Blue Zones: Financial Lessons From the World’s Oldest People

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While learning about Okinawan centenarians, I also came across the idea of Blue Zones – places where a high concentration of people live past 90 without chronic illnesses. While the eating habits of Blue Zone residents have been mentioned a lot, Richard Eisenberg of NextAvenue wrote a three-part series focusing on the financial aspects of their longevity. Here is Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Rather than focusing on the residents’ diets, he reports on how the oldest people in the Blue Zones make their money last and what Americans and America can learn from this.

Here are my notes:

The Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica

  • Close-knit family structure. Rely on immediate and extended family members. Nursing homes and assisted living facilities are rare.
  • Government-run public health care system with minimal out-of-pocket expenses.
  • Small government-run pension systems.
  • Low cost-of-living. Lower spending due to low consumerism. Rarely travel.
  • Rare to find elderly that own stocks or mutual funds.

Okinawa, Japan

  • They form a “moai”, which is a group of about 20 close-knit older friends who look out for each other both financially and emotionally. This acts as a replacement for assistance from blood relatives.
  • Government-run public health care system with minimal out-of-pocket expenses.
  • Low cost-of-living. Low consumerism. Low debt.

Sardinia, Italy

  • Close-knit family structure. Rely on immediate and extended family members. There are no long-term care facilities in Sardinia.
  • Government-run public health care system with minimal out-of-pocket expenses.
  • Low cost-of-living. Low spending due to self-reliant farming culture.

Ikaria, Greece

  • Close-knit family structure. Rely on immediate and extended family members. Nursing homes and assisted living facilities are rare.
  • Government-run public health care system, but no long-term care program.
  • Low cost-of-living. Low consumerism. Low spending due to self-reliant farming culture.

Loma Linda, California, USA

  • Technically, the Blue Zone consists of the members of the Seventh Day Adventist religious community.
  • Close-knit religious group that helps each other out.
  • Has a culture of self-discipline, planning, and preparation.
  • Tend to be wealthier with significant investments.
  • Tend to have frugal spending habits.

Commentary. One common thing that I notice about this list is that many are small, isolated communities, either by geography (islands), ethnicity, or religion. I feel that smaller groups more acutely appreciate the advantages of helping each other out. You can have long-term trust that you will raise your kids when they are young, and they will in turn watch over you when they are adults. When you get into larger cities, people seem to separate and start worrying mostly about themselves.

Of course, a bigger version of this is government-run health care, where everyone pitches in and agrees that nobody will become destitute due to a hospital bill. The American healthcare system is so complex and ingrained with powerful inertia that the idea of efficient, transparent, high-quality healthcare remains a huge puzzle waiting be (even partially) solved.

(I’m not saying we need the same system as Japan or Greece. But even billionaire capitalists Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett, and Jamie Dimon realize that our bloated healthcare system is hurting our economy. Their new combined venture Haven has a goal of “simplified, high-quality and transparent health care at a reasonable cost.”)

On the smaller front, many familiar concepts still apply. Start saving early and plan ahead. Practice self-discipline in spending and lower your consumeristic appetites. If possible, move to a place where there is a lower cost-of-living. It’s so much easier to spend less when everyone around you spends a lot less! Get yourself involved in a close-knit community, whether based on blood, ethnicity, neighborhood, or religion.

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The Lifestyle Secrets of Okinawan Centenarians

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CNN has a new series called “Chasing Life with Dr. Sanjay Gupta”, and its first episode examines the lifestyles of the impressive centenarians of Okinawa, Japan.

Nearly two-thirds of the residents of Okinawa are still functioning independently at age 97. That meant they were in their own homes, cooking their own meals and living their lives fully — at nearly 100 years old!

Here are three factors noted in the show:

Ikigai. This means having a sense of purpose in life. Gupta says that one way to figure this out is to first imagine that you no longer needed to do anything for money. In that case, what would you regret not doing with your life? What do you love, and what does the world need?

ikigai

Here is a previous post on Ikigai – Finding Your “Reason For Being”. I have noticed that many people who seek out financial independence feel something “wrong” about their current trade-your-life-for-money environment. They are not living a life aligned with their “ikigai”.

