Navigating the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)

Navigating the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)

 

My college roommate Maddy knows the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) system well. Maddy used federal student loans to finance her undergraduate and graduate degrees. As a high school teacher, she’s dedicated a large portion of her school’s homeroom curriculum to making sure her students enter college with a better understanding of how personal finances, credit, and loan amortization work. I got together with Maddy to chat about her experience navigating the federal student loan system from start to finish and to find out what advice she has for parents and students today.

 

Moorea: To start off, can you tell me what degrees you have, where you went to school, and how you financed your college expenses?

Maddy: Sure. I have a BA in English from the University of Oregon, a master’s in teaching from Oregon State University, and a master’s in English from Portland State University. My undergraduate degree was funded about 30% by scholarships and 70% by federal student loans. My graduate degree from OSU was paid for 100% with federal student loans and my second graduate degree from PSU was paid for by federal loans and a tuition program through my job that covered $1,000 per term.

 

Moorea: Do you remember what your thought process was when you were 18 and deciding to take out your first student loan?

Maddy: Yeah, there was no thought process. I answered all the questions on the FAFSA with my mom, and at the end of the application, I clicked a box that said “Yes, Accept.” There was a very basic loan counseling page that I read, but it didn’t mean much at the time because I didn’t understand the concept of amortization. It was 2009 during the financial crisis, and everyone was taking out student loans. Debt was the expectation.

Because my parents’ expected family contribution was high, I didn’t qualify for subsidized loans (loans that don’t accrue interest until after graduation) despite them not paying anything towards my college. I didn’t know my student loans were accruing interest the whole time I was in school.

 

Moorea: You’re in charge of writing your school’s curriculum. Are you doing anything to prepare your students to make financial decisions after high school?

Maddy: Yes! In addition to a traditional personal finance and college prep curriculum, I walk through how to fill out the FAFSA with students page by page. I do a cost benefit analysis with students where we compare the cost of tuition at three community colleges, three states schools, and one private university. I walk my students through how many hours of a minimum wage job you’d have to work to pay off the loan over a 10-year period and explain how loan amortization works.

 

Moorea: What advice do you have for students and parents to help offset the cost of college?

Maddy: Consider completing your general education requirements at community college. Many Oregon students qualify for free community college through the Oregon Promise Grant.

If you’re considering attending a state school and your high school covers the cost of community college classes or offers College Now classes, take these because the credits will transfer to a university.

If you’re considering a more prestigious school or private college, focus on taking AP classes and sitting for the AP exams.

All students should volunteer as it looks good on college, scholarship, and job applications.

 

While it is a highly valuable asset in life, college education is a big expense, and families should discuss and plan with their financial advisor to determine how to proceed with this important life decision. If you want assistance with this planning process, please reach out to us.

 

 

Disclosure: All opinions expressed in this article are for general informational purposes and constitute the judgment of the author(s) as of the date of the report. These opinions are subject to change without notice and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. Statements attributed to an individual represent the opinions of that individual as of the date published and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Merriman. The material is presented solely for information purposes and has been gathered from sources believed to be reliable, however Merriman cannot guarantee the accuracy or completeness of such information, and certain information presented here may have been condensed or summarized from its original source. Merriman does not provide tax, legal or accounting advice, and nothing contained in these materials should be relied upon as such.

How Do Incentive Stock Options (ISOs) Impact Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT)?

How Do Incentive Stock Options (ISOs) Impact Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT)?

 

One of the most common areas where we see clients introduced to Alternative Minimum Tax is when Incentive Stock Options (ISOs) enter the financial picture.  To learn more about AMT and how it is calculated, so you can avoid a shock, check our blog post from last week.

