Saving or Investing: Is There a Difference?
Financially speaking, the terms "saving" and "investing" are often used interchangeably. But the concepts behind these terms actually have some important differences. Understanding these differences and taking advantage of them may help you in working toward financial goals for you and your family.
You may want to set aside money for a specific, identifiable expense. You park this money someplace relatively safe and liquid so you can get the amount you want when you need it. According to the Securities and Exchange Commission brochure Saving and Investing, "savings are usually put into the safest places, or products, that allow you access to your money at any time. Savings products include savings accounts, checking accounts, and certificates of deposit." Some deposits may be insured (up to $250,000 per depositor, per insured institution) by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation or the National Credit Union Administration. Savings instruments generally earn interest. However, the likely tradeoff for liquidity and security is typically lower returns.
While a return of your money may be an important objective, your goal might be to realize a return on your money. Using your money to buy assets with the hope of receiving a profit or gain is generally referred to as investing. Think of investing as putting your money to work for you--in return for a potentially higher return, you accept a greater degree of risk. With investing, you don't know whether or when you'll realize a gain. The money you invest usually is not federally insured. You could lose the amount you've invested (e.g., your principal), but you also have the opportunity to earn more money, especially compared to typical savings vehicles. The investment is often held for a longer period of time to allow for growth. It is important to note, though, that all investing involves risk, including the loss of principal, and there is no assurance that any investing strategy will be successful.
What's the difference?
Whether you prefer to use the word "saving" or "investing" isn't as important as understanding how the underlying concepts fit into your financial strategy. When it comes to targeting short-term financial goals (e.g., making a major purchase in the next three years), you may opt to save. For example, you might set money aside (i.e., save) to create and maintain an emergency fund to pay regular monthly expenses in the event that you lose your job or become disabled, or for short-term objectives like buying a car or paying for a family vacation. You might consider putting this money in a vehicle that's stable and liquid. Think of what would happen if you were to rely on investments that suddenly lost value shortly before you needed the funds for your purchase or expense.
Saving generally may not be the answer for longer-term goals. One of the primary reasons is inflation--while your principal may be stable, it might be losing purchasing power. Instead, you may opt to purchase investments to try to accumulate enough to pay for large future expenses such as your child's college or your retirement. Generally, saving and investing work hand in hand. For instance, you may save for retirement by investing within an employer retirement account.
Why is it important?
Both saving and investing have a role in your overall financial strategy. The key is to balance your saving and investing with your short- and long-term goals and objectives. Overemphasize saving and you might not achieve the return you need to pursue your long-term goals. Ignore saving and you increase the risk of not being able to meet your short-term objectives and expenses. Get it right and you increase your chances of staying on plan.
When Disaster Strikes: Deducting Casualty Losses
Wildfires, tornadoes, storms, landslides, and flooding.... It's almost as if you can't turn on the news without seeing images of a disaster striking somewhere. If you've suffered property loss as the result of these events or other circumstances, you may be able to claim a casualty loss deduction on your federal income tax return.
What's a casualty loss?
A casualty is the destruction, damage, or loss of property caused by an unusual, sudden, or unexpected event. You can experience a casualty loss as the result of something as sweeping as a natural disaster, or as limited in scope as an act of vandalism. You probably don't have a deductible casualty loss, however, if your property is damaged as the result of gradual deterioration (e.g., a long-term termite infestation).
Calculating your loss
The rules for calculating loss can be different for business property, or property that's used to produce income (think rental property). To calculate a casualty loss on personal-use property, like your home, that's been damaged or destroyed, you first need two important pieces of data:
The decrease in the fair market value (FMV) of the property; that's the difference between the FMV of the property immediately before and after the casualtyYour adjusted basis in the property before the casualty; your adjusted basis is usually your cost if you bought the property (different rules apply if you inherited the property or received it as a gift), increased for things like permanent improvements and decreased for items such as depreciation
Starting with the lower of the two amounts above, subtract any insurance or other reimbursement that you have received or that you expect to receive. The result is generally the amount of your loss. If you receive insurance payments or other reimbursement that is more than your adjusted basis in the destroyed or damaged property, you may actually have a gain. There are special rules for reporting such gain, postponing the gain, excluding gain on a main home, and purchasing replacement property.
The $100 and 10% rules
After you determine your casualty loss on personal-use property, you have to reduce the loss by $100. The $100 reduction applies per casualty, not per individual item of property. Two or more events that are closely related may be considered a single casualty. For example, wind and flood damage from the same storm would typically be considered a single casualty event, subject to only one $100 reduction. If both your home and automobile were damaged by the storm, the damage is also considered part of a single casualty event--you do not have to subtract $100 for each piece of property.
You must also reduce the total of all your casualty and theft losses on personal property by 10% of your adjusted gross income (AGI) after each loss is reduced by the $100 rule, above.
If you are married and file a joint return, you are treated as one individual in applying both the $100 rule and the 10% rule. It does not matter whether you own the property jointly or separately. If you file separately, you are each subject to both rules. If only one spouse owns the property, usually only that spouse can claim the associated loss on a separate return.
Reporting a casualty loss
Generally, you report and deduct the loss in the year in which the casualty occurred. Special rules, however, apply for casualty losses resulting from an event that's declared a federal disaster area by the president.
If you have a casualty loss from a federally declared disaster area, you can choose to report and deduct the loss in the tax year in which the loss occurred, or in the tax year immediately preceding the tax year in which the disaster happened. If you elect to report in the preceding year, the loss is treated as if it occurred in the preceding tax year. Reporting the loss in the preceding year may reduce the tax for that year, producing a refund. You generally have to make a decision to report the loss in the preceding year by the federal income tax return due date (without any extension) for the year in which the disaster actually occurred.
