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invest for life part 4

A toddler reaches for a rubber duck during a swimming class for babies at Lane Cove pool in Sydney, Australia.

This article is the fourth in a series on personal finance and investing at different stages of your life. As some issues may overlap the different stages of life, they could be covered in a prior or subsequent article. For the full series go here.

Having kids? Here are 10 money tips to guide you.

After entering the work force and getting married, the next stage to start in life for many people is parenthood. Get the wallets out for this one. Parents have to dole out cash to insure yourselves against mortality risk, to start a college fund for the children, and to buy a family home.

These imperatives call for smart investment decisions - choosing where to allocate your funds to maximize returns for a given level of risk.

Here are 10 tips to help out with the decisions. They might not turn a parent into a Warren Buffett but could nonetheless leave their kids saying: "Thanks, Mom and Dad!"

1. To insure or self-insure?

"One of the first things I did when I found out my wife Edna was pregnant with my eldest daughter was to rush out and get some life insurance," notes York University professor Moshe Milevsky. As he discusses in his book, Wealth Logic: Wisdom for Improving your Personal Finances , his own father had died early without life insurance while several of his children were still dependent on his income.

Mr. Milevsky and his siblings were nevertheless spared destitution because their father had accumulated a sizable estate through frugal living and investing in a diversified portfolio of financial assets. "In the insurance lingo, my father had decided to self-insure," Mr. Milevsky reports.

The Invest for Life series:

  • Part 1: Ten money tips for young people
  • Part 2: Ten money tips for people entering the work force
  • Part 3: Getting married? Ten money tips
  • Part 4: Having kids? Pull out the wallet and get set to invest for the future
  • Part 5: Married, with kids? Ten investing tips
  • Part 6: Financial tips as you climb the financial ladder
  • Part 7: Preparing for retirement: 10 tips
  • Part 8: The retirement years: 10 financial tips

Self insuring can be riskier than buying life insurance right off the bat. If the father had died earlier, his estate might not have been sufficient. However, someone who had aggressively saved prior to marriage (see Part 2 of the Investing for Life series: ) would have minimized this early-stage risk (with a will in place). An aggressive saving and diversified investing plan early in a marriage might be another option for couples with frugal tendencies and an aversion to insurance premiums.

2. Best place for an education fund

One of the best places for a child's education fund is inside a registered education savings plan (RESP). The government throws in grants of up to $7,200 through the Canada Education Savings Grant (CESG) plus additional grants for low-income families. Funds compound tax free and are taxed at the child's lower marginal rate when they are withdrawn for post-secondary education.

It helps to become familiar with how the plans work. For example, some have higher administration fees than others. And not all providers transfer the low-income grants into the plan - so if your family is of modest means, "first ask the provider if they offer the extra grants before you sign up," warns Mike of the Four Pillars blog.

In short, it is a good idea to know the nooks and crannies of RESPs. Sources include the RESP section on the Four Pillars blog, online discussion forums, CanLearn, and Human Resources and Skills Development Canada. And get an early start on opening an RESP to give time for the compounding of returns to work.

To weigh in on the Globeinvestor Personal Finance forum on what you would do with some extra cash, click here.

3. What will the kids think?

Some parents believe in a conservative approach when investing for their children's sojourn in the halls of higher learning. Lower returns are acceptable to them as a trade-off for minimizing the risk of losses - something their kids might not look kindly upon.

"I look at it like I am the trustee of the funds and have a responsibility to be prudent with the investment choices," explains Jim Yih, a fee-only financial adviser with financial firm Retirement Think Box in Edmonton. He has put half of the RESP funds for his four young kids into a balanced mutual fund and the other half into fixed-income instruments.

In the end, whether a parent goes with a high or low allocation to volatile investments such as equities is a matter for risk tolerances. Those who go with higher allocations will likely wind up ahead of the game given the superior long-run returns of stocks - see Jeremy Siegel's Stocks for the Long Run - but the price of admission is a greater risk of ending up with sub-par returns.

4. Become a couch potato

A popular choice within the Canadian personal-finance blogosphere for investing RESP funds appears to be the Couch Potato Portfolio. It spreads money over a diversified basket of low-cost index funds. According to MoneySense magazine, the "classic" version has generated average annual returns greater than 10 per cent over the past three decades.

One of the more popular instruments for implementing the Couch Potato portfolio in an RESP is the TD e-Series Funds, a family of index mutual funds only available online - but at the lowest of annual fees for mutual funds. The Pre-Authorized Purchase Plan (PAPP) allows investors to automatically invest small amounts at regular intervals, without commissions.

The Couch Potato Portfolio from the author of the Million Dollar Journey blog is diversified across Canadian equity (30 per cent), U.S. equity (30 per cent), international equity (30 per cent), and Canadian bonds (10 per cent). It's rebalanced annually. At the 10-year mark, the asset mix will begin a transition to a more conservative stance, which by the 18th year it will consist of guaranteed investment certificates (75 per cent) and money-market funds (25 per cent).