ISOs can be a tremendous benefit to creating wealth, but they are often misunderstood and can pack a large surprise if not appropriately planned for.  Here are a few key terms to get us started:

  • Grant Date/Amount– Original date and number of shares awarded
  • Vesting Date– The date at which you are allowed to exercise your options
  • Exercise Price– Price paid for options, usually discounted from the current share price.
  • Bargain Element– Difference between exercise price and fair market value (FMV); drives potential AMT liability

ISO preferential tax treatment is attained when the shares are sold one year after exercise and two years after grant. When this criterion is met, the gains upon the sale will be considered long-term capital gains, as opposed to short-term gains which are taxed at current income rates.

 

Qualifying vs Disqualifying Disposition:

 

Qualifying Disposition
  • Exercise and sell one year after exercise and two years after grant – AMT liability in the year you exercise, and gains are considered long-term capital gains
  • Exercise and hold – AMT liability in the year you exercise but no additional immediate tax liability because the shares have yet to be sold

 

Disqualifying Disposition:
  • Exercise and sell within one calendar year – no AMT liability and gains are taxed as regular income
  • Exercise and sell within 12 months, across two calendar years – AMT liability in the year you exercise, and gains are taxed as regular income
  • Exercise and sell more than one year from exercise but less than two years from grant – AMT liability in the year you exercise, and gains are split between regular income rates for the bargain element and capital gains depending on holding period

 

The AMT tax liability mentioned in the scenarios above is determined based on the difference between the exercise price and the fair market value (FMV) of the shares on the date of exercise. AMT may result in a larger tax bill than a typical year without exercising options and thus will directly affect your household’s cash flow.  The good news is that when you end up paying AMT related exercising ISOs, you will likely receive an AMT tax credit, which can be used to offset your federal income tax bill in future years.  This is a great reason why involving a CPA to help keep track of all the moving pieces is highly recommended.

The 83(b) Election is an alternative approach to divesting company stock. If your company allows, you have 30 days from the grant date to notify the IRS and your company of the 83(b) election. This involves paying tax on the exercise price from the grant at regular income rates; there would be no AMT implication and depending on when you sell the shares, you would later realize short- or long-term capital gains. For shares which you expect to increase in value, this can provide a fantastic tax break. This is however considered a risky approach because the shares could lose value and you would have overpaid on taxes by making this election.

Please reach out to us if you would like to work through your specific situation.

 

 

Disclosure: The material is presented solely for information purposes and has been gathered from sources believed to be reliable, however Merriman cannot guarantee the accuracy or completeness of such information, and certain information presented here may have been condensed or summarized from its original source. Merriman does not provide tax, legal or accounting advice, and nothing contained in these materials should be relied upon as such. Advisory services are only offered to clients or prospective clients where Merriman and its representatives are properly licensed or exempt from licensure. No advice may be rendered by Merriman unless a client service agreement is in place.

 

What Is Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) And Does It Affect You?

What Is Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) And Does It Affect You?

 

Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) is not something everyone is exposed to, but when you are, it can often create confusion and add a layer of complexity to financial planning that many are not prepared for.  This article will help outline how AMT may affect your financial situation.

The Alternative Minimum Tax was created in the 1960s with the intention of preventing taxpayers with substantial income from utilizing various deductions in order to dodge the traditional federal income tax system. The AMT system runs parallel to federal income tax for individuals, trusts, and estates. Corporations were also once subject to AMT until this was repealed by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act in 2017. AMT is calculated to determine if taxpayers are paying their “fair share” in a given tax year. For individuals, the AMT system recalculates income tax using fewer deductions and exemptions – for example the standard/itemized deduction – and then adds back specific tax preference items to an individual’s gross income. 

A few of the preference items that we often see that affect AMT are listed below. There are several other influencing factors which are less common, and for the sake of this article, have been left out. IRS Form 6251 has the full details.

  • Capital gains from exercise of stock options (i.e., Incentive Stock Options)
  • Qualifying exclusion for small business stock
  • Interest on private activity bonds
  • Deductions for accelerated depreciation

Once the Alternative Minimum Taxable Income (AMTI) is calculated, the annual AMT exemption is applied to determine what amount is subject to AMT rates. In 2021, the AMT exemption is $73,600 for single filers and $114,600 for married filing jointly. The exemption begins to phase out for single filers at $523,600 and at $1,047,200 for married filing jointly.

