Emergency fund: Did the Covid crisis convince you?

One day in March millions of people found themselves out of work with no paycheck coming in.
The Covid crisis hit everyone at the same time and it convinced many to start an emergency savings fund.
If you look up the subject, you see a daunting suggestion: Save 6 months of your expenses. Or a year. It sounds unlikely, if not impossible.
But even one month of expenses, or two, could have saved most people a lot of trouble. Thinking about it that way may seem more doable.
Money experts say to be successful you have to:

  • Make your savings automatic.
  • Put them in a high-interest savings account.
  • Put a manageable amount of money in and keep putting it in.
    Yet, to make savings stick in place, you have to define what is and what is not an emergency. Loss of paycheck, for whatever reason, is one emergency. On the other hand, suddenly remembering your car insurance is due is not an emergency.
    Before you start your emergency fund, look over your checking account and write down those many chunks of money you have to come up with quarterly or bi-annually: Insurance of all sorts, vacation money, school fees, and the like. Those are not emergencies. They are recurring expenses.
    Consider starting two funds. One fund in a savings account at your bank for recurring expenses. One fund in an online, high-interest savings account for long-term emergencies.
    At just $10 per week, you can save more than $500 in a year. That gets your fund started.
    With another $10 a week, you give your recurring expenses a boost, too.
    Any time you get an unexpected chunk of money, put 20 percent in savings. Resolve not to let wants interfere with what you need.

Relief for 401(k) withdrawals

The new coronavirus relief bill relaxes rules on 401(k) withdrawals for those affected by the virus.

Savers would be able to take a hardship distribution of up to $100,000 from their 401(k) accounts without a 10 percent early withdrawal penalty. That works for those who are laid off and want the money for mortgage payments, for example. Warning: withdrawals are not tax free.

Retirees who don’t need distributions from their accounts can suspend the required minimum for all of 2020.

Many retirees have found that the value of their accounts has dropped dramatically. Leaving money in place allows their investments to recover as the virus crisis eases and the economy recovers.

The withdrawals are not tax-free, however; the bill gives you three years to pay the taxes on the withdrawals, according to CNBC.

Refunds confuse taxpayers, survey finds

Nearly half (46%) of taxpayers don’t know a refund comes for overpaying taxes to the federal government.
That is one finding of a survey of taxpayers by Credit Karma.
About 70% of Americans typically expect to receive a refund check each year, and many are unsure about the origins of the money.
While 46% knew their tax refund money comes from their paychecks, an equal percentage thought the money was given to them by the government.
Forty percent knew that getting a tax refund means they overpaid income taxes.
About 11 percent knew it meant they were essentially giving the government an interest-free loan.
More than half of respondents (51 percent) did not know they could determine whether they get a refund each year by adjusting their withholding amounts.
More than half said they would rather get a tax refund than consistently have more money in their paychecks throughout the year.
Only 34% said they would prefer to have proper withholding.
According to data from the IRS, the average refund amount as of February 7 was $1,952–up 0.2 % (or $3)–when compared with 2019. The number of refunds issued was down 4.8%, as the tax agency paid 4.6% less cash.

Coronavirus and investments: Don’t worry, be happy

So the stock market tanked in historic drops in February on news of the coronavirus Covid-19. It also recovered in an historic one-day recovery.
Dizzy yet?
Investment experts at Market Watch say ignore the headlines.
The market will go up and down during the virus crisis, but no experts think it will stay down.

Long-term investors need not worry
Those with a 401(K) or IRA are probably still doing well compared to the same time last year or even the year before. If you have some time before retirement, take a deep breath. You made a lot of money in the last three years, and you are probably still ahead.

Don’t let bad news make you sell good stocks
Headline risk. That’s what stock advisers call short-term bad news that panics some investors into selling.
Don’t panic.
Apple, for example, was selling for around $146 in 2018 but soared to more than $330 before the virus crisis. During the crisis, it dipped to around $220. But, even though in the short run, sales will be slower and the supply chains crazy, it’s still Apple. Still a great company to own.

