What’s Your Strategy for Maximizing Your Social Security Benefits?

Deciding when to take social security is a bit like playing chess. You’ll need to strategize and think a few moves ahead to maximize your benefit because age and timing matter. Applying at the youngest age possible, 62, reduces a monthly benefit 25% to 30% for the rest of your life than if you had waited until full retirement age. Delay until the latest age possible, 70, and that monthly benefit increases 8% each year you wait past your full retirement age, a bonus of 24% to 32% depending on your birth year.

Your birth year matters because the full retirement age is rising — from 66 for people born between 1943 and 1954, to 67 for those born in 1960 or later. If your birth year falls between 1955 and 1959, the full retirement age rises two months every year.

The retirement age isn’t the only thing that’s changing. The rules for claiming Social Security are different for those born after Jan. 1, 1954. This includes the majority of people filing for benefits today, and the changes especially affect married, two-earner couples.

First, the basics: Individuals pay into Social Security their entire working life in order to receive a steady stream of income in the form of a monthly benefit once they retire. The benefits are based on the person’s 35 highest years of earnings. If you don’t have 35 years of earnings, then zeroes are entered for the remaining years, reducing the monthly benefit.

As pensions disappear and life expectancies rise, a guaranteed lifelong income that isn’t tied to the stock market has tremendous value. “Social Security is the best deal out there,” says Diane M. Wilson, a claiming strategist and founding partner of My Social Security Analyst in Shawnee, Kan. “It’s an annuity that lasts a lifetime, and it’s indexed to inflation.”

Maximizing that benefit has produced a cottage industry of claiming strategists to help retirees determine the best time to start taking benefits, but it’s not a simple calculus. “In the end, it’s a longevity decision,” says Kurt Czarnowski, who counsels clients about Social Security at Czarnowski Consulting in Norfolk, Mass. “If you knew when you were going to die, all this would be a snap.” Instead, people should understand their choices and make an informed decision, he says.

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The Differences Between Restricted Filing and Deemed Filing

A stack of Social Security cardsA stack of Social Security cards

For married couples, that decision involves accounting for two people’s earnings and benefits, as well as the likelihood of one spouse outliving the other. Spouses are not only entitled to the benefit based on their own work history, but they also may be eligible for additional money when the spousal benefit is factored in, what Wilson calls “add-ons.” The spousal benefit equals 50% of the higher-earning spouse’s benefit if the lower-earning spouse takes it at full retirement age. The amount is reduced when taken early, and you can’t claim the spousal benefit until your spouse begins taking Social Security. To be clear, you do not get to take two benefits, but rather Social Security increases your benefit to equal half of your spouse’s if the one based on your own work history is smaller.

People born on or before Jan 1, 1954, can maximize benefits while still receiving some Social Security. By taking whichever benefit is lower — their own or a spouse’s — when they first apply, they let the larger benefit grow before switching to it at a later age. That option, known as “restricted filing,” isn’t available for people born after Jan. 1, 1954. For them, there’s no choice. Social Security simply bestows their own benefit and any add-ons the person is eligible for when they file for benefits, a practice known as “deemed filing.”

Let’s say the higher-earning spouse is the husband and the lower-earning spouse is the wife. Under deemed filing, when the wife applies for Social Security at her full retirement age, she is given the highest amount she is eligible for, which in this instance is 50% of her husband’s benefit, assuming he started taking it. If he hasn’t, she will be given only the benefit based on her own work history. Once her husband applies for his benefits, Social Security will increase hers so that it equals half of his. If the wife was the higher earner and her benefit was more than 50% of his, she won’t get any additional money when he starts claiming Social Security. She will simply continue collecting her own higher work benefit.

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Maximizing Social Security Benefits for Married Couples

A couple looks at a laptop. A couple looks at a laptop.

Deemed filers may have fewer options, but there are other strategies to consider, such as when to start claiming and which spouse should file for Social Security first. Those decisions can change cumulative lifetime benefits substantially, sometimes by as much as six figures, says Wilson. When she advises couples affected by the new rules, she generally recommends the higher earner to delay as long as possible, ideally until age 70, while the lower earner can file, giving the retired couple some income.

