What the Heck are Fixed Index Annuities? (And are they a good idea for retirement?)

One of the ways I fall asleep at night is by reading nonfiction books. I like these books, don’t get me wrong, but they still don’t totally suck me in and keep me awake like fiction books sometimes do. Usually, as I’m in bed reading my nonfiction book of choice for a few minutes, my eyelids get heavy and I drift off. It’s a very effective, as well as instructive, bedtime routine.

For quite awhile, my nightly book of choice has been Tony Robbins’ Money, Master the Game. I’m a big Tony Robbins fan, as I enjoy his motivational talks and writings, and was extremely excited to see that he’d written a book on finance- one of my favorite topics.

I devoured a lot of the beginning of the book (which got me through quite a lot of bedtimes as the book is 638 pages long). I really enjoyed most of the way Tony Robbins was trying to make finance information accessible to everyone, and he even included interviews with finance experts I loved such as Jack Bogle from Vanguard. A bulk section of the book was concerned with savings accounts and starting a retirement account, as well as the magic of compound interest- I love these subjects. These are some basic money topics to me, but I enjoy being reminded, and many people don’t understand concepts such as compound interest, which Robbins makes easy.

However, somewhere in the last third of the book, I got lost. The subject of Fixed Index Annuities came up and stayed prominent for many, many pages. Robbins was touting how great annuities are, and how the right annuity would bring you retirement income for life. I was extremely confused and started thinking “how have I not heard anything about any kind of annuity from any finance blogger or writer or podcaster ever before?” I was baffled. For years, I’ve listened to the podcasts and read a few of the blogs and books of some quite entertaining and well-known finance professionals including Suze Orman, Dave Ramsey, Farnoosh Tohlrabi, J. Money, Shannon McLay, Ramit Sethi, Paula Pant, J.D Roth, and more. I couldn’t remember any of them ever suggesting, or even bringing up, annuities.

I actually reread the entire 638 page book (it’s a break from my other favorite bedtime book, The Elegant Universe), and once again attempted to understand Robbins’ take on fixed annuities, but to no avail.

In the back of my mind, I associate annuities with scams. But Tony Robbins was so convincing in his book, even talking about how variable annuities are the actual scams, and fixed annuities are the good ones. So I thought maybe I had missed something. And, in the interest of this blog, and for my own personal pleasure (I have some weird pleasures), I looked everything up, paying special attention to my favorite finance experts and finance news sites, including Forbes and Suze Orman, to see what they had to say.

Basically, without going into the extremely complex and intense detail, my hunch was right. Unbiased (i.e non-commission-based) finance professionals almost never recommend annuities- unless they’re still somehow trying to sell you something…like an annuity. There are very rare circumstances in which SOME annuities would kind of make sense, but those circumstances generally affect people in one of two categories:

  1. If you have an extremely high income and have maxed out both your 401k and IRA and want to try putting tax deferred money elsewhere.
  2. If you are extremely, incredibly risk averse and would rather have complete peace of mind that you will have some money while alive than a good rate of return. Because the odds are against you that you’ll have more money for yourself and for your beneficiaries (spouse, kids, etc) with an annuity than with any other retirement strategies (401ks, IRAs, Roth IRAs, etc).

Otherwise, low cost index funds in IRAs, Roth IRAs, and 401ks are significantly better retirement options, with much better rates of return and way lower fees.

Again, without going into numbingly complex details, the issues with most annuities include:

  • Most people selling them stand to make a major profit off of you, and may not inform you of the other retirement options you have. So there can be quite a bit of shadiness in the annuities business because of the high commissions paid out.
  • Your money is tied up for a very long time, and you will pay major fees if you try to take it out early! These fees can range from 10% up to 20%! So even if you purchase an annuity for $50,000 and in a month you change your mind, you can’t get that money back without getting hit with a ridiculous fee. About $5000 (10%) will already have been removed from your 50k as a commission fee to whoever sold you the annuity! Plus you’ll get hit with that major fee for early withdrawal, so your $50,000 can possibly become only $38,000 in the span of only one month!
  • If you die early, your beneficiaries can get absolutely nothing! The one major benefit of most annuities is a guaranteed monthly income for life, until you die. So if you live a VERY long time, you may somewhat benefit from an annuity. But an annuity is actually a life insurance product, and the companies are banking on you dying earlier rather than later- because if you die early, in most situations, the rest of your payout is their’s to keep! And even if you find an annuity that leaves your money to your beneficiaries (which will of course be pricier to begin with), the beneficiaries will have to pay taxes on all of the interest your money made! So if your original 50K grew to 150K, your beneficiaries will have to pay taxes on the difference- that means paying taxes on the 100K difference!! That’s a huge tax bill!

