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Do you want to clear a room or stop a conversation fast?  Talk about life insurance.  Mention life insurance to someone and the reaction is something like hearing nails across a chalk board. Folks will either run for fear that you’re going to try to sell them something or their eyes will glaze over.

Most folks don’t want to talk about it.  The topic is boring.  And it’s kind of weird to talk about death.

Heck, when I speak with folks about planning, the inevitable phrase I hear in the conversation is “If I die …” as if they have found some secret to living forever.

So assuming that you’re not featured in the Vampire Diaries, there is a very high likelihood (about 100% give or take 0%) that you may die someday. So it only makes sense to consider life insurance as part of your overall planning.

Life Insurance Through Work Is Only A First Step

Most folks will get some insurance through their employer.  It’s cheap. It’s fast. There’s no medical exam.  It’s simple.

And as I’ve said time and again, there’s always a simple solution to every problem.  (In this case, employer-sponsored group life insurance). And as I’ve also said before, simple solutions are probably wrong.

Now don’t think that I’m saying that the group policy that you get and pay for through your paycheck is wrong.  It’s a good start.  But there’s more to proper life insurance planning than simply figuring a multiple of your salary.

How Much Life Insurance Is Needed?

The reason for any insurance is to cover the costs of risks that we are either not willing or don’t have the resources to cover ourselves.  That’s true whether you’re insuring a car, a home, your life or your paycheck.  So first you need to know what it is that you’re covering.

In the case of life insurance, it’s usually a good idea to figure out how much money your family needs to maintain their current standard of living if you and your income are no longer part of the picture.  Then add in any large expenses to cover.  Typically, this would include an amount to pay off any mortgages and loans and even college funding or other similar expected obligations. Net out the amount of other insurance and investments available and this will give you an idea of the amount of insurance coverage to get.

The amount of insurance that one needs throughout life changes with circumstances.  This is why it’s critical to include an insurance needs analysis as part of your regular financial planning progress reports.  This is why I use a particular tool from ESPlanner that helps project the amounts of coverage needed over time.

Insurance as An Asset Class to Reduce Risks

Now I’ve said that insurance is an asset class.  Why?  Well consider this.  When you invest, you’re likely to spread your money into different types of asset classes:  stocks and bonds of large, small, US and foreign companies.  This is the basis of diversification: don’t put all your eggs in one basket. You do this to help reduce risk.  In this case, you’re trying to reduce the risk of having your investment wiped out by spreading your bets to other sectors of the economy and even parts of the world.

Like asset diversification, insurance is also a risk tool.  In this case insurance is there to replace things that you may not have the cash or investments to cover on your own.  Or maybe you feel you’d be better off investing the cash and earn a return on your money that will hopefully increase the resources you need for your lifestyle whether now or in retirement.

Think of it this way.  You could hit home run after home run picking stocks but what happens if you or your family are hit with an unexpected loss?  You’d have to dip into your savings and investments.  You’d need to sell those winning stocks.  You’d probably incur huge capital gains and have to pay taxes on it.

Life insurance is there to cover living expenses, replace in some small way the loss of income if you or your loved one dies and it does this for the most part tax free to the beneficiary.

And you can carry over the idea of diversification to insurance.  Just like mixing up the kinds of stocks or bonds you own, you can carry insurance from two or more insurers.  You do this by having your employer-sponsored group plan plus something you pay for on your own separate from your employer.  You can further diversify by mixing up the kinds or terms of coverage dividing some between term and permanent type policies.

Kinds of Life Insurance: Term vs Permanent

Insurance comes in two basic varieties: term and permanent.  Term insurance has a fixed premium for a fixed time period.  It’s great for covering specific risks for a defined time period (i.e. a mortgage, college costs).  Permanent life insurance has many flavors but in essence the key is that some of your premium that you pay is used to build up cash value.

Now for those who are unhappy with the stock market, you may want to consider some of the benefits offered by permanent life insurance.

  • The value is guaranteed. You’ll always know how much you have. And the insurer is required to credit a minimum amount to your value each year.
  • You receive dividends and their tax-free. Policyholders will receive dividends that increase the value of their account.
  • You can access the cash value at any time. Unlike going to a bank for a loan, the insurer will give you access to your account’s cash value with very little delay. You pay no penalty when receiving the cash as long as you repay yourself.  And if you set up the account properly, you can build up enough cash value to tap into for anything from buying a car to buying a home to funding retirement without paying a penalty or taxes.  (This is described by some as the Infinite Banking Concept where you become your own banker).
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“The safest way to double your money is to fold it over once and put it in your pocket.” Kin Hubbard

Investing takes time.  As humans our brains are more wired toward the flight-or-flight survival responses that got us to the top of the food chain.  So we are more prone to panic moves in one direction or another and this is not always in our best long-term interests.

So to retire richer requires a little work on understanding who we are and what we can do to improve our sustainable retirement odds.

There are lots of things in life that we cannot control.  And humans in general are easily driven to distraction. We are busy texting, emailing, surfing the web, and all other manner of techno-gadget interruptions from phone, computer and office equipment around us.