The couple’s age difference matters, particularly if the younger spouse is also the lower earner, says Jim Blair, co-owner of Premier Social Security Consulting in Cincinnati. In that case, “if they’re five years or more apart in age, you want the younger person filing as early as possible, at 62, and the older person delaying as long as possible,” he says. “Odds are the younger person is going to receive a survivor benefit before they reach their breakeven point, which is about 12 years past retirement age.” The breakeven point is the age when the total value of cumulative benefits, whether taken early or later, is roughly the same.

If the situation is reversed and the younger spouse is the higher earner, “we’ll look at what the younger individual will need in retirement,” Blair says. “If taking that benefit early at age 62 means a 25% reduction, they’re going to have to live with that for the rest of their life.” There will need to be other income to compensate for the reduction, he adds.

Couples who straddle the 1954 birth year, with one spouse falling under the old rules and the other under the new, have more ways to move the pieces on the Social Security chess board. For instance, if the wife is the younger, lower earner, she may want to apply early, taking her own reduced benefit. That would allow the husband, who was born before the 1954 cutoff date, to use a restricted application and request only a spousal benefit. Meanwhile, his benefit based on his own work history continues to grow 8% per year from his full retirement age until he turns 70. He can switch to his own higher benefit later, whether at 70 or sooner.

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Understanding Social Security Survivor Benefits

A man sits alone on a swing. A man sits alone on a swing.

Couples should try to postpone taking whichever spouse’s benefit is higher to ensure a larger survivor benefit. This is particularly important when the lower earning spouse is younger and likely to outlive the higher earner by many years. “You want that higher benefit to take care of the survivor,” says Wilson, who warns clients of expenses, like home health aides, that someone living alone will almost certainly have.

A spousal benefit turns into a survivor benefit when a spouse dies, but the benefits are not the same. A surviving spouse who is at least full retirement age can receive 100% of the deceased spouse’s benefit, as opposed to 50% for a spousal benefit. The amount is reduced if the surviving spouse claims the benefit before full retirement age. You can claim a survivor benefit as early as age 60 (50 if you are disabled). But you don’t have to take it early, and you may not want to if you’re still working.

Social Security imposes an annual earnings limit for anyone younger than full retirement age who collects benefits, a rule that also applies to surviving spouses. For every $2 earned above the limit, which is currently $18,960, Social Security will deduct $1 in benefits, with the money restored later in the form of a higher benefit when you reach full retirement age. The earnings rule is more generous the year you reach full retirement age with Social Security deducting $1 for every $3 in earnings above $50,520. There’s no limit on earnings once you are full retirement age.

A widow who is, say, 60 when her husband passes away could hold off and take the survivor benefit when she reaches her full retirement age and stops working. There’s no reason to wait beyond that age because the survivor benefit won’t increase.

A survivor benefit is also not subject to the deemed filing rule. Someone born after the 1954 cutoff date can choose to take either their own or the survivor benefit when applying for Social Security. That opens a whole new avenue of claiming strategies. A widower, for example, could take the survivor benefit first if he needs the income and let his own larger benefit continue accruing delayed retirement credits before switching to it at age 70. If his own benefit is smaller, he could take that early and switch to the larger survivor benefit when he reaches full retirement age. The survivor benefit won’t be reduced because he took his own benefit early. The survivor benefit is only reduced if he takes it before his full retirement age.

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How Death, Divorce and Remarriage Affect Social Security Benefits

picture of wedding photo cut in halfpicture of wedding photo cut in half

A divorced spouse is also eligible for benefits based on a former spouse’s earnings history. If your ex is still alive and both of you are at least age 62, you can collect a spousal benefit even if your ex hasn’t started collecting, provided that the marriage lasted at least 10 continuous years, the divorce was two or more years ago, and you haven’t remarried. Your ex won’t know you’re taking the benefit. A divorced spouse who is full retirement age can get 50% of the former spouse’s benefit; it’s reduced if taken early. Deemed filing rules still apply if you were born after New Year’s Day 1954, with only the highest benefit amount given to you.

