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Lauren's Blog

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When Breath Becomes Air: Building a values-based life

When Breath Becomes Air: Building a values-based life

I recently finished reading Paul Kalanithi’s posthumous memoir, When Breath Becomes AirIn it, he shares his personal journey of how, in an instant, he went from life as a highly acclaimed neurosurgeon to life as a terminally ill cancer patient. Perhaps one of the biggest lessons I learned from his tragic but beautifully shared experience is this: every decision we make should be based on our values. Not on statistics. Not on someone else’s expectations. And sometimes not even on our own expectations of ourselves.

As an avid reader, I’m sheepish to admit that I was a little late to the party on this one—the book was released in January 2016, became an instant bestseller, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize (what was I waiting for?!).Now that I’ve finally read it, I find myself thinking about Kalanithi’s story constantly, and I am trying more than ever to view my life through the lens of my own values. It’s an idea that certainly makes me think—and rethink—about precisely what my values are and how they are reflected in my decisions every day.

Monday offered a perfect example. After decades of planning and working toward my goal, I was able to give myself a long-wished-for (and somewhat belated) birthday gift: I paid off my mortgage. Owning my home outright was a goal I’d had ever since my late husband, Ed, and I purchased it decades ago. Why? Because being able to stand on my own two feet was—and is—a deep-held personal value. Like many women, I think I’ve always had a hidden fear of becoming a bag lady. It’s a fear that’s so common there’s even a term for it: “bag lady syndrome.” No matter how irrational that scenario may be, owning my home gives me a much-needed sense of security. It’s what drove me to pay off my mortgage even when life threw me a long series of curveballs. Ed’s stroke. Getting laid off from my “stable” corporate job. Breast cancer. Widowhood. Life happens! And yet, because my goal was driven by my values, I kept my eyes on the ball. When I received a small inheritance from my uncle, I put it all toward the mortgage. Every month I paid a little bit extra to stay on track. Finally, my diligence paid off. The result: it feels amazing! I did it! I own my home, I won’t be a bag lady after all, and I did it all because I was clear about what I valued.

Being aware of that value helped me defend my decision to pay off my mortgage to colleagues who reacted with surprise. “Why would you do that? Interest rates are so low! Couldn’t you have made more by investing in the market?” “You have so much equity in your house! Why worry about paying it off?” While it’s true that paying off a mortgage may not always give the maximum return on investment, because it mattered to me, it was the optimal solution. That’s true whether you’re deciding to pay off your mortgage, leave a legacy for your kids, pay for college for your grandchildren, or start a new business. Yes, you want to be smart about your decisions, but knowing that your choices are values-based is the key to success.

Of course, as we grow and evolve, our values will change, which means aligning decisions with values is a dynamic process. Here’s how Kalanithi explains it:

“The tricky part of illness is that, as you go through it, your values are constantly changing. You try to figure out what matters to you, and then you keep figuring it out. It felt like someone had taken away my credit card and I was having to learn how to budget…. You may decide you want to spend your time working as a neurosurgeon, but two months later, you may feel differently. Death may be a one-time event, but living with terminal illness is a process.”

Life itself is dynamic. Even without a terminal diagnosis, our values are always changing. We are evolving. While our core values are likely to remain constant, we need to stay self-aware and continue to make decisions based on what matters most—today.

My core value of being able to stand on my own drove my decision to pay off my mortgage. It also steered me toward my career as an advisor. Helping others achieve that sense of security is my mission. Kalanithi writes, “The physician's duty is not to stave off death or return patients to their old lives, but to take into our arms a patient and family whose lives have disintegrated and work until they can stand back up and face—and make sense of—their own existence.” While my duty as an advisor may not be as weighty as a physician’s, I strive to do something very similar: to help each client to stand back up, identify what matters most today, and plan for a better tomorrow.

No matter where you are in life, I hope you, too, can take time to explore your core values and be sure you’re building a plan based on that strong foundation. If you do, your path is bound to be the right one for you—even when life throws those inevitable curveballs.


Want to read more on how to move forward when life happens? Read my blog Life happens. Plan today to make every transition easier.

