Tara Unverzagt July 18, 2016 No Comments

Index funds are safe, right?

My last article showed how you could work towards a carefree retirement like my grandfather had by looking at your spending and saving choices today. Your spending and saving decisions are the number one behavior that affects your financial life. Once you have that under control, you hopefully have money to invest. What do you do now?

What Now?

Let’s look back to what happened before 1980. That’s more realistic going forward than to expect a return of the high flying 1980s. For those who survived the 1980-2010 roller coaster with savings intact, interest rates could go up long term, but “normal” pre-1980 interest rates were just a few percentage higher than current interest rates and the stock market is a bit high, but about where it should be.

Buying low and selling high is still the way to make your money work for you. Unfortunately, the way we’re wired, we love to buy high, when investments are exciting. Then we want to throw in the towel when prices are low. This is a formula for failure.

Stocks are often the investment to emphasize but sometimes more in bonds are called for. Sometimes cash is king, when interest rates are super low and the stock market is valued high (sound familiar?) Most people think this ratio depends on your age, but that’s not the only parameter to look at when deciding your “asset allocation,” or how much you invest in bonds vs stocks vs cash vs any other investment choice.

A huge portion of money today is being invested in basic, low fee investments, like index funds and ETFs (Exchange-Traded Funds). You won’t “beat the market” but you’ll do as well as the market, right? Maybe, maybe not. Not all index funds and ETFs are created equally. You still need to do your homework on the fees and what they invest in. And know that when you buy an index fund to “match the market”, you’re choosing to buy the big losers as well as the high flyers.

Sears was in the Dow until 1999 when it went from a high of over $60 in 1998 and tanked to below $40 in in 1999. If you were invested in the “index” you would have held Sears to the bottom before being rid of it. Individual stock holders could sell long before it hit bottom. Sears wasn’t removed from the S&P 500 until 2012 when its value was below the required threshold to be in the S&P 500.

The index funds have helped investors that buy individual stocks because the index funds have distorted the price of some stocks and created market inefficiencies. When a bunch of money goes into an index fund raising a particular stock price higher than it should be, it’s a great time for someone who owns that stock to sell and take a profit. The person with the index fund will just hold on to it while the price peaks and then sinks. On the other hand, if a stock is undervalued, the index doesn’t take advantage of the bargain and buy more shares. And, as in the case of Sears, the index may hold on to a tanking stock that should be sold.

In addition, asset allocation at any given point has been shown to be far more important to wealth accumulation than what particular stock or bond you buy. If you always keep the same asset allocation, you will sometimes be over invested in stocks and under invested in bonds (see below for a time when investing heavily in bonds made sense) or vice versa. While no one has a crystal ball telling them the highs and lows of a market, there are usually pretty good signs that an asset class is in the range of the bottom or the range of the top. Right now both stocks and bonds, overall, are overvalued. What will you do?

The answer to that question is not simple or straightforward. It depends on your individual situation. The internet will give you great generic advice, but I’ve never met a generic person. Talking to a professional can help you sort through your priorities and risk tolerances. For example, someone that has a million dollar income will deal with risk tolerances differently than someone who is living pay check to pay check. If you are planning for just retirement, you will plan differently than if you have to pay for your kids’ college before retirement.

What Happened?

Investing was far easier for my grandfather then for you or me. Interest rates were pretty steady, between 2% and 5% most of his life. In retirement, interest rates went soaring to a peak of 15% in 1980, the highest interest rates of all time. Having reliable, steady, high interest rates in retirement is so sweet!

The stock market was a roller coaster during his lifetime, as it has always been and always will be. The Dow Jones Index went from around 1350 to as high as 7000 before returning to below 3000 before he died in the early 1980s. If you were invested in stocks back then, utilities were where you found the best growth. The Dow Jones Utility Index went from just over 10 in the early 1940s to as high as 160 by the 1980s, or about a 7% annual return.

Life changed in the 1970s when I was a kid and my parents were saving for the future. Interest rates went crazy, as did inflation. From the “bumping along” 2%-5% rates, interest rates shot up in the late 1970s to early 1980s. This turned all investing heavy into bonds and the stock market was flat 1965 to 1972. Life was uncertain and scary for most of us. Buying a house with a mortgage interest rate as high as 20% was daunting to many, prohibitive to most. Grandpa’s generation was happily retired invested in bonds at those high rates with a steady retirement income as a result.

Investing has always been complicated, but probably more so today than ever before. We think 1980-2010 was “normal”, but it’s no longer relevant. Our journey through our working and retirement life is nothing like Grandpa’s journey. So while he taught me a lot, I have to figure out this one myself.

The information given here is general in nature. If you would like to know how it pertains to your particular situation click “contact” above. If you found this or any of the other articles interesting, please subscribe at the bottom of this page.

photo by https://www.flickr.com/photos/ecotravols/

 

Tara Unverzagt July 5, 2016 No Comments

I Want a Carefree Retirement

Knee deep in debt, Bob and Carol were trying to decide if they should raid their retirement account to pay for the rest of the kids’ college education or if they should take on more student loan debt. Both choices made them sick to their stomach to think about. Either way, they couldn’t see a comfortable retirement in their future. It’s a situation that’s all too common today.

