A Retirement Tax-Planning Case Study (and Excel Toolkit!) – SWR Series Part 45

April 28, 2021

Welcome back to another installment of the Safe Withdrawal Rate Series. In the previous installment, Part 44, I went through a number of general tax planning ideas, and I promised another post to introduce an Excel Sheet, I created to help me with my tax planning. There were numerous reader requests a long time ago when I ran the withdrawal strategy case studies (2017-2018) to publish not just the Safe Withdrawal Rate calculations but also the tax planning Excel Sheet. Well, I never published those Excel sheets because a) they were custom-tailored to those particular case studies, b) they potentially included personal information of the case study volunteers and c) they were created “for my eyes only” so I couldn’t really publish them without a massive effort to explain and document what exactly I’m doing there.

But now (with a three-year delay!) I’ve finally come around to creating something from scratch I feel comfortable publishing for a broader audience. It’s not a Google Sheet, but an MS Excel Sheet, more on that later. It’s probably still not a universally applicable tool.  And most importantly, it’s a tool that still requires a lot of Excel Spreadsheet mastery. It will not spit out “the” optimal tax strategy, it will only help me (and maybe you) find that optimal tax strategy. A lot of handiwork is still necessary! Much more handiwork than with Safe Withdrawal Sheet (and even that is already a handful!).

So, I like to go through a simple case study to show how this sheet works and showcase how you can “hack” your withdrawal tax optimization strategy in that one specific case. Even aside from tax optimization, the sheet helps me gauge what’s the average effective tax rate throughout retirement, to help me figure out how much of a gross-up I have to apply to translate a net-of-tax retirement budget into a pre-tax withdrawal percentage.

I can’t foresee what exact tax challenges you might face, but with my tool, I would have been able to handle what came across my desk so far, both in my personal finances and the case studies I’ve done so far.

So, let’s take a look…

Continue reading “A Retirement Tax-Planning Case Study (and Excel Toolkit!) – SWR Series Part 45”

Principles of Retirement Tax-Planning – SWR Series Part 44

March 22, 2021

It’s tax season in the U.S. right now! Even though that deadline has just been pushed back to May 17, taxes are on everybody’s mind, so this is a good time to write about the topic in the context of the Safe Withdrawal Rate Series. Until now, I haven’t written all that much about taxes and the main reasons are:

  1. While I do have a combined 6 letters behind my name (Ph.D. & CFA), I’m missing the three letters “CPA” to write anything truly authoritative about the topic.
  2. My primary focus is on getting the Safe Withdrawal Rate right. It’s the first issue everyone should worry about. I did some case studies years ago for early retirees and some of them could actually raise their SWR to more than 5% if they do their accounting for future cash flows right. That’s 25% better than the naĂŻve 4% Rule. If you start with a tax plan that’s already somewhat OK and close to optimal, I doubt that you can squeeze out another 25% in after-tax withdrawals through a truly “optimal” tax plan. Hence my approach: get your SWR right and factor in the tax optimization plan afterward to make sure you squeeze maybe another percent or two in the after-tax numbers!   (And likewise, if you have a 60-year horizon and not much in the way of supplemental cash flows and you’re looking at a 3.25%, maybe a 3.5% withdrawal rate, you’re not going to “tax-hack” yourself to a 4% withdrawal rate either!)
  3. Taxes are very personal and it’s difficult to give any generalized advice. As much as I would like to create a spreadsheet like the Google Sheet to simulate safe withdrawal rates (See Part 28 for the details) where you plug in your numbers and the sheet spits out a detailed plan, it’s not so trivial. Very likely, the tax analysis would have to be more custom-tailored!  And just to be sure, my Google SWR simulation sheet isn’t trivial either! 🙂

But of course, even if you first do your SWR analysis in before-tax terms, you will want to know how much of a haircut you need to apply to calculate your after-tax retirement budget. Some retirees can indeed make over $110,000 a year and don’t owe any federal tax as I showed in my post in 2019 (“How much can we earn in retirement without paying federal income taxes?“). And in the same post, I showed that to get to a 5% average tax you’ll likely need a $150k annual retirement budget. So, it’s a fair assumption that most of us in the FIRE community will likely get away paying less than 5% of our retirement budget in federal taxes. Add another 0-5% or so for most state tax formulas, and you will likely stay below 10% effective/average tax rate.

But I get the message: because we can’t completely ignore taxes, I wrote today’s post to talk about the general ideas and principles in retirement tax planning. In at least one additional future post (maybe two, maybe three) I will also do a few case studies to see the general principles in action. At that point, I will also include the Excel Sheet I use to perform the tax planning analysis because a lot of readers asked for that tool when I published the Case Studies 3+ years ago! And as I warned before: it’s not as simple as just putting your parameters and Excel automatically spits out your plan. It involves a bit more human input and analysis, stay tuned!