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In Your Best Interest: Our Spring 2018 Newsletter

Click here to view the full newsletter, including recent news, important dates, financial tips & tools, and more.


MARKET HIGHLIGHTS: Q1 2018

2018 hasn’t been an easy ride so far. Market volatility began to rear its ugly head almostfrom the start, and then stocks went on sale again when the S&P 500 dropped 5.9% over five days—its worst week since January 2016. On the heels of a particularly celebratory 2017 (at least from an investment perspective), the stock market proved it is anything but predictable. For the quarter, the S&P index was down -1.22% and the Dow Jones was down -2.49%. And though the techheavy NASDAQ was up slightly at +2.32%, it was down for the month by -2.88% after gaining an impressive +7.4% in January. Market volatility is back, and it’s likely to be with us for a while. 

Why the change in sentiment? Investors seem to be falling into a familiar pattern: the Trump Administration announces tariffs—this time on Chinese imports— but is not specific on the details. Wary of retaliation against American products sold abroad, traders put a lower value on the large, multinational companies that make up most of the major indexes. 

The last time this happened, the tariffs involved steel and aluminum. This time, the U.S. announced plans to impose tariffs on about $50 Billion worth of Chinese goods, which prompted China to retaliate, slapping its own tariffs on $3 Billion worth of US exports, including fruit, pork, and steel pipes. The threats from both countries have fueled fears of a global trade war.

Meanwhile, in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook shares fell almost 10%, from 176.83 down to 159.39. This took the social media giant down from the 5th largestcapitalization company in the S&P 500 index to the 6th (behind Berkshire Hathaway) and dragged the index down even further. And yet there is some good news. What’s remarkable about the selloff over things that may or may not happen is that it came amid some very good news about the U.S. economy. Durable-goods orders jumped 3.1% in February, sales of newly-constructed homes were solid, and Atlanta Fed president Raphael Bostic announced that there were “upside risks” in GDP and employment. Translated, that means that the economy is looking too good to keep interest rates as low as they have been—which means this is a curious time to be selling out and heading for the investment sidelines.

If none of that helps you feel less rattled, I recommend re-reading my blog Wall Street has gone wild! for some additional perspective. And if you’re still not at peace with the market and your place in it, give us a call. As always, we’re here to help. 

 

Click here to read the full newsletter.

 

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3 tax-smart ways to make charitable gifts in 2018 and beyond

3 tax-smart ways to make charitable gifts in 2018 and beyond

Before TCJA (the new tax law), charitable deductions were a pretty easy piece of the financial puzzle. You chose your charity, donated a certain amount, and deducted that amount from your taxable income. Sure, giving pre-tax dollars was better, but even if you simply wrote a check to your charity of choice, you got a tax deduction. Oh, how times have changed! And those changes have me worried not only about the much-needed cash flow to charities, but also about the impact on our clients—especially those who give $1,000 or more over the course of the year. The good news: careful planning now can save you money on taxes in the coming years, and it can also help ensure your gifts are making a real financial difference to the organizations that rely on your help year after year.

The change that is likely to impact charities most is the increase in the standard deduction. The deduction for married couples filing jointly has nearly doubled, from $13,000 to $24,000. For single taxpayers and those who are married and file separately, the deduction will rise from $6,500 to $12,000. This increase presents a challenge when it comes to charitable giving. Because most taxpayers won’t exceed the standard deduction, they will no longer need to itemize. And without a direct tax benefit, charitable gifts may be much less attractive—at least from a tax perspective.

Luckily, there are strategies to help charitable donors maintain a tax advantage while continuing to support the good work of the organizations they support. Here are three options to consider today:

  • “Bunch” your gifts to deduct years of gifts in a single calendar year.
    If you have the cash on hand, you can bunch multiple years of gifts into one tax year. If you’re single, your standard deduction is now $12,000. Let’s assume your property taxes are $6,000 and your state income tax is $5,000, equaling $11,000 in deductions. If you then give $1,000 to charity, even though you max out your standard deduction, you receive no tax benefit. However, if you plan to give $1,000 each year for the next five years, opting to give a lump sum of $5,000 in 2018 will result in a taxable deduction of $4,000 beyond the standard deduction. Your charity of choice will benefit from the lump-sum donation, and so will your wallet come tax time next year. The only limit is that you can only deduct cash donations of up to 60% of your Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) in a single year. (And you can still use appreciated securities to fundthe donation.)

