Smart Money Podcast: Reducing Taxes, and Picking the Best Investing Platform

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Written by Liz Weston, CFP®
Senior Writer
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Edited by Kathy Hinson
Lead Assigning Editor
Fact Checked
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Co-written by Sean Pyles
Senior Writer

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Welcome to NerdWallet’s Smart Money podcast, where we answer your real-world money questions.

This week’s episode starts with a discussion of the few remaining ways people can reduce their tax bills, including contributing more to retirement and health care funds.

Then we pivot to this week’s question from Marco in New York, who says, “I've learned a bit about stocks, index funds, mutual funds and so much more, but it's very overwhelming and I've just been circling for weeks trying to decide where to open an account. I was hoping you could dive more into how to select the best platform to invest your money. What makes some better than others? I also currently have a 401(k) through my company. Is it smart to do my personal investing on the same platform to be consistent?”

Have a money question? Text or call us at 901-730-6373. Or you can email us at [email protected]. To hear previous episodes, return to the podcast homepage.

Check out this episode on any of these platforms:

We’ll help you get on track
See your spending breakdown and spot opportunities to save money.

Our take

Fortunately, you don’t need to be an expert to open a brokerage account and start investing. It’s a learn-as-you-go project. The important thing is to start as early as you can. The longer you’re in the market, the more wealth you can build.

If you’re overwhelmed, consider starting with an option that does most of the work for you, such as a robo-advisor. These computerized platforms ask you a few questions and then set you up with a portfolio of investments that’s constantly monitored and adjusted.

If you want to be more hands-on, the best investing platform will depend on a number of factors. Some firms specialize in helping new investors learn, with lots of online educational materials and live seminars. If you have a limited budget, you’ll want to look for a platform where the cost to open an account is low or that offers fractional shares (basically, a part of a share of stock that may otherwise be too expensive to buy). If you want to day trade, some platforms have more robust analytical tools and support for that than others. If you specifically want to invest in mutual funds, you may have to avoid certain brokerages that don’t offer funds. If your 401(k) provider allows you to open an individual account, that can be a convenient option, but make sure it provides you with the features and resources you need at an appropriate cost.

NerdWallet offers reviews that can help you sort out your options and find the best place to start.

Our tips

Dive in. You can learn as you go.

It’s not one-size-fits-all. The best platform depends on a number of factors, including how hands-on you want to be.

Consider a robo-advisor. A company that uses computer algorithms to pick investments can do the heavy lifting for you.

More about how to invest on NerdWallet:

Liz Weston: Welcome to the NerdWallet Smart Money Podcast, where we answer your personal finance questions and help you feel a little smarter about what you do with your money. I’m Liz Weston.

Sean Pyles: And I’m Sean Pyles. You know the drill. Send us your money questions. Maybe you want to know if your credit is in a good place to buy a house, or maybe you just want to up your investment game. Whatever your money questions, we are here to answer them. You can call or text us on the Nerd hotline at 901-730-6373. That’s 901-730-NERD or email us at [email protected].

Liz: And hit that subscribe button if you want more Nerdy goodness delivered to your devices every Monday. If you like what you hear, leave us a review. And one more plug before we get into the episode: We’re working on a special podcast where we’re going to share what you’ve learned this year about your finances because of the pandemic or otherwise. But to make this happen, we need to hear from you.

Sean: Right. We want your voice in this, so please email or send us a voice memo of your financial lessons from the wild year that is 2020. Send them to [email protected]. For your voice memos, just open up that voice memo app on your phone, record your thoughts, and we will share them on a future episode.

Liz: We really can’t wait to hear from you, so I hope you’ll do this. OK, let’s get on to this episode. This week, we answer a listener’s money question about which investing platforms are best. First though, in our This Week in Your Money segment, we’re talking about how you can reduce your tax bill next year.

Sean: Right. We are now in the final quarter of the year, somehow, meaning that if you want to reduce your tax obligation for the year, you only have a few months left to do so. Liz, let’s talk through some of the go-to ways folks can do this. Where do you think people should start?

Liz: Well, the reality is that people don’t have many ways to reduce their tax bill anymore. Most people don’t itemize, and that was always the way that you got to gather up your deductions together and get that bill down. So the options that are still left to people are fewer, but they actually can be pretty effective in reducing your taxable income, and the most important one is saving for retirement — putting money into a 401(k) if you have one, IRA if you don’t. That can bring your tax bill down, and it’s setting you up for the future. That’s obviously the go-to place. And if you do have a 401(k), you’re probably getting a match for at least some of that money. Again, it’s not only a tax break, it’s free money on top of it. If you happen to be low- or moderate-income, there is a tax credit on top of the tax deduction. Again, it’s like supercharging your retirement savings — it’s a really good thing to do.

