How To Survive a Retirement: The 3 Questions.

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In the AMC’s hit drama “The Walking Dead,” where the world is overrun by rotting corpses with a desire to feed on the living, there’s something even greater to fear.

The survivors.

negan two

Staying alive in a post-apocalyptic society appears to bring out the worst of what’s left of humanity. People are ruthless killers. Strength in numbers is the best defense, yet poses an interesting dilemma.

One wrong move, one bad decision, and you’re history.

Just like that.

Sometimes, overcoming the most complicated of challenges comes down to the obvious. Nothing’s perfect however complexity fosters confusion which can shift focus, divert your attention. And when your enemies, especially within, outnumber you, it’s only a matter of time before.

Well. You know (it isn’t good).

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The good guys devised a simple screening method.

An initial shield to determine if strangers they encounter are worth entry into their community.

Three questions.

questions

Let’s see how you do. Will you pass or fail?

Are you team material?

Or are you best left alone to fend for yourself?

How many walkers (corpses with an appetite for the living), have you killed?

To safeguard others, a survivor must be willing to take out the undead (a shot or blow to the head does it). Plain and simple. If your zombie kills are minimal or non-existent there will be doubts about your contribution to the survival of the group.

How many people have you killed?

Unfortunately there are instances when tough decisions must be made for the sake of self-preservation.  Best the number of walkers taken out exceed the number of people otherwise you may become a victim yourself.

Why?

Tread carefully. The reasons for taking out the living best be because of personal survival. Or request. You see -There are sad instances when victims of zombie bites would rather die honorably, in their control, rather than expire from the disease they carry.

They would rather not wake up. Walk around.

zombies walking

As I ponder the power of simple questions, whether in fact or fiction, I have come to realize how most situations, no matter how serious, can be broken down to three questions you ask yourself or others ask you.

When it comes to preparing for retirement, there are so many differing rules, theories, planning tools –  in my mind I need to consider retirement similar to a zombie apocalypse.

Sort of puts things in perspective, doesn’t it?

If today, you could clear all the noise, reduce retirement planning to what concerns you the most, what you need to do to protect yourself – What three questions would you ask?

As I work with individuals to formulate personalized retirement strategies, three questions emerge consistently. As a matter of fact, it’s rare when one of these queries doesn’t arise.

Once you strip out the confusion, target the basics.

Focus comes down to three main concerns.

Random Thoughts:

A confident retirement comes down to the money coming in to a household.

Cash flow is everything.

Question #1: How much spendable income may I have on a monthly basis post-tax to keep me, or me and my spouse comfortable for 20 years? Simply put, how much can I have?

Why 20 years?

Let’s face it. The odds of becoming a centenarian are as slim as the dead coming back to life. OK, not that slim but infrequent enough to understand that age 100 shouldn’t be a default setting for retirement plans.

Everyone I counsel is asked to complete the thorough, thought-provoking life-expectancy calculator exercise at www.livingto100.com.  Eight out of ten outcomes come in between 80-85 years old. Women average longer life expectancies at 83-86 years old. Per calculator results, men rarely live past 84 years old.

Thought leader Dick Wagner and author of the new book “Financial Planning 3.0,” in a recent interview with the Journal of Financial Planning, stated “financial planning is very, very young as a profession. If you believe that 1969 was the first year for the profession, then we’re into our 47th year. That’s not very many years if you compare it to other authentic professions.”

So who are we as advisers to indiscriminately assume that retirees are going to live to 100? I’m not sure why I see this occur so often. Maybe it feels safe. Perhaps it’s CYA. Regardless, it’s inaccurate.

Candidly, even if the profession were a thousand years old, longevity analysis would remain a slim, educated guess at best. I am 100 percent certain however that establishing retirement income plans to conclude at age ‘unrealistic’ is an exercise in disappointment. People won’t adhere to goals, milestones they find impossible to achieve.

Please plan for reality. Not fiction. A reach to age 100 will most likely lead to unsuccessful plan outcomes. You won’t feel secure enough to retire or you’ll wait too long thus placing the quality of life in retirement, in jeopardy.

If you believe, based on family longevity and state of health, that there’s a great probability of living to 100, by all means, don’t ignore preparing for the possibility.

The topic is challenging and uncomfortable to discuss. It requires acknowledgement of our own humanity.

A seasoned adviser doesn’t overlook or dance around the topic of longevity. He or she should handle the conversation with grace and honesty. After all, we are all going to die (and hopefully not return to life like in The Walking Dead).

It’s something we all have in common. We don’t seem to like to think about it happening before age 100, especially when it comes to retirement planning.

In the same interview financial futurist Dick Wagner continues his thoughts on the financial planning profession:

“The mission and purpose of financial planning is to work with individuals and families and their personal relationships with money and the fearsome forces that it generates. There’s something about ‘fearsome forces’ – it’s terrifying. I mean, it’s a quintessential challenge of the 21st century: just try to survive with this money stuff. People do something that’s really hard, which is to anticipate their needs of the last 20-30 years of their lives. Now how do you do that? You have no idea what your health will be, you have no idea what your date of death is, you have no idea how long you can continue to earn a living.”

Financial planners deal with plenty of their own fearsome forces. One source of angst is to have straightforward, yet sensitive discussions; balance the thin line between a portfolio and human life because as Dick Warner lamented, there are plenty of unknowns.

Take it from me – we’re not fond of zombies in the planning process but they do exist.

Before you look to have a retirement plan completed, take it upon yourself to go through a life-expectancy calculator. Sit with the outcome for a while. Do the results make sense?

Once you’re at peace with the information, share it with your financial planner. Incorporate it into your analysis. You’ll both be in sync. You’ll tackle fearsome forces together. The synergy will lead to reasonable goals, follow up and fulfillment.

Question #2: Will Social Security be there for me?