     
  • Create your own “charitable foundation” using a Donor Advised Fund.
    If your contributions to a particular charity are large, it may make sense to set up a DAF, or Donor Advised Fund (it’s easy, and yes, we can help!). A DAF allows you to make a lump-sum donation to take advantage of the up-front charitable tax deduction in the current year. But unlike bunching contributions in a single year, the DAF gives you the flexibility to spread your gift out over time. You can even name your children as “successor grantors” for the fund to effectively pass down the assets of the fund tax-free and help support their own gifting in the future. (And you can supercharge the contribution to your DAF by gifting appreciated securities.)

     
  • Give via a Qualified Charitable Distribution.
    If you’re over 70½, a Qualified Charitable Distribution (QCD) allows you to give to your charity of choice with pre-tax money, while also reducing your taxable income. It is a method of giving that saves you taxes twice. For example, let’s say you have an IRA with Charles Schwab and your RMD (Required Minimum Distribution) from your IRA is $20,000. Using a QCD to make your annual $1,000 pledge, Charles Schwab writes two checks: one for $1,000 that goes directly to your charity for it to use tax-free, and another for $19,000 that goes directly to you as taxable income. The QCD amount (up to $100,000 annually to any qualified charity) is excluded from your adjusted gross income, and you benefit from a full $12,000 standard deduction. It’s a great way to optimize tax savings compared to using a typical after-tax IRA distribution. You can use a QCD to give up to $100,000 annually—even if that amount exceeds your RMD. Note: you can’t request a QCD until you hit that magic age of 70½. It’s one of the perks that comes with age!

One last note: If charitable giving is part of your legacy planning, donating assets from your IRA is often a smart option—the charity can use the gift tax-free, and your heirs won’t pay a dime in taxes on your gift.

In the face of the new tax laws, careful, multi-year planning is more important than ever. That’s especially true when giving to charity. But by making ‘doing good’ an intentional piece of your overall financial plan, you can use tax law to your advantage to make every dollar count and, most importantly, continue to support the charitable organizations that are making a real and positive difference in our world today.

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5 reasons to consider a Reverse Mortgage (even before you retire!)

5 reasons to consider a Reverse Mortgage (even before you retire!)

When you live in Southern California, the equity in your home is often one of the most valuable assets in your portfolio. Not only are property values above the national average, but also home prices have tended to rise quickly (just talk to anyone who bought a home even five years ago!). Yet, few people see home equity as a “spendable” asset. But if you’re looking for a reliable source of cash today or 10 years hence, a Reverse Mortgage can be an ideal tool to turn your home equity into a tax-efficient source of income—even if you still owe money on your home.

Surprised? So was Lucy when we talked last month. I had already done the research and knew that she could qualify for a Reverse Mortgage. It seemed like the perfect way to access the cash she needed to take care of a half dozen home repairs she had been putting off since her husband died two years ago. As a retired widow, paying the $2,000 mortgage was cutting deeply into her resources, and she felt too cash constrained to set herself up for more bills to pay.

I suggested a Reverse Mortgage because I knew it could give Lucy the financial comfort she needed to maintain her home—whether she decided to stay put for the next 15 years or sell—and that it would also allow her some much-needed financial freedom. When I mentioned the idea, her eyes got wide. She couldn’t believe her ears. “Before Jack died, he told me a Reverse Mortgage was the last thing he would do,” she told me. “He said they were a scam.” She went on to say that using a Reverse Mortgage wasn’t something she even wanted to consider. “It’s too much of a gamble. I don’t want to risk losing my home.”

