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MANAGING DEBT WHILE SAVING FOR RETIREMENT

It's a catch-22: You feel that you should focus on paying down debt, but you also want to save for retirement. It may be comforting to know you're not alone.

According to an Employee Benefit Research Institute survey, 18% of today's workers describe their debt level as a major problem, while 41% say it's a minor problem. And workers who say that debt is a problem are also more likely to feel stressed about their retirement savings prospects.1 Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that the largest proportion (21%) of those who have taken a loan from their employer-sponsored retirement plans have done so to pay off debt.2Borrowing from your plan can have negative consequences on your retirement preparedness down the road. Loan limits and other restrictions generally apply as well.

The key in managing both debt repayment and retirement savings is to understand a few basic financial concepts that will help you develop a strategy to tackle both.

Compare potential rate of return with interest rate on debt

Probably the most common way to decide whether to pay off debt or to make investments is to consider whether you could earn a higher rate of return (after accounting for taxes) on your investments than the interest rate you pay on the debt. For example, say you have a credit card with a $10,000 balance that carries an interest rate of 18%. By paying off that balance, you're effectively getting an 18% return on your money. That means your investments would generally need to earn a consistent, after-tax return greater than 18% to make saving for retirement preferable to paying off that debt. That's a tall order for even the most savvy professional investors.

And bear in mind that all investing involves risk; investment returns are anything but guaranteed. In general, the higher the rate of return, the greater the risk. If you make investments rather than pay off debt and your investments incur losses, you may still have debts to pay, but you won't have had the benefit of any gains. By contrast, the return that comes from eliminating high-interest-rate debt is a sure thing.

Are you eligible for an employer match?

If you have the opportunity to save for retirement via an employer-sponsored plan that matches a portion of your contributions, the debt-versus-savings decision can become even more complicated.

Let's say your company matches 50% of your contributions up to 6% of your salary. This means you're essentially earning a 50% return on that portion of your retirement account contributions. That's why it may make sense to save at least enough to get any employer match before focusing on debt.

And don't forget the potential tax benefits of retirement plan contributions. If you contribute pre-tax dollars to your plan account, you're immediately deferring anywhere from 10% to 39.6% in taxes, depending on your federal tax rate. If you're making after-tax Roth contributions, you're creating a source of tax-free retirement income.3

Consider the types of debt

Your decision can also be influenced by the type of debt you have. For example, if you itemize deductions on your federal tax return, the interest you pay on a mortgage is generally deductible — so even if you could pay off your mortgage, you may not want to. Let's say you're paying 6% on your mortgage and 18% on your credit card debt, and your employer matches 50% of your retirement account contributions. You might consider directing some of your available resources to paying off the credit card debt and some toward your retirement account in order to get the full company match, while continuing to pay the mortgage to receive the tax deduction for the interest.

Other considerations

There's another good reason to explore ways to address both debt repayment and retirement savings at once. Time is your best ally when saving for retirement. If you say to yourself, "I'll wait to start saving until my debts are completely paid off," you run the risk that you'll never get to that point, because your good intentions about paying off your debt may falter. Postponing saving also reduces the number of years you have left to save for retirement.

It might also be easier to address both goals if you can cut your interest payments by refinancing debt. For example, you might be able to consolidate multiple credit card payments by rolling them over to a new credit card or a debt consolidation loan that has a lower interest rate.

Bear in mind that even if you decide to focus on retirement savings, you should make sure that you're able to make at least the minimum monthly payments on your debt. Failure to do so can result in penalties and increased interest rates, which would defeat the overall purpose of your debt repayment/retirement savings strategy.




WORKING IN RETIREMENT: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

Planning on working during retirement? If so, you're not alone. Recent studies have consistently shown that a majority of retirees plan to work at least some period of time during their retirement years. Here are some points to consider.

Why work during retirement?

Obviously, if you work during retirement, you'll be earning money and relying less on your retirement savings, leaving more to grow for the future. You may also have access to affordable health care, as more and more employers offer this important benefit to part-time employees. But there are also non-economic reasons for working during retirement. Many retirees work for personal fulfillment, to stay mentally and physically active, to enjoy the social benefits of working, and to try their hand at something new.

What about my Social Security benefit?

Working may enable you to postpone claiming Social Security until a later date. In general, the later you begin receiving benefit payments, the greater your benefit will be. Whether delaying the start of Social Security benefits is the right decision for you depends on your personal circumstances.

