The Tax Cut and Jobs Act (TCJA) passed at the end of 2017, and the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement Act (SECURE) passed at the end of 2019. These both made significant changes to annual tax-planning strategies.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the CARES Act relief package that followed created a new layer of complexity. Unfortunately, many taxpayers miss opportunities for significant tax savings.
Here are six moves to consider making before the end of the year to potentially lower your taxes both this year and in years to come.
Take the Standard Deduction Later. The new tax rules nearly doubled the standard deduction and eliminated many write-offs, limiting the benefit of itemizing deductions for most taxpayers. However, you can optimize your deductions by “bunching” itemized deductions in a single year to get over the standard deduction threshold and then by taking the standard deduction in the following year.
Example: Instead of giving $10,000 to charity annually (which will likely leave you with the standard deduction anyway), gift $50,000 every 5 years. This will give you a greater tax benefit in the first year while still claiming the standard deduction in the other years to maximize tax savings.
Pre-Pay Your Medical Expenses. Have major medical-related expenses coming up? You can potentially maximize the tax deduction by paying out-of-pocket medical expenses in a single calendar year—either by pushing payments out to the next year or pulling later expenses into this year.
A surprising number of medical expenses qualify, including unreimbursed doctor fees, long-term-care premiums, certain Medicare plans, and some home modifications.
Note: Medical expenses are an itemized deduction, so this strategy may be best used with the “bunching” strategy described above, including possibly paying medical expenses in a year you maximize charitable donations.
Give Money to Your Favorite Charity Right Now from Your IRA. If you’re over 70 ½, you can make up to $100,000 of annual Qualified Charitable Distributions (QCDs) directly from your IRA to a qualifying charity. Even better, for retirees who don’t need to take their Required Minimum Distribution (RMD) each year, these qualified charitable distributions count toward the RMD but don’t appear in taxable income.
Even though the CARES Act allowed RMDs to be skipped in 2020, you can still make a QCD this year.
Note: QCDs must be made by December 31 to count for this tax year.
Take Advantage of Years in a Lower Tax Bracket with a Roth Conversion. A Roth conversion can permanently lower your taxable income in retirement by converting tax-deferred assets (IRA / 401k) into tax-free assets in a Roth account. It is best to do this in years where you are in a lower tax bracket than you expect to be in the future.
Example: If a taxpayer at age 63 is in the 12% tax bracket, then moving $10,000 from an IRA to a Roth account will owe an additional $1,200 in taxes. That same taxpayer at age 73 may be in the 24% tax bracket due to Social Security, pension, and RMD income they didn’t have at 62. Taking that same $10,000 from an IRA will now result an in additional $2,400 in taxes.
Optimize Your Investment Portfolio to Improve Expected After-Tax Return. Prior to the TCJA, you could write off some fees you pay for investment management. The TCJA did away with that deduction. There are still ways to pay fees with pre-tax dollars that may make sense depending on the types of accounts used.
Likewise, some investments will be more tax efficient, and other investments will be less tax efficient. Where possible, move the most tax-efficient investments into a taxable investment account and the least tax-efficient investments into a tax-advantaged retirement account. The goal is to determine an ideal overall allocation, even if each individual account has a slightly different allocation.
Both strategies above can potentially help maximize the after-tax return on investments.
Optimize Your Retirement Contributions. The most important step you can take right now to reduce your taxes this year may be to review how and where you’re making retirement contributions. You may be missing out on critical tax savings (and investment growth) if you’re not optimizing your contributions.
Potential retirement account strategies people often miss include Solo 401k for self-employed individuals, backdoor Roth contributions, or “mega” backdoor Roth contributions at certain large employers.
Everyone’s situation is different, and today’s retirement environment is complex. Working with a financial professional who coordinates with your CPA can help ensure you’re not missing any opportunities to optimize your portfolio and pay less in taxes.
Investors like you are, by definition, actively planning for your financial future. At Merriman, we understand that you also want to make sure the world is bright for future generations.
To help align your investments with your values, we offer our Values-Based Investing portfolios. These portfolios are built in a manner consistent with our overall investment philosophy and designed to deliver similar after-fee, after-tax returns while offering you the ability to have an impact through your investment choices. One of these values-based options is our Sustainability portfolio. The UCLA Sustainability Committee defines sustainability as “the physical development and institutional operating practices that meet the needs of present users without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, particularly with regard to use and waste of natural resources.”