Moai. This means having a social group within the community that has common interests and can provide both financial and emotional support. Family is important, but this appears to be an additional support system. This social component of longevity is critical and should not be overlooked.

Hara hachi bu. This means that you should stop eating when you are 80% full (and thus still a little bit hungry). People in Okinawa eat fewer calories in general, and the calories that they do eat tend to come from sweet potatoes, soybeans (legumes), a variety of vegetables, and only a little meat.

Okinawans centarians have also been examined in the book Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest (which I have not yet read). Here is another Venn diagram from the Wikipedia entry that shows the common characteristics between Okinawa and two other Blue Zones (Loma Linda, USA and Sardinia, Italy).

Bottom line. It’s not just living for a long time, but it’s living an active, engaged, happy life for a long time. You won’t get this by taking the right pills from orange bottles. You need to spend your time doing something that you feel matters to the world. You need love and support from other humans. You need to eat natural foods, but not too much.

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The Most Common Sacrifices Investors Make to Reach Their Financial Goals

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According to a Wells Fargo/Gallup survey of U.S. investors, 78% say they are at least fairly disciplined in reaching their financial goals. About 50% of investors say they will have to sacrifice a “fair amount” or “a lot” to reach their financial goals, while the other half only expects to sacrifice “only a little” or “nothing”. Investors are defined as adults with $10,000 or more invested in stocks, bonds or mutual funds, either within or outside of a retirement savings account.

In what areas do they expect to sacrifice? Here is a chart showing the most popular ways in which the polled investors say they have and/or expect to sacrifice to reach their personal financial goals:

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My Money Blog Portfolio Income and Withdrawal Rate – March 2019 (Q1)

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dividendmono225One of the biggest problems in retirement planning is turning a pile of money into a reliable stream of income. I have read hundreds of articles about this topic, and I have not yet found a perfect solution to this problem. Everything has pros and cons: stocks, high-dividend stocks, bonds, annuities, real estate, and so on.

The imperfect (!) solution I chose is to first build a portfolio designed for total return and enough downside protection such that I can hold through an extended downturn. As you will see below, the total income is a little under 3% of the portfolio annually. I could easily crank out a portfolio with a 4% income rate, or even 5% income. But you have to take some additional risks to get there. With a total return-oriented portfolio, I am more confident that the (lower initial) income will grow at least as fast (and hopefully faster) than inflation.

Starting with a more traditional portfolio, I then try to only spend the dividends and interest. The analogy I fall back on is owning a rental property. If you are reliably getting rent checks that increase with inflation, you can sit back calmly and ignore what the house might sell for on the open market.

I track the “TTM Yield” or “12 Mo. Yield” from Morningstar, which 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. (Index funds have low turnover and thus little in capital gains.) I like this measure because it is based on historical distributions and not a forecast. Below is a very close approximation of my investment portfolio (2/3rd stocks and 1/3rd bonds).

Asset Class / Fund % of Portfolio Trailing 12-Month Yield (Taken 3/15/19) Yield Contribution
US Total Stock
Vanguard Total Stock Market Fund (VTI, VTSAX)
25% 1.81% 0.45%
US Small Value
Vanguard Small-Cap Value ETF (VBR)
5% 2.03% 0.10%
International Total Stock
Vanguard Total International Stock Market Fund (VXUS, VTIAX)
25% 2.89% 0.72%
Emerging Markets
Vanguard Emerging Markets ETF (VWO)
5% 2.63% 0.13%
US Real Estate
Vanguard REIT Index Fund (VNQ, VGSLX)
6% 4.21% 0.25%
Intermediate-Term High Quality Bonds
Vanguard Intermediate-Term Tax-Exempt Fund (VWIUX)
17% 2.86% 0.49%
Inflation-Linked Treasury Bonds
Vanguard Inflation-Protected Securities Fund (VAIPX)
17% 3.09% 0.53%
Totals 100% 2.67%

 

Using this metric, my maximum spending target is a 2.67% withdrawal rate. One of the things I like about using this number is that when stock prices drop, this percentage metric usually goes up… and that makes me feel better in a gloomy market. When stock prices go up, this percentage metric usually goes down, which keeps me from getting too happy. This also applies to the relative performance of US and International stocks. In this way, tracking yield adjusts in a very rough manner for valuation.