One factor to consider is whether you want to continue working after you start receiving Social Security retirement benefits, because your earnings may affect the amount of your benefit payment.

If you've reached full retirement age (66 to 67, depending on when you were born), you don't need to worry about this — you can earn as much as you want without affecting your Social Security benefit. But if you haven't yet reached full retirement age, $1 in benefits will be withheld for every $2 you earn over the annual earnings limit ($16,920 in 2017). A higher earnings limit applies in the year you reach full retirement age. If you earn more than this higher limit ($44,880 in 2017), $1 in benefits will be withheld for every $3 you earn over that amount, until the month you reach full retirement age — then you'll get your full benefit no matter how much you earn. Yet another special rule applies in your first year of Social Security retirement — you'll get your full benefit for any month you earn less than one-twelfth of the annual earnings limit ($1,410 in 2017) and you don't perform substantial services in self-employment.

Not all income reduces your Social Security benefit. In general, Social Security only takes into account wages you've earned as an employee, net earnings from self-employment, and other types of work-related income such as bonuses, commissions, and fees. Pensions, annuities, IRA payments, and investment income won't reduce your benefit.

Even if some of your benefits are withheld prior to your full retirement age, you'll generally receive a higher monthly benefit starting at your full retirement age, because the Social Security Administration (SSA) will recalculate your benefit and give you credit for amounts that were withheld. If you continue to work, any new earnings may also increase your monthly benefit. The SSA reviews your earnings record every year to see if you had additional earnings that would increase your benefit.

One last important point to consider. In general, your Social Security benefit won't be subject to federal income tax if that's the only income you receive during the year. But if you work during retirement (or you receive any other taxable income or tax-exempt interest), a portion of your benefit may become taxable. IRS Publication 915 has a worksheet that can help you determine whether any part of your Social Security benefit is subject to income tax.

How will working affect my pension?

Some employers have adopted "phased retirement" programs that allow you to ease into retirement by working fewer hours, while also allowing you to receive all or part of your pension benefit. However, other employers require that you fully retire before you can receive your pension. And some plans even require that your pension benefit be suspended if you retire and then return to work for the same employer, even part-time. Check with your plan administrator.


QUIZ: HOW MUCH DO YOU KNOW ABOUT SOCIAL SECURITY RETIREMENT BENEFITS?

Social Security is an important source of retirement income for millions of Americans, but how much do you know about this program? Test your knowledge, and learn more about your retirement benefits, by answering the following questions.

Questions

1. Do you have to be retired to collect Social Security retirement benefits?

a. Yes

b. No

2. How much is the average monthly Social Security benefit for a retired worker?

a. $1,360

b. $1,493

c. $1,585

d. $1,723

3. For each year you wait past your full retirement age to collect Social Security, how much will your retirement benefit increase?

a. 5%

b. 6%

c. 7%

d. 8%

4. How far in advance should you apply for Social Security retirement benefits?

a. One month before you want your benefits to start.

b. Two months before you want your benefits to start.

c. Three months before you want your benefits to start.

5. Is it possible for your retirement benefit to increase once you start receiving Social Security?

a. Yes

b. No

Answers

1. b. You don't need to stop working in order to claim Social Security retirement benefits. However, if you plan to continue working and you have not yet reached full retirement age (66 to 67, depending on your year of birth), your Social Security retirement benefit may be reduced if you earn more than a certain annual amount. In 2017, $1 in benefits will be deducted for every $2 you earn above $16,920. In the calendar year in which you reach your full retirement age, a higher limit applies. In 2017, $1 in benefits will be deducted for every $3 you earn above $44,880. Once you reach full retirement age, your earnings will not affect your Social Security benefit.

2. a. Your benefit will depend on your earnings history and other factors, but according to the Social Security Administration, the average estimated monthly Social Security benefit for a retired worker (as of January 2017) is $1,360.1

3. d. Starting at full retirement age, you will earn delayed retirement credits that will increase your benefit by 8% per year up to age 70. For example, if your full retirement age is 66, you can earn credits for a maximum of four years. At age 70, your benefit will then be 32% higher than it would have been at full retirement age.

4. c. According to the Social Security Administration, you should ideally apply three months before you want your benefits to start. You can generally apply online.

5. a. There are several reasons why your benefit might increase after you begin receiving it. First, you'll generally receive annual cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs). Second, your benefit is recalculated every year to account for new earnings, so it might increase if you continue working. Your benefit might also be adjusted if you qualify for a higher spousal benefit once your spouse files for Social Security.

