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IRAs Are Top Tool for Retirement Savings

Individual retirement accounts are the largest pool of U.S. retirement assets, which totaled $33.1 trillion at the end of the third quarter of 2020.


Source: Investment Company Institute, 2020

Growing Interest in Socially Responsible Investing

U.S. assets invested in socially responsible strategies topped $17.1 trillion at the start of 2020, up 42% from two years earlier. Sustainable, responsible, and impact (SRI) investments now account for nearly one-third of all professionally managed U.S. assets.1 This upward trend suggests that many people want their investment dollars to pursue a financial return and make a positive impact on the world.

There is also wider recognition that good corporate citizenship can benefit the bottom line. A favorable public image might increase sales and brand value, and conservation efforts can help reduce costs, improving profit margins. Some harmful business practices are now viewed as reputational or financial risks that could damage a company’s longer-term prospects.

ESG Explained

SRI strategies incorporate environmental, social, and governance (ESG) considerations into investment decisions in a variety of ways. ESG data for publicly traded companies is often provided alongside traditional financial data by investment research and rating services. Some examples of prominent ESG issues include climate change, sustainable natural resources, labor and equal employment opportunity, human rights, executive pay, and board diversity.

A simple exclusionary approach (also called negative screening) allows investors to steer clear of companies and industries that profit from products or activities they don’t wish to finance. These choices can vary widely depending on the individual investor’s ethics, philosophies, and religious beliefs, but alcohol, tobacco, gambling, and weapons are some typical exclusions.

Similarly, positive screening can help investors identify companies with stronger ESG track records and/or policies and practices that they support. Impact investing is a less common strategy that directly targets specific environmental or social problems in order to achieve measurable outcomes.

There are also a variety of integrative approaches that combine robust ESG data with traditional financial analysis. These tend to be proactive and comprehensive, so they are less likely to avoid entire industries. Instead, analysts and portfolio managers may compare industry peers to determine which companies have taken bigger steps to meet environmental and social challenges, potentially gaining a competitive advantage.

Investment Opportunities

The range of investment vehicles used in SRI strategies includes stocks, mutual funds, exchange-traded funds (ETFs), and, to a lesser extent, fixed-income assets. Altogether, there are more than 800 different investment funds that incorporate ESG factors, and the field is expanding rapidly.2

Number of ESG Investment Funds
Source: US SIF Foundation, 2020

Many SRI funds are broad based and diversified, some are actively managed, and others track a particular index with its own collection of SRI stocks. ESG criteria can vary greatly from one SRI fund to another. Specialty funds, however, may focus on a narrower theme such as clean energy; they can be more volatile and carry additional risks that may not be suitable for all investors.

Socially responsible investing may allow you to further both your own economic interests and a cause that matters to you. Moreover, recent research suggests you shouldn’t have to accept subpar returns in order to support your beliefs.3

As with any portfolio, it’s important to pay attention to the composition and level of risk and to monitor investment performance. Be prepared to make adjustments if any of your holdings don’t continue to meet your financial needs and reflect your values.

The return and principal value of SRI stocks and funds fluctuate with changes in market conditions. Shares, when sold, may be worth more or less than their original cost. There is no guarantee that an SRI fund will achieve its objectives. Diversification does not guarantee a profit or protect against investment loss.

Investment funds are sold by prospectus. Please consider the investment objectives, risks, charges, and expenses carefully before investing. The prospectus, which contains this and other information about the investment company, can be obtained from your financial professional. Be sure to read the prospectus carefully before deciding whether to invest.

1-2) US SIF Foundation, 2020
3) The Wall Street Journal, March 16, 2020

Home-Sweet-Home Equity

Buying a home is a long-term commitment, so it’s not surprising that older Americans are much more likely than younger people to own their homes “free and clear” (see chart). If you have paid off your mortgage or anticipate doing so by the time you retire, congratulations! Owning your home outright can help provide financial flexibility and stability during your retirement years.

Even if you still make mortgage payments, the equity in your home is a valuable asset. And current low interest rates might give you an opportunity to pay off your home more quickly. Here are some ideas to consider.

Enjoy Lower Expenses

If you are happy with your home and don’t need to tap the equity, living free of a monthly mortgage could make a big difference in stretching your retirement dollars. It’s almost as if you had saved enough extra to provide a monthly income equal to your mortgage. You still have to pay property taxes and homeowners insurance, but these expenses are typically smaller than a mortgage payment.

