savings

HOW TO RETIRE: PANDEMIC EDITION

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What a year! The events of 2020 have reached into every facet of our lives. Many careers have been changed or upended.

People working happily at advanced ages have told us they are leery of workplace exposures, so many are on leave or have retired. Others have been displaced from jobs they would have preferred to keep. And some are helping descendants cope with “distance learning” or a loss of childcare options instead of working at jobs.

One friend retired just before the pandemic, planning an ambitious travel schedule. That isn’t happening. And another, who had planned to retire, now works from home: they figure they might as well keep working, since they cannot travel or engage in activities they had planned for retirement.

No matter what 2020 has thrown at you, the basics of retirement planning have not changed. It is a five-step process. We need to figure out…

  1. how much money it takes to run the life we prefer,
  2. monthly income amounts and timing from Social Security or pensions,
  3. lump sums required for one-time goals or needs, like a bucket list trip or boat,
  4. lump sums available from savings, investments, 401(k) plans, and other wealth, and
  5. the sustainable monthly cash flow that might be withdrawn from net long-term investments, after the lump sums are accounted for (we help people with this step).

There are nuances to each step—options to analyze, lifestyle decision to make. Retirement planning works out best when it is a process over time. We have noticed that people learn more about their objectives and their finances as time goes on, and things change. So your retirement plan adapts and changes over time, too.

If the pandemic has shaken things up for you as it has for others—or if it has just gotten to be that time—call or email us when you are ready to work on your plans and planning. Clients, if changes need to be incorporated in your plans, let’s keep talking.

We’re glad to help.

The High Cost of Low Interest

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Savers might remember the 1990’s with great fondness. For most of the decade, money earned 4 to 6% in bank certificates and other safe and liquid forms. Even in the first decade of this millenium, at times there were interest rates above zero on deposits.

After the financial crisis that began in 2008, interest rates plunged. The Federal Reserve adopted a Zero Interest Rate Policy (ZIRP) in an attempt to spur economic activity. Some foreign central banks even went to NIRP, a negative interest rate policy. For most of the time since then, short term rates in the US have been close to zero. (Federal Reserve Bank St Louis)

After a tentative, brief return to rates above zero, the economic disruption caused by the coronavirus has slammed rates back to near nothing. Rates may stay lower for longer. Savers and investors are affected.

• The difference beween 5% and zero on $100,000 in the bank is about $400 in monthly income. Savers used to enjoy cash income on their balances, income that could make a difference.
• In order to get income returns on money, people face volatility in market values or greater risk of loss or reduced access to funds.
• The competition for income-producing investments creates market distortions, which may increase risk.
• Artificial stimulus for goods or services could result in lower growth later, when monetary conditions return to normal.

Against those challenges, low interest rates appear to benefit one group of people: borrowers. Many people have been able to refinance home mortgages to rates lower than they might have imagined years ago. But even this silver lining has a cloud around it: low mortgage rates may have increased home prices.

Bottom line, as with all of the challenges in life, the key is to make the most of it. We work to understand alternatives and strive to sort out how to balance the needs for income, and growth, and preservation of purchasing power. Finding the opportunity in the challenge is our goal.

Clients, if you would like to talk about this or anything else, please email us or call.

A Nickel Is Too Much

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Once upon a time, a colorful character roamed the streets of our village, loudly proclaiming an unusual philosophy of money and wealth. “If you have a nickel in your pocket, that’s too much. You better spend it on something so you won’t have to worry about it any more.”

This fellow always paid his bills, raised a wonderful family, and left a legacy of love and service that lives on in his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. All who knew him (and everyone knew him) remember his joy and his generosity.

Without judging that philosophy, it is easy to see the benefit of combining a longer-term focus with the idea of enjoying the moments and days as they come. (Even this interesting old friend earned a secure retirement sufficient for his needs.)

Talking with clients over the past few weeks as we deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, the difference made by having some resources is astonishing.

  • People working at relatively advanced ages by choice have been able to temporarily withdraw from employment in exposed industries.
  • Retirees have seen some change in day to day activities like shopping and socializing, but parts of life including exercise and hobbies have been adapted to safer practices.
  • Some have made the choice to retire, having the resources for it, and wanting to avoid the stress of continuing exposure to health issues.

Money makes no one immune to disease. But those who have it have options that those without it do not. Before the virus showed up, we understood that money is awfully handy.