The assumption that Social Security is a dying social program, regardless of the generation, runs pervasive. Don’t underestimate the importance of properly integrating Social Security into your retirement arsenal. For the majority of Americans, this is their sole income for life.

So, let’s clear up several misconceptions.

According to financial planning thought leader Michael Kitces in a recent voluminous Kitces Report on the topic, the Social Security system is often considered “going broke” by 2034. At that time it’s believed the Social Security trust fund will be exhausted.

Most planning clients have a difficulty believing the funds will last that long. Per the analysis, the majority of benefits will still be paid through tax revenues on workers paying payroll taxes at that time.

Social Security recipients usually receive Cost-Of-Living Adjustments each year. An added bonus to an income you cannot outlive is inflation protection. Unfortunately, COLA is not in the cards for 2016 (a rare occurrence), however overall, Social Security remains the best lifetime income deal available to the masses.

It’s best a retiree in good health plan to wait until at least full retirement age (66, or 67) or possibly later to apply for Social Security. By the time I’m consulted for formal retirement planning, many recipients have already applied for benefits early – at age 62, in fear of not being “grandfathered” into the system and losing future benefits.

Unfortunately, unless a household is cash-strapped or a recipient’s health is poor, there’s rarely a reason to apply for Social Security before full retirement age.

Starting early will have a lasting impact to monthly payouts. For example, a person with a full retirement age of 66 who started Social Security at age 62 would experience a permanent 25% annual reduction in benefits.

When I began my career in financial services during the great bull market of the 80s and 90s, the numbers worked out favorably for a Social Security recipient to apply for benefits early and invest the difference.

Since the year 2000, this strategy has been less effective. Over the last sixteen years I’ve witnessed improving life spans, people working longer and unattractive returns on investment assets, which has made Social Security a formidable hedge against longevity and adverse portfolio conditions.

In addition, Social Security has become a stealth, forced ‘savings’ program for a majority of households stressed to save for retirement in the face of rising college costs, financially caring for elderly parents and adult children, underwater mortgages and chronic underemployment.

For most recipients, waiting until age 70 to take advantage of an 8% delayed retirement credit is a smart strategy. In a majority of cases a retiree should seek to postpone Social Security, enjoy a permanent 8% bump in benefits, along with annual COLA (Cost-Of-Living-Adjustments).

Question #3: What should I be afraid of? I don’t really know.

This retirement game is unfamiliar territory. You’re outside the safe or familiar zone (which in The Walking Dead, is a dangerous place to be). Don’t be shy. Nothing is off limits. After all, this is a new experience. You’re not an expert (yet) at this next life phase.

Why not ask a tenured planner what you should fear? Better yet – ask friends and associates who have been retired – what did they find scary about this new world? What had they overlooked? What are the mistakes they’ve learned from? What were their greatest oversights?

There could be enemies hiding in plain sight (it’s tough to trust anyone in a world overrun by zombies), that may be overlooked because you’re too close to the situation.

Frequently I receive questions about fear in retirement. They usually have little to do with money. Ostensibly, information regarding Social Security, healthcare costs in retirement and other crucial topics, is widely available. A comprehensive retirement plan will cover all important financial concerns as well.

What’s difficult to find because a person needs to live it to learn it, is information on how emotionally challenging it is to navigate from the accumulation side of the household balance sheet to the distribution mindset – The new reality where a retiree must depend upon his or her assets to survive. Being outside the protective walls of a job or career is rarely discussed in financial planning circles.

From my experience, it takes at least a year for a retiree to gain comfort with a change in lifestyle, a satisfactory portfolio withdrawal rate, a new purpose for a life away from the office.

Never lose sight of the power of simple questions.

If they can keep the survivors of a zombie apocalypse alive.

Think about what they can do for you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4 Reasons To Embrace An Imperfect Retirement Plan.

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A version of this writing appears in MarketWatch.

The recent downturn in the stock market has placed an important decision on the back burner.

It’s not strange to change direction through a storm of uncertainty. Through a volatile period it’s not unusual to move a retirement date out, continue to collect a paycheck, bolster savings and reduce debts.

I hear it often – “I’ll work just one more year.”

The working dead

On the surface, it feels right to wait.

I call it ‘failure to launch.’

There’s never an opportune time to retire, regardless of the preparation and the formal financial planning undertaken to ensure lift-off. Frankly, even when the stock market is on solid footing people tend to find reasons to delay the next step.

It’s perfectly understandable. It’s human to feel vulnerable at the crossroad of a life-changing moment especially when the moment has arrived.

The financial planning process can inadvertently exacerbate “launch dysfunction.” It’s also in a planner’s nature to be conservative and advocate a decision to wait for a better time (whenever that is).

I’ve discovered after hundreds of retirement discussions and volumes of plans delivered, that the decision to wait is rooted in an overdependence on the successful outcomes of formal retirement plans designed to predict the survivability of assets to meet lifestyle expenses for three decades or longer.

But is that practical?

No.

Before you decide to undergo retirement planning, you must make peace with the fact that the entire process is extraordinarily imperfect, like you and me.

Retirement plans are 20% science and 80% forecast (or art).

Unfortunately, there are elements you will never be able to predict with complete accuracy. You may not live to 95 even though you believe it to be true.  Future market returns are an educated guess at best.

Instead of waiting for every financial star to align before retirement, consider the following random thoughts:

You’re better off with formal retirement planning, than not. People who begin formal planning early on, five to ten years before retirement, increase the odds of a successful launch date compared to those who begin late or not at all.

A plan which includes a complete inventory of assets, liabilities and future goals coupled with assumptions for inflation and realistic future investment return simulations helps you gain invaluable intelligence early that can be used to create an ongoing action plan to validate positive financial habits and minimize the impact of weaknesses.