Our Sustainability portfolio focuses on including and overweighting companies that score high on sustainability measures. By choosing this portfolio, clients have the ability to shift money away from companies that have negative environmental impacts and into companies that rank better than their peers.
For the equity allocation in our Sustainability portfolio, we have selected funds managed by Dimensional Fund Advisors. When it comes to determining environmental impact, Dimensional’s approach to sustainability investing stands out. While many asset managers offer binary screening to exclude certain securities, Dimensional tilts toward companies that rank high on its sustainability framework while reducing the weight of companies with negative scores. This approach ensures a company doing better than its peers is rewarded even if it lags behind other companies in different sectors. This process is important because while a software company won’t have a very large environmental impact, investing in an energy company that has better environmental business practices than its peers can end up being more impactful on reducing carbon emissions in the future.
Incorporating sustainability considerations is a complex task. The sustainability funds we have selected use a Sustainability Scoring Framework on an industry level. The table on the right shows how the sustainability scores are determined, taking into account both the greenhouse gas emissions the company reports as well as potential future emissions from their fossil fuel reserves. This process penalizes companies that enable others to emit more or will themselves emit more in the future.
Dimensional also screens out companies with particularly negative practices around factory farming, cluster munitions, tobacco, and child labor.
Equities aren’t the only asset class where our portfolio includes sustainability considerations. Real estate has a high environmental impact and is an asset class where we are able to successfully incorporate sustainability considerations with minimal impact on investment returns.
Per the UN Enviroment Programme (UNEP), “The construction and operations of buildings account for 40% of global energy use, 30% of energy-related GHG emissions, approximately 12% of water use, nearly 40% of waste, and employs 10% of the workforce.”
As shown in the graph below using data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, buildings have the lowest cost to reduce emissions. A great example of this comes from the iconic New York Empire State Building, which in 2010 underwent a retrofit. Windows were rebuilt, HVAC was replaced, and reflective insulation was installed. These changes resulted in the building having an annual energy reduction of 38% which translates to a cost saving of $4.4 million per year. This type of cost saving is also beneficial to the investment as profits from these endeavors are passed through to the investors.
Source: VERT Asset Management
We are partnering with some of the most informed individuals in the field of sustainable real estate investing by using the groundbreaking Global Sustainable Real Estate Fund from VERT Asset Management. This fund targets companies that meet a threefold criteria of environment, social, and governance factors. These include both positive and negative screening and tilts. The fund overweights REITs with energy, GHG, and water reductions and also screens out prisons, businesses, or companies with environmental fines. The Venn diagram below shows how VERT incorporates a multi-dimensional scoring methodology. VERT focuses on companies that exhibit “Comprehensive Excellence,” those that fall in the middle of the Venn diagram. After this, VERT targets “Focused Excellence” REITs which fall into two of the Venn diagram categories. In this way, VERT builds a portfolio targeting the best of the best first.
Source: VERT Asset Management
There is more than one way to invest in line with your values. Whether by using sustainable funds like those from Dimensional and VERT, or one of our other investment offerings, Merriman is by your side. We want to make sure your investments not only fulfill your financial goals but also allow you to live fully, knowing that you are making a difference for future generations.
I want to acknowledge that all women are wonderfully unique individuals and therefore these tips will not be applicable to all of us equally and may be very helpful to some men and nonbinary individuals. This is written in an effort to support women, not to exclude, generalize, or stereotype any group.
I was recently reminded of a troubling statistic: Two-thirds of women do not trust their advisors. Having worked in the financial services industry for nearly two decades, this is unfortunately not surprising to me. But it is troubling, largely because it’s so preventable.
Whether you have a long-standing relationship with an advisor, are just starting to consider working with a financial planner, or are considering making a change, there are some simple tips all women should be aware of to improve this relationship and strengthen their financial futures.
