Investing in Bonds

Bonds are a common investment for people targeting a low-risk investment portfolio. One of the pieces of advice I gave my kids (see others in this post) is to never buy anything you don’t understand. In this post, I’ll tell you what you need to know so you can decide whether investing in bonds is appropriate for you.

What is a Bond?

A bond is a loan you are giving the issuer.  The parties to the transaction are exactly opposite of you taking out a loan. You’ll see the parallels if you compare the information in this post with that provided in my post on loans!  When you buy a bond, you are the lender.  The issuer of the bond is the borrower.

How Do Bonds Work?

The issuer of a bond sells the bonds to investors (i.e., lenders).  Every bond has a face amount.  Common face amounts are $100 and $1,000.  The face value of the bond is called the par value.  It is equivalent to the principal on a loan.  When the issuer first sells the bonds, it receives the face amount for each bond.

The re-payment plan for a bond is different than for a loan.  When you take out a loan, you make payments that include interest and a portion of your principal.  Over the life of your loan, all of your payments are the same (unless the interest rate is adjustable).   By comparison, a bond issuer’s payments include only the interest until the maturity date when it pays the final interest payment and returns the principal in full.

Before selling bonds, the issuer sets the coupon rate and the maturity date of the bond.  The coupon rate is equivalent to the interest rate on a loan.  The maturity date is the date on which the issuer will pay the par value to the owner of the bond.  It can vary from something very short, like a year, all the way to 30 years.  In Europe, there are even bonds with maturity dates in 99 years.  In the meantime, the issuer will pay coupons (interest) equal to the product of the coupon rate and the par value, divided by the number of coupons issued per year. Coupons are often issued quarterly. For example, if you owned a bond with a $1,000 par value, a 4% coupon rate and quarterly payments, you would get 1% of $1,000 or $10 a quarter in addition to the return of the par value on the maturity date.

What Price Will I Pay

You can buy bonds when they are first issued from the issuer or at a later date from other people who already own them.  You can also sell bonds you own if you want the return of your initial investment before the bond matures.  If you buy and sell bonds, the sale prices will be the market price of the bonds.

Present Value

Before explaining how the market value is calculated, I need to introduce the concept of a present value. A present value is the value today of a stated amount of money you receive in the future.  It is calculated by dividing the stated amount of money by 1 + the interest rate adjusted for the length of time between the date the calculation is done and the date the payment will be received.  Specifically, the present value at an interest rate of i of $X received in t years is:

The denominator of (1+i) is raised to the power of t to adjust for the time element.

Market Price = Present Value of Cash Flows

The market price of a bond is the present value of the future coupon payments and principal repayment at the interest rate at the time of the calculation is performed.

Interest Rate = Coupon Rate When Issued

The interest rate when the bond is issued is the coupon rate!  Because the issuer sells the bonds at par value (the face amount of the bond), the par value has to equal the market value.  For the math to work, the coupon rate must equal the interest rate at the time the bond is initially sold.

Interest Rates after Issuance

If interest rates change (more on that in a minute) after a bond is issued, the market value will change and become different from the par value because the “i” in the formula above will change.  When the interest rate increases, the price of the bonds goes down and vice versa.

Also, as the bond gets closer to its maturity date, the exponent “t” in the formula will get smaller so it will have less impact on the present value, making the present value bigger. As such, all other things being equal, a bond that has a shorter time to maturity will have a higher market price than a bond that has a longer time to maturity.  Remember that the par value is all paid at the end, so the market price formula is highly influenced by the present value of the repayment of the par value.

How is the Interest Rate Determined

There are two factors specific to an individual bond that influence the interest rate that underlies its price – the bond’s time to maturity and the issuer’s credit rating. In addition, there are broad market factors that influence the interest rates for all bonds.  These factors influence the overall level of interest rates as well as the shape of the yield curve.

What is a Yield Curve

The interest rate on a bond depends on the time until it matures.  If I look at the interest rates on US government bonds today (March 7, 2019) at this site, I see the following:

The line on this graph is called a yield curve.  It represents the pattern of yields by maturity.  In this case, there is some variation in yields up to 5 years and then the line goes up.

A “normal” yield curve would go up continuously all the way from the left to the right of the graph.  Up to five years, the chart above would be considered essentially “flat” and, above five years, would be considered normal.  If the entire yield curve went down, similar to what we see in the very short segment from one year to two years in this graph, it would be considered inverted.

Time to Maturity

The yield curve along with the maturity date of a bond influencethe interest rate and therefore its market price.  Looking at US Government bonds, the interest rates for bonds with maturities between 0 and 7 years are all around 2.5%.

The price of a 30-year bond will reflect interest rate of about 3%.  If the yield curve didn’t change at all, the same 30-year bond would be priced using a 2.5% interest rate in 23 years (when it has 7 years until maturity).  With the lower interest rate, the market value of the bond will increase (in addition to the increase in market value because the maturity date is closer).

Credit Rating

The other important factor that affects the price of a bond is its credit rating.  Credit ratings work in the same manner as your credit score does.  If you have a low credit score (see my post on credit scores for more information), you pay a higher interest rate when you take out a loan.  The same thing happens to a bond issuer – it pays a higher interest rate if it has a low credit rating.

Instead of having a numeric credit score, bonds are assigned letters as credit ratings.  There are several companies that rate bonds, with Standard and Poors (S&P), Moodys and Fitch being the biggest three.    When you buy a bond (more on that later), the credit rating for the bond will be quite clearly stated.

The graph below summarizes information I found on the website of the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank (FRED).

It shows the interest rates on corporate bonds with different credit ratings on February 28, 2019. As you can see, there is very little difference in the interest rates of bonds rated AAA, AA and A, with a slightly higher interest rate for bonds rated BBB.  Bonds with BBB ratings and higher are considered investment grade.

Bonds with ratings lower than BBB are called less-than-investment grade, high yield or junk. You can see that the interest rates on bonds with less-than-investment grade ratings increase very rapidly, with C-rated bonds having interest rates close to 12%.

What are the Risks

There are two risks – default and market – that are inherent in bonds themselves and a third – inflation – related to using them as an investment.


Default risk is the chance that the issuer will default or not make all of its coupon payments or not return the full par value when it is due.  When an issuer defaults on a bond, it may pay the bond owner a portion of what is owed or it could pay nothing.  The percentage of the amount owed that is not repaid is called the “loss given default.”  If the loss given default is 100%, you lose the full amount of your investment in the bond, other than coupon payments you received before the default.  At the other extreme, if the loss given default is only 10%, you would receive 90% of what is owed to you.

Issuers of bonds with low credit ratings are considered riskier, meaning they are expected to have a higher chance that they will default than issuers with high credit ratings. I always find this chart from S&P helpful in understanding default risk.

It shows two things – the probability of an issuer defaulting increases as the credit rating gets lower (e.g., the B line is higher than the A line) and the probability of default increases the longer the time until maturity.

These increases in the probability of default correspond to increases in risk.  Recall from the previous section that interest rates increase as there is a longer time to maturity when the yield curve is normal and as the credit rating gets lower. The higher interest rates are compensation to the owner of the bond for the higher risk of default.

When you read the previous section and saw you could earn between just under 12% on a C-rated bond, you might have gotten interested.  However, it has almost a 50% chance of defaulting in 7 years!  The trade-off is that you’d have to be willing to take the risk that the issuer would have a 26% chance of defaulting in the first year and a 50% chance by the seventh year!  It makes the 12% coupon rate look much less attractive.

Changes in Market Value

As I mentioned above, you can buy and sell bonds in the open market as an alternative to holding them to maturity.  In either case, you will receive the coupon payments while you own the bond, as long as the issuer hasn’t defaulted on them.  If you buy a bond with the intention of selling it before it matures, you have the risk that the market value will decrease between the time you purchase it and the time you sell it.  Decreases in market values correspond to increases in interest rates. These increases can emanate from changes in the overall market for bonds or because the credit rating of the bond has deteriorated.

If you hold a bond to maturity and it doesn’t default, the amount you will get when it matures is always the principal.  So, you can eliminate market risk if you hold a bond to maturity.

Interest Doesn’t Keep Up with Inflation

The third risk – inflation risk – is the risk that inflation rates will be higher than the total return on the bond.  Let’s say you buy a bond with a $100 par value for $90, it matures in 5 years and the coupons are paid at 2%.  Using the formulas above, I can determine that your total return (the 2% coupons plus the appreciation on the bond from $90 to $100 over 5 years) is 4.3%.  You might have purchased this bond as part of your savings for a large purchase.  If inflation caused the price of your large purchase to go up at 5% per year, you wouldn’t have enough money saved because your bond returned only 4.3%.  Inflation risk exists for almost every type of invested asset you purchase if your purpose for investing is to accumulate enough money for a future purchase.

How are They Taxed

There are two components to the return you earn on a bond – the coupons and appreciation (the difference between what you paid for it and what you get when you sell it or it matures).

Tax on Coupons and Capital Gains

The coupons are considered as interest in the US tax calculation.  Interest is included with your wages and many other sources of income in determining your taxes which have tax rates currently ranging from 10% to 37% depending on your income.

The difference between your purchase price and your sale price or the par value upon maturity is considered a capital gain.  In the US, capital gains are taxed in a different manner from other income, with a lower rate applying for most people (0%, 15% or 20% depending on your total income and amount of capital gains).

States that have income taxes usually follow the same treatment with lower tax rates than the Federal government, but not always.

Some Bonds are Taxed Differently

Within this framework, though, not all bonds are treated the same.  The description above applies to corporate bonds.  Bonds issued by the US government are taxed by the Federal government but the returns are tax-free in most states.

Some bonds are issued by a state, municipality or related entity.  The interest on these bonds is not taxed by the Federal government and is usually not taxed if you pay taxes in the same state that the issuer is located.  Capital gains on these bonds are taxed in the same manner as corporate bonds.

Included in this category of bonds are revenue bonds. Revenue bonds are issued by the same types of entities, but are for a specific project.  They have higher credit risk than a bond issued by a state or municipality because they are backed by only the revenues from the project and not the issuer itself.

The manner in which a bond is taxed is important to your buying decision as it affects how much money you will keep for yourself after buying the bond.  You should consult your broker or your tax advisor if you have any questions specific to your situation.

Do They Have Other Features

If you decide to buy bonds, there are some features you’ll want to understand or, at a minimum, avoid. Some of the types of bonds with these distinctive features are:

Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities or TIPS

TIPS are similar to US Government bonds except that the par value isn’t constant.  The impact of inflation as measured by the Consumer Price Index is determined between the issue date and the maturity date.  If inflation over the life of the bond has been positive, the owner of the bond will be paid the original par value adjusted for the impact of inflation.  If it has been negative, the owner receives the original par value.  In this way, the owner’s inflation risk is reduced.  It is completely eliminated if the owner purchased the bond to buy something whose value increases exactly with the Consumer Price Index.

Savings or EE Bonds

Savings bonds are a form of US Government bond.  You can buy them with par values of as little as $25.  They can be purchased for terms up to 30 years.  Currently, savings bonds pay interest a 0.1% a year.  The interest is compounded semi-annually and paid to the owner with the par value when the bond matures.   With the currently very low interest rates, these bonds are very unattractive.

Zero-Coupon Bonds

The issuer of a zero-coupon bond does not make interest payments.  Rather, when it issues the bond, the price is less than the par value. In fact, the price is the present value of just the principal payment.  So, instead of paying the par value for a newly issued bond and getting coupon payments, the buyer pays a much lower price and gets the par value when the bond matures.

I don’t know all the details, but believe that, in the US, the owner needs to pay taxes on the appreciation in the value of the bond every year as if it were interest and not as a capital gain on sale.  As such, it is better to own a zero-coupon bond in a tax-deferred or tax-free account, such as an IRA, a 401(k) or health savings account.  I’ve owned one zero-coupon bond – it was my first investment in an IRA.  If you want to buy a zero-coupon bond, I suggest talking to your broker or tax advisor to make sure you understand the tax ramifications.

