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How to Help Maintain a High Credit Score

During the holiday shopping season, your credit score is probably the last thing on your mind. But as you start your seasonal spending, remember to use credit wisely so you can start the new year with a healthy credit score. The following tips can help you maintain or potentially improve your credit score throughout the holidays and beyond.

Know how your credit score is calculated

The most common credit score is expressed as a three-digit number ranging from 300 to 850. (Some lenders may calculate it differently, but this should be a good guideline.) The score is derived from a formula using five weighted factors: payment history (35%), amounts owed (30%), length of credit history (15%), new credit (10%), and types of credit in use (10%).¹ Keeping these components in mind can help you stay on track with your credit.

Make payments on time

Set up alerts for every credit card you have so you don’t miss notifications of charges, statements, or due dates. To help avoid missed payments, set up automatic payments. If you do miss a payment, contact the lender and bring the account up-to-date as soon as possible.

Keep credit card balances low

If you carry a balance, consider paying down the cards with the highest balance-to-credit limit ratio first while keeping up minimum (or higher) payments on others. Don’t “max out” your available credit.

Be careful about opening and closing accounts

Some retailers may offer discounts on purchases if you sign up for a store credit card, but store cards often have high-interest rates and low credit limits. Unless you plan on shopping regularly at that store and the card offers useful bonuses or discounts, avoid applying for new credit cards solely to save money on purchases. Likewise, try not to close multiple accounts within a short period of time — this could actually hurt your credit score. Research before using credit boosting services. You might be tempted to sign up for a free service that promises to instantly boost your credit score, but they’re usually only worth considering if you have a thin credit file and/or a low credit score. These services can’t fix any late payments you’ve made or reduce the impact of an excessive level of debt.

Monitor your credit report regularly

You can order a free credit report annually* from each of the three major consumer reporting agencies at annualcreditreport.com. If you find incorrect information on your credit report, contact the reporting agency in writing, provide copies of any corroborating documents, and ask for an investigation. *Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion are offering free weekly online reports through April 2021.

¹Fair Isaac Corporation, 2020
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Sharing Your Money Values Can Be Part of Your Legacy

When it’s time to prepare the next generation for a financial legacy, you might want to bring your family members together to talk about money. But sitting down together isn’t easy, because money is a complicated and emotionally charged topic. Rather than risk conflict, your family may prefer to avoid talking about it altogether.

If your family isn’t quite ready to have a formal conversation, you can still lay the groundwork for the future by identifying and sharing your money values — the principles that guide your financial decisions.

Define Your Own Values

What does money mean to you? Does it signify personal accomplishment? The ability to provide for your family? The chance to make a difference in the world? Is being a wise steward of your money important to you, or would you rather enjoy it now? Taking time to think about your values may help you discover the lessons you might want to pass along to future generations.

Respect Perspectives

The unspoken assumption that others share your financial priorities runs through many money-centered conversations. But no two people have the same money values (even relatives). To one person, money might symbolize independence; to another, money equals security. Generational differences and life experiences may especially influence money values. Invite your family members to share their views and financial priorities whenever you have the opportunity.

See Yourself as a Role Model

Your actions can have a big impact on those around you. You’re a financial role model for your children or grandchildren, and they notice how you spend your time and your money. Look for ways to share your values and your financial knowledge. For example, if you want to teach children to make careful financial decisions, help them shop for an item they want by comparing features, quality, and price. If you want teenagers to prioritize saving for the future, try matching what they save for a car or for college. Teaching financial responsibility starts early, and modeling it is a lifelong effort.

Practice Thoughtful Giving

How you give is another expression of your money values, but if a family member is the recipient, your generosity may be misconstrued. For example, your adult son or daughter might be embarrassed to accept your help or worried that a monetary gift might come with strings attached. Or you may have a family member who often asks for (or needs) more financial support than another, which could lead to family conflicts. Defining your giving parameters in advance will make it easier to set priorities, explain why you are making certain decisions, and manage expectations.

For example are you willing and able to:

  • Help fund a college education?
  • Provide seed money for a small business?
  • Help with a down payment on a home?
  • Pay for medical expenses?
  • Contribute to an account for a family member with special needs?
  • Offer nonfinancial help such as child care or transportation?

There are no right or wrong answers as long as your decisions align with your financial values and you are sure that your gift will benefit both you and your family member. Maintaining consistent boundaries that define what help you are willing and able to provide is key. Gifts that are not freely given may become financial or emotional obligations that disrupt family relationships.

Reveal Your Experiences with Money

Being more transparent about your own financial hopes and dreams, and your financial concerns or struggles, may help other family members eventually open up about their own. Share how money makes you feel — for example, the satisfaction you felt when you bought your first home or the pleasure of giving to someone in need. If you have been financially secure for a long time, your children may not realize how difficult it was for you, or for previous generations, to build wealth over time. Your hard-earned wisdom may help the next generation understand your values and serve as the foundation for a shared legacy.