If your ex has passed away, you can collect a survivor benefit as early as age 60, but the other requirements — a marriage that lasted at least 10 years and a divorce that was finalized two years ago — remain. You also can’t have remarried before age 60.

If you remarry after age 60, you are allowed to keep the survivor benefit from a former spouse whether you were divorced or not, but timing is everything. Wilson had a client, a widower, who was two months away from turning 60 and collecting a survivor benefit. He was also about to remarry. “I told him about the rule, and he said, ‘I can’t reschedule this now.'” He went ahead with the wedding as planned, sacrificing the survivor benefit at the altar. Wilson points out that her client could collect a survivor benefit from his first marriage if the second one ends for any reason.

As with any survivor benefit, there’s no deemed filing. A divorced spouse has the option of choosing which benefit to take first — their own or the survivor benefit — and let whichever is larger continue to grow before switching to it later on.

Remarriage brings other claiming strategies, such as applying for a spousal benefit based on the new spouse’s work record, but there is a waiting period. To collect a spousal benefit, you generally need to be married one year, Czarnowski says. An exception is made for someone who is already collecting a Social Security benefit and remarries. Then the waiting period is waived, he says. For example, a widow over age 60 who is collecting a survivor benefit and remarries is “immediately eligible to collect 50% of the new husband’s benefit, assuming he is collecting his benefit,” Czarnowski says. You will need to choose which benefit you want — the survivor benefit from an earlier marriage or the new spousal benefit.

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When Singles Should File for Social Security Benefits

A man works on a computer. A man works on a computer.

For single people who never married, there’s no survivor to consider so the decision of when to claim is based on the need for income and how much they’ll get at any given age between 62 and 70. “It’s really which point along this continuum makes sense,” Czarnowski says. You can get an idea of how much your benefit will be at different ages based on your current earnings by using Social Security’s quick calculator. You can also enter your earnings history for a more precise figure.

Most of Wilson’s single clients start claiming at full retirement age so that their benefits aren’t reduced. Should they wait until age 70 to get the highest possible benefit? “They may want to if they’re still working and they don’t need Social Security,” Blair says. “The flip side is when they pass away, the benefits end. If they pass away at 72, they didn’t collect very long.”

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You Can Pause Your Social Security Benefits

Someone pushes a red button that is labeled "No!"Someone pushes a red button that is labeled "No!"

Social Security also gives people who regret taking a benefit early the chance to reverse that decision. If you change your mind within the first 12 months of claiming your benefit, you can withdraw the application. All the benefits you received will need to be repaid, including any spousal benefits based on your work record, but you’ll get a higher monthly benefit when you restart later on.

The second way is to suspend your benefit, which you can only do once you reach full retirement age. You won’t need to repay the benefits you’ve received, and you earn delayed retirement credits of 8% per year until age 70, enabling you to reverse some of the damage from claiming early. Keep in mind, however, that when you suspend a benefit, you also suspend any other benefits based on your work record, such as a spousal benefit. If your spouse was getting $1,500 per month and $500 was based on your work record, she’ll only get her own $1,000 benefit when you suspend.

Source: kiplinger.com

IRS offers new COVID-19 flexibility for employee healthcare benefits – Lexington Law

A family plays with their dog.

Disclosure regarding Lexington Law’s editorial content.

As COVID-19 swept the globe and the country, it put stress on all types of supply chains and industries. It has also put stress on the financial and health situations of many Americans.

If you’re looking back to whenever your last healthcare benefits enrollment period was and grimacing at the choices you made, you’re in luck—you might have the chance to change them. In addition to extending the tax deadline for 2020, the IRS has issued a rule modification in light of the pandemic that might allow you to change your elections mid-year instead of waiting for the next open enrollment period.

Find out more about these changes and what they might mean
for you here.

Key Points

  • You may be able to switch to a different healthcare
    plan if your employer allows it.
  • You may be able to drop employer-sponsored
    coverage if your employer allows it.
  • You may be able to change contributions to a
    flexible spending account (FSA) if your employer allows it.
  • Employers may voluntarily extend the grace
    period for using 2019 FSA funds.