Callable Bonds

A call is a financial instrument that gives one party the option to do something.  In this case, the issuer of the bond is given the option to give you the par value earlier than the maturity date.  When the issuer decides to exercise this option, the bond is said to be “called.”  The bond contract includes information about when the bond is callable and under what terms. If you purchase a callable bond, you’ll want to understand those terms.

Issuers are more likely to call a bond when interest rates have decreased. When interest rates go down, the issuer can sell new bonds at the lower interest rate and use the proceeds to re-pay the callable bond, thereby lowering its cost of debt.

In a low-interest rate environment, such as exists today, a callable bond isn’t much different from a non-callable bond as it isn’t likely to get called.  If interest rates were higher, a non-callable bond with the same or similar credit quality and coupon rate is a better choice than a callable bond. If the callable bond gets called, you will have cash that you now need to re-invest at a time when interest rates are lower than when you initially bought the bond.  (Remember that the reason that callable bonds get called is that interest rates have gone down.)

Convertible Bonds

Convertible bonds allow the issuer to convert the bond to some form of stock.  As will be explained below, stocks are riskier investments than bonds.  If you buy a convertible bond, you’ll want to understand when and how the issuer can convert the bond and consider whether you are willing to own stock in the company instead of a bond.

How Does Investing in Bonds Differ from Other Investments

There are two other types of financial instruments that people consider buying as common alternatives to bonds – bond mutual funds and stocks.  I’ll briefly explain the differences between owning a bond and each of these alternatives.

Bond Funds

There are two significant differences between owning a bond fund and own a bond.

A Bond Fund with the Same Quality Bonds Has Less Default Risk

If you own a bond fund, you are usually buying an ownership share in a pool containing a relatively large number of bonds.  Owning more bonds increases your diversification (see this post for more on that topic).  With bonds, the biggest benefit from diversification is that it reduces the impact of a single issuer defaulting on its payments.  If you own one bond, the issuer defaults and the loss given default is 50%, you’ve lost 50% of your investment.  If you own 100 bonds and one of them defaults with a 50% loss given default, you lose 0.5% of your investment.

A Bond Fund Has Higher Market Risk than Owning a Bond to Maturity

Recall that you eliminate market risk if you hold a bond until it matures.  Almost all bond funds buy and sell bonds on a regular basis, so the value of the bond fund is always the market price of the bonds.  Because the market price of bonds can fluctuate, owners of bond funds are subject to market risk.


When you buy stock in a company, you have an ownership interest in the company.  When you own a bond, you are a lender but have no ownership rights. To put these differences in perspective, owning a stock is like owning a share in vacation home along with other members of your extended family.  By comparison, owning a bond is like being the bank that holds the mortgage on that vacation home.

Stocks Have More Market Risk

The market risk for stocks is much greater than for bonds.  Ignoring defaults for the moment, the issuer has promised to re-pay you the par value of the bond plus the coupons, both of which are known and fixed amounts.  With a stock, you are essentially buying a share of the future profits, whose amounts are very uncertain.

Stocks Have More Default Risk

The default risk for stocks is also greater than for bonds.  When a company gets in financial difficulties, there is a fixed order in which people are paid what they are owed.  Employees and vendors get highest priority, so get paid first.  If there is money left over after paying all of the employees and vendors, then bondholders are re-paid.  After all bondholders have been re-paid, any remaining funds are distributed among stockholders.  Because stockholders take lower priority than bondholders, they are more likely to lose some or all of their investment if the company experiences severe financial difficulties or goes bankrupt.

Companies often issue bonds on a somewhat regular basis.  When a bond is issued, it is assigned a certain seniority.  This feature refers to the order in which the company will re-pay the bonds if it encounters financial difficulties.  If you decide to invest in bonds of individual companies, especially less-than-investment grades bonds, you’ll want to understand the seniority of the particular bond you are buying because it will affect the level of default risk.  Lower seniority bonds have lower credit ratings, so the credit rating will give you some insight regarding the seniority.

When is Investing in Bonds Right for Me

There isn’t a right or a wrong time to buy a bond, just as is the case with any other financial instrument.  The most important thing about buying a bond is making sure you understand exactly what you are buying, how it fits in your investment strategy and its risks.

Low-Risk Investment Portfolio

If you are interested in a low risk investment portfolio, US Government and high-quality corporate bonds might be a good investment for you.  As you think about this type of purchase, you’ll also want to think about the following considerations.

How Long until You Need the Money

If you are saving for a specific purchase, you could consider buying small positions in bonds of several different companies or US government bonds with maturities corresponding to when you need the money.  If you’ll need the money in less than a year or two, you might be better off buying a certificate of deposit or putting the money in a money market or high yield savings account.  If it is a long time until you’ll need the money and you think interest rates might go up, you’ll want to consider whether you can buy something with a maturity sooner than your target date without sacrificing too much yield so you can buy another bond in the future at a higher interest rate.

How Much Default Risk are You Willing to Take

If you aren’t willing to take any default risk, you’ll want to invest in US government bonds.  If you are willing to take a little default risk, you can buy high-quality (e.g., AAA or AA) corporate bonds.  You’ll want to buy small positions is a fairly large number of companies, though, to make sure you are diversified.

How Much Market Risk are You Willing to Take

If you are willing to take some market risk, you can more easily attain a diversified portfolio by investing in a bond mutual fund.  As mentioned above, you’ll want to consider whether you think interest rates will go up or down during your investment horizon.  If you think that are going to go up, there is a higher risk of market values going down than if you think they will be flat.  In this situation, a bond fund becomes somewhat riskier than buying bonds to hold them to maturity.  If you think interest rates are going to go down, there is more possible appreciation than if you think they will be flat.

High-Risk Investment Portfolio

If you want to make higher return and are willing to take more default risk, you can consider buying bonds of lower quality.  As shown in the chart above, non-investment grade bonds pay coupons at very high interest rates.  However, you need to recognize that you are taking on significantly more default risk. One approach for dabbling in high-yield bonds is to invest in a mutual fund that specializes in those securities. In that way, you are relying on the fund manager to decide which high-yield bonds have less default risk. You’ll also get much more diversification than you can get on your own unless you have a lot of time and money to invest in the bonds of a large number of companies.

Where Do I Buy Bonds and Bond Funds

You can buy individual bonds and bond mutual funds at any brokerage firm.  Many banks, particularly large ones, have brokerage divisions, so you can often buy bonds at a bank.  This article by Invested Wallet provides details on how to open an account at a brokerage firm.

All US Government bonds, including Savings Bonds and TIPS can be purchased at Treasury Direct, a service of the US Treasury department.  You’ll need to enter your or, if the bond is a gift, the recipient’s social security number and both you and, if applicable, the recipient need to have accounts with Treasury Direct.  US Savings Bonds can be bought only through Treasury Direct.  You can buy all other types of government bonds at any brokerage firm, as well.

How to Budget Step 9 – Monitoring your Budget

You may have thought you were done when you created and balanced your budget.  However, there is one very important step left in the budgeting process – making sure you are living within the guidelines set by your budget, i.e., monitoring your budget.  That is, are you earning as much income as you planned? Are you limiting your expenses to the amounts in your budget?  Did you put aside the savings you included in your budget, whether for expenses you pay infrequently, for retirement or something in between?

In this post, I’ll tell you how to use a new, budget-monitoring worksheet to compare your budget with your actual income and expenses.

Entering Your Budget

Since the purpose of the spreadsheet is to compare your actual expenses with your budget, the first thing to do is to enter your budget.  Most people find it easiest to monitor their budget on a monthly basis, even if they created an annual budget.  If you created an annual budget, you’ll want to divide all of the values in your budget by 12.

Once you have your monthly budget, you’ll enter it on the Budget Monitoring tab of the budget-monitoring spreadsheet at the link below.  Note that this spreadsheet is different from the one you used to track your expenses and create your budget, though many aspects of it will work the same as the budget creation spreadsheet (named Budget Template).

Enter Your Category Names

To enter your budget, enter the names of the categories from your budget in Column A starting in Row 8. Here are three different ways you can input your category names:

  1. Type the names directly into Column A.
  2. Use Excel’s copy and paste features to copy them from your Budget Template spreadsheet.
    1. On the Budget tab in your Budget Template spreadsheet, highlight all of your category names by putting your cursor on cell A11, holding down the shift key and moving the down arrow until all of them are highlighted. Let go of the shift key.
    2. Hold down the Ctrl key while you hit C or hit the copy button if you have one.
    3. Go to the Budget Comparison tab of the monitoring spreadsheet.
    4. Put your cursor in A8.
    5. Hold down the Alt key while you hit E, S and V or hit the paste-values button if you have one. If you just use a regular paste button, you will get errors because the cells from which you are copying have formulas in them.
  3. Link your monitoring spreadsheet to your Budget Template spreadsheet.
    1. Put your cursor in A8 of the Budget Comparison tab of your Budget Monitoring spreadsheet.
    2. Hit the equal sign on your keyboard.
    3. Go to the Budget Template spreadsheet.
    4. Go to the Budget tab.
    5. Put your cursor in A11.
    6. Hit Enter.
    7. Excel should return you to cell A8 of your Budget Monitoring spreadsheet.
    8. Hit the F2 (edit) key.
    9. Hit the F4 key 3 times. Hit Enter. There should now be no $ in the cell reference.
    10. Copy the formula in A8 and paste it in as many cells in Column A as needed until all of your category names appear.

When you enter the category names, make sure that the row with the total amount of income is called “Total Income,” the row with the expense total is called “Total Expenses,” and the difference between those two values is called “Grand Total.”

Enter Your Budget Amounts

Next, enter the monthly budget amounts in Column B next to each of the category names in Column A. You can use any of the three approaches described above for the category names. If you have an annual budget, you’ll need to divided the values by 12 before copying them if you use the second approach or add “/12” (without the quotes) in step (i) before you hit enter if you use the third approach.

Entering Your Actual Income and Expenses

You can enter your actual income and expenses using the same instructions as were used for entering them in the Budget Template spreadsheet.  See my posts on tracking expenses and paychecks and income for more details or review the instructions at the top of each tab.  Be sure to use the same category names as you used in your budget so all of your income and expenses will be included in the Actual column on the Budget Comparison tab.

For monitoring your actual income and expenses, you don’t need to enter the number of times per year you receive each type of income or pay each bill since your goal is compare what you actually received and paid with your budget.

Options for Expenses You Don’t Pay Monthly

Here are three different ways to monitor expenses that you don’t pay monthly:

  1. Enter them in the Monitoring Spreadsheet as you pay them and keep them in mind as known variances from your budget each month. This approach is the easiest to implement but also the least helpful for comparing your actual expenses to your budget.
  2. Adjust the budget amounts to reflect the amount of those expenses you expect to pay in each month. For example, if you pay your car insurance bill four times a year in March, June, September and December, you would
    • take your budget amount
    • adjust it to a full year if you budgeted on a monthly basis by multiplying by 12
    • divide the annual amount by 4
    • include the result in your budget for March, June, September and December
    • put 0 in your budget column in all other months

This approach is a little more complicated to implement, but will make comparing actual expenses with your budget much easier.

  1. Add an expense transaction every month equal to 1/12thof your annual expense on the Bank Transactions, Cash Transactions or Credit Card Transactions tab. In the months in which you actually make the payment, you’ll enter 1/12th of your actual annual expense.  If the total of the amounts you set aside in previous months differs from the amount you actually pay, you’ll need to include this difference in the actual payment amount in the month you make the payment. This approach is equivalent to moving money from your checking account to your savings account in every month you don’t have this expense and moving it back to your checking account in the month in which you pay the expense.

You can also use any one of the above approaches for income you don’t receive monthly.  If you use the third approach, you’ll put 1/12th of your actual annual income on the Income tab.

Monitoring Your Budget – What Happens When Your Actual Isn’t as Good as Your Budget

There are many reasons why your actual income and expenses might look worse than your budget.  You may have been planning to work overtime or get a second job to increase your income.  Those lifestyle changes can be challenging, so you might not have done them.

