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.

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.

Written by: Hannah Ahmed, CFP®, CDFA®

 

Using RSUs for Monthly Cash Flow

Using RSUs for Monthly Cash Flow

 

  

If you work at a company like Facebook, Amazon or Microsoft, a large portion of your total income is probably made up of restricted stock units (RSUs). After tackling your savings goals, there might not be a lot left over in your paycheck, so you may be asking yourself the following question:

How do I use my RSUs for income and spending?

At Merriman, we take our clients through a discovery process to learn about goals and lifestyle. Through that process we often discover total income may be made up of more than just a salary. To ensure our clients are hitting all their savings goals for early retirement, vacations and higher education, we need to create a plan for how to use multiple sources of income. For example, we may need to figure out what to do with RSUs, how to effectively use an employee stock purchase plan (ESPP) and how to invest annual bonuses. Mapping out a month-by-month plan helps our clients get organized and feel confident they’re taking the right steps toward saving enough and achieving their goals. Having this peace of mind allows guilt-free spending with the money that’s left over each month.

 

Case Study

I recently met with a couple, Scott and Julie, who needed help creating a plan for their monthly cash-flow needs. At first, putting together a monthly budget seemed simple enough, but for Scott and Julie, it became clear it would be more complex because of their different income options. We had to figure out what to do with their income from salary, when to sell RSUs and how to take advantage of their company’s ESPP.

To create a plan that balanced their income vs. expenses, we took a three-step approach.

Step 1: Optimize savings options.

  • Each contributes $19,000 per year to their 401(k).
  • Each contributes to their ESPP to take advantage of the discounted share price.
  • Each makes contributions into their after-tax 401(k) so they can take advantage of the Mega Backdoor Roth. (Note: This is not available at all companies.)
  • They contribute monthly to a 529 college savings plan for their two kids.

Step 2: Calculate what the income gap is each month.

After they meet their savings goals, pay their taxes and take care of other miscellaneous payroll items, their monthly income from their paychecks equals $10,000.

Their monthly expenses are -$15,000, so this leaves them with a monthly deficit of -$5,000.

Step 3: Sell RSUs and ESPP shares to supplement income.

Below is a spreadsheet that shows a month-by-month cash-flow plan for their “spending bucket,” which is their checking account. Notice we first filled the bucket with $50,000. This initial $50,000 came from the sale of some of their RSUs. At the beginning of each month, you can see the starting amount gradually go down. We refill the bucket every quarter by liquidating more RSUs, and then every six months we sell shares in their ESPP.

We never want the bucket to go to $0, so we make sure there’s a buffer every month. Also, it’s important to note that this spreadsheet does not show what we’re doing with their annual bonuses or remaining RSUs. Without going into too much detail, those excess income amounts could be saved or used for guilt-free spending.

Income from paychecks continue to fill the bucket, and when the amount gets low we refill their spending bucket using the proceeds from selling their RSUs and shares in their ESPP.

Because they’re on track to hit all their savings goals, they can put their annual bonus in their “live fully” bucket and use it for dining out, vacations and other guilt-free spending.

Each year we’ll review how the actual cash flow went. If it turns out spending was a little higher, then we’ll adjust how much of their RSU proceeds are used for cost of living needs. If they spend less than we anticipated, we’ll instead invest more of their RSUs.

The complicated budgeting that we helped Scott and Julie put together is something we’re doing more and more for clients who work in tech. Here at Merriman, we get it. While working 50+ hours a week, it’s tough to find time to ensure you’re efficiently saving in all the right ways. It’s our job to help you keep your financial plan on track and so you can enjoy your life. In other words, our goal is to help you Invest Wisely and Live Fully. Feel free to contact us if you’d like to learn more about how to implement a customized cash-flow strategy that fits your compensation plan.

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/

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.

 

Should I Rent Out My Home on Airbnb?

Should I Rent Out My Home on Airbnb?

