Why Pursue Financial Freedom: Fulfilling Retirement Activity vs. Ideal Job

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How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free by Ernie Zelinski continues to offer smart observations on retirement. For example, when people are working, their idea of leisure is often passive: watching TV, listening to music, shopping, or eating at restaurants. However, in retirement, they need to replace all the intangibles besides money that working provided.

The Academy of Leisure Sciences has 8 criteria for finding a good leisure activity in retirement:

  1. You have a genuine interest in it.
  2. It is challenging.
  3. There is some sense of accomplishment associated with completing only a portion of it.
  4. It has many aspects to it so that it doesn’t become boring.
  5. It helps you develop some skill.
  6. You can get so immersed in it that you lose the sense of time.
  7. It provides you with a sense of self-development.
  8. It doesn’t cost too much.

Did you know even know the Academy of Leisure Sciences existed? Another new tidbit from this book.

My observation is that these are also same characteristics of a good job. Think of your own job and read it again:

  1. You have a genuine interest in it.
  2. It is challenging.
  3. There is some sense of accomplishment associated with completing only a portion of it.
  4. It has many aspects to it so that it doesn’t become boring.
  5. It helps you develop some skill.
  6. You can get so immersed in it that you lose the sense of time.
  7. It provides you with a sense of self-development.
  8. It pays enough to support your lifestyle.

Of course, this brings you to why saving up money to reach financial freedom is a worthy pursuit. The list of things that satisfies the top 8 leisure criteria should be pretty long. It might take a few tries to find something that fits, but you could play any sport, learn to cook, speak a new language, and so on.

However, adding the criteria that it has to pay you makes the list much shorter, perhaps non-existent. Compare picking up cycling for personal enjoyment vs. getting paid as a professional cyclist. Learning how to smoke some decent backyard BBQ vs. getting paid as a professional caterer. Start to speak a new language vs. becoming an (adequately-paid) French teacher. I’m sure some lucky people out there really do have a perfect job where they are getting paid for something that they would “do for free”. However, most of us don’t, so that’s where financial freedom comes in to remove that money requirement.

Non-Financial Retirement Planning: List 10 Retired Activities

retirehappyEver notice that every book on “How to Retire” is really just about how to accumulate a big pile of money? I’m currently in the middle of How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free by Ernie Zelinski, which contains absolutely nothing about mutual funds, real estate, or safe withdrawal rates. Instead, it deals with the non-financial aspects of retirement. What does that mean? Well, many retirees spend at least some time being quite unhappy. They haven’t solved the other retirement problems:

  • How will you create meaning for yourself?
  • What activities will you keep your mind and body in top shape?
  • Who will you spend your time with?
  • Where is the best environment to live?

A recommended exercise is to write down the 10 favorite interests and activities that you would like to pursue in retirement. At the same time, write down how much time you are presently spending on these activities. If you are not spending any time pursuing these activities before retirement, the experts say that you are unlikely that you will spend much time on these activities after you quit work. Many people are surprised when their retirement is completely different from they imagined. They may become bored, aimless, lonely, and/or depressed. A surprisingly large number go back to work!

You need to develop activities as part of your retirement planning, BEFORE you retire. Here’s my list of favorite activities, along with time currently spent.

  1. Time with kids. Chasing bugs and jumping in muddy puddles. Learning new things with them. (Almost enough)
  2. Cooking at home. Becoming a better cook. Know what I’m eating. (4-6 hours a week)
  3. Time with spouse. Enjoying their company. (Not nearly enough)
  4. Play tennis. Social interaction and physical exercise. (3-6 hours a week)
  5. Keep learning about investing and finance. (Enough)
  6. Entertain friends at house. Cook for them. Socialize. (Very little)
  7. Read books. (2-3 hours a week? A little each day)
  8. Build an off-grid shed. Power from solar PV. Tinker with batteries and wind turbines for fun. Water catchment. Composting toilets? (None)
  9. Raise fish and/or chickens. I like to read about chicken tractors and backyard fish farms. (None)
  10. Travel. So much left to see out there. (Few weeks a year)

