The Definitive Guide to Locum Tenens

Having worked in locum tenens for almost 2 years now, I feel that I have a good grasp on ways to maximize the experience. This article will serve to give a honest appraisal of the pros and cons of locums practice, describe the financial/tax advantages of such, and give tips on how to make the setup work for you.

Is locum tenens right for me?

For most people, it’s a qualified yes. Overall, I think locums is a great way for new grads to learn the ropes of the profession, get exposure to different practice patterns, and pay down loans fast. Concurrently, it also works well for those nearing retirement who may not want to work a full schedule but do want to preserve flexibility in their schedule.

Generally, since locums by definition is a temporary assignment without guarantee that the placement will be based in your preferred area, it’s more appropriate for those without firm attachments to a particular place. Often times, family is the reason doctors drop out of locums. Either they get married and have a spouse who is from or has a job in a particular place, or kids come into the picture.

I’d say that locums is generally better for those who are less subspecialized, to maximize the number of opportunities around the country. Someone in primary care, hospital medicine, general surgery, radiology, and ER is much more suited to doing locums work, since shifts and warm bodies are largely interchangeable. In contrast, pathology, neurosurgery, and EP are more specialized and thus tend to only have openings in tertiary referral centers in large metropolitan areas. These are normally hot locations and with a surplus of providers, so there’s less drive for locums positions to open up.

That leads us to…

What are the pros and cons of locums?

Pros:

  1. Higher hourly income than a full time job. Positions that are desperate to have shifts filled offer premium pay to attract a bunch of providers in a hurry.
  2. Benefits if you know how to use them. It’s a bit of a wash, as the benefits that normally come with a full time position are shifted into base pay and amenities attached with the assignment. We’ll learn later how to maximize them.
  3. No need to worry about billing or productivity. Since you’re paid by the hour, you’re a glorified salary worker with no benefit to seeing higher volume or worrying about maximal billing (though you still should, as we’ll see later).
  4. Taxation. Being paid on a 1099 rather than W-2 basis allows one to legally take all sorts of business deductions, if you play your cards right.
  5. Seeing the country and the world. Imagine being able to go to Maine in the summer, the Caribbean or Hawaii in the winter, and staying there at no cost. There are also international placements – many people go to New Zealand for example.

Cons:

  1. No guarantee of work. Your position can be canned with a month’s notice if the position gets filled by full time hires. In other times, there just aren’t enough shifts to go around to meet your needs, either because of full timers, per diems, or competition from other locums at the site. Other times, the site just plain won’t like you and can terminate you at any time. This can be an endless source of stress if you don’t mitigate it.
  2. Lack of other benefits. Again, I’d put benefits under both pro and con because I think of it as a shift in type of benefit to other things that ultimately comes out to be a wash overall. Essentially, you lose health insurance, retirement benefits,
  3. Travel time. Having to fly back and forth to a remote location can be a real downer, taking up the bulk of a day.
  4. Taxation. Again both a pro and a con. The major con is having to file taxes in multiple states, being responsible for paying estimated quarterly taxes, and double taxation for payroll tax (Social Security and Medicare contributions)

How to maximize the locums payoff

Knowing the above, I’ll now get to how to maximize enjoyment/benefits and minimizing the downsides, based again on my 2 years of experience and background in investing/finance.

The first key is to take advantage of the benefits. Normally, contracts come with housing, flights, and a rental car all paid for by the client. My preference is to have long-term arrangements “living in” each community, with shipping or driving my car (reimbursed of course) to the site. The housing stipend (in my experience $2500-$3500) is generally enough to get a furnished apartment or a private Airbnb in the area close to the workplace. My preference is for Airbnb due to the flexibility of being able to cancel up to a month in advance if the client’s needs change. Living in the community will shorten the commute time and minimize flights back and forth. It will also let you save money by not having to maintain a home anywhere else. Yes, you’ll be a bit of an itinerant tramp, but with furniture provided for, you won’t have to bring much when you move from site to site. Living in the site will also endear you to the client. If there’s a last minute emergency shift that needs filling, you’re already on site and can take it. Also, no matter how many shifts in a month you do, the client won’t have to pay more for extra hotel days. Also, you won’t incur any flight costs for the client by virtue of relocating yourself to each new site. Finally, by shipping your car, you can reimburse the mileage driven from home to work, and again save the client money by avoiding a car rental.

