Everyday Personal Finance

The daily decisions you make about using money have a tremendous impact on your finances. When you need advice, tools or resources, we are here for you.

Short- and long-term financial goals begin with how you use your money today. We'll guide you with advice and answers to all of your questions.

Setting and Targeting Investment Goals

Go out into your yard and dig a big hole. Every month, throw $50 into it, but don't take any money out until you're ready to buy a house, send your child to college, or retire.

It sounds a little crazy, doesn't it? But that's what investing without setting clear-cut goals is like. If you're lucky, you may end up with enough money to meet your needs, but you have no way to know for sure.

Setting investment goals means defining your dreams for the future. When you're setting goals, it's best to be as specific as possible. For instance, you know you want to retire, but when? You know you want to send your child to college, but to an Ivy League school or to the community college down the street? Writing down and prioritizing your investment goals is an important first step toward developing an investment plan.

 

Your investment time horizon is the number of years you have to invest toward a specific goal. Each investment goal you set will have a different time horizon. For example, some of your investment goals will be long term (e.g., you have more than 15 years to plan), some will be short term (e.g., you have 5 years or less to plan), and some will be intermediate (e.g., you have between 5 and 15 years to plan). Establishing time horizons will help you determine how aggressively you will need to invest to accumulate the amount needed to meet your goals.

 

Although you can invest a lump sum of cash, many people find that regular, systematic investing is also a great way to build wealth over time.

Start by determining how much you'll need to set aside monthly or annually to meet each goal. Although you'll want to invest as much as possible, choose a realistic amount that takes into account your other financial obligations, so that you can easily stick with your plan. But always be on the lookout for opportunities to increase the amount you're investing, such as participating in an automatic investment program that boosts your contribution by a certain percentage each year, or by dedicating a portion of every raise, bonus, cash gift, or tax refund you receive to your investment objectives.

Regardless of your financial goals, you'll need to decide how to best allocate your investment dollars. One important consideration is your tolerance for risk. All investments involve some risk, but some involve more than others. How well can you handle market ups and downs? Are you willing to accept a higher degree of risk in exchange for the opportunity to earn a higher rate of return?

Whether you're investing for retirement, college, or another financial goal, your overall objective is to maximize returns without taking on more risk than you can bear. But no matter what level of risk you're comfortable with, make sure to choose investments that are consistent with your goals and time horizon. A financial professional can help you construct a diversified investment portfolio that takes these factors into account.

After a hard day at the office, do you ask yourself, "Is it time to retire yet?" Retirement may seem a long way off, but it's never too early to start planning, especially if you want retirement to be the good life you imagine.

For example, let's say that your goal is to retire at age 65. At age 20 you begin contributing $3,000 per year to your tax-deferred 401(k) account. If your investment earns 6% per year, compounded annually, you'll have approximately $679,000 in your investment account when you retire.

But what would happen if you left things to chance instead? Let's say that you're not really worried about retirement, so you wait until you're 35 to begin investing. Assuming you contributed the same amount to your 401(k) and the rate of return on your investment dollars was the same, you would end up with approximately $254,400. And, as this chart illustrates, if you were to wait until age 45 to begin investing for retirement, you would end up with only about $120,000 by the time you retire.

3000 Annual Investment Figure

(This hypothetical example is not intended to reflect the actual performance of any investment. Taxes and investment fees are not considered.)

Perhaps you faced the truth the day your child was born. Or maybe it hit you when your child started first grade: You have only so much time to save for college. In fact, for many people, saving for college is an intermediate-term goal--if you start saving when your child is in elementary school, you'll have 10 to 15 years to build your college fund.

Of course, the earlier you start, the better. The more time you have before you need the money, the greater chance you have to build a substantial college fund due to compounding. With a longer investment time frame and a tolerance for some risk, you might also be willing to put some of your money into investments that offer the potential for growth.

At some point, you'll probably want to buy a home, a car, or even that vacation home you've always wanted. Although they're hardly impulse items, large purchases are usually not something for which you plan far in advance; one to five years is a common time frame.

Because you don't have much time to invest, you'll have to budget your investment dollars wisely. Rather than choosing growth investments, you may want to put your money into less volatile, highly liquid investments that have some potential for growth, but that offer you quick and easy access to your money should you need it.

Over time, you may need to update your investment strategy. Get in the habit of checking your portfolio at least once a year--more frequently if the market is particularly volatile or when there have been significant changes in your life. You may need to rebalance your portfolio to bring it back in line with your investment goals and risk tolerance. If you need help, a financial professional can help.

Investing for Your Goals

Investment goal and time horizon At 4%, you'll need to invest At 8%, you'll need to invest At 12%, you'll need to invest
Have $10,000 for down payment on home: 5 years $151 per month $136 per month $123 per month
Have $50,000 in college fund: 10 years $340 per month $276 per month $223 per month
Have $250,000 in retirement fund: 20 years $685 per month $437 per month $272 per month

Table assumes 3% annual inflation, and that the return is compounded annually; taxes are not considered. Also, rates of return will vary over time, particularly for long-term investments, which could affect the amounts you would need to invest. This hypothetical example is not intended to reflect the actual performance of any investment.

Changing Jobs? Take Your 401(k) and Roll It

If you've lost your job, or are changing jobs, you may be wondering what to do with your 401(k) plan account. It's important to understand your options.

If you leave your job (voluntarily or involuntarily), you'll be entitled to a distribution of your vested balance. Your vested balance always includes your own contributions (pretax, after-tax, and Roth) and typically any investment earnings on those amounts. It also includes employer contributions (and earnings) that have satisfied your plan's vesting schedule.