Right now, most of our non-work time is spent on toddler childcare, so many of these activities are being neglected. This list is a good reminder that I need to work harder on maintaining good relationships my wife, family, and friends. Once all the kids are in pre/school, we’ll see if I actually get around to the rest. Maybe the experts are right and I’ll never build that self-sustaining tilapia farm…

Reader Question: Tracking Asset Allocation Across Multiple Investment Accounts

portpie_blank200Here’s a reader question regarding my most recent portfolio asset allocation update. It has been edited for clarity and to remove personal details by request:

Thank you for posting the quarterly finance updates. I would like to do something similar to track the returns by asset class but unfortunately, I have my funds across multiple accounts. Some of my funds are in Roth, Rollover IRA and a 401k from current employer. My wife has her funds in similar retirement accounts. How do I consolidate all my investment funds to get a holistic view and correct asset allocation? Also, how do I get Vanguard funds when my 401k options are limited?

First of all, everything may look neater in my updates, but I also have my funds spread across multiple accounts. My wife and I have funds spread across Roth IRA, Traditional IRA (at least temporarily), 401k/403b, Self-Employed 401(k), taxable brokerage accounts, savings bonds, and bank CDs.

Here are the details on how I do my quarterly update.

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  1. I pull up my custom Google Spreadsheet and make a fresh duplicate of the most recent worksheet. I change the label to a brief datestamp so the labels aren’t too wide. “17.12” indicates December 2017, “1803” indicates March 2018, and so on. I keep all my old snapshots as tabs. This is handy because I can go back and remember what my portfolio looked like back in March 2009, for example.
  2. I log into each individual account one-by-one directly at the provider website. I could use an aggregator, but I do this just to make sure my addresses/passwords are correct in my trusty password manager and everything looks right. No new sub-accounts, no errors, new secure messages, etc. I pull up my holdings and type in the balances manually into the proper asset class cell. The spreadsheet adds them up.
  3. For most of my funds, the asset class is readily available. For example, I know that the Vanguard Emerging Markets Stock Index fund is going under “Emerging Markets”. If you aren’t sure or if the fund includes multiple asset classes (Target Retirement fund, LifeCycle fund, etc), you can either use a service like Personal Capital (free registration required) for a quick-and-easy analysis or Morningstar X-Ray (free TRP registration required) for a manual-but-deeper analysis.
  4. For the most part, the spreadsheet does the rest. The pie charts automatically update to show me my overall holistic breakdown. It shows me how far off I am from my target values, both in terms of percentage and dollar amounts.

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When your 401k options are limited, here’s how I would pick the best choice available. I would start by narrowing it down to the cheapest index funds available. Look at all the expense ratios. These days, at least one should be under 0.30%. You can verify using the ticker symbol on Morningstar. For example, for a while my best 401k option was a proprietary S&P 500 index fund. So I bought that, and adjusted my holdings elsewhere. Later on, they added Vanguard Total International Stock index fund and a Schwab brokerage window. There are probably 10-15 other funds on the menu that I have no interest in owning. A Target fund might be the most reasonable choice. Remember to roll your 401k over to an IRA when you switch employers.

My Money Blog Portfolio Asset Allocation, March 2018

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Here is a First Quarter 2018 update for my primary investment portfolio. These are my real-world holdings, not a recommendation. It includes tax-deferred 401k/403b/IRAs and taxable brokerage accounts and excludes our primary home, cash reserves, and a few side investments. The goal of this portfolio is to create enough income to cover our regular household expenses. As of 2018, we have started the phase of “early retirement” where we are spending some of the dividends and interest from this portfolio.

Actual Asset Allocation and Holdings

I use both Personal Capital and a custom Google Spreadsheet to track my investment holdings. The Personal Capital financial tracking app (free, my review) automatically logs into my accounts, tracks my balances, calculates my performance, and gives me a rough asset allocation. I still use my custom Rebalancing Spreadsheet (free, instructions) because it tells me where and how much I need to direct new money to rebalance back towards my target asset allocation.

