Is It Time to Declare Your Financial Independence?
No matter how much money you have or which life stage you’re in, becoming financially independent starts with a dream. Your dream might be to finally pay off the mountain of debt you’ve accumulated, or to stop relying on someone else for financial support. Or perhaps your dream is to retire early so you can spend more time with your family, travel the world, or open your own business. Financial independence, however you define it, is freedom from the financial obstacles that are keeping you from living life on your own terms.
Envision the future
If you were to become financially independent, what would change? Would you spend your time differently? Live in another place? What would you own? Would you work part-time? Ultimately, you want to define how you choose to live your life. It’s your dream, so there’s no wrong answer.
Work at it
Unless you’re already wealthy, you may have had moments when winning the lottery seemed like the only way to become financially secure. But your path to financial independence isn’t likely to start at your local convenience store’s lottery counter.
Though there are many ways to become financially independent, most of them require hard work. And retaining wealth isn’t necessarily easy, because wealth may not last if spending isn’t kept in check. As income rises, lifestyle inflation is a real concern. Becoming — and remaining — financially independent requires diligently balancing earning, spending, and saving.
Earn more, spend wisely, and save aggressively
Earn more. The bigger the gap between your income and expenses, the quicker it will be to become financially independent, no matter what your goal is. The more you can earn, the more you can potentially save. This might mean finding a job with a higher salary, working an extra job, or working part-time in retirement. And a job is just one source of income. If you’re resourceful and able to put in extra hours, you may also be able to generate regular income in other ways — for example, renting out a garage apartment or starting a side business.
Spend wisely. Look for opportunities to reduce your spending without affecting your quality of life. For the biggest impact, focus on reducing your largest expenses — for example, housing, food, and transportation. Practicing mindful spending can also help you free up more money to save. Before you buy something nonessential, think about how important it is to you and what value it brings to your life so that you don’t end up with a garage or attic filled with regrettable purchases.
Save aggressively. Set a wealth accumulation goal and then prioritize saving. Of course, if you have a substantial amount of debt, saving may be somewhat curtailed until that debt is paid off. Take simple steps such as choosing investments that match your goals and time frame, and paying yourself first by automatically investing as much as possible in a retirement savings plan. Time is an important ally in the quest for financial independence, so start saving as early as possible and build your nest egg over time. (Note that all investing involves risk, including the possible loss of principal, and there is no guarantee that any investment strategy will be successful.)
Make adjustments. Life changes. Unexpected bills come up. Some years will be tougher financially than others. Expect to make some adjustments to your plan along the way, especially if you have a long-term time frame, but keep going.
Track your progress. Celebrate both small milestones and big victories. Seeing the progress you’re making will help you stay motivated as you pursue your dream of financial independence.
Five Times in Your Life When You Might Need Help with Your Finances
As you move through different stages of life, you will face new and unique financial situations. Did you just get engaged? Perhaps you are wondering how you and your partner are going to manage your money together. Do you have children? Maybe you are looking for ways to pay for their college education.
When you navigate through these various life events, you might seek professional guidance to help you make sound financial choices.
1. Getting married
Getting married is an exciting time in one’s life, but it also brings about many challenges. One challenge that you and your spouse will face is how to merge your finances. Careful planning and communication are important, since the financial decisions you make now can have a lasting impact on your future.
You’ll want to discuss your financial goals and determine which are most important to both of you. You should also prepare a budget to make sure you are spending less than you earn. Other issues to consider as a couple include combining financial accounts, integrating insurance coverage, and increasing retirement plan contributions.
2. Buying a home
Buying a home can be stressful, especially for first-time homebuyers. Since most people finance their home purchases, buying a house usually means getting a mortgage. As a result, you’ll need to determine how large a mortgage you can afford by taking into account your gross monthly income, housing expenses, and long-term debt.
And if you haven’t already done so, you’ll need to save for a down payment. Traditionally, lenders have required a 20% down payment on the purchase of a home, however many lenders now offer loans with lower down payments.
3. Starting a family
Starting a family is an important — and expensive — commitment. As your family grows, you will likely need to reassess and make changes to your budget. Many of your living expenses will increase (e.g., grocery, health-care, and housing costs). In addition, you’ll need to account for new expenses such as child care and building a college fund.
Having a family also means you should review your insurance coverage needs. Life insurance can help protect your family from financial uncertainty if you die, while disability insurance will help replace your income if you become injured or sick.
