Archive for the 'Retirement' Category
Monday, August 6th, 2012
Vanguard’s research department released another study [pdf] comparing ways to increase retirement savings for individuals. Here’s one illustrative example; take the following baseline scenario:
- Investor begins working at 25, but starts saving at age 35.
- 12% savings rate
- Moderate asset allocation (50% stocks and 50% bonds)
- Salary starts at $30,000 but increases with age
Now, here are three ways in which a worker could increase their final savings balance at retirement (age 65).
- Option #1. Invest more aggressively with an asset allocation of 80% stocks and 20% bonds, while keeping your 12% savings rate and starting age of 35.
- Option #2. Raise your savings rate to 15%, while keeping your starting age of 35 and 50/50 asset allocation.
- Option #3. Start saving at age 25 instead of 35. while keeping your 12% savings rate and and 50/50 asset allocation.
Which single option do you think has the most impact? The results are based the median balance found after running Monte Carlo computer simulations based on 10,000 possible future scenarios for each option.
||Median Balance at age 65
||% Increase vs. Baseline
(Aggressive asset allocation)
(Raise savings rate)
(Start saving earlier)
Here’s another chart comparing the median retirement balances (inflation-adjusted) for (1) someone with a 6% savings rate and 80/20 aggressive portfolio and (2) someone with a 9% savings rate and 50/50 moderate portfolio.
(click to enlarge)
The title of the paper is “Penny Saved, Penny Earned”, which matches their suggestion that saving more is more reliably effective as compared to reaching for better investment returns. This information should be helpful for those that would like to avoid stock market stress but worry about giving up those potentially higher returns. If you save more, you can take less risk and sleep better at night while still reaching your goals. Hopefully this will also encourage folks to start saving as early as possible, even it is not an especially high amount.
Monday, July 30th, 2012
If you have a 401(k) or other tax-sheltered retirement plan, one of the investment options may be a stable value (SV) fund. In today’s low interest rate environment, stable value funds have been popular as they offer the stable price of a money market fund but with a higher yield. This is due to the fact that they are basically intermediate-term bond funds wrapped in an insurance contract that guarantees it maintains a “stable value”. This means the book value that you see can differ from the actual market value.
In my case, I invest some money in them because they offer a 3% yield on previous contributions (current contributions earn 1.25% on which I passed). Compare that with a money market fund earning 0.01%, or the Vanguard Intermediate Bond fund with a 6.4 year duration and only a 1.78% yield.
However, if interest rates were to rise quickly, this would lower the market value of those bonds (as interest rates go up, bond values go down) at the same time that there may be a rush of redemptions. Would the fund be able to cash people out at the higher book value as promised? A recent Vanguard research paper ran some scenarios based on historical periods of rising interest rates (1986-1990 and 2004-2008). They used Vanguard’s pooled fund, the Vanguard Retirement Savings Trust, with an average duration of underlying investments of ~2.6 years. Read the paper for details, but the overall conclusion was that the stable value funds would survive such scenarios:
Although stable value funds in general have performed well through past market cycles and crises, in the current environment of low interest rates both stable value investors and contract providers have been concerned about the effect rising interest rates would have on the funds and the ability of the funds to continue to perform well when further stressed by cash outflows.
[...] …in our simulations, the funds’ MV/BV ratios demonstrated resiliency, and crediting rates fluctuated within a band far narrower than that of market yields, even in extraordinary scenarios.
While the paper’s findings provide some reassurance, I’m reminded that lots of people “stress tested” mortgage-backed securities in 2007 as well. Based on the Vanguard analysis, here are some additional cautionary steps to take for potential investors in stable value funds:
- Remember the basics of stable value funds. SV funds are intermediate bonds wrapped in an insurance guarantee, so if the insurance fails then you’re just left with bonds. This isn’t the end of the world, but make sure you’re okay with that. See previous post on stable value funds risks and rewards for real-life examples.
- Understand your specific withdrawal restrictions. There are usually some form of liquidity restriction attached, but they can vary greatly. In some cases, you have to give a full 12- to 24-month notice to withdraw at book value (guaranteed principal). In my plan, I am not allowed to transfer into any other fixed income (bond) funds at all. I can transfer at any time into a stock fund, but then I have to wait 90 days until I can transfer again to another bond fund. This Reuters article reports that some providers have been cutting back on guarantees.
- Be aware of scenarios where your stable value fund will be under stress. Usually, this results from rapidly rising interest rates. For example, if the yield on money market funds rise, people will prefer those to stable value funds. Also, the market value of the underlying bonds will fluctuate, even though only the book value is reported on your statements. If the market-to-book ratio on your SV fund drops below 98% (see updated prospectus), people may panic and start to withdraw.