Here is my portfolio performance for the year and rough asset allocation (real estate is under alternatives), according to Personal Capital:

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Here is my more specific asset allocation, according to my custom spreadsheet:

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Stock Holdings
Vanguard Total Stock Market Fund (VTI, VTSMX, VTSAX)
Vanguard Total International Stock Market Fund (VXUS, VGTSX, VTIAX)
WisdomTree SmallCap Dividend ETF (DES)
WisdomTree Emerging Markets SmallCap Dividend ETF (DGS)
Vanguard Small Value ETF (VBR)
Vanguard Emerging Markets ETF (VWO)
Vanguard REIT Index Fund (VNQ, VGSIX, VGSLX)

Bond Holdings
Vanguard Limited-Term Tax-Exempt Fund (VMLTX, VMLUX)
Vanguard Intermediate-Term Tax-Exempt Fund (VWITX, VWIUX)
Vanguard High-Yield Tax-Exempt Fund (VWAHX, VWALX)
Vanguard Inflation-Protected Securities Fund (VIPSX, VAIPX)
iShares Barclays TIPS Bond ETF (TIP)
Individual TIPS securities
U.S. Savings Bonds (Series I)

Target Asset Allocation. Our overall goal is to include asset classes that will provide long-term returns above inflation, distribute income via dividends and interest, and finally offer some historical tendencies to balance each other out. I personally believe that US Small Value and Emerging Market will have higher future long-term returns (along with some higher volatility) than US Large/Total and International Large/Total, although I could be wrong. I don’t hold commodities futures or gold (or bitcoin) as they don’t provide any income and I don’t believe they’ll outpace inflation significantly. I also try to imagine each asset class doing poorly for a long time, and only hold the ones where I think I can maintain faith.

Stocks Breakdown

  • 38% US Total Market
  • 7% US Small-Cap Value
  • 38% International Total Market
  • 7% Emerging Markets
  • 10% US Real Estate (REIT)

Bonds Breakdown

  • 50% High-quality, Intermediate-Term Bonds
  • 50% US Treasury Inflation-Protected Bonds

I have settled into a long-term target ratio is 67% stocks and 33% bonds (2:1 ratio) within our investment strategy of buy, hold, and rebalance. With a self-managed, simple portfolio of low-cost funds, we minimize management fees, commissions, and income taxes.

Real-world asset allocation details. For both simplicity and cost reasons, I am no longer buying DES/DGS and will be phasing them out whenever there are tax-loss harvesting opportunities. New money is going into the more “vanilla” Vanguard versions: Vanguard Small Value ETF (VBR) and Vanguard Emerging Markets ETF (VWO).

I’m still a bit underweight in TIPS and REITs mostly due to limited tax-deferred space as I don’t want to hold them in a taxable account. My taxable muni bonds are split roughly evenly between the three Vanguard muni funds with an average duration of 4.5 years. I have been seriously thinking of going back to US Treasuries due to changes in relative interest rates and our marginal income tax rate.

My stock/bond split is currently at 69% stocks/31% bonds. I continue to invest new money on a monthly basis in order to maintain the target ratios. Once a quarter, I also reinvest any accumulated dividends and interest that we did not spend. I don’t use automatic dividend reinvestment. First of all, we spend some of our dividends now. In addition, I can usually avoid creating any taxable transactions unless markets are really volatile.

Performance and commentary. According to Personal Capital, my portfolio has basically broken even so far in 2018 (-0.70% YTD). I see that during the same period the S&P 500 has lost 0.63% (excludes dividends) and the US Aggregate bond index has actually lost 1.55%.

