myRA Starter Retirement Account Launches Nationwide

myra_logoThe U.S. Department of the Treasury announced the national launch of myRA (my Retirement Account), a new starter option for those who don’t have access to a retirement savings plan at work. There have been some improvements and tweaks since their initial pilot launch in late 2014.

No monthly or annual fees. No minimum contribution requirement. No minimum balance requirement. Contribute as little as a dollar every paycheck if you like.

Fund via automatic paycheck deduction, automatic bank transfers, or federal tax refund. Automatic paycheck deductions work through your employer’s direct deposit system.

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No risk of loss. Your money is backed by the US government, just like US Treasury bonds and FDIC-insured bank accounts. You earn the same interest rate as the Government Securities fund available to Federal employees, known as the G Fund. The good news is that it earns the higher interest of longer-maturity bonds while maintaining zero principal risk like a bank account. Interest is compounded daily.

The G Fund 1-year historical return for 2014 was 2.31%. Taken from TSPFolio, here is the interest rate history. The current annualized rate for November 2015 is 2.125%.

myra_grate

What does “starter account” mean? There are no stocks or other riskier options here. You can roll over your myRA into a private-sector Roth IRA once you’ve either reached the max balance of $15,000 or the max time period of 30 years.

What do you mean it’s a Roth IRA? I mean just that; it is a Roth IRA. The same rules apply:

  • Tax-fee and penalty-free withdrawal of contributions at any time, if needed.
  • If you make a qualified withdrawal, you’ll pay no taxes on both contributions and earnings.
  • For 2015, the contribution limit per person is $5,500 a year, or $6,500 if you are at least 50 years old by the end of the year.
  • The income limit is based on modified adjusted gross income (MAGI). The 2015 phase-out range for singles is $116,000 to $131,000. For married filing jointly is $183,000 to $193,000.

Although you may not be the target audience, you can still use myRA if you have a 401k or previous IRAs. Again, myRA is a Roth IRA so you’d have to direct part or all of your annual contribution to this Roth IRA instead. The G Fund is something that I would invest in if it was an option for me, but it is somewhat inconvenient to open another account just for one investment option. For example, if you are 90% stocks and 10% bonds, a $5,000 total contribution would only direct $500 towards a myRA.

Commentary. As I noted when it first came out, myRA is kind of a Frankenstein cobbled together from the parts bin. Existing Roth IRA vehicle. Existing Thrift Savings Plan G Fund. Comerica Bank quietly manages the backend (they’ve done previous work for the Treasury). It’s a bit clunky as you have to tell your employer to direct deposit some of your paycheck into your myRA, which a is basically a Comerica bank savings account and routing number (111925074). If you employer can’t handle split direct deposits, you must contribute via bank transfer or tax refund.

Will this combo convince someone who’s not saving today, to start? My guess is that the popularity will be relatively low. While I personally wouldn’t mind having the G Fund as an investment option, but I don’t know that someone who’s not saving now will be enticed by a 2% interest rate. (Maybe if rates rise.) But hopefully I’m wrong and the opportunity to have a “retirement plan of your own” is enough.

To me, what’s missing is super-easy auto-enrollment (auto opt-in, voluntary opt-out). So the best case scenario is if small businesses without 401(k) plans actively encourage their employees to sign up for myRA, as we’ve seen that automatic deductions are a good trick to save more for retirement. For more information, visit the myRA.gov employer FAQ.

Your Employer Took Your Money, Invested For Retirement, and You Liked It

Below is a chart taken from this WSJ article about employer-run 401(k) retirement plans and how the default settings have changed over the last decade:

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The trend: Employers are making you save more initially by default, making you save a little more every year by default, and putting it in a pre-mixed target-date fund of stocks and bonds. Employees can opt out of any of these things at any time. But they aren’t.

Credit Suisse braced for complaints last year when it upped its initial automatic savings rate for new employees to 9% from 6%. It did so after years of experiencing lackluster interest from the firm’s roughly 8,500 employees—specifically younger workers—in the U.S. when meeting to discuss increasing retirement savings, said Joseph Huber, chairman of the bank’s pension-investment committee.

