Being flexible in life, and in financial planning

If there’s one lesson we’ve learned from the pandemic, it’s how to be flexible. Whether your life was completely upended, or barely impacted at all, there’s no question that the world around us has shifted dramatically in the last 13+ months. When this all began, many businesses and even industries were forced to pivot and engage with their audiences in a new way.

And as individuals, many of our lifestyles changed significantly. We may have experienced one or more of the following:

  • Working from home 100% of the time, which for many people led to the purchase of a bigger home or renovations of an existing home.
  • Radical changes to spending, such as reduced/eliminated travel, gas, parking, eating out and entertainment costs.
  • Perhaps most profoundly, a reexamination of what is most important to us and whether we want to make any shifts, professionally or personally.

How does this relate to financial planning?

There are a couple of parallels here. You may have noticed that I do NOT offer a standalone/one-time financial plan. Why not? It’s TOO STATIC! One of the primary reasons I structured my engagements with clients to meet on an ongoing basis: life changes ALL THE TIME. 

In the last year, how many of these things have you experienced?

  • Major house repairs/renovations, 
  • A large bonus or salary increase, 
  • A job change or new business opportunity,
  • Significant changes in your spending (see above, but largely travel/entertainment=down, home improvements=up),
  • A refinance of your primary mortgage, reducing your monthly payment amount,
  • An IPO, merger or other significant change at your employer,
  • Hiring a nanny/educator or beginning private school for your child(ren).

There’s certainly some value in a one-time 75-page plan, but it’s fairly limited, in my opinion. I prepared some of these standalone plans for clients in January and February 2020 (at my former firm). Many of these were totally obsolete within a couple months.

The process of financial planning is just that: a process. And a highly dynamic process at that. The exercises I work through with new clients, around goal-setting and defining values, are likely to be revisited and reviewed every single year. While some people are unwavering and single-minded in their focus, the vast majority of people I’ve worked with have shifting priorities.

Walking the walk

If anyone had told me 18 months ago that I would quit my job (which I very much enjoyed) to launch my own firm, I would never have believed them. Here I am, almost 9 months in with nearly 50 clients and tremendous growth; you better believe my situation is different. My cash flow has changed profoundly, and I’ve had to thoroughly revise my plans for everything from work-life balance to retirement. And that’s OK! In fact, it’s more than OK. Among other things my job satisfaction is dramatically improved. As I said, I liked my former job, but the ability to create something from the ground up is satisfying on a different level. 

My financial situation has changed and I’ve had to incorporate those changes into my “plan”. Again, I don’t love the idea of a static plan, but having something that one can adjust as needed is much more impactful. Imagine working with a planner and having an annual meeting cadence. In my case, my life a year ago could not look more different. Would my planner be able to adapt to my changing circumstances mid-year? Or would that have prompted a response like “we’ll review the changes at our next meeting” (in, say, 9 months)?

Takeaways

If you’re looking for a financial planner, I’d encourage you to consider working with someone who has this mindset around the dynamic and flexible nature of this work. Financial plans are not set in stone. If the planner or firm doesn’t have a mechanism to easily manage updates and changes to “the plan”, I’d consider continuing to search. 

If you already have “a plan”, remember that, while useful, it is likely to need regular updates and modifications. As planners, we make assumptions all the time: about inflation rates, and longevity and all sorts of things which are ultimately “unknowable”. Our job is to react to changing information and help you continue to move forward with confidence and reassurance that your money is set up to help you live your most fulfilled life.

Getting a handle on cash flow, and why it’s so important

Cash flow, or budgeting, is one of the biggest challenges facing both financial planners and their clients. How can you get a handle on your spending needs, and why does it even matter?

I have conversations with my clients all the time about this topic and it is of somewhat universal frustration. Why is it so hard to understand our spending? What is the best method for tracking? How useful is tracing to begin with? And what difference does it make if I spend $6,000 per month or $8,000 per month?

Why should you care?

As a financial planner, I am here to tell you IT MATTERS. How much you spend is one of the single biggest factors in your control. Whether you spend $6,000 or $8,000 per month might mean the difference between retiring at 60 vs. 65. It might mean your money easily lasts to age 90 or that you run your savings down and have to subsist on Social Security income only.

Knowing how much your lifestyle costs is an extremely important variable in terms of long-range planning. When I work with clients on determining what the figure is, I find people chronically underestimate their sending. It’s very much like the experience of tracking what you eat; if you’ve ever used an app to track your intake, or followed a weight loss program like Weight Watchers, you’ll know what I am referring to. You may think you eat about 2,000 calories a day, but as soon as you start tracking and writing things down, more often than not the number is much higher. 

