Get off the ledge: financial planning in a crisis

Very surprised dogIt just won’t do any good—no matter what action you can think of, it’s already too late. You couldn’t see it coming, nor could you act fast enough to stop anything. As Dorothy Parker said, you may as well live.

In my more-than-a-decade of telling people they need an emergency fund, never did I think everyone would need an emergency fund at the same time. But such are the times we are living in. And if you have that emergency fund, you now have the freedom to pat yourself on the back and do absolutely nothing.  The working person’s emergency fund should carry you through an interruption in pay checks, even for a significant amount of time. Since you’re going to be at home, you probably won’t be putting a lot of discretionary money into restaurants, air travel, etc. No, this isn’t the happiest news, but adaptability is one of the secrets to a satisfied life.

The retired person’s emergency fund should be larger—2 years. Call it the bucket strategy if you wish, but that cash should carry you into a recovery. Maybe the market won’t be back to where it was, but it’s extremely likely that it will be better than it’s been for the last few weeks. Sure, some things that are passed up never come back—especially services. We might schedule them again, but the missed time is probably gone. On the other hand, no one’s shoes, or tv, or car lasts forever. Eventually consumer demand will swing back up.

I’ve been invested for at least 40 years now, and I’ve seen numerous times where pundits thought the world was coming to an end. Other things I’ve heard way more than once:

  • This time it’s different (Only in the specific details, not in the fact of a downturn or reaction to it)
  • I want to sell everything, wait for the market to bottom, then jump back in (How will you know?)
  • It may never come back (Well, then prices will go down since we’re all in the same boat)
  • I need a much more conservative portfolio (too late on that one)

And in about a year or two…

  • Gosh, I wish I would have bought when the market was down
  • I stayed in cash but then everything took off and I missed it

When the market is high, no one wants to take profits because things could go higher. When it’s down, no one wants to buy because things could go lower. So, it’s never a good time.

No matter what you regret, you can never redo the past. All you can do is learn from it, with honest assessment and perhaps revision. Maybe you’d forgotten what it felt like in 2007-2009, when the S&P dropped to 676—it closed at 2,386 today). Maybe you were too young then to have any money. Maybe you’ve found out that in fact you are far more risk averse than you expected, and when things get boring again, you may want to adjust your portfolio. In the event that you are indeed flush with cash, and can take the risk, there are bargains to be had.

The correct portfolio has the correct balance FOR YOU. If you find you are having heart palpitations, either it wasn’t right for you or you need to get off the screens and go for a walk. Your dog is waiting for you.

 

 

Window offering salary loans

Should you pay off your loan or save?

Yes.

Oh, but you wanted to know, which first? It’s a question that virtually every client asks me, but the answer is (as with so many things) it depends. So, I’m going to suggest you work through this checklist.

You should always pay off the minimum required payment on your loan. If you don’t do that, you’re in a world of hurt and that’s a topic for another time. But I’m going to assume that you can scrape up at least a little more than that and you’re wondering where you should put it. BTW, I’m going to be thinking mostly of education loans, but this advice also applies to credit cards and home mortgages.

  • Do you have an emergency fund?

Without an emergency fund, you’ll never get out of debt. We don’t know what the emergency will be, but we know that they come up fairly regularly. See my post here for more discussion. No emergency fund, no extra loan payoff.

While I like to see an emergency fund of 3-6 months necessary expenses (including loan payments!), it can take people just starting out a couple of years to build to that level. A $1,000 emergency fund is barely survival (one vet bill or car accident deductible can easily wipe that out.) Once you have at least $3-$5,000 in your emergency fund, you can begin to consider other possibilities, but I can’t advise going whole hog until the fund equals at least your health insurance deductible + out of pocket max + rent, utilities, and loan payment for however long it might take you to find a new job.

  • Are you contributing enough to your employer’s retirement fund to get the match?

If your employer matches your contribution, that’s a 100% return on your money up to the amount of the match, e.g., if you contribute 1.5% and they match it at 1.5%. If you contribute 3% and they match 1.5%, that’s a 50% return. (We could keep going—you contribute my recommended minimum of 10%, they match at 3%–30% return). No legit credit card or high interest loan is going to charge you 30% interest. Plus, you get an additional return on this investment and maybe a tax deduction, although I recommend you go with a Roth option if you have it.

Before paying extra on any loans, you should contribute anything you can scrape up until you at least get the full match.

  • Are you saving enough for retirement?

This is actually a different question than the one above. You need to be saving 10% of your income toward retirement, and more if you didn’t start until your mid-30s or later. Until you can put away at least 10%, in most cases I recommend you focus on retirement savings rather than early loan payment.

  • What’s the interest rate on the loan compared to your investment return?

As a rule of thumb, I use 5% as a basic cut point. If you’re a dummy and keep all your money in a savings account, you’re earning .5%-2%, so take it and pay off the loan. But let’s say you have a pretty good investment (maybe, quality mutual funds) and you’re earning an annualized rate of 6-8%.

What’s the interest rate on your loans? Credit cards at 22%? Pay them off as soon as you can. I still recommend that you contribute to the retirement plan first, but maybe only for the minimum match until you get rid of the high interest payments.