We are a real 40-year-old couple with three young kids, and this money has to last us a lifetime (without stomach ulcers). This number does not dictate how much we actually spend every year, but it gives me an idea of how comfortable I am with our withdrawal rate. We spend less than this amount now, but I like to plan for the worst while hoping for the best. For now, we are quite fortunate to be able to do work that is meaningful to us, in an amount where we still enjoy it and don’t feel burned out.

Life is not a Monte Carlo simulation, and you need a plan to ride out the rough times. Even if you run a bunch of numbers looking back to 1920 and it tells you some number is “safe”, that’s still trying to use 100 years of history to forecast 50 years into the future. Michael Pollan says that you can sum up his eating advice as “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” You can sum up my thoughts on portfolio income as “Spend mostly dividends and interest. Don’t eat too much principal.” At the same time, live your life. Enjoy your time with family and friends. You may be more likely to run out of time than run out of money.

In the end, I do think using a 3% withdrawal rate is a reasonable target for something retiring young (before age 50) and a 4% withdrawal rate is a reasonable target for one retiring at a more traditional age (closer to 65). If you’re still in the accumulation phase, you don’t really need a more accurate number than that. Focus on your earning potential via better career moves, investing in your skillset, and/or look for entrepreneurial opportunities where you get equity in a business.

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My Money Blog Portfolio Asset Allocation and Performance, March 2019 (Q1)

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Here’s my quarterly portfolio update for Q1 2019. Most of my dividends arrive on a quarterly basis, and this helps me decided where to reinvest them. These are my real-world holdings, including 401k/403b/IRAs and taxable brokerage accounts but excluding our house, cash reserves, and a few side investments. The goal of this portfolio is to create sustainable income to cover our household expenses for the next (hopefully) 40+ years. We are currently “semi-retired”, meaning we both work part-time while also spending a portion of our 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, adds up my balances, tracks my performance, and calculates my asset allocation. I still use my manual Google Spreadsheet (free, instructions) because it helps me calculate how much I need in each asset class to rebalance back towards my target asset allocation.

Here are my YTD performance and current asset allocation visually, per the “Holdings” and “Allocation” tabs of my Personal Capital account, respectively:

Stock Holdings
Vanguard Total Stock Market Fund (VTI, VTSMX, VTSAX)
Vanguard Total International Stock Market Fund (VXUS, VGTSX, VTIAX)
WisdomTree SmallCap Dividend ETF (DES)
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 Intermediate-Term Treasury Fund (VFITX, VFIUX)
Vanguard Inflation-Protected Securities Fund (VIPSX, VAIPX)
Fidelity Inflation-Protected Bond Index Fund (FIPDX)
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 make a small bet that US Small Value and Emerging Markets will have higher future long-term returns (along with some higher volatility) than the more large and broad indexes, although I could be wrong. I don’t hold commodities, gold, or bitcoin as they don’t provide any income and I don’t believe they’ll outpace inflation significantly.

I believe that it is important to imagine an asset class doing poorly for a long time, with bad news constantly surrounding it, and only hold the ones where you still think you can maintain faith based on a solid foundation of knowledge and experience.

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 of 67% stocks and 33% bonds (2:1 ratio) within our investment strategy of buy, hold, and occasionally rebalance. I will use the dividends and interest to rebalance whenever possible in order to avoid taxable gains. (I’m fine with it drifting to 65/35 or 70/30.) With a self-managed, simple portfolio of low-cost funds, we minimize management fees, commissions, and taxes.

Holdings commentary. On the bond side, I still like high-quality bonds with a short-to-intermediate duration of under 5 years or so. This means US Treasuries, TIPS, or investment-grade municipal bonds. I don’t want to worry about my bonds “blowing up”. Right now, my bond portfolio is about 1/3rd muni bonds, 1/3rd treasury bonds, and 1/3rd inflation-linked treasury bonds (and savings bonds).