This phenomenon holds true with spending. When I ask clients how much they spend each month (I’m looking for discretionary spending, not things like your mortgage payment or car insurance), I will often get an answer that is, by the client’s own admission, “a bit of a guess”. 

The client may tell me their spending is about $8,000 per month. If I see that their take-home pay is closer to $10,000 per month, but their savings account balance hasn’t increased in the last year, I can logically conclude their sending is probably much closer to $10,000 per month. Most of the people I work with are not terribly intentional about their spending. I frequently hear clients say something like “I really love not having to worry about money and being able to afford the things I want to do.” I get it, I really do. That said, it is a very rare situation where a clients’ spending level isn’t important. In other words, even if you have $10 million dollars, you likely still need to keep an eye on spending. It’s very easy for lifestyle creep to occur, and as nice as it is “not to worry”, I strongly encourage people to have a reasonable idea what their spending level is, and then work with their planner to ensure that level is sustainable.

OK, OK, so it’s important to track, but HOW?

Way back in the days before I became a financial planner, and before I had kids, I used to track every. Single. Penny. Spent in our household. I used Quickbooks at the time, and I would go through and manually enter every credit card transaction (with detail!). I can tell you every restaurant I ate at in 2003, and every cup of coffee I bought in 2006. Honestly, I found it endlessly fascinating but it was incredibly time consuming. Once we had our first daughter, I abandoned the practice.

As much as I loved having that level of detail, my approach now is far simpler and, while not as detailed, still incredibly informative. This is what I do:

  • Once per year (that’s right, just once!) I sit down with my husband and our year-end credit card statement. Most companies provide this and some call it something slightly different. We use Chase and they call it a “year end summary”.
  • I print it out and then pull out my checkbook/bank statements to make sure I’m factoring in anything that wasn’t paid by credit card. Note: in our house we use credit cards to pay for almost everything (and pay the full balance each month). But there are some things I pay for by check (i.e. house cleaners) and still others that get paid by Venmo or similar.
  • Once I have all that data, I take the TOTAL. Let’s say $72,000 spent on our credit card for the year, plus another $12,000 paid by check or Venmo (I’m using these numbers for simplicity). That gives me a total of $84,000 per year or $7,000 per month.
  • While it’s not necessary for the sake of this exercise, I still look at the categories on my year end summary. Chase does a pretty good job of categorizing things, but there’s an awful lot of “miscellaneous” charges (i.e. everything we order off of Amazon.com). I think it’s incredibly important to know where your money is going. But that’s another conversation. For now, I am looking simply for your discretionary spending number.

Many clients do something like this, but they pull out larger expenses. They might say, oh, well we did a bigger trip last year or one of our cars needed some major work so I excluded that. I would caution you not to do that for almost all cases. There is always going to be an unexpected house/auto repair or other one-time expense.

The main exception to this would be expenses related to a wedding or moving houses. There truly are some major items you likely purchase once when you have a child or relocate, and it’s reasonable to exclude these things.

What about Mint or You Need a Budget (YNAB)?

I am all for tracking more regularly then my once/year style. If you have a system that works for you, stick with it! Whether it’s an excel spreadsheet or a software program, the method itself doesn’t matter. If you have the time and inclination, I find this level of detail to be very informative. Is it necessary for you to track on a regular basis? No, but helpful, yes. And I certainly wouldn’t recommend you stop if you’re already doing it.

For those people who are less interested in tracking, something like my system is adequate, An even simpler version would be to look at your savings account balance 1 year ago and compare it to your savings account today. Has it increased or decreased? Compare that with your take-home pay over the past year and you’ll have a very rough estimate of spending. 

For example, your savings account balance on February 15, 2020 was $20,000 and one year later it’s $30,000. Let’s say your take home pay for the prior 12 months was $100,000. You’ve effectively spent $90,000 of that (as your savings account grew by $10,000), thus your average monthly spending is $90,000/12 or $7,500.

But there are so many fluctuations! And my RSUs make it so confusing!

One of the biggest issues around tracking cash flow is that it is always changing. The pandemic has had a tremendous impact on people’s spending habits. Things like travel and entertainment are way down, but home improvement and “toys” (i.e. paddleboards and bikes) are through the roof. Pandemic aside, your spending changes every single month. 