After determining the minimum tax base, the AMT tax rate of 26% is applied on the first $199,900 (as of 2021).  Amounts above this figure are then subject to the second and final AMT tax rate of 28% to determine your overall AMT liability. After all is said and done, you will owe the higher of the two, traditional tax liability or AMT liability.

One of the most common areas where we see clients introduced to AMT is when Incentive Stock Options (ISOs) enter the financial picture. ISOs are often awarded by companies in lieu of direct compensation (i.e., annual salary), as a way to incentivize an employee to help grow the value of the company. Please check our blog upcoming blog post for specific details regarding Incentive Stock Options and the impact of AMT.

The majority of taxpayers don’t encounter AMT, but when they do, it can be a complete surprise.  Here at Merriman, we take a comprehensive approach to fully understand your financial landscape. In most situations, it is wise to involve a CPA when facing the AMT due to the complexity and varying timelines that affect cash flow. Please reach out to Merriman if you would like to discuss your situation in greater detail.

Watch for our upcoming blog post which will go into further detail about Incentive Stock Options (ISOs).

 

 

 

Disclosure: The material is presented solely for information purposes and has been gathered from sources believed to be reliable, however Merriman cannot guarantee the accuracy or completeness of such information, and certain information presented here may have been condensed or summarized from its original source. Merriman does not provide tax, legal or accounting advice, and nothing contained in these materials should be relied upon as such. Advisory services are only offered to clients or prospective clients where Merriman and its representatives are properly licensed or exempt from licensure. No advice may be rendered by Merriman unless a client service agreement is in place.

Demystifying Retirement Income

Demystifying Retirement Income

 

You’ve worked hard. You’ve saved your pennies and watched every cent. Yet now that retirement is just around the corner, you’re second guessing whether you’re truly ready.

We see this often at Merriman. Near-retirees get cold feet not because they’re unprepared for retirement but because they’re unsure how to manage their retirement income. There’s less room for mistakes without a salary coming in. At the same time, retirement is full of financial uncertainties, ranging from personal health to the economy.

The solution isn’t to delay the retirement you’ve worked hard to secure. If you want to feel financially secure heading into retirement, start by learning the ins and outs of your retirement income.

 

How Much Income Do You Need in Retirement?

Outliving your savings is a top fear for retirees. Rather than letting worry consume you, do the math to understand your retirement budget. Account for major budget items like housing, transportation, and healthcare along with variable expenses. Then, take stock of your retirement benefits to see how they stack up.

Is there a big gap? Consider how you can reduce living expenses in retirement. Housing is a major expense, and many older adults are paying for more housing than they need. Downsizing saves money and cashes out home equity to put towards retirement savings. However, this only works if you have enough equity to make selling worthwhile. To estimate home equity, subtract the mortgage balance from the home’s current market value.

After housing, recurring bills and lifestyle expenses have the biggest impact. Rather than assuming small expenses don’t make a dent, use a budget to see how it all adds up and then adjust as needed.

 

Understanding Retirement Income Sources

Now that you understand the expenses side of the equation, let’s examine retirement income.

 

How to calculate Social Security benefits

Social Security retirement income depends on two main factors: lifetime earnings and the age you claim benefits. Filing early reduces benefits whereas delaying past full retirement age increases Social Security payments. Estimate your Social Security benefits online.

 

What about pensions?

Workers with a pension enjoy a second fixed income source in retirement. Pension plans distribute monthly payments according to a vesting schedule. Making the most of a pension requires understanding minimum distributions, age requirements, and other fine print to maximize your payout.

 

Other fixed income sources in retirement

In addition to Social Security and pension plans, retirees rely on fixed-income investments for income generation and capital preservation.

