First Time Investor: What do I do?

I was recently talking to a family friend about his finances. He seemed very interested in getting started in investing money. Keep in mind, the family friend is turning 30 this year built up an emergency fund and is now looking to invest $3,500.

On top of that, the family friend does not know anything about investing. Now, I could have gone on and told him about IRA’s, 401(k)’s, and individual brokerage accounts, but I knew two things would happen:

  1. He would get bored with what I was saying and just want me to tell him what to do
  2. I would overwhelm him and he probably would put investing on the backburner for a while until he was able to “figure it out.”

Getting Started

So, what I told him was that it was very simple to sign up. All he had to have was a computer, over $3,000 in his bank account, and his estimated retirement age. With all of this available, he would be well on his way to building his retirement account.

The very first thing I suggested to him was to sign up for an account at Vanguard. He didn’t ask why, but if he did I would have told him this: Vanguard charges the lowest fees of any other mutual fund provider. Lower fees means more money in your pocket when you retire.

So, he signed up for an account at Vanguard. The next thing I had him do was sign up for a Roth IRA account. You can read more about why you should always choose a Roth IRA here.

Account ready and Roth IRA set up, he deposited his $3,500 into his Vanguard account. Then he asked me “What should I invest my money in?” Once again, I could have gone on a tangent about exchange traded funds vs. mutual funds and asset allocation, but I skipped the lecture.

I asked him, “When do you plan on retiring?”

He responded, “I don’t know, maybe around 60 I guess?”

“Okay, that’s all I needed” I told him.

I showed him Vanguards mutual funds, filtered “Asset Class” for “Balanced”, selected “Target Retirement 2045” and we were done. He has just made his first investment into a wide variety of stocks and bonds which automatically balances over time based on his risk profile, without him ever having to lift a finger.

Do you want to get started?

If you are a newbie just getting started with investing, picking a “Target Retirement” dated mutual fund is the simplest way to get started.

All you have to do is figure out your target retirement date, subtract your current age, and add that to 2014 and you will know exactly which fund to invest your money in.

If you are 24 years old and plan on retiring at 65, your Target Retirement date would be 2055. Viola! You are done.

Now that you know what to do, here is why you are doing it

Target Retirement date mutual funds are attractive for a number of reasons:

1. They automatically balance your portfolio for you.

You already know that you don’t want to put all of your eggs in one basket. By investing in a Target Retirement date account, you are investing in a wide variety of stocks and bonds, and effectively spreading your dollar out everywhere. This limits your risk of loss because of diversification.

2. As you get older, your investments become less risky

When you get closer to retirement, the last thing you want to worry about it giant fluctuations in the stock market destroying your investments. Target Date mutual funds become less risky as you move closer to your retirement date, making it less likely that you lose money. As a result, you will have a more stable, predictable income stream in retirement.

3. They are extremely simple to set up and manage

With Target Retirement mutual funds, you literally do not have to do anything at all except put money into the account. Every month you invest your savings into these accounts, and everything else is all taken care of. This is ideal for those who don’t know much about investments and do not care to learn about investments, but still want to retire comfortable.

That’s it!

There you have it. You just set up a retirement account that will do all of the hard work of investing for you. All you have to do is sit back and wait to reap the benefits.

What is anchoring and how can it make you spend money?

Anchoring is a psychological heuristic that influences your ability to assess probability and make decisions. Anchoring is the common human tendency to rely on the first piece of information which is available to them, known as the anchor.

In more general terms, anchoring is the idea that we start with some information, a specific number for instance, and then work our way from there to make a decision.anchoring makes you spend money

Case study

Drazen Prelec and Dan Ariely conducted an experiment at MIT in 2006 where they had students bid on various items, such as a bottle of wine, a cordless trackball, and a textbook.

They had student write down the last two digits of their social security number, and had them pretend that this was the original price of the item. They then held an “auction” where they asked each student how much they would pay for each item.

For example, if the last two digits of their social security were “82”, the student would write down 82 on the top of their page, and then write $82 next to every item listed on the sheet of paper in front of them. Once this was done, the professors would describe each product, and the students would write down how much they bid on each item.

Remarkably, the students with the highest social security numbers (from 80-99) bid the highest amounts and those with the lowest (1-20) bid the least amount. As a matter of fact, those who had a social security number in the upper 20 percent bid 216 to 346 percent higher than those in the lowest 20 percent!

The crazy thing about this study is that the student did not believe writing down their social security number next to each individual item would affect their bidding. However, that number next to each item subconsciously made the students spend more (or less) than their peers depending on how high or low their social security number was.

What does this study prove?

We are affected by the first number that we see when it comes to making a decision. Although you can deny it all you want, anchoring is a common way that people make decisions, especially when it comes to making a purchase. The study above, along with many others, have shown that people use the initial number as a starting point and then work their way up or down from there.

Businesses use anchoring to make you buy more

How often have you bought a product because it was 50 percent off? Or how often have you bought something from the grocery store just because it was buy one get one free, even though you didn’t really need it? Did you ever stop to wonder why you bought that product?

Anchoring is the reason we buy products that are on sale and listed so cheaply. We have an initial number in our head, and we work our way from there to make decisions. If you don’t have a number already in your head, manufactures will certainly remind you what retail price is.

How can you avoid anchoring?

Unfortunately, studies have shown that it is almost impossible for us to avoid anchoring. They show that the moment we are presented with an anchor, our minds are contaminated and have a tendency to always go back to that number.