But Mr. Huber said the bank heard concerns from only two people, who weren’t previously putting any money into their 401(k) plans. Credit Suisse also decided to automatically increase the default rate by 1% a year until an employee reaches 15%. It doesn’t match contributions up to the highest rate, although it contributes $3,000 to $10,000 for each employee annually.

“It’s companies’ biggest fear and it was radio silence,” he said.

Well, perhaps I shouldn’t be pointing this out because the current inaction may be a good thing. The only problem is that nearly half of US workers don’t have an company-sponsored retirement plan. The bigger your company, the more likely you have one as an option.

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The takeaway? Try using this behavioral psychology trick on yourself. Commit to saving more through automatic, recurring transfers. Use a savings account or an IRA if you don’t have a 401(k) match. Set the amount such that it hurts a bit. You can always change it back later (but hopefully you won’t need to).

Andre Agassi Interview: Typical Day in Retirement

agassi_logoAndre Agassi became famous for being a professional tennis player, but his greatest legacy may be through his work in charitable and social causes. He now oversees both a charitable foundation and the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy, a tuition-free charter school for at-risk K-12 children. As both a tennis and education enthusiast, I’m a big fan. As part of their “Life’s Work” series, Harvard Business Review interviewed Agassi.

I especially liked this quote about his typical day in “retirement”, as my ideal schedule is starting to look the same. Maybe not work every morning, but at least some mornings. Hiking, sports, or some other outdoor activity otherwise.

At the C2 Montreal conference earlier this year, you said a typical day for you now involves working in the morning but finishing by 2:30 in the afternoon to pick up your kids in the carpool line.

I have the luxury of tweaking the balance now, of never missing a baseball game or a dance competition. If I’m feeling like I need a business outlet, I plan work. But yes, I engage much harder with my kids because they grow up fast. By the time you’re qualified for the job, you’re unemployed.

The whole point of financial freedom is to do whatever you want, whether that means zero work, only charitable work, part-time work, or even more. Consider this quote from the man who has spent thousands of hours editing Wikipedia (over a million times)… for free.

Everyone should do work that is not for money. I believe that when you have free time, you shouldn’t spend it idling. I’m able bodied; globally speaking (though not at all locally speaking), I’m rich. I have a lot of resources other people don’t have — an internet connection, free time, the ability to speak English — and it’s incumbent upon me to use them to make the world a better place.

But back to Agassi – here he is on taking ownership of your career. I would expand this to perhaps your savings and investments?

What do you regard as your biggest career mistake?

I wish I had taken ownership of the business side of my career years ago instead of trusting certain people. Nobody cares more, or represents you better, than you do yourself.

Finally, he explains his intensive approach to changing the lives of children.

What sets your school apart?

One difference is time on task. There are no shortcuts. We have longer school days—eight hours versus six. If you add that up, it’s 16 years of education versus 12 for district peers. There’s also an emphasis on accountability, which starts with the kids themselves. They know this is a privilege: There are 1,000 kids on the waiting list. So they take ownership. The teachers have annual contracts; there’s no business in the world that could succeed if employees who worked for three years got a job for life. The parents are accountable too. They need to acknowledge, accept, and embrace the objectives set for their children. They come in, they volunteer time, they sign off on homework assignments. You have to cover all the bases.

Do Financial Advisors Really Keep Portfolios and Clients Disciplined?

I written about Dimensional Fund Advisors (DFA), a mutual fund family that is powered by top academic research. Another things that makes DFA unique is that they are only sold through approved financial advisors. You can’t buy them with just any old brokerage account. (Exceptions are certain 401(k)-style retirement plans and 529 college savings plans.) Allan Roth has new article about DFA funds in Financial Planning magazine, which is a trade publication targeted to financial professionals.

Why not sell directly to Average Joe investor? Here is David Butler, head of DFA Global Financial Advisor Services:

DFA has no intention of bypassing the advisor channel and offering its funds directly to retail investors. “We think advisors help keep investors disciplined,” Butler says.

In my previous post The True Value of a Real, Human Financial Advisor, I wrote about this concept. A good client advisor will help you keep your cool when the next disaster comes. Vanguard says that the biggest “value add” from good advisors is their “behavioral coaching”. A good financial advisor keeps you from making the “Big Mistake” that derails your plans.

onepage_bigmistake

But later in the same Allan Roth article, the idea of advisors as disciplinarians is called into question.

