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Preparing for the Big ‘What-Ifs’ in Your Financial Life

Steps you can take to make sure unexpected events don’t interfere with your long-term plans

COMMON SENSE TELLS US that it’s impossible to eliminate all risk from our lives, financial or otherwise. We can’t control whether markets go up or down. A divorce, serious illness—or even a large, unexpected bill—could create a financial shortfall that throws your careful plans off track. “Anything that jeopardizes your income and rate of savings can be a threat to your financial well-being,” says Nick Giorgi, an investment strategist in the Chief Investment Office for Merrill and Bank of America Private Bank.

While you can’t prevent these scenarios, by taking a holistic view of your financial future, your advisor can recommend the best options for helping preserve your finances from most of them, says Rachel Scholl, director, Wealth Management Lending Strategy Execution, Bank of America. Here’s how you might prepare for some of the most common—and risky—what-ifs.

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What if you have a sudden need for cash?

 “You never want to be in a situation where you have to liquidate assets at an undesirable time in the market or run up credit-card debt to pay your bills,” says Scholl. A cash-management strategy can help preserve your finances against a job loss or an unexpected expense.

Ways to prepare: An emergency fund is a key component of any cash-management strategy, notes Scholl. Review several months’ worth of recent expenses with your advisor to determine the right amount of cash to hold.

If necessary, your advisor can help you engage with a bank credit specialist to identify potential alternate sources for liquidity as well. For surprise big-ticket expenses, say a home renovation that runs $30,000 over budget, two alternatives you may want to consider are making use of the equity in your home or borrowing against your securities, suggests Scholl.

What if you’re faced with major medical expenses?

“Seven out of 10 Americans over the age of 65 will have some health event for which long-term care is necessary,1 and the cost can decimate savings.”—Joseph Tantillo, Director, Retirement and Personal Wealth Solutions, Bank of America.

The typical working-age family in the U.S. spends 11% of its income on health care, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Post-retirement, the costs can be even steeper.

Ways to prepare: Check if your employer offers a tax-advantaged account such as a flexible savings account (FSA) or health savings account (HSA), which allow you to pay for health care expenses with pre-tax funds. The HSA—available only for those with high-deductible health plans—can be particularly valuable, because any unused funds can be rolled over indefinitely and earnings can grow tax-free. “Instead of dipping into your IRAs to pay medical bills in retirement and paying income taxes on those withdrawals, you can tap an HSA tax-free for medical expenses,” says Paul Galliano, senior vice president, Retirement & Benefit Plan Services for Bank of America. For contribution limits and other information about HSAs, see our Contribution Limits and Tax Reference Guide.

Finally, plan for the worst-case scenario. “Seven out of 10 Americans over the age of 65 will have some health event for which long-term care is necessary,1 and the cost can decimate savings,” says Joseph Tantillo, director, Retirement and Personal Wealth Solutions, Bank of America. “Long-term care insurance could potentially preserve not only your wealth but also that of your children, who often shoulder the costs of caring for aging parents.”

What if there’s disability, divorce or a death in the family?

Nobody wants to think about, let alone plan for, a dramatic change in your household’s income resulting from a significant life event like disability, divorce or an untimely death in the family. But given the high stakes, planning for these risks can be crucial to the future well-being of your loved ones.

Ways to prepare: When it comes to disability, insurance can be a crucial consideration. Find out whether your employer offers disability income insurance. Then assess whether this benefit provides enough income protection for your family in case you’re temporarily unable to work because of an accident or health event. If it isn’t available, you may want to consider purchasing your own policy to replace your income, or at least a portion of it.

In the event of a marital split, be aware that the laws governing the division of property in a divorce vary from state to state, but keeping an up-to-date inventory of your household assets and debts can help you divide them equitably. In advance of remarrying, you might consider setting up a trust to protect your family, says Burt Holland, National Trust Services, Bank of America Private Bank. Doing so enables you to ensure that children from the prior marriage are not overlooked as the eventual beneficiaries of your estate, while also providing lifetime support to a surviving spouse.

A trust can also offer other benefits as you plan your estate: setting one up allows you to distribute an inheritance to a child at set intervals, rather than providing an outright distribution, which may not be appropriate because of the child’s age or other factors. And as you age, a trust can help ensure the uninterrupted availability of assets for your care should you become mentally or physically incapacitated, says Holland. “A trustee can step in and pay medical and long-term care bills if needed, as well as manage all other aspects of your financial life and estate.”

Finally, a death benefit from a life insurance policy can help to keep your family solvent should you or your spouse die prematurely.

What if there’s a bear market?

“No one can predict the timing of sharp market pull backs, but diversification can allow your assets to potentially grow at a more consistent pace and help to minimize losses and preserve wealth.”—Nick Giorgi, an investment strategist in the Chief Investment Office for Merrill and Bank of America Private Bank

It’s hard to watch your savings shrink at any age. But bear markets may be the most risky for investors who need to start withdrawing from their savings soon, perhaps to pay for college tuition or to fund retirement.

Ways to prepare: First, make sure that your portfolio is diversified. Holding a mix of different types of stocks, bonds and cash can help moderate steep declines, says Giorgi. “No one can predict the timing of sharp market pull backs, but diversification can allow your assets to potentially grow at a more consistent pace and help to minimize losses and preserve wealth.”

It’s also a good idea to review your investments regularly with an eye toward how much time you have to save for your goals, says Giorgi. For instance, a college-savings portfolio may be invested for maximum growth when college is 18 years away, but it may be better off shifted to all cash when college is imminent to reduce the risk of a market—and savings—drop. Your advisor can recommend a strategy that’s appropriate for your age, goals, liquidity needs and ability to handle risk.

In fact, you can work with your advisor to address any number of risks that can threaten your financial security, adds Scholl. Together, you can put plans in place to help prepare for nearly any eventuality.

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1 Wall Street Journal, "The Odds on Needing Long-Term Care," June 6, 2019.

Information is as of 08/20/2020

Investing involves risk including possible loss of principal.

Opinions are those of the author(s), as of the date of this document and are subject to change.

Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

The Chief Investment Office (CIO) provides thought leadership on wealth management, investment strategy and global markets; portfolio management solutions; due diligence; and solutions oversight and data analytics. CIO viewpoints are developed for Bank of America Private Bank, a division of Bank of America, N.A., (“Bank of America”) and Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Incorporated (“MLPF&S” or “Merrill”), a registered broker-dealer, registered investment adviser and a wholly owned subsidiary of Bank of America Corporation. 

Bank of America is a marketing name for the Retirement Services business of Bank of America Corporation ("BofA Corp.").

Asset allocation and diversification do not ensure a profit or protect against loss in declining markets. 

Equity securities are subject to stock market fluctuations that occur in response to economic and business developments. 

Bonds are subject to interest rate, inflation and credit risks. 

Credit and collateral subject to approval. Terms and conditions apply. Programs, rates, terms and conditions subject to change without notice.

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