Advice for mid-career adults | ages 35-45

Investing and Retirement

While you can use this info before or after 40, employment income growth often starts to taper off then. If you have ~$50,000 or more in savings outside of retirement / house savings, put it to work for you. (You can put less to work; it just won't get much done.) Without trying to replicate /r/financialindependence, your options include:

  • Let's first make sure your retirement funds are adequate. For example: to sustainably generate a median ~50k today's-dollars household income just from investments in your mid-60's, you'd need $1M+ in retirement assets. If at age 30 you (yourself, or household) have close to $100,000 in tax-advantaged retirement assets (401k, IRA, etc), you are on track for that $1M+. That's a lot for people who might have been in school longer, or had to repay loans. A checkpoint at age 40 is somewhere near $250,000. If you want that income but your savings are considerably lower, consider adjusting your retirement contributions before doing other types of investments. If you have different goals and assumptions, then your checkpoints would be different, and perhaps lower.

  • As you start investing for shorter-term goals, you need to understand types of financial assets, types of income, and how they are taxed. Government and corporate bonds are loans that pay you interest and eventually return your principal, much like bank accounts or CDs. Equities aka stocks give you an ownership share in a private company, providing current income from dividends as well as potential price appreciation. Each has its advantages.

  • Stocks and bonds pay current income, and have a resale value based on how the company is perceived for stocks, and what interest rates are doing for bonds; bonds lose value when interest rates rise. Stock prices changes up or down of 10% in a week and 50% in a year are common. Bonds are more stable; less than 10%/year is more typical. Stocks are usually valued more for their future price growth, called capital gains, whereas bonds are valued for their income and stability. Stocks historically provide better overall returns than bonds, at higher risk. Not everybody is happy seeing the value of their stocks go down 20% for a while, but it's part of the deal.

  • You buy and sell shares of stock from people who want to do the opposite transaction. Who's right? Statistically, most people are bad at buying and selling stocks. Professional investors are not any better than average, either. Can you win trading stocks? Sure. You could be smart, or you could be lucky. But you probably won't be both over an extended period of time. If you want to try your luck, do it with a small percentage (~5%) of your investments.

  • We reduce our risk of being wrong by investing in mutual funds. We pay a fee to own shares of a fund that gains or loses value based on the stocks it owns. (There are also bond funds.) The funds that statistically offer the best gains at the lowest risk with the lowest cost are know as index funds; these blindly invest in all shares meeting a given criteria, not trying to pick only "undervalued" stocks. It sounds crazy, but it works better than other alternatives, with lower fees, making John Oliver happy. Lower fees always helps you. Investing in a few different index funds provides potential gains at lower risk of steep price drops. You create a portfolio of investments; the selection of investment types is determined by your asset allocation. The so-called three-fund portfolio uses index funds of US stocks, international stocks, and bonds to provide high expected growth and lowest volatility. The target date fund we introduced in Advice for young adults uses more stocks when you are younger to get better long-term growth, moving to bonds as you near retirement age to protect against large losses.

  • To invest this way, you open an account with Vanguard, Fidelity or Schwab as you would with an IRA, but you designate it as a taxable account. You give them money to invest it in your choice of index funds. There's no limit to this; you can invest hundreds of thousands of dollars this way. You don't try to time the market by selling out based on market changes, because you are probably wrong about that. Your account will pay you dividends on a monthly, quarterly or annual basis, which will be reported as taxable income at a favorable tax rate. When you do decide you want the money for some other reason, you will sell some of your funds, and pay capital gains tax on the difference between what you paid for the fund and what you sell it for. This is also at favorable tax rates.

And that's the basics of how to invest your spare cash in the stock market, where you can expect to make up to ~30% or lose up to ~15% of your money in any given year; the long-term average is usually about 6% after inflation, but it can take a decade to realize that average. There are many, many more aspects to consider, including how to save taxes with capital losses, how to be tax-efficient, and when to use Exchange-Traded Funds. But you know enough to be make money (and be dangerous...) now.

Real Estate Investment

Financial assets are not the only thing you can invest in. Let's do a brief overview of the most popular alternative investment, that being real estate held for rental or resale.

  • Real estate provides current income as well as price appreciation (or loss) potential. Unlike financial investments, real estate has significant ongoing management and maintenance cost and effort, with some favorable tax treatment and leverage potential to counterbalance that.