A plan is not right or wrong, successful or unsuccessful. It’s not a threat, or a reason to be chastised for poor fiscal behavior. The first iteration is the start of a long-term educational process, an awareness and ongoing tuning of financial strengths that apex at a launch point I call ‘escape velocity.’

Consider escape velocity a financial trajectory that launches a retiree successfully through the first decade of expenses and withdrawals with minimal negative impact to investment assets. Academic studies outline how the first ten years of asset drawdowns is crucial to the survival of a portfolio over the next twenty.

Within a plan, your financial life is run through a simulation to determine probabilities of success which comes down to your money lasting as long as you do (or longer if you wish to leave assets behind for others).

You’ll see, how in the face of withdrawals and changing market returns, your asset values ebb and flow. Through great bull markets (best case), bear markets (worst case hope not) and somewhere in between.

If your assets can make it through the first ten years successfully. And I mean at a 75% or greater probability of success, you are ready to launch into imperfect retirement mode as long as expenses are monitored annually and changes are made to reduce lifestyle expenses.

I’m not saying it’ll be clear sailing. Or you won’t need to adjust mid-flight: Work part-time, cut costs, downsize.

Most likely, you will.

I’m saying there’s a delicate balance at stake. A point of no return to consider.

Either retire early enough to enjoy the experience, forsake a perfect planning outcome, take a leap of faith, or wait until your probabilities of success through the worst market cycle is 95% or greater. By then it may be too late due to health issues and aging. The retirement you hoped for may be one you regret.

You see, this is the art part. When you’re planning to travel a path three decades long, science fades into the dark pitch of road and creativity and faith take over, more often than not.

Mentally, you must let go of perfection and consider multiple detours to navigate the imperfect.

Be overly (insanely) cautious the first five years.  Academic work by financial planner, speaker and educator Michael Kitces and Professor Wade Pfau outlines how your asset allocation should be conservative in the early stages of retirement, especially in the face of lofty stock valuations.

Generally, I have retirees reduce equity exposure by 20% at the beginning of retirement and I’m not opposed to holding 2-5 years’ worth of cash or cash equivalents for withdrawals and to eventually purchase stocks at lower prices.

You’re thinking cash doesn’t earn anything. Well, it doesn’t lose anything, either. You can make up losses due to inflation. Principal erosion due to market losses is an entirely different story.

What most investors do not realize currently is that they could hold cash today and in five years will likely be better off. However, since making such a suggestion is strictly “taboo” because one might “miss some upside,” it becomes extremely important for measures to be put into place to protect investment capital from downturns.

Friend and business partner Lance Roberts provides the following chart which outlines the inflation adjusted return of $100 invested in the S&P 500 (using data provided by Dr. Robert Shiller).

The chart also shows Dr. Shiller’s CAPE ratio. We capped the CAPE ratio at 23x earnings which has historically been the peak of secular bull markets in the past. Lastly, we calculated a simple cash/stock switching model which buys stocks at a CAPE ratio of 6x or less and moves to cash at a ratio of 23x.

The value of holding cash has been adjusted for the annual inflation rate which is why during the sharp rise in inflation in the 1970’s there is a downward slope in the value of cash.

However, while the value of cash is adjusted for purchasing power in terms of acquiring goods or services in the future, the impact of inflation on cash as an asset with respect to reinvestment may be different since asset prices are negatively impacted by spiking inflation. In such an event, cash gains purchasing power parity in the future if assets prices fall more than inflation rises.

The importance of “cash” as an asset class is revealed.

While the cash did lose relative purchasing power, due to inflation, the benefits of having capital to invest at low valuations produced substantial outperformance over waiting for previously destroyed investment capital to recover.

While we can debate over methodologies, allocations, etc., the point here is that “time frames” are crucial in the discussion of cash as an asset class. If an individual is “literally” burying cash in their backyard, then the discussion of loss of purchasing power is appropriate. However, if the holding of cash is a “tactical” holding to avoid short-term destruction of capital, then the protection afforded outweighs the loss of purchasing power in the distant future.

Cash is not exciting. However, the excitement at the beginning of retirement should be about the memories you build, not the money you can potentially lose in stocks.

Real value of cash

Cover as much fixed expenses as possible with income you can’t outlive. Maximizing Social Security payouts and minimizing taxes on those payments by coordinating benefits received with withdrawals from investment assets, can add thousands to your household cash flow over a lifetime.

Social Security is an income stream you can’t outlive and should not be discounted in your retirement analysis. It needs to be a crucial element of your written plan.

Creating a pension through the use of deferred income or single-premium annuities can supplement social security and bolster your income for life.

Investors fear annuities. Financial pundits on the radio and in print advise how annuities “are bad.” If you’re purchasing annuities, you’re most likely taking money away from them as advisors. Understand the motives behind negative blanket statements about annuities.

Not all annuities are the same.

Consider the word annuity means “a fixed sum of money paid to someone each year, typically for life.”

Social Security is an annuity, right?

The combination of Social Security plus income annuities can be employed to cover expenses you must pay – think rent, food and insurance. Leaving your variable assets like stocks as supplements to your income requirements.

Avoid variable annuities. They are unnecessary and expensive. When you think negatively about annuities, it’s the variable ones you’re most likely referencing.

Decrease cash outflow throughout retirement.  The first two years of retirement is a soul-searching expedition. It’s also a period where I witness retirees highly sensitive to stress and anguish from having too much ‘stuff,’ large homes and big overhead.

Reducing financial pressure by going smaller generates great emotional benefits. Monetary bandwidth can be built into your budget. If you’re prepared to reduce portfolio withdrawal rates through rough market periods without seriously inhibiting your lifestyle, then an imperfect retirement mindset can work.

An imperfect retirement strategy is not “set it and forget it.”

