Image of a money ladder

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.

clear wine glass with water

Changes to retirement programs while you were on Christmas break

The so-called Secure Act 2.0, signed into law December 29, 2022, has changed some of the basics of retirement programs for 2023 and beyond, so do be aware.
The maximums you can contribute have gone up, and this may be the greatest benefit for most people who can afford to contribute.
1. Roths now have a contribution of $6,500, with a $1,000 additional catch-up if you’re over 50. This is $500 more than last year. Same for traditional deductible IRAs.
2. If you have a 401k, 403b, 457, or Roth 401k, you can contribute up to $22,500; over 50 you can add another $7,500 for a total of $30,000, up from $27,000 in 2022.
3. HSAs can now snare $3,850 for individuals and $7,750 from families, with $1,000 catch ups.

Another change was that you can delay required minimum distributions from your 401k, 403b, and traditional IRAs until 73 beginning in 2023, and until 75 beginning in 2033. I’m not sure this is actually a good idea, for several reasons:
• It encourages people to keep on working, when maybe they should consider that it’s time to stop, enjoy life, and make way for somebody younger.
• It staves off urgency to save, because, well, you may as well just work forever.
• Once you start RMDs, the required amount will be larger and could possibly kick you into a higher tax bracket where you’ll pay more taxes on your money in a shorter period of time.
• If you never actually get to spend your money, your heirs will probably be in their highest earning years and so they’ll pay more taxes on the money than a retired person might have.
Still, given the hits to investments in the past year, many people will be glad to let their investments ride a little longer without being forced to sell off in an already low market.

It’s depressing to think that the French are going to the mat to protest increasing the retirement age from 62 to 64, while Americans are faced with being forced, er encouraged, to work longer and longer or face retirement poverty on the relatively puny Social Security. And pensions—what’s that?

There are a number of other changes that depend on the discretion of plan sponsors, not individuals. For example, plan sponsors may allow linking of accounts to an emergency fund, consider student loan payments as deferrals for matching, and make emergency withdrawals available. What they actually do offer remains to be seen, and will depend somewhat (as usual) by pressure from employees or their unions. We’re likely to see that pressure exerted on big employers, but more than 99% of people work for small employers—and many don’t even offer retirement plans. So, one faint cheer for better workers’ rights.

An economical hobby

Depending on what you choose, hobbies can be expensive. If your hobby requires a great deal of expensive equipment and travel (such as skiing or sailing), it’s going to take some careful scrutiny to fit that into a budget. It’s all going to have to come out of your discretionary budget, and only after savings have been fully funded.

I might contend that sometimes the collecting of materials for a hobby is actually a hobby in itself. Some people (ahem) can hardly resist the beauty of materials like yarn, fabric, embroidery floss, art materials…whether or not we’ll ever have time to make something out of them. In fact, making something, which means choosing one concrete creation instead of all the possible dreams, may act to spoil the fun.

However, the internet and maybe even the pandemic  have taught us there are cheaper ways of acquiring knowledge—YouTube and even subscription sites are far cheaper than live lessons with an individual, or the cost of a three day conference seminar. I’m definitely not discounting the value of a live instructor, but if we’re sampling a possible new skill or trying to reactivate something we already know a bit about, it can be very economical to begin online. Online also gives you a community, no matter your location, job, previous experience, age…really, it’s opened up the world for pursuits where it can be hard to find enough people and information in one place.

I’ve seen some discouraging posts  lately on some music sites. You have to be very careful to scrutinize marketing—anyone that promulgates they are the “only way to learn” while charging a hefty fee should be suspect.  My strong advice is to look for a money back guarantee in case you don’t like what you’ve paid for. For example, I recently subscribed to a guitar program that I adored—for the first 30 days. Then, for some reason, the owner decided to update his well-functioning website. For one week (which I was paying for), the site was down entirely—with no extensions offered. Then, for the next 3 weeks it mal-functioned, crashed, and offered significantly less material than previously. As far as I can tell, all the “improvement” consisted of a change in theme colors. I exercised my money-back guarantee on the 59th day, after hoping against hope that it would be fixed. Two months after, I hear it still isn’t.  I feel a lot like what I felt when you have a great first date and never hear from the person again.

Having been rejected by a potential guitar teacher as pretty much too old to bother with, I’ve thought a lot about why an adult might want to take up or return to a hobby. Are you ever too old to learn something? Should teachers only be interested in young students with conservatory potential? Obviously, I believe this is defeatist, aging self-talk. After all, when possible, you should use your money on things which enhance your life. Here’s what I came up with while mind-mapping. While it’s mostly focused on guitar, perhaps it will apply to a pursuit you are considering.

  • Now you can recapture something you loved as a young person, but life intervened.
  • Now you can enjoy the sheer joy of playing an instrument without the pressure of getting into a university program. No more tryouts!
  • Now you have the luxury of time to perfect a piece. The process can be more important and more satisfying than any result.
  • You can learn to play an instrument where even the simplest pieces sound wonderful (unlike, say, violin). N.B. but if violin or French horn is your interest, you’ll put up with the sounds, as has every other learner before you.
  • You can get a decent instrument for far cheaper than many others (such as piano, harp).
  • It’s easily portable. You can play with a group or other instruments.
  • As an adult, your knowledge of the world of music is much larger—you’ve simply heard more than kids. If not, playing guitar can introduce a whole new world.
  • The instrument itself is beautiful and a pleasure to pick up every day.
  • You can take up a challenge to learn something uniquely beautiful and relatively uncommon that many people wouldn’t have the courage to do.

When I become disgruntled with my “lack of progress” (to where?), I plan to review this. It’s a good use of time and money to improve your life. And it doesn’t have to cost a fortune.