But do investors get better returns? I tested Butler’s claim that DFA advisors help keep investors disciplined by asking Morningstar to compare the performance gap between the two fund families. The performance gap is the difference between investor returns (dollar weighted) and fund returns (geometric).

Over the 10 years ending Dec. 31, 2014, the DFA annualized performance gap stood at 1.28% versus only 0.22% for Vanguard. When I showed these figures to Butler, he responded, “It’s hard to make an argument about the discipline of advisors based on these figures.

Here’s a primer on investor returns vs. fund returns. Investor returns are the actual returns earned by investors, based on the timing of their buying and selling activities.

The next step was to compare the investor returns of DFA’s largest fund, DFA Emerging Markets Value I Fund (DFEVX) with $14B in assets with the closest Vanguard competitor, Vanguard Emerging Markets Index Fund (VEMAX) with $54B in assets. I personally think a better comparison would be with their DFA Emerging Markets Core Equity I Fund (DFCEX), so I’m throwing that in as well.

DFA fund returns are often higher relative to index fund competitors. Here’s a Morningstar chart comparing the growth of $10,000 invested 10 years ago in each of the three funds. You can see the DFA funds do slightly better in terms of fund returns. Click to enlarge.

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But what about investor returns? I took some screenshots of their respective Morningstar Investor Return pages.

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We see that after accounting for the timing of actual cashflows, the average investor in the DFA fund actually lost money with an annualized return of -1.01% and -2.04%! Meanwhile, the average Vanguard investor earned over 6% annualized.

The three mutual funds don’t have the exact same investment objective, but they do both all pull from the overall Emerging Markets asset class. The DFA funds try to focus ways to earn greater long-term return by holding stocks with a higher “value” factor, but it also has a higher expense ratio. The Vanguard fund just tries to “buy the haystack” and passively track the entire index.

Let’s recap. The stated reason why DFA is only sold through advisors is that they offer more discipline. We are told that such behavioral coaching is where human advisors provide their greatest value. However, the evidence available suggests that DFA advisors are less good at trading discipline than when a similar fund is completely open to retail investors.

I found this rather surprising. I used to think that restricting my potential advisors to those were affiliated with DFA was one way of getting an “above-average” advisor. But after doing my own research, I found that even though DFA investments are generally lower-cost, the additional fees charged by individual advisors ranged widely from reasonable to quite expensive.

I am confident there are financial advisors that can provide the proper behavioral coaching that makes them well worth the cost. At the same time, clearly many are not providing the advertised guidance and discipline. The problem remains – how does Average Joe investor find the good ones? I still know of no clear-cut way.

Retirement Income Risks: Longevity, Sequence of Returns, and Stupidity

annuity_puzzleOne of the first things that pops up when doing research on retirement annuities is the “annuity puzzle”. Essentially, economists have done their calculations and shown that simple, immediate income annuities are theoretically the best fit for many people. You give up some things like liquidity and upside potential, but in exchange you get the most monthly income for the rest of your life. But in the real world, only a small fraction of such people actually go out and buy such annuities.

Bob Seawright wrote a nice article at ThinkAdvisor.com that lists three main risks with managing withdrawals from your own lump-sum portfolios. An income annuity can help address these risks. I’ve added my own comments as well.

Longevity risk. People are living longer on average. Enter your age(s) into this Vanguard longevity tool. Here is a short snippet from a previous longevity risk post:

For an individual that is 65 today, there is roughly a 50/50 chance they will reach age 80. For a couple both at 65, roughly a 50/50 chance that at least one person will reach age 90.

The extreme ages are getting higher as well; quote below taken from the Seawright post:

Moreover, the distribution of longevity is wide — a 22-year difference between the 10th and 90th percentiles of the distribution for men (dying at 70 versus 92) and a 23-year difference between the 10th and 90th percentiles of the distribution for women (dying at 72 versus 95).