More likely, you spent more than you budgeted, either due to an emergency, an impulse purchase or difficulty in breaking long-standing habits.  Emergencies happen to everyone.  If possible, you’ll want to include building or re-building your emergency savings (see this post for more on that topic) in your budget. While overspending your budget can be problematic, especially if you do it continuously, don’t be too hard on yourself. Changing your spending habits is really hard.

A Few More Words about Budget

Congratulations!  You made it through the entire budgeting process. As I said in my first post on budgeting, staying on a budget is like being on a diet.  Just as every calorie counts, so does every dollar spent.  Sticking to your budget will increase the likelihood you will meet your financial goals, so do your best!

Download Budgeting Monitoring Spreadsheet Here

Traditional vs Roth Retirement Plans

The difference between Roth vs Traditional plans for retirement is primarily about tax rates. Other differences relate to when you can or must withdraw your savings.  With one exception, the same withdrawal rules apply to both 401(k)s and Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs), so I’ll refer to both 401(k)s and IRAs collectively as Roth and Traditional plans.  In this post, I will:

  • Describe the four different combinations of tax-advantaged retirement savings plans in the US.
  • Provide information about contribution limits.
  • Talk about the major differences between Roth vs Traditional plans.
  • Give you the nuts and bolts of the tax considerations so you can make an informed decision as to where to put your retirement savings.

Key Take-Aways – Roth vs Traditional Plans

While there are several differences between Roth vs Traditional plans, some of which may be important to some of you, the biggest difference has to do with when you pay taxes on the money you have saved.  As will be explained below, you pay taxes before you put money in a Roth plan and you don’t pay taxes on Traditional plan money until you withdraw it.

Characteristics that make a Roth plan a better option than a Traditional plan for you include:

  • Your salary and spending are likely to go up a lot before you retire.
  • You anticipate having a lot of taxable income in retirement, such as from a part-time job, a pension or savings not in a tax-sheltered retirement plan.
  • The expectation that tax rates will increase.

If none of these characteristics apply to your situation, a Traditional plan is likely to be better for your than a Roth plan.

Mechanics of Tax-Advantaged Retirement Savings Plans

In the US, there are two types of tax-advantaged retirement savings plans, each with two variations. 

Types of Plans

The two types of plans are:

  • Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs). An IRA is an account that you establish on your own at a bank, brokerage house or other financial institution that offers IRAs.  You make contributions to your IRA and can select one of many different choices for investments.  Allowed investment classes include stocks, bonds, real estate, mutual funds, ETFs, money market and other savings accounts and annuities, among other.
  • 401(k)s. A 401(k) is usually an employer sponsored plan, though you can open an individual 401(k) if you are self-employed. You can contribute a portion of your salary to the 401(k).  Many employers will match some or all of your contribution.  In a 401(k), you are restricted to the investment options offered by your employer, usually mutual funds and ETFs.

Two Variations

The two variations of each of IRAs and 401(k)s are Roth and Traditional plans.  When you set up an IRA, you have the choice of designating it as a Roth vs a Traditional IRA.  Your employer (or you if you have an individual 401(k)) determines whether to offer a Roth vs a Traditional plan.

Maximum Contributions

For 2019, the maximum combined contribution to all of your IRAs combined is $6,000, plus another $1,000 if you are 50 or older.  The maximum combined contribution to your 401(k) plan is $19,000 ($25,000 if you are 50 or older).  The 401(k) contribution limits apply to money you deposit in your 401(k) and excludes any funds contributed by your employer.

Major Differences between Roth vs Traditional Plans

There are four major differences between Roth vs Traditional plans.

  • Roth contributions are restricted if your income is high, as discussed below.
  • You pay a penalty on any withdrawals you make from Traditional plans before the year in which you turn 59.5.
  • There are required minimum distributions on all plans except Roth IRAs.
  • The timing of paying taxes on the money in Roth and Traditional plans is different.

Restrictions on Roth Contributions

If your modified adjusted gross income is more than a certain threshold ($137,000 for single taxpayers in 2019, $193,000 for taxpayers who are married filing jointly), the tax law does not allow you to put as much in a Roth IRA and, if your income is high enough, do not allow you to directly contribute to a Roth IRA. However, you can contribute to a Traditional IRA and then very quickly transfer the money to a Roth IRA.  This transfer is called a “roll over.”  If you fall in this category, I suggest talking to your tax advisor or broker to make sure the process follows the IRS rules.

Early Withdrawal Penalty on Traditional Plans

If you withdraw money from your Traditional retirement plan before the year in which you turn 59.5, you will have to pay income taxes on the withdrawal (see below for more) and you will have to pay a tax penalty equal to 10% of your withdrawal amount.

With a Roth plan, you can make withdrawals at any time without paying a penalty, as long as you are either at least 59.5 or you made contributions in each of the previous five years.  If you are younger than 59.5, you can withdraw your contributions without paying any tax, but will pay taxes on any investment earnings (interest, dividends or appreciation) on your contributions.  I’ve read in some places that the every withdrawal is assumed to be a mix of your contributions and earnings, but I read the IRS web site as saying that you are assumed to withdraw your contributions first and then any earnings. If you want to make withdrawals before you are 59.5, I suggest talking to a tax advisor to make sure you understand the tax consequences.

Required Minimum Distributions

All tax-advantaged retirement accounts, except Roth IRAs, have minimum distribution requirements. By April 1 of the year in which you turn 70.5, you need to start withdrawing money from these accounts.

The amount you need to withdraw is the balance at the beginning of the year divided by your life expectancy, as calculated by the IRS.  The same life expectancy is used for everyone, based on their age, except people whose sole beneficiary is their spouse and their spouse is more than 10 years younger.  For most people, your life expectancy, according to the IRS web site, in the year you turn 70.5 is 27.4 years. So, if you have $50,000 at the beginning of that year in a Traditional IRA or any 401(k), the minimum withdrawal would be $1,824.  The penalty for not making the minimum withdrawal is very steep – 50% of the amount that you were required to withdraw but didn’t!

Even though I am retired and able to start withdrawing from my retirement savings, this minimum distribution requirement difference between a Roth IRA and the other accounts has not seemed important to me, as I assume I will need to withdraw money from my other retirement plans to support my expenses.  I may change my mind as I get older and have to start making withdrawals, as these withdrawals may increase my taxes more than necessary if I have other funds available to cover expenses.

Dollars and Cents of Taxes

The biggest difference between Roth vs Traditional retirement plans is the way they are taxed. 

Taxes on Contributions

Briefly, Roth contributions are made with after-tax money, while Traditional contributions are made with pre-tax money.  After-tax money means that you have already paid income taxes on the money you contribute. Pre-tax money means that you do not pay income taxes on the money when you contribute it.

In practice, you can deduct the amount of any contributions to Traditional plans from your income on your tax return, but you don’t get to deduct Roth contributions.  The amount of your wages reported by your employer on your W-2 has usually already been reduced for contributions you have made to a Traditional 401(k).  There is a specific line on your tax return for Traditional IRA contributions.

Taxes on Withdrawals

You do not pay any taxes on withdrawals from Roth plans, but you do on Traditional plans.  Just the opposite of when you contribute the money.


If the tax rate applicable to your contributions and withdrawals (a lot more on that in a minute) were the same, it wouldn’t matter whether you put your money in a Traditional vs Roth plan!   For a Traditional plan, you contribute the amount you have available, earn a return and withdraw it after paying taxes.  That is:

Money in Traditional plan = Contribution x (1 + compound investment return) x (1 – tax rate)[1]

For a Roth plan, you start with the amount you have available, pay taxes on it, contribute what you have left, earn a return and withdraw it.  That is:

Money in Roth plan = Contribution x (1 – tax rate) x (1 + compound investment return)

Because you can change the order of the terms when multiplying (the associate property for math geeks like me), these two amounts are equal as long as the applicable tax rate when you make your contribution is the same as when you make your withdrawal.

What You Need to Know About Taxes

The Federal government and most states tax your income.  There is a small handful of states with no income tax.  Because state income taxes vary so widely, I will focus only on Federal income taxes.  If you want more information about your state income taxes (and you’ll want to know at least a bit about them for your decision-making process), I suggest visiting your state’s web site or contacting your tax advisor.

The Federal income tax system is very complicated.  In this post, I will focus on aspects of the calculation that impact your choice between Traditional vs Roth retirement plans.  As with state income taxes, if you have questions about your specific situation, I suggest you contact a qualified tax advisor.

There are two steps in calculating your Federal income tax.

  1. Calculate your taxable income.
  2. Determine the taxes that apply to your taxable income.

Taxable Income

Your taxable income is the sum of all sources of income minus your deductions.  


The most common sources of income include:

  • Wages
  • Interest and dividends, other than those from US Government bonds
  • Capital gains and losses
  • Pension income and withdrawals from retirement plans, other than Roth plans
  • A portion of your social security benefits, as discussed in this post
  • Self-employment income
  • Alimony

Reductions and Deductions

These amounts are reduced by a number of items, including the following:

  • Contributions to Traditional retirement plans
  • Contributions to Health Savings Accounts
  • Alimony paid
  • Some student loan interest

The total of your income excluding this amounts is called your Adjusted Gross Income.

You can then choose to either itemize your deductions or use the standard deduction.  The standard deduction is $12,000 if you file individually and $24,000 if you file jointly with your spouse.  (There are also separate thresholds for most aspects of the tax calculation for married filing separately and head of household.  I will not provide the specifics for these filing statuses.  You can find more information at

Itemizing your deductions is quite complicated.  Briefly, here are the most common deductions:

  • Medical expenses, but only the portion that exceeds 7.5% of your adjusted gross income
  • State and local income and property taxes, up to $10,000
  • Some or all of your mortgage interest
  • Charitable donations

People usually use the standard deduction unless their itemized deductions are higher than the standard deduction in which case they use their itemized deductions.

Taxable income is adjusted gross income minus deductions.

Calculating Your Taxes

For most people, the regular tax rates are applied to your taxable income.  People with high incomes and especially those with a large amount of deductions have to calculate a second tax called alternative minimum tax. According to the Tax Policy Center, a very small percentage of people with income between $200,000 and $1 million and about 10% – 15% of people with income more than $1 million will pay the alternative minimum tax. I am going to assume that most of you are not subject to the alternative minimum tax, so will not discuss it here.

If you do not have any dividend income or capital gains, you can calculate your taxes from tables provided by the IRS. 

Tax Table for Single Taxpayers

Here is the table for single taxpayers for tax year 2018.

Taxable Income is More Than: But Not More Than: Fixed Part of Tax Tax Rate Threshold Above Which Tax Rate is Applied
$0 $9,525 $0 10% 0
9,525 38,700 952.50 12% 9,525
38,700 82,500 4,453.50 22% 38,700
82,500 157,500 14,089.50 24% 82,500
157,500 200,000 32,089.50 32% 157,500
200,000 500,000 45,689.50 35% 200,000
500,000 150,689.50 37% 500,000

Tax Table for Taxpayers Who Are Married Filing Jointly

Here is the table for taxpayers who are married filing jointly for tax year 2018.

Taxable Income is More Than: But Not More Than: Fixed Part of Tax Tax Rate Threshold Above Which Tax Rate is Applied
$0 $19,050 $0 10% 0
19,050 77,400 1,905 12% 19,050
77,400 165,000 8,907 22% 77,400
165,000 315,000 28,179 24% 165,000
315,000 400,000 64,179 32% 315,000
400,000 600,000 91,379 35% 400,000
600,000 161,379 37% 600,000

How to Use Tax Tables

To calculate your taxes from these tables, you:

  • Determine the range in which your taxable income falls.
  • Take your taxable income and subtract the value in the last column.
  • Multiply the difference by the percentage in the second-to-last column.
  • Add the amount in the middle column.

For example, if you are single and your taxable income is $50,000, your tax is

($50,000 – $38,700) x .22 + $4,453.50 = $7,093.50

If you have dividend and capital gain income, the calculations are a bit more complicated as those types of income are sometimes taxed at different rates.