I can’t blame Lucy (or Jack, for that matter) for being wary. In the early days of Reverse Mortgages, they earned a bad reputation for being a shady product used by slick salesmen to take advantage of desperate, cash-strapped seniors. Despite late-night television ads that make them sound too good to be true, Reverse Mortgages really can be an important part of your overall retirement income strategy. In fact, while a Reverse Mortgage isn’t right for everyone, when used correctly and strategically, it may be just the solutionyou need to manage cash flow and protect your portfolio in retirement. Here are 5 reasons why it makes sense to consider a Reverse Mortgage today:

  1. A Reverse Mortgage is similar to a Home Equity Line of Credit—but with no monthly payments.
    A Reverse Mortgage is similar to a HELOC in that it provides a line of credit based on your home equity. Like a HELOC, that line of credit can be taken as a lump sum, in scheduled monthly payments, or reserved for future draws. However, while a HELOC requires you to pay back the loan with monthly payments over a set period, a Reverse Mortgage requires no monthly payments to the bank. Instead, the loan balance and interest accrues over time. Payment to the bank can be delayed until12 months after you leave your home.

     
  2. You can use a Reverse Mortgage to pay off your current mortgage.
    For many retirees in our “high rent” part of Southern California, paying even a reasonable mortgage on a fixed income can be a struggle. What’s great about a Reverse Mortgage is that because it’s based on the actual value of your home, you can use the money to pay off your current loan amount, potentially increasing your cash flow by thousands of dollars each month. You can also use a Reverse Mortgage to finance the purchase of a new home.

     
  3. It’s relatively easy to qualify for a Reverse Mortgage.
    Applying for a traditional mortgage or HELOC can be a challenge, especially if your income is limited. To qualify for a Reverse Mortgage, you must be at least 62, your home must be your principal residence, and you must have sufficient income to pay property taxes, homeowners insurance, and basic home maintenance. That’s it. Since you aren’t responsible for making monthly loan payments, even a less-than-perfect credit score or limited assets should not impact your eligibility.

     
  4. A Reverse Mortgage can help protect your portfolio.
    If the bulk of your retirement savings is held in an IRA, withdrawing assets before age 70½ will result in a sizeable tax burden. Using a Reverse Mortgage is a highly tax-efficient way to supplement your income and manage your cash flow. Because the money is a line of credit based on the value of your home, there are no taxes to pay. It can also give you the funds you need to delay Social Security until age 70, allowing you to take advantage of the Delayed Retirement Credit that increases your Social Security payment by 8% for each year you delay and nearly doubling your monthly Social Security income. (For more on this, see my blog Social Security & Women: Tackling the Challenges.) Plus, an available line of credit can prevent you from being forced to sell stocks from your portfolio should you need additional cash during a down market.

     
  5. Reverse Mortgages are regulated to protect the borrower.
    Lucy’s fear of losing her home is not uncommon. With a traditional mortgage, if the loan exceeds the value of your home, the bank can foreclose on your property and force you out of your home. Luckily, Reverse Mortgages are designed and regulated to protect seniors from this very scenario. A Reverse Mortgage is a “non-recourse loan,” which means that if the value of your home drops dramatically (think 2008!) you will never owe the bank more than the value of the loan. That alone can be a great source of financial security in your later years.

Of course, no line of credit is completely free of costs. Like traditional mortgages and HELOCs, Reverse Mortgages charge fees such as interest payments, origination fees, and closing costs. Reverse Mortgages also require a government-mandated, upfront mortgage insurance premium equal to 2% of the value of your home, plus 0.5% of the loan balance. But because these costs are rolled up into the loan amount, you pay no out-of-pocket expenses.

For most borrowers, that 2% is a small price to pay for the flexibility of turning their home equity into a spendable cash resource. And if you use the Reverse Mortgage to pay off your existing mortgage, you may even offset this cost completely. Do keep in mind that a Reverse Mortgage is best if you plan to stay in your home for the next five or more years. Otherwise, the upfront costs may outweigh the benefit.