Friday, July 6th, 2012
Via the NY Times, benefits consultant Aon Hewitt released their 2012 Real Deal study about workers at large companies and their readiness for retirement. The study assumes that an employee will work at least 30 years with some large company, not necessarily the same one, and then retire around age 65 with Social Security kicking in. It does not reflect savings or other retirement assets outside of the employer-sponsored plans (IRAs, taxable brokerage accounts, etc). The key findings of the study are summarized below:
85% replacement ratio. Using various assumptions, they find that the average worker will need about 85% of their pre-retirement income to maintain their standard of living. I suspect that most of this number comes from the finding that you need to save about 15% of your income for retirement, and it assumes you spend everything else. Thus, after retirement you have the remaining 85% to cover.
Average employee needs to save 11 times pay. The amount needed at “retirement age” (~65) to cover retirement expenses through an average life expectancy (age 87 for males, age 88 for females) is 15.9 times pay. Social Security is estimated to cover 4.9 times pay. Therefore, the employer needs to save 11 times pay.
Average employee is expected to have 8.8 times pay. This is the sum of pension benefits, employer contributions to 401k/403b-type plans, and employee contributions to those plans. This leaves an average shortfall of about 2.2 times pay. 30% of people are on track or better, 20% are very far behind, and the rest are somewhere in in the middle.
I’m hoping that this study will have nothing to do with me as the idea of working full-time in a large corporation until 65 sounds quite horrendous. The overall takeaway is that retirement will still happen for most people as long as they work until Social Security, even if it might not be as nice as they’d like it to be. 11 times final income seems a reasonable rule-of-thumb for this traditional definition of retirement, but using income as a multiplier is annoying to me because it locks you into the assumption of a 15% savings rate.
In terms of non-traditional early retirement, I still prefer the rough rule of saving about 30 times our annual spending for early retirement. Your savings rate will have to be much higher than 15%. If you spend $50k a year, you’d need to save $1.5 million. If you own your house and otherwise spend $2,000 a month, then you’d need to save about $720,000. Using this metric, lots of people could retire on less than a million dollars even today.
Thursday, July 5th, 2012
Since I spent July 4th trying to build my own cornhole board (until the batteries in my drill ran out), hanging out with family members sharing their opinions on every girl baby name in the world, happily eating hot dogs with beer, and watching fireworks that didn’t last just 15 seconds, I didn’t spend much time on the computer today.
Instead, since a certain bank already used this holiday to refer to financial independence, I found myself thinking about how my view of financial independence and “early retirement” has changed over the years. Just my opinions. I apologize in advance for the rambling.
- Early retirement. I believe it’s just as possible as ever. However, you’ll have to be different than most people. You’ll have to either earn more than others, or spend less than others. Preferably both. But most people don’t want to be different than most people. It’s hard, you stick out, you get called cheap a lot, and you tend to just keep quiet so you don’t stick out as much.
Very few people will retire early. Many of them don’t even think of it as an option. Some will consider it, and just come to realize they’d rather just spend more and work more. I don’t necessarily see anything wrong with that.
- Post-retirement jobs. (Oxymoron?) If you’re good at saving money, you may be afraid of being broke. (I am.) But that also means that you may still worry about “what if I run out of money” no matter how much money you have. (I do.) However, if you’re disciplined and motivated enough to retire early, you’ll probably be able to find some sort of work that will pay you decent money for a flexible 5-20 hours a week, 3-9 months a year. Keep your eye out for that kind of job, it will help you retire earlier and with less stress.
- Investing. I have come around to believing that some people can invest wisely and beat the return of the general market. I believe it’s a skill, but with so much noise that separating skill and luck is hard. It’s very easy to fool yourself into thinking you’re beating the market if you’re not keeping score carefully. Low-cost passive investments guarantee you above-average results, and for most people that’s the best bet to take.
Old fashioned retirement is mostly about saving a big chunk of money, and then spending a big chunk of money without running out. Early retirement is more about living off of dividend and bond interest income almost indefinitely, but remember that even dividends can drop by 30% in any given year. As long as you don’t reach for yield too much, you should be able to design a portfolio whose dividends should rise with inflation. I don’t pay attention to mainstream retirement calculators anymore (Monte Carlo simulations) by Fidelity, Vanguard, ING, etc. I don’t feel they approximate real-life reactions to a dropping portfolio.
