I am at the age when I can say “Enough — it’s time to retire.” I don’t plan to do so anytime soon, but I have actively reduced my workload from what it used to be.
One of the most difficult things I’ve done over the years has been to set aside money for retirement. My income was the primary family income, and the trappings of a middle-class life are not cheap. Mortgage, college, automobiles, house maintenance, health insurance, braces, and other everyday expenses really can cut into an income. In addition, being self-employed increased the taxes I paid.
When I first began setting aside money for retirement, I followed the standard advice of putting the money into tax-deferred accounts. The theory behind that advice is that when I finally do retire, my income will be less and so I will pay less in taxes, and deferring taxes seemed like a cash-back savings plan.
But a few years ago, I took another look at the tax-deferred savings in light of my reaching the traditional retirement age, and I considered what my real plans for retirement were — that is, not to fully retire, ever. The truth was that I wasn’t going to save any (or very little) tax money, and I would probably have to keep on working just so I could afford to pay the deferred taxes and the rising living expenses. Which made me rethink how I was investing my retirement money.
To take advantage of tax-deferred savings, investments pretty much had to be in mutual funds. The wonderful thing about mutual funds is that they spread risk. In contrast, buying individual stocks not only didn’t defer taxes but also focused risk: If the stock went up, I became richer; if it went down, I became poorer. The mutual fund might also have its ups and downs, but they tended to be more controlled — until 2009, when down was all there was.
After reviewing my retirement funding in light of my real plans, not the imaginary plans I had earlier in my career, I’ve put less emphasis on tax-deferred savings and more emphasis on investing with after-tax dollars. By using after-tax dollars, I do and will pay tax based on dividends and long-term capital gains. If I don’t sell any of the stocks, then I just pay tax on the dividends, a much lower tax burden than will be imposed when I am forced to start drawing down the tax-deferred accounts.
Of course, this raises another issue. Most of the mutual funds that are the base for tax-deferred accounts charge management fees. In some cases, a fee is assessed annually; in other cases, no fee is incurred until you start drawing from the account. Each fund needs to be looked at individually for the answers to “when” and “how much.” But regardless of when and how much, there is still another charge against the tax-deferred savings. Not only do you pay taxes on an ordinary income basis as you withdraw from the accounts, you also pay the management fees.
Usually, when you invest through a stockbroker, you have to pay buy and sell fees. That was always a downside to direct investing with after-tax dollars. Another downside was the minimum purchase amounts; brokers avoided fractional shares, or if they did allow fractional-share purchasing, the fees made the purchase unwise. Some brokers also charged minimum service fees when the accounts had fewer than a certain number of shares or less than a fixed value. In recent years, this has changed as competition among brokerages has increased and investing options have changed. The original impetus for the change was the rise of the Charles Schwab discount brokerage.
A while ago I read a newspaper article about an online brokerage called Loyal3. It is one of a newer type of brokerage that offers no-fee or fixed-fee options. (Three examples are Motif, Folio Investing, and Betterment.) With no-fee brokerages, if I invest $100, I receive $100 in shares; if I sell $100 worth of shares, I receive $100; if the shares earn a $10 dividend, I receive $10.
(Note: I am a client of Loyal3, and I am referring to it only because of my personal experience dealing with it; I haven’t dealt with any similar brokerages. I am not affiliated with Loyal3 and I receive no compensation for my mention of it here.)
What attracted me to Loyal3 were these features: no fees, IPOs (initial public offerings), fractional shares, and low purchase requirements for scheduled monthly purchases. I saw the brokerage as a good way to advance my financial interests without having to incur any undue expense.
Again, I want to state that while I am talking about my personal experience, there are similar brokerages available and the services they offer may differ. Loyal3 has certain limitations, some of which are important. The first limitation is the number of stocks available — currently, 70. Why only 70? Companies have to agree to both sell fractional shares and pay the brokerage fees. But there are high-quality investments available, such as Amazon, Coca-Cola, Twitter, Facebook, Tesla, Alphabet, Apple, Netflix, and Berkshire Hathaway.