An alternative benchmark for my portfolio is 50% Vanguard LifeStrategy Growth Fund (VASGX) and 50% Vanguard LifeStrategy Moderate Growth Fund (VSMGX), one is 60/40 and one is 80/20 so it also works out to 70% stocks and 30% bonds. That benchmark would have a total return of -0.98% YTD (as of 4/9/18).

In a separate post, I’ll share about more about the income aspect.

Blooom Review: Flat Fee Financial Advice (CFP) + Free 401k Analysis

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The numbers tell us that you probably have a 401k and you’re probably managing it yourself. Blooom (yes, with three Os) is a new company that focuses on providing advice for 401k, 403b, 457, and TSP accounts with modest balances, charging a flat $10 a month fee that includes the following services:

  • Fee analysis. Each mutual fund you own charges a “hidden” expense ratio that is quietly taken out of your balances daily. There may also be administrative fees charged by your provider (not to mention they may get a cut of those mutual fund expense ratios).
  • Asset allocation advice. They will provide a suggested stock and bond mix based on your retirement goals.
  • Rebalancing service. Blooom will rebalance your assets periodically back towards your target values.
  • Chat with Certified Financial Planners. You can e-mail or Live Chat with a Certified Financial Planner (CFP) about any financial topic, not just 401ks.
  • Fiduciary advice. Blooom is a Registered Investment Advisor (RIA) and takes on a fiduciary duty to give advice in your best interest only.

Free 401k analysis screenshots. Blooom offers a free upfront 401k analysis, and these are my results. There is nothing to cancel, and they won’t ask for credit card information.

1. They ask you for name, birthdate, and retirement age. You don’t need to be super-specific here, they just want your age and target retirement age to help create your target asset allocation.

2. Provide your login credentials. Blooom will automatically pull in your 401k holdings and other information when you provide them your username and password. (Similar the account tracker at Personal Capital.) You can opt-out, but in that case it skips to asking you questions about your investing behavior and will not analyze your 401k. It took them a couple of minutes to crunch everything. It looks like many 401k providers are included, but I would make sure they can connect with your provider first.

3. Analysis results and screenshots. They first give you an overall report card. Now, I don’t actually own company stock. Perhaps they make that assumption as I have a brokerage window with non-standard holdings.

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Next, they told me about the fees that I am paying. It’s true, this 401k does have limited options that can be expensive, but most of my money is actually invested through a Schwab brokerage window.

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They should analyze your asset allocation using a similar system to Personal Capital (also free), figuring out what is inside each of the mutual funds and assigning the proper asset class. Here is their advice about asset allocation:

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Finally, as you might expect, they make a pitch for why you should hire them to help you manage your 401k.

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My take. My main gripe from this analysis is that it only takes into account your 401k. If your 401k is your only retirement savings, then this is fine. However, my 401k is only a portion of my overall portfolio. In addition, I use tax-efficient asset placement, so my 401k mostly holds REITs and TIPs. In addition, they were not able to analyze most of my 401k account anyway as I use a self-directed brokerage window. Together, this prevents me from getting value out of this service.

Their asset allocation advice seems pretty industry-standard for robo-advisors, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. A lot of people have holdings all over the place. Too much in employer stock. Too much money in expensive funds with hot recent performance. Too much cash. Completely ignored. The “standard advice” is often an improvement. The standard advice is low costs and passive indexing. The standard advice is for a mix of stocks and bonds that are appropriate for your age and time horizon. The standard advice is diversification across asset classes like US stocks, international stocks, small caps, etc.

Cost. Blooom has settled on a flat $10 a month fee for ongoing 401k management and advice. This is the same if you have $10,000 or $10 million. Flat fees end up being a high percentage of small accounts though, for example on $10,000 that ends up being 1.2% a year. If anything, you’d get the most value out of the free analysis and avoiding expensive funds. My personal opinion is that if you only have a thousand dollars or less, you should buy the cheapest S&P 500 index fund in your 401k and focus on increasing your contribution rate. Asset allocation isn’t as important yet. Of course, the financial advisor access may be worth more than $10 a month by itself (see below).