In general, you must be 100% vested in your employer's contributions after 3 years of service ("cliff vesting"), or you must vest gradually, 20% per year until you're fully vested after 6 years ("graded vesting"). Plans can have faster vesting schedules, and some even have 100% immediate vesting. You'll also be 100% vested once you've reached your plan's normal retirement age.

It's important for you to understand how your particular plan's vesting schedule works, because you'll forfeit any employer contributions that haven't vested by the time you leave your job. Your summary plan description (SPD) will spell out how the vesting schedule for your particular plan works. If you don't have one, ask your plan administrator for it. If you're on the cusp of vesting, it may make sense to wait a bit before leaving, if you have that luxury.

While this pool of dollars may look attractive, don't spend it unless you absolutely need to. If you take a distribution you'll be taxed, at ordinary income tax rates, on the entire value of your account except for any after-tax or Roth 401(k) contributions you've made. And, if you're not yet age 55, an additional 10% penalty may apply to the taxable portion of your payout. (Special rules may apply if you receive a lump-sum distribution and you were born before 1936, or if the lump-sum includes employer stock.)

If your vested balance is more than $5,000, you can leave your money in your employer's plan until you reach normal retirement age. But your employer must also allow you to make a direct rollover to an IRA or to another employer's 401(k) plan. As the name suggests, in a direct rollover the money passes directly from your 401(k) plan account to the IRA or other plan. This is preferable to a "60-day rollover," where you get the check and then roll the money over yourself, because your employer has to withhold 20% of the taxable portion of a 60-day rollover. You can still roll over the entire amount of your distribution, but you'll need to come up with the 20% that's been withheld until you recapture that amount when you file your income tax return.

Should I roll over to my new employer's 401(k) plan or to an IRA?

Assuming both options are available to you, there's no right or wrong answer to this question. There are strong arguments to be made on both sides. You need to weigh all of the factors, and make a decision based on your own needs and priorities. It's best to have a professional assist you with this, since the decision you make may have significant consequences--both now and in the future.

Reasons to roll over to an IRA:

  • You generally have more investment choices with an IRA than with an employer's 401(k) plan. You typically may freely move your money around to the various investments offered by your IRA trustee, and you may divide up your balance among as many of those investments as you want. By contrast, employer-sponsored plans typically give you a limited menu of investments (usually mutual funds) from which to choose.
  • You can freely allocate your IRA dollars among different IRA trustees/custodians. There's no limit on how many direct, trustee-to-trustee IRA transfers you can do in a year. This gives you flexibility to change trustees often if you are dissatisfied with investment performance or customer service. It can also allow you to have IRA accounts with more than one institution for added diversification. With an employer's plan, you can't move the funds to a different trustee unless you leave your job and roll over the funds.
  • An IRA may give you more flexibility with distributions. Your distribution options in a 401(k) plan depend on the terms of that particular plan, and your options may be limited. However, with an IRA, the timing and amount of distributions is generally at your discretion (until you reach age 70½ and must start taking required minimum distributions in the case of a traditional IRA).
  • You can roll over (essentially "convert") your 401(k) plan distribution to a Roth IRA. You'll generally have to pay taxes on the amount you roll over (minus any after-tax contributions you've made), but any qualified distributions from the Roth IRA in the future will be tax free.

Reasons to roll over to your new employer's 401(k) plan:

  • Many employer-sponsored plans have loan provisions. If you roll over your retirement funds to a new employer's plan that permits loans, you may be able to borrow up to 50% of the amount you roll over if you need the money. You can't borrow from an IRA--you can only access the money in an IRA by taking a distribution, which may be subject to income tax and penalties. (You can, however, give yourself a short-term loan from an IRA by taking a distribution, and then rolling the dollars back to an IRA within 60 days.)
  • A rollover to your new employer's 401(k) plan may provide greater creditor protection than a rollover to an IRA. Most 401(k) plans receive unlimited protection from your creditors under federal law. Your creditors (with certain exceptions) cannot attach your plan funds to satisfy any of your debts and obligations, regardless of whether you've declared bankruptcy. In contrast, any amounts you roll over to a traditional or Roth IRA are generally protected under federal law only if you declare bankruptcy. Any creditor protection your IRA may receive in cases outside of bankruptcy will generally depend on the laws of your particular state. If you are concerned about asset protection, be sure to seek the assistance of a qualified professional.
  • You may be able to postpone required minimum distributions. For traditional IRAs, these distributions must begin by April 1 following the year you reach age 70½. However, if you work past that age and are still participating in your employer's 401(k) plan, you can delay your first distribution from that plan until April 1 following the year of your retirement. (You also must own no more than 5% of the company.)
  • If your distribution includes Roth 401(k) contributions and earnings, you can roll those amounts over to either a Roth IRA or your new employer's Roth 401(k) plan (if it accepts rollovers). If you roll the funds over to a Roth IRA, the Roth IRA holding period will determine when you can begin receiving tax-free qualified distributions from the IRA. So if you're establishing a Roth IRA for the first time, your Roth 401(k) dollars will be subject to a brand new 5-year holding period. On the other hand, if you roll the dollars over to your new employer's Roth 401 (k) plan, your existing 5-year holding period will carry over to the new plan. This may enable you to receive tax-free qualified distributions sooner.

When evaluating whether to initiate a rollover always be sure to (1) ask about possible surrender charges that may be imposed by your employer plan, or new surrender charges that your IRA may impose, (2) compare investment fees and expenses charged by your IRA (and investment funds) 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.

In general, if you have an outstanding plan loan, you'll need to pay it back, or the outstanding balance will be taxed as if it had been distributed to you in cash. If you can't pay the loan back before you leave, you'll still have 60 days to roll over the amount that's been treated as a distribution to your IRA. Of course, you'll need to come up with the dollars from other sources.