  • You invest in real estate by buying something that someone wants to sell. The hope is you choose wisely. You look for a property with either good rental income potential, or good resale potential. (Possibly both.) Note that this may not be the same as a house you might want to live in; it could be a cheaper multifamily building, for example. You provide a down payment and take out a loan as with a residential property, though your financing won't usually be as favorable in terms of down payment, credit and rates. You'll be responsible for the mortgage, taxes, insurance and repairs while you own it. Now for rental, you find renters who will pay you to live there on an ongoing basis, or for resale, you improve the property to make it more valuable for a quick profit on subsequent sale.

  • If you rent the property, you are a landlord, congratulations! There are many legal responsibilities of being a landlord, in terms of how you decide who to rent to, how you handle maintenance, and what you can do regarding evictions. Many investors use a property management company to handle details of finding renters and managing the property, at a fee of perhaps 10% of rent. You will also have to pay for repairs (sometimes immediately), maintenance and your ongoing financing. Your rental income is taxable to you as Schedule E income, but you can deduct almost all of your costs, including interest, taxes, maintenance, management fees, etc. You also deduct depreciation, which means the tax code thinks your building is losing value, although you hope it is not.

  • When you resell the property, you hope that it has increased in price; you take this as capital gains if you own the property for more than a year, or as business income if you are flipping houses. If you kept your down payment small and your rent covered your ongoing costs, it's possible to leverage a small down payment into a good ongoing return at low tax rate. You may even use your returns to invest in more rental property. The downside of real estate investment centers around the tenants; they can miss payments, damage the property, or have to be evicted, which reduces your rate of return.

  • Note that it is possible to rent just a subset of a building; this is how you handle renting out rooms in your residence, for example. Many of the same income, tax and landlord consideration come into play. You take a deduction on the expenses of the portion of the house you rent out.

Other Investing Options

So, there we have a couple of alternatives for you to invest your hard-earned money. You could also start your own business, invest in collectibles, make peer-to-peer loans; lots of possibilities for self-study!

Selling Your Primary Residence

  • Selling your primary residence is a complicated process, either taking your time and money, or the costs of real estate broker, who might then claim 5%+ of your sale price. You want to price the property correctly, negotiate the sales contract carefully, and figure out where you will go after the sale. You might even be making an offer on a new house contingent on the sale of the old one. The good news is that any gains on the sale of a primary residence are free of capital gains taxes up to $250,000 (or $500,00 for a couple). You could instead hold onto your old house and rent it for investment purposes, which means you lose that tax break. Since you probably didn't buy your house thinking it was an attractive rental property, it may be too expensive to make this a good use of your money, though; your mortgage may also not allow you to do this legally.

Investing For College

  • Investing for college is another complicated topic. State-run 529 plans allow college savings to accumulate tax-free as with an IRA, but with no a priori limit on contributions, so you can invest in these at any time. You can only use 529 plan balances to pay for higher education, so if your child/children don't go to college or don't need all the money because they chose a low-cost school, then you'll owe taxes and be penalized at 10% of any gains not used for education. 529 plans may provide breaks on state income taxes. There are various ways to optimize how 529 plans are treated in terms of FAFSA/ financial aid; for example, if a grandparent establishes a 529 plan, then this is not counted as parental assets. 529's are not your only option; you could invest generically, perhaps using a Roth IRA to pay for college expenses without paying taxes or penalties.

Family Transactions

Speaking of helping / being helped by family members, here are some general tips to be aware of regarding family transactions:

  • There is almost never any "gift tax" on any transaction, either to giver or recipient, whether or not they exceed $14K annually. You just need to do more paperwork as the giver of over $14k gifts, and it may reduce your eventual $5M estate tax exemption. So, for most people, not an issue. Give freely, and receive without anxiety.

  • Inheritances have some unique tax treatment. You don't owe any federal taxes on inheritances of money or property. Free money...unless you are in one of the six states with an inheritance tax, but even then, you probably aren't affected. (Along with gifts, these are separate property even if the recipient is married.) If you receive a house or stock, the basis of the investment is the fair market value of the property at the time of death, which means you can sell these without owing taxes. If you inherit a retirement plan like an IRA, then you will be taxed on distributions, though.

  • Sometimes we advise younger people to get a co-signer for apartments, cars and student loans. This is good for the person who you are co-signing for. For you? Not so much. Co-signing is actually a huge risk. You could be on the hook for $100,000 of student loans if your ungrateful child decides they don't want to repay them. Not fun. You should never co-sign for any amount that you wouldn't be comfortable gifting instead.


The original version of this guide was written by /u/yes_its_him.

revision by dequeuedWiki Contributor— view source