While flat fees don’t work out mathematically for small accounts, you will start to save money as your account grows when compared to a percentage-based fee. I personally like the idea of a reasonable fee that stays flat as my assets grow. If there was a robo-advisor that would take a holistic view of all my accounts and rebalance things for a flat fee, I would seriously consider it. Emotionless rebalancing is a feature that I feel in under-appreciated.

Now, if you had a solid low-cost, diversified Target Retirement fund from Vanguard, Fidelity Index Series, or Schwab Index Series, you may not need to pay for extra advice. The asset allocation, rebalancing, and growing more conservative over time is all baked in already at an expense ratio about 0.20%. The problem is that there are a lot of bad Target Retirement funds out there that have added layers of fees, stuffed with expensive questionable funds, and chase performance.

CFP advice for $10 a month? The most intriguing part is the ability to Live Chat (text) or e-mail with Certified Financial Planners with no minimum balance requirement.

DID YOU KNOW blooom clients have access to a CFP? Just ping us on chat, email, Morse code, singing telegram, Pony Express… well, you get the idea, we are accessible.

They also seem to welcome questions about topics outside your 401k:

Ask our advisors any financial questions you have… even beyond 401ks! […] We go beyond retirement advice. Thinking about how a puppy or new car might affect you financially? Give us a whirl! Whether it’s $20 or $20,000, we want all our blooom members to make smart decisions about their finances.

It’s hard to measure how helpful it would be to have somebody with a industry-standard financial planning certificate to talk things out with. Access with no asset minimum is rare. For example, Betterment won’t let you have CFP access until you have $100,000 held with them (401k assets don’t count). You could always pay $10 for the first month and see how you like the CFP advice, as there is no contract.

Bottom line. Blooom may be appropriate for you if your 401k (or 403b/similar) contains the majority of your retirement assets and you are looking for low-cost, unbiased financial advice. They will manage your 401k funds and provide chat/e-mail access to a Certified Financial Planner for a flat $10 a month, regardless of your balance. However, I would make sure they can actually analyze your 401k correctly first. Get your free 401k/403b analysis here.

Graphic: The Fall of Pensions, The “Rise” of 401ks and IRAs

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Above is a historical chart of US household retirement assets that helps visualize the shift from mostly pensions to mostly a combination of defined contribution plans (401k, 403b, etc) and IRAs. Pension share has gone from nearly 80% of total assets in the 1980s to about 40% today. The blips upwards in 2001 and 2009 are more a function of stock market drops than anything else. I find it interesting that annuity use is not increasing at all, i.e. people are not creating more “DIY pensions”. Found via WSJ Daily Shot.

Below is a graphic of the percentage of households who have any retirement plan at all, grouped by income percentile. This means it counts any family with one person with any retirement plan of any type with any amount saved. Via Bloomberg article about state-mandated Roth IRAs.

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My big-picture concern is – What happens when those who started jobs in the 1980s and 1990s retire in the 2030s and 2040s with no pensions? As shown above, the majority of the lowest-income workers have no retirement plan at all. If you include the highest-paid workers, the average 401(k) at retirement age is currently about $100,000. In contrast, I ran an annuity quote and a pension that pays $50,000 a year inflation-adjusted is roughly the equivalent of having $1,000,000 saved in a 401(k).

More individuals are finding themselves in charge of their own retirement every day, whether they like it or not. This is a very serious responsibility. Warren Buffett has a plaque in his office with the following saying on it:

A fool and his money are soon invited everywhere.

Lots of money floating around means lots of “helpers” will pop up. Big banks. Start-up smartphone apps. Even Overstock.com now wants to help you with investing. Read the Gotrocks parable and beware high-fee helpers.