- Rental property. More people I know actually retired early with rental property than by stock market returns. Fixed rate mortgages come with fixed payments, while rental income rises with inflation. This doesn’t necessarily mean that rental property is better stocks and bonds, but perhaps there is something special about this asset class. I’m seriously considering rental property again, but don’t know if I want to deal with it while raising young kids.
- Home ownership. If you’re geographically stable, I highly recommend homeownership with a 15-year mortgage. It doesn’t cost double a 30-year mortgage. Paying extra towards my mortgage feels much more warm and fuzzy than placing money in the stock market. It allows you to see the effect of compound interest. Simply putting an extra $100 a month towards principal regularly will shave years off a typical mortgage. See prepayment calculator.
I expect to pay off our mortgage within the next 5 years, before our portfolio is ready to support full financial independence but the lowered stress levels due to the huge drop in monthly spending will be awesome. I see the appeal of borrowing money for 30 years at 3.XX%, but for my primary home I’d be happier owning it free and clear. I’ll take the low interest rate on rental property, though.
Monday, July 2nd, 2012
Here’s a mid-year update of our investment portfolio, including employer 401(k) plans, self-employed retirement plans, Traditional and Roth IRAs, and taxable brokerage holdings. Cash reserves (emergency fund), college savings accounts, and day-to-day cash balances are excluded.
Asset Allocation & Holdings
Here is my current actual asset allocation:
The overall target asset allocation remains the same, based on my own preferences and research:
Read the rest of this entry…
Tuesday, June 19th, 2012
New 401(k) plan fee disclosure requirements from the US Department of Labor are coming soon. This includes defined benefit, 401(k), 403(b), profit sharing, and other retirement plans. I was getting confused myself, so I wanted to summarize some of the basic deadlines. First, there are three main parties involved:
- Plan service providers. For example Vanguard, Fidelity, or numerous smaller local providers.
- Retirement plan fiduciaries. Basically, your employer.
- Plan participant. The employee.
First, there is a new requirement for fee disclosure by service providers to the fiduciaries (i.e. from Fidelity to the employer). These regulations become effective on July 1, 2012. The idea is to get fiduciaries to understand the services received from providers and to determine the reasonableness of the costs incurred. You’d think that your employer would already demand to know what they’ve been paying for all these years. Why don’t they? All too often, you, the employee are the one paying for it out of your investment balances and earnings!
Which brings up the next stage, the fee disclosure requirement from plan fiduciaries to participants (i.e. from employer to employee), which becomes effective August 30, 2012. Now, your employer is legally required to tell you what fees you’re paying, including both investment management fees and administrative fees for things like record keeping, accounting, and legal services. However, this is likely be wrapped up into just an overall percentage for each investment option, or worded as dollars charged per $1,000 invested.
The basic problem remains. Employers choose 401k plans with high fees often because they it doesn’t affect their bottom line – most are smaller companies with plans that shift the cost burden onto the employees. However, by simply shining a brighter light on these fees and allowing easy comparison between employer plans, it lets employees have more information to affect change. Indeed, it appears this forced transparency is working already, as the WSJ reports:
Employers “have been polishing up their plans in anticipation of fee disclosure, making sure the fees are appropriate,” says David Wray, president of the Plan Sponsor Council of America. He says nearly two-thirds of 401(k) plans changed their investment lineup last year, and 57% did so the year before, compared with a “normal number” of about 10%.
More reading: Department of Labor, NY Times, Employee Benefits Law Report
Thursday, May 31st, 2012
A helpful reader sent me a WSJ article with the provocative theme that all this investment advice about asset allocation doesn’t matter for most people. Why?
For the vast majority of savers, improved investment returns won’t materially extend how long retirement money lasts. That’s, in large part, because few investors have enough money in their retirement account to tilt the balance.
Far more important, says the paper from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, are three variables that don’t require a brokerage account: how long you work, controlling spending and tapping the value of your home.
Briefly, the study found that 47% of households would fall short of their income needs in retirement at age 67, when Social Security kicks in for those born after 1960. However, even if investors were able to theoretically earn a guaranteed 6.5% above inflation annually in a riskless investment, 44% would still be short.
How little are people saving? The WSJ article notes that having $500,000 in financial assets by retirement age would put in you in the top 10% of savers. The CRR working paper itself mentions that “the typical 401(k)/IRA balance of households approaching retirement is less than $100,000″ but I didn’t see a source.
The Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) found that in 2010 the average IRA individual balance (all accounts from the same person combined) was $91,864, while the median balance was $25,296. EBRI also found that at year-end 2010, the average 401(k) account balance was $60,329 and the median account balance was $17,686. But that’s for all folks, not just people of retirement age.
