Tips From Donna Wesban Monthly June 2017

FOUR NUMBERS YOU NEED TO KNOW NOW

When it comes to your finances, you might easily overlook some of the numbers that really count. Here are four to pay attention to now that might really matter in the future.

1. Retirement plan contribution rate

What percentage of your salary are you contributing to a retirement plan? Making automatic contributions through an employer-sponsored plan such as a 401(k) or 403(b) plan is an easy way to save for retirement, but this out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach may result in a disparity between what you need to save and what you actually are saving for retirement. Checking your contribution rate and increasing it periodically can help you stay on track toward your retirement savings goal. .

Some employer retirement plans let you sign up for automatic contribution rate increases each year, which is a simple way to bump up the percentage you're saving over time. In addition, try to boost your contributions when you receive a pay raise. Consider contributing at least enough to receive the full company match (if any) that your employer offers.

2. Credit score

When you apply for credit, such as a mortgage, a car loan, or a credit card, your credit score is one of the tools used by lenders to evaluate your creditworthiness. Your score will likely factor into the approval decision and affect the terms and the interest rate you'll pay.

The most common credit score that creditors consider is a FICO© Score, a three-digit number that ranges from 300 to 850. This score is based on a mathematical formula that uses information contained in your credit report. In general, the higher your score, the lower the credit risk you pose.

Each of the three major credit reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) calculates FICO® scores using different formulas, so you may want to check your scores from all three (fees apply). It's also a good idea to get a copy of your credit report at least annually to check the accuracy of the information upon which your credit score is based. You're entitled to one free copy of your credit report every 12 months from each of the three credit reporting agencies. You can get your copy by visiting annualcreditreport.com.

3. Debt-to-income ratio

Your debt-to-income ratio (DTI) is another number that lenders may use when deciding whether to offer you credit. A DTI that is too high might mean that you are overextended. Your DTI is calculated by adding up your major monthly expenses and dividing that figure by your gross monthly income. The result is expressed as a percentage. For example, if your monthly expenses total $2,200 and your gross monthly income is $6,800, your DTI is 32%.

Lenders decide what DTIs are acceptable, based on the type of credit. For example, mortgage lenders generally require a ratio of 36% or less for conventional mortgages and 43% or less for FHA mortgages when considering overall expenses.

Once you know your DTI, you can take steps to reduce it if necessary. For example, you may be able to pay off a low-balance loan to remove it from the calculation. You may also want to avoid taking on new debt that might negatively affect your DTI. Check with your lender if you have any questions about acceptable DTIs or what expenses are included in the calculation.

4. Net worth

One of the key big-picture numbers you should know is your net worth, a snapshot of where you stand financially. To calculate your net worth, add up your assets (what you own) and subtract your liabilities (what you owe). Once you know your net worth, you can use it as a baseline to measure financial progress.

Ideally, your net worth will grow over time as you save more and pay down debt, at least until retirement. If your net worth is stagnant or even declining, then it might be time to make some adjustments to target your financial goals, such as trimming expenses or rethinking your investment strategy.

EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED: WHAT TO DO IF YOU BECOME DISABLED

In a recent survey, 46% of retirees said they retired earlier than planned, and not necessarily because they chose to do so. In fact, many said they had to leave the workforce early because of health issues or a disability.¹

Although you may be healthy and financially stable now, an unexpected diagnosis or injury could significantly derail your life plans. Would you know what to do, financially speaking, if you suddenly became disabled? Now may be a good time to familiarize yourself with the following information, before an emergency arises.

 

Understand any employer-sponsored benefits you may have

Disability insurance pays a benefit that replaces a percentage of your pay for a designated period of time. Through your employer, you may have access to both short- and long-term disability insurance. If your employer offers disability insurance, be sure to fully understand how the plan works. Review your plan's Summary Plan Description carefully to determine how to apply for benefits should you need them, and what you will need to provide for proof of disability.

Short-term disability protection typically covers a period of up to six months, while long-term disability coverage generally lasts for the length of the disability or until retirement. Your plan may offer basic coverage paid by your employer and a possible "buy-up" option that allows you to purchase additional coverage.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 40% of private industry workers have access to short-term disability insurance through their employers, while 33% have access to long-term coverage. For both types of plans, the median replacement amount is about 60% of pay, with most subject to maximum limits.²

Consider a supplemental safety net

If you do not have access to disability insurance through your employer, it might be wise to investigate other options. It may be possible to purchase both short- and long-term group disability policies through membership in a professional organization or association. Individual policies are also available from private insurers.

You can purchase policies that cover you for life, until age 65, or for shorter periods such as two or five years. An individual policy will remain in force as long as you pay the premiums. Because many disabilities do not result in a complete inability to work, some policies offer a rider that will pay you partial benefits if you are able to work part-time.

Most insurance policies have a waiting period (known as the "elimination period") before you can begin receiving benefits. For private insurance policies, this period can be anywhere from 30 to 365 days. Group policies (particularly through your employer) typically have shorter waiting periods than private policies. Disability insurance premiums paid with after-tax dollars will generally result in tax-free disability benefits. On the other hand, if your premiums are paid with pre-tax dollars, typically through your employer, your benefit payments may be taxable.