4. Paying for college
Paying for college is a major financial undertaking and usually involves a combination of strategies to help cover costs — savings, financial aid, income during the college years, and potentially other creative cost-cutting measures. Hopefully, you’ve been saving money on a regular basis to amass a healthy sum when your child is ready for college. But as college costs continue to rise each year, what you’ve saved may not be enough.
For this reason, many families supplement their savings at college time with federal or college financial aid. Federal aid can include student and parent loans (need-based and non-need-based), grants and work-study (both need-based), while college aid consists primarily of grants and scholarships (need-based and merit-based). In fact, college grants and scholarships can make up a significant portion of the college funding puzzle, so exploring the availability of college aid is probably the single biggest thing you can do after saving regularly to optimize your bottom line. In addition to financial aid, you might take out a private college loan or borrow against your home equity. Or you might pay college expenses using your current income or other savings or investments.
5. Saving for retirement
You know that saving for retirement is important. However, sometimes it’s easy to delay saving while you’re still young and retirement seems too far off in the future. Proper planning is important, and the sooner you get started, the easier it will be to meet your retirement income needs. Depending on your desired retirement lifestyle, experts suggest that you may need 80% to 100% of your pre-retirement income to maintain your standard of living. However, this is only a general guideline. To determine your specific needs, you’ll need to estimate all your potential sources of retirement income and retirement expenses, taking taxes and inflation into account.
Once you’ve estimated how much money you’ll need for retirement, your next goal is to save that amount. Employer-sponsored retirement plans like 401(k)s and 403(b)s are powerful savings tools because you can make pre-tax contributions (reducing your current taxable income), and any investment earnings grow tax deferred until withdrawn, when they are taxed as ordinary income. You may be able to enhance your savings even more if your employer matches contributions. IRAs also offer tax-deferred growth of earnings.
Balancing 401(k) and HSA Contributions
If you have the opportunity to contribute to both a 401(k) and a health savings account (HSA), you may wonder how best to take advantage of them. Determining how much to contribute to each type of plan will require some careful thought and strategic planning.
Understand the tax benefits
A traditional, non-Roth 401(k) allows you to save for retirement on a pre-tax basis, which means the money is deducted from your paycheck before taxes are assessed. The account then grows on a tax-deferred basis; you don’t pay taxes on any contributions or earnings until you withdraw the money. Withdrawals are subject to ordinary income tax and a possible 10% penalty tax if made before you reach age 59½, unless an exception applies.
You can open and contribute to an HSA only if you are enrolled in a qualifying high-deductible health plan (HDHP), are not covered by someone else’s plan, and cannot be claimed as a dependent by someone else. Although HDHP premiums are generally lower than other types of health insurance, the out-of-pocket costs could be much higher (until you reach the deductible). That’s where HSAs come in. Similar to 401(k)s, they allow you to set aside money on a pre-tax or tax-deductible basis, and the money grows tax deferred.
However, HSAs offer an extra tax advantage: Funds used to pay qualified medical expenses can be withdrawn from the account tax-free. And you don’t have to wait until a certain age to do so. That may be one reason why 68% of individuals in one survey viewed HSAs as a way to pay current medical bills rather than save for the future.1 However, a closer look at HSAs reveals why they can add a new dimension to your retirement strategy.
HSAs: A deeper dive
Following are some of the reasons an HSA could be a good long-term, asset-building tool.
With an HSA, there is no “use it or lose it” requirement, as there is with a flexible spending account (FSA); you can carry an HSA balance from one year to the next, allowing it to potentially grow over time.
HSAs are portable. If you leave your employer for any reason, you can roll the money into another HSA.
You typically have the opportunity to invest your HSA money in a variety of asset classes, similar to a 401(k) plan. (According to the Plan Sponsor Council of America, most HSAs require you to have at least $1,000 in the account before you can invest beyond cash alternatives.2)
HSAs don’t impose required minimum distributions at age 70½, unlike 401(k)s.
You can use your HSA money to pay for certain health insurance costs in retirement, including Medicare premiums and copays, as well as long-term care insurance premiums (subject to certain limits).
Prior to age 65, withdrawals used for nonqualified expenses are subject to income tax and a 20% penalty tax; however, after age 65, money used for nonqualified expenses will not be subject to the penalty [i.e., HSA dollars used for nonqualified expenses after age 65 receive the same tax treatment as traditional 401(k) withdrawals].
