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Investing Retirement Uncategorized

Why You Should Use Index Funds in Your Retirement Accounts

When I first started learning about investing and retirement accounts, I struggled to determine where I should invest my money.  Thankfully, several great personal finance web sites (including Motley Fool and Bogleheads) agreed that investing in index funds led to the most benefit for most people.  Index funds are mutual funds that track what is called a market index, like the Standard and Poor’s 500, and maintain small slices of companies in proportion to the companies’ share of the index.  For example, if Apple currently makes up 2% of the S&P 500, an S&P 500 index fund would place 2% of its holdings in Apple.

Why is indexing preferred over investing in actively managed funds, where fund managers buy and sell stocks on a frequent basis?  The frequent buying and selling of stocks generates commissions for the fund managers and their companies (this is your money going to pay the fund managers).  Additionally, there are often fees associated with the initial purchase of actively managed funds.  At the end of the day, actively managed funds must increase in value not only to match the gains of index funds, but also to cover actively managed funds’ much higher expenses.

Study after study indicates that index funds outperform actively managed funds:

http://www.cnbc.com/2015/06/26/index-funds-trounce-actively-managed-funds-study.html

http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/personalfinance/2016/03/14/66-fund-managers-cant-match-sp-results/81644182/

https://www.bogleheads.org/forum/viewtopic.php?f=10&t=88005

I recommend Vanguard Funds (www.vanguard.com) for index funds, as Vanguard’s funds have the lowest expense ratios.  One fund that is highly recommended by many proponents of indexing is Vanguard’s Total Stock Market Index Fund (VTSAX), which has an extremely low expense ratio of 0.05%.  In comparison, many actively managed funds have expense ratios of over 1.00%.  While this extra percentage point may not seem like a lot, when compounded over time, this extra 1.00% may result in you paying fund managers tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of dollars that could have been used to grow your retirement nest egg.

 

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Dave Ramsey Debt Investing Retirement Saving

Great Personal Finance Podcasts

One of my favorite things to do on long drives is listen to personal finance podcasts.  There are a handful that I have found (so far) to be better than the rest:

My favorite podcast is Afford Anything with host Paula Pant, as she combines an entertaining delivery with great guest speakers.  Paula encourages listeners to both increase their incomes while decreasing their expenses (increasing the “gap”).  Her focus on increasing income differentiates her from many, many other personal finance bloggers who put a great focus on limiting expenses and frugality.  I certainly think both are important, but Paula’s focus on making the gap bigger blows past the flawed binary view on many blogs that we should focus on either increasing income or reducing expenses, but not both.  Paula provides a ton of insight, too, into real estate investing.  I definitely, definitely recommend the Afford Anything podcast.

The Mad Fientist podcast focuses on reaching financial independence.  The Mad Fientist provides some original (to me) ideas:  How to use a health savings account (HSA) as a “super IRA” account; how to minimize taxes when investing in retirement accounts.

The Dave Ramsey Show podcast is targeted more toward people trying to get their financial house in order, but it is still very motivational.  Dave Ramsey releases three hours of the show every weekday, so there’s plenty to listen to.  My favorite segments are Dave’s millionaire theme hours, where millionaires are interviewed and insights are provided into their spending, saving, and investing habits.

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Debt Investing Saving

Measuring Progress – Tracking Net Worth

As we budget, save, grow our income, and practice self-control in spending, it’s important to have a method for tracking progress.  After all, if we are indeed working to improve our financial lives, shouldn’t we have a way to measure our improvement (or regression)?

I have a coworker who has turned into a terrific friend and we’ll often talk personal finance in our downtime.  He shared with me his primary method for tracking progress in his financial life:  Tracking net worth.  This was definitely a “light bulb” moment and something I started doing (in November 2012) after we had the discussion.

In summary, you list your assets, list your liabilities, and take the difference, which gives you your net worth.  I calculate (actually Microsoft Excel calculates) my net worth every month and this lets me see how I’m doing financially.  Increasing the value of my assets or decreasing debts will send my net worth in the right direction.  Alternatively, keeping monthly tabs on my net worth lets me see where I might be slipping and hurting my net worth, giving me the chance to correct bad habits.

The following is the Excel spreadsheet I use to track my net worth:

Net Worth Spreadsheet
Net Worth Spreadsheet

If you would like to download this spreadsheet, click here.  The spreadsheet includes some simple formulas, including what percentage each asset comprises of each asset category.  Columns F, G, and H detail my net worth history and columns J through P detail what comprises the net worth value.

Categorizing your assets and liabilities can turn into an exercise, as you’ll need to consider whether certain items are assets, liabilities, or both.  For example, you could list your home’s equity as an asset, but you’ll also want to list your mortgage as a liability due to it being a debt owed to the bank.