Written by: Geoff Curran, CPA/ABV, CFA, CFP® and Alex Golubev, CFA

The last few years have seen tremendous growth in the short-term rental housing economy. Services like Airbnb and VRBO connect homeowners and travelers around the world. While vacation rentals aren’t anything new, home-sharing platforms make it more convenient than ever for homeowners to earn extra money on their personal residence or vacation home. Airbnb fosters accountability and transparency by inviting hosts and guests to review and rate each other on criteria like cleanliness, following house rules, and ease of communication. A whole ecosystem of services has also sprung up to streamline and improve host operations (Smartbnb, AirDNA, NoiseAware, Vacasa, Evolve and many more). However, vacation rental remains a highly competitive and regulated industry.

Hosts in the Airbnb space face many challenges for success. Setting up homes for vacation rental, optimizing rental rates and cleaning properties between guests eats into time and money. Once rentals are rolling, even successful properties can hit speed bumps. Tourist demand is often seasonal or focused on appealing properties in central locations. Low barriers to entry can also reduce profits as more hosts enter the market and/or authorities create regulations to raise the bar. Short-term rental earnings have curbed in highly-regulated tourist hubs like New York, LA, San Fran, Barcelona, Berlin, and Amsterdam.

Given the popularity and potential of Airbnb, clients have started asking whether it makes sense to rent out their homes. We always encourage our clients to consider how renting their property will affect their life. If renting out your home helps you support your lifestyle and travel more, then exploring AirBnB could be an exciting opportunity.

AirDNA is a great starting point for researching vacation rentals in your area. AirDNA can help you assess the earnings potential of your home, whether you’d like to rent out your entire place or just share a room. Dipping a toe in the water of home-sharing during your next trip out of town is a great way to start!

The checklist below provides helpful points to consider before renting out your property:

Home Insurance: Check with your home insurance provider to ensure that your insurance coverage is still adequate and will remain in force if your home is rented out. The strategy of doing nothing and asking for forgiveness later just won’t work with insurance companies if you have a claim. We reached out to Sue Greer from Propel Insurance for her perspective on managing liability. She emphasized watching out for “contract language that can limit, or void, coverage entirely when the property’s occupancy is other than what was noted on the signed application.” It’s also important to ensure that your other liability coverage like umbrella insurance will still cover any accidents that may happen on your property if it’s rented out.

Security: It’s important to make sure that your home is secure and that any irreplaceable valuables are properly locked up when others are in your home.

  • Locks: Digital locks are a great tool for avoiding sharing keys with guests, and they provide a simple way to setup new codes for each guest.

 

  • Alarm: You still need to actively use your alarm with guests coming and going. The good news is that alarm companies permit you to change codes digitally so that each guest has their own unique code.

 

  • Safe deposit box: Valuables that you won’t be taking with you, like jewelry and essential documents, should be stored in a safe deposit box at the bank.

 

  • Internet Network: It’s also important to maintain internet security. Remember to create a guest network, and change the wireless password when guests leave.   
  • Co-host: Since most people rent out their home when they are out of town, it can be very helpful to find someone local that can help if there’s a problem in your absence. This could be someone to clean the property between guests—or even to break up an unruly party! Airbnb can help you find a co-host for 7-20% of the revenues depending on the services provided. There are also many new short-term rental operators that offer co-hosting services.

  • Maintenance: With guests coming and going, wear and tear can accelerate, and accidents can happen. Having a high security deposit helps mitigate costs in case of accidents. Given that home maintenance costs anywhere from 2% to 5% of your home’s value each year, setting aside a portion of your rental income to cover maintenance is a good idea.

  • Tax reporting: If your home is rented out for greater than 14 days a year, you’ll need to include the income
    and expenses on your tax return. Make sure to keep track of all your expenses incurred throughout the year related to the rental activities. This includes repairs, supplies, cleaning costs, new appliances and lawn care, just to name a few. Importantly, you can also claim some of your utility costs as an expense, including cable TV and internet, in proportion to how much of the year the home was rented.

If you have questions about this checklist or any other parts of your financial life, we recommend reaching out to a Merriman advisor. We can help with the decision to rent your home and with managing all the moving parts. You’ll have to share all the adventures you’ll be able to take once you explore Airbnb!