Learn From Boomer Mistakes

A MarketWatch article over the weekend pointed out some important facts about baby boomers being unprepared for retirement. The article claims baby boomers will need $658K in their retirement funds, but the average employer-sponsored defined-contribution plan for boomers only has $263K.

The article goes into specifics on asset allocation, but that’s not important. Let’s look at the numbers to put them in context. Let’s assume these retirees will live 20 years beyond age 65. A $658K nest egg, growing at a conservative 3% real return, will provide $44,228 per year, or $3686 per month. Add the average monthly Social Security benefit of $1,341, and you’re looking at living on about $5K a month. That’s just below the BLS average income for all households, which would give you a fairly comfortable retirement.

The boomers who only have $263K saved up will be living on $2,814 a month (including Social Security). Can you handle living on $2,800?

It’s an important lesson to the rest of us. I’ve never met a retiree who said, “You know what? I wish I’d spent more when I was younger because I have too much money now.”

The article warns that “the typical middle-aged American couple only has $5,000 saved for the future.”

Use this article to learn from the mistakes of others. Plan for your future now. If you’re not saving at least 10% of your income now, you’ll be the example used as a warning to others in the future.

Retirement Mistakes Before Retirement

Here’s an article from Yahoo! Finance that points out retirement mistakes many people make well before they get to retirement:

  1. Not starting early
  2. Not having a Roth IRA
  3. Raiding your retirement account
  4. Cashing out your 401(k)

The article quotes a lot from CPA and “retirement expert” Ed Slott. He points out that starting early and maximizing your Roth IRA every year (age 25 to 65) is basically all you need to do to have a million dollar nest egg. If you wait and start 5 years later, you’ll have $200K less in your nest egg.

Mistake #4 is a big one for people who switch jobs. If your next employer doesn’t have a 401(k) plan, or you prefer to manage the money yourself, you can open a 401(k) rollover account. Simply cashing out your 401(k) will incur a 10% penalty, plus a one-time bill for all the taxes owed. Worse, you’ll be giving up the benefit of future tax-deferred earnings.

If you’re unsure what this all means, check out Basic Personal Finance. You can read the first chapter, which lists the 10 rules of thumb for financial success, for free on Amazon. Chapter 6 shows an example of how tax-deferred investments outperform similar investments in taxable accounts.

Retirement Plan Math

A few days ago, I posted the two basic steps of retirement planning.

Step 1: Figure out what quality of life you want during retirement (i.e., how much you want to live on each year). This will determine the size of the nest egg you need to have ready when you retire.

Step 2: Figure out how much you need to start saving now to get there.

Of course, those makes sense to me, but my inner math teacher feels compelled to elaborate for those who need it (even if they won’t ask for it). The calculation for step 1 is a present value formula for an annuity payment. In this case, the payment (PMT) is the amount you want to draw from your portfolio each year in retirement. The present value (PV) is the amount of the portfolio when you retire. (That could be confusing because it’s a present value, but we’re talking about future money; we’ll deal with that later.) You have to specify a real return for the portfolio (r) and the number of years you want to draw this benefit (n). So, if you start with PV in your portfolio at retirement, you can draw PMT from the portfolio each year for n years until you run out of money. You can solve this with the following formula:


If you’re scared of math, you can solve it in Excel: =PV(rate, nper, -pmt). Because Excel looks at time-value-of-money equations as cash flows, enter your PMT value as a negative number. If you don’t, you’ll get the same absolute value, but PV will be negative… no big deal.

For Step 2, you set that present value to a future value (FV), because that’s what you want your portfolio to be in the future. Now use the future value annuity formula and solve for the payment (PMT), which is the amount you need to invest each year (at a real return, r, for n years) to reach that FV. The formula is:


Again, Excel makes it easy: =PMT(rate, nper, pv, -fv). In this case, add a present value (pv) if you already have some savings started.

Note that the second r and n are not the same as the previous formula. This time n is the number of years you have to save for retirement. The previous n was the number of years you plan to draw on your savings during retirement. Similarly, the r in the PMT formula is the real return you expect to earn while you save for retirement. The r in the PV formula is the real return you expect to earn during retirement (which will probably be lower, assuming safer investments).

This (and lots more financial math) is covered in Basic Personal Finance, but now you have the two most important formulas. You can complicate this by simulating returns to add some realism, or you can simply pad your numbers by using a smaller r in either or both formulas. You can also use a larger n and/or larger PMT in the first formula to pad your nest egg.

Retirement Planning Includes Plans During Retirement

CNBC ran a story last week pointing out an obvious part of retirement planning that they think people don’t consider: “make sure you don’t run out of money.”