Throughout, you must be willing to regularly meet with your financial partner to analyze withdrawals market cycles and adjust accordingly. In addition, you need to be receptive to change and flexibility. Even be open to part-time employment to increase household income.

Because waiting for perfection is not practical or realistic.

And a life is at stake.

Yours.

imperfect striving

A Houston Lesson – Be “One” & “Someone” To A Happy Retirement.

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A version of this writing appeared on MarketWatch.

There’s a controversy brewing in Houston.

The conflict between the “one” and the “someone,” is highly visible, to thousands of commuters to see.

Painted on the side of an overpass, for as long as I can remember, at least 17 years, those heading south on a bustling freeway have grown accustomed to the weather-worn message.

“Be Someone.”

Be Someone

Between ominous rusted-steel teeth at the mouth to downtown, I find myself looking for it, expecting the usual sight of what has become a faded element of the urban landscape.

I laugh to myself every time I pass. Why do I care? Is it tradition? Beacon? Wisdom? No idea. I think -Who shall I be today? Can my identity stand the elements and test of time? Will my integrity allow me to remain or be someone?

Until.

An unidentified culprit painted over, messed with the message.  A word that completely changed the tone was gone.

The day “BE SOMEONE” became “BE ONE.”

Be One

No longer was I someone. A vandal’s vandalism of vandalism merged me into life’s traffic? Houston’s road congestion is bad enough, now this, too.

I wasn’t the only one disrupted by the alteration.

There was local news coverage. Television, radio, print.

Then, as quickly as media attention emerged, an urban hero yet to be named, wronged a graffiti right.

In fresh paint, “BE SOMEONE” was back.

The message in the infrastructure had returned.

Throughout retirement, you will travel the roads, switch lanes between “BE ONE” and “BE SOMEONE.”

The best way to avoid surprises and maximize life in retirement, is to hit the gas.

Embrace both.

A “BE SOMEONE” mindset is you as you stand apart from others.

A “BE ONE” frame of reference arises as you stand together as a share of a greater whole.

Random Thoughts:

Be Someone: Retirement is the opportunity to re-awaken your true identity, rekindle inner passions. Relish the time to march to your own beat, again.

I consult with retirees who are forging a road to awareness and re-connection to what was important to them in the past. I call it a “re-acquaintance list.”

This is no bucket exercise. A bucket list is compiled of grandiose experiences, at least in my opinion. A re-acquaintance list is small in comparison yet ongoing. Like a support bridge underfoot that hasn’t been traveled completely – It’s what makes/made “you” well, “you.” It’s a return to simple passions that lead to greatness which I define as joy and richness of soul.

The relevance of career goals fade.

Greatness is achieved through less monumental actions which occupy slow whispers of time. It’s when the greatness of “be someone” is realized. For retirees, it’s a return to desires they needed to place on the backburner to earn a living, like reading or painting.

Also, they’re seeking educational and lifestyle enrichment by selecting retirement residences that exist on college campuses. For example, The Forest at Duke University offers apartments and single-family homes in a 40,000 square-foot independent wellness community. There is access to private primary care or skilled nursing in a lush, tranquil setting.

What retirees find most attractive about these communities is the chance to fully embark on the “be someone” concept. The Forest offers lifelong learning through regular in-house programs like lectures and resources by local scholars. In addition, the initiative to nourish the mind, body and spirit is appealing with access to performing arts, ballet, yoga and guided mediation. Residences may be apartments or single-family homes for an entry payment and a monthly service fee which is inclusive of all living expenses including meals.

Be One: To “be one” is to be a participant in something bigger. Here, your identity is at its best when part of a greater mission. People who remain engaged with former co-workers, provide deep experience into current projects, and participate in weekly or monthly rituals with friends or those in their communities appear most fulfilled through retirement.

An engineer who retired in 1996 still meets his high school buddies for dinner once a month on Thursdays. The members of this group have never missed a date. Unfortunately, several have passed.  However, that hasn’t stopped the ritual.

In 2010, a project manager known for her skills to assemble an effective team accepted a severance package from a large pharmaceutical company. She still mentors and continues friendships with those she hired throughout a 24-year tenure.

Active retirees are involved in coffee groups. Regular meetings of people who bond over hot coffee and highly-caffeinated morning conversation. From Perry, Iowa to Hartwick, New York, these gatherings have been in existence close to a decade and contribute to mental acuity through community, support, active listening and verbal engagement. There’s no room for technology like smartphones or tablets, either.

Be Someone:  March to your own drummer, walk the path that brokerage firms purposely choose to ignore and your portfolio will last as long as you do.

In a recent edition of the Journal of Financial Planning, Wade Pfau, professor at The American College re-visited the Trinity Study which appeared in the February 1998 issue of the Journal of the American Association of Individual Investors.

One of the blackest holes at brokerage firms is their continued reluctance to review, update, and contradict any study that was valid during the greatest bull market in history which was an outlier, not a common occurrence.

After all, it’s in the industry’s best interest to perpetuate the myth that stocks are a panacea regardless of cycles. Academics like Wade Pfau are leaders of the “be someone” movement and his work is crucial to your financial success in retirement.

The Trinity Study was published in 1998. The focus of the analysis was to determine the probability of portfolio success upon withdrawing 4% annually (adjusted for inflation), with a mix of long-term corporate bonds and the S&P 500 stock index. With a 50/50 asset allocation, the portfolio survived in 95% of historical rolling 30-year periods.

Per Wade Pfau, who updated the study in the August 2015 edition of the Journal of Financial Planning, today’s markets matter more to the sustainability of portfolio survival than historical outcomes.

Based on the current low interest rate environment and high stock market valuations, a sustainable 4% withdrawal rate will require a drawdown of principal. Income generated will not be enough. For new retirees this is especially dangerous as the first 10 years of portfolio withdrawals can alter permanently future portfolio longevity. If a retiree faces sequence of return risk whereby asset returns are below historical averages in the face of withdrawals that reduce principal, then portfolio success rates must be revised downward.