Key Points about Taxes as They Relate to Contributions

Let’s look at a couple of examples to see how Roth and Traditional retirement plans affect your taxes today. 

John’s Contributions

In the first example, John’s sole source of income is wages of $60,000.  He doesn’t have a lot of expenses to itemize, so takes the standard deduction of $12,000.  The table below compare the taxes he will pay if he makes contributions of $5,000 to either a Roth and a Traditional retirement plan.

Traditional Roth Difference
Wages $60,000 $60,000 $0
Deduction for IRA 5,000 0 5,000
Standard Deduction 12,000 12,000 0
Taxable Income 43,000 48,000 5,000
Tax 5,400 6,500 1,100


If we take the tax difference and divide by the difference in taxable income, i.e., $1,100/$5,000 = 22%, we get what is known as the marginal tax rate on your IRA contribution. A “marginal” rate is the amount by which the result changes if you make an addition or subtraction to one value in the calculation.  It differs from the average tax rate which would be the total tax divided by taxable income. For the Roth column, the average tax rate is 13.5%.  It is the weighted average of the 10%, 12% and 22% tax rates that are combined to determine your taxes if your taxable income is between $38,700 and $82,500.

The marginal tax rate will be important because it is the tax rate we need to evaluate whether you are better off making a contribution to a Roth or Traditional plan.

Jane’s Contributions

Let’s look at another example.  Jane’s situation is similar to John’s except she makes $90,000.  She also takes the standard deduction and has no other income. 

Traditional Roth Difference
Wages $90,000 $90,000 $0
Deduction for IRA 5,000 0 5,000
Standard Deduction 12,000 12,000 0
Taxable Income 73,000 78,000 5,000
Tax 12,000 13,100 1,100

Her marginal tax rate is also 22% (=1,100/5,000), calculated using the differences in the table above.

Key Points about Taxes as They Relate to Withdrawals

The key focus of the Roth vs. Traditional decision is how the marginal tax rate compares at the time contributions are made with the marginal tax rate at the time withdrawals are made.  So, now we will look at what John’s and Jane’s situations might look like if they were retired and making withdrawals.  For this part of the illustration, we will assume that there hasn’t been any inflation or changes in tax rates between now and the time they retire.

We will assume John’s Social Security benefit is $2,000 per month and he has expenses (including income taxes) of $60,000 a year in retirement.  His Social Security totals $24,000, so he needs an additional $36,000 from his retirement accounts to cover his expenses.  (He will actually need to withdraw more from a Traditional account to cover the taxes on his Social Security benefits and withdrawals, but I will ignore those for now as they add a lot of complication without having much impact on the conclusion.)

John’s Withdrawals

Let’s look at John’s tax calculation in his retirement.  As a reminder, a portion of your Social Security benefits become taxable if the value in the Test Sum row is greater than $25,000.  For more details on this calculation, see my post on Social Security benefits.

Traditional Roth Difference
Social Security benefits $24,000 $24,000 $0
Taxable Withdrawal 36,000 0 36,000
Test Sum = 50% of SS + Taxable Withdrawal 48,000 12,000 36,000
Taxable SS benefit 16,400 0 16,400
Adjusted Gross Income 52,400 0 52,400
Standard Deduction 12,000 0 12,000
Taxable Income 40,400 0 40,400
Tax 4,828 0 4,828

John’s marginal tax rate in retirement is 12% (=$4,828/$40,400).  He is better off if he contributes to a Traditional retirement plan, as he would reduce his taxes at a 22% marginal rate when he makes his contributions with the Traditional plans as compared to reducing his taxes at a 12% marginal rate when taking his withdrawals with the Roth plans.  That is, a Traditional plan is better if the marginal tax rate when you withdraw the money is less than the marginal rate when you contribute it.

Jane’s Withdrawals

Now we will look at Jane’s situation in retirement.  In her profession, most people she knows get significant raises between her age and retirement.  She anticipates that her salary will be more than $150,000 (before inflation) when she retires. With her higher income, her monthly Social Security benefit will be $3,000 or $36,000 a year.  Jane expects to have gotten accustomed to her higher salary so has estimated that she will have $120,000 a year in expenses.  She plans to save some money in taxable accounts (i.e., not in tax-advantaged retirement accounts) and will get a pension from her employer. These two amounts contribute $44,000 a year to her retirement income.  She will need to withdraw $40,000 from her retirement savings accounts to cover her expenses. Her tax calculation in retirement is as follows:

Traditional Roth Difference
Social Security benefits $36,000 $36,000 $0
Taxable Withdrawal 40,000 0 40,000
Other Taxable Income 44,000 44,000 0
Test Sum = 50% of SS + Taxable Withdrawal 102,000 62,000 40,000
Taxable SS benefit 30,600 23,800 6,800
Adjusted Gross Income 114,600 67,800 46,800
Standard Deduction 12,000 12,000 0
Taxable Income 102,600 55,800 46,800
Tax 18,914 8,216 10,698

Her marginal tax rate in retirement is 23% (=$10,698/$46,800).  In her case, her marginal tax rate in retirement is higher than when she makes her contributions, so she is better off putting her contributions in a Roth retirement plan.  That is, it is better for to pay the taxes at the lower rate before she contributes money to a Roth plan than to pay the taxes at a higher rate on Traditional plan withdrawals in retirement. 

How John’s and Jane’s Situations Differ

Jane’s situation differs from John’s in two ways:

  1. Her retirement expenses are expected to be much higher than her current salary, pushing her into a higher tax bracket in retirement than she is in today.
  2. She is funding some of her retirement expenses with other sources of income that are taxable which causes the marginal tax rate on her Traditional withdrawals to be higher than if all of her non-Social Security income were from her retirement plans.

How Taxes Have Changed

It is pretty clear that your spending when you retire would have to be much higher than your current income before a Roth retirement plan would be preferred under the current tax structure.  However, the tax structure changes frequently so it is impossible to know your marginal tax rate in retirement.  To shed some light on how much tax rates might change, I’ve compiled information from this site on historical tax rates.

Marginal Tax Rates Over Time

The graph below shows the marginal tax rate for four different taxable income levels: $40,000; $60,000; $100,000 and $200,000.  I adjusted these four amounts for inflation from 2018 back to each year shown in the chart. For example, the Social Security wage adjustment from 2000 to 2018 is 1.565.  I therefore looked up the marginal tax rate in 2000 for $25,559 (=$40,000/1.565) when creating the $40,000 line in this chart.

Tax rates prior to 1985 were much higher than they are today.  They were fairly constant from 1985 to 2014 with a few ups and down primarily at the higher income levels.  In 2015, the marginal tax rates for all but the $60,000 level in the chart increased. The increase for the $40,000 level brought the tax rate for people at that income to its highest level ever. In 2018, all of the tax rates decreased.

For people with taxable income in the $60,000 to $100,000 range, current tax rates are about as low as they have been in the past 35 years.  There is also a common sentiment that those with higher incomes should pay even higher taxes than they currently do.  Given the current financial condition of the Federal government, it seems more likely than not that tax rates will go up, making Roth plans more attractive.  One possible exception is people with lower incomes, e.g., at or below the $40,000 threshold in the graph, as their tax rates are high by historical standards.

How to Decide

Here are some guidelines you can use to decide whether a Roth or a Traditional plan is better for you. Characteristics that make a Roth plan better include:

  • Your salary and spending are likely to go up a lot before you retire.
  • You anticipate having a lot of taxable income in retirement, such as from a part-time job, a pension or savings not in a tax-sheltered retirement plan.
  • An expectation that tax rates will increase.

One suggestion I have seen that is interesting is to put some of your retirement savings in each of a Roth and a Traditional plan which you can do as long as the total doesn’t exceed the limit on contributions.  In this way, a portion of your retirement savings is protected from large increases in tax rates, but you still have the benefit of reducing your taxes now. This approach is similar to what I did. All of my 401(k) savings is in Traditional plans, while my IRA savings is all in a Roth plan.

[1]Here is a quick explanation of the (1 – tax rate) term in these formulas.  The pre-tax value is Contribution x (1 + compounded investment return) which can be thought of as Contribution x (1 + compounded investment return) x 1.  The tax on that amount is equal to Contribution x (1 + compounded investment return) x tax rate.  To get the after-tax return, we subtract the tax from the pre-tax value.   When we pull out the common term and group them (i.e., apply the distributive property of multiplication over subtraction for you math geeks), we get Contribution x (1 + compounded investment return) x (1 – tax rate).

How to Budget Step 8 – Refining your Budget

Very few people have a balanced budget on the first try.  This week, I’ll talk about how to refine your preliminary budget if it isn’t in balance.  I have been very fortunate in that it has been a long time since I found it challenging to meet my financial goals.  Also, I don’t know the specifics of any of your budgets, life-styles or financial goals. So, in this post, I will identify the changes you can make to refine your budget at a high level and provide links to articles by other financial literacy bloggers that provide a whole host of ideas on the specifics.  I hope that one or more of those articles will provide you with the ideas you need to successfully balance your budget.

The Bottom Line

The number on which you’ll want to focus is the Grand Total on the Budget tab.  If it is close to zero (i.e., within a percent or two of your total income) and you have incorporated all of your financial goals, you are done.  Otherwise, you’ll want to look at the section below that reflects your situation, i.e., whether the Grand Total is positive or negative, to learn how to refine your budget.

Your Budget Shows a Large Positive Balance

Congratulations!  If the value in the Grand Total line of the Budget tab shows a large positive number, you have more income than you are spending and saving.  You are among the fortunate few.

Before spending your excess income, you might want to review your financial goals.   Questions you could ask yourself include:

  • Do I have emergency savings of three to six months of expenses?
  • Are there other large purchases I’d like to make in the future?
  • Do I have enough savings to take maternity/paternity leave?
  • If you have children, am I saving for their education?
  • Have I studied the full costs of retirement and am I saving enough?
  • Have I contributed the maximum amounts to all of my tax-advantaged retirement savings accounts (IRAs and 401(k)s in the US, RRSPs and TFSAs in Canada)?
  • Do I want to retire sooner (which would require more savings now)?

If you still have a positive balance after your review, you can consider increasing your discretionary expenses (possibly a newer car or a nice vacation or the addition of a regular treat).  Of course, there is never any harm in increasing your savings.

Your Budget Shows a Large Negative Balance

A large negative balance is much more common than a large positive balance.  I wish I could give you a magic answer to resolve this situation, but there are really only three options.

  • Increase your income.
  • Decrease your expenses.
  • Borrow money either from a third party or by drawing down your savings.

Unless absolutely necessary, I suggest avoiding the third option.  If your expenses exceed your income and you make up the difference by borrowing either from your savings or a third party, you are likely to have a worse problem next year.  Unless either your income or expenses change, it can lead to a downward spiral.

Increase Your Income

Increasing your income can be a more effective way to balance your budget.  However, it has its own challenges and often requires a significant investment of your time and/or money.   Examples of ways to increase your income include:

  • Get a part time job, but make sure it won’t jeopardize your primary job.
  • Work overtime if you are eligible.
  • Make sure you are earning a competitive wage by looking at relevant salary surveys. If you aren’t, ask your boss for a raise, such as described in this post, or look for another job in your field that pays more or offers more benefits.
  • Consider getting more education that will provide you with the opportunity to make more money in the future. Some employers will pay for some or all of your tuition if the additional education is related to your job.  This choice is likely to cause more pain in the short term, but can produce large benefits.  As an example, check out this post.
  • Sell things that you don’t need. Here is a  post on this topic.
  • Start your own business. This option is one that I suggest you pursue only very cautiously if you already have a tight budget.  Starting a business can be very expensive, which of course will put further pressure on your budget.  Also, a large percentage of new businesses fail which means the owners lose money. According to Investopedia, 30% of business fail within two years of opening and 50% fail within five years.  Of those that survive, one source indicates that many business don’t make money until the third year.  If you want to start a side business, turning a hobby into a business is one of the most fun ways to do so.  Here is an article with some suggestions on how to do so.
  • There are hundreds of articles about “side hustles.” I’ve provided a few examples. There are lots of pitfalls with side hustles, including many that might end up costing you money rather than making it. So, as with starting your own business, I suggest exercising caution if you decide to proceed with one or more of them.