Student loans at 6-7.75%? As soon as you’re contributing at least 10% to retirement savings, start attacking these loans. They’re as high or higher than you’re going to earn from investments. Even if your employer only matches at 1.5% and you’re contributing 10%, you’re making 15% immediately + investment gain. However, I can wrap my mind around going after these once you’ve secured the minimum match. It’s not a numbers answer, it’s what will make you feel better.

Student loans at 3.25-4%? I wouldn’t rush to pay these off before term. You’d be better off saving more, even if it isn’t in a retirement account—a quality balanced or target date fund should produce better returns. However, if you have managed to accrue an emergency fund of 6 months fixed expenses, a “goals” fund for whatever your goals are (kid’s college, house down payment, etc.) and you just really want to be debt free, then you should do what will make you feel better. These are pretty far down the totem pole, however.

Mortgage? Mortgage interest rates are really low right now, so in most cases there’s no financial reason to pay them off rather than investing any excess money. There are a couple of exceptions: let’s say you have a big bonus or sudden inheritance, and your family might qualify for college financial aid. You might be better off paying off or paying down the mortgage since the value of the house isn’t counted on the FAFSA (it is on the CSS-Profile), whereas an investment account will be counted as available for paying.  The second situation is retirement: most people I talk to feel better when they own their home outright at retirement, since it’s probably the biggest monthly outlay. Just be sure you  have enough for unexpected repairs before you clean out cash to pay off the mortgage. You don’t want to be back borrowing on a line of credit at a higher rate.

As with all things financial, your mileage may vary. There are a lot of moving parts to consider when contemplating loans, and achieving the right balance isn’t the same for everyone. But that’s why people talk to a financial advisor, no?

Ukulele

What I learned at Ukulele Camp that applies to finances

I’m pretty die-hard about DIYing everything I can. Yes, I know there’s a lot of argument that you should pay someone to do things while you’re out earning more per hour at something else, but I don’t buy it entirely. First of all, most of us spend plenty of time scrolling Facebook, binge-watching Netflix, and staring into the refrigerator. None of that is billable time.

There are a lot of projects that just require brute force and minimum skills—I’ll paint my bedroom over a weekend before I pay someone $800 to do it. However, I draw the line at danger (painting the trim on my second floor from a loooong ladder), back-breaking difficulty or heavy hauling (digging post holes and installing a fence), or things that I’m not confident about learning from YouTube (installing a new kitchen faucet and drain).

I’ve had quite a few music lessons over the past, um, decades, so I have been pretty convinced that I could teach myself to play ukulele and guitar from the huge number of books, YouTubes, and online courses available. And, they’ve worked pretty well. Feeling somewhat confident, I went to a few jam sessions at the Old Town School, where I discovered I had miles to go before I cheep. I definitely needed some real-time instruction.

This weekend we trucked up to Midwest Uke Camp in Olivet, Michigan. I came home, not only reinvigorated about playing, but about the place of music in life in general—playing, performing, singing, dancing. With all the grinding away, I had lost sight of the pure joy of it all. And since November, 2016, I think I’ve lost sight of some of the joy available in life. As so many blues masters knew, no one can take music away from you.

But, like everything else I do, I did see some parallels between the very delightful Uke Camp experience and our financial life:

  • When there are a lot of choices, you can’t swoop up everything.

For some time slots, there were 3 or 4 classes I wanted to take. I tried to find out who was a good teacher (all of them!) or offered something particularly appealing. No matter how much you wish, you can’t take more than one—and you probably can’t afford to hook on to every good investment. Go with what you can, given what time and knowledge you have available.

  • It’s not possible to make the optimum choice every time.

There was one class where, maybe, I could have chosen better. The teacher’s style just wasn’t right for me, although his music, omg… But that doesn’t ruin the whole selection, nor the other seven or eight choices I made. Similarly, for every given number of choices (investments) you make, some will not turn out as well as you expect. And some will perform far better—who knew I loved Django Reinhardt gypsy jazz? You have to look at the total experience (performance), incorporate what you learned, and try to do better next time, where you will make mistakes again. Improvement is not perfectly linear, but it should lurch in the right direction.

  • In person makes a difference.

I adore self-study. I can make all kinds of mistakes and make them LOUD, and no one will hear me, except for my dog. When she sees me grab the uke, she immediately asks to go out.

Nevertheless, there’s a lot to be gained from the personal interaction with a good teacher. They can correct subtle mistakes in real time, come up with a trick that solves your individual problem, and there’s the serendipitous addition of techniques and information they just happen to think of that’s not in their books or videos. A good teacher always knows more than they’re putting in print. That’s the chief benefit—the individualization. Sure, you can learn a lot about playing (and financial planning) from a pre-fab program, but at some point, you need it to apply to you, particularly. I think online lessons, websites, asset allocation programs, and all that jazz are great, but everyone has some unique challenges. In fact, if you come to the professional already having a good background, you can probably get more benefit from the one-on-one.

The interaction with other people can often give you new insights and ease your mind about how you compare. It’s oddly comforting to see other people struggling or making and recovering from mistakes. I’d love to see more opportunity for people to be part of investment clubs.

  • Seize the opportunities when offered

The best teachers may not be back. The event probably will not go on forever. It can be hard to find fiduciary, fee-only advice. The crowd was mainly older than 50 and so many said they wished they’d done it, younger. I hear it all the time about financial planning, too. Don’t put it off—neither playing an instrument nor making a financial plan are as difficult as they seem in your imagination.