Add to that things like vesting RSUs, which you may be selling to support your lifestyle, and the process gets a whole lot trickier. In addition, if you use credit cards to pay for things and don’t pay the balance in full each month, it’s very hard to keep track of things. I definitely encourage looking at a minimum of 6 months of spending, and ideally 12. Looking at any one month really isn’t terribly informative. Having a strategy around RSUs can also make this process more straightforward. 

Getting on the same page as your partner

One of the things I love about sitting down with my husband and reviewing our spending, is that it usually invites quite a conversation about what we did/didn’t do over the prior year. How much money did we give away to charity? Is there any number we’re surprised about? Is there anything we spent a lot of money on, but don’t enjoy? One of our conversations several years ago was on the cable bill. We looked back over the prior year, realized we’d spent upwards of $1,000 on cable and noted we almost never watch it (and certainly don’t enjoy it). We’re just not big TV watchers. It was a pretty easy decision to cancel it. We’d much rather spend our money on travel.

Having a conversation about what’s important to you and then seeing if that’s where you actually spent money is a vital exercise to help you remain cognizant and intentional about your spending. The vast majority of couples that I work with have slightly different (or significantly different) ideas about how much to spend and on what. This is totally normal. The key is to set some guardrails around spending that each person is comfortable with.

It may sound silly, but I actually like the idea of an “allowance”. Each partner has the ability to spend X dollars per month without having their spouse’s approval. Alternatively, I also love the idea of each couple determining a spending limit whereby each person can spend up to X dollars without running it past the other partner. For example, you might set a limit of $500. If you want to go out and buy some fancy shoes or stereo equipment, you are free to do so within that limit. But if it’s over $500, you would have a conversation together prior to making the purchase.

Takeaways

I could talk about cash flow endlessly. It causes a tremendous amount of stress and anxiety for people. Just the sheer fact of knowing how much you spend is powerful. Once you have that information, you can choose to make modifications, if necessary. Or maybe you’re one of the lucky few whose spending is sustainable. I’ve worked with a handful of people that spend almost nothing and I have to encourage them to spend more! 

The first step is knowing where you are. By working with a financial planner, you can then evaluate any changes that need to be made. Should you be saving more? How much can you afford to spend on house projects? Those are questions that a professional can help you answer.

Should I participate in my company’s Employee Stock Purchase Plan?

If you work at a large, tech company, there’s a good chance they offer an Employee Stock Purchase Plan (ESPP) as one of the company benefits. The question is, should you actually participate and if so, how do you manage it?

I’ll be honest, I have a love-hate relationship with ESPPs. Sure, they are a great benefit and they are essentially “free money”. But darn if they aren’t complicated and they do require some active management. There are plenty of cases where I do not recommend participating, despite the fact that some people think participating is a “no-brainer”.

 

How does it work?

First of all, I want to explain how they work and what the actual benefit is. Essentially, you can buy your company’s stock at a discount, and then turn around and sell it for the actual market value. The difference is yours to keep (less taxes due). But how it’s actually structured is a bit more complicated. 

Let’s use the Salesforce plan as an example. Suppose your salary + bonus is $150,000. You can contribute between 2% and 15% of that income – Salesforce caps ESPP contributions at $21,250 (or $25,000 stock at Fair Market Value, less 15% discount). Each pay period, Salesforce will withhold that percentage which you elect and hold it until the end of the “offering period”. For most companies, the offering period is 6 months and Salesforce has their 2 offering dates as June 15 and December 15. On these two dates, they use the total amount withheld over the prior 6 months, and purchase shares for you, which are then transferred to an account in your name.

The amount you pay for the shares is the lower of two prices—the date at the beginning of the offering period or the purchase date price—plus an additional 15% discount.

In this example, if you had withheld the maximum amount, $10,625 between June and December 2020, the lower price would be that on June 15, 2020. On December 15, Salesforce would use the $10,625 withheld and purchase CRM stock at 15% less than the June 15th price of $178.61 (70 shares of CRM). If you sell immediately, at the market value on 12/15 ($220.15), you gross roughly $15,400. You’ve immediately gained over $4,700, which will be taxed at whatever your ordinary income tax rate is. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll assume you’re in the 32% tax bracket, so you’ve netted abut $3,200. Not bad!