Sean: OK. One thing I wanted to mention is for folks who still have federal student loans that they’re paying off. I’m in this camp. Obviously a lot of the payments have been on hold because of COVID relief bills, but if you still owe interest on these loans, it might not be a bad idea to keep paying them since people in general can write off around $2,500 in interest. I personally am, for better or worse, past that point in paying off my student loans, so I’m not paying my loans right now. But if you owe interest, you might as well do that just so you can get that tax break come tax season next year.

Liz: Yeah. It’s like $2,500. It’s use it or lose it. You can’t make it up in future years, so that’s probably a good idea.

Sean: Right. And one thing I want to talk about as well is writing off donations. This is something that got more difficult for folks to do after the tax changes in 2017. But there is a slight change for the 2020 tax year where folks can write off up to $300 in cash donations without having to itemize it, which can make this process a lot easier. We’ve all been donating more this year, at least I have been I know, so that’s something that I’m planning on taking advantage of as well.

Liz: Yeah. And that was the real worry for charities is that because so many people lost that deduction, they worried that people would give less. It seemed like that was happening before the pandemic, but now there does seem to be this real surge in generosity, which is great. And you should take advantage of that little tax break if you can get it.

Sean: Now, what if I’ve spent $70,000 on hairstyling in the past year? Can I write that off?

Liz: No, there’s all kinds of fun things you can’t write off.

Sean: OK. Darn. It was a wasted $70K.

Liz: Yeah, oh well. Now, if we were talking about Shea Couleé again, if you are a drag artist and this is something that you’re doing to raise money, that’s totally different. But yeah, for most people …

Sean: … It would have to be a business expense.

Liz: Yes. And those can get tricky. If you do have a side business, you should also have a tax pro. Ask your tax pro about it.

Sean: I also want to hear from you, Liz, about flex spending accounts and health savings accounts, because these are two big options for people as well. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Liz: Yeah. And right now we’re in open enrollment season, so this is the perfect time to talk about it. So, flexible spending accounts and health savings accounts, they’re separate things, and FSAs are even broken down into two things. They’re for medical expenses and for child care. It’s no wonder people get super confused about this.

Sean: Right. Too many letters.

Liz: Yes, too many letters. But the fact is this is pretax, so again, you’re shaving down your income, you’re saving on taxes and you’re putting aside money that you will probably spend anyway on these things. One easy way to do it is to look at your spending last year on, for example, medical spending — your out-of-pocket. And you should be putting at least that much into your FSA, the flexible spending account, if you’ve got that. And people get worried about FSAs because it’s use it or lose it. But typically you have a little bit of time after the end of the year to spend it, and you can spend it on a lot of different things, so it’s pretty flexible. There’s also FSAs for child care. And again, right now nobody’s using child care, or very few people are able to use child care. That’s not going to continue forever. It’s something to think about next year. At some point, you will be back, if you have kids, to needing care, so that might could be helpful.

Health savings accounts are really supercharged, super amazing things, but they’re not for everybody. And what HSAs do is they’re an account that’s tied to high-deductible health insurance. You basically put money into the HSA, you get a tax break when you put it in, the money can be invested. It’s not just sitting there, it can grow tax-deferred. And then if you take it out and use it for medical expenses, it’s tax-free. It’s like this triple threat — there’s three different tax advantages to it.

Sean: But it’s not for everyone.

Liz: It’s not for everyone. And a lot of financial advisors tend to push these things because it really is, it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread. Some even like it better than 401(k)s, but not everybody should have a high-deductible account. If you have chronic health conditions, if you have kids, if you don’t have savings to cover that deductible and you would put off health care, all those things mean the high-deductible plan probably isn’t for you, which means the HSA isn’t for you. But if you’re in that category where it could be a help, definitely check it out.

Sean: I know you wrote an article about this, right?

Liz: I’m sure I did.

Sean: All right. Well, we can dig it out of the archives and link to it on our show notes post.

Liz: I didn’t write it, but we do have an article at NerdWallet about HSAs versus FSAs, how they differ, how they’re similar, and we can link to that in the show notes.

Sean: OK. One last thing that I know might be top of mind for a few people. I’ve got this question from a couple of friends so far this year, and that’s about whether they can write off the part of their apartment or house they’re using as a home office on their taxes next year. What about that?

Liz: Oh, yeah. That’s a great question. The home office tax deduction is a business deduction, which means you have to have business income, [Form] 1099, something like that. It’s not really for employees. And there are rules to this, so you definitely, again, want to research it a bit and maybe talk to a tax pro, but that’s a way to shave a little bit more potentially off a tax bill.