Tip #3 – Know the Difference Between Risk Aware & Risk Averse
Countless studies have shown that women are not necessarily as risk averse as they were once thought to be. As a group, we just tend to be more risk aware than men are. Why does this matter? First of all, I think it’s important to be risk aware. If you aren’t aware of the risk, you can’t possibly make informed decisions. But by not understanding the difference, women sometimes incorrectly identify as conservative investors and then invest inappropriately for their goals and risk tolerance. Since most advisors are well-practiced in helping people identify their risk tolerance, this is an important conversation to have with your advisor. During these conversations, risk-aware people can sometimes focus on temporary monetary loss and lose sight of the other type of risk: not meeting goals. If you complete a simple risk-tolerance questionnaire (there are many versions available online), women may be more likely to answer questions conservatively simply because they are focusing on the potential downside. Here is an example of a common question:
The chart below shows the greatest 1-year loss and the highest 1-year gain on 3 different hypothetical investments of $10,000. Given the potential gain or loss in any 1 year, I would invest my money in …
A risk-aware, goal-oriented person is much more likely to select A because the question is not in terms they relate to. It focuses on the loss (and gain) in a 1-year period without providing any information about the performance over the period of time aligned with their goal or the probability of the investment helping them to achieve their goal. A risk-averse person is going to want to avoid risk no matter the situation. A risk-aware person needs to know that while the B portfolio might have lost $1,020 in a 1-year period, historically it has earned an average of 6% per year, is diversified and generally recovers from losses within 1–3 years, statistically has an 86% probability of outperforming portfolio A in a 10-year period, and is more likely to help them reach their specific goal.
A risk-aware person needs to be able to weigh the pros and cons so when presented with limited information, they are more likely to opt for the conservative choice. Know this about yourself and ask for more information before making a decision based on limiting risk.
Having a conversation about your risk tolerance, the level of risk needed to meet your goals, and asking for more information is always easier when you follow tip #1—work with an advisor you like. There are many different considerations when hiring an advisor: Are they a fiduciary? Do they practice comprehensive planning? How are they compensated? What is their investment philosophy? They may check off all your other boxes, but if you don’t like them, you are unlikely to get all you need out of the relationship. If you’re looking for an advisor you’re compatible with, consider perusing our advisor bios.
Be sure to read our previous and upcoming blog posts for additional tips to help women get the most out of working with a financial advisor.
Why is it that when the words “children” and “finances” are mentioned in the same sentence, parents brace themselves like they are about to hear the punchline to a really bad joke? Well, it may be because children and finances are often characterized as two major topics that can cause stress and frustration.
This stress and frustration may be a roadblock, preventing parents from having an open dialogue about finances. Being a financially smart family is so important.
We want to tear down that roadblock and give you a road map to help you, your teens, and even young children develop great financial habits. When every member of your family understands basic finances and sets financial goals together, everyone feels more financially confident and accomplished.
An American Psychological Association survey questioned parents on their relationship with their children and finances. The results revealed that only 37% talk often with their family members about the subject of finances.
Why is it that the vast majority of parents don’t talk about finances with their kids? Maybe most don’t know at what age to begin. Maybe they don’t know what to say. Or maybe they think talking about finances as a family isn’t important
Whatever the reason, you may find yourself as a parent in one of these three categories, needing an extra push to establish some basic familial financial habits. For you and all your children, let’s take a look at some ways to help everyone under the same roof get a better handle on the family finances without feeling the need to be an accounting professional.
Financial Tips for Young Kids: Show How Far Their Dollars Go
Do you often find yourself with your kids at the store having to say “no” to the many toys and candy bars that they have pulled off the shelf? Maybe you want to reward your kids with a little something, but they don’t always understand why that $40 limited edition Lego set may not be in the budget.
That’s because they are used to you being the gatekeeper of their spending. Instead, teach them how to be the gatekeeper of their own spending by giving them a bit of financial freedom under your supervision.
Financial freedom for an elementary- or middle-school-aged child should be exercised through simple, intentional actions. It can be as simple as giving them a small amount of money with the intention of letting them have the final say in how they spend it.
This simple action encourages thoughtfulness and awareness about the cost of something they want, which helps them feel a sense of financial freedom while still under your supervision.
Example: Say you want to reward your child by giving them $5 to spend at the store however they would like. Point them over to the dollar section or by the checkout, making note of the price tags that are displayed. Weigh the options of getting several small things versus one larger item.
They will feel empowered by the challenge of seeing how far their dollar can stretch. This sort of freedom helps them develop the habit of thoughtful spending, and it keeps Mom and Dad from always having to say, “No!”
Practical Goal: Take your child to a store of their choosing at the end of the week (if they’ve earned it) and give them a set amount of cash to spend however they would like. Help them weigh their options and select something that they are happy about.
Financial Tips for Teenagers: Responsibility Comes with Freedom
It’s time to make the pivot from the gatekeeper of all of your teenager’s expenses to a partner in their expenses. Teens are now at that stage of life where they are capable of earning a bit of income, and they need some extra help learning how to manage it.
Whether you and your spouse decide to give them a bit of weekly allowance or encourage a summer job, teens are entering the arena of earnings and need help with spending. It is important to establish basic habits now to help them feel confident in their spending habits in the future.