Review the Social Security disability process

The Social Security Administration (SSA) pays disability benefits through two programs: the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program and the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program. SSDI pays benefits to people who cannot work due to a disability that is expected to last at least one year or result in death, and it's only intended to help such individuals make ends meet. Consider that the average monthly benefit in January 2017 was just $1,171.

In order to receive SSDI, you must meet strict criteria for your disability. You must also meet requirements for how recently and how long you have worked. Meeting the medical criteria is difficult; in fact, according to the National Organization of Social Security Claimants' Representatives (NOSSCR), about two-thirds of initial SSDI applications are denied on their first submission. Denials can be appealed within 60 days of receipt of the notice.³

The application process can take up to five months, so it is advisable to apply for SSDI as soon as you become disabled. If your application is approved, benefits begin in the month following the six-month anniversary of your date of disability (as recorded by the SSA in your approval letter). Eligible family members may also be able to collect additional payments of up to 50% of your benefit amount.

SSI is a separate program, based on income needs of the aged, blind, or disabled. You can apply to both SSI and SSDI at the same time.

For more information, visit the Social Security Disability Benefits website at ssa.gov, where you will also find a link to information on the SSI program.

¹2016 Retirement Confidence Survey, Employee Benefit Research Institute
² Bureau of Labor Statistics, National Compensation Survey, 2016
³NOSSCR web site, accessed March 2017

WITHDRAWAL OPTIONS FOR YOUR THRIFT SAVINGS PLAN (TSP)

The Federal Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) is a tax-deferred retirement savings and investment plan set up to help federal civilian employees and military personnel save for retirement. The TSP is a defined contribution plan. Employees and servicemembers are eligible to make pre-tax contributions of at least part of their salaries annually to the plan, while the government may match some or all of those contributions. Since 2012, participants are allowed to designate all or part of their deferrals as Roth contributions, which are funded on an after-tax basis. Several withdrawal options are available through which participants can access their TSP funds, either while still working for the government or upon retirement.

In-service withdrawals

As a TSP participant, you may be eligible to take a one-time, age-based withdrawal from your TSP upon reaching age 59½. All or a portion of your vested account balance may be withdrawn at that time. If you elect to take a partial withdrawal, you can't take another partial withdrawal upon separating from service.

The rules are a little different if you make an in-service withdrawal in cases of financial hardship. Specific requirements and limits apply, and each time you take a hardship distribution, you are barred from making another hardship distribution for a period of six months. And you can't make contributions to your TSP for a six-month period.* While in-service withdrawals may be available, it's more likely that you'll take withdrawals from your TSP when you retire or leave federal government employment.

Leave funds in the TSP

You may find that you don't need to access money from your TSP account immediately upon retirement. In that case, you can defer taking withdrawals from your TSP and allow it to remain in place. However, you'll have to start taking withdrawals by April 1 of the year following either the year you turn age 70½ if you're no longer a federal employee, or the year you separate from federal service, whichever is later.

Partial withdrawal after leaving employment

You can make a one-time partial withdrawal and leave the rest of your money in your TSP. To be eligible for a partial withdrawal, you must not have made a prior partial withdrawal or an age-based in-service withdrawal, and your withdrawal request must be for at least $1,000.

Lump-sum withdrawal

When you are ready to withdraw your money from your TSP account, you can do it all at once (commonly referred to as a lump-sum payment) or over a period of time. Or you can purchase an annuity that will make payments to you for life. You also can choose any combination of these full withdrawal options. Keep in mind that withdrawals from a TSP, other than from a Roth TSP, are generally fully taxable as ordinary income.

Series of monthly payments

You can request a specific dollar amount that you'll receive each month until your entire TSP has been paid to you. Or you can receive monthly payments according to IRS Life Expectancy Tables based on your age and your account balance. The TSP will recalculate your monthly payment every year you take withdrawals of this type.

Life annuity

Three types of annuities are available: (1) an annuity that is paid to you during your lifetime (single life annuity); (2) an annuity that is paid to you while you and your spouse are alive, then paid to the surviving spouse for the rest of his or her life after one of you dies (joint life with spouse annuity); or (3) an annuity that is paid to you while you and a person chosen by you (with an insurable interest in you) are alive, then paid to the survivor (beneficiary) for his or her life after you die. However, if you are a married Federal Employee Retirement System (FERS) participant, you must elect a joint life with spouse annuity with a 50% survivor benefit, level payments, and no cash refund feature, unless your spouse consents to another annuity option. There are no fees or commissions associated with these options.

Factors that determine how much your monthly annuity payments will be include how large your account balance is, the interest rate at the time the TSP purchases your annuity, the performance of your investment fund, your age (and your joint annuitant's age, if applicable), and the annuity option you elect. The TSP website(tsp.gov) has a calculator you can use to project your future account balance.

Your TSP offers several options for withdrawing money from your account. Your specific goals will determine when to take money out and how you wish to receive it. When making this decision, you should consider your income needs and the lifestyle you would like to have in retirement.

Donna Gordon