A Potential Mid-Year Open-Enrollment Period

The IRS rule change allows mid-year enrollment in a
different plan that your employer offers. This means employees may be able to
make new elections to better use their income and protect themselves against healthcare
expenses.

However, employers are being given the choice of whether
they want to offer these options. The answers to the questions below all depend
on whether your employer elects to allow changes.

Can I drop my healthcare insurance altogether?

Yes, you can elect to end healthcare insurance coverage through your employer. The caveat is that you must replace that coverage with a qualifying plan through the health insurance marketplace, a spouse’s benefits or another option.

Can I switch healthcare plans?

If the employer allows it, yes, you can switch healthcare
plans outside of the normal open enrollment. This is true even for people who
have not had a qualifying event such as a job loss or a change in marital
status.

Can I get health insurance if I didn’t have it before?

Yes, if your employer allows an open enrollment period mid-year, you can elect benefits even if you previously declined them. This allows more people to get insurance that they may now want or need in light of the pandemic.

If I change plans, will I lose what I’ve paid toward my out-of-pocket deductible?

It’s probable that changing plans will reset all
benefits-related counters. That includes deductibles and out-of-pocket
expenses. If you’re considering making a change, weigh how much you’ve already
contributed toward your deductible and out-of-pocket maximum. In some cases, it
might be more financially beneficial to stick with the plan you have if you’re
close to or have already met your maximum.

Changes to FSAs

The IRS also provides a rule change that addresses flexible spending accounts. Again, these changes are dependent upon the employer choosing to participate.

If the employer does choose to participate, employees can make mid-year changes to their FSA elections. For example, you might have elected not to fund an FSA or to fund it very minimally. But in light of the health crisis, you may now want to put more money into your account to cover medical expenses. You may be able to do so.

Alternatively, perhaps your spouse lost his or her job due to COVID-19, and you’d previously elected to fund your FSA with a large amount. You might now need that money to pay for non-FSA-approved expenses. You may be able to elect to reduce your contributions.

Changes to Dependent Care Assistance Programs

The same rule change applies to section 125 cafeteria
plans used to help cover the cost of childcare programs. If your employer
allows it, you can elect to increase or decrease the contributions you’re
making to these programs.

For example, you might have previously elected to contribute enough money to pay for your children’s daycare expenses. This allows you to pay those costs with pretax dollars.

However, during the pandemic, your daycare might have closed, leaving your kids at home with you. Those contributed dollars are going nowhere and you risk losing them. If your employer allows it, you can change your contribution to stop adding money into your cafeteria plan. You can then use those funds to cover expenses related to your children being home.

Healthcare Coverage for COVID-19

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act instituted some exemptions to help ensure high-deductible plans and other insurance plans covered more services related to COVID-19. For example, the plan includes a specific exemption for telehealth services to help allow insurance providers to cover necessary telehealth treatments and appointments.

The IRS rule change allows those exemptions to be applied
retroactively up to January 1, 2020. That means if you sought telehealth or
other COVID-19-related care in the past months, you may be able to have those
claims adjudicated by your insurance plan at this time.

Reach Out to Your Employer’s Benefits Office

Understanding benefits and how they can impact your entire financial life can be difficult. Start by reaching out to your employer’s HR or benefits office to understand whether they’re going to offer the option for mid-year elections and whether they can provide information about how the options work.


Reviewed by John Heath, Directing Attorney of Lexington Law Firm. Written by Lexington Law.

Born and raised in Salt Lake City, John Heath earned his BA from the University of Utah and his Juris Doctor from Ohio Northern University. John has been the Directing Attorney of Lexington Law Firm since 2004. The firm focuses primarily on consumer credit report repair, but also practices family law, criminal law, general consumer litigation and collection defense on behalf of consumer debtors. John is admitted to practice law in Utah, Colorado, Washington D. C., Georgia, Texas and New York.

Note: Articles have only been reviewed by the indicated attorney, not written by them. The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, act as legal, financial or credit advice; instead, it is for general informational purposes only. Use of, and access to, this website or any of the links or resources contained within the site do not create an attorney-client or fiduciary relationship between the reader, user, or browser and website owner, authors, reviewers, contributors, contributing firms, or their respective agents or employers.