If it’s unavoidable for whatever reason and you have to maintain a home elsewhere and commute back/forth, do the next best thing and take advantage of hotel and airline rewards programs. In my experience, Hyatt has the best rewards and you can accumulate free days very quickly without having to spend a lot of money. Hyatt Place is a great mid tier brand with a full free breakfast, but unfortunately is only located in major metro areas. The next best is Hilton, due to widespread availability, easy to earn status (Gold = free breakfast at HGI and Doubletree), and many free breakfast options (Embassy Suites, Hampton Inn) even without status. IHG is my third choice mainly due to availability, especially in rural areas. Holiday Inn Express, while not the best place to stay, works for a clean, comfortable, hassle-free experience with free breakfast to boot (comparable to Hampton in quality). You will accumulate points easily that can be redeemed for free nights at a fairly frequent basis, but higher rewards tiers don’t come with as good concessions (no free breakfast) compared to Hyatt or Hilton. Other locums have used Marriott or SPG, but my reading of their rewards programs is that they’re on the less generous side of things overall, and aren’t as widespread as either Hilton or IHG.

As for flights, my preference is Southwest plus another. When possible, Southwest is generally the cheapest point to point between major metro areas, and the two free bags is a lifesaver when moving homes. They also have many direct flights from the cities I care about (San Jose and Dallas), and their rewards program is quite fair in terms of availability and usability of points. The next tier in my book is Delta, mainly because their points don’t expire. They also fly to many remote locations and have hubs that I use frequently (Salt Lake, Minneapolis, Atlanta). Of course, in your situation things may be different, and United, Alaska, or American may be better options based on your home city. Sometimes they will be the cheapest and most direct flight, but my preference is not to use those if I have an equal option due to worse frequent flyer benefits (for United and American) or limited geographic reach (for Alaska, though they are improving).

After optimizing your travel/housing situation, you should turn your attention to the direct financial implications of being paid as an independent contractor. The main advantage to this is being able to expense certain things from your business. Although, with most housing and travel expenses paid for, the most rewarding deductions left over is meals while away from home (per diem accounting of this eases record keeping). However, you will be able to set up a SEP IRA or Solo 401k. The former is easier to set up and has fewer reporting requirements but you have to make more than roughly $280,000 per year to reach the maximum contribution limit of $55,000 for 2018. This is a great perk which we should definitely seek to maximize, as it’s a higher limit than standard employed 401k plans ($18,500 limit). The Solo 401k is more hassle but does let you reach the same $55,000 limit with lower income. In terms of investment options, both are the same. For me, I use a SEP IRA since I work a full time schedule and can easily clear that income hurdle.

Lastly, we’ll talk about mitigating the downsides of being an independent contractor. While there’s nothing we can do about double payroll tax, we can at least deduct the employer half from our gross business income. This leaves health insurance, which most people will either buy from the ACA marketplace or get for free from a spouse, the latter being the best option if you’re lucky enough.

Don’t forget to pay estimated quarterly federal and state taxes. Pay attention as they can be on different schedules! Normally for W-2 wage earners, your taxes owed are deducted from each paycheck. As a small business owner or contractor, you have to calculate taxes on your own. I find that the best way to navigate this is to pay enough to meet the safe harbour clause. For high wage earners (anyone over $150,000 filing as married), this means paying 110% of total federal tax from the previous year. As a simple calculation, if your total federal taxes for 2017 is $60,000, you should plan on paying $66,000 in quarterly installments in 2018 to fall under safe harbour. It doesn’t matter if you ultimately earn more than that. You’ll still have to pay what you owe, but by paying the safe harbour minimum, you won’t be charged fees and penalties for underpayment. As for how much to set aside from each paycheck, I’d go with 35% if you’re in a low tax state and 40% if you’re in a high tax state. While setting this aside it can be helpful to have the money earn interest in a money market account or short-term bond fund until you have to pay.

With the recent tax law overhaul, working professionals stand to benefit from lower rates. Yes, there’s a loophole where high-earning professionals can reduce their taxes substantially without having to incorporate as a pass through S-corp.

Of course, if this is too hard you can always find a tax accountant to do things for you.

I purposefully leave out life insurance as I feel that it’s a big waste of money. The main point is to leave something to your heirs, but if you’ve been doing everything correctly and investing on schedule, your estate should be big enough to more than outweigh any insurance payout.