NYT Financial Tuneup Day 4: Retirement

nyt_ftuDay 4 of the NY Times 7-Day Financial Tuneup is about retirement. (Sign up for your own personalized tune-up here.) This assumes you are eligible for a 401(k) or similar retirement plan. The key action point is bumping up your retirement contribution rate by 1% and perhaps adjusting your asset allocation if necessary. Here’s a simple chart showing you why:

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If you’re making $50,000 annually and contributing 5 percent of your salary to your retirement account, assuming an annual return of 6 percent and a 3 percent annual salary increase, in 25 years, you will have about $198,000 in your retirement account. If you start to increase that percentage by 1 percentage point annually however, you will have over $550,000 in that same account in 25 years. By increasing the amount you save by 1 percentage point each year, you’ll save an extra $354,940 for retirement.

Increase Your Savings

  • Log into your retirement savings account. (Baby steps…)
  • Increase the amount of money taken out of your paycheck by 1 percentage point annually. Also check to see if you are taking full advantage of any company match.
  • Make it automatic. If you have the option, set it to automatically escalate in the future.

Rebalance Your Account

  • Log into your retirement savings account.
  • Determine how you should rebalance your account. What is your target asset allocation? Here’s mine but it’s probably more complicated than most people need. Consider a target-date fund, especially if it is a low-cost, passive version. Fidelity, Vanguard, and Schwab all have solid versions. I put my own mom in the Vanguard one.
  • Make it automatic. If you have the option, set it to automatically escalate in the future. My provider calls it “Auto-Increase”.
  • Rebalance your account. Basically, make sure your portfolio is still what you want it to be, as it may have shifted over time. You only need to do this once or twice a year, or you can set “bands” to rebalance when things get too out of whack.

Action, action, action. This move won’t make you save enough for retirement by itself, but it’s something tangible. If you are really going for financial freedom, you should use this as a platform to do even more. We have our 401k savings rate already set at 60% (max allowed by one provider) since we are working part-time (“semi-retired” sounds better!) with a lower income but still want get as close to the annual 401k limits as possible.

Financial Tuneup Recap (still in progress)

Study: Working Longer vs. Saving More

savebuttonbankHere’s a working paper titled The Power of Working Longer by Gila Bronshtein, Jason Scott, John B. Shoven, Sita N. Slavov which compares the effect of working longer (delaying your retirement date) and increasing your savings rate while working.

The basic result is that delaying retirement by 3-6 months has the same impact on the retirement standard of living as saving an additional one-percentage point of labor earnings for 30 years. The relative power of saving more is even lower if the decision to increase saving is made later in the work life. For instance, increasing retirement saving by one percentage point ten years before retirement has the same impact on the sustainable retirement standard of living as working a single month longer.

Update: I read the full paper and here’s my view. For most households earning less than $100,000 a year with average savings rates, Social Security changes matter more than returns on investment portfolio. What really matters is delaying Social Security and getting the resulting higher monthly income for life. For most people, that’s the same as working longer as they can’t just wait around without a paycheck.

If you are close to retirement, chances are that working longer is the best practical solution to improving your financial outlook. Working longer means your portfolio grows a bit more hopefully, your Social Security check gets bigger, and your retirement length gets shorter (annuities pay more).

However, if you are young, it is quite easy to tell yourself today that you’ll simply work a bit longer far in the future. When the time comes, you may not be given the option of working longer either due to job loss or disability. If you take this too far, you could just tell yourself that you’ll simply work until you die and you won’t have to save anything at all.

You can pay $5 for the full paper, or you may be able to get free access if you have a .edu or .gov e-mail address.

Social Security Calculator Tool: Estimate Your Benefits

socialsecuritycardThere are some (mostly young) skeptics, but Social Security should remain a major pillar of your future retirement income. For over 60% of current retirees aged 65+, Social Security makes up the majority of their income. Therefore, it may be worth spending some extra time figuring out how it works.

First, you should sign up for a mySocialSecurity account at SSA.gov. For many people, this is the only way to view your current benefit eligibility as they are phasing out those annual green paper statements. You will find some interesting information including eligible earnings history. (For example, I earned $1,814 in the summer after high school.) Also, if you claim your account first, it prevents an potential identity thief from opening an account in your name and stealing your benefits.