Source: lexingtonlaw.com

IRS offers new COVID-19 flexibility for employee healthcare benefits

A family plays with their dog.

Disclosure regarding Lexington Law’s editorial content.

As COVID-19 swept the globe and the country, it put stress on all types of supply chains and industries. It has also put stress on the financial and health situations of many Americans.

If you’re looking back to whenever your last healthcare benefits enrollment period was and grimacing at the choices you made, you’re in luck—you might have the chance to change them. In addition to extending the tax deadline for 2020, the IRS has issued a rule modification in light of the pandemic that might allow you to change your elections mid-year instead of waiting for the next open enrollment period.

Find out more about these changes and what they might mean
for you here.

Key Points

  • You may be able to switch to a different healthcare
    plan if your employer allows it.
  • You may be able to drop employer-sponsored
    coverage if your employer allows it.
  • You may be able to change contributions to a
    flexible spending account (FSA) if your employer allows it.
  • Employers may voluntarily extend the grace
    period for using 2019 FSA funds.

A Potential Mid-Year Open-Enrollment Period

The IRS rule change allows mid-year enrollment in a
different plan that your employer offers. This means employees may be able to
make new elections to better use their income and protect themselves against healthcare
expenses.

However, employers are being given the choice of whether
they want to offer these options. The answers to the questions below all depend
on whether your employer elects to allow changes.

Can I drop my healthcare insurance altogether?

Yes, you can elect to end healthcare insurance coverage through your employer. The caveat is that you must replace that coverage with a qualifying plan through the health insurance marketplace, a spouse’s benefits or another option.

Can I switch healthcare plans?

If the employer allows it, yes, you can switch healthcare
plans outside of the normal open enrollment. This is true even for people who
have not had a qualifying event such as a job loss or a change in marital
status.

Can I get health insurance if I didn’t have it before?

Yes, if your employer allows an open enrollment period mid-year, you can elect benefits even if you previously declined them. This allows more people to get insurance that they may now want or need in light of the pandemic.

If I change plans, will I lose what I’ve paid toward my out-of-pocket deductible?

It’s probable that changing plans will reset all
benefits-related counters. That includes deductibles and out-of-pocket
expenses. If you’re considering making a change, weigh how much you’ve already
contributed toward your deductible and out-of-pocket maximum. In some cases, it
might be more financially beneficial to stick with the plan you have if you’re
close to or have already met your maximum.

Changes to FSAs

The IRS also provides a rule change that addresses flexible spending accounts. Again, these changes are dependent upon the employer choosing to participate.

If the employer does choose to participate, employees can make mid-year changes to their FSA elections. For example, you might have elected not to fund an FSA or to fund it very minimally. But in light of the health crisis, you may now want to put more money into your account to cover medical expenses. You may be able to do so.

Alternatively, perhaps your spouse lost his or her job due to COVID-19, and you’d previously elected to fund your FSA with a large amount. You might now need that money to pay for non-FSA-approved expenses. You may be able to elect to reduce your contributions.

Changes to Dependent Care Assistance Programs

The same rule change applies to section 125 cafeteria
plans used to help cover the cost of childcare programs. If your employer
allows it, you can elect to increase or decrease the contributions you’re
making to these programs.

For example, you might have previously elected to contribute enough money to pay for your children’s daycare expenses. This allows you to pay those costs with pretax dollars.

However, during the pandemic, your daycare might have closed, leaving your kids at home with you. Those contributed dollars are going nowhere and you risk losing them. If your employer allows it, you can change your contribution to stop adding money into your cafeteria plan. You can then use those funds to cover expenses related to your children being home.

Healthcare Coverage for COVID-19

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act instituted some exemptions to help ensure high-deductible plans and other insurance plans covered more services related to COVID-19. For example, the plan includes a specific exemption for telehealth services to help allow insurance providers to cover necessary telehealth treatments and appointments.