Fixed income investments include:

  • Bonds and bond funds
  • Certificates of deposit
  • Fixed annuities
  • Mortgage-backed securities
  • Preferred stock or securities

 

How to Supplement Fixed Retirement Income

Fixed-income sources provide stability and peace of mind. They don’t, however, keep up with rising costs of living. To maintain their standard of living over time, retirees need diversified income.

 

Building a balanced investment portfolio

It’s standard for near-retirees to shift asset allocation towards low-risk investments. However, stocks are still an essential part of a balanced portfolio due to the return potential. An experienced financial advisor can determine the right asset allocation for your goals. They’ll also develop a withdrawal strategy to maximize retirement savings. Common approaches include the 4% withdrawal rule, fixed-dollar withdrawals, fixed-percentage withdrawals, systematic withdrawal plans, and withdrawal “buckets.”

 

Working in retirement

Many older adults are starting businesses for flexible retirement income. The best businesses for retirees are low-risk and low-cost, such as consulting in a field where you have niche experience. Beyond less financial risk, consulting businesses are easy to start: Simply file a “doing business as,” also known as a DBA, with the Washington Secretary of State to operate as a sole proprietor under your brand.

 

Retirement shouldn’t feel like the great unknown. If you feel like you’re walking into retirement without a plan, contact Merriman to learn how we can help. Merriman’s fee-only services will help you clarify your retirement goals and understand your options for achieving them. Contact us toll-free at 800-423-4893 or email info@merriman.com to learn how you can invest wisely and live fully.

 

 

 

Written exclusively for Merriman.com by Katie Conroy.
Katie Conroy is the creator of Advice Mine. She enjoys writing about lifestyle topics and created the website to share advice she has learned through experience, education and research.

 

 

Disclosure: The material is presented solely for information purposes and has been gathered from sources believed to be reliable, however Merriman cannot guarantee the accuracy or completeness of such information, and certain information presented here may have been condensed or summarized from its original source. Merriman does not provide tax, legal or accounting advice, and nothing contained in these materials should be relied upon as such. Advisory services are only offered to clients or prospective clients where Merriman and its representatives are properly licensed or exempt from licensure. No advice may be rendered by Merriman unless a client service agreement is in place.

Retirement Living: Renting vs. Homeownership

Retirement Living: Renting vs. Homeownership

Photo by Skiathos Greece on Unsplash

 

Every retiree’s needs are different, which means that every person who retires will have to make their own decisions about whether they want to own a house or rent one.

Some seniors have already paid off their homes and wish to keep living there; others are prepared to invest in a property where they can enjoy their golden years; still others would prefer to live in a place where they don’t have to control the long-term maintenance of the property.

When it comes to retirement living, what makes more sense: renting or homeownership? There are pros and cons to both sides of this story. Let’s take a closer look.

 

Homeownership: Home Equity Has Value

When thinking about homeownership, it’s essential to consider the various ways that home equity has value for you.

Home equity could turn into extra income as you enter retirement, or it could simply act as enough of an investment to float you through your future years. Using home equity as part of your retirement beyond just living in the house, however, requires that you are comfortable making changes to your income strategy.

Selling your home, renting out your home, or taking a reverse mortgage are all ways that some seniors choose to use their home equity to their advantage in retirement. Just as there are both pros and cons to homeownership in retirement, there are also pros and cons to making these changes to your home.

 

Homeownership: When Keeping a House Makes Sense

Many retirees would be comfortable staying in their house in retirement, but they aren’t sure if that would make sense for them.

If you have a low mortgage, or your mortgage is completely paid off, and you have taxes you can handle, staying in your house is an option.

This may not be possible for those who bought their house more recently. Consider how much the house will continue to cost each month when you have less income in future years; this could help you determine if staying in your house will work for you. Selling may be the best option if you don’t have enough saved for retirement.

It is also vital that you consider how it will be to live in your house in your older years. If you live in a storied house, things like stairs or inaccessible bathrooms could prove to be a big issue to deal with. It’s okay to want to keep your home, but you will also need to be realistic about changes that may be required as you age.