A second limitation is that Loyal3 doesn’t have joint accounts, at least right now. A third limitation is that it doesn’t have TOD (transfer on death) accounts, which makes the process of transferring stock ownership after death a little bit more cumbersome but not difficult.
A fourth limitation is that transactions are not instantaneous. This can be a serious limitation if you are looking for short-term investments. A regular brokerage will receive your buy or sell order and execute the transaction within minutes, if not more quickly. Loyal3 works, instead, on daily batch buying and selling. Once a day it batches together all of the orders to buy and sell it has received and executes them. Consequently, if you see your stock take a dramatic rise at 10 a.m. and send the instruction to sell, you may get a different dollar amount from the sale than you expected, because the execution occurs only once a day.
But there are plus sides to investing via Loyal3 or other similar brokerage. First, no fees that reduce the value of your investment. Second, an opportunity to participate in IPOs at the same price and time as Wall Street.
I have always wanted to have a chance to invest in IPOs. I realize they are a gamble because they can drop like a cement block, but they can also be rewarding. How many of us could participate in, for example, Facebook’s IPO. The Facebook IPO price was $42.05 per share; at the time of this writing it is $116.42 a share. Amazon’s IPO price was $18; at this writing it is $734.75. Small investors like me couldn’t participate in these IPOs in the absence of a service like Loyal3 for a variety of reason, not least of which was the minimum number of shares that had to be bought.
Granted, I came too late to Loyal3 for those IPOs, but I have been able to participate in others and have experienced a significant increase in share value. (For information on how IPO investing works at Loyal3, click here.) Unfortunately, IPO investing is limited and infrequent, but some opportunity is better than no opportunity.
The third plus is the ability to buy fractional shares, as I’ve said before. I am not as wealthy as I wish I were. I cannot afford to buy 100 shares of Amazon at $734.75 a share or even Microsoft at $53.70 a share. And I want to gamble on Tesla because I love its cars and its dreams for the electric automobile, but $220.40 a share is a bit steep for me. Loyal3 gives me an opportunity, however, to become a shareholder by allowing me to buy fractional shares in those companies. I can choose to invest any amount from $10 to $2500 — either once or monthly — in any of the stocks, and whatever that amount will buy is what I get.
Loyal3 has a fourth plus: I can invest in stocks and amounts of my choosing either one time or on a monthly schedule that I can alter at any time. It is easy. I’ve set up my account to take a certain sum from my checking account each month on a particular day (you pick the day, such as the first, the seventh, the fifteenth, or the twenty-first of each month) and divide that sum among stocks of my choosing. There is no limitation except the $10 minimum and $2500 maximum. Consequently, you could tell Loyal3 to take $250 from your checking account on the first of each month and invest it as follows: $25 in Disney, $25 in Pepsi, $100 in Amazon, $50 in Apple, and $50 in Tesla. If Disney shares are selling for $100, your $25 will buy one-quarter share. That would remain your standing order until you change it. You can change the amount, the date, the stocks — anything, including canceling the investments altogether.
When a company declares a stock dividend, it appears in your Loyal3 account and you can either leave it and have it applied to your next scheduled investments or have it electronically transmitted to you.
I’ve spent a lot of time explaining how Loyal3 and similar brokerages work, and for a good reason. These brokerages offer the small investor — like many of us freelancers — an opportunity to prepare for our future. This is an opportunity that many colleagues are unaware of. This type of investment should not be your sole investment. Mutual funds offer stability and greater security, but the penalty is often lower return and fees. For example, my tax-deferred funds are currently returning less than 5%, whereas my Loyal3 investments, in the aggregate, are returning over 15%. That imbalance is unlikely to last, but I’ll enjoy it while I can.
Because we are responsible for our own retirement preparation, we need to learn about and explore multiple ways of increasing our net worth. Firms that offer no minimum required account balances and low minimum investment opportunities via fractional shares can be important parts of our future. It is never too late to start.
If you know of firms like Loyal3, Motif, Folio, or Betterment, whether in the United States or another country, please mention them in the comments.
Richard Adin, An American Editor