The IRS rule change allows those exemptions to be applied
retroactively up to January 1, 2020. That means if you sought telehealth or
other COVID-19-related care in the past months, you may be able to have those
claims adjudicated by your insurance plan at this time.

Reach Out to Your Employer’s Benefits Office

Understanding benefits and how they can impact your entire financial life can be difficult. Start by reaching out to your employer’s HR or benefits office to understand whether they’re going to offer the option for mid-year elections and whether they can provide information about how the options work.


Reviewed by John Heath, Directing Attorney of Lexington Law Firm. Written by Lexington Law.

Born and raised in Salt Lake City, John Heath earned his BA from the University of Utah and his Juris Doctor from Ohio Northern University. John has been the Directing Attorney of Lexington Law Firm since 2004. The firm focuses primarily on consumer credit report repair, but also practices family law, criminal law, general consumer litigation and collection defense on behalf of consumer debtors. John is admitted to practice law in Utah, Colorado, Washington D. C., Georgia, Texas and New York.

Note: Articles have only been reviewed by the indicated attorney, not written by them. The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, act as legal, financial or credit advice; instead, it is for general informational purposes only. Use of, and access to, this website or any of the links or resources contained within the site do not create an attorney-client or fiduciary relationship between the reader, user, or browser and website owner, authors, reviewers, contributors, contributing firms, or their respective agents or employers.

Source: lexingtonlaw.com

What Is a Bond Mutual Fund – Risks & Different Types of This Investment

Investing is an important part of saving for the future, but many people are wary of putting their money into the stock market. Stocks can be volatile, with prices that change every day. If you can’t handle the volatility and risk of stocks or want to diversify your portfolio into a less risky investment, bonds are a good way to do so.

As with many types of investments, you can invest in bonds through a mutual fund, which gives you easy diversification and professional portfolio management — for a fee.

Are bond mutual funds a good addition to your portfolio? Here are the basics of these investment vehicles.

What Is a Bond?

A bond is a type of debt security. When organizations such as national and local governments, government agencies, or companies want to borrow money, one of the ways they can get the loan they need is by issuing a bond.

Investors purchase bonds from the organizations issuing them. Typically, bonds come with an interest rate and a maturity. For example, a company might sell bonds with an interest rate of 5% and a maturity of 20 years.

The investor would pay the company $1,000 for a $1,000 bond. Each year, that investor receives an interest payment of $50 (5% of $1,000). After 20 years, the investor receives a final interest payment plus the $1,000 they paid to buy the bond.


What Is a Mutual Fund?

A mutual fund is a way for investors to invest in a diverse portfolio while only having to purchase a single security.

Mutual funds pool money from many investors and use that money to buy bonds, stocks, and other securities. Each investor in the fund effectively owns a portion of the fund’s portfolio, so an investor can buy shares in one mutual fund to get exposure to hundreds of stocks or bonds.

This makes it easy for investors to diversify their portfolios.

Mutual fund managers make sure the fund’s portfolio follows their stated strategy and work towards the fund’s stated goal. Mutual funds charge a fee, called an expense ratio, for their services, which is important for investors to keep in mind when comparing funds.

Pro tip: Most mutual funds can be purchased through the individual fund family or through an online broker like Robinhood or Public.


Types of Bond Mutual Funds

There are many types of bond mutual funds that people can invest in.

1. Government

Government bond funds invest most of their money into bonds issued by different governments. Most American government bond funds invest primarily in bonds issued by the U.S. Treasury.

U.S. government debt is seen as some of the safest debt available. There is very little chance that the United States will default on its payments. That security can be appealing for investors, but also translates to lower interest rates than other bonds.

2. Corporate

Corporate bond funds invest most of their assets into bonds issued by companies.

Just like individuals, businesses receive credit ratings that affect how much interest they have to pay to lenders — in this case, investors looking to buy their bonds. Most corporate bond funds buy “investment-grade” bonds, which include the highest-rated bonds from the most creditworthy companies.

The lower a bond’s credit rating, the higher the interest rate it will pay. However, lower credit ratings also translate to a higher risk of default, so corporate bond funds will hold a mixture of bonds from a variety of companies to help diversify their risks.