 

Renting: A Reduction in Responsibility

One of the reasons that many seniors choose to rent is that they can reduce their number of house-related responsibilities as they age. Keeping up with all the needs of a house can be difficult for people of any age, and it can get even more tiring when you are older.

From mowing the lawn to shoveling snow, certain upkeep tasks are nice to hand off to someone else by renting. Additionally, you are no longer responsible for property taxes or similar large financial responsibilities beyond rent and utilities. This can make sense for many people’s retirement plans.

 

Renting: Flexibility and Accessibility

Another benefit of renting for seniors is that you have more flexibility in choosing where you live and how you live.

The rental property managers at Buttonwood explain that apartment units, condo units, and one-story rentals are often great choices for those who want to have a more accessible living environment. They go on to say, “When renting, it is also possible to change where you are living without significant cost. Unlike buying and selling houses, you can simply end a lease, start a new one, and move to your new location. This gives flexibility that a lot of seniors like to have in retirement.”

Moving as you please in order to be closer to family or friends is a big benefit of renting over buying for many people in retirement.

 

Homeownership vs. Renting: The Advantages

Choosing between homeownership and renting is going to be a difficult decision no matter what. However, you can start to narrow down your choice by thinking about what you need most in a home. What types of advantages are going to be most beneficial for your lifestyle? Consider those needs and then compare them to this list of advantages for each living situation:

Homeownership Advantages

  • Staying Situated
    Many people like to continue to live in a home that they feel has long-term stability and doesn’t rely on another person (i.e., a landlord) to be involved. This provides both physical and emotional stability for many.
  • Tax and Financial Benefits
    There are several tax perks for owning a home that do not apply to renters. Additionally, homeowners who have paid off their homes may find it significantly more affordable to live in said home. Plus, equity is something that you can keep growing or pass down your line.
  • A Home of Your Own
    A lot of retirees have worked their entire lives to be able to call their home theirs, and they want to keep living there. This allows you to personalize as you please without needing to follow any landlord rules for alterations.

Renting Advantages

  • Flexible Living Situation
    You can move as your needs or desires change, and you can do so without dealing with the stress of selling and buying homes.
  • Accessible Options
    Find homes that will allow you to avoid home maintenance or live without climbing stairs; these things become important in later life.
  • Balance Expenses
    Renting is often less expensive from month to month since property taxes, mortgage payments, house maintenance costs, and HOA fees may be eliminated.
  • Free Up Finances
    Selling a house and moving to rent instead gives you more money that you can use to invest or enjoy your golden years.

 

Whether you are delaying retirement to increase your savings before you stop working or you’re ready to move into this stage of your life, consider the pros and cons of homeownership versus renting before you take the next steps. You’ll be better situated if you ensure that you know what you are getting into in advance.

 

 

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 stride in their lives by providing expert insight on anything from credit card debt to home-buying tips.

 

Disclosure: All opinions expressed in this article are for general informational purposes and constitute the judgment of the author(s) as of the date of the report. These opinions are subject to change without notice and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. The material is presented solely for information purposes and has been gathered from sources believed to be reliable, however Merriman cannot guarantee the accuracy or completeness of such information, and certain information presented here may have been condensed or summarized from its original source. Merriman does not provide tax, legal or accounting advice, and nothing contained in these materials should be relied upon as such.

 

The Role of Bonds

The Role of Bonds

 

In Berkshire Hathaway’s most recent annual shareholder letter, Warren Buffett shared his dire forecast for bond investors:

 

And bonds are not the place to be these days. Can you believe that the income recently available from a 10-year U.S. Treasury bond – the yield was 0.93% at yearend – had fallen 94% from the 15.8% yield available in September 1981? In certain large and important countries, such as Germany and Japan, investors earn a negative return on trillions of dollars of sovereign debt. Fixed-income investors worldwide – whether pension funds, insurance companies or retirees – face a bleak future.