Second, you can check out this unofficial Social Security helper tool to test out different scenarios. Created by an Google engineer named Greg Grothaus in his spare time, the site takes your earnings history and uses Javascript to analyze it within your browser. No data is submitted over the internet. Found via The Finance Buff.

Here are some scenarios you might test out:

  • What happens to my benefit if I earn additional wages for several more years? What if I stop working forever?
  • How does my benefit change as my total earnings grow during my lifetime?
  • What happens if I choose to take my benefits early? What if I delay and take them late?

You might not know that your eventual benefit is based on your top 35 annual indexed earnings values. Indexed earnings are simply the payroll wages you earned in a year multiplied by a number that adjusts for wage growth. I personally don’t even have 35 working years yet, so every additional year I work will be in my “Top35” and increase my future payout. Here are some charts based on my earnings history:

If I stop working immediately and then start taking benefits at my “normal” retirement age of 67 years, I will earn $1,666 per month ($19,992 per year). If I start taking money at age 62, I will earned a reduced $1,166 per month ($13,994 per year). Here’s the full chart:

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If I keep working for another 20 years at $50,000 per year, then my age 67 benefit will increase to $2,328 per month ($27,936 per year). If I start taking money at age 62, I will earned a reduced $1,630 per month ($19,555 per year). Here’s the updated full chart:

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Working/waiting an extra year may increase your payout enough to change your lifestyle significantly. An extra $100 per month may not seem that much, but that’s an extra $1,200 each year for the rest of your life that increases with inflation. That could cover your medication copays for the year. It could be the difference between staying home and doing a video chat vs. flying and playing with your grandkids in person each year.

If you are on the early retirement track, that leave a bunch of zeros in your “Top 35”. With this calculator, you can see how much that actually changes your eventual payout. Even if I continued to work another 25 years at $100,000 per year, my annual benefit at age 67 would be about $33,000 per year.

As a reminder, both SSA.gov and this tool only show you what your benefit will be under current law. Social Security isn’t a savings plan – current retirees are being paid from money taken from current workers. This means that changing demographics will require some sort of modification by 2035. From the Chief Actuary of the Social Security Administration:

Currently, the Social Security Board of Trustees projects program cost to rise by 2035 so that taxes will be enough to pay for only 75 percent of scheduled benefits. This increase in cost results from population aging, not because we are living longer, but because birth rates dropped from three to two children per woman. Importantly, this shortfall is basically stable after 2035; adjustments to taxes or benefits that offset the effects of the lower birth rate may restore solvency for the Social Security program on a sustainable basis for the foreseeable future.

401k Millionaire By Age 45: How Was It Possible?

millWith the ongoing bull stock market, more people are reaching $1,000,000 balances in their 401k every day. However, a more extreme claim is that someone reached this mark at age 45 with total employee contributions of only $300,000. Is that really possible? Let’s take a look at what would need to fall into place for that to happen…

Consistently high contributions from salary. If you divide $300,000 by a theoretical 25 years of savings, that works out to $12,000 per year. That is within 401k historical contribution limits, but even with 25 working years, that means nearly maxing out your 401k contributions every single year. (Employer company matches don’t count and can push you above that limit.) According to Redditor Subject_Beef, s/he indeed saved regularly in 1995 with contributions close to the max most years. Consider that only about 10% of participants max out their 401ks each year, and most of those people were over the age of 45.

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High investment gains. Next, you must have the growth of $300,000 to $1,000,000, which would require a high stock allocation, avoidance of a prolonged bear market, and not panicking during market losses. Even with a lump-sum invested 25 years ago, going from $300k to $1000k would require a compound annual growth rate of 6.2%. However, with a 401(k), you have to do this through regular contributions and dollar-cost-averaging over time. Therefore, the actual growth rate would have to be significantly higher than that. By my rough calculations, the average would have to have been around 9% annually. The current asset allocation was shown to be roughly 37% S&P 500 Index fund, 33% US Small Cap Stock Index fund, and 30% International Stock Index fund. The annualized return of the S&P 500 has been about 10% over the last 23 years, so the numbers are quite possible.