On the stocks side, everything has had a nice bounce back up since the drop in late 2018. I didn’t really sweat the ride down, so I’m not celebrating the ride up. I remain satisfied with my mix, knowing that I will own whatever successful businesses come out of the US, China, or wherever in the future.

Performance commentary and benchmarks. According to Personal Capital, my portfolio went up 8.6% already so far in 2019. I see that during the same period the S&P 500 has gone up over 12%, Foreign Developed stocks up nearly 11%, and the US Aggregate bond index was up nearly 2%.

An alternative benchmark for my portfolio is 50% Vanguard LifeStrategy Growth Fund and 50% Vanguard LifeStrategy Moderate Growth Fund – one is 60/40 and the other is 80/20 so it also works out to 70% stocks and 30% bonds. That benchmark would have a total return of +8.6% for 2019 YTD. This quarter, I’m right at this benchmark with my customized portfolio.

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

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Roth vs Traditional Pretax 401k? Compare With These Example Worker Profiles

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T. Rowe Price has an article Evaluating Roth and Pretax Retirement Savings Options by Roger Young that covers the basics on the choice between a “Traditional” pretax or Roth IRA or 401k account:

The primary factor to consider is whether your marginal tax rate will be higher or lower during retirement. If your tax rate will be higher later, paying taxes now with the Roth makes sense. If your tax rate will be lower, you want to defer taxes until then by using the pretax approach.

With the Traditional pretax, you get to avoid paying income taxes on the contribution now, but you must pay taxes up on withdrawal. With the Roth, you pay income taxes now, but you don’t own any taxes upon withdrawal. However, I am linking to it because it also includes a table with some sample worker profiles. This may help clarify things for people who are still confused about which to pick.

There are other considerations due to our overly-complex tax code, but I think this is still a helpful tool.

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A Sense of Urgency: Money Can’t Buy You More Time

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Over the weekend, I read the NYT Magazine article America’s Professional Elite: Wealthy, Successful and Miserable about the rich and unhappy, which included a man who earned $1.2 million a year in Manhattan and hated his job:

“I feel like I’m wasting my life,” he told me. “When I die, is anyone going to care that I earned an extra percentage point of return? My work feels totally meaningless.” He recognized the incredible privilege of his pay and status, but his anguish seemed genuine. “If you spend 12 hours a day doing work you hate, at some point it doesn’t matter what your paycheck says,” he told me. There’s no magic salary at which a bad job becomes good. He had received an offer at a start-up, and he would have loved to take it, but it paid half as much, and he felt locked into a lifestyle that made this pay cut impossible. “My wife laughed when I told her about it,” he said.

Based on a short conversation in a class reunion, it’s easy to extrapolate endless stressful hours at work, a huge mortgage, fancy private school tuition, expensive vacations, and a high-maintenance spouse. Such a picture makes all of us not earning $1.2 million a year feel better about ourselves. But is he really that miserable?

I suspect it is more like the same situation a lot of people are in. They aren’t happy, but things aren’t bad enough to keep them from still doing the same thing. It’s easy to just say OMY (One More Year) because change is scary. I’d certainly rather be in that position while earning a million bucks a year, rather than earning $40k. He has a lot more optionality than most.

Ever since my post on Retirement Nest Egg Calculators: Running Out of Money vs. Running Out of Time, this following statistic has been stuck in my mind:

If you’re 40, you have a 10% chance of dying before even reaching 65.

What is your likelihood of dying within the next 20 years? Here are mortality tables based on Social Security actuarial data for US citizens, sorted by age and gender. Below are the rough numbers, along with an edited screenshot of the source at the very bottom.

  • A male, age 30 has a 1 in 20 chance of dying in the next 20 years (age 50).
  • A male, age 40 has a 1 in 10 chance of dying in the next 20 years (age 60).
  • A male, age 50 has a 1 in 5 chance of dying in the next 20 years (age 70).
  • A female, age 30 has a 1 in 35 chance of dying in the next 20 years (age 50).
  • A female, age 40 has a 1 in 15 chance of dying in the next 20 years (age 60).
  • A female, age 50 has a 1 in 7 chance of dying in the next 20 years (age 70).