But before we even get to the messy parts, let’s take a look at some general principles…

Continue reading “Principles of Retirement Tax-Planning – SWR Series Part 44”

Is an Employee Stock Purchase Plan (ESPP) Worth the Risk?

September 16, 2020

One question I’ve gotten from readers a few times over the years is whether the participation in a so-called Employee Stock Purchase Plan (ESPP) is worthwhile.

A little bit of background: some corporations offer their employees to buy stocks of their company at a discount of up to 15%. There are some strings attached, though. For example, there are often minimum holding periods, anywhere between a few months and up to two years. The discount is also taxed as ordinary income, though the subsequent capital gains may qualify for treatment as long-term gains.

If you can liquidate the stocks right away and pocket the discount, then participating is likely a no-brainer. Take the money out of the ESPP and invest it in a low-cost index fund. It’s a nice boost to your contributions in your taxable account after you’ve maxed out all your other tax-advantaged options. 15% adjusted by your marginal income tax rate – federal and state. That would still be more than 10% for most people! Pretty sweet!

But what should you do if there’s a minimum holding period? During that time, part of your portfolio is now concentrated in one single corporation. The opposite of diversification. So, it’s a tradeoff: You get the discount but you also take on additional risk. Is it still worthwhile? This is an inherently quantitative question. Without putting hard numbers behind this we can talk about this until the cows come home. The only way to answer this question is through a quantitative exercise. And it turns out, the numbers look like it’s indeed worthwhile to participate in an ESPP, especially if you can get the full 15% discount, the maximum allowed under federal law.

Let’s take a closer look…

Continue reading “Is an Employee Stock Purchase Plan (ESPP) Worth the Risk?”

Stuck With a High-Expense-Ratio Fund? Here’s a Google Sheet to Weigh the Pros and Cons of Dumping that “Stinker” in Your Portfolio!

This is a question that’s been on my mind for a while, partially out of curiosity and also because it’s been raised by readers a few times: Suppose you didn’t get the “memo” on passive investing early enough in your life and you now have some high-expense-ratio funds in our portfolio. So, is it too late to switch to a low-cost fund now? Maybe you’re lucky and your funds are actively-managed and they actually beat the broad index reliably. Good for you, but more often than not people are unhappy with the performance of their high-fee funds and like to switch to a low-fee, passively-managed index mutual fund at Fidelity, Schwab or Vanguard. Or move to one of the many index ETFs. Fees will be in the low single-digit basis points, around 0% to 0.015% for some of the Fidelity index funds and around 0.035% for the “Admiral Shares” Vanguard funds. Of course, if this is a fund in a tax-advantaged account where you can just switch between funds without any tax consequences you should just do so if you have that option. But the story gets a lot more complicated in a taxable account! We now have to weigh the pros and cons of switching to a low-cost fund:

Pro: You get rid of that “stinker” mutual fund and replace it with a low-fee, or even zero-fee index fund and eliminate the drag from the high expense ratio. We could be talking about a 0.5% difference in fees and maybe as much as 1.0 or 1.5%. And that’s every year! This can accumulate to a very large pile of cash over time!

Cons: You may have to realize capital gains today. There is a tax inefficiency from having to realize capital gains before you actually need the money in retirement. And this inefficiency takes two forms:

1) for most of you, there’s a good chance that marginal tax rates will be lower in the future, especially in retirement. Your high income right now might put you into a high marginal tax bracket (both Federal and State), while in retirement you might face much lower (or potentially zero) marginal rates. It’s best to defer capital gains until then!

2) even if your future projected tax rate is the same, there’s a potential inefficiency due to realizing capital gains twice; once today when switching to the new fund and once in the future when liquidating that fund in retirement, thus compounding the drag from taxes. It’s best to defer capital gains and pay taxes only once in retirement.

So, depending on how much in built-in capital gains you have right now, how much you can lower your expense ratio and what your current and projected future tax rates are, it may be optimal or suboptimal to dump that high-expense fund. In other words, it is the choice between two evils: The one evil is the drag from the high expense ratio and the other is the drag from tax inefficiency. Which one outweighs the other? Hard to tell, unless you put some numbers in a spreadsheet and do a proper “horse race.” And that’s what we do here today. Let’s take a look…

Continue reading “Stuck With a High-Expense-Ratio Fund? Here’s a Google Sheet to Weigh the Pros and Cons of Dumping that “Stinker” in Your Portfolio!”

Good and bad reasons to invest in individual stocks rather than index funds

Hi everybody! I’m back from a two-week blogging hiatus! Things got busy at the office right before I left and we also had to prepare for our road trip and ERN Family World Tour, currently in beautiful New Mexico and moving on to Texas soon! I was amazed at how little work I got done while traveling! Early retirement is a lot more work than I thought!

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In Pecos National Historical Park, New Mexico.