For more information, visit the Social Security Administration website, ssa.gov.

1Social Security Fact Sheet, 2017 Social Security Changes

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GRANDPARENTS CAN HELP BRIDGE THE COLLEGE COST GAP

For many families, a college education is a significant financial burden that is increasingly hard to meet with savings, current income, and a manageable amount of loans. For some, the ace in the hole might be grandparents, whose added funds can help bridge the gap. If you're a grandparent who would like to help fund your grandchild's college education, here are some strategies.

529 college savings plan

A 529 college savings plan is one of the best vehicles for multigenerational college funding. 529 plans are offered by states and managed by financial institutions. Grandparents can open a 529 account on their own — either with their own state's plan or another state's plan — and name their grandchild as beneficiary (one grandchild per account), or they can contribute to an existing 529 account that has already been established for that grandchild (for example, by a parent).

Once a 529 account is open, grandparents can contribute as much or as little as they want, subject to the individual plan's lifetime limits, which are typically $300,000 and up. Grandparents can set up automatic monthly contributions or they can gift a larger lump sum - a scenario where 529 plans really shine.

Contributions to a 529 plan accumulate tax deferred (which means no taxes are due on any earnings made along the way), and earnings are completely tax-free at the federal level (and typically at the state level) if account funds are used to pay the beneficiary's qualified education expenses. (However, the earnings portion of any withdrawal used for a non-education purpose is subject to income tax and a 10% penalty.)

Under rules unique to 529 plans, individuals can make a lump-sum gift of up to $70,000 ($140,000 for joint gifts by a married couple) and avoid federal gift tax by making a special election on their tax return to treat the gift as if it were made in equal installments over a five-year period. After five years, another lump-sum gift can be made using the same technique. This strategy offers two advantages: The money is considered removed from the grandparents' estate (unless a grandparent were to die during the five-year period, in which case a portion of the gift would be recaptured), but grandparents still retain control over their contribution and can withdraw part or all of it for an unexpected financial need (the earnings portion of such a withdrawal would be subject to income tax and a 10% penalty, though).

What happens at college time if a grandchild gets a scholarship? Grandparents can seamlessly change the beneficiary of the 529 account to another grandchild, or they can make a penalty-free withdrawal from the account up to the amount of the scholarship (though they would still owe income tax on the earnings portion of this withdrawal).

Finally, a word about financial aid. Under current federal financial aid rules, a grandparent-owned 529 account is not counted as a parent or student asset, but withdrawals from a grandparent-owned 529 account are counted as student income in the following academic year, which can decrease the grandchild's eligibility for financial aid in that year by up to 50%. By contrast, parent-owned 529 accounts are counted as parent assets up front, but withdrawals are not counted as student income — a more favorable treatment.

Outright cash gifts

Another option for grandparents is to make an outright gift of cash or securities to their grandchild or his or her parent. To help reduce any potential gift tax implications, grandparents should keep their gift under the annual federal gift tax exclusion amount — $14,000 for individual gifts or $28,000 for joint gifts. Otherwise, a larger gift may be subject to federal gift tax and, for a gift made to a grandchild, federal generation-skipping transfer tax, which is a tax on gifts made to a person who is more than one generation below you.

An outright cash gift to a grandchild or a grandchild's parent will be considered an asset for financial aid purposes. Under the federal aid formula, students must contribute 20% of their assets each year toward college costs, and parents must contribute 5.6% of their assets.

Pay tuition directly to the college

For grandparents who are considering making an outright cash gift, another option is to bypass grandchildren and pay the college directly. Under federal law, tuition payments made directly to a college aren't considered taxable gifts, no matter how large the payment. This rule is beneficial considering that tuition at many private colleges is now over $40,000 per year. Only tuition qualifies for this federal gift tax exclusion; room and board aren't eligible.

Aside from the benefit of being able to make larger tax-free gifts, paying tuition directly to the college ensures that your money will be used for education purposes. However, a direct tuition payment might prompt a college to reduce any potential grant award in your grandchild's financial aid package, so make sure to ask the college about the financial aid impact of your gift.

 

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CAN I ROLL MY TRADITIONAL 401(K) ACCOUNT BALANCE OVER TO A ROTH IRA?

Yes, you can make a direct or 60-day rollover from a 401(k) plan [or another qualified plan, 403(b) plan, or governmental 457(b) plan] to a Roth IRA, as long as you meet certain requirements.*

First, you must be entitled to a distribution from your plan. While you can always access your account when you terminate employment, in some cases you may be able to withdraw your own or your employer's contributions while you're still working (for example, at age 59½).