I try to use these numbers to motivate myself and create a sense of urgency. I’m 40 years old now. There is a 1 in 10 chance that I won’t be old enough to see my daughters even finish college. The person profiled in this article is also probably around 40 years old (15-year reunion of business school). I’m sure there are plenty of 60-year-olds who say “60 isn’t old!” and it isn’t, but that is literally survivorship bias. We all know people who didn’t make it to 60, and these are the overall odds.

Time is your most precious resource. It doesn’t matter what your income is, you only have so much time. Therefore, you should spend it in a way that aligns with your values. Look for ways to get closer to that. If you can’t quit, do the same job with a better employer. Keep working, but switch to a different job within that field/skillset with more personal meaning. Saving more can mean you can get by working fewer hours. If you think you can retire but just can’t seem to pull the trigger, you need to directly confront those last few worries.

Are you unhappy with your situation and still in the same spot as a year ago? Try to find something psychological that will create a sense of urgency. I tell myself “Why am still wasting my time with [insert task]? 1 in 10.”

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Historical IRA Contribution Limits 2009-2019

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ira_heartIndividual Retirement Arrangements (IRAs) are way to save money towards retirement that also saves on taxes. For 2019, the annual contribution limit for either Traditional or Roth IRAs increased to $6,000 (it is roughly indexed to inflation). The additional catch-up contribution allowed for those age 50+ stays at $1,000 (for a total of $7,000). You can’t contribute more than your taxable compensation for the year, although a spouse can contribute with no income if the other person has enough income.

Historical limits. Since I enjoy visual aides, here’s an updated historical chart and table of contribution limits for the last 11 years. I’m happy to say that we’ve both done the max since 2004. Consistently saving for a decade can result in some fat nest eggs!

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
2019 $6,000 $1,000

 

Traditional IRAs. If you are covered by a retirement plan at work, deductibility of your contribution to a Traditional IRA is based on your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) and tax-filing status. See the IRS page on IRA deduction limits. However, there are no income restrictions as to who can contribute to the full contribution limit for a Traditional IRA.

Roth IRAs. It doesn’t matter if you are covered by a retirement plan at work for the Roth IRA, and contributions to a Roth are never deductible (but they aren’t taxed on upon qualified withdrawal). However, the contribution limit and overall eligibility may be capped based on your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) and tax-filing status. See the IRS page on Roth IRA contribution limits. But wait… high-income earners may be able to get around these income restrictions with a Backdoor Roth IRA (non-deductible Traditional IRA + Roth conversion). Yeesh, I really wish they would simplify all this stuff.

Saver’s Credit. 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.

Also see: 401k, 403b, TSP Historical Contribution Limits 2009-2019

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

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401k, 403b, TSP Historical Contribution Limits 2009-2019

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401k_limitsEmployer-based retirement plans like the 401(k), 403(b), and Thrift Savings Plan are not perfect, but they are often the best available option to save money in a tax-advantaged manner. For 2019, the employee elective deferral (contribution) limit for these plans increased to $19,000 (it is indexed to inflation). The additional catch-up contribution allowed for those age 50+ stays at $6,000 (for a total of $25,000).

Here’s a historical chart of contribution limits for the last 11 years (2009-2019).

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
2019 $19,000 $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.

For 2019, the maximum contribution limit when you include both employer and employee contributions is $56,000, an increase of $1,000. The employer portion includes company match and profit-sharing contributions.

The employee salary deferral max limit applies even if you participate in multiple 401k plans.

Sources: IRS.gov, IRS.gov COLA Table [PDF], IRS on multiple plans.

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Investing $10,000 Every Year For the Last 10 Years, 2009-2018

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keepcalmInstead of just looking at one year of returns, I prefer taking a longer view. Most successful savers invest money each year over a long period of time, these days often into a target-date fund (TDF). Don’t get caught up in the daily news reporting the recent performance of the Dow or S&P 500.