So, I’m sticking with my classic retirement strategy- the Roth IRA, filled with low cost index funds from Vanguard. I write about Roth IRAs and how to set one up here.  And although I enjoy Tony Robbins’ advice and greatly respect him, I’m not planning on taking any of his advice on annuities.

If you want more information on annuities, here are some of my sources for this article:

The Motley Fool annuity advice

Suze Orman explains annuities

Time Magazine’s advice about annuities

Forbes talks in detail about annuities

Get Rich Slowly shares annuity knowledge

As always, feel free to ask me any questions. I’m just learning about this topic myself, so I’d love to hear your thoughts! Thanks!

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The Anti-Budget Budget In Your Thirties

Although Jane and I both very recently wrote articles about how we’ve been tracking every dollar we spend lately, (check out Jane’s Budgeting article Saving Money Like You’re In the Depression Era and my budgeting article How Tracking Money is Like Weighing Yourself), I want to write here about a way to possibly not track your money at all.

This is kind of the method I was unofficially using before I started tracking every dollar this past month using the Goodbudget app. The method involves taking a savings percentage off the top of your income before you spend any of your money on anything else. The word “savings” is general and can include any of the below:

Contributions to an Emergency Fund

-Contributions to any savings account

-Contributions to a retirement account – such as a 401K, an IRA, or a Roth IRA.

-Paying down any debt- such as a student loan, a credit card, or accelerating your mortgage payments.

-Contributions to your child’s college fund- such as a 529 Plan.

So here’s how to live the anti-budget life:

  1. The second you get paid, decide on a percentage of your income to contribute towards savings.

2. If you never save anything, you can start with as little as 1% to save. The way to figure this out is to simply knock 2 zeros off the amount. So if you get paid $2000 biweekly, contribute $20 every time you get paid. Make $1000 biweekly, contribute $10 every time you get paid.

3. If you’ve been saving already, for retirement, for a house, to pay down credit card debt, to have a good emergency fund- saving for anything really- then you can easily incorporate this tactic to make saving money even easier. Whenever you make any money, save a certain percentage towards any and all of your goals. I usually do it this way- the second I get paid, I put 10 percent towards my emergency fund, 10 percent towards retirement, and 10 percent towards throwing extra money at my student loans.

With this tactic, you can then try not budgeting the rest but instead spend it comfortably knowing that you’ve already saved what you needed to.

Of course, you’ll need to make sure your bills, like rent and utilities, are paid before you spend the rest freely, but you will still be able to spend without budgeting every  dollar.

Check out another anti-budget budget article by the awesome finance blogger and podcaster Paula Pant of Afford Anything- she lives by this strategy and goes into immense detail about it in The Easiest Budget to Follow- Shockingly Simple.

Give this strategy a try, especially if you hate budgets, and let us know how it works for you! It’s nice and simple!

 

Budgeting in Your 30’s When You Hate Budgeting

For all the writing I do about finance and money goals, I really hate to budget. I just can’t stand it.

Perhaps this is because I’m already a big saver, so when I want something, I usually REALLY want it, and not much is going to stand in my way. I hate not listening to my own written budget, but I wouldn’t listen if I really wanted something badly, so I feel like I’d probably go over budget lot of the time, and then I’d kick myself. Ok, so this is actually a self-control issue. :/

I walked around forever with budget hatred burning a hole in the pit of my stomach until recently, when I read an article and realized I’d been kind of following an unofficial budget strategy all along. I googled the info in that article and came upon even more articles that outlined alternative budgeting strategies. Turns out, I naturally follow a common budget strategy called the 80/20 budget, though my version is actually a 70/30 budget.

The 80/20 budget is basically the simplest and least detailed way to budget ever. And I love it, because the details of budgeting make me nuts. Here’s how it works: when you get a paycheck, 20 percent goes to savings. The rest is fair game to divide between needs and wants. That’s it.