No IRA rollovers. Finally, you’d need a steady career as most people who change companies either cash out or roll their 401(k) funds into an IRA with more flexibility. It is possible to do repeated 401k-to-401k rollovers, which is apparently the case here. I can’t think of too many compelling reasons to do so besides enabling the Backdoor Roth IRA. This is also why I don’t think tracking aggregate 401k balances is a good way to measure savings or wealth. People move funds out of 401ks into IRAs all the time.

Altogether, I believe this story and the numbers do check out. However, this is not a common occurrence given the factors above that have to align. The poster does mention a significant employer match that would have help increase the effective contributions above $300,000 and make it a bit more realistic for an average worker. In any case, becoming a 401(k) millionaire by age 45 is an impressive accomplishment.

401k, 403b, 457, TSP Historical Contribution Limits 2009-2018

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Employer-based retirement plans like the 401(k), 403(b), most 457 plans, and the federal government’s Thrift Savings Plan are not perfect, but they are often the best available option to save money in a tax-advantaged manner. For 2018, the employee elective deferral (contribution) limit for these plans increased to $18,500 (they are indexed to cost-of-living). The additional catch-up contribution allowed for those age 50+ is $6,000.

Here’s a historical chart of contribution limits for the last 10 years (2009-2018).

401k_limits_2018

Year 401k/403b Elective Deferral Limit Additional Catch-Up Allowed (Age 50+)
2009 $16,500 $5,500
2010 $16,500 $5,500
2011 $16,500 $5,500
2012 $17,000 $5,500
2013 $17,500 $5,500
2014 $17,500 $5,500
2015 $18,000 $6,000
2016 $18,000 $6,000
2017 $18,000 $6,000
2018 $18,500 $6,000

 

The limits are the same for both Roth and “Traditional” pre-tax 401k plans, although the effective after-tax amounts can be quite different. Employer match contributions do not count towards the elective deferral limit. Curiously, some employer plans set their own limit on contributions. A former employer of mine had a 20% deferral limit, so if your income was $50,000 the most you could put away was $10,000 a year.

Also see: IRA Historical Contribution Limits 2009-2018

Sources: IRS.gov, IRS.gov COLA Table [PDF]

Historical IRA Contribution Limits 2009-2018

ira_heartIndividual Retirement Arrangements (IRAs) are way to save money towards retirement that also saves on taxes. Each year, an individual’s total contributions to both traditional and Roth IRAs cannot be more than a certain dollar limit. If you are age 50+ at some time during the year, you can also contribute an additional amount. (You can’t contribute more than your taxable compensation for the year.)

Note that there are also income restrictions on Roth IRA contributions, although you may be able to get around these income restrictions with a Backdoor Roth IRA (non-deductible Traditional IRA + Roth conversion).

If your income is low enough (less than $63,000 AGI for married filing joint), the Saver’s Credit can get you back 10% to 50% of your contribution (of up to $2,000 per person) when you file your taxes.

Since I enjoy visual aides, here’s an updated historical chart and table of contribution limits for the last 10 years. I’m happy to say that we’ve both done the max since 2004. Have you been taking advantage of your potential IRA tax break?

ira_limits_2018

Year IRA Contribution Limit Additional Catch-Up Allowed (Age 50+)
2009 $5,000 $1,000
2010 $5,000 $1,000
2011 $5,000 $1,000
2012 $5,000 $1,000
2013 $5,500 $1,000
2014 $5,500 $1,000
2015 $5,500 $1,000
2016 $5,500 $1,000
2017 $5,500 $1,000
2018 $5,500 $1,000

 

Also see: 401k, 403b, 457, TSP Historical Contribution Limits 2009-2018

Sources: IRS.gov, IRS.gov COLA Table [PDF]