 

Money withheld from your paycheck $10,625
Share price on June 15 $178.61
Share price on December 15 $220.15
# of shares purchased on December 15 70
Sales proceeds (70 x $220.15) $15,407
Gain $4,782
Estimated tax @ 32% $1,530
Net proceeds $3,252

What if the stock price had actually gone down from June to December? You would still get a discount on the lower stock value, but it would be worth less and you would only gain the 15% discount. Let’s imagine the stock prices were reversed- $220.15 on June 15 and $178.61 on December 15th. You would still receive 70 shares of CRM stock, but you would only be able to sell it for about $12,500. Again paying 32% tax on the gain, you would net about $1,300. Still better than nothing but quite a bit less than the first example.

 

Money withheld from your paycheck $10,625
Share price on June 15 $220.15
Share price on December 15 $178.61
# of shares purchased on December 15 70
Sales proceeds (70 x $178.61) $12,500
Gain $1,875
Estimated tax @ 32% $600
Net proceeds $1,275

But does it make sense?

One REALLY big factor here is- can you afford to have that reduction in every pay check for the 6 month period before reaping the benefits at the end? For some folks this is a fantastic way to automate savings. It enforces a certain behavior and then at the end of 6 months you can sell your company stock and invest how you see fit. In other cases, you just can’t afford to take a reduced salary. 

The other huge downside is having too much exposure to your company stock. If you’re already receiving Restricted Stock Units or stock options, you are starting to face a potentially large portion of your portfolio in one stock. Add to this the fact that your salary and benefits are tied to this same company, it can get pretty risky.

One of the tricks to successfully taking advantage of an ESPP is to manage the risk as much as possible, which often means selling the stock as soon as you’re able. There are also, as you might be wondering, some tax considerations to think about.

In the above examples, I assume you sell the shares as soon as you’re able (which is very close to immediately after the end of the offering period). This is considered a non-qualifying disposition, and you’re required to pay ordinary income tax rates on whatever the discount amount is. 

If you hold the shares for a full year, and two years after the plan becomes available to you, you now have a qualifying disposition. In a qualifying disposition, you still pay ordinary income tax rates on the discount amount, but you only pay long-term capital gains tax rates on the growth, if any. Your long-term capital gains rate could be as low as 0% (highly unlikely if you work in tech!) or it could be 20%, but is almost certainly lower than your ordinary income tax rate.

The huge downside to holding the shares in order to receive this preferential tax treatment is- you guessed it- again, too much exposure to company stock. There is always risk with holding any one stock due to increased volatility and in this case, having too many of your eggs in one basket. I almost never recommend that clients hold shares long enough to be a qualifying disposition.

Taxes on ESPP get very complicated and the above examples are a huge oversimplification. If you plan to participate in your ESPP, you’ll definitely want to run it past your tax preparer.

So should I participate or not?

To recap, some pros of participating:

  • Enforced savings
  • Free money! (Who doesn’t like free money??)

And cons:

  • Concentration risk
  • Increased tax complexity
  • Reduced cash flow
  • Potential volatility if you hold the stock
  • The manual process of selling and then reinvesting into some other vehicle (or as I like to call it, the “hassle factor”).

Like I said, I do not consider participation to be a no-brainer and there are definite downsides to be aware of. But ESPPs can be a fantastic benefit if you manage them properly. Consider working with a financial planner to decide if it’s the right option for you.

 

Life Planning aka “Financial Planning Done Right.”

When I was about 13 years old, my mother attended a weekend spiritual retreat, and I tagged along with her. While on the retreat I had a powerful experience in the woods and these words came to me: “You will become.” 30+ years later, I am reminded of that experience and focused anew on what I will bring to the world.

Over the past couple months, I have had the good fortune of attending two training courses led by the Kinder Institute for Life Planning; first the 7 Stages of Money Maturity and then a four-day EVOKE Life Planning training. To say these experiences were powerful is an understatement. The training process is specifically designed for financial planners and promises to help “uncover your clients’ most exciting, meaningful, and fulfilling aspirations and engage them in the work of creating their own vibrant futures, based on a solid financial architecture.”

One of the key components of the life planning process is to answer George Kinder’s 3 questions:

1) I want you to imagine that you are financially secure, that you have enough money to take care of your needs, now and in the future. The question is, how would you live your life? What would you do with the money? Would you change anything? Let yourself go. Don’t hold back your dreams. Describe a life that is complete, that is richly yours.

2) This time, you visit your doctor who tells you that you have five to ten years left to live. The good part is that you won’t ever feel sick. The bad news is that you will have no notice of the moment of your death. What will you do in the time you have remaining to live? Will you change your life, and how will you do it?