How to pick assignments

Early on in your locums experience, you may be tempted to commit to one state license or one job. Don’t. Locums who fail to plan can end up with no work at a moment’s notice. Instead, get credentialed in multiple states where you think you can get work and see what’s available. I divide sites into two categories (this will be from a hospitalist perspective now). Tier one is a desirable primary site with low census, good EMR (I like Epic), low-no procedure requirements, closed ICU, and located in or close to a major metro area (to minimize flight time). Due to desirability, this site will require a long-term commitment usually on the order of 4-6 months minimum, with a minimum schedule each month (typically 7-14 shifts). Tier two is a higher census typically rural site that’s more desperate for providers and will take anything from anyone, even on a part time or ad hoc basis. It’s good having a site or two like this in one’s back pocket in the case of a dry spell. You can even have a tier three which is purely per diem arrangements with local hospitals.

This is also a rough guide to how to screen for assignments in general. Again, from the hospitalist perspective, I like bigger groups with more concurrent hospitalists. This means that any unexpected surges in workload is distributed more evenly (only 1-2 extra patients per provider) as opposed to the same volume spread over 4 hospitalists, which can overwhelm the system. No joke. I’ve heard of some hospitalists who start at a site and quit after a day due to the high workload. Average census is probably the next most important to screen for. It can be helpful to get a sense from people on the ground as opposed to just the medical director, who can be biased in trying to sell the position. My general goal is to shoot for 12 patient census for 10 hour shifts, 15 census for 12 hour shifts, and to also inquire if there are concurrent admissions. The most extreme workload that I’ve done is average census 15, 3-4 admissions, 12 hour shift, with no cap. That was brutal. The other end of the spectrum is a census of 9-13, 10 hour shift, no admissions, which usually led me to “finish” the day at 2 PM. I think it’s far better for health/sustainability and med-legal reasons to keep to the lower census sites as much as possible. Even from a financial perspective, it’s better to be able to work 21 shifts and still be fine mentally (and still be able to do stuff each day after work) rather than only 14 shifts and still feel burned out.

As an added bonus, some sites have policies in place that allow rounders to go home early when they’re done with work. These places are worth their weight in gold if you find them, and almost inevitably fill quickly. If I can work 7 AM – 4 PM, get home on time, take the remaining cross cover call from my gym, and get paid for a full 11 hour shift, sign me up to work 28 days straight here!

For me personally, EMR is an important screening criteria for sites. I grew up with Epic. It’s the only EMR I’ve used since starting medical school, barring short stretches at the VA and the local student-run free clinic which was on Allscripts. My comfort level with Epic is so high that I’m twice as efficient on there as compared to any other EMR. I can very easily navigate through all the tabs to get the relevant information on patients. As someone who prefer to type, use templates and add in smartphrases than dictate, I can type out a note in roughly 10 minutes from start to finish on Epic, as compared to closer to 30 minutes fumbling through a dictation and waiting for it to upload (full disclosure: I’ve never dictated before and don’t plan to start). This means I can tolerate sites with high workload if they’re on Epic, while a hospital using Meditech will need to tempt me with far better hours/pay to get my consideration.

As a general rule of thumb, I like to think of the US in terms of geographic areas. The Northeast is a wasteland for hospitalists. Census is generally on the upper end but the area is oversaturated due to the glut of academic programs pumping out providers who like to stay in the area. Even if you’re willing to work full time, good luck finding any position in NYC, Boston, or DC. If you do, it’s probably going to pay far less than $200k. In contrast, the South is what I like to call high workload, high pay. People who gravitate towards places like Florida, Tennessee, and Texas like the lack of state income tax (more take home pay!) and are willing to work hard for it. When I say work hard that means positions routinely advertise 20-25 average daily census, and 10-12 admissions for night/swing shifts. Moving on to the Midwest and Mountain West, I consider this to be my personal sweet spot. Perhaps due to the weather, there are far fewer providers here than anywhere else in the country. Thus, pay is high (for both locums and perm jobs) and census is generally very reasonable. My favourite is the Twin Cities, since I know the health systems well there and the fact that all the major systems are on Epic. The TC also have a great public transportation network, and it’s possible to go carless there including from the airport to all major hospitals. My second choice would be the West Coast (CA, OR, WA). Workload is in between the Midwest and the South, and pay is comparable to the Midwest. California is a great license to have, and there are generally tons of jobs, though not always in the most desirable areas. A big personal plus is that all the major health networks (Providence, Legacy, Kaiser, Sutter, Swedish) are on Epic.