Sean: All right. Well, I think that about covers it for now. Folks still have a few months left to sort this all out, but I think now would be a good time to dig into it. Maybe over the holiday breaks that are coming up, spend some time and figure out how you can get the tax cuts that will help you when you need to file next year, because you won’t be able to do it past the end of this year.

Liz: Yeah, so the clock is ticking.

Sean: All right. Let’s get to this episode’s money question, which comes from Marco in Brooklyn. They write, “Hey NerdWallet. I absolutely love your podcast and it has been a great resource during quarantine in getting some knowledge on investing. I’m 27 years old living in Brooklyn, and my money has pretty much been sitting in a savings account for years. The reason I haven’t touched it and add little by little is because I always had the intention of buying property. But as I’m getting old, I’m realizing buying in New York City seems daunting and I don’t think I want to put my money toward a 5-by-5 bedroom." I can understand that, Marco.

All right. “With that said, I recently started researching how to invest. I’ve learned a bit about stocks, index funds, mutual funds and so much more, but it’s very overwhelming, and I’ve just been circling for weeks trying to decide where to open an account. I was hoping you could dive more into how to select the best platform to invest your money. What makes some better than others? I also currently have a 401(k) through my company. Is it smart to do my personal investing on the same platform to be consistent? Thanks for your info as always."

Liz: Oh, I love these questions from “elderly" 27-year-olds.

Sean: I know. I was going to say, Marco, you are 27 and that is not old, but I do appreciate the detail of your question, so thank you for that. But again, 27 is not old, and in fact this age might be a huge asset for you. But to help answer Marco’s question on this episode of the pod, we’re talking with Kevin Voigt, an investing super-Nerd.

Liz: Oh, I’m looking so forward to this. Hey Kevin, welcome to the show.

Kevin Voigt: Hi guys. Thanks for having me.

Sean: We’re really happy to have you. We got this question and we knew we had to have you on. Our dear and indecisive and elderly 27-year-old Marco wants to invest, but doesn’t know how to start. What are your thoughts on this?

Kevin: First of all, like you guys said, oh my God, I wish I was Marco. I would love to go back to my 27-year-old self and [say], “Please invest more in your 401(k). Start investing in your 401(k), but actually, why don’t you do something about that $10,000 credit card debt you’re carrying on with?" It sounds like he’s in a great position to invest. And it’s so surprising. Since the stock market started its tumult in the wake of the coronavirus, a lot of people are going in and, as they call it, buying the dip, which is when prices are going down, when the market’s going down, get in there and buy. Marco mentioned that he has a savings account, which is great. That’s awesome. Definitely do that. But we’re in a low-interest environment right now — historically low, really. And in a savings account, you could expect to earn, right now, 1% interest a year or less.

Sean: Yeah, a lot less than a year ago.

Kevin: Meanwhile, if you invest in the S&P 500 or stocks related to the S&P 500, that has averaged 8% interest per year the last 50 years. The difference between 1% and 8% obviously is great, and Marco has the greatest advantage any investor has, which is time. Oh my gosh. I pulled out the trusty NerdWallet investment calculator just to be like, OK, if Marco put $100 [per month] in the savings account earning 1% versus invested that cash, earning on average 8%, what would the difference be over 10 years? And in 10 years, he would earn at 1% about $700 interest. At 8%, he would earn $7,000 interest over the same period of time. It’s just the magic of compound interest.

Liz: But Kevin, we should raise the point that you don’t get 8% guaranteed every single year, right?

Kevin: Oh, that’s for sure. That’s the thing. Investing, it’s a long-haul strategy, because that 8% mathematically seems nice over time, but in the meantime, the S&P 500 dropped 34% between February and March. But there’s always going to be this churning of the amount that you might receive from your investments, right? But time is on your side for investments to certainly pay off compared to what you purchased the original investment for.

Sean: Investing, especially when you don’t need this money within the next five years, is a no-brainer. You will just make more, and that’s been proven over time. But Marco was pretty unsure about how he wants to invest. He mentioned stocks, index funds, mutual funds. Can we talk through each of these options and maybe talk about some pros and cons of them?

Kevin: Sure. Stocks is probably the most common thing that people have heard of, which is you’re buying shares in a publicly traded company — the Apples of the world, Microsoft — there are thousands of publicly traded companies. And you literally become an owner of that for whatever amount that you purchase in that. The downside with stocks is it’s hard to buy a lot of stocks in a lot of different companies. And you don’t want to buy too many stocks in just one company because that company may be doing well now, but who knows five or 10 years from now? Enter mutual funds. And mutual funds — “We buy the stock so you don’t have to." They are companies that go out, and they buy, and they invest in all these different companies, and then instead, you purchase shares of that fund.