One of the most valuable skills that can help teens feel more confident with their money is helping them develop financial observational skills. This includes being aware of how much things cost, keeping track of where their money goes, and planning on how to save towards something they want.
This sounds basic, but these observational skills can help them become more thoughtful in their spending. The simple act of slowing down and thinking about how they should use their money will instill confidence and prevent impulsiveness.
Plus, you’ll be able to set financial boundaries with your teens while still giving them freedom to do what they want with their money.
Here is a list of different things you could do to help your teens become more financially observant and responsible.
#1 – Create a Savings Plan for Something Expensive
If your teen has their heart set on buying a more expensive item, brainstorm ways to make it happen. Help them make a savings plan or even suggest splitting the cost with you. Remember, you are their partner; you are there to encourage them, not control them.
#2 – Think of Their Money as a Budget, Not a Limit
Each week, take a few minutes at dinner to ask your teen about what they’ve spent that week. This will help them start thinking of money as a budget, not a limit. Ask them if they were happy with how they spent their money or if they wish they had used their money in a different way. All answers are great for learning.
#3 – Start Off with an Allowance at First
If your teen does not yet have any sort of income, consider giving them an allowance each month—an allowance that is contingent on something that you and your teen decide together. There is a sense of satisfaction that comes from earning money and choosing how to spend it that teens should begin to experience.
Practical Goal: Read these three examples together with your teen. Talk through how these examples can establish good spending habits, then select at least one of the examples to implement in the following week together.
Financial Tips for Parents: Take Charge of Your Finances and Give Wisdom
As parents, you and your spouse are in charge of leading financial conversations. Including your children in certain financial decisions can help you and your children be on the same page when it comes to money.
It’s not necessary for them to be aware of all financial decisions between you and your spouse. Kids and teens won’t understand high level concepts yet, but you can help your kids be more conscious of money when they have a say in casual, familial financial decisions.
A familial financial decision could be something like comparison shopping for family car insurance plans, but think of ways to involve the kids in that process that is appropriate for their level.
The first step to create an open dialogue with your children is to help them understand how their financial actions make a difference. When your kids feel like their voices are being heard and taken seriously, they will be more likely to actually want to talk about financial matters.
Just talking about how to spend your Saturday night together, weighing options and assessing price points of different activities, can help them better understand why sometimes the decision to do something is “no” and other times “yes.” Familial financial unity begins with frequent, honest discussions.
Example: Let’s say that you and your family decide to save up for a family vacation. Each member of the family decides how they are going to help contribute to this family goal.
Your youngest one may choose to eat at home instead of getting that after-school Happy Meal. Your teenager may volunteer to babysit the younger kids longer once a week so that a parent can get a few more hours in at their part-time job.
The parents can include a vacation savings allotment in the family budget as a way to slowly work up to the goal. With everyone playing a part in the goal, each family member can feel like they are contributing to the vacation.
Goal: Pick a family activity that appeals to everyone, figure out the estimated cost, then list out ways that everyone would be capable of contributing. Each week, check in on everyone’s progress to see how close you and your family are to that specific goal.
Now call your family together and set your goals in motion!
Written exclusively for Merriman.com by Madison Smith
Madison Smith is a personal and home finance expert at BestCompany.com. She works to help others make positive financial strides in their lives by providing expert insight on anything from credit card debt to home-buying tips.
COVID-19 has impacted jobs across all sectors, and State Unemployment Agencies are reporting an unprecedented backlog of claims. We have been hearing from our clients of a desire to assist their adult children financially. Many of the questions include how and what kind of support to provide and if it makes sense. If you are in this situation, here are some ideas on how to temporarily assist your adult children during a financial emergency.
Start an emergency cash fund for your child.
Make a one-time deposit or smaller, more frequent deposits to a high-yield savings account (like Flourish).
Fun idea: Many banks or credit unions offer change deposit programs. They’ll round up your debit card purchases and transfer the extra change to a savings account. Think of it as a “Change Jar.” It adds up quicker than you think!
When your child encounters a financial emergency, make one-time distributions or loan them the money. Anything they payback can be put back into the savings account for future needs.
Gift them highly appreciated shares of stocks or mutual funds from your Non-Retirement accounts.
It could potentially benefit you by helping you avoid the capital gains tax if you sold the shares while they were still in your account.
After the shares are gifted to your child, they can choose when to sell the assets, and they will incur any capital gains tax on what is sold. Structuring your giving this way can potentially reduce taxes for the family.
