Excited by Rising House Values? Some of Your Other Assets May Be More Important

The most famous line in George Orwell’s book “Animal Farm” is when the pigs declare, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

While this line represents a cynical view of government, a description of your personal net worth statement may read, “All assets (and debts) are equal, but some are really more equal than others.” Let’s consider how to view the things on your balance sheet, without much regard to how they got there.

In this environment, many people are excited about how much their house has appreciated and may be feeling asset rich. But a house is less equal than other assets such as savings or investment accounts that may appear on your balance sheet.

A house is a use asset. You need a place to live, so unless you sell your home and rent (like some people are doing), your house is an asset that makes you feel good but doesn’t much move the needle on paying for your kids’ education or retiring. Sure, you can borrow against your house to pay for some things, but it isn’t an efficient ATM.

And lest you think you are going to sell your highly appreciated home and buy something a lot less expensive, be aware that it hardly ever happens. Maybe in a work-from-anywhere environment you can move to someplace much cheaper. But sticking around and buying down won’t typically put a lot of money in your pocket.

There is also a hierarchy of investment assets on your balance sheet.

A Health Savings Account ranks No. 1, because it is the only investment that is tax-deductible when you invest and tax-free when you withdraw from it for allowed expenses.

While a Roth IRA on your balance sheet is your next best bet because it comes out tax-free, the math for investing in a Roth versus a deductible retirement plan shines only if you are in a higher tax bracket when you retire (or if you want your kids to inherit a great asset). If you are in a lower tax bracket when you retire, you would have been more advantaged with the tax deduction from a traditional retirement plan.

Investments on which you have already been taxed are the next most equal (although general savings looks better on your balance sheet, it doesn’t work nearly as hard as investment assets). When you have money invested that you eventually spend, you will pay tax-favored capital gains on their growth.

And while your tax-deductible retirement plans are smart to use when you are working, they are fully taxable when you take the money out, thereby making them less equal than other assets. Because you will owe some of this asset to the government, in order to maximize these you want to do some significant tax planning on how you spend this money.

This is the single best asset to use for charity if you are over 70½. You also keep more if you move to a low state-income tax state or have the ability to manage taxes through juggling these withdrawals with your taxable and Roth investments.

Annuities, life insurance, personal property and outside investments often have liquidity constraints or other issues that have them fall further down the equal chart.

Borrowing is also on your balance sheet and some debt is more equal than others. Depending on the size of your mortgage and your other deductions, your home mortgage may be fully or partially deductible, making this the most equal debt.

Investment interest (borrowing on margin) can be deducted against investment income, but again subjected to certain restrictions.

Student loan debt may have some tax advantages, and it was hopefully created to facilitate higher future earnings to pay it off.

Car and boat loans are marginally better than credit card debt because at least you probably have an asset against which you borrowed that is being used and worth something.

But credit card debt is “Animal Farm’s” Mr. Jones and should be driven from your balance sheet as quickly as possible. Credit card debt typically lives on far beyond the value of the things for which it paid.

When you are analyzing your balance sheet, be sure to look beyond the amounts to understand their worth.

Related: Housing Market Shows Risk of Expert Predictions