The other thing he mentioned was index funds, and index funds are like mutual funds in that they go out and they purchase all the stocks so you don’t have to. But where they’re different is — you’ve heard of this thing, the S&P 500 — that’s a stock market index of the largest, by market share, 500 companies in the U.S. Index funds have the idea that, “Hey, you know what? We don’t necessarily want to beat the market, we want to be the market." As we noted, the S&P 500 has increased 8% on average. It’s a jagged line, but on average per year. And index fund investors are saying, “You know what? That’s fine. I’ll take that." Whereas many mutual funds or actively managed mutual funds, they’re trying to beat the market. If the S&P 500 is averaging 8%, they want to bring in 10% or 12%. News flash: They rarely do that. It’s very hard to beat the market. That’s the description of those three assets — stocks, mutual funds and index funds.

Liz: And I know at NerdWallet, we really like the index fund approach because it’s passive, it’s cheap. Warren Buffett likes it too, right?

Kevin: Yeah. Warren Buffett is famous for saying, and this is probably good advice for Marco to hear, is there’s a beguiling number of things you could do. There’s stocks, there’s options trading, there’s futures trading. What about forex [foreign exchange]? You can buy one or two well-diversified funds, regularly put more money into them, call it a day, and open up that piggy bank after retirement and enjoy your life.

Liz: And you’ll probably do a lot better.

Kevin: Yes. For sure.

Liz: OK, Kevin. We’ve gone over the basics of what you invest in. Now, how do you invest? How do you go about it?

Kevin: Right. And that’s where it seems like Marco is frozen. “What do I do? There are so many" — and there are. We review dozens of different brokerages, and that’s what you need to do is open a brokerage account. With stocks, you can’t go to a department store and say, “I would like to buy some Apple stock please." You have to go through a licensed brokerage, and that’s opening a brokerage account. So, that’s for starters. You have to open up a brokerage account to begin trading. Then the next decision — and if Marco was in the room, I might ask him a little more questions regarding this because he mentioned stocks, index funds, mutual funds — which should I go? The next decision you need to make is, “OK, do I want to do all of this by myself?" Which is to say, “I’m going to choose what stock, I’m going to choose what index fund. …" We didn’t mention bonds or exchange-traded funds or all these different asset classes. “… Do I want one to do that myself?"

And if you do, then you want to open a self-directed brokerage account, where basically you go through, answer some questions, you fund the account. And once you fund the account, you still have time to decide what to buy. So you can actually fund your account before having to make the decisions about what to buy, or do more research, but you’ve got to have that to get going. And there’s a lot of them out there. For example, Ally Invest, Fidelity, Merrill Lynch, Schwab, Robinhood, SoFi Invest, TradeStation, Vanguard, and some of those names you know, some of them have only been around for a few years. It’s really been the advent and explosion of technology and online trading that has really expanded the number of options that consumers have in this regard.

If instead you want someone to “please make these decisions for me, I’ll give you the money and you tell me where to go," the next choice for you would be a robo-advisor. These are companies that you go online, you fill out a questionnaire that details your risk profile, and most of these robo-advisors have different portfolios you can choose from based on risk profile. And you do that, you sign up, and often they strongly encourage and would lower limits for starting an account if you sign up for regular contributions. In that world, there’s a whole host of other names to choose from. There’s Betterment, there’s Wealthfront, there’s E*TRADE, Schwab also has it, Ally Invest, many others that offer this form of automated investing. It’s a real game-changer for investors.

Sean: And I’ve been thinking that this would probably be the easiest route for Marco because there’s a lot less decision-making involved. And if you’re circling, trying to figure out which one to do, it’d be easier to just find one that does a lot of the heavy lifting and complicated math and all that for you. When I was just getting started in investing, I was pretty much in Marco’s same exact situation. I wanted to, but it took me a long time to figure out how to do it. And when I just jumped in and signed up for a robo-advisor, I was, one, shocked by how fast it was to sign up. It took 15 minutes versus the 15 hours I’d spent just contemplating all these different options. But now that I’m doing it and I have monthly contributions, it’s such a relief to know that I’m doing something. And again, I barely think about it because it’s just going and I have my contributions. But when I do think about it, I’m like, all right, pat myself on the back for actually investing. I think that would be a good option.