Decrease Your Expenses

To be blunt, it is hard to decrease your expenses.  Here are some tips on things to consider:

  • Separate your discretionary expenses from your required expenses. Required expenses include the cost of basic housing, a basic car, gas, groceries, medical care, insurance and the like.  Discretionary expenses are things you could live without, even if you don’t want to.  Here are several posts I’ve seen that provide ideas on how to cut back on discretionary expenses.
  • Review the amount you pay for your necessities to see if you can reduce any of these costs. Here are several posts that provide some ideas.
    • 40 Smart Ways to Reduce Your Monthly Bills
    • 5 Ways To Save $532.30 On A Tight Budget
    • This post focuses specifically on your cell phone bill.
    • This post discusses your energy costs.
    • I really like this post as it covers one of my biggest areas of savings – cooking at home instead of in restaurants. Here is another variation on the same theme.
    • Figure out how much you are spending to pay off your debts, particularly if you have a lot of credit card debt. Research ways to re-finance your debt to reduce interest rate or, if necessary, lengthen time to payment.  For example, if you have something you can use as collateral, a collateralized loan will have a much lower interest rate than your credit cards. See my post on loans to understand the factors that affect the interest rate on a loan and the sensitivity of your monthly payments to changes in interest rates and term.  This post has a lot of great information on re-paying student loans. I also like this post which talks about refinancing student loans – are you ready for it and some options.
    • There are dozens (hunderds?) of blogs on FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early). These bloggers tend to post their personal stories about how they are living very frugally so they can retire very early.  Although many of their approaches seem almost draconian, reading one of more of their posts might give you some ideas how you can cut back on your expenses.

There are a few other expenses you can adjust to balance your budget, but I suggest you do them only after you have fine-tuned your budget and looked into re-financing your debt.

  • Reduce the amount you set aside for savings. Clearly, covering the basics, such as food and shelter, take priority over meeting your longer-term financial goals.   Once you have covered those expenses, you’ll need to balance your short-term wants with your long-term goals.  For example, you’ll need to decide whether you want to spend more today on entertainment or put more into your savings so you can have the retirement you desire. The idea of foregoing things today to the benefit of something you will get in the future is called delay of gratification.  It is a difficult concept to implement in practice but is often a key to long-term financial success.
  • Avoid taking on too much more risk. For example, one way to save money on insurance (cars, homeowners/renters or health) is to increase your deductible, lower your limit of liability or, in the case of car insurance, not purchase physical damage coverage.  As I discussed in my post on making financial decisions, these choices reduce your upfront cost, but can have serious consequences in an adverse situation.  If your budget is tight, you may not be able to afford to pay your full share of costs in the case of a serious accident, damage to your home or serious illness.

Closing Thoughts

Working to refine your budget to bring it in balance can be a real challenge. If you can’t do it on the second or third try, be patient with yourself. Learning to be financially responsible is often a long, challenging process.

Social Security: How Much Will I Get in Retirement

Social Security is a key pillar in most American’s retirement plans, especially those approaching retirement.  Many younger workers, though, have serious concerns about whether they will receive any benefits at all.  Even at current levels, Social Security benefits are not enough to support most people.  Understanding what impacts your Social Security benefits and how much you might get, whether you plan to retire soon or not for many years, are important components in determining how much money you’ll need to save.

Key Take-Aways

Here are the key take-aways from this post.  I’ll discuss these points in greater detail below.

  • While it is likely you will be able to collect some Social Security benefits when you retire, regardless of your age, the current combination of Social Security tax rate, benefit levels and normal retirement age is unsustainable. It will not be possible to pay benefits at current levels starting in roughly 2034 unless there is one or more of (a) an increase in the Social Security tax rate, (b) an increase in the wages subject to the Social Security tax, (c) a decrease in benefits or (d) a delay in the normal retirement age.
  • If you retire soon and start collecting your Social Security benefits at your normal retirement age (67 for most of you), they will replace between roughly 15% and 50% of your ending salary, with those of you making more money getting a higher dollar amount but a lower percentage of your ending salary.
  • You can start collecting benefits any time between your 62ndand 70th birthdays. The longer you wait, the higher your monthly benefit.   If you could be sure that you were going to die before you were between roughly 80 and 82, you would likely be better off collecting benefits at age 62.  Otherwise, you are better off delaying the start of your benefits.

How Likely Am I to Collect Benefits?

The most recent report from the Social Security Administration covers actual results through 2017.  In 2018, benefits and expenses paid under Social Security were expected to exceed total revenues for the first time in many years.  Revenue to the Social Security system comes from taxes paid by employees and employers and from interest and principal from the Social Security Trust Fund.  Under middle-of-the-road assumptions, the Trust Fund is estimated to be depleted in 2034.

Changes in Birth Rates

The decreases in the Trust Fund are due in large part to the birth patterns in the US, along with the lengthening of life expectancies.  Currently, the baby boom generation is receiving benefits and the “baby bust” generation and its employers are paying taxes.  The graph below shows the number of births in the US by year[1] and, specifically, the numbers of births during the baby boom and baby bust time periods.

Contributors vs. Beneficiaries

The graph below shows the number of workers paying social security taxes and the number receiving benefits.

The green line (beneficiaries) goes up faster than the blue line (covered workers). The ratio of the number of beneficiaries per worker (purple line corresponding to right axis) continues to go up in this intermediate projection through 2095, though at a much slower rate starting in 2035.  The higher number of people born each year starting in 1990 who will be in the workforce and the relatively smaller number of people who will be retiring from the baby bust generation allow the ratio to flatten.

What Does This Mean?

Just because the Trust Fund is depleted doesn’t mean there will be more benefits paid.  In fact, the current intermediate estimate is that 77% of the benefits can be paid in 2034 from the taxes collected that year.

If the assumptions in the intermediate forecast are reasonable, something will have to change.  Four options are:

  • Increase the tax rate. It is estimated that the Trust Fund will stay solvent for at least 75 years if the tax rate is increased immediately from 12.4% (currently split between employers and employees) to 15.18%.
  • Decrease benefits. Either a 17% reduction in benefits for existing and future beneficiaries or a 21% reduction in benefits for future beneficiaries is estimated to allow the Trust Fund to stay solvent for at least 75 years.
  • Collect taxes on 100% of wages. Currently, you pay taxes on wages up to the same cap that is used in determining your benefits.
  • Increase the normal retirement age.

What Does This Mean for You?

Clearly, something will have to change between now and the time Millennials retire and certainly before most of us die.  It is unclear what combination of the changes above will be implemented.

When I do my retirement planning, I consider two scenarios – one in which I receive my full Social Security benefits using the current benefit levels and one in which I receive no Social Security benefits.  I’m sure that what will actually happen will be somewhere between the two, so if I can live without any Social Security benefits (maybe not as nicely as I’d like), I can be more confident of having my desired retirement if I receive some or all of them.

What Determines My Benefits

There are two steps in the formula for determining the monthly benefit you will get if you start collecting benefits at your “normal retirement age.”

Normal Retirement Age

The table below, from the Social Security Administration web site, shows the normal retirement age based on year you were born.

Year Born Normal Retirement Age
1943-1954 66
1955 66 and 2 months
1956 66 and 4 months
1957 66 and 6 months
1958 66 and 8 months
1959 66 and 10 months
1960 & later 67


For most of you, your normal retirement age is currently 67.  In the remainder of this post, I’ll use 67 as the normal retirement age.  If you were born prior to 1960, you’ll need to revise the statements for your normal retirement age.

Data Needed to Apply Formula

The first step in the process requires your total wages by calendar year since you first started working.  The Social Security Administration usually sends this information to you every year or you can get the information on line if you are willing to put your social security number in the Social Security Administration’s web site.

As an aside, I always laugh when I get my wage statement.  I worked for my father’s company when I was 14.  My mother did all the financial reporting and must have reported the $100 of cash wages I made because it appears on my statement!

The Details of the Formula

For each calendar year, the Social Security Administration has determined two numbers: (1) an adjustment factor for inflation between the calendar year and today and (2) a cap on the amount of wages that are considered in the calculation.  The maximum amount of wages earned in 2018 considered in the benefit formula is $128,400.  The caps going back to 1980 are shown in the graph below.

These amounts and the inflation adjustment factors can also be seen in the table on the second page of this pdf.

In the first step of the calculation, you take the lesser of the wages you earned and the cap for each calendar year.  You multiply the result by the inflation adjustment factor for every calendar year.

You then figure out the 35 years in which your adjusted and capped wages were the highest.  If your wages increased faster than inflation (for example due to merit raises and/or promotions), the most recent 35 years will be the highest.  You then calculate your average monthly adjusted wages as the sum of your adjusted wages using the amounts for the 35 years you identified as having the highest values and divide by 420 (the number of months in 35 years).

Currently, your monthly benefit is equal to the sum of:

  • 90% of the lesser of your average monthly adjusted wages and $926.
  • 32% of the lesser of your average monthly adjusted wages, reduced by $926, and $4,657.
  • 15% of your average monthly adjusted wages minus $5,583.

Illustrations of the Benefit Calculation

The maximum monthly benefit you can get if your normal retirement age occurred in 2018 is approximately $3,100.  You would receive this benefit if, in at least 35 years during your career, you earned at least the cap (i.e., $128,400 for 2018, divided by the inflation factors for prior years).

Dollar Amounts

The table below shows the monthly benefit you would get at your normal retirement age under a number of assumptions regarding (a) your starting wage and (b) how much more than inflation your wages increased each year, e.g., from job changes, merit raises or promotions.

Merit Raise %\Starting Salary $30,000 $40,000 $50,000 $60,000 $70,000
0% $1,337 $1,603 $1,870 $2,137 $2,361
1% 1,498 1,819 2,140 2,387 2,538
2% 1,702 2,091 2,396 2,578 2,745
3% 1,960 2,375 2,585 2,741 2,850
4% 2,287 2,543 2,706 2,820 2,897


Percentage of Wages Replaced

To put these values in perspective, the table below shows these benefits as a percentage of the 2018 wages for each of these combinations.

Merit Raise %\Starting Salary $30,000 $40,000 $50,000 $60,000 $70,000
0% 53% 48% 45% 43% 40%
1% 42% 39% 36% 34% 31%
2% 34% 31% 29% 26% 24%
3% 28% 25% 22% 19% 17%
4% 23% 19% 16% 14% 13%


This table shows that Social Security currently replaces between roughly an eighth and a half of pre-retirement earnings, with people earning less having a higher percentage of income replaced than those earning more.  Note, though, that people earning less get lower benefits in absolute dollars; they just replace a greater percentage of their pre-retirement earnings.

What if I Start Collecting Early or Late?

The benefit amount that results from the calculations above is what you will get if you start collecting benefits at your normal retirement age. Once you start collecting monthly benefits, they increase in most years for inflation (also, known as the cost of living adjustment). The adjustment is determined by the Social Security Administration based on changes in the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (known as CPI-W).   The graph below shows the cost of living adjustments since 1959.

Age-Based Adjustment Factors

If you choose to start collecting earlier (as young as age 62) or later (as old as age 70), that amount is adjusted.  The adjustments are:

  • For each month you are younger than your normal retirement age when you start collecting benefits, up to 36 months, your benefit is reduced by 5/9 of a percent or 0.56%.
  • For each additional month you are your normal retirement age minus 36 months, your benefit reduced is further reduced by 5/12 of a percent or 0.42%.
  • For each month you are older than your normal retirement age when you start collecting benefits, your benefit is increased by 8/12 of a percent or 0.67%.

The table below provides the factors that apply if you start your benefits in your birthday month, assuming your normal retirement age is 67.

