The Pros and Cons of the HSA (Health Savings Account)

The Pros and Cons of the HSA (Health Savings Account)

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We discuss the HSA and whether it's appropriate for your financial situation.

The Pros and Cons of the Health Savings Account

Health savings accounts (HSAs) are used to save money for future medical expenses.  Discover how these plans work and whether or not they are right for you.

A health savings account (HSA) is an account into which you can deposit tax-free money to be used for future medical expenses.  HSAs were established in 2003 and have rapidly risen in popularity.  They are part of a larger trend known as consumer-directed health care.  The aim of consumer-directed healthcare is to reduce the money spent on health care by placing more of the responsibility on you to shop for health care.  Want to spend less on hospital visits - smoke less, eat healthier, and exercise.  Because the days of your employer footing the bill are no more!

Account Advantages

The HSA is equipped with several advantages, many in the form of Uncle Sam's generous tax benefits. Contributions to the plans are tax deductible. The contributions can come from you, as well as your employer, if you have an HSA through work. Individuals age 55 and older can make additional catch-up contributions to the account each year until they enroll in Medicare.

All HSA earnings are tax-free, and there is no limit to how much you can accumulate in the account. When you take money out to pay eligible medical costs, those distributions are tax- free, too. But perhaps the most appealing part of an HSA is that there are no time constraints on when you can spend it. If you don’t use all the account money on healthcare costs, you don’t lose it. You can carry any money that’s in the account at year’s end over into the next year to pay for future medical costs.

One Plan, Two Components

The first consideration when it comes to HSA participation is the required companion healthcare policy. Although the potential for HSA participation was opened up a few years ago, you must have a specific type of coverage.

The first criterion in any situation is that you have a high-deductible health plan. These are just like they sound; the insured policy holder will initially pay greater out-of-pocket costs.

Eligible plans are available through various insurance companies; however, they all have deductibles for 2009 of at least $1,150 but no more than $5,800 for singles and between $2,300 and $11,600 for covered families. If your healthcare costs reach the deductible level, the policy coverage kicks in.

Once you get your insurance policy, then you can open your health savings account. Currently, an individual can put up to $3,000 a year in an HSA. An account for family coverage can be as much as $5,950. HSA contributions often come from savings by paying the typically lower premiums charged for the accompa- nying high-deductible policy. Then, when you have to meet some deductible costs, you use HSA money to pay. The deductible part is pure insurance costs and healthcare costs.  The side fund, the HSA, is a sep- arate entity, an actual savings account. You have the opportunity to put money aside for those emergencies when you do need to meet the deductible.

While a high-deductible insurance policy and HSA works well for many, it’s not a good fit for everyone. Some folks find that a traditional employer- provided plan, while it generally costs more in up-front payments, is more cost-effective over the longer term.  In any traditional health plan, you will have an office visit and prescription co-pays, but that’s not the case with an HSA. There is no office visit or prescription co-pay.

There are a lot of cases, such as young families making really good money, who would appreciate the tax advantages of HSAs but have small children that will have to go the doctor three or four times a year for shots, checkups and illnesses picked up at day care. In those cases, more traditional healthcare coverage is the better financial and medical choice. But for individuals or families who are in good health, HSA-eligible cover- age could be a better prescription. An HSA is particularly good if you’re rea- sonably healthy, in a higher tax bracket and your kids are older and don’t need regular checkups. Then you can really take advantage of the tax benefits of an HSA.


Sound Strategy for your 401k

Sound Strategy for your 401k

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Choosing appropriate long-term investments for your 401k plan is a challenging task. We'll discuss how to get it done.