Clients, if you would like to talk about this or anything else, please email us or call.

Toxic Negativity, Interest Rate Edition

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Economic theorists are devoting a lot of analysis to the extraordinary exertions of central bankers, recent and planned, in their attempt to shape the economy to their wishes. Increasingly, we read and hear justifications of negative interest rates in connection with potential future “policy tools.”

Our life experience has taught us all that interest is the price of money. If you borrow money, the price you pay is interest. If you lend it out or deposit it, the price you receive is interest. A lot of things go upside down when you make interest rates go negative.

Can you imagine your bank balances declining every month because the bank charged you interest on your deposit? Or being paid every month to owe on a home mortgage?

Some Federal Reserve officials seem to have convinced themselves that this would all work out very well. The Federal Reserve would be able to distort things so we would spend more money than we otherwise would, which is often its goal. But we believe they are ignoring a huge problem, one that is right out in the open. It may take a little common sense to see it.

One of our bedrock beliefs about money, perhaps for most of us, is that we know how bank accounts work. There have always been special features attached to money in bank accounts. We understand it to be guaranteed, safe, and it will always be there. It is backed by the government via F.D.I.C. It does not fluctuate or lose value. We all know how this works.

But in the world of negative interest rates, money in bank accounts would no longer be like “money in the bank” as we have always understood it. It would not be safe, it would lose value, it will not always be there. Negative interest would eat it up part of it over time.

We have questions. As we watch our saving get chipped away, would we patiently listen to the theories of the economists about how it was all good? Would the average person conclude that the money has been ruined by the government? Would there be resentment against the Federal Reserve for taking action to impair our savings when it decides we are not spending enough?

Bottom line, part of the magic elixir that makes the modern world run is faith in our institutions. Destroy our traditional idea of how bank accounts work, and see if that lasts. We don’t know.

As we monitor this troubling trend, we’re formulating ideas about how to deal with it. Clients, if you would like to talk about this or anything else, please email us or call.


Content in this material is for general information only and not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

Too Close to the Sun

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In Greek mythology, Daedalus constructs wings of feathers and wax so he and his son Icarus may escape from the island of Crete. Although warned against flying too close to the sun, Icarus becomes giddy with the sensation of flight. His wings melt when he gets too close to the sun, and he crashes into the sea and drowns.

This tale of hubris is perhaps mimicked in our time by central bankers around the world. Central banks including our Federal Reserve Bank are charged with conducting monetary policy to achieve stability of prices and favorable economic results. The stresses of the last global recession induced some of these authorities to adopt unprecedented policies.

Among these ideas, the most unusual might be negative interest rates. If we think of the rate of interest as a price – the price of money – then the concept of negative rates seems insane. If bananas had negative prices, producers would have to pay you to take them.

There are practical problems, too, for savers and investors. Imagine having $100,000 in the bank today. After a year of -1% interest, you would have, say, $99,000. “Money in the bank” would no longer be like money in the bank.

Why would central bankers consider such a policy? Like Icarus with his wings, they seem intoxicated by their apparent power to manipulate the economy. Negative interest rates would be a strong incentive to reduce savings and increase spending. This could theoretically boost the economy.

The unintended consequences of their actions could create real problems. Average folks trying to save for the future were severely disadvantaged by the zero interest policy of the last decade. Negative rates would make that even worse.
The Federal Reserve has not yet gone below zero. But a research paper published by a Fed official earlier this year concluded that “negative interest rates might be a useful tool…”1

Clients, our concern over this trend in Fed thinking bolsters our conviction about the investments we hold that would potentially benefit from the unintended consequences. No guarantees: we wish central bankers would simply avoid flying too close to the sun, so to speak.

Clients, if you would like to talk about this or anything else, please email us or call.

Notes & References

1. “How Much Could Negative Rates Have Helped the Recovery?”, Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. https://www.frbsf.org/economic-research/publications/economic-letter/2019/february/how-much-could-negative-rates-have-helped-recovery/. Accessed June 25th, 2019.


Content in this material is for general information only and not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

The economic forecasts set forth in this material may not develop as predicted and there can be no guarantee that strategies promoted will be successful.

Rule #3

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Our Fundamental Rule #3 of Investing: own the orchard for the fruit crop. What do we mean?

If the fruit crop is enough to live on, you would not have to care what the neighbor would pay for the orchard – it’s not for sale! Whether the latest bid was higher or lower than the day before makes no difference.