The outcome of the study is sobering: Wade Pfau’s simulations conclude that a portfolio with a 50% stock allocation now has a 64% probability of success with a 4% withdrawal rate, down from 95%. Success is reduced to 37% at a 5% rate.

Retirees must stay vigilant and examine portfolio withdrawals to be a step ahead of sequence-of-return risk. If portfolio distributions exceed income and appreciation for two consecutive years, withdrawal rates should be reduced for the upcoming period. It’s an exercise that should be conducted once a full year’s worth of liquidations are completed.

Be One: Retirees experience happiness when giving back to their communities. Schedule a couple of hours a week to explore a charitable passion. Serving others provides great reward for all involved. For greater fulfillment, a donation of time over money is healthier.

A list of non-profits seeking volunteers can be found in your area at www.greatnonprofits.org. You may filter by issues from “Animals” to “Women.”

From there, you can gather a deep understanding of how your non-profits of interest, operate. Written reviews by those who have donated and others who sought aid, are there to assist volunteers make informed charitable decisions.

I don’t know how the Houston “battle of the graffiti” will conclude.

Regardless, there are many ways to be “one” and “someone” in retirement. They can co-exist. Form a synergy.

In retrospect, “be both,” works.

Try it.

Is Your Money Sub-Optimized – 6 Methods To Making The Most Of Your Money & Life.

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“I think we’re doing the right things with money but we feel sub-optimized.”

money burning

Twenty-four years guiding others through financial challenges, thousands of words, and oddly I experienced personal angst over this one -“sub-optimized.”

It’s rare the word arises, if at all. There was something about it that captured my ear and mind. I wondered about the obstacles that create what I call “dollar drag,” whereby the highest and best use of our money is overlooked or ignored.

Sub-optimization is an equal opportunity offender. We all are afflicted, even if our track record of handling money is better than average. There can be great intentions, even respectable core money habits and yet sub-optimization thrives because we’re human.

As in the case of this forty-something couple: Six-figure wage earners, ambitious savers who set aside 20% of income for retirement, well-funded 529 plans for young children and saddled with dangerous credit card debt levels due to a failed real estate venture.

Overall, I give them high marks when it comes to handing their money however a simple solution to reduce the high-interest debt was clearly in front of them and they couldn’t see it. They couldn’t wrap their minds around their financial condition in its entirety. There was a mental barrier between the personal and business debt even though they were the business. In other words, the burdensome interest charges affected their household net worth.

As a financial professional I realize nobody can avoid some degree of sub-optimization or dollar drag. Much of it stems from a failure in our logic called mental accounting.

See, we like to compartmentalize money: We create mental walls that prevent us from considering how each dollar can flow freely through and across various goals to the final and best destinations on our household balance sheets.

Dan Ariely, professor of behavioral economics at Duke University and New York Times best-selling author helped me understand how to position “highest and best use” in my mind. He said “every financial decision has an opportunity cost. You cannot make the best money choices in a vacuum.”

You must revolve around each decision and control where your money lands.

full circle thinking

So, how can you make better financial choices and think full circle?

 Random Thoughts:

1). Break it down and look around. Don’t perceive every financial challenge as a straight edge with a beginning and conclusion. It leads to narrow thinking and sub-optimization at the point of action.  Round out your thought process. Go where you never been before. When presented with a financial decision, break down the walls, goals, compartments and picture how all your dollars can flow free from their different types of accounts and work together to achieve the greatest impact to your bottom line.

When performing this exercise with my fiscally responsible couple, we concluded that utilizing an existing home equity line of credit at less than 4% interest, to pay off the credit card with 21% interest rate, was an optimum conclusion.  It was a major improvement never considered because the mental barriers were thick between business and personal accounts. Once those barriers were removed, a solution was obvious.

2). Grab every opportunity to assess the opportunity (cost).  I’ve gone overboard with this one. I take lessons seriously from influences like Dan Ariely and share them with anyone who will listen. I now examine the “full circle” of every money choice. I’m obsessed with dollar drag.

During a recent evening out, before ordering at an iconic Texas barbecue place, I stepped back and thought of what else I could do with the money.  Was this the “highest and best use” for my $28 bucks? I took away the walls and permitted the money to flow through other options including eating at home. I had to weigh the opportunity cost until I either returned full circle to the current choice, or stopped on a better solution. Better doesn’t always mean cheaper, either. When it comes to opportunity cost you need to input much into the calculation including what your time is worth and qualitative factors.

If anything, this type of exercise will allow you to pause before making a purchase and create awareness about other options that may bring greater satisfaction and value.

And yes, I went for the pork ribs and fixings.

omg bbq

3). Think rooftop, not basement. When you bust down the walls between dollars, you begin to think bigger (and smarter). You’re up on the roof looking out and over the landscape of your finances. You begin to see how fungible money is.

Most of the time, we rummage in the basement where it’s dark and narrow because of the laser-focus on the problem.  Unfortunately, the longer we concentrate, the less we observe lucrative options hiding in plain sight. That’s why financial decisions should begin from a holistic perspective (roof) and then narrowed down to the basement or specific issues at hand.

For example, when gasoline prices were shy of 4 dollars a gallon, I was inundated with inquiries about trading in paid-off automobiles for new gas-efficient options. In other words, I was being asked whether spending $32,000 was worth the saving of $600 a year at the gas pump. The numbers didn’t work out advantageously. Once you consider the opportunity cost of spending five figures, well, you’re on the roof and seeing things from a clearer perspective. From there, dollars may flow to higher uses or in these cases, not flow inefficiently to paying additional debt from automobile loans.