Consider Downsizing

If you sell your home and purchase another one outright with cash to spare, the additional funds could boost your savings and provide additional income. On the other hand, if you take out a new mortgage, you may set yourself back financially. Keep in mind that condominiums, retirement communities, and other planned communities typically have monthly homeowners association dues. On the plus side, these dues generally pay for maintenance services and amenities that could make retirement more enjoyable.

Paying Off the Mortgage

The percentage of homeowners with a primary regular mortgage declines steadily with age.


Source: 2019 American Housing Survey, U.S. Census Bureau, 2020

Borrow on Equity

If you stay in your home and want money for a specific purpose, such as remodeling the kitchen or fixing the roof, you might take out a home-equity loan. If instead you’ll need to access funds over several years, such as to pay for college or medical expenses, you may prefer a home-equity line of credit (HELOC).

Home-equity financing typically has favorable interest rates because your home secures the loan. However, you are taking on another monthly payment, and the lender can foreclose on your home if you fail to repay the loan. In addition, you may have to pay closing costs and other fees to obtain the loan. Interest on home-equity loans and HELOCs is typically tax deductible if the proceeds are used to buy, build, or substantially improve your main home, but is not tax deductible if the proceeds are used for other expenses.

Refinance

With mortgage rates near historic lows, you might consider refinancing your home at a lower interest rate. Refinancing may allow you to take some of the equity out as part of the loan, but of course that increases the amount you borrow. While a refi loan may have a lower interest rate than a home-equity loan or HELOC, it might have higher costs that could take some time to recoup. And a new loan comes with a new amortization schedule, so even with lower rates, a larger portion of your payment may be applied to interest in the early years of the loan. Refinancing might be a wise move if the lower rate enables you to pay off a new mortgage faster than your current mortgage.

New Changes to College Financial Aid and Education Tax Benefits

In late December 2020, Congress passed the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, another relief package in response to the pandemic. The bill included several provisions related to education, including $22.7 billion for colleges and universities. Here are some key highlights.

Simplified FAFSA. The bill accomplishes the long-held bipartisan objective of simplifying the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, starting with the 2023-2024 school year. For example, the legislation significantly reduces the number of overall questions (including eliminating questions about drug convictions and Selective Service status); makes the income protection allowance more favorable for parents and students, which will allow more income to be shielded from the formula; increases the income threshold (from $50,000 to $60,000) to qualify for the simplified needs test, an expedited formula in the FAFSA that doesn’t count family assets; and widens the net of students eligible for a Pell Grant.

However, the FAFSA will no longer divide a parent’s assessment by the number of children in college at the same time. This change has the potential to significantly reduce the amount of financial aid offered to middle- and high-income families who have multiple children in college at the same time.

Goodbye EFC terminology. In the future, the expected family contribution (EFC) will be referred to as the student aid index, or SAI, in an attempt to more accurately reflect what this number represents: a yardstick for aid eligibility rather than a guarantee of what families will pay (families often pay more than their EFC amount).

Expanded Lifetime Learning credit. The bill increased the income limits necessary to qualify for the Lifetime Learning credit, an education tax credit worth up to $2,000 per year for courses taken throughout one’s lifetime to acquire or improve job skills. Starting in 2021, a full credit will be available to single filers with a modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) below $80,000 and joint filers with a MAGI below $160,000 (the credit phases out for single filers with incomes between $80,000 and $90,000 and joint filers with incomes between $160,000 and $180,000). These are the same income limits used for the American Opportunity credit. To accommodate an expanded Lifetime Learning credit, Congress repealed the deduction for qualified college tuition and fees for 2021 and beyond.

Employer help with student loan repayment. The bill extended a provision allowing employers to pay up to $5,250 of employees’ student loans on a tax-free basis for another five years. This provision, included in the Consolidated Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, would have expired at the end of 2020.

 

IRS Circular 230 disclosure: To ensure compliance with requirements imposed by the IRS, we inform you that any tax advice contained in this communication (including any attachments) was not intended or written to be used, and cannot be used, for the purpose of (i) avoiding tax-related penalties under the Internal Revenue Code or (ii) promoting, marketing or recommending to another party any matter addressed herein.

Prepared by Broadridge Investor Communication Solutions, Inc. Copyright 2021