You can think of your long term portfolio the same way. If it produces the cash flow you need, fluctuating values don’t always affect your real life – you buy groceries with the income, not with the statement value. The down years may have no impact on your life or lifestyle. All we need to know is where to find the cash you need, when you need it, to do the things you want and need to do.

This is what we mean when we say “own the orchard for the fruit crop.” It’s important, because enduring volatility is an inherent part of investing for total return.

There are two key points of caution. This approach presumes you keep the faith that downturns in the market end someday, that the economy recovers from whatever ails it—and you do not sell out at low points. Also, it assumes that your short term lump sum cash needs are covered by savings that do not fluctuate.

Clients, this understanding is key to our work. Please call or email us if you would like to talk about it, or anything else.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

All investing involves risk including loss of principal. No strategy assures success or protects against loss.

The Meaning of Money

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Is money the root of all evil? Or is it what makes the world go ‘round? What IS the meaning of money?

Most of us receive most of the money we will ever make in exchange for our efforts. Our labor, our knowledge, our skills may be sold to employers if we are workers. They may be sold to customers or clients if we are in business. For this reason, in large part, money is the residue of the sweat we make while providing value to others.

What could be more noble than this symbol of being worthwhile to the rest of society?

In this framework, a 401(k) balance at retirement may be the end result of a lifetime of effort. An inheritance might represent two or more lifetimes of hard work. What could be more worthy of our best efforts to preserve and extend it?

While its sources are of interest, the uses of money have come into sharp focus for me recently. For the most part, my material needs are few. But money has become a vital factor in securing the health and welfare of loved ones.

The recent severe weather has resulted in hardship, pain, suffering and sometimes death for those who could not avoid its effects, or afford backup systems to meet special health needs. Oxygen concentrators require electricity, which sometimes fails. Refrigeration is needed for some kinds of life-sustaining medicine. Mobility is required to avoid some dangerous situations. All of this takes money.

When the power failed, we had a backup generator. When the storm threatened, we could leave the area. When the oxygen concentrator failed, we had another source. All of these things take money. And we had it.

Cathy’s care for children and work in the corporate world produced some of it. My efforts to help people with their plans and investing made some of it. Being good stewards of the amounts we were able to save provided some of it. The money came from worthy efforts, and it does important and worthy things for us.

Is money (or more properly, the love of money) the root of all evil? I don’t think so. It may be the evidence of lives of service and thrift. Luck? Certainly good fortune plays a role. And ill fortune surely plays a role in some people not having much of the stuff. We each must come to our own understanding of the meaning of money. This is mine.

Clients, if you would like to talk about this or any other pertinent topic, please email us or call.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

Investing involves risks including possible loss of principal.

Should You Spend Like You’re Rich?

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When children think about rich people the mental image might be something like Rich Uncle Pennybags from the Monopoly game: a monocled fat cat in a top hat with bulging sacks of money.

Obviously, the reality is much different. As we mature we typically develop a more realistic picture, but there is one surprising realization: it is usually much, much cheaper to be rich than to be poor. Having money enables us to live more cheaply and avoid many painful financial pitfalls.

To begin with, paying cash is often cheaper than paying with credit. If you are able to lay down cash for major purchase such as vehicles or even houses instead of having to borrow, you don’t just save on fees and interest, you may even be able to negotiate a better price. If you are funding large items on a credit card, you are likely to wind up paying many times what they are worth. If you are hard up enough that you need to turn to high risk credit in the form of payday loans, things get even worse.

There are other ways that having money allows you to stretch your money out, too. Buying quality merchandise may take more money up front, but if the alternative is buying shoddy products need to be replaced more often, you may save money in the long run by paying more up front. (Of course, care must still be taken to select your purchases carefully: higher cost does not always correlate to higher quality!)

Also, when you have a life of plenty you have the luxury of being able to shop around and wait for a better price. If you have two of everything, it is not an emergency if one breaks or gets used up. Without that surplus, you may find yourself having to go out and buy a replacement whether you like the price or not.

These habits, paying cash and shopping carefully and not being in a hurry to spend, are ones that all of us can use to help us build and maintain our own wealth.

The wonderful conundrum that some have discovered is this: the less you spend, the more wealth you accrue; the more wealth you have, the less you need to spend. Please call or write if you would like perspective or conversation about your situation.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.