Take gas prices for example. Personally, my anchor for gas prices is around $2.30, which is the price gas was when I first started driving a car. It was the first number that I was familiar with when I had to first pay gas, and every time the price of gas goes up I think back to the days when it was only $2.30 a gallon.

If I can’t avoid anchoring, what can I do?

Anchoring is hard to avoid. The fact is, we do it on a daily basis. One way you can avoid anchoring through your purchases is the ask yourself: do I need this? Sure, it’s great to see something that is 50% off, but does that change the fact whether or not you really need that item? Probably not.

Ultimately, the best thing you can do is be more aware of anchoring and seeing how it effects you in your everyday life as a consumer. By understanding that you make irrational decisions due to anchoring, you will be more likely to make wiser decisions in the future.

What purchases have you made due to the anchoring effect? 

Traditional vs. Roth IRA, Which one should I choose?

What is a Traditional IRA?

An IRA stands for Individual Retirement Account. IRAs are held at banks and brokerages and allow you to invest in almost anything you can imagine. The benefit of having a Traditional IRA is that you can deduct your contributions on your tax return.

What is a Roth IRA?

A Roth IRA is very similar to a Traditional IRA. There is one exception: the money you contribute to a Roth IRA is taxed today (you cannot take a deduction on your tax return for contributions), but it is not taxed when you withdraw any money in the future. Therefore, all money you take out of an IRA, included gains on your investments, are not taxed in the future.

How much can I contribute to my IRA?

When you have an IRA, either Traditional or Roth, the most you can contribute is the lower of $5,500 or your taxable compensation for the year. If your taxable compensation is below $5,500, then you will be limited to the amount of your taxable income for the year. If you are over the age of 50, you are allowed to contribute $6,500 to your IRA.

How much can I deduct on my taxes for my IRA?

The amount you can deduct on your taxes depends on one condition: Do you or your spouse (if married filing jointly or separately) have a retirement plan at work? If the answer is no, they you are allowed to deduct the full amount of your contribution to your IRA. If the answer is yes then it can be a bit tricky.

I have a retirement plan at work, how much of my IRA contribution can I deduct?

The following chart is provided by the IRS to help determine how much of your IRA contribution you can deduct when you are provided with a retirement plan at work:

If Your Filing Status Is…

And Your Modified AGI Is…

Then You Can Take…

single or
head of household

$60,000 or less

a full deduction up to the amount of your contribution limit.

more than $60,000 but less than $70,000

a partial deduction.

$70,000 or more

no deduction.

married filing jointly orqualifying widow(er)

$96,000 or less

a full deduction up to the amount of your contribution limit.

 more than $96,000 but less than $116,000

  a partial deduction.

 $116,000 or more

 no deduction.

married filing separately

 less than $10,000

  a partial deduction .

 $10,000 or more

 no deduction.

If you file separately and did not live with your spouse at any time during the year, your IRA deduction is determined under the “single” filing status.
married filing jointly with a spouse who is covered by a plan at work

$181,000 or less

a full deduction up to the amount of your contribution limit.

more than $181,000 but less than $191,000

a partial deduction.

$191,000 or more

no deduction.

married filing separately with a spouse who is covered by a plan at work

 less than $10,000

 a partial deduction.

 $10,000 or more

 no deduction.

By utilizing this chart, take your filing status and adjusted gross income, and you can see if you are allowed to deduct the full amount, a partial amount, or no amount.

When can I withdraw money from my IRA?

The IRS allows you to withdraw from you IRA (Traditional and Roth) without any penalties after the age of 59 1/2. If you do withdraw from your IRA before this age you will be hit with a 10% penalty on top of the taxes you owe to the IRS. There are certain exceptions that will allow you to withdraw money penalty free before the age of 59 ½, which I will discuss below.

How can I withdraw money from my IRA without facing a penalty?

  1. You are over the age of 59 ½ you can withdraw money from your IRA penalty free. ‘
  2. You use withdrawals to pay higher education costs for your spouse, your children, or grandchildren.
  3. You can take up to $10,000 (or $20,000 if you are a couple) to buy, build or rebuild your first home.
  4. You use money from your IRA to pay for medical expenses in excess of 10% of your AGI which are not reimbursed during the taxable year.
  5. You become disable and can no longer be gainfully employed.
  6. You die and leave it to an heir.
  7. Roth IRA – You can withdraw your contributions but not your earnings (interest and dividends accumulated) from your Roth IRA at any point in time.

How long can I contribute to my IRA?

If you have a Traditional IRA, you are allowed to make contributions until the age of 70 ½ years old. If you have a Roth IRA, you are allowed to make contributions as long as you are alive.

Should I choose a Traditional IRA or a Roth IRA?

When deciding between a Traditional IRA and a Roth IRA, it could be tricky. With a Traditional IRA you can deduct your contributions in the current year that you make them. This is appealing if you want to lower to tax burden in the current year. You would also want to choose a Traditional IRA if you believe you will be in a lower tax bracket when you are older. That way you limit your tax payments to the lower future tax rate. In addition, you can contribute to a Traditional IRA at any time without income limitations. This differs from a Roth IRA which does not allow you to make contributions if you make over a certain income level.

With a Roth IRA, you cannot deduct your contributions in the current year that you make them. However, you will not be taxed on the money you take out of a Roth IRA in the future. This is appealing if you think you will be in the same or higher tax bracket when you are older. In addition, you can take out your principal contributions at any time without facing a penalty.

When it comes to choosing retirement accounts, take your time. Consult with your accountant or tax professional and make sure you pick the retirement account that best suits your needs.