Kevin: Yeah. And it’s advantageous because it’s kind of like Netflix. You just sign up for it and every month, a direct deposit. There’s a real ease to it. But a lot of people do like active investing. The longer I’m here at NerdWallet, the more I personally dislike active investing for myself because it’s really scary. But a lot of people, certainly in these times we’re seeing it, a lot of people are very excited about trying more advanced investing options for themselves. And we spend a lot of time also looking, for those consumers, what are the best platforms for options trading? What are the best platforms for forex? And so forth. But me personally, “Yeah, do it for me please."

Sean: Yeah. Well, that brings me to my next question which is, what would make one of these better than another? Because that was a key part of Marco’s question too.

Kevin: Yeah, and it’s a tough one to answer without Marco in the room. And this might be a good time to pause and say, for any investor like Marco, it wouldn’t be bad to spend some of that savings to go to see a fee-only financial advisor for a visit or two, just to help you out with some of these thoughts. And it’s always good to get an outside opinion on your financial state. But that said, there are so many of these brokerages out there now, and they all have really different attributes. It really depends on what you’re looking for. If you’re new to investing and you want to learn more about investing itself, there’s many firms that specialize in having strong educational resources, having live seminars and, of course, having a deep bench of online educational materials. That might be one new way to go.

If you are a fund investor, there are some brokerages that will not deal in mutual funds or index funds. So be careful about that, if you sign up for one service and find out, oh, wait a minute, I can’t actually buy an index fund or a mutual fund through this provider. If you have a limited budget, then obviously you want to shop around for someone whose cost to open an account is low or perhaps has options like fractional shares. Buying Apple’s stock is really expensive, so fractional shares are like, well, just buy an affordable bit of it. That would be one thing to look at. And if you are going to go the day trading route — I don’t have the stomach for it, but if you do — then there are definitely providers out there that have very heavyweight analytical tools, a very deep bench of resources that you can pay for, potentially additionally to your standard brokerage costs. But they’re out there and they’re waiting for you. It really depends on what you want to get out of it, I believe.

Liz: So Kevin, Marco asked if he should use the same platform for his individual account as he does for his 401(k). What are the pros and cons of doing that?

Kevin: It’s a perfectly good choice if that firm has all the bells and whistles that you want. For example, a 401(k) provider may or may not have fractional shares on offer. They may or may not have day trading platforms on offer. I would look to that. There may be incentives, too, that companies may offer to encourage you to also open a second account with them, like in this situation. But as long as that firm does the things you want to do with your investing life, that’s totally fine. Why not have it in one place?

Sean: Should Marco be worried at all about putting all of his investment eggs in one investment basket?

Kevin: No, because he’s not putting all his money in one specific investment. It’s just going through that brokerage account. He may have limited choices in terms of certain types of investments, but no, there’s no worry about putting all your money through that one account.

Liz: Well, one of the things that we should mention really briefly, though, is SIPC [Securities Investor Protection Corporation] insurance.

Kevin: Yes. SIPC insures brokerage accounts up to $500,000 and of that, $250,000 in cash it provides if the brokerage fails. But other than that, investing is buyer beware, so there is no insurance for bad investing decisions.

Sean: Well, Kevin, do you have any final words of wisdom for our dear 27-year-old, elderly Marco?

Kevin: Yes. Just some rules of thumb to always keep in mind when it comes to investing is No. 1, as you mentioned earlier, I believe, Sean, never invest cash that you’ll need back in the next five years. You want the amount to be able to weather the natural ups and downs in value that’s going to happen over the course of a few years. Another rule of thumb is to keep no more than 10% of your portfolio in individual stocks, just to keep diversified. And another caution: If you are going to buy some individual stocks, never invest more than you can afford to lose.

Sean: Well, thank you so much for talking with us, Kevin. Appreciate it.

Kevin: Thank you both. Enjoyed it.

Sean: Now let’s get into our takeaway tips. Liz, do you want to kick us off?

Liz: I will. OK, first, dive in. You can learn as you go.

Sean: Next up, the “best way" to invest depends on your comfort level, time horizon and risk tolerance.

Liz: And finally, robo-advisors can be a good solution if you want someone or something else to do the heavy lifting for you.

Sean: And that is all we have for this episode. Do you have a money question of your own? Turn to the Nerds and call or text us on the Nerd hotline at 901-730-6373. That’s 901-730-NERD. You can also email us at [email protected].

Liz: And here’s our brief disclaimer, thoughtfully crafted by NerdWallet’s legal team. Your questions are answered by knowledgeable and talented finance writers, but we are not financial or investment advisors. This Nerdy info is provided for general educational and entertainment purposes and may not apply to your specific circumstances.

Sean: And with that said, until next time, turn to the Nerds.

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