Sequence of returns risk. Two retirees can start with the same initial portfolio balance and experience the same average return, but if one experiences highly negative returns in the first few years of withdrawals they can end up with very different outcomes. Here is a previous graphic illustrating the sequence of returns risk.

sor_risk

Stupidity risk. If you do-it-yourself, what if you aren’t very good? The idea of safe withdrawal rates is a starting point, but even that assumes a theoretical 60/40 you-didn’t-panic-when-stocks-dropped-50-percent portfolio. I like the idea of adding some robustness with more flexible dynamic safe withdrawal rates, but “safe” is still a relative term.

Eventually, I plan to put a portion of my money into a single premium immediate annuity (SPIA). I’ll probably wait until around age 65, with a joint life rider so that it will keep paying out as long as either my wife or I are alive. I like the idea of having enough guaranteed income to cover all basic needs like housing, food, and utilities. Considering that we have no mortgage and assuming no major cuts to Social Security, I am hoping that number is not too much in excess of state-specific insurance guaranty coverage limits.

Lifetime Income vs. Lump Sum Payouts: You May Live Longer Than You Think

My parents are in the midst of planning their retirement payout structure. I don’t know about everyone else, but in my mind I tend to plan to live to pretty much exactly age 80. Early death is depressing to think about (even though I have term life insurance), but what about the other end? The Statistical Ideas blog had a timely post about longevity risks and lump-sum payouts which contained a “death table” (horrible name) for people born in 1950. I’m going to paraphrase the explanation in a way that makes more sense to me.

1950longevity

  • Out of every 100 people born in 1950, roughly 1/3rd are expected to die by age 65. (Blue)
  • If you are in the group alive at 65, your life expectancy is now age 79. That is, half of that group will die before 79. (Green)
  • But, that also means you have a 50% chance of living past 79. If so, you will live to somewhere between 80 to 110. In other words, possibly a really long time! (Red)

If you are a couple, then the odds of at least one of you living a really long time is even higher. Let’s take a couple, one male and one female, who are both age 65. According to this Vanguard longevity calculator, there is an 89% chance at least one will reach age 80, and a 45% chance at last one will reach age 90. If you are younger, your life expectancy is even longer; enter your age(s) into the calculator.

Here’s my mental shortcut. For an individual that is 65 today, there is roughly a 50/50 chance they will reach age 80. For a couple both at 65, roughly a 50/50 chance that at least one person will reach age 90. Putting it this makes make either scenario equally likely and would push me to plan accordingly. On one side of the coin flip, you have to enjoy life now! On the other side, you need to be prepared.

This longevity risk needs to be accounted for when you give up pensions or annuities that offer you a guaranteed income for life. A lump sum payout may sound attractive, but be very careful. Have any annuity and pension buyout offers analyzed and checked by an unbiased third-party. It is a big decision and may be worth paying an expert for their time.

Here’s a sad story of lowball buyout offers for lead-paint victims. Not to say all lump-sum offers are this bad, but it serves as a warning to make sure you understand what you are giving up.

Combining Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs & Personal Finance

Updated. You may or may not be familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which is part of one theory explaining human behavior by psychologist Abraham Maslow. It suggests that there are five general levels of needs:

  • Physiological
  • Safety
  • Social
  • Esteem
  • Growth

These are often represented as a triangle due to their relative importance. Lower needs must be satisfied before the higher needs can be addressed. For example, one must first obtain food and water (physiological) before worrying about what might happen if they get in a car accident tomorrow (safety). It’s just a theory, but an interesting one.

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While not all of these needs can be explicitly bought with money, it’s not too much of a stretch to see the relationship between this triangle and finances. We usually worry about paying for rent and food first before worrying about giving to charity or that long distance telephone bill.

In the book Retirement Income Redesigned, the authors make a close correlation between the hierarchy of needs and planning for retirement. Here is a figure from the book:

maslowmoney600

The new levels:

  • Survival income. How much do you spend simply to survive?
  • What-if income. You will want to protect your life. This could mean health care costs, health insurance, and/or proper portfolio planning so you don’t outlive your money.
  • Freedom income. Money needed to do the things that bring joy and fulfillment to your life. Could be travel, education, or fine wine.
  • Gift income. Money for people and causes that deserve your help. This is the replacement for “love”.
  • Dream income. This is the elusive “self-actualization” level where you find true happiness and meaning.