3) This time, your doctor shocks you with the news that you have only one day left to live. Notice what feelings arise as you confront your very real mortality. Ask yourself: What dreams will be left unfulfilled? What do I wish I had finished or had been? What do I wish I had done?  [Did I miss anything]?

I’ll be honest; I had heard these 3 questions many times before in podcasts and articles about life planning. I didn’t feel particularly compelled by the questions. In the course of the training, I sat down and actually answered each of the questions for myself. It was question 3 that had the biggest impact on me. My answer, simply, was “I’m not done becoming!” Actually there was a bit more to it than that, but the basic message was to continue the work I am doing with Xena Financial Planning and help my clients live their most fulfilled lives.

In the four-day, intensive training each of us was paired with another planner. We spent the next several days guiding each other through the EVOKE (Exploration, Vision, Obstacles, Knowledge & Execution) process. Each member of the group was able to fill the role of both client and financial planner. 

My experience was exhilarating. Every single member of our group left feeling energized and inspired. Not only am I motivated to go live my own life plan, I am thrilled to bring this into practice with my clients. 

Investments, tax planning and cash flow are certainly part of this process; but they are usually less important than your family, friends and true passions. With a more profound understanding of your goals, we can devise finely tuned strategies to help you make those goals a reality.

In our next meetings, I will work with each of my clients to design the life you want to live and take steps to start living it right now.

Where do I even start with my RSUs?

One of the most common issues facing my clients is how to manage their equity compensation, specifically restricted stock units (or RSUs). If you work in the tech industry, there’s a good chance that you receive RSUs as a part of your total compensation package. They can be a huge upside for you, if they are managed well, but they can also be very risky.

What the heck are RSUs?

Let’s start with what RSUs are and how they typically work. For the sake of this article, I’ll be referring to RSUs in a publicly traded company (think Amazon, Facebook or Salesforce). Essentially, your company has awarded you some kind of bonus but you don’t actually get it right away. Bummer. A cash bonus is pretty easy to understand, right? A “bonus” in the form of RSUs just takes a little longer to receive. You have to wait for the shares to vest. If your employer grants you 100 shares of Amazon stock, vesting over 4 years, you don’t have to do anything at all today. You will receive 25 shares of Amazon stock that vest each year for the next 4 years.

In other words, based on the vesting schedule, your RSUs will come to you over a period of time. You don’t have to do anything to get them. In that regard RSUs are a lot more straightforward than stock options. The only decision you really have to make is when to sell them.

An example of how this works:

As mentioned above, your company grants you 100 RSUs vesting annually over 4 years (many companies actually have shares that vest monthly or quarterly, but for the sake of simplicity, let’s assume they vest annually only).

1/1/2020: company grants you 100 shares

1/1/2021: the first 25 shares vest

1/1/2022: another 25 shares vest

1/1/2023: another 25 shares vest

1/1/2024: the final 25 shares vest

TAXES

When your shares vest, your company will sell a portion of what vests to cover the taxes. In many ways, this is great! They sell some for taxes, pay the IRS, and the rest is yours. Instead of 25 shares, you might receive 19 after taxes. The challenge is that most companies sell only the statutory minimum of 22%. A lot of people get burned by this when tax time comes around. Imagine you’re in the 35% tax bracket but your company only withheld 22% for taxes. You’re going to owe the IRS a chunk of change, which you may not have handy (unless you sell some of your shares). If you have done some tax planning, and you’re prepared for this tax hit, you’ll be fine. But there are plenty of folks who are caught by surprise in this situation. 

Another factor regarding the taxes, is what happens when you decide to sell your remaining vested shares. When you sell your vested shares, you will owe taxes again (either short-term or long-term capital gains) on the growth from the value at vesting to value when you sell. Many people think there’s a long-term tax benefit to holding the shares for 12+ months after they vest. I can almost guarantee one of your co-workers has suggested this to you. However, if you sell your RSUs as soon as they vest, there will be virtually no gain (i.e. growth) from the value at vest. In fact, the longer you hold your RSUs, the riskier they become as the share price is not guaranteed to go up (try telling that to a long-time Amazon employee!).

Why are RSUs risky and how should you think about them?

The reason why holding RSUs is risky, is that your company’s stock price is not guaranteed. It could certainly go up, but it can just as easily go down. If you have a large percentage of your net worth tied up in your company stock, not to mention having your salary + benefits tied to your employer, this could be pretty nerve-wracking. 