This is kind of amazing if you’re never sure how much you’re going to spend in any given month- no matter what, you’ll still be saving. I do a 70/30 budget, or actually a 70/10/10/10 budget, which is only slightly different than the 80/20. The way it works is:

  1. I get a paycheck
  2. I put 10 percent in my retirement account immediately
  3. I put 10 percent in my savings account immediately
  4. I put 10 percent towards my student loan immediately (this is always in addition to the minimum monthly fee I pay)
  5. Then the other 70 percent is divided as best I can among EVERYTHING else without making a budget.
  6. Within the 70 percent, my NEEDS include: Rent, utilities, and student loan minimums (definite needs), as well as food, metrocards (transit), laundry money, and toiletries.
  7. Also within the 70 percent are WANTS including: eating out and or/drinking with friends, food and coffee and green juice splurges, new shoes or clothes, tickets to theater, subscriptions to Spotify and Hulu.

Don’t get me wrong- it’s probably best to actually budget everything out little by little with a food budget, a clothing budget, and an eating out with friends budget. But I’ve never done this, and I don’t know if I’d stick to it if I did. So I think it’s better to at least have SOME sort of budget! And with the 80/20 (or 70/30, or even 60/40) budget, you’re at least still saving. If you don’t have students loans, I’d recommend putting at least 10-15 percent of your paycheck immediately into your retirement account, and then 10-15 percent immediately into a savings account.

What’s funny about taking a certain percentage out of your paycheck right away and paying down a debt and/or putting it into savings is how little you notice that the money is gone. It’s a strange phenomenon! Try it if you don’t believe me. Take 10 percent out of your paycheck immediately each month and put it into savings…you probably won’t even miss it! And if you do, you can always take it back. I wouldn’t recommend it…but the whole point is that your savings account belongs to you! 🙂

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How Much Should I Be Contributing to My Retirement Account in My Thirties?

The Suze Orman Show recently went off the air and I’ve been heartbroken ever since.

I never watched Suze on tv, but I listened to her show religiously, podcast-style. After all, Suze’s money commentary was addictive, and she dispensed the good advice to give up cable, which I haven’t had in years to begin with.

There are so many points Suze repeated over and over that made simple what used to feel so complicated in the world of money. She kind of changed my life. In tribute to her, my next few money posts will be as short and simple as possible- her best ideas were short and powerful and repeated time and time again.

So here’s how much you should be contributing to your retirement account(s) in your thirties:

1. First, if you are an employee (and not an independent contractor) make sure you are actually signed up to contribute to your work 401k. Are you SURE? I have so many friends who thought they were signed up for years but actually weren’t. So they contributed ZERO…by accident. Double check.

2. Second, if your workplace offers a 401k match, contribute money into your 401k up to the match. Then stop and contribute to your IRA or Roth IRA. 

3. If your workplace doesn’t offer a 401k match, or you’re self-employed, start out by contributing the maximum to your IRA or Roth IRA. Don’t know how to open an IRA? Read about simple ways to do so here.

4. You can contribute up to $5,500 a year to your Roth IRA OR your IRA. Total. Try to hit that mark. If not, do what you can.

5. Contribute what you can to that IRA or Roth IRA. This is your main retirement vehicle. I try to contribute 10% of my income to my Roth IRA. Many financial advisors recommend 15%…I’m not ready for that yet, but once I finish paying off my student loan I will be.

6. If you max out both your 401k MATCH and ALSO your Roth IRA or IRA, then go back to your 401k and contribute as much as you can. You can contribute up to $18,000 in 2015.

7. If you don’t have a 401k because you’re self-employed like me, and you’ve maxed out your Roth IRA or IRA (good for you!), then you can start contributing to special retirement accounts for the self-employed. Learn about those here.

Hope this helps you learn how to save for retirement! Please ask any questions you have- I’m happy to answer or find you answers! 🙂

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Help! I Have No Money In My Thirties And Am Not Able To Follow Any of Your Money Advice

Somewhere around the second month or so of this blog, I’d written a few posts on finances-saving money and putting money into retirement accounts and wasn’t sure what people wanted to hear about next financially. I asked Jane, my co-blogger, what financial advice she might want to hear next.