[Note: Your plan may also permit the "in plan" conversion of all or part of your account balance to a Roth account, regardless of whether you're eligible for a distribution from the plan. Check with your plan administrator.]

Second, your distribution must be an "eligible rollover distribution." Distributions that cannot be rolled over include hardship withdrawals, certain periodic payments, and required minimum distributions (RMDs).

Third, you must include the taxable portion of the distribution in your gross income in the year you make the rollover ("conversion"). But that's the price you have to pay to potentially receive tax-free qualified distributions from your Roth IRA in the future.

Fourth, if your distribution includes both after-tax and pre-tax dollars, you can generally direct that only the after-tax dollars be rolled over to the Roth IRA (resulting in a tax-free conversion) while making a tax-deferred rollover of the pre-tax dollars to a traditional IRA.

When evaluating whether to initiate a rollover from an employer plan to an IRA, be sure to: (1) ask about possible surrender charges that your employer plan or IRA may impose, (2) compare investment fees and expenses charged by your IRA with those charged by your employer plan (if any), and (3) understand any accumulated rights or guarantees that you may be giving up by transferring funds out of your employer plan. Also consider all of your distribution options, including leaving the money in your employer's plan, transferring the funds to a new employer's plan, or taking a cash withdrawal.

*If you make a 60-day rollover, your plan will withhold 20% of the taxable portion of your distribution for federal income tax purposes.

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Four Numbers You Need to Know Now

When it comes to your finances, you might easily overlook some of the numbers that really count. Here are four to pay attention to now that might really matter in the future.

1. Retirement plan contribution rate

What percentage of your salary are you contributing to a retirement plan? Making automatic contributions through an employer-sponsored plan such as a 401(k) or 403(b) plan is an easy way to save for retirement, but this out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach may result in a disparity between what you need to save and what you actually are saving for retirement. Checking your contribution rate and increasing it periodically can help you stay on track toward your retirement savings goal.

Some employer retirement plans let you sign up for automatic contribution rate increases each year, which is a simple way to bump up the percentage you're saving over time. In addition, try to boost your contributions when you receive a pay raise. Consider contributing at least enough to receive the full company match (if any) that your employer offers.

2. Credit score

When you apply for credit, such as a mortgage, a car loan, or a credit card, your credit score is one of the tools used by lenders to evaluate your creditworthiness. Your score will likely factor into the approval decision and affect the terms and the interest rate you'll pay.

The most common credit score that creditors consider is a FICO© Score, a three-digit number that ranges from 300 to 850. This score is based on a mathematical formula that uses information contained in your credit report. In general, the higher your score, the lower the credit risk you pose.

Each of the three major credit reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) calculates FICO® scores using different formulas, so you may want to check your scores from all three (fees apply). It's also a good idea to get a copy of your credit report at least annually to check the accuracy of the information upon which your credit score is based. You're entitled to one free copy of your credit report every 12 months from each of the three credit reporting agencies. You can get your copy by visiting annualcreditreport.com.

3. Debt-to-income ratio

Your debt-to-income ratio (DTI) is another number that lenders may use when deciding whether to offer you credit. A DTI that is too high might mean that you are overextended. Your DTI is calculated by adding up your major monthly expenses and dividing that figure by your gross monthly income. The result is expressed as a percentage. For example, if your monthly expenses total $2,200 and your gross monthly income is $6,800, your DTI is 32%.

Lenders decide what DTIs are acceptable, based on the type of credit. For example, mortgage lenders generally require a ratio of 36% or less for conventional mortgages and 43% or less for FHA mortgages when considering overall expenses.

Once you know your DTI, you can take steps to reduce it if necessary. For example, you may be able to pay off a low-balance loan to remove it from the calculation. You may also want to avoid taking on new debt that might negatively affect your DTI. Check with your lender if you have any questions about acceptable DTIs or what expenses are included in the calculation.

4. Net worth

One of the key big-picture numbers you should know is your net worth, a snapshot of where you stand financially. To calculate your net worth, add up your assets (what you own) and subtract your liabilities (what you owe). Once you know your net worth, you can use it as a baseline to measure financial progress.

Ideally, your net worth will grow over time as you save more and pay down debt, at least until retirement. If your net worth is stagnant or even declining, then it might be time to make some adjustments to target your financial goals, such as trimming expenses or rethinking your investment strategy.