It’s no wonder that folks find it difficult to focus on long-term planning.  We hear a snippet of news on the radio or watch a talking head wildly flailing his arms about one stock or another and think that this is the ticket to investing success.

For those who remember physics class and one of Newton’s great discoveries, you can just as easily apply the rules of the physical world to human financial behavior:  A body at rest will tend to stay at rest; a body in motion will tend to stay in motion.

For most investors, inertia is the dominant theme that controls financial action or inaction.  Confronted with conflicting or incomplete information, most people will tend to procrastinate about making a commitment to one plan or another, one action or another.  Even once a course of action is adopted, we’re more likely than not to leave things on auto-pilot because of a lack of time or fear of making a wrong move.

To get us to move on anything, there has to be a lot of effort.  But once a tipping point is reached, people move but not always in the direction that may be in their best interests. Is it any wonder that most people end up being tossed between the two greatest motivators of action – and investing:  Greed and Fear.

So while someone cannot control the weather (unless you remember the old story line from the daytime soap General Hospital in the 1980s), the direction of a stock index or the value of a specific stock, we can all control our emotions.

Easier said than done?  You bet.  That’s why you need to approach investing for retirement or any financial goal with a process that helps take the emotional element out of it.  And you need to develop good habits about saving, debt and investment decisions.

What Does Rich Mean To You?

So you say you want to retire rich?  Sure, we all want to.  But what does “rich” look like to you.  There are surveys of folks who have $500,000 or $1million in investable assets describing themselves as middle class.  There are those I know who live quite comfortably on under $30,000 a year and would never describe themselves as poor.

Be Specific

First you should get a good picture of where you expect to be and what kind of life you envision.  Be clear about it.  Visualize it and then go find a picture you can hang up in a prominent place to remind you of your goal every day.  (That’s why I have pictures of my family on this blog reminding me of why I do everything I do).

Appeal to Your Competitive Streak

We are better motivated when we have tangible targets for either goals or competitors.  Ever ride a bike or run on the road and use the guy jogging in front of you as a target?  Same thing here.

So assuming you know what your retirement will look like, you’ll be able to put a number to it.  Now find out how you’re doing with a personal benchmark.  One way is to go to www.INGcompareme.com, a public website run by the financial giant ING which allows you to compare your financial status with others of similar age, income and assets.  Or try the calculators found at the bottom of the home page for www.ClearViewWealthAdvisors.com. This might help give you the motivation you need to save more if needed.

Use Checklists

They can save your life.  And even the lives of your passengers.  Just ask Captain Sully who credits his crew with good training and following a process that minimized the distractions from a highly emotional scene above the Hudson River.

The daily grind can be distracting.  Often we may be unable to see the big forest because of the trees standing in our path to retirement.

So try these tips:

Mid-thirties to early 40s:

  • Target a savings goal of 1.5 times your annual salary
    • Enroll in a company savings plan
    • Take full advantage of any 401k match that’s offered
    • Automatically increase your contributions by 5% to 10% each year (example: You set aside 4% this year; then next year set aside at least 4.5%)
    • If you max out what you can put aside in the company plan, consider adding a Roth IRA
    • Get your emergency reserves in place in readily available, FDIC-insured bank accounts, CDs or money markets
    • Invest for growth: Consider an allocation to equities equal to 128 minus your current age
    • Let your money travel: More growth is occurring in other parts of the world so don’t be stingy with your foreign stock or bond allocations.  Americans are woefully under-represented in overseas investing so try to look at a target of at least 20% up to 40% depending on your risk profile

Mid-Career (mid-forties to mid fifties)

  • Target a savings goal of 3 times your annual salary
    • Rebalance your portfolio periodically (consider at the very least doing so when you change your clocks)
    • Make any “catch-up” contributions by stashing away the maximum allowed for those over age 50
    • Consolidate your accounts from old IRAs, 401ks and savings to cut down on your investment costs and improve the coordination of your plan and allocation target

Nearing and In Retirement (Age 56 and beyond)

  • Target savings of six times your annual salary
    • Prune your stock holdings (about 40% of 401k investors had more than 80% in stocks according to Fidelity Investments)
    • Shift investments for income:  foreign and domestic hi-yield dividend paying stocks, some hi-yield bonds, some convertible bonds
    • Map out your retirement income plan – to sustain retirement cash flow you need to have a retirement income plan in place
    • Regularly review and rework the retirement income plan that incorporates any pensions, Social Security benefits and no more than 4% – 4.5% withdrawals from the investment portfolio stash accumulated
    • Have a Plan B ready:  Know your other options to supplement income from part-time work or consulting or tapping home equity through a reverse mortgage or receiving pensions available to qualifying Veterans.

Don’t be afraid to get a second opinion or help in crafting your plans form a qualified retirement professional.  You can find a CFP(R) professional by checking out the consumer portion of the Financial Planning Association website or by calling 617-398-7494 to arrange for a complimentary review with your personal money coach, Steve Stanganelli, CFP(R).