In any case, today’s topic has been on my mind for a while: What would be reasons to hold individual stocks? Not all but the majority of folks in the FIRE community apparently favor just plain passive index investing and I have been an index investor myself for the longest time. But occasionally we should definitely question our assumptions. Especially those that sound like the good old “We’ve always done it this way!” And one “excuse” to look into this topic is the ChooseFI podcast featuring Brian Feroldi a few weeks ago. Brian talked about his adventures as a stock picker! I thought it was a great episode, though, of course, I didn’t agree with everything. But it got me thinking about what would be good reasons and what would be not so good reasons for me to abandon my index-only approach. Let’s look at my favorite eight…

(this post may include affiliate links)

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A dog, a homework and a reader question about Robo Advisors

There is a first time for everything. A first time in about two years! I didn’t get today’s designated blog post up and running in time! The dog ate my homework! Well not literally but only figuratively. Things are busy at work and last weekend we had to move (again). After a month and half of couch-surfing with friends and relatives and some vacation time in between, we finally moved into a slightly more permanent place, an AirBnB in Oakland. Hopefully, our last place in the Bay Area before I finish my job in mid-June. Right as we settled in at the new place and I wanted to get working on my blog post my laptop gave up its ghost! The new one I wanted was not available at Costco and needs to be shipped. ETA TBA! What to do now? Well, I could just skip this week’s post, right? I figure once we go on our long trip to Europe, Asia, Australia and New Zealand in the second half of 2018 I will likely reduce the blog post frequency to 1-2 per month anyway. Vacations are a lot of work! But as long as we’re here I’ll try to keep up with the weekly posts on Wednesdays.

So, what about today’s post? Simply repurpose something I had already done! I receive a lot of emails with personal finance questions from readers. I can’t answer them all because I don’t have an army of Macedonian content writers working for me! But a few weeks ago I got an interesting question via email that I couldn’t help but answer! It’s about Robo advisors! And why two Robo advisors are worse than one! That’s something I have to share on the blog as well! Let’s take a look…

Continue reading “A dog, a homework and a reader question about Robo Advisors”

Ask Big Ern: A Safe Withdrawal Rate Case Study for Mrs. “Wish I Could Surf”

Welcome to a new Case Study! This time, Mrs. “Wish I Could Surf” (not her real name) volunteered to open the doors to her finances. And every case study brings up something new to learn for yours truly. Today’s challenge: How would “alternative” investments factor into the Safe Withdrawal Rate exercise? Peer Street, Hard Money Lenders, Lendingclub, Prosper, etc. have gained a lot of popularity, especially in the FIRE crowd. When calculating safe withdrawal rates, I have only worked with stock/bond/cash portfolios because they are the asset classes with returns going back 100+ years. Doing the SWR exercise for a portfolio of Peer Street loans will require some “hacking” in my Safe Withdrawal Rate Google Sheet!

Further challenges come from the fact that Mrs. and Mr. Surf keep their finances separate (similar situation as in the Case Study for Rene) and Mr. Surf will still be working for a number of years, so we have to make some assumptions on how to assign the tax burden between Mr. and Mrs. Surf. Lots of work to do! So let’s get started and look at Mrs. Surf’s finances…

Continue reading “Ask Big Ern: A Safe Withdrawal Rate Case Study for Mrs. “Wish I Could Surf””

An addition to the ERN family portfolio: Preferred Stocks

Last year in December we noticed that one of our Municipal Bond mutual funds had short-term losses. That’s not a huge surprise after the post-election bond yield surge and hence it was time to harvest those losses. If you’re not familiar with Tax Loss Harvesting, we wrote two earlier posts on the topic, one dealing with the general concept and one dealing with the implementation. In any case, after we sold the underwater tax lots, where do we put the money? For 30 days we can’t invest in the same fund (or different fund with identical benchmark) or we’d run afoul with the IRS wash-sale rule. There was one asset class that we had never owned but had definitely been on our radar screen for a while. Finally, we took the plunge and invested in… drumroll …

Preferred Stocks! Continue reading “An addition to the ERN family portfolio: Preferred Stocks”

We just saved $42,000 by not switching to Betterment

There is a popular car insurance commercial featuring someone who “just saved a ton of money by switching to GEICO.” How much is a ton of money? $400? Well, by that measure we just saved more than “100 tons of money” or a whole century worth of car insurance savings. And we didn’t do so by switching, but by not switching our brokerage account. Ka-Ching, how easy was that? Continue reading “We just saved $42,000 by not switching to Betterment”

Tax Loss Harvesting: what is it and how large is the expected benefit?

Tax Loss Harvesting is the rage now. Robo-advisers do it for you, and every DIY saver should seriously consider the benefits. Let’s look at what Tax Loss Harvesting is, how and why it works and how large (or small) the expected benefits can be. Continue reading “Tax Loss Harvesting: what is it and how large is the expected benefit?”