As you keep track of your net worth, I think you’ll find a sense of accomplishment if you’re growing your net worth.  This will provide added motivation to steer your financial ship properly.  If you’re going in the wrong direction, use this as a tool to help identify what’s driving your loss and what you can do to fix it.  Good luck!

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Investing

Vanguard Admiral Shares

Vanguard investors who have less than $10,000 to invest purchase Vanguard’s entry-level Investor shares .  Vanguard offers investors the ability to “upgrade” their shares by purchasing Admiral shares once investors accumulate a given amount within certain mutual funds.  Admiral shares have lower expense ratios than their Investor shares counterparts, allowing investors to keep more of their money.  From Vanguard’s web site, to qualify to purchase Admiral shares you need to meet one of the following criteria:

  • Invest $10,000 or more in most Vanguard index funds that offer Admiral Shares.
  • Invest $50,000 or more in Vanguard actively managed funds that offer Admiral Shares.

An example of the difference between Investor shares and Admiral shares:  The Total Stock Market Index (VTSMX) mutual fund has an expense ratio of .18% while its Admiral shares equivalent, VTSAX, has an expense ratio of .06%.

If you invest with Vanguard and haven’t visited their web site in a while, you may be able to save yourself money by logging in and converting your Investor shares into Admiral shares.  The conversion from Investor shares to Admiral shares is free, so it’s worth your time to check.

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Investing Retirement

Changes to 401(k) and IRA in 2013

The new year will bring changes to 401(k) and IRA accounts.  These changes will allow you to save more.  Here’s a list of what’s changing:

  • Increased 401(k) contribution limit – The maximum you can save annually will increase from $17,000 to $17,500.  These figures apply to 403(b) accounts, too.
  • 401(k) fee notifications – Quarterly statements will include more information regarding fees you are paying in your 401(k) plan.
  • Increased IRA contribution limit – Workers who meet the income requirement will be able to contribute up to $5,500 annually, up from $5,000.
  • Increased Roth IRA income limits – Single people can contribute to a Roth IRA until they reach $112,000 in income, at which point contribution limits are decreased until income reaches $127,000.  Couples can contribute to a Roth IRA until they reach $178,000 in income, at which point contribution limits are decreased until income reaches $188,000.

The 401(k), 403(b), Traditional IRA, and Roth IRA are great methods for growing your retirement nest egg.  The tax advantages these retirement plans provide allow your money to grow more than in a taxable account.  The 401(k) and 403(b) plans are provided by employers, but anyone with an earned income can open a Traditional IRA or Roth IRA.

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Investing Retirement

Target Date Retirement Funds – Silver Bullet?

Target date retirement funds are fairly recent inventions created by investment brokerages to simplify the lives of investors.  Target date retirement funds take care of asset allocation for you, adjusting holdings to a more conservative mix as you near a fund’s target year, presumably a date near your retirement date.  As the fund nears the target year, stocks are exchanged for bonds or cash, effectively lessening the volatility of the fund and, as a result, helping to preserve your all-important retirement nest egg.

More and more 401(k) plans are offering target date funds due to their “set it and forget it” appeal and, accordingly, more and more individuals are choosing to place their dollars in target date retirement funds.  Although the funds have a one-size-fits-all veneer, it’s important to ask a few questions before investing in them.

Painting with a Broad Brush

Brokerages typically offer several target date funds, with a fund available for every five years from 2010 to 2055.  At first glance, it seems logical that you should choose a fund that is nearest to your retirement date.  One piece of information you should determine, though, is what holdings a given target retirement fund contains.  The Vanguard Target Retirement 2045 fund (VTIVX) holds 88.6% stock and 11.4% bonds and cash.  Fidelity’s equivalent fund, Fidelity Freedom 2045 (FFFGX), contains 73.4% stock and 26.6% bonds and cash.  An investor who is apt to take more risk would lean toward the Vanguard offering due to its almost 90% stake in stock, while a more risk averse investor would prefer Fidelity’s fund that holds close to 70% stock.  One size may not, in fact, fit all.  Additionally, holdings will change as a fund’s target date approaches and may change when a fund’s manager changes.  It’s important to take a periodic glance at fund composition to verify you are content with its holdings.

Fees, Fees, Fees

Just like asset allocation can vary from fund to fund, fees can vary, as well.  The Vanguard Target Retirement 2045 fund has an expense ratio of .19% while the Fidelity Freedom 2045 fund has an expense ratio of .76%.  While the roughly .5% difference may not seem like much, when you calculate the potential loss over the course of 30 years for a significant amount of principal, you stand to lose a good sum of money if you let expenses mount.  You have limited control over the amount of money you lose via the ups and downs of the market, but you can control which expenses you incur, so select a fund with lower expenses when choosing between similar performing funds.