By breaking down your income needs, this could be another way to track your progress towards financial freedom. You can make covering your bare necessities your first smaller goal, and move on from there. This would involve both measuring your expenses and also deciding how much you’d need to save to create that much income.

My One-Page Financial Plan: Why Is Money Important To Me?

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onepage0I’ve already shared two nuggets from the book The One-Page Financial Plan by Carl Richards – the importance of getting started and the true value of a human advisor. But what about the title itself?

Before even reading the book, I was impatient and tried to make a one-page financial plan but it didn’t sound right. Even after reading it all the way through, I got a bit lost as besides “one-page plans”, it also tried to cover other big topics like budgeting, investing, and insurance. It took a few re-reads before things finally settled down in my mind. Here are the parts that helped the most:

Your one-page plan simply represents the three to four things that are the most important to you: some action items that need to get done along with a reminder of why you’re doing them.

Having done this with hundreds of my clients, I’ve found no more efficient strategy for solving the problem of how to handle our finances than asking “Why is money important to you?” […] If you’re doing this with a spouse, it’s important that each partner answer the question separately.

The reason I ask my clients this question is because it helps us understand their values. Often, the process of asking “Why?”—“Why is money important to me?” or “Why have I been so anxious about money lately?” or “Just why do I work so hard anyway?”—uncovers deep desires and fears that we are often too busy or too scared to think about. While the process can be uncomfortable, recognizing what really matters to you is the first step toward making financial decisions that are in sync with your values.

Recently, the author shared his own plan on his website – What Does a One-Page Plan Look Like?:

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There are many reasons why my plan (at the top of this post) will be different from the author’s and yours. Our current situation is different, our priorities will be different, our goals will be different.

Why is money important to me?

  1. I greatly value security, sometimes so much that it is irrational. I don’t want to have to rely on anyone else for money or favors. We cut back on work hours to spend more time with kids, but we still want to make more than we spend. It’s not time to touch that nest egg yet!
  2. I greatly value spending time with my family, both on a day-to-day basis and for extended vacations in new and strange places. I have to work hard to avoid getting into a rut where the days and weeks all start melding together. Even if it means lugging multiple car seats and strollers everywhere, I still want to stay curious, make some mistakes, have some adventures.
  3. I want to someday shift my activities such that they more directly give back to my community or some other greater good. I don’t like the idea of just writing checks though, so I need to find a more active and satisfying role. If I could make some money while doing this, that would be great, but otherwise I need to put enough aside that my investments will support me.

The overall point of both this exercise and the book is that improving your financial life doesn’t have to be done perfectly. Just by getting started and putting down your best guess down on paper, you’ll already be better than most. If you see something wrong when comparing your values and your actual behavior, then make some changes. Having done them, I recommend both doing this exercise and reading the book. If your library participates with Overdrive.com, it is available to borrow as a Kindle eBook.

Early Retirement Portfolio Income Update, Mid 2015

The closer I get to the reality of living off of my portfolio, the more I like the idea of living off dividend and interest income. However, you can’t just buy stocks with the highest dividend yields and junk bonds with the highest interest rates without giving up something in return. Certainly there are many bad investments lurking out there for desperate retirees looking for maximum income. My goal is to live off my portfolio income while not reaching too far for yield.

A quick and dirty way to see how much income (dividends and interest) your portfolio is generating is to take the “TTM Yield” or “12 Mo. Yield” from Morningstar quote pages. Trailing 12 Month Yield is the sum of a fund’s total trailing 12-month interest and dividend payments divided by the last month’s ending share price (NAV) plus any capital gains distributed over the same period. SEC yield is another alternative, but I like TTM because it is based on actual distributions (SEC vs. TTM yield article).

Below is a close approximation of my most recent portfolio update. I have changed my asset allocation slightly to 60% stocks and 40% bonds because I believe that will be my permanent allocation upon early retirement.