Opportunities arise
Plus, in the meantime, as stock prices sink, buying opportunities rise. Buy the bargain. A short-term crisis offers lots of buying opportunities.
One caution from Market Watch: Don’t try to guess when the market will be lowest. No one can. Buy when the bargain seems good.
It might be time to look at your portfolio and consider rebalancing your ratio of stocks to bonds, according to Market Watch.

FIRE movement promotes extreme savings, early retirement

A relatively new financial movement aims at financial independence and early retirement, sometimes extremely early retirement.
And that’s the name of the movement: Financial Independence; Retire Early.
Adherents say people can retire in their 40s or even 30s if they practice extreme saving and investing.
The key idea is to enlarge the gap between necessary expenses and income. The money in the gap is what you invest.
As a practical matter that means closely tracking expenses, eliminating anything that isn’t necessary. Make sure your living arrangements are as inexpensive as possible. Eliminate all debt. Cut expenses to the extreme. Then, enlarge the gap by side jobs or part-time jobs to create a big monthly investment number.
FIRE people try to make sure they max out 401K and retirement programs, while saving extra on the side. They intend to retire before they can withdraw funds at age 59 and a half. They also have to make enough money to buy private health insurance.
FIRE retirees actually don’t think of retirement as a way to stop work. They think of it as a way to work the way they want, without worrying about money.
Semi-anonymous blogger Roman, founder of TenFactorialRocks.com, says this can even be done with children. While the USDA says it costs $11,000 to $12,000 per year to raise a child, Roman says it costs more like $4,200 to $7,000 a year, depending on day care costs. Roman writes, “Kids want your time and attention more than expensive gifts, lavish vacations, overpriced tutors and royal treatment summer camps.”
On the other hand, Lisa Harrison of the Mad Money Monster blog, rejected the FIRE movement in favor of simple living. When trying FIRE, she and her husband cut out every single extra expense, from coffee dates to dinners, and they found that, after two years, their savings were up but their happiness was down. They decided to simply live in a frugal manner, saving money regularly, keeping expenses down, but going on dates and buying pizza. “A feeling of relief washed over me,” she writes.

For Baby Boomers, it is time to make a profit, save headaches

Baby Boomers (aged 54 to 74) are holding on to their beloved homes, but selling and downsizing now could not only save a lot of headaches, it could also make a tidy profit.
Interest rates are low with the national average rate hovering around 3.6% to 3.9%. Buyers are plentiful. In most areas, there are more buyers than houses for sale. That means a great house for sale could snag a great price.
One option for downsizing is condo living, which can bring a host of benefits to retired Boomers. Condo retirement communities offer a community where people interact and make new friends. Some have parties and even social events for people from the same area. And, you can admire the landscaping without having to mow and trim.
A condo in the city brings the excitement of shopping and entertainment within walking distance. Or, an Uber is just a click away. No more commutes.
Selling that big home and buying a smaller home can add to your nest egg and, if you want, bring you closer to the kids. It’s also a good way to bring the pets along. Along the way, downsizers save big on smaller utility and maintenance bills.
One other consideration: It is always easier to finance a home before retirement. If you have the will and the way, make your move while the market is perfect.

New investment rule: Take your money later

As of Jan. 1, those with a 401(k) or IRA can start withdrawing the required minimum at age 72.
Previously, account holders were required to take the minimum distribution at age 70.5.
The new rules, arising from President Trump’s Secure Act, update the old rules, which were based on life expectancies in the early 1960s.
There may be some tax implications for some account holders, depending on their tax brackets in the year they withdraw. Check with a financial advisor to be sure.
The Secure Act also eliminates the maximum age for traditional IRA contributions, which was previously capped at 70.5 years old. The bill summary by the House Ways and Means Committee explains, “As Americans live longer, an increasing number continue employment beyond traditional retirement age.”
Americans who turned 70.5 years old during 2019 will still need to withdraw their required minimum distributions. Failure to do so results in a 50 percent penalty.
People who are expected to turn 70.5 years old in 2020 will not be required to withdraw RMDs until they are 72.