This shouldn’t be too surprising. Your savings rate is the most important factor in determining if you can retire comfortably. Working longer is the same as saving more and spending less (for a while). Getting used to spending less now would aallows you to need less in retirement. Doing a reverse mortgage is just another word for cashing in your savings, isn’t it?
Why asset allocation is still important. The paper concludes that financial advisors should focus more on savings rates and less about the complex ETF portfolio they just designed for you. Probably true. However, asset allocation has always been something that we did to help our situation without actually doing the hard work of having to save more. Imagine a pill that we could take to lose weight, while not actually eating less or exercising more.
I suppose we should view designing an asset allocation more as a potential “boost” to our nest egg than the driving force, and realize that earning an extra 1% or 2% a year won’t help if you’re just compounding a small chunk of your income. How much is enough? Studies have found that a savings rate of 16.62% would have worked out well historically.
Wednesday, April 25th, 2012
What happens when you finally want to live off of your portfolio? Most withdrawal methods call for a combination of spending dividends and selling shares to cover the rest. But what if you wanted to live only off of dividends from your stocks and the interest from bonds? I was curious to see how this would have worked out historically.
Let’s say you had $100,000 invested in a mutual fund, and you had to live off the dividend income produced from those shares without any additional buying or selling. I found historical price data and dividend distributions for select funds from Yahoo Finance that went back to 1987-1990, and added up the trailing 12 months of dividends to see how much money they would have generated over a year’s time.
The Vanguard Wellesley Income Fund (VWINX) is a low-cost, actively-managed fund which has been around since 1970. It is composed of approximately 35% dividend-oriented stocks and 65% bonds (mostly corporate for higher yields). This conservative allocation is designed to create a steady income stream with less focus on capital appreciation. Let’s see how $100,000 invested in 1988 would have done in terms of income:
In 1988, interest rates were relatively high and $100,000 of Wellesley shares would have created nearly $9,000 of annual income. In 2012, that same set of shares would be worth $156,000 and your income would be about $5,400 annually. The income produced had some swings, but overall did not seem to track with inflation although the share price did better. According to the CPI, $100,000 in 1988 would buy as much stuff as $180,000 today.
The Vanguard 500 Index Fund was the first index fund available to the public and is now one of the largest funds in the world, passively following the S&P 500 index of large US companies since 1976 and thus always 100% stocks. Even though this is not a dividend-focused fund, it still does produce a regular stream of dividends from the companies it tracks:
In contrast, $100,000 of the Vanguard 500 Fund would have only created about $2,700 of income in 1988, but that income has grown over the next 24 years to about $8,800 today in 2012. Also of high significance is that the value of your $100,000 worth of shares from 1988 would be worth around $500,000 today.
This is just a limited snapshot of two funds, but it would suggest that you can’t just buy an income-oriented fund that has a large chunk of bonds and expect to sit back and spend whatever dividends are spit out. However, things would have turned out much better if one was reinvesting a big chunk of those Wellesley dividends when the overall yield was high. I can still envision a income-oriented portfolio, but I will have to set a reasonable withdrawal rate that isn’t too high and have the discipline to plow the rest back into buying more shares.
Monday, April 23rd, 2012
This updated post explains my ratio-based method of tracking our financial progress towards early retirement (as shown by the status indicator on the top right of every blog page).
Cash Reserves / Emergency Fund
Our goal is to always have a full year of expenses in cash equivalents as our “emergency fund”. (This is not the same as a year of income. Our expenses are much lower than our income.) This is a cushion for a variety of potential events including job loss, health concerns, or other unplanned costs. It also allows us to take a more long-term view with our investment portfolio since we know we won’t have to touch it.
Since our emergency fund is relatively large, I try to maximize the yield. If we stuck it all in a money market fund, the yield would be barely above zero. With a bit of work, our cash earns a blended rate of over 2% annually without taking on extra risk. We use the same accounts to make money from no fee 0% APR balance transfer offers, but currently don’t play that “game”. Here are recent updates on where we keep our cash:
March 2013 Cash Reserves Update
June 2012 Cash Reserves Update
March 2012 Cash Reserves Update
May 2011 Cash Reserves Update
January 2011 Cash Reserves Update
I don’t think everyone should buy a house (or more accurately, take out a huge loan on a house), as it historically doesn’t necessarily work out to be a very good investment over short or even long periods. However, if you are geographically stable, I do think buying and eventually owning a house free and clear can be a solid component of an early retirement plan. My current forecast is to have our house paid off in
10-15 5-10 years. Housing is very expensive where I live, so once that mortgage payment is gone, the actual income my investments will have to produce will drop drastically.