Thus far, Warren’s negative outlook has proven correct with the yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury bond rising to 1.74% through the first quarter, leaving bond investors with a negative (3.4%) return.* And with inflation expectations heating up, it is certainly difficult to build a bullish case for bonds. However, most individual investors do not have all their investable assets in bonds. Buffett only considers the investment merits as a standalone investment. Given that most of our clients own bonds within a diversified mix of equities, real estate, and other asset classes, we thought this would be an opportune time to revisit the role bonds play within the portfolio.  

In its most basic form, a bond is a loan to a government entity, corporation, or individual consumer. The investor in a bond is the lender and expects to receive back the original principal along with interest over the life of the loan. Bonds have two main characteristics: quality and maturity.

Quality is a measure of credit risk or the likelihood that the entity will repay the loan. High-quality bonds carry lower interest rates to reflect the low risk of default. In Buffett’s example above, he discusses the U.S. Treasury bond, which has the highest quality and thus a lower interest rate. On the other end of the spectrum, a corporation with a “junk” credit rating will have a much higher interest rate to compensate investors for the additional risk of default. 

Maturity is a measure of interest rate risk. Using bond terms, duration provides an estimate of how sensitive a portfolio of bonds is to changes in interest rates. As an example, if interest rates rise across all maturities by 1%, a bond portfolio with a duration of 10 years can expect to lose 10% in value without including interest payments. The interest rate risk increases with duration and vice versa.

Now that we have the basics in place, let’s discuss more specifically the role bonds play in a diversified portfolio. MarketWise is designed to produce the highest risk-adjusted returns, taking into consideration the long-term expected returns, volatility, and correlations produced by the different asset classes. Bonds play a critical role in that mix. We invest in high-quality U.S. government bonds with short to intermediate (two to five year) maturities with the sole purpose of mitigating risk and providing stability. For taxable accounts, we invest in municipal bonds, which play a similar role while producing tax-free interest. We also own Treasury Inflation Protected Securities (TIPS), which provide protection during inflationary environments. 

The main function of bonds in a portfolio is downside protection. If stocks always went up, there would be little need for bonds or any other asset class. But as we were recently reminded last March, stocks do go down, and when they do, bonds provide that counterbalance, as they typically rise in value during equity bear markets or economic recessions. In fact, since 1976, there have been eight years in which stocks were lower. In each of those years, bonds finished higher to help cushion the blow. This allows us to rebalance during those periods and sell bonds when they are up and buy stocks when they are down in value.

Bonds also have very low overall correlation to stocks. During negative months for stocks, that correlation drops even further. But that also does not mean bonds always have negative returns when stocks are up. In fact, bonds are slightly positively correlated to stocks during up periods. We recently saw this in 2020 with both stocks and bonds finishing with positive total returns for the year. 

So, despite the lower expected returns for bonds going forward, it is important to understand the characteristics of bonds and why we own them. That said, our team continues to research ways to improve the fixed income slice of the portfolio. Over the past several years, we added two specialized asset classes in Alternative Lending and Reinsurance to increase returns that are uncorrelated to both equities and bonds. Going forward, we will continue to investigate ways to enhance the role that bonds play within the portfolio.

 

 

Disclosure: The material is presented solely for information purposes and has been gathered from sources believed to be reliable, however Merriman cannot guarantee the accuracy or completeness of such information, and certain information presented here may have been condensed or summarized from its original source. Merriman does not provide tax, legal or accounting advice, and nothing contained in these materials should be relied upon as such.  Any reference to an index is included for illustrative purposes only, as an index is not a security in which an investment can be made. Indices are unmanaged vehicles that serve as market indicators and do not account for the deduction of management fees and/or transaction costs generally associated with investable products.  The Bloomberg Barclays US Aggregate Bond Index is a broad-based flagship benchmark that measures the investment grade, US dollar-denominated, fixed-rate taxable bond market.  All composite data and corresponding calculations are available upon request.