How to be a good locums provider

While the previous section focused on what a site can do to be more appealing to locums, this section will be on how to be a good locums candidate and provider.

Put yourself in the shoes of a site. What they want is someone who has the fewest hang ups and is easy to deal with. An ideal candidate is willing to go anywhere, do anything, work at various hours of the day, learn the local system quickly, and not complain. This is why I’m so picky on which sites I screen for before applying. By carefully selecting just the best sites, I create an environment where I can get started on the first day and easily outperform full-time staff.

Aside from medical competence and efficiency, it’s also important to be attuned to the local political and dynamics within the group and between the group and the administration. Getting on the good side of admins, schedulers, care coordinators, and the chief is important. When the group evaluates whether to keep using locums and if there’s a crunch, which locums to cut, they’ll keep only those that they like and who perform well. Remember, you can stand to be picky when applying for jobs, but once you’re in the door, do your best to perform well. On site is not the best time to complain.

Finally, I want to emphasize how important it is to be cost-conscientious. Hospitals and groups don’t have unlimited budgets. If there’s any chance of waiving certain benefits such as rental car, or minimizing flights by living locally in long-term housing, do so. It will improve your standing in the client’s eyes and again make you more competitive to retain or to be asked back when they have options.

Conclusion

So there you have it – the nuts and bolts, inside scoop on the locums life from someone who’s been through it. Personally, I’ve loved locums overall. It might not suit everyone’s lifestyle or approach to things, but it fits what I want from my career at this time. Use the above tips. Structure things well and through careful maximization of benefits, sites, shifts, and tax treatment, you can earn as much as an orthopedic surgeon while working half as much.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusmail

Can Locums Doctors Qualify for a 20% Tax Deduction?

The new tax bill has become law and accountants are eagerly poring over the details, dissecting it for loopholes. One of the biggest giveaways is to small businesses, allowing a 20% deduction for income that is passed through (called “pass-thru” in the law) to the individual. It’s called Section 199A, and I expect that this will become a household name as famous as the 401k. The intent of the addition is to benefit small businesses (larger ones tend to go for C-corp style taxation) that employ the bulk of Americans but would otherwise be penalized at higher individual tax rates versus C-corps. To avoid incentivizing too many of these entities to be forced to convert to C-corps, it was decided to offer some token tax cut to pass through businesses. Ron Johnson largely pushed this addition through by himself, given slim margins for Republicans in the Senate.

Remember, this website isn’t interested in debating the ethics of the law or the politics behind its passage or ramifications. Rather, we want to be more practical (or nakedly capitalist if you will) – can I exploit this loophole for my own gain? This will be a more fine tuned analysis geared towards medical professionals, due to my own expertise in this area, but the principles are largely applicable to other professional service businesses as well.

To qualify, first you must be taxed as a pass through business. This includes:

  • Sole proprietors. If you’re taxed by filling out Schedule C reports of your 1099 independent contractor income, you count in this category. It’s the default if you haven’t gone out of your way to form a more advanced business structure.
  • Partnership. Basically a few sole proprietors working together on the project, each owning a portion of the firm. Each passes through income proportionally. Note that a married couple can be counted as a sole proprietor because they file together.
  • S-corp. This is where things get fun. This business model can scale as big as you want. You have all the responsibilities of a big corporation in terms of payroll, offering 401k, health benefits, getting a corporate board, and filing quarterly tax payments. It’s a big setup and reporting hassle and can be expensive to maintain. Luckily there are software packages out there that can make it easy for you to create one.
  • LLC status is a legal distinction that doesn’t matter to the IRS.

Contracted physicians (this includes the locums category) tend to be either sole proprietors or S-corp. Many have opted for the latter because you can choose to structure some income as wage income (W-2) and the rest as a pass through business distribution that is not subject to payroll tax. The IRS closely scrutinizes the proportion that is in each category to prevent people underpaying themselves and taking almost everything as a distribution. The generally accepted principle is that your income should be close to the national average for your profession and the type of work you do. Given the high incomes of physicians, this won’t save you anything in Social Security (unless you work part time) once you pass the income limit, but it will only save you the 2.9% Medicare portion of payroll tax that is applied to all earned income. It’s up to you to determine whether the tax savings outweigh the setup and maintenance costs as well as tax reporting hassles.