Life was different during our grandparents’ era. My grandfather, for example, went to college and paid for it himself. He became a civil engineer. My grandmother owned a beauty salon and together they raised three children. All three kids went to college, paid for with cash from my grandpa’s job and savings and their children paid for part of the expenses with summer job money. All three kids went on to live very nice middle class lives. Grandpa retired to a life of leisure full of golf. Grandma’s retirement revolved around church, singing in the choir, helping her friends, and taking care of the house. They liked to travel, especially to Florida for the winter.

It would be lovely if that was how our lives went, but it isn’t, we’re more likely to be in Bob and Carol’s situation. In Grandpa’s days, having debt would have been an embarrassment as well as scary. Coming out of the Great Depression, you might buy something on lay away, where you paid a little every week until you fully paid for the item and took it home. Otherwise, owing someone money was frowned upon.

Somewhere along the way, the finance companies talked us into thinking it was ok to use debt to pay for everything. You could buy anything on a credit card and make low monthly payments. Nowadays, many don’t even own their car. You carry the debt for the car that’s owned by the dealer. [Debt can be helpful see Use Debt to Your Advantage]

Grandpa had it right by not using debt to pay for goods. Using debt to buy consumables like a car or everyday items will make you poor. Once you take on debt, your expenses go up with debt payments. A $25,000 car turns into a $450 per month payment for five years or over $28,000 total. If you saved that $450 per month BEFORE you bought your car and invested it, you would only need to put aside $22,500 and you could do it in just over four years. That’s almost a $6,000 difference. What could you do with $6,000?

For many of us, our retirement years will be very different than our grandparents’ retirement. My grandpa had a pension, plenty of savings, Social Security at 65, he didn’t have to deal with high health care costs, and was debt free his whole life. I don’t have a pension, won’t be eligible for full Social Security benefits until 67, will have to pay for more of my health care costs, and cope with a home mortgage. And many will be dealing with their kids’ college debt as they try to retire. We will have to work a lot harder to get that comfortable, carefree life, plus we will live much longer lives than previous generations. How will we fill all those extra years and how will we pay for them?

Some people don’t want to retire at 65, they love what they do. My advice to these people is keep working. There’s a good chance you can work until 70 or even 80 and still have plenty of years to relax in retirement. The extra money will help finance those extra years. If you’re to the point where you need a change, consider a completely different job using the expertise you’ve gained. For example, you could teach math instead of working as an engineer. You could also consider a more relaxed job involving a hobby. One of my clients loved playing tennis and ran the club house at his tennis club when he retired. He was able to see his friends, make a little money, and play tennis for free. Or if you’ve saved enough to last a long retirement, you could consider volunteering at a charity that inspires you. You won’t make money, but will have purpose in life which research has shown is a key component to successful aging.

So why do we need to work longer these days than in Grandpa’s time? A lot of factors come into play. The only retirement plan most of us have today are the ones we fund. Companies decided they didn’t want to take on the risk of investment markets not doing well, so they pushed the risk on their employees. Healthcare costs have gone up and companies push more of the cost to the employees. More people are self-employed where you pay for everything and everything is going up in price.

Life has become much more complicated to manage. Today, we expect to have choices. Some people want to be able to pay more for insurance to go the doctor of our choice while others want to save money on their insurance and don’t care which doctor they go to. While choices are good it can be hard to know which choice is right for you.

The truth is, your retirement success is not affected as much by the outside world, as by your spending and saving habits. Just like always, spending less than you make leads to financial success. If you lose a job, you have to cut back. If college is too expensive, you can to consider a less expensive college, try two years at a community college (no one asks where you completed your Freshmen and Sophomore year), or have your child participate in a work/study program to help pay the cost of college. A much bigger part of your paycheck goes to healthcare which means you have to cut back somewhere else. Your car? Your home? Your hobbies? You have to choose insurance and retirement programs to meet your needs. That takes education and planning.

Take a moment to visualize your future self. What do you want your life to be like? Feel how comfortable life would be if you could choose to work, play golf, or travel. Then look at what could get in the way of getting to that retirement. What can you do now, in the next year that is totally achievable to help make sure you achieve that retirement? Is your comfortable retirement worth enough to make a commitment to your one year plan? When you’re tempted to spend money on those lower priority items, think about your future self and consider “paying” him/her by putting that money in your savings account instead.

Control your spending and save for your future. Think about working a little longer since you’re going to live a little longer. You too can have that comfortable retirement that my grandparents lived.

Contact me if you’d like a carefree retirement.

To find out ways to invest for retirement, check out Part 2: Index funds are safe, right?

Photo by Extra Zebra; https://www.flickr.com/photos/23438569@N02/