Nov 09

I don’t know where I first heard this expression, it might has been a movie line, or it might have been uttered in response to a very bad business proposal. The full line is, “if you’re going to screw me, the least you could do is take me to dinner and a movie first.” Vulgar, yes, but it’s my reaction to the latest budget congress just passed which impacts my projected social security benefit. I just lost over $63K in future benefits.

Let me take a step back and explain. The Social Security rules are so convoluted that Professor Laurence Kotlikoff has both a book, Get What’s Yours — The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security Benefits, as well as a web site, to help people navigate this ridiculous minefield. I always knew a bit about the social security strategies, but didn’t give it much thought until recently, as my wife will turn 60 in 2016. Me, I’m 53, and still have some time, but I figured it’s not too early to understand what benefits we can expect. Larry’s book offers strategies for most combinations of people and relationships you can imagine. Divorced couples, older retirees with children under 18, it’s really a myriad of possibilities.


My situation was relatively simple. My wife has nearly 7 years on me, and the strategy that made the most sense was for her to get her maximum benefit at 70, and then when I hit my full retirement age (67), I’d have the ability to apply for just the “spousal benefit.” My wife’s benefit at 70 would be about $3500, therefore I’d have been eligible for $1750/mo while I waited 3 more years to take the benefit based on my own work record. 3 years of this spousal benefit would have totaled $63,000. The new rules, among other things, prohibit this strategy, along with any strategies that included filing and suspending.

This strategy that impacted me was not used very often, it seems. The Times’ story that discussed it was titled “Rarely Used Social Security Loopholes, Worth Thousands of Dollars, Closed.” Perhaps that headline really summed it up. There wasn’t going to be a groundswell of protest for a strategy relatively few people used. On other sites, the comment to this news story contained remarks like, “I’m glad to see this strategy used by the 1%ers done away with. Maybe it will leave more money in the social security trust fund so I’ll actually get my benefit.”

I’m trying to keep an open mind here. On one hand, $63K. On the other hand, a strategy that was probably used only by the well-informed, which may very well skew to the top 10% or even the 1%. The spousal benefit was useful for any couple to use as a way of collecting a benefit while allowing one person’s own benefit to grow 8%/yr for the time between full retirement age and 70. Those who knew about this strategy and planned for it, need to make a bit of a course correction.

Those are the general details. I’m sorry this strategy wasn’t better known and used by more people. We’ll get by ok without this extra money, but I can’t help but wonder what changes are coming next. Will there be any benefit left by the time I’m old enough to collect?

written by Joe \\ tags: ,

Nov 02

I’ve been known to use the expression, “Don’t let the tax tail wag the investing dog.” I stand by that remark. If you own a stock and it’s time to sell since it no longer is a stock your own criteria would justify, by all means, sell it. Holding it for an extra month to get long term favored gains may result in a greater loss than the missed long term treatment.

That said, the strategy of tax loss harvesting can help you boost your returns a bit depending on your timing. Let’s look at how this can work for you. First, you need to understand taxation of long term capital gains. There’s a zero percent rate for gains on sales of stocks (including mutual funds) held for over one year. But, there’s a catch. This great rate applies to those in the 10% or 15% brackets. If you take a peek at my last post, you’ll see that, in 2016, for a couple, the 15% bracket ends at $75,300. Add the exemptions and standard deduction, totaling $20,700, and this is an even $96,000, gross income. Less than 25% of households had more than this much income in 2014 according to the latest census data, so this strategy will help most of my readers. Last, understand the rules regarding wash sales. If you sell a stock or fund at a loss and purchase “substantially identical” funds or ETFs with 30 days, this triggers a wash sale. Earlier this year, Michael Kitces wrote an in depth article, Does Tax Loss Harvesting “Almost” Substantially Identical Mutual Funds And ETFs Trigger A Wash Sale Problem? For my purposes, selling an S&P tracking fund or ETF and buying a larger index, whether tracking the top 1000 or 1500 stocks should suffice.