One of my favorite ways to frame this for clients is this: “If your employer gave you a cash bonus (instead of RSUs), would you invest it in your company stock?” I have yet to meet someone that says yes. It’s very easy to get caught up in emotions with RSUs, but I find this way of looking at them to be very useful. In many cases, it makes sense to sell them and do something else with the proceeds (invest in a more diverse set of funds, use towards other short/long-term goals), but there is no one-size fits all advice here. I recommend you talk with a financial planner who understands RSUs and ideally also work with a tax preparer who is proficient in this capacity. Together with these professionals, you can devise a strategy for managing your RSUs.

Open Enrollment is Here Again!

It’s October and that means pumpkin spice lattes, Halloween decorations and…open enrollment time. 

For many of us, this is the month when we have the chance to make decisions about our health insurance, life insurance, FSA/HSA accounts and more. How do you sort through all of it, and more importantly, how do you make sure you’re taking full advantage of your employee benefits?

401(k) match and the After-tax 401(k)

First and foremost, I hope you’re taking FULL advantage of your company’s 401(k) match. This is something you can’t afford to miss out on. If your company matches 3%, make sure you are contributing at least that much, or you’re leaving money “on the table”. Of course, I’d like it if you were saving the maximum amount to your 401(k)/403(b) but this is a bare minimum.

Many companies are now offering an after-tax 401(k) option as well: Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon and Salesforce all do (to name a few). I wrote a recent article on how this option works. If you’re already maxing out your 401(k) contributions, I highly recommend taking advantage of the after-tax option (with an in-plan conversion to Roth). 401(k) contributions can be changed at any time, so this one isn’t tied to open enrollment (it’s just a good reminder to double check your contributions).

Health Insurance

You’re faced with multiple options regarding medical, disability and life insurance. The decision around which health care option to choose can be complex, and depends on your health status. That said, if your company offers a high deductible health plan (HDHP), it’s worth considering. If the HDHP is an option, it is usually accompanied by a health savings account (HSA). HSAs are a fantastic way to save and the account balance can be invested with NO future tax due. EVER. Not only that, many companies will automatically contribute $1,000 or more to your HSA every year.

HSAs deserve a post of their own, but if you have access to one, and you’re reasonably healthy it may be a great option. Unlike a flexible savings account (FSA), you do NOT lose the money you contribute if you don’t spend it. If you are using an HSA, I recommend contributing the maximum per year.

Disability insurance

Disability insurance is one that is often overlooked or misunderstood. I sincerely hope your employer offers disability insurance, and if it’s optional, PLEASE opt in. Disability insurance is right up there with health insurance in terms of importance. If you’re young, your future earning potential is one of your biggest (if not THE biggest) assets. Disability insurance, specifically long-term disability (or LTD) protects you in the event you are unable to work for a period of time. 

Disability insurance is fairly complicated and there are all sorts of terms that may sound foreign if you’ve never encountered them- own vs. any occupation, elimination period, percentage of replacement income. In a future post, I’ll dig into those details further. In the meantime, if your company offers LTD, sign up for it! The ideal coverage will include the following provisions:

  • replace 60% or more of your income, 
  • have an elimination period of 90 days, and 
  • cover you for anything that prevents you from doing your own occupation.

One of the local colleges in Seattle (University of Washington) recently offered a special one-time open enrollment for LTD with NO medical review. This is HUGE. It meant that individuals who were previously denied coverage due to their medical history could sign up. If this happens in your company, I cannot stress enough, that you should sign up!

One final thing to be aware of, especially for those in tech who a) have high salaries and b) receive a significant portion of their income from equity comp: your coverage likely will be pretty limited. For instance, if you work at Amazon and your annual salary is $160,000, but you receive another $250,000 in RSUs, the disability coverage is only replacing salary income. If you rely on that $250,000 in equity compensation, you may want to consider a private policy.

Life insurance 

I generally prefer clients to have private term insurance, which isn’t tied to an employer. But your employer provided insurance can be an important component, and often does not require underwriting (in other words, they may not look at your medical history). It’s worth speaking to a financial planner to confirm how much life insurance you need.

Other benefits

Companies are offering a whole range of cool benefits these days, which you might not even know are an option. 

  • Access to legal insurance. This can be a great way to get a basic will completed. 
  • Discounted movie tickets or passes to Disney can also be a fantastic benefit (if and when we ever want to actually GO to Disneyland or a movie again). 
  • If you’re planning to have children, ask about the company’s maternity/paternity leave options. 16+ weeks is becoming more common with everyone from Deloitte to Lyft expanding their leave policies.
  • Financial planning benefit! I might be biased, but I love to hear about companies that reimburse for financial planning (Thanks, Nordstrom).
  • Travel stipend. (hmmmm. Maybe I should get a job at Airbnb!)
  • I recently learned that Goldman Sachs will pay for gender reassignment surgery. I had no idea they were so progressive. Go GS!