3. Municipal

Municipal bonds are bonds issued by state and local governments, as well as government agencies.

Like businesses, different municipalities can have different credit ratings, which impacts the interest they must pay to sell their bonds. Municipal bond funds own a mixture of different bonds to help reduce the risk of any one issuer defaulting on its payments.

One unique perk of municipal bonds is that some or all of the interest that investors earn can be tax-free. The tax treatment of the returns depends on the precise holdings of the fund and where the investor lives.

Some mutual fund companies design special municipal bond funds for different states, giving investors from those states an option that provides completely tax-free yields.

The tax advantages municipal bond funds offer can make their effective yields higher than other bond funds that don’t offer tax-free yields. For example, someone in the 24% tax bracket would need to earn just under 4% on a taxable bond fund to get the equivalent return of a tax-free municipal bond fund offering 3%.

4. High-Yield

High-yield bond funds invest in bonds that offer higher interest rates than other bonds, like municipal bonds and government bonds.

Typically, this means buying bonds from issuers with lower credit ratings than investment-grade bonds. These bonds are sometimes called junk bonds. Their name comes from the fact that they are significantly riskier than other types of bonds, so there’s a higher chance that the issuer defaults and stops making interest payments.

Bond mutual funds diversify by buying bonds from hundreds of different issuers, which can help reduce this risk, but there’s still a good chance that some of the bonds in the fund’s portfolio will go into default, which can drag down the fund’s performance.

5. International

Foreign governments and companies need to borrow money just like American companies and governments. There’s nothing stopping Americans from investing in foreign bonds, so there are some mutual funds that focus on buying international bonds.

Each country and company has a credit rating that impacts the interest rate it has to pay. Many stable governments are seen as highly safe, much like the United States, but smaller or less economically developed nations sometimes have lower credit ratings, leading them to pay higher interest rates.

Another factor to keep in mind with international bonds is the currency they’re denominated in.

With American bonds, you buy the bond in dollars and get interest payments in dollars. If you buy a British bond, you might have to convert your dollars to pounds to buy the bond and receive your interest payments in pounds. This adds some currency risk to the equation, which can make investing in international bond funds more complex.

6. Mixed

Some bond mutual funds don’t specialize in any single type of bond. Instead, they hold a variety of bonds, foreign and domestic, government and corporate. This lets the fund managers focus on buying high-quality bonds with solid yields instead of restricting themselves to a specific class of bonds.


Why Invest in Bond Mutual Funds?

There are a few reasons for investors to consider investing in bond mutual funds.

Reduce Portfolio Risk and Volatility

One advantage of investing in bonds is that they tend to be much less risky and volatile than stocks.

Investing in stocks or mutual funds that hold stocks is an effective way to grow your investment portfolio. The S&P 500, for example, has averaged returns of almost 10% per year over the past century. However, in some years, the index has moved almost 40% upward or downward.

Over the long term, it’s easier to handle the volatility of stocks, but some people don’t have long-term investing goals. For example, people in retirement are more concerned with producing income and maintaining their spending power.

Putting some of your portfolio into bonds can reduce the impact of volatile stocks on your portfolio. This can be good for more risk-averse investors or those who have shorter time horizons for their investments.

There are some mutual funds, called target-date mutual funds, that hold a mix of stocks and bonds and increase their bond holdings over time, reducing risk as the target date nears.

Income

Bonds make regular interest payments to their holders and the majority of bond funds use some of the money they receive to make payments to their investors. This makes bond mutual funds popular among investors who want to make their investment portfolio a source of passive income.

You can look at different bond mutual funds and their annual yields to get an idea of how much income they’ll provide each year. For example, if a mutual fund offers a yield of 2.5%, investors can expect to receive $250 each year for every $10,000 they invest in the fund.

Pro tip: Have you considered hiring a financial advisor but don’t want to pay the high fees? Enter Vanguard Personal Advisor Services. When you sign up you’ll work closely with an advisor to create a custom investment plan that can help you meet your financial goals. Read our Vanguard Personal Advisor Services review.