There are many ways to define home equity, and I am sticking to a simple method of calculating home equity by taking 100% minus (outstanding mortgage balance / original home purchase price). As of 2011, our home price has rebounded to over the original purchase price according to a refinance appraisal and comparable sales. Overall, I’d rather enjoy having continuous progress without worrying about my home’s exact market value. Here are some previous mortgage updates:
April 2013 Mortgage Paid Off
November 2011 Mortgage Payoff Update
February 2011 Mortgage Payoff Update
The goal of my investment portfolio is allow withdrawals to support our needed expenses in “retirement”. Again, income and expenses are not the same thing. After mortgage payoff, I expect our required expenses to be less than 25% of our current income. I like to assume a simple 3% safe withdrawal rate, which means for every $100,000 saved, I can generate $3,000 a year of inflation-adjusted income for the rest of our lives. I used to assume 4%, but since our target “retirement” age is in our 40s and not 60s, I feel that 3% is better. Even 3% is not guaranteed, but again it does provide a quick estimate of progress. Here are recent portfolio updates:
July 2012 Investment Portfolio Update
February 2012 Investment Portfolio Update
November 2011 Investment Portfolio Update
July 2011 Investment Portfolio Update
My initial goal was to try and keep the home equity and expense replacement ratio about the same so that both will reach 100% at the same time, but we’ll see. I am still (very slowly) researching shifting to a more income-oriented portfolio that yields about 3% and has a principal value that can grow with inflation.
The actual implementation of my plan will probably require more flexibility. At some point, I plan on using some of my money and invest in an immediate annuity for some income stability. I’ll also need to vary my exact withdrawal rates a bit with market conditions. Once I reach age 70 or so, Social Security will kick in something. I don’t think Social Security will disappear although I do expect means-testing, but who knows these days.
Wednesday, April 11th, 2012
Another new online portfolio management tool is FutureAdvisor. I want to say they were invite-only for a while, but they appear to be wide open to new accounts now. Their basic account is free “forever”, and you can add 24/7 portfolio rebalancing alerts along with an annual videoconference call with an advisor for $49/year. The process of setting things up is pretty simple with the following steps laid out:
Enter pertinent information such as current age, current income, desired retirement age, and desired retirement income. I like that they don’t just assume that you want to spend 80% of your current income in retirement. However, the total of your portfolio holdings entered here will be replace by whatever you share in the next step. I’m not really sure why they bother asking.
You can either manually enter your portfolio holdings or have them import it automatically using your username and password. Most major brokerage companies including 401k accounts are available, but I did notice some that are currently not supported. The supported list includes Vanguard, Fidelity (w/ Netbenefits), Schwab, Merrill, and TD Ameritrade. The unsupported list includes TradeKing, Zecco, and Interactive Brokers.
Based on the information given and that same ole’ multiple-choice risk questionnaire, they will suggest to you a model asset allocation. You can tweak the target by picking between Conservative (60/40 stocks/bonds), Moderate (80/20), and Aggressive (90/10). Here’s the conservative asset allocation assigned to me:
Read the rest of this entry…
Thursday, March 29th, 2012
Time to try out another online portfolio manager – MarketRiders.com. While previously-reviewed Betterment is an website/broker/advisor combo that handles all the decisions and trade executions for you, MarketRiders is more like an online portfolio coach telling you what trades to place yourself at the discount broker of your choice. Both services offer diversified portfolios using low-cost index ETFs, but think of it as one cooks you a nice tray of lasagna while the other one provides you a detailed, step-by-step recipe.
Free Trial Sign-up
To find out what the recipe is, you have to sign up for a free 30-day trial with your credit card information. The regular price for the service is $149.95 a year or $14.95 per month. You will be auto-enrolled after 30 days, but MarketRiders promises that canceling is easy and can be done completely online within two clicks. I can confirm it is indeed that easy. Just go to My account > Manage my subscription > Cancel my subscription. You still even get to use the rest of your free 30 days after canceling. Now, what do you get?
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Monday, March 26th, 2012
Updated 2012. Betterment.com is another online investment tool that rolls portfolio management, trading commissions, and rebalancing into one website. I opened an account when it started in 2010 with $1,000 to see under the hood. Since then, they’ve actually made several changes in response to feedback and constructive criticism, and I think the moves have been in the right direction. Instead of a new post, I’ve updated this existing review to incorporate the changes.
The main attraction of Betterment is simplicity. It boils everything down to a big dial (see above) to indicate your risk preference, and takes care of everything else in the background. ETF buying, ETF selling, rebalancing, and so on. On the surface, it’s as easy as having a bank account, besides the critical fact that you can lose money!
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