You’re looking at your brokerage statement, and find you have 2 funds, one showing a $3000 gain, the other a $3000 loss. A contrived, simple example. For this discussion, we’ll assume they are generic, say S&P 500 index, and a broad Small Cap fund. If you sold both of these, and bought other funds this year, the loss and gain cancel, no tax due, no tax savings. Instead, sell the losing fund this year, buying into another fund reflecting your desired asset allocation. Now, you have a $3000 (the maximum you can take each year) loss, and you’ll see $450 more in your tax refund when you file. At the end of the following year, review your holdings, and if you won’t have a loser to sell in the next year, sell the one with the gain, and buy into another to keep your allocation to your goals. This move will raise your basis to the new, higher level, and should the market fall from this new level, you’ll have another chance to sell for a loss.

Let’s look at how this strategy could have been implemented over the decade from 2000 to 2009.


This is the ‘lost decade’ for the S&P, a remarkable 10 years that resulted in the S&P losing 9% of its value. You can click on the chart above to take a look, full size, or go to MoneyChimp and look at the returns for 2000 through 2009. In this crazy decade, we can take advantage of the market’s volatility by taking the losses along the way, and reinvesting this money. This example starts with a $30,000 investment account all reflecting the return of the S&P. For each year from 2000 though 2003 we are able to deduct a $3000 loss and get $450 back when filing. Note, even though 2003 had a gain, the S&P index dropped 40% in the 3 years from 2000 to 2002, and by shifting from one fund to another, there were $12,000 were of losses to claim over the 4 years. In the next few years, basis is increased by swapping funds. Here’s a chart illustrating this –


You can see, the ‘regular’ return reflects the buy and hold, but ‘taking losses’ adds $450 each year we are able to take the $3000 loss. $3000 is the maximum you can take each year again ordinary income. Typically, losses first offset gains, but in our example, we’ll only take losses when they can be deducted against ordinary income. In this decade shown, losses are taken in each year from 2000 to 2003, and again in 2008 and 2009. The gains up to 2007 are used to increase basis by swapping funds, so in 2007, your basis is $36,697. Another fund swap in 2008, results in loss of over $13,000 letting you spread the deduction over the next 4+ years, so even though 2010 and 2011 showed gains, you are still taking a loss and adding $450 into the account.

The result of this annual effort is a 10% swing, instead of losing 9% for the decade, we are up just over 1%. To be fair, with expenses, we’d be just about at break-even, vs being down 9% plus expenses. Another way to look at it is that the return was improved by a full 1%/yr just from this strategy. No magic here, just using the rules of our tax code to write off losses against ordinary income, but take the gains tax free.


written by Joe \\ tags: , ,

Oct 26

The 2016 tax rates have just been announced by my friends at the IRS. My friends? Well, to be sure, they are not the enemy. The IRS enforces the tax code. You know who writes it? Congress. So whenever there’s a change in the code or something you don’t like, don’t look at the IRS, look toward Capitol Hill.

The tables aren’t the actual tax you pay on gross income, but on taxable income which is gross less a number of items, including the personal exemption which rises to $4,050 in ’16 and the standard deduction is unchanged at single $6,300 or joint $12,600.

I’ll be referring back to this article over the next year whenever the tax table is part of the conversation. Check out the new rate table and start planning for 2016.


Taxable income is over But not over The tax is Plus Of the amount over
$0 9,275 $0.00 10% $0
9,275 37,650 927.50 15% 9,275
37,650 91,150 5,183.75 25% 37,650
91,150 190,150 18,558.75 28% 91,150
190,150 413,350 46,278.75 33% 190,150
413,350 415,050 119,934.75 35% 413,350
415,050 120,529.75 39.6% 415,050


Married Filing Jointly
Qualifying Widow(er)

Taxable income is over But not over The tax is Plus Of the amount over
$0 18,550 $0.00 10% $0
18,550 75,300 1,855.00 15% 18,550
75,300 151,900 10,367.50 25% 75,300
151,900 231,450 29,517.50 28% 151,900
231,450 413,350 51,791.50 33% 231,450
413,350 466,950 111,818.50 35% 413,350
466,950 130,578.50 39.6% 466,950


written by Joe \\ tags:

Oct 08

A Guest Post from Crystal –

The level of debt amongst ordinary American citizens suggests that few are really good at managing money. While no one is suggesting it is always easy there are a few pointers that might be able to help you whatever your age. The tendency for people to spend what they earn each month and sometimes more makes saving and investment alien to a whole section of the population. You should resist that and start to pay more attention to your circumstances, present financial position and the future.