One last thing to remember is that the best time to get a Reverse Mortgage is before you need it. A Reverse Mortgage should never be used as a last resort when all of your other assets have been depleted. Instead, consider applying for your line of credit while interest rates are still low so you can lock in a great rate. Having this flexible resource available if and when you need it can help turn your home equity into a powerful and strategic financial planning tool for decades to come.


A Reverse Mortgage is a complex planning tool that should be used as part of a carefully constructed wealth management plan. If you need help deciding if a Reverse Mortgage makes sense for you, let’s talk. As always, we’re here to help! 

 

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Want a great financial plan? All you need are the clues

Want a great financial plan? All you need are the clues

Solving puzzles is in my blood.

Growing up, solving jigsaw puzzles was one of our favorite family activities, and there was always a puzzle in the works on our card table. Sometimes we would work on them together, huddled over the still-broken image as we searched for the right shape, the right color, or the perfect edge. Just as often, any one of us walking by would spot a perfect fit and happily pop a piece into its rightful place.

Sunday brought with it a different challenge: the delivery of the Sunday crossword. My parents would work on it together (always in pencil), and we’d all try to help—even if it took us days to get the answers right. Even today, the New York Times online crosswords are a bit of an obsession for me. I love the challenge. I love the form. And I love that I’m always learning something new. (Today’s tidbit: Napoleon died in exile on the island of St. Helena. Who knew?!)

I suppose it’s no wonder I became a financial advisor… and that I love what I do.

The exciting thing about financial planning (at least for a puzzle geek like me) is that, just like for jigsaw and crossword puzzles, the process is all about uncovering a solution based on a set of clues. The more clues you have, the more context. And the more context, the easier it is to find the solution.

Julia is in her mid-40s and owns a fast-growing small business in Laguna Beach. Julia was referred to me by one of my long-time clients, and I could tell from the moment I met her that she is a smart businesswoman. But like many busy business owners, she has never really focused on her personal finances. I was excited to sit down with her and dive into her first-ever financial plan and start solving her financial puzzle.

When we met in January, my first question was, “What do you spend your money on each month?” Like many first-timers, she didn’t have an easy answer. She knew her annual income. She knew how much she had in her current investments. But she didn’t have a real sense of her expenses, how much she had remaining to spend as she pleased each month, or what she could (or should) be doing with her excess cash. Luckily, she had done her homework for our meeting, including gathering together all of the fragments of her finances. Her tax returns, her bank and investment statements, and (most importantly) her goals and dreams for the future. With her file box on the table, we had all the clues and context we needed to move forward.

Fast-forward to March, and Julia’s financial picture looks a whole lot more complete than it did just 8 weeks ago. The pieces had been there, but she’d had no idea where to put them, how they worked as a whole, or (and this is a big one) how each piece impacted the others. By working with the clues, we were able to puzzle out solutions to her key challenges, including:

  • How her spending habits were impacting her ability to save for a long retirement—and the tradeoffs she needed to make in both areas.
     
  • How she could balance investments in her business with other investments to diversify her assets and ensure she won’t have to depend solely on income from her business in retirement.
     
  • How her investments could be restructured to leverage her savings and better protect her from risk.

Julia has already made a ton of progress, but she’s still “piecing together the edges.” There’s much more to be done, and we’re working together to discover new clues and uncover solutions to each challenge we see. She has clearly defined her goals and can see the path forward, and I am helping her understand how all the pieces work together—and how we can adjust them to fit when they don’t. I hope Julia is having just as much fun as I am.

Julia thought she needed to put off working with an advisor until she “had all the pieces in order.” I wish she hadn’t waited! Now she understands that, just like most other puzzles in life, sound financial planning doesn’t require having 100% of the facts to start making better, wiser decisions. All you need to start solving your puzzle is your own set of financial clues. An advisor’s job is to use her experience and knowledge to see clues through a different lens and, ultimately, create a step-by-step plan to help you reach your goals. For me, that’s (at least!) half the fun.

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All written content on this site is for information purposes only. Opinions expressed herein are solely those of Lauren S. Klein, President, Klein Financial Advisors, Inc. Material presented is believed to be from reliable sources and we make no representations as to its accuracy or completeness. Read More >