The bottom line is that if you don’t need all of your HSA money to cover immediate health-care costs, it may provide an ideal opportunity to build a separate nest egg for your retirement health-care expenses. (It might be wise to keep any money needed to cover immediate or short-term medical expenses in relatively conservative investments.)
Additional points to consider
If you have the option to save in both a 401(k) and an HSA, ideally you would set aside the maximum amount in each type of account: in 2019, the limits are $19,000 (plus an additional $6,000 if you’re 50 or older) in your 401(k) plan; $3,500 for individual coverage (or $7,000 for families, plus an additional $1,000 if you’re 55 or older) in your HSA. Realistically, however, those amounts may be unattainable. So here are some important points to consider.
1) Estimate how much you spend out of pocket on your family’s health care annually and set aside at least that much in your HSA.
2) If either your 401(k) or HSA — or both — offers an employer match, try to contribute at least enough to take full advantage of it. Not doing so is turning down free money.
3) Understand all HSA rules, both now and down the road. For example, you’ll need to save receipts for all your medical expenses. And once you’re enrolled in Medicare, you can no longer contribute to an HSA. Nor can you pay Medigap premiums with HSA dollars.
4) Compare investment options in both types of accounts. Examine the objectives, risk/return potential, and fees and expenses of all options before determining amounts to invest.
5) If your 401(k) offers a Roth account, you may want to factor its pros and cons into the equation as well.
How much will health care cost?
Retirement health-care costs will vary depending on your health and longevity, but it may help to have a guideline. These are the estimated savings required for an individual or couple who turned 65 in 2019 to have a 90% chance of meeting expenses for Medicare Part B health insurance, Part D prescription drug coverage, Medigap Plan F, and out-of-pocket drug costs, assuming median prescription drug expenses.* These estimates do not include services not covered by Medicare or Medigap.
*Medigap Plan F is used for these estimates because it is the most comprehensive coverage available and simplifies the calculation. However, this plan may not be available for new beneficiaries after January 1, 2020. Current enrollees may keep Plan F, and most other plans will remain available for new enrollees.
Source: Employee Benefit Research Institute, 2019
What health services aren't covered by Medicare?
Original Medicare — Part A hospital insurance and Part B medical insurance — offers broad coverage, but many services are not covered.
Some may be fully or partially covered by a Part C Medicare Advantage Plan, which replaces Original Medicare, or a Medigap policy, which supplements Original Medicare. Both are offered by Medicare-approved private insurers. (You cannot have both a Medicare Advantage Plan and a Medigap policy.)
Whether you are looking forward to Medicare in the future or are already enrolled, you should consider these potential expenses.
Deductibles, copays, and coinsurance. Costs for covered services can add up, and — unlike most private insurance — there is no annual out-of-pocket maximum. Medicare Advantage and Medigap plans may pay all or a percentage of these costs and may include an out-of-pocket maximum.
Prescription drugs. For coverage, you need to enroll in a Part D prescription drug plan or a Medicare Advantage plan that includes drug coverage.
Dental and vision care. Original Medicare does not cover routine dental or vision care. Some Medicare Advantage and Medigap plans may offer coverage for either or both of these needs. You might also consider private dental and/or vision insurance.
Hearing care and hearing aids. Some Medicare Advantage plans may cover hearing aids and exams.
Medical care outside the United States. Original Medicare does not offer coverage outside the United States. Some Medicare Advantage and Medigap plans offer coverage for emergency care abroad. You can also purchase a private travel insurance policy.
Long-term care. Medicare does not cover “custodial care” in a nursing home or home health care. You may be able to purchase long-term care (LTC) insurance from private insurers.
A complete statement of coverage, including exclusions, exceptions, and limitations, is found only in the LTC insurance policy. It should be noted that LTC insurance carriers have the discretion to raise their rates and remove their products from the marketplace.
IRS Circular 230 disclosure: To ensure compliance with requirements imposed by the IRS, we inform you that any tax advice contained in this communication (including any attachments) was not intended or written to be used, and cannot be used, for the purpose of (i) avoiding tax-related penalties under the Internal Revenue Code or (ii) promoting, marketing or recommending to another party any matter addressed herein.
Prepared by Broadridge Investor Communication Solutions, Inc. Copyright 2019