Casualty losses are reported on IRS Form 4684, Casualties and Thefts. Any losses relating to personal-use property are carried over to Form 1040, Schedule A, Itemized Deductions.
The rules relating to casualty losses can be complicated. Additional information can be found in the instructions to Form 4684 and in IRS Publication 547, Casualties, Disasters, and Thefts. If you have suffered a casualty loss, though, you should consider discussing your individual circumstances with a tax professional.
What You Need to Know About Private Student Loans
It's an unfortunate trend in college pricing--the average cost of tuition and fees at four-year public and private institutions are significantly higher than they were just a decade ago. For example, the average published tuition and fee price of a full-time year at a public four-year institution is 40% higher, after adjusting for inflation, in 2015-16 than it was in 2005-06. (Source: Trends in College Pricing, College Board, 2015) As a result of these rising costs, many individuals have to rely on student loans to help fund their college education.
Will I have to take out private loans to finance my college education?
What can be surprising to many first-time student borrowers is how little federal student loan debt they may be allowed to take on. Currently, the maximum amount students can borrow for college in federal Direct Stafford Loans is $5,500 during their first year, $6,500 during their second year, and $7,500 during their third and fourth years. (Source: Federal Student Aid, U.S. Department of Education, 2015)
In most cases this amount is not nearly enough to cover the cost of attending a four-year college, and many student borrowers must look to private student loans to help close this gap. And while taking out private loans to pay for college is a fact of life for many individuals, there are some important questions you'll want answered before taking out these types of loans.
What is the interest rate on the loan?
Private student loans tend to have higher fixed interest rates than federal Direct Stafford Loans. However, depending on the lender, you may be able to choose a loan that offers a lower variable interest rate.
Keep in mind that with a fixed rate, the interest rate remains the same from the day you take out the loan until the day you pay it off. With a variable rate, your interest rate may initially be lower than a fixed rate but then will be adjusted periodically to keep up with changes in market conditions. If your interest rate rises, your monthly payment and/or the number of payments required will increase.
What repayment options are available?
Unlike federal student loans, which offer repayment programs such as pay as you earn, income-based repayment plans and student loan forgiveness, private lenders are not required to offer specific repayment assistance to borrowers struggling to make payments.
However, most private student loan companies do offer limited forms of repayment options, such as loan forbearance or extended repayment schedules. The types of repayment programs offered will vary from lender to lender.
Is a co-signer required?
Some private lenders may require borrowers to have a co-signer guarantee a loan, especially if a borrower has little or no credit history. Having a co-signer may also help you obtain a lower interest rate for your loan and improve your chances for loan approval.
The good news is that the co-signer doesn't necessarily have to be tied to the loan forever. Most lenders will allow borrowers to apply for a co-signer release after a certain number of on-time payments have been made and other loan conditions have been met.
Are the terms of the loan favorable?
As a result of recent increased regulatory scrutiny surrounding private loans, many of the larger lenders have improved the lending process by offering more attractive loan terms.
For example, certain lenders have eliminated "auto defaults," which is when a co-signer dies or declares bankruptcy and the lender demands that the loan be paid back immediately by the borrower. Others have made the process for obtaining a co-signer release easier and more transparent. Loan costs, discounts, terms, and conditions can differ greatly, depending on the lender. It's important to thoroughly research each potential lender and carefully compare all offers before signing a loan agreement.
Are other financing options available?
When it comes to using private loans to pay for college, student borrowers should try to graduate with the least amount of private student loan debt possible. It's generally a good idea to exhaust all federal student loan options and avoid taking out loans for the maximum amount that is offered by private lenders unless absolutely necessary.
Additional financing options should also be considered, such as:
- Parent PLUS loans
- Grants or scholarships
- Parent/family loans
- State-sponsored student loan programs
- Part-time employment
What is the federal funds rate?
In December 2015, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) raised the federal funds target rate to a range of 0.25% to 0.50%, the first shift from the rock-bottom 0% to 0.25% level where it had remained since December 2008.
The federal funds rate is the interest rate at which banks lend funds to each other from their deposits at the Federal Reserve, usually overnight, in order to meet reserve requirements. The Fed also raised a number of other rates related to funds moving between Federal Reserve banks and other banks. The Fed does not directly control consumer savings or credit rates, but the federal funds rate serves as a benchmark for many short-term rates, such as savings accounts, money market accounts, and short-term bonds.
The prime rate, which commercial banks charge their best customers, is typically about 3% above the federal funds rate. Other forms of business and consumer credit--such as small-business loans, adjustable-rate mortgages, auto loans, and credit cards--are often directly linked to the prime rate. Actual rates can vary widely. Fixed-rate home mortgages and other long-term loans are generally not linked directly to the prime rate, but may be indirectly affected by it
The FOMC expects economic conditions to "warrant only gradual increases" in the federal funds rate. Most Committee members projected a target range between 0.75% and 1.75% by the end of 2016, so you can probably expect a series of small increases this year. Although rising interest rates make it more expensive for consumers to borrow, higher rates could be good for retirees and savers who seek current income from bank accounts, CDs, bonds, and other fixed-interest investments.
The FDIC insures CDs and bank savings accounts, which generally provide a fixed rate of return, up to $250,000 per depositor, per insured institution. The principal value of bonds may fluctuate with market conditions. Bonds redeemed prior to maturity may be worth more or less than their original cost. Investments seeking to achieve higher yields also involve a higher degree of risk.
Source: Federal Reserve, 2015
Chart: Tracking the Fed
Although the prime rate has been closely aligned to the federal funds rate over the past 20 years, rates on conventional 30-year fixed mortgages have followed a more independent trajectory, generally trending downward over the period.
Source: Federal Reserve, 2016