The simple life: Minimalists shun excess

Recently, a woman showed up in the conference room of a Midwestern bank wearing a T-shirt. She was 93 years old and had driven an old stick-shift car to the meeting.
She was a minimalist, and her net worth was $2.4 million.
Minimalism gets a lot of attention today. It’s all about living with less. Minimal or no debt. No unnecessary expenses. No excess stuff.
Pick an item you own. Any item. Have you used it in the last three months? If not, will you in the next three?
Look around your home. Do you really need that extra square footage? How much money could you save without heating and cooling it?
Minimalism is a theory rooted in the value of experiences over possessions. Quality over quantity may be a cliche, but it is a tenet in minimalism.
To live a minimalist life, you don’t have to get rid of everything you own but the essentials. By asking yourself, “Does this thing bring meaning to my life?”, you can pick and choose what’s right for you.
Getting rid of a few needless possessions, for example, in exchange for a hobby.
According to moneyunder30.com, living by a few minimalist philosophies can do wonders for an individual’s or couple’s finances.
Use one credit card (preferably one that offers rewards). Have one checking account, and one savings account for cash emergencies.
Don’t try to live up to another minimalist’s standards, advises medium.com. Respond to your own emotions, desires, needs, and goals. Educate yourself about minimalism. Do what serves you, rid yourself of what doesn’t. Allow yourself to evolve and to make changes. Once you know what you want, it’s easier to be a minimalist.

Changing jobs? What to do with that 401(k)

There aren’t many things you can do with your 401(k) when you change jobs, but some choices are better than others.

  • Worst choice: Cash out.
    If you went to all the trouble of saving money in a retirement plan, the worst thing you can do before age 65 is cash it out. Any distribution will require a 10 percent early withdrawal penalty if you are under age 59. Plus, anything you take will be taxable that year. There is an exception to the penalty if you are losing a job or changing jobs at age 55 or later, but it is still taxed.
  • Best choice: Rollover to the new company’s plan. You never get your hands on the money and it never stops growing.
  • Good choice: Rollover to an IRA. If you have less than 10 years to work, an IRA will offer a wider choice of safe investments and fixed income options, according to Presley Wealth Management.
  • Possible plan: Rollover to a Roth IRA.
    Consult an investment advisor before doing this. The downside is that you pay taxes on the money when you take the Roth plan. The upside is you can start tax-free withdrawals at age 59.
  • Good option: Leave it where it is.
    You won’t be contributing to your old 401(k) if you leave your job, but if you like the current options, consider keeping it where it is. You can roll it over any time

Earn high interest with online savings accounts

You might love your local bank, but it isn’t necessarily the place to park money over the long term.
Today, online high-yield savings accounts offer dramatically higher savings rates than brick-and-mortar banks.
A typical savings account in a brick-and-mortar bank could pay .02% APY (annual percentage yield) compared to 2.25% or more with an online bank, according to Magnify Money.
What this means to savings really matters.
A $15,000 savings account at .02% yields about $3 per year — a whopping 25 cents a month. The same amount saved at 2.25%, yields about $337 per year, or about $28 per month.
Online banks are FDIC insured as is the local bank. But online banks have lower overhead with no buildings to worry about.
However, they also may not have ATMs, they might have fees, or require high minimum deposits. But not all do.
Synchrony Bank, for example, has no minimum deposit and no fees, but you are limited to six withdrawals or transfers per month. APY is 2.25%.
The low-interest account at your local bank will give you access to money at all times and likely include easy transfers. Still, these accounts are best reserved for merely separating money to be used for different purposes.
Search for high-interest online savings to compare features.