Some increase their assets relying on real estate. It has been a good way to build up money though the recession was a period when values dropped, sometimes alarmingly. In the medium to long term real estate however should always be a good investment. There are other alternatives. The S&P 500 has shown average growth since 1871 of over 10%. A single dollar invested in 1871 would now be worth $2.25 million, well ahead of inflation don’t you think? The figure is even better over the last 40 years. Even if you have no financial expertise you can expect good growth if you invest, the earlier in your adult life the better.
If you had started with only $500 in your first year and put aside $250 each year for investment over the next 30 years, that $8000 at 8% would have grown to over $35,000! The amounts involved are easily affordable are they not? Compound interest produces considerable growth over a long period.
It is a message that more young people seem to be getting rather than turning exclusively to student loans and the credit cards they can first obtain at the age of 18. The picture is still poor however with two thirds of students still needing to borrow at least 25% of their education costs knowing that it can take up to 10 years to pay off the loan. Figures show that this year’s graduates with student debt owe on average $35,000.

Household Debt

NerdWallet tells us that the average US household owes $15,000 or so with interest paid on credit cards reaching a massive $90 billion. Frightening, isn’t it? The picture doesn’t look good, yet compound interest results in money growing quickly. The smallest amount set aside will grow. The secret is to get rid of debt so that you can start to set it aside.
The terms of a student loan are not onerous but the interest that is added to any balance on a credit card every month could be described as penal. Some students who have used their first card for normal daily living will be paying a high price. It is one that many US households seem to be paying as well.

Employment Critical

As the US Economy improves after the years of recession unemployment figures are encouraging. Job are being created month on month and unemployment levels are back down to the level when the economy was buoyant before the recession hit. Those people that have a regular pay check coming in each month can look for an escape from expensive debt in today’s online lenders network at that look at personal loan applicants and approve loans based upon the concept of affordability rather than credit score.
The application is quick and simple. All you have to do is to decide to act to sort out your financial problems. If you don’t the chances of building up a fund as illustrated above are minimal. Online lenders deal with applicants in this completely online process within hours of the email being sent. They require employment and bank details from applicants. If the sum being sought can be justified by the figures the money will be transferred electronically very quickly. A loan that can completely remove credit card debt is good news. The caveat is that you do not build up a balance again; there may not be an escape route.

Whatever your age you must think about the future and not rely on the Social Security System as your ultimate savior. The sooner you address any financial difficulties you have the better. Retirement years should be ones of comfort not sacrifice. They can be if you are proactive and don’t simply think the future will look after itself.

written by Joe \\ tags: ,

Aug 24

That was the title of a Barron’s article this past week. There’s been more and more press about the gap between the rich and the poor. In my work as a real estate agent focussing on renting to low income people, I see people who aren’t lazy, but just the opposite. Showing me proof of income made by working a 40+ hour week at a minimum wage job, and asking if we can take their cash income into account as well. The regular extra money they make doing some labor or babysitting nights or weekends. When you make $1400 a month working full time, you’re not going to able to afford much in the way of housing. We try to see three times a rent for income, i.e. $2400/mo income to qualify for an $800/mo apartment.

The Barron’s article started off with an observation, $1.4 trillion cash in the economy. The federal reserve backs up that number. The authors then make 2 logistical leaps that are beyond comprehension. First, that this cash is income. Forget for a moment that most people don’t keep more than a few hundred dollars sitting around. Even if they did, it only counted as income (declared or not) when it came in. The authors then assume that 80% of this money is income to the poorest 1/3 of households, the bottom 40 million families. Then, by magic, wait, not magic, a miracle. As in this cartoon.


Where was I? They conclude that the bottom 1/3 have an income that’s understated by as much as $30-$40K per year. To be fair to Barron’s and their real authors, the article was published in the “other voices” page.  This is where essays are solicited from readers who have some knowledge of finance. Whoever accepted this article blew it, in my opinion. Is there no cash economy? No. Of course there is. However, the numbers presented in the article offer bad math and a false conclusion. The income gap is so large that if it’s exaggerated by some percent, it’s still an issue. Sorry, Barron’s, this article isn’t worthy of your otherwise fine paper.

(Note: I am not condoning undeclared income, just putting it in perspective. A real estate agent is not an agent for the IRS, in fact we have an obligation to count any and all income, regardless of source.)


written by Joe \\ tags: ,