4). Hire a navigator. The navigators are out there. The best financial advisers are sensitive to their own emotional biases and can help others navigate through theirs. There’s a synergy and greater satisfaction when a financial partner can help reduce barriers and encourage breakthrough or “a-ha” moments. You always appreciate the highest and best use of a navigator. Ostensibly, your net worth should be affected positively, too.

5). Live your retirement plan optimization. The majority of people I meet have a retirement strategy. It exists in their heads but not in writing. Those who have a formal, written plan tend to weigh opportunity costs or are at the least, sensitive to the implications of their financial choices.  Since plans take into account your entire financial picture they direct you to focus on the big picture. Eventually, emotional walls fall, and you can easily think full circle and assess how every decision made today affects your retirement start date.

6). How sub-optimized are your relationships? As you grow as an individual, a force, you must consistently optimize your relationships to determine who is worthy of your inner circle. All the others must be cast away. They’re weights tied to your spirit and they will pull you down to shitsville.  Surround yourself with those who are smarter than you (not just book smart, but also will expose you to learning experiences outside your comfort zones). Also, people who make you laugh inspire optimization.

Oh..

Now that you’re in the mood to bust boundaries around money, keep in mind that any account can be a retirement account. Just because it’s not held with your employer or doesn’t have “IRA” in the title, doesn’t mean the dollars you save aren’t applicable to retirement. Society, to a degree, has encouraged mental accounting by sanctioning retirement vs. non-retirement accounts.

As part of your change in thinking, consider all money in one pool. You decide how it flows to its most honorable (and hopefully lucrative) conclusion.

Sub-optimization optimized my thinking; I hope it’s sparked a new perspective for you.

A clearer journey.

Without barriers.

And less drag on your dollars.

It’s time go full circle.

 

Four Words To Better Retirement Planning.

Featured

As originally posted on http://www.nerdwallet.com. 

What are the obstacles that cause you to veer off course when it comes to retirement planning?

Increasing your odds of planning success shouldn’t be so complicated.

Solutions are obvious. There’s no magic.

Small changes in perspective or actions can lead to better results.

Hey, it’s never perfect either.

Remember the two main goals of the financial services industry:

1). To baffle you enough to sell you something you don’t need.

2). To force-feed you long-term bull market Kool-Aid to make you think stocks are a panacea (30% portfolio losses: Hey, no big deal. You have time on your side).

But you’re smarter than that, right?

Right? 

My former employer’s retirement simulation is so happy-go-lucky and optimistic (because every market is a bull market), it reminds me of Homer Simpson’s happy dream romp through chocolate town.

It’s toilet paper.

Don’t fall for the hype. Don’t even wipe with it: You’ll get a rash.

homer simpson chocolate dream

Maybe it comes down to simplicity.

Let’s start with four words.

Random Thoughts:

1). NO. Recall the habit of lending money to friends and relatives who rarely make efforts to repay. It’s time to make your retirement strategy a priority and use the word “no” often. You don’t need to explain. It’s an uncomfortable but necessary perspective. At the least, you’ll need to be selective, perhaps formal in your agreements going forward. The health of your retirement plan is at stake.

If you’re passionate about helping, consider the support provided, a gift. Set rules at first if saying “no” is difficult. For example, establish a specific dollar amount in the budget for purposes of lending. Never lend to the same borrower twice in the same year. Decrease the allotment by ten percent every year until eventually it’s so insignificant you’ll feel too embarrassed to say anything but “no.”

“No” is personal empowerment. Think of the word as a boundary – A verbal line in the sand that deepens the territory you’re clear won’t be crossed. “No” is a confidence builder. It allows greater focus on the “yes” you need to succeed.

Consider how postponing or decreasing saving for retirement by placing priority on education savings plans or by taking on excessive debt to assist children with college funding deserves a “no.”

Naturally, you want your children to prosper however, when the time comes to retire, there’s no loan, financial aid or scholarship opportunities available to you. The kids have options for funding. You don’t. A hardline “no” isn’t necessary; a change in perspective followed by action may be good enough.

Understanding when a “no” is necessary to avoid a derail of your plan is art and science.  A set of rules and setting expectations can help clarify when a “no” needs to surface. Perhaps you can partially subsidize education costs or seek compromise (a public, in-state option vs. the private university cost).

In eight out every ten plans I’ve designed, retirement is postponed by at least six years when parents decide to foot the entire education bill.  Saying “no” to full boat means your retirement boat floats sooner. I’ve witnessed retirement postponed a couple of years in most cases when compromises are made – a big improvement over waiting six years.

Mitch Anthony, author of the book “The New Retirementality” describes the modern retiree as trying to strike a perfect balance between vacation and vocation. In other words, maybe the perfect retirement plan is to say “no” to retirement. The traditional perception of retirement is indeed dying.

I work with a large number of part-time retirees who consult or are employed a few days a week to keep their minds active and say “yes” to continued contributions to the workforce. Meaningful engagement in a work environment is important to this group however, those retirees who do work are ready to say “no” at a moment’s notice if their employment situation grows unenjoyable or less meaningful. They have much to offer and their experiences and skills are valuable.

As best-selling author and good friend James Altucher told me:

“Never say no to something you love, so you never retire.”

His new book co-written with Claudia Azula Altucher, “The Power of No: Because One Little Word Can Bring Health, Abundance and Happiness,” will be necessary reading and provided to those I assist with retirement planning.

Ponder the “no” opportunities. Start with the actions you believe postpone or negatively affect what I call “retirement plan flow” which is anything that prevents your plan from firing on all cylinders.

A client recently said – “I even stand straighter when I say no. It makes me feel good.”

no

2). WAIT: The most common mistake I encounter are retirees who look to take Social Security retirement benefits before full retirement age when waiting as long as possible can add thousands in additional dollars to a retirement plan.