Create Your Own

Due to not being content with the asset allocations in various target retirement funds, I have effectively created my own target retirement funds in my retirement brokerage accounts.  I decided on an asset allocation that I am content with (25% large cap, 25% mid cap, 25% small cap, 15% international, and 10% bonds) and chose five mutual funds in amounts that reflect this asset allocation.  As the market fluctuates, I rebalance my portfolio to maintain the desired asset allocation.  One advantage to this method of retirement investing is that I am effectively my own target retirement fund manager, can modify my asset allocation on my own timeline, can choose from many mutual funds, and don’t have to worry about a brokerage modifying my asset allocation.  A drawback to this method is that some funds have significant minimum investment requirements, so beginning investors may need to accumulate investment money for some time before investing in multiple funds.

For investors who prefer a hands-off approach, target date retirement funds are great options.  Coupled with an early start to retirement investing and regular contributions to retirement accounts, target retirement funds can help you grow a sizeable nest egg.  If you find that target retirement funds don’t exactly meet your needs, though, consider filling your portfolio with funds that match your desired asset allocation while minimizing fees.  By following either approach, you’ll be on your way to financial freedom in your retirement years.

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Investing

Grow Your Retirement Portfolio with Dividends

In the past, I typically looked at four criteria to evaluate mutual funds for my retirement portfolio:

  • Asset Allocation – The asset classes (i.e., stocks, bonds, cash, etc.) I have chosen to invest in based on my timeline and risk tolerance.  Since retirement is in the distant future, I’m willing to incur more risk in seeking higher returns.  For me this means a portfolio that is heavy with stock funds.
  • Rate of Return – The higher this number is, the better.  I look at rates of return over large periods of time (five, ten, twenty year windows) since I have a long time until I retire.  Also, I compare rates of return with mutual funds in the same class (small-cap, mid-cap, international, etc.), with the goal of choosing a relatively better performing fund if I have the ability to choose from multiple funds within the same class.
  • Expense Ratio – The lower this number is, the better.  Expense ratios, measured as a percentage of your investment, track what it costs an investment organization to run a mutual fund.  If I am able to select from multiple funds within the same class and the funds have relatively similar rates of return, I choose the fund with the lowest expense ratio.  The lower the expense ratio, the more money you get to line your own, rather than somebody else’s, pockets.
  • Morningstar Rating – This rating measures how a mutual fund has performed relative to other funds in the same class.  Mutual funds are rated on a scale of five stars- this helps you to gauge whether a fund you’re selecting is a bad performer.  If a fund has one star, it’s in the bottom 10% of its class- stay away.  The next four stars chart the next best 22.5%, 35%, 22.5%, and 10% of performers.

This January, after evaluating the performance of my mutual funds, I discovered another criteria with which to evaluate mutual funds and stumbled across something that caused my balance to grow more than I expected:  dividends.  Dividends are company earnings that a given company can choose to distribute to its shareholders.  Not all companies distribute dividends, as a dividend distribution requires that companies have surplus cash.  Dividends are generally distributed once, twice, or four times a year and a company may choose to increase or decrease dividend payments, or may choose to start or stop issuing dividends according to the wishes of its leadership.  Note that dividend payments are included in a mutual fund’s rate of return, so use dividend yields as only one criteria when choosing to invest.

From December 2011 to January 2012, I noticed one of my mutual fund balances had increased by several hundred dollars, equivalent to slightly more than 3% of my previous balance.  My initial thought was:  “Wow, I wasn’t expecting this!”  I then became curious how to calculate this amount and how I might calculate future dividend payments.  Using finance.yahoo.com, I plugged in the ticker symbol associated with the mutual fund (FFFFX in this case).  I then went to the “Historical Prices” page and selected “Dividends Only” and clicked “Get Prices”. For the dividend issued on December 29, 2011, you see “0.25 Dividend”, which means I was given a dividend of 25 cents per share. To use a round number, let’s assume I started December 29 with 1,000 shares at an opening value of $7.36 per share, which translates to $7,360 total in FFFFX.  The 25 cent dividend was then multiplied by my 1,000 shares, for earnings of $250.  Rather than only experiencing an increase in share price, I acquired 33.97 additional shares, which will allow future dividend payments to grow, as future dividend payments will be calculated based on the 1,033.97  shares I hold rather than the original 1,000 shares.

A key takeaway:  Reinvest dividend payments.  This will allow for future dividend payments to multiply on top of previous dividend payments.  For long-term buy and hold investors, in addition to regular contributions, time, and compounding interest, dividends are an additional tool you can use to grow your retirement portfolio.