5. Automate asset shifts

Shifts in the asset mix of an educational fund from the aggressive to conservative, as described in the above tip, seek to maximize returns while controlling for the volatility of equities as your children's university or college enrolment dates approach. Target-date funds automate this shift in asset mix. An example is the RBC Target 2025 Education Fund.

They offer the convenience of one-stop shopping to investors who don't have the time or inclination to do their own research. In return, there are some trade-offs. One is higher fees. Another is that the fund's asset mix may not be suitable for a family.

6. Fine tune the asset allocation

Mr. Milevsky urges investors to think of their total wealth as including their human capital (discounted value of salary, wages, and other income earned over one's working life). "While conceptually this asset is different from your tangible, financial assets, it should be considered and diversified in tandem with your financial capital," writes Mr. Milevsky in his book, Are You a Stock or a Bond?

Thus, the rule of thumb is to have an allocation to stocks equal to "100 minus your age" can be fine tuned. Couples with secure jobs, like tenured professors, could allot more to equities than what the rule suggests for their age group. Couples with variable commission income, such as stockbrokers, should go with lower equity allocations.

Another consideration is that the age-related rule of thumb is usually applied more to investing for retirement, where the investing horizon is 25 to 40 years. For children's educational funds, the horizon usually runs from 10 to 15 years, which is less time for the superior returns on stocks to take shape. Lower equity allocations may perhaps be more prudent within this time frame.

7. Put those child benefits to work

Many parents funnel the Canada Child Tax Benefit (CCTB) and Universal Child Care Benefit (UCCB) into RESPs to get the government grants. However, if a family has a good income and savings rate, they could consider maxing out the RESP with their own funds and investing the CCTB/UCCB outside of the RESP.

That's because income earned from investing the CCTB/UCCB in a separate account for a child is not attributed to the parents but to the child. The returns will compound virtually free of tax.

Charlene Walker of Nepean, Ont. directed monthly family allowance cheques after her daughter's birth into a separate bank account and then into shares of Bell Canada through its Dividend Reinvestment Plan (DRIPs allow investors to automatically reinvest dividends and buy new shares at no cost). A few years later, Ms. Walker diversified into DRIPs at six companies. By 2008, her daughter's nest egg was worth nearly $85,000.

8. Other ways to launch the kids

There are a number of ways to invest in children's futures beside RESPs, as certified financial planner Alexandra Macqueen discusses in the February, 2009, edition of the Canadian MoneySaver magazine. The benefits of these alternatives include no limit on contributions and flexibility in the use of funds (which can be used to supplement RESPs or finance other ambitions such as starting a business).

One of the more popular seems to be informal in-trust accounts, which are easier to set up than formal trusts. Interest income is attributed to the contributing parent but capital gains are taxed in the child's hands. Consequently, growth investments would appear to be more appropriate for this channel.

Paying down mortgage and other debt is desirable in itself but it can also be a strategy for helping one's children get through college. That's because extinguishing debt frees up cash flow that can be directed as required during the post-secondary years. Other methods include juvenile life insurance (savings component grows tax free and can be withdrawn), tax-free savings accounts (TFSAs) and the indoctrination of your offspring on the importance of saving allowances and working at part-time or summer jobs.

9. Let's give them a really good start

Some families have more options for assisting their children. "Our kids have RESPs but we haven't been diligent about maxing them out. We have also purchased income property for our kids' futures," says Dana from Ajax, Ont.

She expects the multi-residential properties will be paid off by the time each child is finishing high school. "They can use the income from the property to cover their expenses, or sell the property and use the proceeds to fund their endeavours, or live in one unit and use the cash flow from the others."

"Not everybody pursues traditional post-secondary education and we want our kids to have an option should they decide to go into business for themselves, work or learn abroad, or pursue graduate programs that their RESPs and other savings wouldn't have covered."

10. Buy the house right

Ask people what their best or worse financial moves were and some aspect of buying a house is a frequent response.

"My best move would be never spending too much on a home," says Tim Stobbs, author of the Canadian Dream: Free at 45 blog.

"We saved in our RRSPs for years and then bought a modest house [which was later sold] On the next house, we made sure to keep the mortgage to around $150,000. We will likely be mortgage-free by the end of current term, which would mean we only had a mortgage for less than 10 years."

Margot Bai, author of a personal-finance book, Spend Smarter, Save Bigger , says both her best and worse financial moves were directly related to buying a house.

"When I bought my first home, I locked in my mortgage for five years, a mistake that ultimately cost me about $10,000. By paying a penalty to break my mortgage contract, I was able to recover the penalty and gain another $5,000 over the next two years. Now I stick with open variable mortgages."

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