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Five Tips to Regain Your Retirement Savings Focus in 2021

In early 2020, 61% of U.S. workers surveyed said that retirement planning makes them feel stressed ¹. Investor confidence was continually tested as the year wore on, and it’s likely that this percentage rose — perhaps even substantially. If you find yourself among those feeling stressed heading into the new year, these tips may help you focus and enhance your retirement savings strategy in 2021.

  1. Consider increasing your savings by just 1%. If you participate in a retirement savings plan at work, try to increase your contribution rate by just 1% now, and then again whenever possible until you reach the maximum amount allowed. The accompanying chart illustrates the powerful difference contributing just 1% more each year can make over time.
  2. Review your tax situation. It makes sense to review your retirement savings strategy periodically in light of your current tax situation. That’s because retirement savings plans and IRAs not only help you accumulate savings for the future, they can help lower your income taxes now. Every dollar you contribute to a traditional (non-Roth) retirement savings plan at work reduces the amount of your current taxable income. If neither you nor your spouse is covered by a work-based plan, contributions to a traditional IRA are fully deductible up to annual limits. If you, your spouse, or both of you participate in a work-based plan, your IRA contributions may still be deductible unless your income exceeds certain limits. Note that you will have to pay taxes on contributions and earnings when you withdraw the money. In addition, withdrawals prior to age 59½ may be subject to a 10% penalty tax unless an exception applies.
  3. Rebalance, if necessary. Market turbulence throughout the past year may have caused your target asset allocation to shift toward a more aggressive or conservative profile than is appropriate for your circumstances. If your portfolio is not rebalanced automatically, now might be a good time to see if adjustments need to be made. Typically, there are two ways to rebalance: (1) you can do so quickly by selling securities or shares in the overweighted asset class(es) and shifting the proceeds to the underweighted one(s), or (2) you can rebalance gradually by directing new investments into the underweighted class(es) until the target allocation is reached. Keep in mind that selling investments in a taxable account could result in a tax liability. Asset allocation is a method used to help manage investment risk; it does not guarantee a profit or protect against investment loss.
  4. Revisit your savings goal. When you first started saving in your retirement plan or IRA, you may have estimated how much you might need to accumulate to retire comfortably. If you experienced any major life changes during the past year — for example, a change in job or marital status, an inheritance, or a new family member — you may want to take a fresh look at your overall savings goal as well as the assumptions used to generate it. As circumstances in your life change, your savings strategy will likely evolve as well.


5. Understand all your plan’s features. Work-based retirement savings plans can vary from employer to employer. How familiar are you with your plan’s specific features? Does your employer offer a matching and/or profit-sharing contribution? Do you know how it works? Are company contributions and earnings subject to a vesting schedule (i.e., a waiting period before they become fully yours) and, if so, do you understand the parameters? Does your plan offer loans or hardship withdrawals? Under what circumstances might you access the money? Can you make Roth or after-tax contributions, which can provide a source of tax-free income in retirement? Review your plan’s Summary Plan Description to ensure you take maximum advantage of all your plan has to offer. All investing involves risk, including the possible loss of principal, and there is no guarantee that any investment strategy will be successful.

¹ Employee Benefit Research Institute, 2020
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Spreading Generosity

Americans gave almost $450 billion to charity in 2019, an increase of 4.2% over the previous year. Individuals accounted for more than two-thirds of this amount, followed by contributions from foundations, bequests, and corporations. The holidays and end-of-year giving make up the bulk of when charitable donations occur so we felt this was a good time to highlight this for your consideration.

Here is a breakdown of the broadly-defined category recipients of this generosity, by percentage of total charitable contributions.

 

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Is Now a Good Time to Consider a Roth Conversion?

This year has been challenging on many fronts, but one financial opportunity may have emerged from the economic turbulence. If you’ve been thinking about converting your traditional IRA to a Roth, now might be an appropriate time to do so.

Conversion Basics

Roth IRAs offer tax-free income in retirement. Contributions to a Roth IRA are not tax-deductible, but qualified withdrawals, including any earnings, are free of federal income tax. Such withdrawals may also be free of any state income tax that would apply to retirement plan distributions.

Generally, a Roth distribution is considered “qualified” if it meets a five-year holding requirement and you are age 59½ or older, become permanently disabled, or die (other exceptions may apply).

Regardless of your filing status or how much you earn, you can convert assets in a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA. Though annual IRA contribution limits are relatively low ($6,000 to all IRAs combined in 2020, or $7,000 if you are age 50 or older), there is no limit to the amount you can convert or the number of conversions you can make during a calendar year. An inherited traditional IRA cannot be converted to a Roth, but a spouse beneficiary who treats an inherited IRA as his or her own can convert the assets.

Converted assets are subject to federal income tax in the year of conversion and may also be subject to state taxes. This could result in a substantial tax bill, depending on the value of your account, and could move you into a higher tax bracket. However, if all conditions are met, the Roth account will incur no further income tax liability and you won’t be subject to required minimum distributions. (Designated beneficiaries are required to take withdrawals based on certain rules and time frames, depending on their age and relationship to the original account holder, but such withdrawals would be free of federal tax.)