Asset Class / Fund % of Portfolio Trailing 12-Month Yield (6/24/15) Yield Contribution
US Total Stock
Vanguard Total Stock Market Fund (VTI, VTSAX)
24% 1.79% 0.42%
US Small Value
WisdomTree SmallCap Dividend ETF (DES)
3% 2.78% 0.08%
International Total Stock
Vanguard Total International Stock Market Fund (VXUS, VTIAX)
24% 2.75% 0.81%
Emerging Markets Small Value
WisdomTree Emerging Markets SmallCap Dividend ETF (DGS)
3% 2.81% 0.09%
US Real Estate
Vanguard REIT Index Fund (VNQ, VGSLX)
6% 3.76% 0.22%
Intermediate-Term High Quality Bonds
Vanguard Limited-Term Tax-Exempt Fund (VMLUX)
20% 1.63% 0.34%
Inflation-Linked Treasury Bonds
Vanguard Inflation-Protected Securities Fund (VAIPX)
20% 2.18% 0.45%
Totals 100% 2.24%

 

The total weighted 12-month yield was 2.24%. This number is lower than the last three updates: 2.41%, 2.49%, and 2.31%. This means that if I had a $1,000,000 portfolio balance today, it would have generated $22,400 in interest and dividends over the last 12 months. Now, 2.24% is significantly lower than the 4% withdrawal rate often recommended for 65-year-old retirees with 30-year spending horizons, and is also lower than the 3% withdrawal that I prefer as a rough benchmark for early retirement. I should note that the muni bond interest in my portfolio is exempt from federal income taxes.

As noted previously, a simple benchmark for this portfolio is Vanguard LifeStrategy Growth Fund (VASGX) which is an all-in-one fund that is also 60% stocks and 40% bonds. That fund has a trailing 12-month yield of 2.01%. (Last update, it was 2.09%.)

So how am I doing? Using the 2.24% income yield, the combination of ongoing savings and recent market gains have us at 72% of the way to matching our annual household spending target. If I switch to a 3% benchmark, we are 96% there. Consider that if all your portfolio did was keep up with inflation each year (0% real returns), you could still spend 2% a year for 50 years. From that perspective, a 2% spending rate seems like a very conservative lower bound.

Sadly, some valuation models predict exactly that: 0% real returns over a long time. My portfolio has certainly gone up a ton in value due to the ongoing bull market. Bottom line is that we are getting closer but not quite where we want to be.

Early Retirement Portfolio Asset Allocation Update, Mid 2015

Here’s a mid-year update on my investment portfolio holdings for 2015. This includes tax-deferred accounts like 401(k)s and taxable brokerage holdings, but excludes things like physical property and cash reserves (emergency fund). The purpose of this portfolio is to create enough income to cover all of our household expenses.

Target Asset Allocation

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I try to pick 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 don’t hold commodities futures or gold as they don’t provide any income and I don’t believe they’ll outpace inflation significantly. In addition, I am not confident in them enough to know that I will hold them through an extended period of underperformance (i.e. don’t buy what you don’t can’t stick with).

Our current ratio is roughly 70% stocks and 30% bonds within our investment strategy of buy, hold, and rebalance. With a self-directed portfolio of low-cost funds and low turnover, we minimize management fees, commissions, and taxes.

Actual Asset Allocation and Holdings

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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 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)

Notes and Benchmark Comparison

There has been very little portfolio activity over the last 6 months. No major market movements (the S&P 500 hasn’t moved more than 2% in day so far in 2015). No mutual funds added or removed. I continued to invest in the same funds through 401k auto-contributions and the occasional fund purchase from saved income. Things are little off, but I’ll just wait and rebalance with new money. Some of my usual savings has been diverted to college savings. Mostly, just keeping my head down and moving forward. :)

A simple benchmark for my portfolio is 50% Vanguard LifeStrategy Growth Fund (VASGX) and 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 returned about 3.5% YTD for 2015. I haven’t bothered to calculate my exact portfolio return, but it should be roughly around this number.

I like tracking my dividend and interest income more than overall market movements. In a separate post, I will update the amount of income that I am deriving from this portfolio along with how that compares to my expenses.

The True Value of a Real, Human Financial Advisor

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The hot buzzword right now is “FinTech”, where technology will help us manage our finances more and efficiently than before. But I’ve also been tracking the reasons why working with a human advisor can be worth the money and time spent. As I’ve mentioned, the strength of the book The One-Page Financial Plan by Carl Richards is that you’re hearing the voice of an experienced financial planner who also has the skill of distilling his experiences down to a sketch. Here’s how he puts it:

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Takeaway: A good financial advisor keeps you from making The Big Mistake that derails your plans.