Discuss this option with your Merriman Wealth Advisor to make sure it fits into your Financial Plan.
Offer small cash loans to cover emergency expenses.
Discuss a payment plan that can start once your child’s financial situation improves.
If mutually agreed upon, an interest-free loan with a small monthly payment is still more helpful than anything any bank could provide to them.
It never hurts to have the agreement in writing and signed by both parties.
If you can’t provide an infusion of cash, little gifts can still make a big difference!
Give gas or grocery store gift cards when you can.
Meal prep large casseroles or frozen meals that can be heated quickly and serve many portions.
Offer childcare when you can.
Help them review all options in their own financial life.
They may be able to take a special distribution from their own IRAs or 401(k)s for hardships due to COVID-19.
Do not co-sign a loan for your child. As much as you want to help them, you could become liable for the loan, and it can negatively impact your credit history.
Do not ignore the tax ramifications of using retirement assets such as IRAs or annuities to give cash to your child. These assets can be taxed as ordinary income and have the potential of significantly increasing your income tax liability.
Do not stretch your own finances too thin. You need to protect your financial security first. We always recommend discussing large gifts with your Merriman Wealth Advisor, whether they be to charity or a loved one.
As parents, it can be extremely difficult to watch our children struggle financially and equally as hard to balance helping and overreaching. When making these types of decisions, we find that an objective third party like our advisors can help you make a decision that works for everyone. We encourage you to reach out if you need guidance with how best to help. We are here for you and your family.
The IRS announced on Tuesday, June 23, 2020, via Notice 2020-51 (PDF), additional relief relating to Required Minimum Distributions (RMD), allowing you to return RMD funds withdrawn after January 1, 2020.
As it sits now, the CARES Act RMD waiver for 2020 is still in place, meaning that you are not required to take an RMD for 2020. This applies to defined-contribution plans such as 401(k) or 403(b) plans and IRA accounts. Those who have previously taken RMDs are likely familiar with the process; but for those who turned 70 ½ in 2019, this all may be brand new, and it’s important to understand the timeframes. This can easily be confused with the SECURE Act which passed toward the end of 2019, changing the RMD age to 72 going forward. Tuesday’s announcement extends relief to anyone who has previously taken an RMD in 2020 by extending the opportunity to return the funds up through August 31st, 2020. In addition, if you return funds under this new announcement, the notice states that the repayment is not subject to the one rollover per 12-month period or the rollover restrictions with inherited IRAs. This is particularly important because the SECURE Act changed the timeframe in which beneficiaries are required to withdraw inherited IRA funds. To find information about the SECURE Act changes, Paige Lee, CFA, wrote a great article which can be found here. There is a lot going on here, and the overall message is that you have more flexibility than ever on how you treat a 2020 RMD.
What was the original relief for RMDs?
The CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act) was signed into law on March 27th, 2020, providing relief amidst the COVID-19 pandemic for many American taxpayers and businesses. We posted a blog that summarizes these changes which can be found here. In respect to RMDs, the CARES Act originally allowed individuals to forego taking a 2020 RMD and allowed you to return any RMD taken within the previous 60 days. Despite being a fantastic planning opportunity, anyone who took an RMD earlier that the previous 60 days was left out in the cold. Later in April, the IRS issued a follow-up notice that extended the time period to include those who took an RMD between February 1 and May 15 where the funds could be returned by July 15th. This is no longer the case with the most recent announcement, and now anyone who has taken an RMD from January 1st, 2020, can make the decision to return the funds.
How can you take advantage of this?
This offers a tremendous planning opportunity by providing households with the ability to shift income and take advantage of market conditions. Returning an RMD can lead to a host of strategic financial moves including the following:
Continued growth of tax-deferred assets
Opening room to make Roth IRA conversions
A chance to look at taxable accounts to see if it makes sense to withdraw funds at capital gain rates as opposed to marginal tax rates
Rebalancing—as the funds are returned, holdings can be adjusted to shore up your overall allocation
We help our clients make the best choices with the information available, and now that this new extension has been issued, we view this as an opportunity to review your circumstances, discuss the various options, and decide on whether or not to take action.
Connect with Merriman to discuss.
Here at Merriman, we are very excited about this announcement and strongly encourage you to contact us if you have already taken an RMD from your IRA or Inherited IRA this year. We’ll help you understand and explore your options and determine if taking advantage of this extended RMD relief makes sense for you.