They start with the 4 percent rule recommended by “many investors”-only draw 4% of your total portfolio value in any given year. That way, you’re basically living on the gains, and your portfolio remains intact (assuming a 4% real return). Research by Wade Pfau suggests that the 4% rule may be optimistic if people transition their portfolios to safer investments after retirement, hence earning less than a 4% return.

The story then quotes certified financial planners who state more obvious points, that you should consider three things when planning your retirement spending goals:

  • Life expectancy
  • Social Security benefits
  • Taxes

I’ll start with the last one. You have to consider the required minimum distributions from your retirement plans. Try to balance your tax-deferred (traditional IRA & 401(k)s) and tax-free (Roth) distributions to minimize your taxes. Avoid unnecessary portfolio reallocations, which could increase your tax burden for taxable accounts (i.e., don’t use actively managed mutual funds).

When looking at Social Security benefits (for those retired or retiring soon who will actually have them), consider your objectives. Do you want to maximize your total benefits, or do you want to maximize your monthly benefit? For the former, take your benefits as early as possible. If quality of life is more important, and you don’t need the money right away, waiting to draw social security will increase your monthly payments. (I’ll follow up with a post on this soon.)

Life expectancy is a somber topic, but you really do have to consider how long you might be around to make sure you have enough to support yourself in retirement. If you don’t want to put a specific number to it, pick something far into the future (say 100 years old… or 40 years of retirement). Use that number when planning your nest egg requirement. Other alternatives are to plan on smaller returns than you think you’ll get and/or using random returns and simulating your retirement, as shown in my book and discussed in a previous post.

One thing the article didn’t point out is that all the “help” these professional financial advisors give you will cost you 2-3% of your portfolio value every year. That’s the real reason you won’t be able to draw 4% for yourself. It doesn’t take a PhD in finance, or even a CFP, to plan for your retirement. It’s fairly basic:

  1. Figure out what quality of life you want during retirement (i.e., how much you want to live on each year). This will determine the size of the nest egg you need to have ready when you retire.
  2. Figure out how much you need to start saving now to get there.

Take the time to study the basics and make a plan. You can enjoy spending/saving that 2-3% fee on yourself instead of paying for advice you can easily get on your own.

Under 30? Time is on Your Side. Don’t Waste It.

Nicholas Hopwood has an article in Investopedia (& Business Insider) that says your best asset is your income, not your home or savings. He makes a good point for millennials. (It doesn’t apply to those of us with fewer earning years ahead.)

A home ties up a lot of income and actually increases your expenses. Plus studies show the real return to real estate is negative. For savings, Hopwood is referring to 401(k) balances. There’s not much there for younger workers, but higher income allows you to make the best use of a 401(k) (to reach the $18K maximum contribution).

For young people, time is on your side because of the power of compounding. Anything you do to increase future earnings will be amplified by that extra time. Hopwood says your early income will be tied to your degree or technical expertise, a polite way of saying you should study something that will actually get you a job. Over time, he says attitude, personality and communication skills are most important to income growth.

Just make sure you save at least 10% of that income… and increase that percentage with each pay raise.

Make Your Own Savings Plan

We’re definitely in a period of “fake news.” Two stories on Yahoo make me think April Fool’s Day was postponed to May this year. The first story claims millennials save for financial freedom rather than to leave the workforce and retire. It cites a Merrill Edge study that claims the 18-34 age group is saving more money than any other age group. That’s hard to believe, given a Consumerist article two weeks ago that said nearly half of Americans are not able to cope with a $100 surprise expense. CNBC has run several stories on a March 2016 Economic Policy Institute report that shows median savings are pathetically low: only $480 for ages 32-37.

From the Merrill Edge study, “average income they say they’re saving per year”:

Millennials:   19%
Gen X:             14%
Boomers:        14%
Seniors:           12%

I started to question those numbers, but then realized it’s self-reported. (Re-read that quote above the numbers.) Digging through the article, it says millennials are more likely to spend money on travel, dining, and fitness than to put it into savings.

Sadly, the only thing in the article that rang true was this line: “they’re not thinking about retirement as a phase of life”

Curiously, another article about millennial savings by the same Yahoo author claims millennials are “more eager to pay their own way at younger ages than when baby boomers think they should.” That one claims a Bankrate survey. The funny thing is the conclusion: “The dream of financial independence and the reality of their current financial situation continues to be at odds for many millennials.” Don’t forget, this is the same author that just claimed millennials save more than other generations.

The take away (besides don’t print fake news): don’t make your decisions based on what other people are doing (or claim to be doing). Figure out what quality of life you want during retirement (i.e., how much you want to live on each year), and then figure out how much you need to start saving now to get there. My book helps you figure out how to do that. The important part is to start now. Compound interest isn’t something you get back later.