Age when Benefits Start Adjustment Factor
62 0.70
63 0.75
64 0.80
65 0.87
66 0.93
67 1.00
68 1.08
69 1.16
70 1.24



For example, if the monthly benefit starting at your normal retirement age is $2,500, your benefit if you started at age 62 would be $1,750 adjusted for changes in the cost of living between the year you turned 62 and your normal retirement age.  By the time you attained your normal retirement age, you would be receiving 30% (= 1 – 0.7) less than if started collecting your benefits at your normal retirement age.

Similarly, if the monthly benefit starting at your normal retirement age is $2,500, your benefit if you started at age 70 would be $3,100 (= $2,500 increased by 24%) plus changes in the cost of living between the year you turned 67 and your normal retirement age.

If you assume that you can earn an annual after-tax return of 3% on your retirement savings, you are better off starting your benefits at age 62 if you die before you turn 79.  If you die after you turn 82 with the same 3% return, you are better off starting your benefits at age 70.  As your after-tax return assumption increases, the ages at death increase. At a 6% after-tax return, the ages shift upwards by three years. Of course, none of us know when we are going to die, but might have some indication based on our overall health and family history.

Are Social Security Benefits Taxed?

Determining income taxes on Social Security benefits is complicated.  Because my purpose here is to give you an overview, I will provide a slightly simplified version.  If you are interested in the details, I suggest contacting your tax advisor or reviewing IRS Publication 915 available on the IRS web site.

The Formula

The first step in determining how much of your Social Security benefits will be subject to tax is to calculate the total of all of your taxable income (e.g., distributions from traditional IRAs and 401ks, taxable interest, dividends and capital gains, and any wages and pension income).  In the calculation that determines how much of your benefits are subject to income taxes, you add 50% of your social security benefits to your total taxable income.  I will call this total the Test Sum.

The table below shows what portion of your 2018 social security benefits would be subject to tax based on the value of the Test Sum

Test Sum Portion of SS benefits subject to tax
<= $25,000 None
Between $25,000 and $34,000 50% of the lesser of your SS benefit and (Test Sum – $25,000)
>$34,000 The lesser of 85% of your SS benefit and $4,500 plus 85% of (Test Sum – $34,000)


Here is an example.

  • Mary started collecting Social Security benefits in January 2018.
  • In 2018, she collected $25,000 of Social Security benefits.
  • She took $23,000 from her Traditional IRA so the sum of her Social Security benefits and IRA distributions equaled 80% of her pre-retirement salary.

Her Test Sum is $23,000 + 50% of $25,000 or $35,500.  She falls in the highest category in the table so would pay tax on the lesser of 85% of her Social Security benefit (= $25,000 x 0.85 = $21,250) and $4,500 plus 85% of the excess of Test Sum over $34,000 (= $4,500 + .85 x ($35,000 – $34,000) = $4,500 + $850 = $5,350).  Because $5,350 is less than $21,250, she will pay taxes on $5,350 of her Social Security benefit.

If, instead, Mary had no IRA withdrawals and no other income, she would fall in the lowest category in the table and would pay tax on none of her Social Security benefit. At the other extreme, if she had other taxable income of $100,000, she would pay tax on 85% of her Social Security benefit or $21,250.

Next week, I’ll talk about how Social Security benefits affect your decision as to whether to use a Traditional or Roth account for your retirement savings.

[1], February 21, 2019.

How to Budget Step 7 – Creating your Budget

You made it!  This week your only task will be to create a first draft of your budget.  

Budgeting can be challenging as you try to balance your long-term goals with your short-term needs and wants.  As such, I suggest creating it in two steps. This week I’ll provide guidance on creating the first draft of your budget.  Next week’s post will talk about how to refine it.

Practical Steps

To create your budget, you will enter values in Column D of the Budget tab of your spreadsheet.  As long as you don’t enter values in Column D of any of the “Total” rows, the formulas will automatically calculate those values.

While the spreadsheet was built to be fairly flexible, one of its weaknesses is that it is not easy to add or delete income or expense categories once you have started entering your budget amounts.  So, before you get started, I suggest making a final review of the line items on the Budget tab. If you need to make changes, you can look back at last week’s post for the instructions.

If you find you need to add or delete a line after you have entered budget amounts, here’s what you’ll need to do:

  1. Make a note of the budgeted amounts of all of the line items you’ve entered.  
  2. Add or delete the line item name according the instructions in the last week’s post.
  3. Copy the formula from cell D110 to all of the cells into which you previously typed values.  You can copy a formula by:
    1. Going to cell D110.
    2. Holding down the Ctrl key and hitting C.
    3. Moving your cursor to cell D11.
    4. Holding down the shift key and then hitting the down arrow until all of the cells into which you entered values are highlighted.
    5. Holding down the Ctrl key and hitting V.
  4. Re-enter the budget amounts that you noted.

If you don’t take this approach, some or all of your category names in Column A will change rows, but your budgeted amounts in Column D will stay in the same rows.  You’ll end up with a mismatch between category names and budget amounts.

Budget Amounts

For each line item in your budget, you’ll need to select a budget amount.  These selections will require your informed judgment. Things to consider in making your selection include:

  • How much you’ve recorded in each category over the past several weeks, as shown in Column B.
  • Any changes in your income or expenses you anticipate in the next several months.  
    • Some of these changes might result from life changes – a new job, moving, getting a roommate, getting married, having children or the like.
    • Other changes might result from intentional changes in your habits – fewer meals in restaurants, hiring a cleaning service, newly carpooling, among others.
    • You’ll also have changes from prior expenses if you change your spending or income to better align with your financial goals.
  • If you’ve used the tax approximation, the amounts in Column C for Federal and State/Provincial income taxes.
  • The goals you set as described in my post on setting financial goals.  You might want to increase one or more of your emergency savings, savings for a designated purchase (vacation, house, new car) or long-term or retirement savings.

Final Steps for This Week

Once you have completed your first draft, take a look at the value in Column D of the Grand Total row.  If that value is positive, it means you have more income than expenses and additions to savings. If it is negative, your expenses and savings goals are higher than your income.  Next week, I’ll talk about things you can do so the value is close to zero.


The Basics of Loans

Loans are the financial instrument people use to borrow money.  Whether they are getting a mortgage to buy a house, borrowing money to buy a car or other large purchase, not paying off their credit card in full or borrowing money from a friend, they are taking out a loan.  In this post, I will:

  • introduce the key terms
  • describe how loans work
  • identify the factors that determine your monthly payment
  • talk about some common borrowing mistakes

In future posts, I’ll provide more specifics about car loans, mortgages and credit cards.

Key Terms

There are four basic terms common to almost all loans.  They are:

  • Down payment – The amount you have to pay in cash up front for your purchase.  For large purchases, such as homes, condos and vehicles, the lender requires that you pay for part of the purchase immediately.  This amount is the down payment. The lender wants you to have a financial interest in maintaining your purchase so it doesn’t lose value (as in the case of a residence) or lose value more quickly than expected (as in the case of a car).  For some other types of loans, no down payment is needed. Examples of such loans are student loans, credit card balances and personal lines of credit.
  • Principal – The amount you borrow.
  • Interest rate – The percentage that is multiplied by the portion of the principal you haven’t repaid yet to determine the amount of interest you owe.  Interest rates are usually stated as annual percentages. They are divided by 12 to determine the interest that is due each month.
  • Term – The time period over which you re-pay the loan.

Loan Basics

How the Money Moves

When you borrow money, the lender usually pays a third party on your behalf.  For example, when you buy a home or use a credit card, the lender gives the money directly to the seller or its escrow agent.  For some loans, the lender gives the money to you, such as with a line of credit. The amount of money the lender gives you or pays on your behalf is the principal.

You then re-pay the loan by paying the lender periodically (usually monthly or bi-weekly).  For most loans, you start making payments immediately. For some loans, though, such as student loans and some car loans, you don’t have to make payments right away.  Most student loans don’t require any re-payments until after graduation. When entering into a loan that doesn’t require immediate payments, it is critical to understand whether interest will be adding up between the time you enter into the loan and the time you start making payments.  Several years of interest, even at a low rate, can increase the amount you need to re-pay substantially.

Payments Include Principal and Interest

Part of each payment is the interest the lender charges you for letting you use its money.  The rest covers repayment of the principal. For example, if you borrowed $20,000 (the principal) at 5% (the interest rate) and started making monthly payment right away, the lender would calculate the interest portion of your first payment as 5% divided by 12 (months) times $20,000 or $83.33.  Your monthly payment also includes some principal. If you have a 10-year term on this loan, your monthly payment will be $212.13. In this case, you will re-pay $128.80 ($212.13 – $83.33) of principal in the first month.

In the second month, you’ll pay interest on $19,871.20 which is the original $20,000 you borrowed minus the $128.80 of principal you paid in the first month.  Your interest payment will be $82.80 and your principal payment will be $129.33. Every month, you will pay more principal and less interest. The chart below shows the mix of interest and principal in each of the 120 payments of your 10-year loan.

Factors that Determine Your Monthly Payment

The monthly payment on a loan is a function of three numbers:

  • Interest rate – the higher the rate, the higher your monthly payment.
  • Principal – the more you borrow, the higher your monthly payment.
  • Term – the longer the term, the less your monthly payment.

Sensitivity to Interest Rate and Term

The table below shows the monthly payment on a $20,000 loan for a variety of combinations of interest rates and terms.

Term (in years) Interest Rate
3% 5% 7% 9%
5 359 377 396 415
10 193 212 232 253
20 111 132 155 180
30 84 107 133 161

The amount of principal for all of the loans in the table above is $20,000.  Therefore, when the total amount of your payments increases, it is because you are paying more interest.  The table below shows the total amount of interest you would pay for each of the same combinations of interest rates and terms.

Term (in years) Interest Rate
3% 5% 7% 9%
5 1,562 2,645 3,781 4,910
10 3,175 5,456 7,866 10,402
20 6,621 11,678 16,214 23,187
30 10,355 18,651 27,902 37,933

Even with the loans with interest rates as high as 9% have much higher payments and total interest than loans with lower interest rates. The interest rates charged on credit cards are often even higher than 9%. This table shows the importance of avoiding the use of credit card debt and refinancing your credit card debt through another lender if it is very large, if at all possible.

What Determines the Interest Rate?

There are several factors that determine your interest rate.

The Economy

The first is the economic environment. If interest rates, such as those on government bonds, are high, the interest rate you will be charged will be also be high.  The US government is considered to have almost no risk of not re-paying it loans, whereas individuals have varying levels of risk. The higher the risk that a loan won’t be re-paid, the higher the interest rate.  Therefore, most loans to individuals have an interest rate that is higher than the interest rate on a US government note, bill or bond with the same maturity.

Credit Score

Along the same line, your credit score is also an important factor in determining your interest rate.  When you have a higher your credit score, lenders believe the risk you won’t re-pay the loan is lower so they charge you a lower interest rate.  My post on credit scores provides lots of details on how to improve your score.


A third factor in determining the interest rate is whether or not you pledge collateral and how much it is worth relative to the amount of the loan.  If you pledge collateral, the lender can take it from you if you fail to make your payments. Examples of loans that automatically have collateral are vehicle loans and mortgages.  On those loans, the lower the ratio of the principal to the value of the collateral, the lower the interest rate. That is, if you make a larger down payment on a particular house, your interest rate is likely to be lower than if you make a smaller down payment.  Examples of loans that don’t have collateral are credit cards and student loans. When there is no collateral, interest rates tend to be higher than when you pledge collateral.


Another approach for reducing your interest rate is to have someone with a better credit score co-sign your loan.  The co-signer is responsible for making your payments if you don’t. For young people, parents are the most common co-signers.

The Math behind Your Monthly Payment

In this section, I’ll briefly explain the math that determines your monthly payment and will provide a bit of information about the Excel formulas you can use.  Feel free to skip to the next section on common borrowing mistakes if you aren’t interested in this aspect of loans!