The big institution Vanguard says that a good financial advisor should be able to improve the performance of a “average” client’s portfolio by about three percentage points in the following ways. Take note of which one factor makes up half of that 3%:

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Takeaway: The biggest “value add” from good advisors is their “behavioral coaching”.

Here’s more incisive commentary by Josh Brown of The Reformed Broker, called When the flood comes:

When the flood comes, all of the bullshit arguments among the financial commentariat will come to an end. This will be my third time through. Believe me. We will not be arguing about how many basis points an advisor charges versus another advisor or a software program.

The people who are there for their clients and keep a cool head in public will come through okay. More than okay – they’ll actually raise assets from new and existing households who realize what a mistake they’ve made with their previous advisor or solution.

Takeaway: A good client advisor will help you keep your cool when the next disaster comes.

I’m sure you’ve caught onto the theme by now.

The value in a financial advisor arrives when they help you maintain your plan through both the good times and bad. They will prevent you from participating in the mania during the next bubble, and they will keep you from bailing out during the next crisis.

The problem is, how do you find this “good” financial advisor amongst a sea of average to downright dangerous ones? Here’s some advice from The One-Page Financial Plan:

To a certain extent, the process of finding a real financial advisor is a qualitative experience. It boils down to the question “Can I see this person getting to know me well enough so that I can trust him to help me behave for the next twenty years of my life?” Yes, you should verify that they’re properly registered. Do a Google search of their regulatory record. I’m not talking about blind trust here— the kind that would allow someone to steal your money. I’m talking about finding someone who’s willing to get to know your goals and values well enough to help you stick with your plan. Remember, your financial advisor is the only one standing between you and the Big Mistake of buying high and selling low. You’re hiring them to do what you can’t: make unemotional decisions about your portfolio. If they can’t do that, why pay them?

Now, I still don’t see myself hiring an outside advisor. But I do keep my portfolio conservative enough that my portfolio “boat” stays relatively stable even in rough weather. We’ll see if I can remain unemotional during the next flood, as it is not a matter of “if” but “when” the next one comes along.

Your Financial Plan & The Importance of Getting Started

onepage0I’m currently reading The One-Page Financial Plan by Carl Richards, who also writes for the New York Times. Given the title, I thought it would be a quick read but it turns out to cover a variety of topics over its 200+ pages. So far, I like that it comes from the point of view of an experienced financial planner who spends his days talking with clients.

A valuable observation is that the most common financial mistake most people make is simply doing nothing. Either they are scared of what they might find, or they are overwhelmed by how hard it is to plan for something with such uncertainty. Future jobs and/or income? Uncertain. Childcare/Healthcare/Retirement costs? Uncertain. Future investment returns? Uncertain.

As a financial planner, his job is get people over this hurdle. Guessing is okay! You can always correct your course as you go along, but as long as you are facing the problem and doing something, you are much more likely to have a good result. Carl Richards is also known as “The Sketch Guy” and this one from the book illustrates things well:

onepage1

However, you could replace “investment” with any decision that you have been putting off. Don’t worry about making mistakes (you will). Don’t worry about making the perfect or optimal decision (you won’t). Financial planning is not an exact science.

Here’s another take from inspirational speaker and writer James Clear in Why Getting Started is More Important Than Succeeding:

I can’t think of any skill more critical to the active pursuit of a healthy life than the willingness to start. Everything that signifies a happy, healthy and fulfilled existence — strong relationships, vibrant creativity, valuable work, a physical lifestyle, etc. — it all requires a willingness to get started over and over again.

Take note: being the best isn’t required to be happy or fulfilled, but being in the game is necessary.

Get started and correct your course as needed. In terms of personal finance, so many people have never drilled down to the real reasons why money is important to them, they have never calculated their net worth, never tracked and broken down their monthly expenses, and thus never properly prioritized their time, energy, and money accordingly. But that’s okay, as now is still a great time to get started! I have finished the book yet, but apparently you can fit an entire plan on one page. :)