Why Now?

Comparatively low-income tax rates combined with the impact of the economic downturn might make this an appropriate time to consider a Roth conversion.

The lower income tax rates passed in 2017 are scheduled to expire at year-end 2025; however, some industry observers have noted that taxes may rise even sooner due to rising deficits exacerbated by the pandemic relief measures.

Moreover, if the value of your IRA remains below its pre-pandemic value, the tax obligation on your conversion will be lower than if you had converted prior to the downturn. If your income is lower in 2020 due to the economic challenges, your tax rate could be lower as well.

Any or all of these factors may make it worth considering a Roth conversion, provided you have the funds available to cover the tax obligation.

As long as your traditional and Roth IRAs are with the same provider, you can typically transfer shares from one account to the other. When share prices are lower, as they may be in the current market environment, you could theoretically convert more shares for each dollar and would have more shares in your Roth account to pursue tax-free growth. Of course, there is also a risk that the converted assets will go down in value.

Using Conversions to Make “Annual Contributions”

Finally, if you are not eligible to contribute to a Roth IRA because your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) is too high (see table), a Roth conversion may offer a workaround. You can make nondeductible contributions to a traditional IRA and then convert traditional IRA assets to a Roth. This is often called a “back-door” Roth IRA.

As this history-making year approaches its end, this is a good time to think about last-minute moves that might benefit your financial and tax situation. A Roth conversion could be an appropriate strategy.

All investing involves risk, including the possible loss of principal, and there is no guarantee that any investment strategy will be successful.
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Year-End 2020 Tax Tips

Here are some things to consider as you weigh potential tax moves before the end of the year.

Defer income to next year

Consider opportunities to defer income to 2021, particularly if you think you may be in a lower tax bracket then. For example, you may be able to defer a year-end bonus or delay the collection of business debts, rents, and payments for services in order to postpone payment of tax on the income until next year.

Accelerate deductions

Look for opportunities to accelerate deductions into the current tax year. If you itemize deductions, making payments for deductible expenses such as medical expenses, qualifying interest, and state taxes before the end of the year (instead of paying them in early 2021) could make a difference on your 2020 return.

Make deductible charitable contributions

If you itemize deductions on your federal income tax return, you can generally deduct charitable contributions, but the deduction is limited to 60%, 30%, or 20% of your adjusted gross income (AGI), depending on the type of property that you give and the type of organization to which you contribute. (Excess amounts can be carried over for up to five years.) For 2020 charitable gifts, the normal rules have been enhanced: The limit is increased to 100% of AGI for direct cash gifts to public charities. And even if you don’t itemize deductions, you can receive a $300 charitable deduction for direct cash gifts to public charities (in addition to the standard deduction).

Bump up withholding

If it looks as though you’re going to owe federal income tax for the year, consider increasing your withholding on Form W-4 for the remainder of the year to cover the shortfall. The biggest advantage in doing so is that withholding is considered as having been paid evenly throughout the year instead of when the dollars are actually taken from your paycheck.

Maximize retirement savings

Deductible contributions to a traditional IRA and pre-tax contributions to an employer-sponsored retirement plan such as a 401(k) can reduce your 2020 taxable income. If you haven’t already contributed up to the maximum amount allowed, consider doing so. For 2020, you can contribute up to $19,500 to a 401(k) plan ($26,000 if you’re age 50 or older) and up to $6,000 to traditional and Roth* IRAs combined ($7,000 if you’re age 50 or older). The window to make 2020 contributions to an employer plan generally closes at the end of the year, while you have until April 15, 2021, to make 2020 IRA contributions. (*Roth contributions are not deductible, but Roth qualified distributions are not taxable.)

Avoid RMDs in 2020

Normally, once you reach age 70½ (age 72 if you reach age 70½ after 2019), you generally must start taking required minimum distributions (RMDs) from traditional IRAs and employer-sponsored retirement plans. Distributions are also generally required to beneficiaries after the death of the IRA owner or plan participant. However, recent legislation has waived RMDs from IRAs and most employer retirement plans for 2020 and you don’t have to take such distributions. If you have already taken a distribution for 2020 that is not required, you may be able to roll it over to an eligible retirement plan.

Weigh year-end investment moves

Though you shouldn’t let tax considerations drive your investment decisions, it’s worth considering the tax implications of any year-end investment moves. For example, if you have realized net capital gains from selling securities at a profit, you might avoid being taxed on some or all of those gains by selling losing positions. Any losses above the amount of your gains can be used to offset up to $3,000 of ordinary income ($1,500 if your filing status is married filing separately) or carried forward to reduce your taxes in future years.

All investing involves risk, including the possible loss of principal, and there is no guarantee that any investment strategy will be successful. Page
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Baby Boomers Are Making More Purchases Online Due to COVID

 

The coronavirus pandemic has forced consumers to change many habits, including how they shop. This is particularly true for baby boomers (ages 56 to 74).

Nearly half (45%) said they shop online more, with some product categories seeing a large shift in online purchases.

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