Sound Strategy for your 401(K)
The 401k Plan
Despite what you may think, a 401k plan is not an investment. It is a tax-advantaged retirement savings account into which you (and sometimes your employer) make pretax contributions. You use the money you contribute to the 401k to purchase different investments that are offered by the plan. Most 401k plans offer workers a variety of investments, the most common of which is the mutual fund.
Mutual funds are well suited for 401k plans because they are diversified -- they invest in many securities. Long-term investors, such as retirement savers, usually want to diversify their portfolios because it helps smooth out their returns by reducing investment risk -- the fluctuation in an investment's value.
Choosing a Fund
How do you select the best mutual fund for your 401k?
The task may seem daunting -- especially if your 401k offers a lot of funds. But, most 401k plans offer funds that hold securities from one of three general asset classes: stocks, bonds and cash. Some funds hold a mix of stocks and bonds and are called balanced funds.
Like screwdrivers and hammers, each of these investment types, or asset classes, is made for a specific job. When you have the right mix, it becomes easier to build your retirement.
If you read the prospectuses of all the funds offered in your plan, you'll soon see that many of the offerings are really variations on a theme. After about an hour of prospectus reading, that hammer may come in handy. For instance, a small-cap fund or an emerging growth fund are both stock funds, but they only hold specific types of stocks. To get a broad representation of the stock market, you may need to buy several funds or look for a more general fund among your offerings.
With a stock mutual fund, your reward is based on the performance of all the securities held by the fund rather than of a single stock. Most mutual funds (stock, bond or cash) select investments according to a stated investment goal and strategy, contained in the mutual fund's prospectus.
Figuring out what kind of fund you are being offered isn't always easy. Sometimes the fund name says what assets it holds, sometimes not. In either case, it's a good idea to look at the fund's prospectus and read the investment policy, which will be specific.
For instance, the popular Vanguard 500 Index fund's objective states: "the fund seeks to match the performance of a benchmark index that measures the investment return of large-capitalization stocks." To put it simply, this fund invests in the largest stocks traded in the U.S. It attempts to match the performance of the Standard & Poor's 500 index, a stock market benchmark.
 Some funds may invest primarily in growth stocks (shares of companies poised to grow rapidly in the near future) or value stocks (stocks of firms that are mature and whose assets outweigh their liabilities). Other funds specialize in stocks of small companies (small-cap), medium-size companies (mid-cap) or large companies (large-cap). Some, called international funds, invest in overseas companies.
A bond fund invests primarily in bonds, which are basically a loan to a corporation or government. When you buy a bond you become the lender. The bond seller agrees to pay you interest and to repay the amount you loaned it by a certain time (the maturity date). Bonds typically mature in two to 30 years.  Bonds are less risky than stocks, but not entirely without risk. One reason: a rise in interest rates can cause bond prices to fall, thus reducing the value of your investment.
Rather than putting its eggs in the basket of a single bond, a bond fund invests in many. The fund profits from the interest payments it receives on the bonds it owns and by selling bonds whose price has risen.
As with stock funds, bond funds come in different flavors. Some funds only invest in U.S. government bonds, which are the safest in the world. Others invest in bonds issued by corporations, which can be pretty safe. A common reason why investors buy bond funds is to provide stability to their portfolios. Some funds invest in high-risk corporate bonds, called junk bonds, which provide less stability and a higher potential return along with their higher risk.
A cash investment, such as a money market mutual fund, typically invests in short-term debt securities, such as certificates of deposit and U.S. treasury bills that mature in one year or less. Because the probability of repayment of these securities is high, when you invest in a cash security, it pays very low interest rates and tends to have the lowest risk of any investment. Cash securities are designed to not increase or decrease in value.
You generally don't want to buy only one mutual fund. In most cases you want to invest in at least several, to diversify your mutual fund holdings. One exception would be if you invest in a lifecycle fund, which contains a pre-set mix of stocks and bonds geared toward your age, and is designed to be the only fund in which you invest.
Company Stock
Many employers offer company stock as a matching contribution to their 401k plan and/or as one of the plan's investment choices. Company stock had advantages and disadvantages. For most retirement savers it has one big disadvantage that outweighs all the advantages: it is a high-risk investment, simply by virtue of being an individual stock (as opposed to a mutual fund).
If you have a large chunk of company stock in your 401k portfolio, you are taking a big bet on your company. If your employer does well, so will your stock. But, if your company falters, as Enron and WorldCom did, your retirement portfolio could be at great risk.
Investment Risk Tolerance
Bonds, stable value and cash may seem like the best options because they have low risk. But, low-risk investments, with their corresponding low returns, may not provide you with a comfortable retirement. Stocks historically have given the highest potential return over the long term.
What's the best mix of investments? The answer is different for each person.
Before picking funds, you need to create an investment strategy based on your savings rate, your age, your retirement date, retirement goals and your tolerance for investment risk.  Risk tolerance is your ability to tolerate a loss.  How you would feel if your retirement portfolio fell by 10 percent, 20 percent or more?  Assessing your risk and choosing appropriate investments is of monumental importance.  You will be glad you devoted the time to the task.

Best Savings Rates Average 1.39% APY - Top Rate Remains at 2% APY

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For the fifth week in a row, Southern Community bank had the best savings rate on the BestCashCow rate tables, paying 2% APY on savings deposits. That's 60 basis points higher than the BestCashCow savings rate average which remained steady this week at 1.39% APY.

For the fifth week in a row, Southern Community bank has the best savings rate on the BestCashCow rate tables, paying 2% APY on savings deposits via its Ready Saver program. That's 60 basis points higher than the BestCashCow savings rate average which remained steady this week at 1.39% APY (BestCashCow tracks the 30 highest savings rates in the US).  What's nice about Ready Saver is that it has a relatively low minimum balance of $1,500.

Everbank continues to offer their promo rate of 2.25% APY for the first three months on new money. After three months, the rate drops to 1.26% APY for a 1-year blended APY of 1.51%. Franklin Synergy rounds out the top with a 1.75% APY savings rate with a minimum balance of $25,000.

The savings rate average remained steady because there were not increases or decreases in rates on the BestCashCow savings and money market rate table. Banks seem to have taken a wait-and-see approach to what will happen to interest rates and the economy. In the most recent FOMC meeting two weeks ago, Bernanke made it clear that rates will stay low for a good deal longer. Despite that, many economists, inculding former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan believe it is just a matter of time before massive deficit spending sends interest rates higher. Until the unemployment rate shows some decline though, it's hard to see rates moving up much. The Fed has a dual mandate of low inflation and maximum employment. Right now it has the low inflation but unemployment stands near 10%.

As the chart shows, the worst of the declines in savings rates seem to be over althought it's not inconceivable we'll see average ratings hitting 1% APY in the next couple of months if the rate outlook doesn't change. That means the top rate will be somewhere near 1.5% APY. The slow drift down continues.

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