When crafting this carve out, politicians were careful to limit its benefits to favoured categories of individuals. They like businesses that own real estate, employ people, and invest in capital equipment. They most definitely did not want this loophole to benefit high income professionals who don’t employ others. Politically that would be depicted as overly favouring the rich, who presumably don’t need this loophole. Thus the law featured two “tests” – the income test and the profession test.

The Income Test

If you’re single and your total taxable income (this includes all other investment, side job, and interest income) is less than $157,500, great! You can take this deduction no questions asked. If you’re married, the same limit is $315,000. Mind you, if your income is higher than this threshold, it doesn’t mean you can’t take it. Rather, there’s a phase out period up to $207,500 for singles and $415,000 for married individuals. The phase out is essentially linear. What it means is if your income is above the phase out thresholds, you can’t use *any* of this 20% deduction. It doesn’t mean that you can still deduct the portion that’s under $315,000.

Ironically, this creates significantly negative incentives around the phase out line where one’s marginal tax rate goes up temporarily to ~50-60% because of rising brackets and losing benefits. Greg Mankiw may chime in in five years and say that it’s a “upper middle class” income trap with bad incentives.

Don’t fret if your income is above either threshold (lucky you!). Remember this test just wants to check your total taxable income. Anything that reduces this number can make you thin enough to squeeze under the bar and claim the deduction. This includes SEP-IRA, 401k, and business expenses, all of which reduce what’s visible as taxable income.

The Profession Test

If you make more than the income cutoffs, you can benefit from the law if your business fits into one of these categories:

  1. Anyone who is in the business of being an employee (yes, being an employee is considered being in a business), and
  2. Any “specified service trade or business.” 

The IRS will spend several years filing lawsuits and refining this broad definition, but for now you can consider that if your business features your skills and services as opposed to owning property and selling goods, you’re one of the undesirable types. You will fail the profession test. Law, medicine, “consultant” and accounting are some of the professions that are explicitly mentioned as failing this test.

Somehow there are exceptions for architects and engineers. No one knows why but presumably their professional societies lobbied hard.

The Recap

So for our locums physician to take advantage of this benefit, he or she needs to satisfy the income test, because we know that medicine will surely fail the profession test. This is easier to do if you work in one of the lower paying specialties, work part-time, and are married. For our friends with S-corp setups, since the income test evaluates you on your overall income, it doesn’t matter if you slice your earnings as salary or a business distribution, they both will be counted for purposes of the limit. This obviates a big advantage of S-corps relative to sole proprietors.

Some of the more astute readers will note that there is another test called the W-2 test, which is supposed to limit abuse by preventing really high income people from quitting their jobs and becoming a consultant working the same job. Forbes explains better than I can:

I’m a partner at a BIG, PRESTIGIOUS ACCOUNTING FIRM. I am also, however, an employee; one who collects a wage. Now, let’s just assume that my annual wage is $800,000 (it is not). With the new rules coming down and offering a 20% deduction against my income, what would prevent me from quitting my current gig, and then having my firm engage the services of “Tony Nitti, Inc.” a brand new S corporation I’ve set up specifically to facilitate my tax shenanigans? Now, my firm pays that same $800,000 to my S corporation, and my S corporation simply allows that income to flow through to be as QBI. I, in turn, take a 20% deduction against that income, reducing my income to $640,000. See the problem?

My role at my firm hasn’t changed. I provided accounting services before, I provide accounting services now. But before, I was receiving wages taxed at ordinary rates as high as 37%. Now, by converting to an S corporation and foregoing wages in favor of QBI, I am now paying an effective rate on that income of only 29.6% (37% * 80%). That’s not fair, is it? Compensation for services should be taxed at the same rate, whether it’s coming to me as a salary or flow-through income.

To prevent these abuses, Congress enacted the W-2 limitations. Because, in my example, Tony Nitti, Inc. does not pay any wages, in both scenarios my limitation would be a big fat ZERO, meaning I get no deduction. Like so:

My deduction is the LESSER OF:

  1. 20% of $800,000, or $160,000, or
  2. The GREATER OF:
    1. 50% of W-2 wages, or $0, or
    2. 25% of W-2 wages, or $0, plus 2.5% of the unadjusted basis of the LLC’s assets, or $0, for a total of $0..

It’s a lot of calculation and looks complicated, but we can actually disregard it all as this limitation will only come into play if you fail the income test. Since we’ve already determined that a physician who fails the income test will automatically fail the profession test and be prohibited from taking the deduction, we shouldn’t even worry about this section.