I’ve had to say “no” to clients seeking to retire at age 62. And I’m not ashamed. What’s three more years? It goes fast. And waiting can be lucrative. According to a 2008 study by T. Rowe Price, working three years longer, waiting until full retirement age, and saving 15% of your annual salary could increase annual income from an investment portfolio by 22%. If you can handle five more working years and save 25% of your annual salary through that period (takes some work), then expect a surprising 50% more income in retirement.

Delaying Social Security benefits from full retirement age to age 70 will result in an 8% increase plus cost-of-living adjustments. Where else can you gain a guaranteed 8% a year? Of course, nobody knows how long they’re going to live but if you’re healthy at 62 and there’s a history of longevity in the family, it’s worth the risk to wait until at least full retirement age.

3). SELL: Based on a recent paper written by Michael Kitces, publisher of The Kitces Report and Wade D. Pfau, professor of retirement income at the American College, reducing stock exposure at the beginning of retirement then increasing over time  is an effective strategy for reaching lifetime spending and portfolio survival goals.

The heart of the research is “Plan U” (for unorthodox in my opinion) — a “U-shaped” allocation where stocks are a greater share of the portfolio through the accumulation/increasing human capital stage (makes sense), decrease at the beginning of retirement, and then increase again throughout the retirement period.

The concept of reducing stock exposure early in retirement and increasing it later sounds highly counterintuitive – although from a market and emotional perspective it’s plausible, especially now.

First, be sensitive to your mindset as shifting from a portfolio accumulation to distribution strategy can be stressful. Focus on financial issues to allay uncertainty like (don’t let greater stock exposure add to stress), household cash flow and retirement portfolio withdrawal strategy. Gain and monitor progress with a financial partner or objective third party at least every quarter for validation and adjustment. The first year of retirement is an opportune time to step back from stocks especially as you feel uncertain and occupied with what I believe are more immediate concerns.

Second, stocks are not cheap based on several long-term price/earnings valuation metrics. Selling if you’re close to, or at retirement can be an effective strategy. Regardless, you may need to rebalance to free up enough cash to begin retirement account withdrawals by trimming profits in the face of lofty valuations.

Not a bad idea. Yes – sell, not buy.

As of the end of May, the P/E 10 which is based on the ten-year average of actual corporate earnings stands at 24.9. Since the historic P/E 10 average is 16.5, the current bull indicates an extreme overvalued condition.

Last, even though the key word is “sell” don’t forget to periodically add back to your stock allocation. Get the topic on your radar and continue the “U” formation after two years in retirement have passed. By then, you should have greater confidence in your overall plan and settled into a lifestyle pattern that suits your well-being.

4). SHIFT: Be open-minded and willing to alter plans as required. After two devastating stock market selloffs since 2000 and structural changes to employment including the permanent loss of jobs, we are growing accustomed to dealing with financial adversity – shifting our thinking to adjust to present conditions. Actions outside your control – poor interest rates on conservative vehicles like certificates of deposit, can disrupt retirement savings and cash flow. On average, the Great Recession has motivated out of necessity or fear, the desire for pre-retirees to work longer and continue to carefully monitor their debt burdens.

In addition, shift your thinking about continuing to save aggressively in retirement accounts as you get closer to retirement. If 80% or more of your investments are in tax-deferred plans, and you’re five years or less from your retirement date, I would consider meeting the employer match in retirement plans and saving the rest in taxable brokerage accounts. This strategy affords greater flexibility with tax planning during the withdrawal phase as generally, capital gains are taxed at lower rates than the ordinary income distributed from retirement accounts.

A qualified financial and tax professional can create a hybrid process where funds are withdrawn both from tax-deferred and after-tax assets. The goal is to gain tax control by not ending up in a situation where ultimately all distributions are in retirement accounts which will ostensibly be taxed as ordinary income. Your strategy requires close examination of how to blend all investment account distributions to minimize tax impact.

Shift your attitude about annuities. Look beyond the bad press and overarching negative generalizations you hear from financial personalities in the media – “Annuities are bad.” Are all annuities bad? No.

Several types of annuities exist. Some come with overwhelming add-on features and are difficult to understand.  You’ll know when to step away. Others are expensive and should be avoided. For example, variable annuities with layers of fees are a bad deal.  I find little benefit to them in retirement planning.

The greatest purpose of an annuity is to provide an income you cannot outlive. In its purest form, an income annuity whether immediate or deferred can be used to bolster the lifetime income from Social Security.

As you budget, total how much is required to meet household essential expenses, indexed for inflation: Rent, mortgage, utility bills, real estate taxes, food, gas, automobile payments (you get the picture). From there, work with an insurance representative (could be your financial partner), to calculate the investment required in a deferred income or immediate annuity to cover mandatory expenses along with Social Security.

An annuity investment takes over some of the burden of funding retirement; it shifts risk to an insurance company which increases the odds of portfolio longevity and or having the money you seek for fun stuff like travel and hobbies.

Retirement planning satisfaction can happen.

Occasionally, we create obstacles by accident.

Simple words can be powerful tools to cut away the confusion and settle your mind.

What other words will you consider?

Hey!

Not that one!

oh shit

 

Command Your Own Drones to Financial Success.

What public relations genius!

Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, made huge media headlines by suggesting the future of light package delivery may be completed by drones as opposed to the normal, albeit boring methods of delivery we all know now.

amazon drone Um hi!

I wondered.

What the heck is a drone?

funny drone

I know – seems obvious. But is it?

An unmanned aerial vehicle:  The flight is controlled either by computer or remote control of a pilot from a remote location.  Some can fly as high as 50 thousand feet and go supersonic.

Wow.

Got me thinking…

Financial success is automated activity from 50,000 feet above your wallet. Cutting out that extra latte is not going to make you wealthy; placing as many good money habits as possible on auto-pilot is the key to financial stability.