While open enrollment is the obvious time to review your company’s benefits, it’s a good idea to ask about the full breadth of benefits any time you are interviewing for a job. 

Breaking down the Mega Backdoor Roth contribution

You may or may not have heard of a Mega Backdoor Roth, but they are becoming increasingly common, especially in the tech world. It is often confused with a Backdoor Roth IRA contribution (which is similar) or a Roth 401(k) contribution. It shares some similarities with both of those terms but is somewhat unique for a few reasons. 

Standard 401(k) Review

First, let’s review 401(k) contributions in general. Many of us are familiar with a 401(k) plan, sponsored by an employer, which allows you to defer up to $19,500 in 2020 (and a catch-up contribution of $6,500 if you are over 50). An employer may contribute a match on top of this, but employees are limited to the standard IRS annual limits. In a pre-tax 401(k), you are able to put your contribution into the plan and not pay any federal income tax on those contributions.

A relatively recent newcomer is the Roth 401(k)- added in 2006-  which allows you to put money into your 401(k) on a post-tax basis. It doesn’t help reduce your taxable income now, but withdrawals in retirement are tax-free. The Roth 401(k) is subject to the same limits as a pre-tax 401(k); you can even do some of your contribution on a pre-tax basis and some as Roth.

So that’s the 401(k) structure most people are used to seeing at their jobs. The Mega Backdoor option allows you to save IN ADDITION to the normal limits. Say you’re already maxing out your regular 401(k) contributions at $19,500. The Mega Backdoor allows you to put additional money into the account on an after-tax basis (note: this is NOT the same thing as the Roth contribution). Then within the plan, you make an election for the contribution to be automatically converted to Roth. NOW you have funds in a Roth 401(k) which function like the Roth 401(k) contributions above (in other words, you do not pay taxes when the funds are withdrawn). 

Here’s an example. 

Let’s say you work at Microsoft, which was one of the first companies to offer this option. You’re maxing out your pre-tax 401(k) at $19,500 this year. Microsoft matches 50% of this for $9,750. You are now able to contribute another $27,750 to the after-tax 401(k)! This gets you to the annual IRS limit of $57,000 TOTAL contributions to your 401(k) account. That’s:

  • $19,500 pre-tax 401(k)
  • $9,750 employer match
  • $27,750 after-tax 401(k)

After you contribute the after-tax dollars, the plan allows for an automatic in-plan conversion to Roth. In the case of Microsoft they do this conversion daily, but in some cases it may be monthly or even quarterly. Note: the conversion itself may generate a small tax liability as you are required to pay tax on any growth from the time between contributing and the conversion itself.

And why does this help you?

There are a couple great things about this option. First, if you happen to make too much money to be eligible for a Roth IRA contribution, this is a great way to save money on a tax-free basis. Second, it greatly expands the amount you can save in a tax-advantaged manner. 

The Mega Backdoor Roth is the latest in a series of benefits that tech companies are offering to lure top talent. As mentioned, Microsoft has had this option for years, but Facebook, Google and Amazon have all jumped on the bandwagon in recent years. 

So if you have enough income to be able to afford to save that much to your 401(k), should you do it? The answer is quite likely yes, but there are certainly other factors to consider. In the case of Microsoft you also have the option to save into a Health Savings Account (HSA) or Employee Stock Purchase Plan (ESPP). Determining which of these to take advantage of can be a complex process. As with most things it’s wise to work with a financial planner who can help you determine if this is the right option for you, in light of your unique situation. 

Creating (or Revisiting) Estate Planning Documents During COVID

Estate planning is one of those topics that most people avoid at all costs. It ranks right up there with getting a root canal in terms of things to look forward to. I’m here to tell you that a) it’s really not that bad and b) the pandemic is a great reminder to review things you never thought you’d need (except in the worst case scenario, which looks an awful lot like present day).

First and foremost, I want to define what estate planning is. Much of the time, when I bring up the topic, a client says “Oh I don’t have enough money to worry about estate planning” or even “I don’t have any dependents so it doesn’t make any difference.” Both of these responses are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the term estate planning. Essentially, it refers to a series of documents and directives that tell the world how you want your affairs managed; but the kicker is that many of these apply while you are still alive. In fact, the two documents I encourage all unmarried adults to get above all others is a health care power of attorney and a living will (aka medical directives).