Young Investors = Easy Prey for Brokers

Years of investment advice boils down to (1) diversify your portfolio and (2) the easiest, cheapest way to do so is with low-cost, index mutual funds. Given this reality, where are brokers going to find new suckers clients? Enter Millennials. An article by Jefferson Graham in USA Today says the Snap, Inc. (i.e., Snapchat app) IPO on 3/2/17 was very popular with investors under 30. As with many IPOs, initial hype led to a strong opening (up 59% in two days). Once people realized Snap, Inc. hasn’t actually monetized Snapchat, several brokers released sell recommendations, and the stock plummeted.

The real winner was Robinhood, a trading app whose users average 30 years of age (median is 26). The company saw a surge in new accounts, and 43% of all its trades on 3/2/17 were for Snap, Inc.

Chapter 7 in my book, Basic Personal Finance, is the longest chapter in the book because we wanted to clearly lay out the case for our recommendation to use low-cost index mutual funds. This is the best after-tax and after-expenses investment for the majority of people. Picking individual stocks is essentially gambling and the brokerage fees will eat away at any gains you might get.

More Evidence for Index Funds

There are always individual actively-managed mutual funds that bring outstanding returns, but it is rare for these funds to actually outperform passively-managed funds in the long run. According to the Wall Street Journal, 82% of all U.S. stock mutual funds have trailed their respective benchmarks over the last 15 years. Do you think you can pick the 1-in-5 winner? And then, do you think you can switch to the next hot fund before your current hot fund loses its heat?

For those interested in a more complicated answer (i.e., some mix of index and actively-managed funds), another Wall Street Journal article gives some options. However, Danial Solin warns that half of actively-managed funds disappear before then reach 10 years. As for the “winner” funds, he says “There’s no evidence of persistence of performance beyond what you would expect from random chance.”

After accounting to taxes and fees, actively-managed funds are even worse when compared to a passively-managed the index fund. The safe bet is to pick an index fund. Chapter 7 of Basic Personal Finance discusses the topic in more detail.

Privatizing Social Security, Part I

It Already Happened, and the Detractors Are Silent

I touched on Social Security in Chapter 6 of my book, Basic Personal Finance. It was a simple warning to younger generations to not rely on Social Security because the system will not exist much longer in its current state. In 2016, the Board of Trustees of the Social Security trust fund said the annual cost of the program will exceed its income by 2020. Despite repeated warnings by the Trustees over the years, any attempt to modify or privatize the program has been met with vehement opposition, usually from political talking heads with little actual knowledge of economics, finance, investing, or even basic math.

Take LA Times columnist Michael Hiltzik’s 2015 rant as an example. He tried to leverage recent market crashes into emotional appeals to warn against privatization. Anyone can pick and choose specific days for market returns to make things look horrifically bad. You can also pick specific days to turn anyone into a millionaire. Hiltzik’s column ignored long-term trends and the basics of diversification and asset allocation (i.e., moving to safer investments as retirement approaches) and painted Social Security privatization as if it were the end of civilization as we know it.

The funny thing is, privatized Social Security has existed since 1990 for part-time government employees. The 401(a) FICA Alternative Plan allocates 7.5% of these employees’ salaries into pre-tax private retirement plans (similar to a 401(k)). This is done in lieu of Social Security taxes (typically 6.2% from employee and 6.2% from employer). You don’t hear the privatized Social Security detractors complain about this system. Could it be because the perceived benefit of a state government not paying its matching 6.2% Social Security tax somehow outweighs the “dangers” of part-time employees being pushed into a private retirement system instead of Social Security? Imagine the outcry if a private employer tried to weasel out of its matching Social Security contributions.

What if we could all take advantage of a 401(a)-type privatized Social Security system? Part II will look at comparing returns from Social Security and the stock market.

Plan for Uncertainty in Retirement

A column by Gail MarksJarvis in the Chicago Tribune over the weekend talked about the danger of planning your retirement with average returns. It’s a simplified story quoting “experts” rather than explaining the math. Pages 153-156 of Basic Personal Finance illustrate this exact topic with a concrete example. It’s based on The Flaw of Averages, a book by former professor, Sam Savage.

Basic Personal Finance uses a scenario developed in the math appendix: a 35-year plan to live off $80,000 per year from a portfolio of $1.5M that continues to grow at 4%. Using average returns, the portfolio lasts exactly 35 years. Simulating returns with a normal distribution with 4% average and 3% standard deviation, the portfolio runs out of money before year 35 over half the time (53%). As Sam Savage said, “answers from average data are wrong on average.” Here’s the graph from the book that shows 5 random trials along with the certain return plot.

Img12 - Returns

Lesson: either add some stochastic element to your retirement planning or add a good cushion to make sure you can weather the years with returns below the average you plan to earn.