Here are some ideas on how to command your own financial drones to success:

1). Budget on auto-pilot.  When you budget on a daily basis it’s tough to feel the positive. It feels like dieting. Or dating. Or root canal. Keeping track of expenses manually is admirable. However, it’s inevitable you’ll give up because you’re human. You have a busy life. Even if you’re proficient at manual tracking, you won’t be able to effectively interpret your long-term spending habits. Analyzing longer-term spending trends (at a higher altitude) will expose where you need to make real improvement.

Budgeting is boring; many won’t continue for long. Take your analysis to a higher level and place on auto-pilot through www.mint.com. Mint allows you to accomplish three things: See where your money goes, make budgets to stay on track, and set financial goals for the future. Mint connects to your bank accounts and updates automatically. It’s free and safe as Mint utilizes bank-level encrypted security.

Easy-to-read graphs allow you to track spending, income, net worth and account balances over time.  After a couple of months of activity, sit with an objective financial partner. Together, create a game plan to cut the expenses that will make an impact to your bottom line.

Go ahead. Enjoy your fancy coffee. For now.  Mint will track your addiction!

2). Pay yourself first.

Don’t roll your eyes.

eye roll

You’ve heard this one before, right?

The best financial rule (and I’m critical of most financial rules of thumb) is easy to follow and from a higher altitude, or the long-term, will result in a substantial positive impact to your bottom line. Before expenses are paid, before you treat yourself to a movie, it’s important to save money for emergencies and for your future – FIRST.

How?

3). Set savings on auto-flight:  Pay yourself by initiating instructions to move three percent or more into a company retirement account every pay period.  Ask your HR department how to accomplish this simple task. Do the same by establishing instructions to automatically transfer a specific dollar amount, say $25 bucks a month from your checking account into savings.

4). Go stealth on a savings target: Every three months, increase the dollars directed from checking to savings by $10. Select an amount that works for you.  Think under-the radar increases.  Barely noticeable; yet over years, this tiny habit will result in big change (and dollars). You will look forward to saving money because you’ll realize how painless it is!

Forget buying more stuff you don’t need by drone delivery.

Now’s the time to establish your own small army of financial drones.

And fly your own path to financial success.

dont drone me

The Black Hole of Retirement – 6 Tips to Light the Way Out.

Why must the retirement planning process end with retirement?

As advisers/planners we become immersed in the process; there’s nothing better than assisting clients map out financial strategies which lead to successful conclusions.

Then what?

black hole The first year of retirement can be scary.

There exists a level of anxiety for new retirees even though we as professionals feel a sense of accomplishment. Years ago I discounted this discomfort as “crossover risk.” Clients who told me they were going to “retire,” were back at work a year later and the opposite occurred too.

Eventually, crossover risk lessens. However, the first year of retirement, the bridge, has become increasingly stressful. Enough to where I now call the first year:

“The Black Hole.”

It’s a place we rarely want to venture because it reaches dark deep into the vulnerability, misgivings, guilt (yes guilt) first-year retirees experience. And in a way, as consultants, we are uncomfortable to secure ropes around our waists, jump in to the holes and pull the clients out because generally we work with numbers, not feelings.

Out of respect, we allow new retirees the “space” to figure it out and ostensibly they do. There’s light at the end of the tunnel (hole), eventually. The adjustment is complete.

But is this a strategy? Not really. So if you’re in the dark as a retiree, or a financial professional who is aware of the dissonance in clients, what can you do to help?

Six points of light:

1). Listen. Hard. For queues of uncertainty and opportunities to provide reassurance. Don’t skirt or discount the uneasiness. Oh, you’ll know the queues, the words that will cause you as a retiree or a professional to squirm in your seat.

If you actively listen, you’ll become sensitive to the frustration or apprehension of working out of the black hole. And there’s a lot going on in the dark – It’s a realization of one’s mortality, a challenge to an inner sense of worth; some experience guilt because they’re no longer feeling like productive members of society.

No more deadlines, phone calls to put out fires. I’ve noticed men have a tougher time working through the first retirement year. As one client shared – “I still need the fires.”

fire dude Burn me, baby. Burn!

2). Provide Reassurance. It can be as easy as a brief review. A focus back on the highlights of the written retirement plan. Your advisor said you’re gonna be fine. All the numbers work. As a financial professional, a positive focus can increase confidence and provide comfort.

3). Ask Questions. Don’t be afraid to ask yourself or introduce questions that kindle new fires. The right questions can ignite thought, reflection and set a person off on a smoother transition.

How would you apply your work skills to a new venture? What motivates you to wake up in the morning? What adventures have you always wanted to pursue? The more you ask, the more comfortable you’ll be with the communication dynamics which will flourish.

4). Be Sensitive. To input from a spouse or partner. There’s nothing better when someone who is close to a new retiree can vocalize observations and/or ideas. You may pick up on frustration as this is a transition for others too.

As a spouse lamented “I didn’t know I was going to be dragged into the black hole, too!” A partner can be a motivator and provide valuable insight for an advisor. Recently, I asked a working spouse for ideas on how I can help her husband work through the unease of retirement and she was happy to flood me with suggestions.

5). Think Homework. I know it’s painfully clichéd but a bucket list activity is not a bad idea. One client told me a bucket (literally) was on his bucket list as he had an idea to turn buckets into painted art work. Give yourself or give gifts (as an advisor) of knowledge like books and magazines that focus on hobbies and other pursuits.

6). Get Social. Treat work associates to lunch; gather regularly with former colleagues, associate with company retirees. The sense of community is still important as we’re deep inside, social animals. As a financial partner I’m happy to spend time with new retirees in casual settings, engage in conversations to light a path out of the black hole.

So who said retirement was supposed to be easy?

The first year, the one mile out of the comfort zone of once was, can be incredibly stressful.

But with a little self-help and assistance from others.

There’s a way out of the darkness.