Risks of Bond Funds

Before investing in bonds or bond mutual funds, you should consider the risks of investing in bonds.

Interest Rate Risk

One of the primary risks of fixed-income investing — whether you’re investing in bonds or bond funds — is interest rate risk.

Investors can buy and sell most bonds on the open market in addition to buying newly issued bonds directly from the issuing company or government. The market value of a bond will change with market interest rates.

In general, if market rates rise, the value of existing bonds falls. Conversely, if market rates fall, the value of existing bonds rises.

To understand why this happens, consider this example. Say you purchased a BBB-rated corporate bond with an interest rate of 2% for $1,000. Since you bought the bond, market rates have increased, so now BBB-rated companies now have to pay 3% to convince investors to buy their bonds.

If someone can buy a new $1,000 bond paying 3% interest, why would they pay you the same amount for your $1,000 bond paying 2% interest? If you want to sell your bond, you’ll have to sell it at a discount because investors can get a better deal on newly issued bonds.

Of course, the opposite is true if interest rates fall. In the above example, if market rates fell to 1%, you could command a premium for your bond paying 2% because investors can’t find new bonds of the same quality that pay that much anymore.

Interest rate risk applies to bond funds just as it applies to individual bonds. As rates rise, the share price of the fund tends to fall and vice versa.

Generally, the longer the bond’s maturity, the greater the effect a change in market interest rates will have on the bond’s value. Short-term bonds have much less interest rate risk than long-term bonds. Bond funds usually list the average time to maturity of bonds in their portfolio, which can help you assess a fund’s interest rate risk.

Credit Risk

Bonds are debt securities, meaning they’re reliant on the bond issuer being able to pay its debts.

Just like people, companies and governments can go bankrupt or default on their loan payments. If this happens, the people who own those bonds won’t get the money they lent back.

Bond mutual funds hold thousands of bonds, but if one of the issuers defaults, some of the fund’s bonds become worthless, reducing the value of the investors’ shares in the fund.

Bonds issued by organizations with higher credit ratings are generally less risky than those with poor credit ratings. For example, most people would consider U.S. government bonds to have a very low credit risk. A junk bond fund would have much more credit risk.

Foreign Exchange Risk

If you’re buying shares in a bond fund that invests in foreign bonds, you should consider foreign exchange risk.

Currencies constantly fluctuate in value. Over the past five years, $1 could buy anywhere between 0.80 and 0.96 euros.

To maximize returns, investors want to buy foreign bonds when the dollar is strong and receive interest payments and return of principal when the dollar is weak.

However, it’s incredibly hard to predict how currencies’ values will change over time, so investors in foreign bonds should consider how changing currency values will affect their returns.

Some bond funds use different strategies to hedge against this risk, using tools like currency futures or buying dollar-denominated bonds from foreign entities.

Fees

Mutual funds charge fees, which they commonly express as an expense ratio.

A fund’s expense ratio is the percentage of your invested assets that you pay each year. For example, someone who invests $10,000 in a mutual fund with a 1% expense ratio will pay $100 in fees each year.

Expense ratio fees are included when calculating the fund’s share price each day, so you don’t have to worry about having cash on hand to pay the fee. The fees are taken directly out of the fund’s share price, almost imperceptibly. Still, it’s important to understand the impact fees have on your overall returns.

If you invest $10,000 in a fund that produces an annual return of 5% and has a 0.25% expense ratio, after 20 years you’ll have $25,297.68. If that same fund had an expense ratio of 0.50%, you’d finish the 20 years with $24,117.14 instead.

In this example, a difference of 0.25% in fees would cost you more than $1,000.

If you find two bond funds with similar holdings and strategies, the one with the lower fees tends to be the better choice.


Final Word

Bond mutual funds are a popular way for investors to get exposure to bonds in their portfolios. Just as there are many different types of stocks, there are many types of bonds, each with advantages and disadvantages.

If you don’t want to pick and choose bonds to invest in, bond funds offer instant diversification and professional management. If you want an even more hands-off investing experience, working with a financial advisor or robo-advisor that handles your entire portfolio may be worth considering.

Source: moneycrashers.com