As Forbes explains:

Section 199A(b)(3)(A) provides that if your TAXABLE INCOME for the year — not adjusted gross income, not QBI, but TAXABLE INCOME — is less than the “threshold amount” for the year, then you can simply ignore the two W-2-based limitations. The “threshold amounts” for 2018 are $315,000 if you are married, and $157,500 for all other taxpayers. These amounts will be indexed for inflation starting in 2019. And quite obviously, you determine taxable income WITHOUT factoring in any potential 20% deduction that we’re discussing here.

The Payoff

Phew. You’ve waded through all of the above because you’re eagerly salivating over seeing how much you can save on your taxes, right?! Let’s crunch some numbers.

Our example physician is married, works as a contractor (paid as 1099), and is set up as a sole practitioner (in the end, S-corp calculations won’t be too different from this) for simplicity’s sake. Assume no kids. This person is based in Texas and to avoid troublesome state income tax calculations performs contract work in Washington, Nevada, Texas, and Florida only. Yearly income starting in 2018, the first year the new law will apply, is estimated to be $400,000.

To fit under the threshold, we maximize our SEP-IRA contributions, which are $54,000. We accumulate $22,000 in deductible business expenses. Then we also take the standard deduction of $24,000 for a married couple. That leaves us with $300,000 exact in visible taxable income. All of it is eligible for the 20% deduction.

Let’s use Marketwatch’s calculator to calculate our total tax under the new bracket system for 2018:

  • $40,179 for federal income tax
  • $0 state income tax
  • $15,958.8 Social Security (double because of 1099)
  • $12,114 Medicare (including surtax)
  • Total of $68,251.8

For comparison, if we earn that $300,000 as W-2 income (employed physician), our total tax will be:

  • $60,578 for federal income tax
  • $0 state income tax
  • $7,979.4 Social Security
  • $6,633 Medicare (including surtax)
  • Total of $75,190.4

There is a net savings of $6,938.6 with business income as opposed to wage income. The numbers are close but not exact, since the business owner will be able to deduct business expenses and half of the payroll tax that the W-2 earner can’t itemize.

I haven’t included calculations for S-corp owners because there are complex rules depending on how much you take as W-2 salary and how much is a distribution. The same thresholds apply, and you are only allowed the 20% deduction on the portion that is a distribution.

 

(Much of the details are from the source text, as well as Forbes Tax Geek and Evergreen Small Business)

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusmail

Take More Risk in Tax Advantage Accounts

The Bond King Bill Gross likes to philosophize about profound emotions such as joy and melancholy in his investment rants, and this post is driven in part by the emotion of regret seeing Bitcoin hit all time highs, and even surpassing the price of gold.

Such is the case for many in my field. When I was finishing my last year at Berkeley, I came upon news reports of the fancy new cryptocurrency idea called Bitcoin. Independently at the same time, so did my fiancee’s brother, childhood friend, and cousin-in law (all techies). We didn’t think much of it, and as risk averse as I was, I didn’t even bother putting $50 or so of play money into there. If I did, it would be worth almost a million! Similarly, my fiancee’s aunt regrets not buying Apple stock when it was down in the dumpster right before Jobs took over (seriously, most smart money was on the company going bankrupt, not staging a phoenix-like revival).

While we can all regret not doing the most “optimal” thing (life doesn’t have a save/reload button) in hindsight, we can also never with certainty predict what the future will hold. What we can do, and it will sound boring, is to make sure we have the right types of investments in the right places, and to stay allocated to assets in a way that allows us to sleep well at night. If we do dedicate a small (e.g. 5%) portion of our portfolio to lottery ticket bets on small cap stocks, that’s fine. Just make sure to do it in the tax advantaged section of the portfolio.

Standard portfolio theory suggests that we should make sure that our money is invested in the way that takes advantage of legal tax shelters to our benefit, as much as possible. Just to recap, there are in general three big categories of holdings: taxable, pre-tax 401k/IRA, and Roth 401k/IRA. Here’s what we should put in each:

  • Taxable: The goal here is to hold for as long as possible and to minimize the number of transactions and income generated, since each sale can generate a huge tax bill for capital gains. The best choice is a low fee total stock market index fund (Vanguard, iShares, and Schwab are all good choices) that is held and not sold until death. Then we can take advantage of the tax free basis step up when we bequeath to heirs. The small amount of dividends generated is taxable, yes, but at a much lower rate than the marginal rate. Bond holdings should be in tax-free municipal bonds as much as possible, doubly so if you’re in a high tax bracket.
  • Pre-Tax: We have to pay tax on the whole thing anyway but not until we cash the money out from the account. That quirk makes pre-tax accounts ideal for traders, stock pickers, and market timers who move in and out of positions with regularity. It’s also a good place to stash taxable bond funds and high dividend funds that throw out a lot of periodic income.
  • Roth: This is where you should make your highest risk “lottery” type bets. Let’s say you could (and want to) invest in bitcoin, startups in their infancy, micro cap stocks, penny/value stocks, turnaround stories, Greek bonds on the verge of default, and foreclosed homes. You would do so here. The bigger the potential gains, the better it will be. Whether you stumble upon a 10-bagger or 100-bagger doesn’t matter. You won’t pay any tax on it at the end.

So in summary, you want to use the right tool for the job. A balanced portfolio should consist of stock funds, bond funds, and maybe a dash of play money. Instead of making each tax category holding the same, we should concentrate our investments in the type of account that is best-suited from a tax perspective. Big gainers should be in the Roth, slow steady accumulator broad market funds should be in taxable, and income spewing investments in the pre-tax account.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusmail

Broke at Half A Million

Marketwatch ran an article about how one can still be broke despite earning half a million a year. Preposterous, you say? They do show the breakdown of sample spending for the rich family compared to an average family with $80,000 in yearly income.

Let’s break this down in an itemized manner:

  1. 401k contributions: a good thing, especially given the tax bracket
  2. Taxes: unavoidable, but the rich family should be looking to diversify more into legal tax shelters like mortgage interest deductions and maximizing HSAs
  3. Child care: I can’t explain this discrepancy. Does the wealthy family choose to use a premium service as opposed to the McDonalds of child care? Does that really provide any benefit? Both families have the same number of kids, so there’s no reason for spending to be any different. And besides, those in the know opt for live in Hispanic au-pairs so their kids can get a head start in life
  4. Food: both families eat way too much. I spend $40 per week on groceries (that includes household items like detergent) for myself. Multiply that by 4 gives you $8480 for a whole year. Even if you spend a bit more on eating out, you will still may just top out at what the average family spends. What does the rich family get by spending more? More calories? Whole grain organic quinoa?
  5. Housing: this is a big opportunity to cut back by living in a smaller house for less. A bigger house just adds to the housework, not necessarily truly improving happiness. Likewise, this allows for a corresponding reduction in property tax and insurance
  6. Gas: no reason that this needs to be different between the two families
  7. Life insurance: just self-insure by saving more. This is one of the biggest cons out there
  8. Clothes: do you really need to wear better clothes than the average family? If anything, standing out more in this era of Occupy Wall Street just makes you more of a target
  9. Children’s lessons: I’ll admit, probably a good investment. If anything, Asian families in the Bay Area spend much more in this category
  10. Charity: cut back on this, especially if you’re living on the edge
  11. Debt repayment: probably unavoidable, but you can save on this by studying overseas or in state schools
  12. Miscellaneous: I don’t even know what this means

Notice how I didn’t include vacations on this list? Generally, I will allow one budget busting “splurge”, either in clothing, house, car, or vacations. Among those, the one that gives the most lasting happiness is vacations.

 

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusmail

Advice for a Young Investor

Warren Buffett says that today’s crop of babies are the luckiest ever. This may be true in some respects – technological advancements have certainly improved the quality of life. Today’s commoners live a life undreamed of by previous monarchs. However, in other respects, young people today have it harder than ever.

Take for instance public comments Morningstar’s advice to a young investor:

Check out the vesting options on your match in the 401K before you let that match influence what you do. My own Millennial daughter has worked at 3 places now with generous matches on paper. She has yet to get any of her matches to vest because they all have 3 year cliff vesting. She got laid off (in one case just before 3 years) before any of her matches vested.

and

That should be a wake-up call to today’s 20/30-somethings. Were those terminations part of some evil, greedy attempt to cut corporate costs? Just the fact there was a long “cliff” should say something: corporate America is desperate to wash its hands of any responsibility for their employees’ retirement.

That means: save, save, save your money. Retirement is in your hands, more than ever! Each dollar wasted on alcohol, pot, tattoos, new cell phones every year, data plans, new cars, bar tabs, trips to Mexico, music festivals, is actually ***two or three*** dollars you won’t have for retirement.