Present Values

The fundamental concept underlying the determination of the monthly payment on a loan is that the sum of the present values at the loan interest rate of the monthly payments on the day the loan is issued is equal to the principal.  A present value tells the values today of a stated amount of money you receive in the future. It is calculated by dividing the stated amount of money by 1 + the interest rate adjusted for the length of time between the date the calculation is done and the date the payment will be received.  Specifically, the present value at an interest rate of I of $X received in t years is:

The denominator of (1+i) is raised to the power of t to adjust for the time element.

The present value of all of your loan payments is then:

where t is the number of months until each payment and i is the annual interest rate.

Solving for Your Monthly Payment

This amount is set equal to the principal.  The monthly payment can be calculated using a financial calculator, such as in Excel, or mathematically.  The Excel formula is pmt(i/12, t, X). It will give you the negative of your monthly payment. ipmt and ppmt return the portion of each payment that is interest and principal, respectively.  In month y, the interest is ipmt(i/12, y, t, X).

For those of you who really like math, you can also calculate the monthly payment directly.  If payments were made forever (an infinite series), the sum above would equal X/i. We need to eliminate the infinite series of payments after the end of the loan to determine the present value of the loan payments.  Those payments have a present value of X/i divided by (1+i)term.  If we subtract the present value of the payments after the loan term ends from the present value of the infinite series, we get

That is a bit of a messy formula, but, having gotten rid of the big sum, it can be solved using a fairly basic calculator.

Common Borrowing Mistakes

Some people end up in difficult financial situations, in bankruptcy or even homeless due to poor borrowing decisions.  A few of the more common mistakes are identified below.

Not Understanding the Terms

Many mistakes result from not reading or not understanding the loan agreement.  For example, some loans (mortgages in particular) have teaser rates or adjustable interest rates.  If the interest rate goes up on your existing loan at some point in the future, your payments will also go up.  If you have an adjustable interest rate on a loan, you want to make sure you’ll be able to afford higher payments if interest rates increase.

Another example of a loan provision that can be problematic is a balloon payment.  Under some loans, the monthly payment is calculated as if the loan has a long term, such as 15 or 30 years.  However, after a shorter period of time, say 5 or 10 years, the remainder of the principal must be re-paid and the loan terminates.  If you haven’t built up enough cash to re-pay the principal or can’t get another loan at a rate you can afford, you might default on your loan.

High Cost of Ownership

Many things that people buy with a loan come with other costs that they haven’t considered and might not be able to afford.  For example, when you buy a car, you not only have to make your car payments, but also will need to pay for insurance (including physical damage coverage at a fairly low deductible if required by the lender), gas and maintenance.  Similarly, while you may be able to fit your mortgage payment in your budget, you also need to be able to afford the costs of utilities, homeowners insurance and maintenance. In some cases, these additional costs lead to financial difficulties.

Mistakes that Increase Monthly Payments

Some mistakes cause people to have higher payments than necessary.  For example, if you take out a personal loan from a bank, you often have the option to post collateral.  If you do so, your interest rate is likely to be lower, possibly by as much as 50%.

Another way people end up with monthly payments that are higher than they need to be is to take out a loan that is bigger than necessary.  For example, if you can afford to make a larger down payment than you actually make, the principal on your loan will be higher which increases your monthly payment.  Many loans have pre-payment penalties which make it cost-prohibitive to pre-pay your principal to bring it back in line with the amount you should have borrowed in the first place. Also, if the lower down payment increases the ratio of the principal to the value of your home by too much, it will also increase your interest rate which further increases your payment.

Overestimating the Value of Your Collateral

Another problem people encounter is an inability to borrow as much as they need because they overvalue their collateral.  Common issues that arise include:

  • Lenders get their own appraisals of houses.  The lender’s appraisal is often lower than the purchase price and sometimes even lower than the assessed value.  If the appraisal is less than the purchase price, the buyer must increase his or her down payment so the ratio of the loan to the appraised value is within the lender’s limits.  Even worse, some banks won’t issue the mortgage at all if the difference between the appraisal and the purchase price is too big, even if you increase your down payment. In those situations, you need to either find another lender or re-negotiate your purchase price.
  • Lenders use the National Auto Dealers Association (NADA) Guides to value used cars.  These values can be different from Kelley Blue Book. In particular, the NADA Guides adjust the value based on the specific location of the vehicle.  Also, the values in the NADA guides assume that the vehicle is in pristine condition for its age. If it has had any heavy use at all, the lender will reduce the value before determining the value of the collateral.
  • For used cars, washed titles are also a problem.  When a car has been severely damaged, its title is changed from the more typical “clean” title to a salvage title.  However, when a car’s title is transferred from state to state, its damage history can get sometimes get lost as some states do not require salvage titles.  However, other sources, such as CARFAX, maintain the information about the damage. Lenders will check these other sources before determining the value of the collateral.

While collateral helps reduce the interest rate on your loan, it is important to consider these points in determining the value of your collateral.

How to Budget Step 6 – Reviewing your Expenses

You’re almost there!  Only one more week until I describe how to create your budget.  Before you can do that, you’ll want to make sure that the income and expenses you’ve entered don’t have too many mistakes.  In this post, I’ll talk about things to review to make sure you have an accurate starting point for your budget.

Before getting to that topic, here are your budgeting tasks for this week:

  1. Continue using and refining your expense tracking system.
  2. Continue to enter your income and expenses into the spreadsheet.
  3. Make sure to update the number of months you have been entering information on the Basic Inputs tab.
  4. Review the first two columns of the Budget tab, as described in the rest of this post.

Make Sure Categories are Right

Over the past several weeks, you’ve been entering the category name with each income and expense line item.  Mistakes I’ve made include using more than one variation on some of my category names, such as household expense and household supplies.  I also sometimes misspell one or more of category names.

If you’ve made similar mistakes, you’ll want to correct these mistakes so you have exactly one line in your budget for each type of income and expense.  Here are the steps to find and correct these mistakes:

  1. Go to the Budget tab.
  2. Review the category names to see if there is more than one row in Column A that corresponds to the same category.
  3. If there is, figure out which category name you want to use.
  4. Make note of all of the incorrect names.
  5. Go to each of the Bank Transactions, Cash Transactions, Credit Card Transactions, Less-Than-Monthly Expenses, and Income tabs.
  6. Hold down the Alt Key and hit E.
  7. Hold down the Alt Key and hit F.
  8. Enter one of the incorrect names in the box next to “Find What.”
  9. Hit the Find Next button.
  10. Any time Excel finds the incorrect category name, replace it with the correct name.
  11. Repeat steps 9 and 10 on each of the tabs listed in Step 5 until the incorrect label no longer appears on the Budget tab.
  12. Then repeat steps 6 through 11 for any other incorrect names.

You’ll know you are done when each category name appears exactly once on the Budget tab.

Make Sure Amounts Look Reasonable

Once all of the category names appear only once and have the names you want, you’ll want to make sure that the values in Column B look reasonable.  These values are the totals of the values you entered on the various tabs, adjusted to either an annual or monthly basis depending on the choice you made in Cell B5 on the Basic Inputs tab.  Two reasons these amounts could look wrong are (1) you entered the wrong amount for a transaction or (2) you entered an incorrect value in the “How Many Times a Year” column.

If a number looks too high or too low, you can use the following steps to help find the problematic input:

  1. Identify the category name in Column A of any value in Column B that looks too high or too low.
  2. Go to each of the Bank Transactions, Cash Transactions, Credit Card Transactions, Less-Than-Monthly Expenses, and Income tabs.
  3. Hold down the Alt Key and hit E.
  4. Hold down the Alt Key and hit F.
  5. Enter a category name that has an unexpected value in the box next to “Find What.”
  6. Hit the Find Next button.
  7. Look in the Amount column of any row in which Excel finds your category name.
  8. Does the amount look right? Common entry errors are to transpose digits (i.e., enter them in the wrong order) and put the decimal point in the wrong place.
  9. Fix any errors in the amount.
  10. Look in the “How Many Times a Year” column.
  11. This column can be blank for any row that contains an expense you pay every month.
  12. For payments made less than once a month, the entries in this column should be the numbers of times per year you make payments of the amount shown. For example, if you pay your auto insurance bill twice a year, the semi-annual amount should be in the Amount column and 2 should be in the “How Many Times a Year” column.
  13. Repeat steps 7 through 12 on each of the tabs listed in Step 2 until the amount on the Budget tab for this category looks reasonable.

Next Steps

Next week, I will talk about how you can create your budget using the income and expense information you have tabulated so far and corrected.

Download Budgeting Spreadsheet Here

Diversification 2 – Using Diversification to Reduce your Investment Risk

Diversification is an important tool that many investors used to reduce risk. Last week, I explained diversification and how it is related to correlation.   In this post, I’ll illustrate different ways investment portfolios can be diversified and provide illustrations of the benefits.

Key Take-Aways

Here are some key take-aways about diversification.

  • Diversification reduces risk, but does not change the average return of a portfolio. The average return will always be the weighted average of the returns on the financial instruments in the portfolio, where the weights are the relative amounts of each instrument owned.
  • The smaller the correlation among financial instruments (all the way down to -100%), the greater the benefit of diversification. Check out last week’s post for more about this point.
  • Diversification can be accomplished by investing in more than one asset class, more than one company within an asset class or for long periods of time. One of the easiest ways to become diversified across companies is to purchase a mutual fund or exchange traded fund.  Funds that focus on one industry will be less diversified than funds that includes companies from more than one industry.
  • Diversification reduces risk, but doesn’t prevent losses. If all of the financial instruments in a portfolio go down in value, the total portfolio value will decrease.  Also, if one financial instrument loses a lot of value, the loss may more than offset any gains in other instruments in the portfolio.
  • A diversification strategy can be very risky if you purchase something without the necessary expertise to select it or without understanding all of the costs of ownership.

I’ll explain these points in more detail in the rest of the post.

Diversification and Returns

The purpose of diversification is to reduce risk.  It has no impact on return.  The total return of any combination of financial instruments will always be the weighted average of the returns on the individual financial instruments, where the weights are the amounts of each instrument you own.  For example, if you own $3,000 of a financial instrument with a return of 5% and $7,000 of a different financial instrument with a return of 15%, your total return will be 12% (={$3,000 x 5% + $7,000 x 15%}/{$3,000+$7,000} = {$150 + $1,050}/$10,000 = $1,200/$10,000).  Similarly, two instruments that both return 10% will have a combined return of 10% regardless of how correlated they are, even -100% correlation.

Diversification among Asset Classes

When investing, many people diversify their portfolios by investing in different asset classes. The most common of these approaches is to allocate part of their portfolio to stocks or equity mutual funds and part to bonds or bond mutual funds.

Correlation between Stocks and Bonds

The Theory

The prices of stocks and bonds sometimes move in the same direction and sometimes move in opposite directions.  In good economies, companies make a lot of money and interest rates are often low.  When companies make money, their stock prices tend to increase.  When interest rates are low, bond prices are high.[1]  So, in good economies, we often see stock and bond prices move in the same direction.

However, from 1977 through 1981, bond prices went down while stocks went up.  At the time, the economy was coming out of a recession (which means stock prices started out low and then rose), but inflation increased. When inflation increases, interest rates tend to also increase and bond prices go down. [2]

Correlation of S&P 500 and Interest Rates

Over the past 40 years, interest rates have generally decreased (meaning bond prices went up) and stock markets increased in more years than not, as shown in the graph below.

The blue line shows the amount of money you would have each year if you invested $100 in the S&P 500 in 1980.  The green line shows the interest rate on the 10-year US treasury note, with the scale being on the right side of the graph.  Because bond prices go up when interest rates go down, we anticipate that there will be positive correlation between stock and bond prices over this period. If we looked at a longer time period, the correlation would still be positive, but not quite as high because, as mentioned above, there were periods when bond prices went down and stock prices increased.

Historical Correlation of Stocks and Bonds

I will use annual returns on the S&P 500 and the Fidelity Investment Grade Bond Fund to illustrate the correlation between stocks and bonds.  The graph below is a scatter plot of the annual returns on these two financial instruments from 1980 through 2018.  The returns on the bond fund are shown on the x axis; the returns on the S&P 500, the y axis.  Over this time period, the correlation between the returns on these two financial instruments is 43%.  This correlation is close to the +50% correlation illustrated in one of the scatter plots in last week’s post.  Not surprisingly, this graph looks somewhat similar to the +50% correlation graph in that post.

Diversification Benefit from Stocks and Bonds

Recall that diversification is the reduction of risk, in this case, by owning both stocks and bonds.  The table below sets the baseline from which I will measure the diversification benefit.  It summarizes the average returns and standard deviations of the annual returns on the S&P 500 (a measure of stock returns) and a bond fund (an approximation of bond returns) from 1980 to 2018.  The bond fund has a lower return and less volatility, as shown by the lower average and standard deviation, than the S&P 500.

Bond Fund S&P 500
Average 0.6% 0.8%
Standard Deviation 1.6% 4.3%


The graph below is a box & whisker plot showing the volatility of each of these financial instruments separately (the boxes on the far left and far right) and portfolios containing different combinations of them.  (See my post on risk for an explanation of how to read this chart.)

In this graph, the boxes represent the 25th to the 75th percentiles.  The whiskers correspond to the 5th to 95th percentiles.  As the portfolios have increasing amounts of stocks, the total return and volatility increase.

These results can also be shown on a scatter plot, as shown in the graph below.  In this case, the x or horizontal axis shows the average return for each portfolio.  The y or vertical axis shows the percentage of the time that the return was negative. (See my post on making financial decisions for an explanation of optimal choices.)

There are three pairs of portfolios that have the same percentage of years with a negative return, but the one with more stocks in each pair has a higher return.  For example, about 24% of the time the portfolios with 30% and 50% invested in bonds had negative returns.  The 30% bond portfolio returned 8.9% on average, whereas the 50% bond portfolio returned 8.5% on average.   Therefore, the portfolio with 30% bonds is preferred over the one with 50% bonds using these metrics because it has the same probability of a negative return but a higher average return.

The choice of mix between stocks and bonds depends on how much return you need to earn to meet your financial goals and how much volatility you are willing to tolerate.  A goal of maximizing return without regard to risk is consistent with one of the portfolios with no bonds or only a very small percentage of them.  At the other extreme, a portfolio with a high percentage (possibly as much as 100%) of bonds is consistent with a goal of minimizing the chance of losing money in any one year.  The options in the middle are consistent with objectives that combine attaining a higher return and reducing risk.

Other Asset Classes

There are many other asset classes that can be used for diversification.  Some people prefer tangible assets, such as gold, real estate, mineral rights (including oil and gas) or fine art, while others use a wider variety of financial instruments, such as options or futures.  When considering tangible assets, it is important to consider not only the possible appreciation in value but also the costs of owning them which can significantly reduce your total return.  Examples of costs of ownership include storage for gold and maintenance, insurance and property taxes for real estate.  All of the alternate investments I’ve mentioned, other than gold, also require expertise to increase the likelihood of getting appreciation from your investment.  Not everyone can identify the next Picasso!

Diversification across Companies within an Asset Class

One of the most common applications of diversification is to invest in more than one company’s stock. It is even better if the companies are spread across different industries.  The greatest benefit from diversification is gained by investing in companies with low or negative correlation.  Common factors often drive the stock price changes for companies within a single industry, so they tend to show fairly high positive correlation.

Diversification across industries is so important that Jim Cramer has a segment on his show, Mad Money, called “Am I Diversified?”  In it, callers tell him the five companies in which they own the most stock and he tells them whether they are diversified based on the industries in which the companies fall.

To illustrate the benefits of diversification across companies, I have chosen five companies that are part of the Dow Jones Industrial Average (an index commonly used to measure stock market performance composed of 30 very large companies). These companies and their industries are:

American Express (AXP) Financial Services
Apple (AAPL) Technology
Boeing (BA) Industrial
Disney (DIS) Consumer Discretionary
Home Depot (HD) Consumer Staples


The graph below shows the correlations in the annual prices changes across these companies.

The highest correlations are between American Express and each of Boeing and Disney (both between 50% and 55%).  The lowest correlation is between Apple and Boeing (about 10%).

The graph below shows a box & whisker plot of the annual returns of these companies’ stocks.

All of the companies have about a 25% chance (the bottom of the box) of having a negative return in one year.  That is, if you owned any one of these stocks for one calendar year between 1983 and 2018, you had a 25% chance that you would have lost money on your investment.

The graph below shows a box & whisker chart showing how your volatility and risk would have been reduced if you had owned just Apple and then added equal amounts of the other stocks successively until, in the far-right box, you owned all five stocks.

The distance between the tops and bottoms of the whiskers get smaller as each stock is added to the mix. If you had owned equal amounts of all five stocks for any one calendar year in this time period, you would have lost money in 19% of the years instead of 25%.  The 25th percentile (bottom of the box) increases from between -5% and 0% for each stock individually to +14% if you owned all five stocks.  That is, 75% of the time, your return would have been greater than +14% if you had owned all 5 stocks.

As always, I remind you that past returns are not necessarily indicative of future returns. I used these five companies’ stocks for illustration and do not intend to imply that I recommend buying them (or not).

Diversification Doesn’t Prevent Losses

The above illustration makes investing look great!  Wouldn’t it be nice if 75% of the time you could earn a return of at least 14% just by purchasing five stocks in different industries?  That result was lucky on my part.  I looked at the list of companies in the Dow Jones Industrial Average and picked the first five in alphabetical order that I thought were well known and in different industries.  It turns out that, over the time period from 1983 through 2018, all of those stocks did very well.  Their average annual returns ranged from 19% (Disney) to 40% (Apple).  The Dow Jones Industrial Average, by comparison, had an average return of 10%.  That means that most of the other stocks in the Average had a much lower return.

Being diversified won’t prevent losses, but it reduces them when one company experiences significant financial trouble or goes bankrupt.  Here’s a current example.  Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) is a California utility that conservative investors have bought for many, many years.  I’ve added it to the box & whisker plot of the companies above in the graph below.

PG&E’s average return (10%) is lower than the other five stocks and about equal to the Dow Jones Industrial Average.  Its volatility is similar to Boeing and Disney as shown by the height of its box and spread of it whiskers being similar to those of the other two stocks.

However, on the day I am writing this post, PG&E declared bankruptcy.  PG&E has been accused of starting a number of large wildfires in California as the result of allegedly poor maintenance of its power lines and insufficient trimming of trees near them.  Here is a plot of its daily stock price over the past 12 months.

In the year ending January 26, 2019, PG&E’s stock price decreased by 72%.  From its high in early November 2018 to its low in January 2019, it dropped by 87%.

Although diversification can’t completely protect you from such large losses, it can reduce their impact especially if you are invested in companies in different industries.   If the only company in which you owned stock was PG&E, you would have lost 72% of your savings in one year.  If, on the other hand, you had owned an equal amount of a  second stock that performed the same as the Dow Jones Industrial Average over the same time period (-6%), you would have lost 39%.  The graph below shows how much you would have lost for different numbers of other companies in your portfolio.

This graph shows how quickly the adverse impact of one stock can be offset by including other companies in a portfolio.  In a portfolio of five stocks (PG&E and four others that performed the same as the Dow), the 72% loss is reduced to about a 20% loss.  With 20 stocks, the loss is reduced to 10% (not much worse than the -6% for the Dow Jones Industrial Average).

Diversification Over Time

Another way to benefit from diversification is to own financial instruments for a long time. In all of the examples above, I illustrated the risk of holding financial instruments for one year at a time. Many financial instruments have ups and downs, but tend to generally follow an upward trend.  The volatility and risk of the average annual return of these instruments will decrease the longer they are held.

For illustration of the diversification benefit of time, I have used returns on the S&P 500. The graph below shows the volatility of the average annual return on the S&P 500 for various time periods ranging from one to twenty years.

To create the “20 Years” box and whiskers in this graph, I started by identifying all 20-year periods starting from 1950 through the one starting in 1997.  I calculated the average annual return for each 20-year period.  I then determined the percentiles needed to create this graph.  The values for the shorter time periods were calculated in the same manner.

The average return over all years is about 8.8%.  Because we are using data from 1950 to 2018 for all of these calculations, the average doesn’t change.

The benefits of long-term investing are clear from this graph.  There were no 20-year periods that had a negative return, whereas the one-year return was negative 25% of the time.

As a reminder, it is important to remember that this concept applies well to financial measures such as mutual funds, exchange-traded funds and indexes.  It also applies to the financial instruments of many companies, but not all.  If a company starts a downward trend, especially if it is on the way to bankruptcy, it will show a negative return no matter how long you own it.  If you choose to own stocks of individual companies, you will want to monitor their underlying financial performance (a topic for a future post) and news about them to minimize the chance that you continue to own them through a permanent downward trend.

[1]The price of a bond is the present value of the future interest and principal payments using the interest rate on the date the calculation is performed.  That is, each payment is divided by (1+today’s interest rate)(time until payment is made). Because the denominator gets bigger as the interest rate goes up, the present value of each payment goes down.    I’ll talk more about this in a future post on bonds.

[2]An explanation of the link between inflation and interest rates is quite complicated.  I’ll write about it at some point in the future.  For now, I’ll just observe that they tend to increase at the same time.

How to Budget Step 5 – Paychecks and Income

Your budget includes your income in addition to money you spend.  In my previous posts on the budgeting process, I talked about setting your goals and tracking and recording your expenses.  This week, I’ll focus on your paycheck and other sources of income.

Before getting to that topic, here are your budgeting tasks for this week:

  1. Continue using and refining your expense tracking system.
  2. Continue to enter your expenses into the spreadsheet.
  3. Record the details from your pay stubs and any other sources of income.

Pay Checks

Your pay stubs include both your wages and some expenses and taxes that are deducted by your employer.  This information can be entered on the Income tab.  You’ll need your pay stub as it lists all of the items that flow into and out of your paycheck to get the net amount of your check or automatic deposit. Put information from each line on your pay stub in a different row on the Income tab of the spreadsheet.

The date of each paycheck goes in Column A.

Record the amount of each line item in Column B.  Your income, such as your wages, should be entered with positive numbers. Deductions, such as taxes, your share of employee benefit charges and retirement savings, should be entered using negative numbers.  Use one row in the spreadsheet for your wages and another for each of your deductions.

You can record the category for each line in Column C.  If you want to use the tax approximation included in the spreadsheet, you’ll need use the labels “Wages”, “Retirement Savings” “Federal Income Taxes” and “State Income Taxes” for each of those categories.  Otherwise, you can use whatever labels you want.

If you get paid less often than once a month, enter the number of paychecks you get each year in Column D of each row.  Otherwise, leave this column blank.

Other Sources of Income

If you have other sources of income you receive on a regular basis, such as returns on investments, disability income or support from your parents, you’ll want to include those in your budget.  Unless you are on a leave from work or retired, you might leave any investment returns in your savings and not use them for spending. It is important to be aware of all sources of income in your budget including increases in your savings, so I suggest including them in your budget explicitly.

Interest, dividends and appreciation are the three most common types of returns from investments. If you have any such returns, enter their amounts in Column A, their category in Column B and how often you receive the amount from Column A in Column C.  The three types of returns are taxed differently in the US.  If you live outside the US or don’t want to use the very rough tax approximation in the spreadsheet, you can enter a single line item for total investment returns and call it whatever you would like.  Otherwise, enter “Interest” in Column B for interest payments, “Dividends” for dividends received and “Appreciation” for changes in the market value of your investments.  Appreciation can be either positive (market value has gone up) or negative (market value has gone down).

For any other sources of income, enter the amount, category (with a name of your choosing) and how often you receive that amount in Columns A through C, respectively.  Sources of income other than investment returns and wages will be ignored in the income tax approximation.

Download Budgeting Spreadsheet Here