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Like the mythical siren’s call, the pitch is enticing – a seemingly perfect investment.

Investors can buy into a contract offering a minimum return with the potential to capture the upside of increases in the stock market while avoiding portfolio value declines if – and when – the market goes down.

This blend of promises can be found in ‘equity-indexed annuities” or EIAs offered by insurance companies.

And these offerings have become popular given the steep declines in the stock market.  According to a report in the WSJ (9/02/09), sales of EIAs during the first half of 2009 rose 20% compared to a year ago to $15.2 billion.

As compelling as these products may sound, they are anything but simple.  There are many complicated moving parts to each EIA contract. So buyer beware!

Think of investing as finding the route to your destination (a goal) and matching that with the appropriate mode of transportation (or investment vehicle) to get you there.  You may be traveling from Boston to New York and can choose highways or back roads. You can choose hi-speed rail, a car, a bus, a bike or even a plane.  You can drive or fly yourself or hire someone else to drive. All will get you to where you want to go but it’s a question of what kind of comfort level you want on the ride, how much time you have to get there and at what cost – in fees or simply mental health.

For those who may not have the stomach for the gyrations of the stock market but are looking to be more venturesome, the EIA may be a suitable compromise. It’s sort of like someone hiring a driver for the trip but traveling on main roads while avoiding highways.

First, understand that an annuity is offered by an insurance company and backed by the credit-worthiness and deep pockets of the insurer.  There is no FDIC backing. This is not a bank product (although you may find them sold by brokers with desks in banks).

Next, understand that an index can be any benchmark for any asset class or market.  The most common benchmarks include the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA), the S&P 500 and NASDAQ in the US.  Overseas, indexes include the NIKKEI in Japan for instance.

An equity-indexed annuity (EIA) ties the amount that will be credited to an investor’s account to the performance of a particular index. 

But don’t expect to receive a one-for-one increase in your account value based on the index’s increase.  Instead, these contracts include a “participation rate” that sets a percentage of the index gain that is used.

The index-based interest credit may be further limited by “caps” that set a maximum amount of gain.

For anyone who has ever had an Adjustable Rate Mortgage, the process is very similar to how loan rates are recalculated.

Calculating the interest credit is further complicated by the method of measuring the change in the index value.  For instance, the insurer can determine the index change based on the “Annual Reset” – the difference between the index value at the beginning and end of each contract annual anniversary date.  Or a “point-to-point” method may be chosen that compares the index value at the beginning date with some future date like the fifth anniversary. Or the insurer will use “index averaging” taking multiple index returns and averaging them.

By the way, the index value won’t include changes resulting from dividends. While total return on the S&P 500 averaged 9.5% between 1969 and 2008, more than one-third of the return was attributed to dividends.  So these EIA market participation formulas will be calculated on a lower base when dividends are not considered part of the index return.

Typically but not always, there is a minimum amount of interest that is credited. But be aware that this minimum interest credit may not apply to 100% of the contract value.  It may apply an interest rate of 3% to only 90% of the value.  It may apply 1.5% interest to 85% of the total value.  It all depends on the terms of the contract.

EIA contracts have dual values:  the one based on the index value, participation rate and cap; the other based on the minimum interest credit.  And if you get out of the contract before the full term, you may be forfeiting the index-based account value. The insurer would then pay out the amount based on the minimum guaranteed portion which may be lower than what you expected compared to the index formula.

And how many football fans would be happy if their favorite team was on the 1-yard line and the referees moved the goal post?  Well, most EIA contracts reserve the right to unilaterally change terms reducing the participation rate or using stiffer lower, caps for example.

And most contracts have very steep surrender charges that can start at 10% to 15% of the contract value in the first year and declining from there for up to 10 years.

And be aware of the financial incentives that are part of these contracts.  Some EIAs offer “bonuses” to investors – an extra 5% or 10% added to the initial deposit.  But there is no free lunch.  In exchange for such a bonus, the insurer will likely increase the surrender penalty.  So as much as the bonus is an incentive to open the contract, the penalty is an incentive to not move the money out.

Follow the money, too.  Many EIAs pay out commissions to brokers between 6% and 10% and sometimes more.  An investor should be aware that there may be an incentive by a salesperson to offer this as a catch-all solution whether or not it fits the investor’s particular situation. 

The advantages to an EIA include the opportunity to participate in the upside of a market index as an alternative to investing directly through mutual funds for instance.  When an investor opens up an annual statement, there may be less apparent volatility because the account balances aren’t fluctuating wildly.  So this may help a conservative investor dip a toe in the market and sleep better.  And like most annuity products, investors have free access to a portion of their money without surrender charge (usually 10%). And like any other insurance product, it provides a guaranteed death benefit.  Like other annuities, it offers an income stream that you cannot outlive.

The average return on such EIA contracts has been reported to be in the 5%-6% range.  Given the complexities of these contracts and the average returns, it may be a costly way to limit your market exposure but it may make sense for those looking for a principal-protected CD alternative for the cash portion of their portfolios as well as a source of income to supplement retirement.

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