Credit Card Rewards for Your Next Getaway

By: Scott Christensen & Jeff Barnett

With summer upon us and your thoughts wandering to visions of paradise, have you questioned how to save money on expensive trips? Major travel expenses like airline tickets, hotel nights and rental cars can push trip costs into the thousands. Travel credit cards are an excellent way to save money while traveling and improve your entire vacation experience. However, no single card is perfect for every traveler. Let’s review the factors that set some cards apart and how to find the best card for your travel plans this summer. So what kinds of rewards can you earn with top travel credit cards?

Understanding Rewards

Unlike cash back credit cards, travel card bounties typically come in the flavor of rewards points or miles. You will earn points or miles for every dollar spent, and some cards offer additional rewards for spending in specific categories like hotel accommodations or restaurants. To choose the best card for you, it’s important to know your major spending categories. For example, a card may offer 3x points for travel and dining, as well as 1 point per dollar spent on everything else. Unless you spend a considerable amount on travel and dining, a different card that offers 2x points on all purchases might help you earn more rewards.

One example we can look at to illustrate rewards differences is if you spend $4,000 per month on a credit card and are also planning a $5,000 trip this year. You could earn 3x points on $5,000 of travel spending and 1x points on $48,000 of monthly spending for a total of 63,000 points that year. However, earning 2x points on your entire budget with a different card nets you 106,000 points. That’s over two-thirds more rewards for using another card!   

Types of Travel Cards

Now that you know how to earn rewards, the next step is examining types of travel credit cards. Travel credit cards feature two main categories of rewards options—co-branded versus generic.

Co-branded cards bear the name of specific airlines, hotels or rewards programs and often have strict rules for redeeming points. For example, you may be limited to redeeming rewards with the card issuer or their program partners. While co-branded cards are less flexible for where you can spend rewards, they often come with other perks. Some cards allow you to get priority boarding, avoid baggage fees, earn double points on brand purchases or have annual discounted hotel stays.

Extra perks can help you feel like a movie star on your next trip, but rewards on other spending like groceries are often less with co-branded cards. If a co-branded card sounds appealing, we recommend checking out how to use multiple cards across all your spending to maximize rewards. Aligning your purchases with credit cards that offer the best reward for each spending category can help you earn more bonuses. Whether you’re using a travel card to earn 3x miles on your next ticket to Maui or buying groceries with a 2% cash back card, researching the best card for each of your major spending categories pays off.

Compared to co-branded travel credit cards, generic cards offer more flexibility and are not tied to a specific travel company. Generic cards may be used for any airline, hotel or cruise without requirements for redeeming your rewards with a specific brand. This is a great option for people who aren’t committed to a single frequent flier program, loyal to any particular airline, or always stay at the same resort. With a generic card, you can choose travel options that fit your itinerary, even when surprises pop up (like missing the last boat for the night and being stuck staying in the hotel across from the dock, don’t ask how we know). If a generic card fits your style, check out whether your card of choice offers valuable perks like trip cancellation or rental car insurance coverage. Co-branded cards are not the only plastic with awesome perks.

Evaluating Card Benefits

Once you narrow down your travel card options, evaluating other benefits like sign-up bonuses, low annual fees and higher value rewards can help you make the best choice.  

  • Sign-up bonuses can be worth hundreds of dollars and may be the deciding factor between two cards.
  • Annual Fees offset rewards. You will need to assess if your spending level justifies the potential benefits from higher fee credit cards.
  • Point Valuations determine how much you get from your reward points. A point on one card or a specific reward option might not be as valuable as rewards offered by another card or different redemption choice.

When you’re thinking of backpacking through Yosemite or hiking up to Machu Picchu, travel credit cards are a great way to save money on your next trip. Credit cards are valuable tools, but it’s also important to use credit wisely and be wary of carrying a high-interest balance. We recommend reaching out to a Merriman advisor if you have questions about credit, spending, or other ways to enhance your finances. We are here to help and offer guidance throughout your financial journey.