That’s the time value of money. Blowing money on toys and “experiences” early on in life, is what’s killing the retirements of many a baby-boomer today. Forcing older boomers to reverse-mortgage their homes for money to live on.
Don’t repeat your parents’ mistakes.

With how perilously insecure jobs are today, it’s more important than ever for young people to have multiple income streams. This means side gigs (e.g. Uber, independent tutoring, Etsy), monetizing resources (e.g. Airbnb), investment income (rental, stocks, bonds), and entrepreneurship (low cost digital startups). Without a diversified stream such as the above, we will fall prey to the whims of an unscrupulous employer who can can us at a moment’s notice in the name of cost savings.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusmail

Should You Dollar Cost Average?

It’s an interesting question. Let’s say you are an investor looking to start investing for the first time. Should you invested a large sum in bulk or purposefully trickle in a little bit every month?

First, we should recognize that not everyone has the luxury of doing this. Most of us in the accumulation phase of life have to invest alongside our biweekly paychecks. There’s no choice except to trickle in our money.

But what if you’re blessed with a sudden large windfall, say from an inheritance, a house sale, or lottery? Is there really an advantage to investing piecemeal or all at once?

Vanguard ran a study back in 2012 about this. By doing historical simulations on different strategies dating back to 1926, they found that lump sum investing outperformed dollar cost averaging in every country they studied over all time horizons, for all mixes of stocks and bonds.

The reason is that on average, the market goes up more than it goes down. Therefore, by maximizing time in the market by investing in a lump sum, we are able to enjoy the market’s rewards earlier. Delaying also means missing out on dividends as they are distributed. The only time that dollar cost averaging makes sense is if we time our investments to match a downturn, but if we knew there would be a downturn, why not delay 3-6 months when the market is lower and then invest lump sum? Dollar cost averaging makes no logical sense.

Vanguard though does note that even though it produces poorer returns, dollar cost averaging can be helpful in calming the nerves of some jittery investors because it reduces short-term volatility. That’s literally the only benefit it provides.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusmail

Turbocharge Your Retirement with the “Backdoor” Roth

For those of you who have read my guide to wealth, you’ll remember that one of my points of emphasis is to save for retirement. Tax-deferred (traditional) and tax-free (Roth) 401k and IRA accounts allow us to minimize the taxes we pay in a legal manner. This allows our earnings to compound and grow faster than they would in a taxable brokerage account. Of the two, I like the Roth as it takes away all future tax headache as everything inside is tax exempt forever! It also has many advantages when drawing down (no required distributions) and as part of an estate package (automatic step up in basis).

Unfortunately, the government recognizes that the Roth IRA offers such good benefits that it has built in strict income eligibility thresholds. Singles making more than about $130,000, and married folks making more than about $190,000 can’t put anything into a Roth IRA. A Roth 401k remains a (great) option, but not all employers offer it.

For those who don’t qualify or are otherwise prohibited from contributing to a Roth IRA, we need to go in through the back door. Here are the step by step instructions:

  1. Open a traditional IRA
  2. Make a nondeductible (after-tax) contribution of $5,000 or $6,500 (depending on age), but don’t buy anything with the money yet
  3. Immediately convert the account into a Roth IRA
  4. Invest the money

Voila. Absolutely no difference in the end between this and a direct Roth IRA contribution. The back door approach exploits the loophole that tradition -> Roth IRA conversions don’t have the same income eligibility limits that Roth IRA contributions do. Now anyone without regard for income can take advantage of the great features of the Roth IRA.

Should you take advantage of this? The general rules of traditional vs Roth apply. If you plan on becoming wealthy in the future with the help of my book, you will have plenty of income-generating assets. Having as much of your wealth sheltered from tax in Roth IRAs helps to optimize your tax situation in that setting.

Keep in mind one big gotcha. If you have a large traditional IRA with a mix of deductible and nondeductible contributions, the “pro-rata” rule comes into effect. This means that you can’t just choose to convert only the nondeductible portion. If you have a $10,000 IRA with half of it as deductible (pre-tax) and the other half nondeductible (after-tax), a conversion of $5,000 will incur tax on $2,500. The best workaround is to keep the size of the IRA small and convert all of your contributions each year, or suck it up and convert the whole IRA.

Keep in mind that the pro-rata rule doesn’t apply to our 401k investments. This may be one situation where it’s advantageous to hold off on rolling over the 401k to an IRA when we change jobs.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusmail