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The problem with safe investments

My dad used to keep large amounts in his checking account (no interest) and a passbook savings account (4%, if I remember). Whenever I wanted to talk about investments, he’d tell me to “go blow”, and how happy he was that his money was safe and he wasn’t losing anything.

Then he got into the hands of a charming broker, who (he pointed out) called him more often than I did. The broker recommended tons of what Dad thought were “safe” investments—can’t miss stocks and bonds, which Dad was sure were safe. Unfortunately, the stocks missed, the bonds were junk, and when I wrested control of it all in 2007, I calculated the charmer had lost him about $300,000 in junk investments and commissions from churning the account.

Dad was completely wrong in both instances.

The second is easily addressed—don’t invest in anything where you don’t understand the rationale. If someone is recommending something, understand why you should invest. And if someone is your investment advisor, at least understand what their recommendations are based on, and whether they have a plan for your entire portfolio, not just a bunch of “hot” investments. Invest in individual stocks if you want, but be okay with losing Every. Last. Cent. (I’ve had a few of those.)

If only I had a buck for everyone who told me how nice their broker was! Do you think they’d ever sell anything if they had horns and a forked tail?

But let’s look at Dad’s first principle—cash is safe. Is it?

Mom and Dad were flying high in the early 80s, when they were buying and rolling over CDs that were paying somewhere around 15%. They were living off the interest and living well—nobody had ever explained to them “safe withdrawal rates” and they spent all the interest, because after all, their principle was safe. It was only when rates began to crater that they fell into the clutches and promises of Todd, looking to replace that great, but now unobtainable return. So here was the first problem (ok boring name): reinvestment risk. We’re seeing the same thing today with CDs, which have hovered over 5% for some months now—it seems like a fortune compared to what they’ve been paying for years. But most of these high flyers are only for 6 months or 1 year. Bankers aren’t that stupid, and they don’t want to be locked into paying higher rates if and when interest rates drop. The longer the current CD term, the lower the rate.

Mom and Dad couldn’t find anything that paid 15% by the 90s. Since they’d spent all the interest, and inflation had definitely gone up in the meantime, their principal couldn’t pay for as much as it once might have.

This is why cash isn’t as safe as they (and maybe you?) believe. It’s called lost opportunity cost.

I’m going to work through some figures here to see what those CDs actually cost them. Bear with me. Let’s work with $10,000, available and invested on March 31, 1980 and kept invested until 1990 reinvesting the original $10,000 and putting whatever they made in their mattress. That’s not what they did, but let’s compare. Based on what I was able to find, they would have made 98.94% on their money, or $9,984=$19,984. This is figuring only simple interest for each year, and does not reflect the value of compounding—i.e. leaving the money invested, or reinvesting the total principle + earnings each year.

However, let’s say they’d picked a relatively benign fund, like the Vanguard Wellington, which was around back then. In simple interest terms, they would have earned 164.54% on their money, or had $26,454 in simple return ($36,454 total). No compounding—and this return would be a combination of yield and share price improvement. NB if we were to include compound returns (which I wasn’t able to calculate for the CD), the Wellington would have had a total return of 372.21%, or their $10,000 would have grown to $47,220.57 (Source: Morningstar & Forbes).  Their opting for “safety” actually cost them at least $16,470. That is LOST OPPORTUNITY. *

It’s true that Wellington actually lost money in two of those years (1981-82, -1.32% and 1987-88, down 0.94%), but in every other year it exceeded returns of CDs, sometimes by 20 points or more.  Granted, these were go-go years, but that was true for both investments.

The take away? If you absolutely must have your money, with no loss whatsoever, in a very short period, you probably need to suffer with cash. Having cash can tide you through some bad market years if you must meet expenses during those years from a portfolio. But if you can afford to park your money for a longer period (say, 5 years or more), you are paying an awful lot for supposed safety—the lost opportunity of far better investment returns.

*Please forgive me that these figures are somewhat imprecise depending on what date I picked and the difference between simple and compounded. But I’m certain the general principle holds.

When should you retire?

I hear all versions of opinions on retiring—it ranges from “as early as possible” to “never”. While this is primarily directed to people who can afford to consider it, that is definitely not the case with everyone. So first, some factors in deciding whether you can afford it at all:

  1. Do you have enough guaranteed income to cover (at least) your fixed expenses? If you have good Social Security and a pension (that endangered species), you probably can afford it, especially if there’s a cost-of-living increase as part of your pension. You lucky duck.
  2. Do you have an investment portfolio sufficiently large to make up any shortfall? You can take a quick look and see if a 4% (or, stretching it, 5%) withdrawal will cover the rest of what you need. But also think carefully about what changes you may need to make. What if the market dropped by 1/3? Could you tighten your belt enough or put off discretionary expenses to cope with a lower withdrawal?
  3. Could you work part-time, as a consultant, or start a business with low start-up costs? This can work well for healthy, youngish retireds, but it’s not really feasible for older retireds who may begin to experience health issues. If the extra income is gravy, great, but if it’s essential any illness is going to be catastrophic.


Okay, you can afford it. Now, should you?

  1. How old are you? The younger you are, the longer your money will have to last, and the more certain it is that you’ll experience more market crashes. You’ll need either more money or a slower withdrawal rate.
  2. What will you do about medical insurance? If your employer has paid at least some of your insurance, you might be shocked at the actual cost of individual insurance (previously self-employed, not so much). Currently, you can’t get Medicare until 65, so check out insurance costs before you announce retirement. Even once you’re on Medicare, you’ll still have to pay for insurance for prescriptions and supplementary, and long term care insurance if you won’t be able to cover around $100,000 a year (in today’s dollars).
  3. Are you irreplaceable? The answer to that is probably no, no matter what you think. Sure, you may be the best producer, the best manager, the most skilled…but if a truck ran you over, they’d find somebody else. Exceptions may be medical personnel in rural areas and small towns, some politicians and leaders, and anyone who provides a unique or hard to obtain service, skill, or product, especially solo. Ok, I’ll concede that you might be the best at what you do, but the world will go on. Check your ego!
  4. Do you know what you’ll do with yourself? If your whole life or your identity has always been your job, you need some soul searching. Everyone needs a meaning in life, but at any age you can find new meaning, or hobbies, or learn something you never had time for, or friends…it’s very sad when someone retires and can’t stand it. It’s a failure of imagination and dimension, and a sure sign you need to grow your soul.
  5. Do you have any social outlets? Many people miss the social group built in to some workplaces. Truth is, all your friends are getting older, too, and even if you stay past your expiration date, they’ll probably be moving on. Find some interest group you can be part of, even if online.
  6. Is it time to give somebody else a chance? If your employees and coworker have any idea you’re working past retirement, they are almost certainly muttering about you—when is she ever going to leave? Doesn’t he have anything better to do? And they’ve almost certainly considered that they won’t move up while you’re still blocking the ladder. The best will leave for better opportunities. Don’t think upper management hasn’t thought of this. Not only do they not want to lose the best, they’ve also probably calculated that they could hire someone cheaper than you. You’re only one knee replacement away from them figuring out a way to ease you out. Maybe it’s time to go out on your own volition, in dignity and glory. If you’re all that indispensable, they’ll call you back as a consultant, but don’t bank on it.
  7. Just how old are you? Many people are healthy and sharp in their 70s. Some are, in their 80s. Some are Warren Buffett. But after 80, continuing to work really requires a Plan B: fewer days, fewer hours, fewer clients, more support for mundane tasks. Really, don’t you have anything else to do?
two persons sitting on grass facing the lake

Some misconceptions about Social Security

I hear these all the time. Maybe you know all this already, but there’s a lot of misinformation and outdated information, so browse through this as a self-check!

1. You can collect at 65.
Well, technically true—in fact, you can collect at 62, but you’re going to give up a lot. The full retirement age is NOT 65 and hasn’t been since the year 2000. If that one somehow slipped by you, don’t feel bad—most corporations are still designing their retirement programs around age 65 and don’t seem to have caught up with the change, either. If you were born in 1960, or later, your full retirement age is 67.

2. If you’re divorced, you lose all rights to a spouse’s Social Security.
Again, nope. If you were married at least 10 years, you can collect based on your own benefit or ONE HALF your spouse’s benefit as it would be at their full retirement age, whichever is higher. If you claim benefits, the Social Security Administration will give you whichever benefit is higher. Even if your ex-spouse is remarried, you can still collect. If they have multiple spouses, they can ALL collect, and this does not affect yours, theirs, or the ex-spouse’s benefit. You cannot sign away this right in a divorce settlement (and there would be no reason to do so). As long as you do not remarry before age 60, you can choose to collect off the record of whichever spouse (current or ex) has a higher benefit to you.

3. You can choose to collect only a spousal benefit, then switch to your own at 70.
Nope, not anymore. That benefit went away several years ago.

4. A married couple can only get one Social Security benefit.
Again, nope. Each spouse can collect their own benefit based on their work history. If one has a large benefit and the other has a tiny benefit, the spouse with the small benefit will be paid ½ the other spouse’s benefit if higher. Let’s say spouse #1 has a monthly benefit of $2,400 and spouse #2 has a monthly benefit of $900. Spouse #2 will get $1,200. If #2 has a monthly benefit of $1,300 on their own work record, they’ll get $1,300.

5. Once you collect on your own record, you don’t get survivor’s benefits.
If one spouse dies and has the highest benefit, the surviving spouse can collect the full amount of the highest benefit, but will then lose their own. So, the surviving spouse from #4 can collect $2,400, but lose any spousal benefit and will switch from their own lower benefit. For a divorced spouse this is good news, but may be bad news for a married surviving spouse who will now lose some of the income they had as a couple. Don’t depend on Social Security to automatically make this switch–claim it. I’ve seen too many widows who haven’t collected the higher survivor’s benefit for years after they were entitled to it.

6. You’re better off not reporting tips or cash income.
Well, you already know this is illegal. Yes, it probably puts more money in your pocket today, but in the long run you’re screwing yourself out of Social Security benefits as well as (potentially) disability benefits and survivors benefits for your family if you die while the kids are young. Lots of people (hairdressers, food servers, contractors) try to get away with this but if continued for years, really comes back to bite you in retirement benefits. Think again.

7. You should get your money as soon as possible. Social Security will go away.
I first heard this about 45 years ago. Social Security is still here. The American voter (you!) has some say over this—Republicans want to reduce it, make the retirement age even older, and “sunset” the law every 5 years. Yes, Social Security is in trouble, but there are many fixes—including taxing all income, not just amounts under $160,200. Yes, you read that right—people making over $160k pay no further Social Security tax. Maybe there will be changes, but it will probably affect workers earlier in their career, not retirement age. Nevertheless, no one should depend on Social Security for their full retirement income if they can find any way to save.

If you claim early (say, 62) you’re losing about 8% a year in benefits. AND, if you still work from 62 to 63, you give back $1 for every $2 you earn above $21,240. And then there’s that “great” idea that people say they’ll take the benefit and invest it. Will your investments produce a guaranteed 8% return PLUS cost of living increase every single year until your full retirement age and make enough to compensate for your lifetime reduced benefits? Um, no. If you even do save it, which pardon me but I doubt it.

8. I’ll get the dollars it says in my benefit statement.
You’ll get those dollars minus payments for Medicare. So your check won’t actually be as much as your statement says.

9. I don’t need extra health coverage, I have Medicare.
Medicare pays for a whole lot, but not everything—there are deductibles and quite a lot of things it doesn’t pay for. You need some supplemental (known as Medigap) or a Medicare Advantage plan.

10. Medicare Advantage is very low cost or free compared to the Medigap plans. Why shouldn’t I go with it?
Advantage plans can be free, but be sure you look at the deductible, which can be quite substantial, and resets every year. They also have some serious limits on physical and occupational therapy, should you need it. It may be the only choice if policy price is the major consideration, but be aware that it operates much more like an HMO, and your choice of doctors and hospitals may be limited, and procedures denied or reviewed. They may appear to give you a lot of things not covered in a Medigap policy, but this is a teaser for things that are easy and cheap to provide, while they save on more expensive things or choices.

Once you choose an Advantage plan, you generally cannot switch to a Medigap plan. The opposite is not true—those with a Medigap can usually switch to Advantage. Why do you think that is? Because insurance providers make more money for less service with Advantage plans. If you were happy with an HMO, an Advantage plan may work for you, but I don’t favor them in most cases.

When to claim, and all the ins and outs surrounding claiming after a divorce are, of course, somewhat complex and decisions should be made based on your own financial situation. I’m here to help.