Archive for Retirement Planning

Financial decisions: I shoulda done better

 

It’s taken me a while to realize that not everyone loves financial planning. I mean, when I first started this I assumed all my clients would be deliriously happy about what a positive future we were going to plan together, and untangling any knots would be fun along the way. I love it, so everyone else should too, right?

It took me years to realize that many people who came to me were scared, embarrassed, or at least nervous. The great thing about working with people is that, in almost all cases, I can help most people make a good plan and feel much better. But I continually listen and try to learn, and after hearing so many stories over the years, I can distill a few principles which I repeat over and over to myself in my own life.

  1. You can never fix the past. In all the (now) hundreds of people I’ve seen, perhaps one or two had no regrets about their financial decisions. That’s not to say there weren’t regrets about other issues. Nevertheless, you have absolutely no way to rewrite your past decisions. Most of them either seemed right back then, or you knew they were wrong but did them anyway for what seemed like the easier or better way at the time. You have absolutely no control over the past at this point.
  1. The only reason to go over your past mistakes is to learn how to do better in the present and future (and to make atonement if necessary). If you can learn from this review how to make better decisions now and going forward, it’s worthwhile.

My first ex-husband has a wonderful phrase he uses to evaluate his public speaking engagements. If he thinks it went badly, he tells himself I was not satisfied with my performance. This is just a wonderful way to characterize a less-than-ideal effort, with no blame and every possibility to learn to improve. And yes, he’s a wonderful speaker.

  1. If it’s not working for you, you have to change. You can’t keep doing the same things and expect different results. Sure, something may be too hard (break it down into smaller steps), not have taken into consideration all factors (then revise until it works) and the ideal outcome may not be possible (but some improvement surely is).
  1. It’s not hopeless unless you’re dead. I’m not speaking of actual physical illness here, I’m talking about money. You may not be able to create exactly what you want (can we ever?) but you can almost always make things at least a little better.
  1. Any change is more likely to succeed if you can set it up so you make the fewest choices possible. It’s much harder to decide to save every month if you have to write the check or make the transfer, than it is if you decide to set up automatic transfers and forget about them thereafter—you’ve only made one choice, not 12.
  1. The older you are, the more creativity it may take. You can go back to school, relocate, get rid of a car—things that may have been unthinkable in years past can actually become liberating and unburdening. You most assuredly do not need all the stuff you have—no American does. Will a yard sale fully fund your retirement savings? No, but a lot of littles can add up to big.

Bottom line: a financial plan isn’t a punishment where you review all your past sins. It’s a way to wrest control from chaos and fine tune your financial engine to hum along at a better velocity.

Don’t make this mistake with your 401K

It’s no secret that I love Roth IRAs. Don’t tune out because you think you make too much money to have one!

Let me count the ways they’re great:

  • No required minimum distribution at 70 ½, so you can leave the money to grow into old age if you wish.
  • Grows tax free and you pay no taxes on any of it when you withdraw after 59 ½.
  • Can always withdraw your contribution tax free.
  • Can be used for medical emergencies and a $10,000 down payment on a first house (but don’t—leave it alone for retirement!)
  • Your heirs will pay no taxes on withdrawal if any is left
  • And the biggest benefit in my opinion—if you need a lump sum in retirement (dental implant, hearing aid, relocation expenses, buying into a continuous care community), you can withdraw it tax free. If you have to withdraw from a traditional IRA or 401K, you’re going to need to withdraw what you need + taxes on the withdrawal, so much less of your money is preserved going forward.

But, you make too much money, you say? Have you checked whether your 401K at work offers a Roth 401K option? Several clients in the past month have told me they don’t have a Roth 401K because they “make too much money”. It’s true that individual Roth IRAs have an income limit of $189,000 joint and $120,000 single, but the limit DOES NOT APPLY to workplace Roth 401ks. These Roth 401ks have exactly the same limits as your current plain vanilla 401k.

One of the biggest drawbacks of an individual Roth IRA is that you have a limited amount you can contribute each year: $5,500 with $1,000 additional after 50. But this is a relatively small amount, so many Roths never get large enough to fund a retirement. NOT SO with Roth 401ks, where you can deposit $18,500, with $6,000 extra after 50. Note: your employer’s match contribution will still go into the regular 401k.

Roth 401ks were relatively uncommon just a few years ago, but now many employers are offering the choice. It’s much underutilized. Sure, you lose the current tax deduction, but in the future, you should save far more in taxes on the appreciated amount. Check out this chart to see if you’d be better off with a Roth or traditional. In almost every instance, a Roth does better. Special alert to new grads: choose the Roth! Then you’ll never get used to the tax deduction.

If you don’t know if your employer offers it, ask. And agitate for the option if you need to. It shouldn’t cost the employer much extra, if anything. And it will really pay off for you.

 

How to screw up your 401K

I’ve recently been listening to the audiobook Nudge, by Nobel Prize winner Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. I had to double check the copyright date on it (2008) because their advice on 401ks has definitely not gotten through to many of us. They give a lot of advice on how you should go about investing in your 401k but since it seems that, ten years later, it’s still ignored, I’m going the other way and telling you how to really screw it up. It’s my theory that there will then be a better chance of doing it right.

Don’t worry about where your investment advice is coming from. Especially don’t find out whether the “advisor” has any qualifications. Who cares how he or she is getting paid?—you’ll still get unbiased advice even if they work for a specific company and just happen to get a bonus for that company’s products. A broker is every bit as good as a CFP, right, and who knows the difference anyway?

A robo-advisor is perfectly acceptable. Filling out a questionnaire sure beats talking to someone about your personal situation. Cheaper and easier, too. And a computer program will definitely have your best interests at heart.

Content yourself with whatever default selection the company puts you in. So what if that’s a money-market fund and you make .03% for the next 20 years—you’re invested, right?

Better yet, choose your own. Want some fun? Choose two or three target retirement funds, with different years. Who knows when you’ll retire? Sure it’s the same investments, but with different proportions, so that’s diversification, no?

Let’s be fancy. Maybe a target date fund seems a little boring, so let’s mix it up with a stable value fund and an S&P 500 fund. Now we really have no idea what the risk factor is for the overall portfolio, but, well, diversification is good, right? Even better if you see the words growth, high income, or special situation in the name of the fund, that’s the one for you, because everybody wants those qualities.

Buy a lot of your company’s stock. Maybe you can even get it at a discount. Management will surely smile on this. And if the company takes a big downturn, not only can you get laid off, but at the same time you can lose all your retirement. But that’s not going to happen because you can be sure the company will be sold and you’ll get rich off the buyout. Just ask the former employees of Enron and Worldcom.

Never contribute more than the company will match. Because who wants tax savings? Who wants investments to grow tax free? And besides, you’re saving 3% so that ought to be enough for retirement, right?

Never increase your savings rate. Even if you get a raise, why should you waste it on savings?

Start as late as possible to contribute. Your fifties seem about right. You’ll have plenty of time to enjoy life down to the last penny now, and can worry about retirement later. And later.  And later.

Never offer any input on the plan when you have the opportunity.  We can all trust our employers to be much more concerned with retirement than we are. They’ll worry about keeping fees low for employees (not how much the plan costs the employer) and will make sure you have plenty of low cost index funds to choose from. They know best.

When you change jobs, either cash out the account or forget about it. Cashing it out is the most fun, until tax time rolls around. But the easier way is just to forget about it, and not bother with whatever it’s invested in. That way you’ll never know how much you have, be bothered worrying about the return, and it might just go to the state as an abandoned account.

Okay, folks, because this is the internet, I want to be perfectly clear that this is satire, not advice. No one should act on investment advice without consulting an advisor (or doing sufficient research) to reach decisions based on your personal situation.  But I think Thaler and Sunstein might agree that doing the opposite of what’s in this post might be the better course.