Investment benchmark. There are many possible choices for an investment benchmark, but I chose the Vanguard Target Retirement 2045 Fund. This all-in-one fund is low-cost, highly diversified, and available in many employer retirement plans as well open to anyone with an IRA. In the early accumulation phase, this fund is 90% stocks (both US and international) and 10% bonds (investment-grade domestic and international). I think it’s a solid default choice where you could easily do worse over the long run.

Investment amount. For the last decade, the maximum allowable annual contribution to a Traditional or Roth IRA has been roughly $5,000 per person. The maximum allowable annual contribution for a 401k, 403b, or TSP plan has been over $10,000 per person. If you have a household income of $67,000, then $10,000 is right at the 15% savings rate mark. Therefore, I’m going to use $10,000 as a benchmark amount. It’s easy to multiply the results as needed.

A decade of real-world savings. To create a simple-yet-realistic scenario, what would have happened if you put $10,000 a year into the Vanguard Target Retirement 2045 Fund, every year, for the past 10 years. You’d have put in $100,000 over time, but in more manageable increments. With the handy tools at Morningstar and a Google spreadsheet, we get this:

Investing $10,000 every year for the last decade would have resulted in a $57,000 investment gain. If, for example, you were a couple that both maxed out their 401k and IRAs at roughly $20k each or $40k total per year, that would leave you with a gain of roughly $230,000 over the last decade (and a total balance of $630,000).

Timing still matters, but not as much as you might think due to the dollar-cost averaging and longer time horizon. More importantly, you can’t control that part. You have much more control over how much you save. Here are previous results for January 2007 to December 2016 and January 2008 to December 2017.

Work on improving your career skills (or start your own business), save a big chunk of your income, and then invest it in productive assets. Keep calm and repeat. Our path to financial freedom can be mostly explained by such behavior. The only “secret” here is consistency. We maxed out both IRA and the 401k salary deferral limits nearly every year since 2004. You can build wealth with something as accessible and boring as the Vanguard Target Retirement fund. We received no inheritances and don’t pay a brilliant hedge fund manager.

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My Money Blog Portfolio Asset Allocation and Performance Tracking, Year-End 2018

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Here’s my final quarterly portfolio update for Q4 2018. This is how I track my real-world holdings, including 401k/403b/IRAs and taxable brokerage accounts but excluding our house, cash reserves, and a few side investments. The goal of this portfolio is to create enough income to cover our household expenses. As of 2018, we are “semi-retired” and have started spending a portion of our 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, adds up my balances, tracks my performance, and calculates my asset allocation. I still use my manual Google Spreadsheet (free, instructions) because it helps me calculate how much I need in each asset class to rebalance back towards my target asset allocation.

Here are my YTD performance and current asset allocation visually, per the “Holdings” and “Allocation” tabs of my Personal Capital account, respectively:

Stock Holdings
Vanguard Total Stock Market Fund (VTI, VTSMX, VTSAX)
Vanguard Total International Stock Market Fund (VXUS, VGTSX, VTIAX)
WisdomTree SmallCap Dividend ETF (DES)
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 Intermediate-Term Treasury Fund (VFITX, VFIUX)
Vanguard Inflation-Protected Securities Fund (VIPSX, VAIPX)
Fidelity Inflation-Protected Bond Index Fund (FIPDX)
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 make a small bet that US Small Value and Emerging Markets will have higher future long-term returns (along with some higher volatility) than the more large and broad indexes, although I could be wrong. I don’t hold commodities, gold, or bitcoin as they don’t provide any income and I don’t believe they’ll outpace inflation significantly.

I believe that it is important to imagine an asset class doing poorly for a long time, with bad news constantly surrounding it, and only hold the ones where you still think you can maintain faith based on a solid foundation of knowledge and experience.

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 of 67% stocks and 33% bonds (2:1 ratio) within our investment strategy of buy, hold, and occasionally rebalance. (Small changes to 65/35 or 70/30 are also fine.) With a self-managed, simple portfolio of low-cost funds, we minimize management fees, commissions, and taxes.