Jane said to me, “I’m wondering what advice we can give to people who feel like they can’t follow any of the retirement account advice or the savings account advice. What about the people who are barely making ends meet? What about people who are just like ‘I’m broke and can’t do any of this?”

She told me about this teacher of hers who didn’t really want to save money and didn’t want to start a retirement account. He basically wanted to “live in the now” and said he didn’t have enough money to put away for any retirement account or savings account anyway. “All this money advice is BS for people who don’t have enough money,” he said.

At the time I was completely stumped. The topic filled me with fear. I was pretty new at following this financial growth advice myself and I told myself I’d simply get back to the ‘not enough money’ topic.

Then a few days ago I was talking to a coworker about how I put 10 percent of my money into savings, 10 percent into retirement, and 10 percent into additional student loan payoff.

In turn, he told me how he divided his money. He  had a pretty sophisticated system. He put aside 20 percent right off the bat for taxes (he’s self employed like me.) He had a separate account to hold that tax money. He also had multiple accounts reserved for different things- one for investments, one for savings, a special account just for spending money, another for classes (investment in learning.) It was a quite complicated and well laid out system and I felt mildly overwhelmed for a bit. He asked me what I might be investing in, and I was stumped. I wasn’t investing in anything in particular- not in a separate account anyway. I was ‘only’ investing in my Roth IRA…I hadn’t ‘gotten to the investment step yet.’ I’m still killing off my student loan that was originally over $100,000 but is now finally less than half of that.

I started to feel like I might not be as well-prepared financially as I thought I was, and I felt intimidated by how far ahead of me some people seemed to be. There was still so much  investment research I wanted to do- so much more money I still wanted to make and save. But then I started to feel proud of myself once again for all that I financially accomplished so far in just the last two of my thirty years. I was perhaps not as financially ahead of the game as I’d like to be at thirty, but I had made a major dent.

And I flashed back to a time when I felt absolutely overwhelmed by the killer student loan in my life. A time where I cried at the thought of  just getting by monetarily from month to month. Where I would have laughed at the thought of retirement or savings accounts, and could barely pay for a dinner out. Where just paying rent every month put true fear in my heart.

They say that money doesn’t buy happiness, but I’ll say very honestly that it can take away a huge amount of fear.

So if you’re feeling afraid and maybe even embarrassed that you don’t have enough money in your thirties to follow the retirement plan or savings account steps laid out for you by certain financial sites or advisors, let’s start with a simple first step:

1. You’re not alone. And it’s okay.

It’s really okay. The fear is real, but so is the truth. And the truth is that everyone moves at their own pace. Not everyone starts at the same point. Perhaps you have multiple student loans or have gotten yourself into some bad credit card debt. Or you’re making no money or are in school or have just declared bankruptcy. The most important thing is that you will change and want to change and grow your wealth.

2. You recognize that you want to change your finances and are ready to take small steps.

Dave Ramsey says this best with his talk of Baby Steps. Take things little by little. If you’re not making enough money to follow any financial advice, then your focus should be on hustling to make more money. It’s that simple. Dave Ramsey will sometimes tell people to ‘deliver pizzas for extra money’ when they call into his show and tell him they’re broke. That may seem below your sense of dignity, but sometimes you may truly have to hustle.

I’ve worked outside in the snow in the dead of winter, taught SAT prep in my spare time, sold insurance, traveled two hours to Staten Island to work gigs and much more in the past in order to meet the quota for money I needed to make that month. Hustling for money can be hard and grueling, but it can be done.

3. Do what you can. It does get better. Really.

I recently paid off a student loan that I wasn’t supposed to pay off until 2022. It was quite a feat, and I’m very proud of myself. Did I get it paid off early because I’m rich? Not at all- I got it paid off 7 years early because I got angry at the loan and I set my mind to getting it out of my life. My other big loan is still ahead, but you better believe I plan to attack it with all I’ve got. I don’t make a ton of money, but I try my best to take baby steps to get rid of my student loan debt and save as much money as I can. Right now I have a mini retirement account started and a small savings account. It can be done. It’s just little by little.

Times can be hard and finances can be scary. Please know that I understand and I’ve been there. Im still there sometimes. But I believe that I things can get better and they’ve been slowly getting there. And I know you can do it too. I believe in you.

 

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