Imagine you get in a car accident and are unconscious. You’re rushed to the hospital where they determine you need a life-saving (but risky) surgery to survive. Who gets to make the decision if you are unconscious? What happens next? If you are married, your spouse is able to make such a decision on your behalf. But what if your spouse is also in the accident and unable to perform this critical duty? You can see how easily things get complicated. And if you’re unmarried, it can be even worse. Can your parents make the decision? Does your partner have any say in the matter?

As unpleasant as you might think this topic is, I can assure you it is far more unpleasant dealing with an unexpected illness or death when documents have not been drawn up. I’m surely dating myself here, but if you remember the YEARS that Terry Schiavo was on life-support while her family battled about how to proceed, you’ll know how bad it can get when you haven’t clearly stated your wishes. I like to think of estate planning as a gift to your loved ones, which makes it easier for them in a time of extreme stress, to know what you would want.

I plan to write more on the topic in coming months, but a very quick overview of the types of documents you likely need and what they pertain to.

  • The will- most people are broadly familiar with what this document does. It tells people what happens to your assets if you pass away. This includes everything from your home to your bank account and even your pet(s). Perhaps most importantly for anyone with children, this is the document where you name a guardian for any minor children, should you and your spouse both pass away. If you do not have a guardian named, the courts will decide for you (this rarely leads to the best outcome). One important note here: 401(k), IRA and other retirement accounts as well as life insurance pass by beneficiary designation not through the will.
  • Powers of attorney (POAs)- as mentioned above, you may name an “agent” who can make health care and/or financial decisions on your behalf. You may have one person designated to be a health care POA and another person as your financial POA. 
  • Medical directives/living will- this is a document that states types of medical treatments or interventions that you do/do not want. For instance, a common one is to say you do not want to be placed on life support.

The current global pandemic is a very timely reminder to confirm that you have some of these basic documents in place. If you’ve already completed some or all of the above, how long has it been since you reviewed them? If your health care POA has since moved to Australia, they probably need to be replaced with someone local (if possible). I also recommend reviewing beneficiary designations periodically to ensure they still align with your wishes. 

My goal with this topic is for all of us to start to have these conversations and normalize the process. While talking about worst-case scenarios can be a bit morbid, the sense of relief you get once you’ve gotten these things in place is hard to quantify. My top takeaway for readers: if you have minor children get something in place for guardianship ASAP. You can always revise or fine-tune later but this is one you don’t want to wait on. If you are single (or not!), I strongly recommend getting a health care POA/living will in place. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. You’ll sleep better at night knowing you’ve made a step in the right direction. 

Xena Financial Planning is Born!

Xena Financial Planning blog introduction

Welcome to Xena Financial Planning (Xena FP).

I am so very glad you are here! Allow me to introduce you to my new firm.

I honestly did not set out with the intention of creating my own practice. In 2014, when I first entered the industry, I was eager to learn from more seasoned planners and get as much experience as possible. Fast forward 6 years and I feel called and emboldened to offer a new kind of planning firm.

My focus is on women (and their partners) in the early to middle stages of their careers. Specifically, I absolutely love helping clients who receive equity compensation as part of their income. It’s extremely common in the tech world and while there are plenty of brilliant people working in tech, many of them do not have the time or inclination to manage the influx of stock. I also offer a unique perspective and advice for women who own small businesses, based on many years of working in finance for small businesses and start-ups.

Not only do I feel compelled to serve a more specific demographic, I can improve on the process, which is in dire need of a facelift. The world of financial planning is in the midst of a seismic shift; the way that advice is delivered is dramatically different from the way prior generations received it. 

What I love about financial planning is the relationships and the process. I’m not overly focused on investment performance, nor do I plan to deliver a massive financial plan which might be better used as a doorstop. In my view, financial planning is a highly dynamic process, with many moving pieces that are constantly in flux. At Xena FP, I work with my clients on an ongoing basis, to help them navigate whatever life delivers. I strive to both educate and empower clients as we develop a collaborative relationship.

My desire to specialize, as well as build a process that works for our highly volatile world, led me to found Xena Financial Planning. Largely based on the fact that I founded the business in the midst of a global pandemic, my intention is to be 100% virtual. One of the things I have loved about the pandemic is not having to spend a lot of time in traffic; I am sure my clients can appreciate that! I’m so happy to have you here for some part of the journey. Together, we will build something extraordinary.