Holdings commentary. On the bond side, I still like high-quality bonds with a short-to-intermediate duration of under 5 years or so. This means US Treasuries, TIPS, or investment-grade municipal bonds. I don’t want to worry about my bonds. Right now, my bond portfolio is about 1/3rd muni bonds, 1/3rd treasury bonds, and 1/3rd inflation-linked treasury bonds (and savings bonds).

On the stocks side, I made a few comments in my 2018 year-end asset class return review. US stocks went down in 2018, but international and emerging markets stocks did even worse. On the flipside, international and emerging markets are a lot cheaper based on various metrics. I remain satisfied with my mix, knowing that I will own whatever successful businesses come out of the US, China, or wherever in the future.

Performance commentary. According to Personal Capital, my portfolio went down 6.9% in 2018. I see that during the same period the S&P 500 has lost 6% (excludes dividends), Foreign Developed stocks lost 14%, and the US Aggregate bond index was basically flat. Of course I didn’t want to see my value fall, but most of the change was due to a lower P/E ratio as opposed to lower earnings from companies.

An alternative benchmark for my portfolio is 50% Vanguard LifeStrategy Growth Fund and 50% Vanguard LifeStrategy Moderate Growth Fund – one is 60/40 and the other is 80/20 so it also works out to 70% stocks and 30% bonds. That benchmark would have a total return of -5.9% for 2018.

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

My Money Blog has partnered with CardRatings for selected credit cards, and may receive a commission from card issuers. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and has not been provided nor approved by any of the companies mentioned. MyMoneyBlog.com is also a member of the Amazon Associate Program, and if you click through to Amazon and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission. Thank you for your support.

Solo 401k: Best Self-Employed Retirement Plan For Aggressive Savers ($50k/$100k Income Example)

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Each December, I run the numbers to see how much more I can contribute to my Self-Employed 401k plan, aka Solo 401k or Individual 401k. Fidelity, Vanguard, and Dinkytown (used below) have calculators to figure out contribution limits to various types of retirement plans (Solo 401k, SIMPLE IRA, SEP IRA, Profit Sharing Plan).

In general, as long as your income isn’t too high ($275,000+) and you aren’t deferring salary from another workplace retirement plan, the Solo 401k will allow you to defer the largest percentage of your business income. This is because the Solo 401k allows you defer as much as $18,500 (2018) in salary as an employee as well as 20% of your net self-employment income as an employer (both sides of your business) up to $55,000 total (2018). For example, if your income from your side business was $5,000 and you had no other salary deferral elsewhere, you could put 100% of that into a Solo 401k. (If you are age 50 or over, you can also add a $6,000 catch-up contribution to the salary deferral limit.)

Here are sample numbers for a $50,000 net income to your self-employed business. This assumes you are a sole proprietorship or an LLC taxed as a sole proprietorship. The math for a single-owner corporation is slightly different.

At $50,000 net business income, you can defer 56% annually ($27,793). This is exactly $18,500 more than if you went with the SEP-IRA.

Here’s the comparison for a $100,000 net income to your sole proprietorship.

At $100,000 net business income, you can defer 37% annually ($37,087). Again, this is exactly $18,500 more than if you went with the SEP-IRA.

Now, the Solo 401k does require a bit more paperwork. For example, you will need to file the IRS Form 5500-EZ separately every year once your Solo 401k assets exceed $250,000 to avoid steep IRS late penalties. SEP-IRAs have no such annual requirement. Therefore, if you don’t intend to take advantage of the higher contribution limits of a Solo 401k, I would consider sticking with the SEP-IRA. But if your goal is a high savings rate and maximum tax-deferred funds, look into the Solo 401k. I would compare the offerings from Vanguard, Fidelity, and Schwab. (Mine is at Fidelity.)

My Money Blog has partnered with CardRatings for selected credit cards, and may receive a commission from card issuers. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and has not been provided nor approved by any of the companies mentioned. MyMoneyBlog.com is also a member of the Amazon Associate Program, and if you click through to Amazon and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission. Thank you for your support.