Jurassic Money: 5 Financial Dinosaurs to Avoid.

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Jurassic One

In the 1993 film “Jurassic Park,” Jeff Goldblum’s character argues with the scientists who have assured him that their cloned dinosaurs cannot reproduce. “Life finds a way,” Goldblum says.

Extinct for millions of years, dinosaurs survive on the big screen. They frighten and thrill us out of our cash and generate big box-office bucks. (Their latest romp, “Jurassic World,” has grossed more than $600 million this summer.)

Dinosaurs exist in the real world, too — financial dinosaurs that stomp on your goals and chew up your money.

Don’t feel bad: These prehistoric remnants often thrive in the portfolios or financial activities of even the most astute investors. For massive creatures, they are mysteriously stealth-like when it comes to devouring cash from wallets. Life, you could say, finds a way.

Can you detect the beasts that smash portfolio performance and endanger overall financial progress? Consider these five fossils that require burial deep within the archives of financial services history.

Random Thoughts:

1. Load mutual funds

These ancient beasts roaming the asset classes of your portfolio have long since reached their life expectancy. With more than 16,000 no-load managed or index funds available, paying sales loads on mutual funds is akin to taking a big bite out of your investment returns before they have a chance to run.

Whether it’s the A-share price of admission of 3%-5.75% upfront or the creative B- and C-share classes, where load charges are supposedly deferred (but not really), the total expenses of these investments are a challenge to justify. Stay away from this Jurassic world. It will only lead to financial chaos. If you own loaded funds, monitor them regularly with a watchful eye for exit. Move into more affordable options as soon as their performance lags their benchmarks for two quarters.

no load funds

2. Variable annuities

This blend of mutual funds and insurance busted out of containment long ago and has wreaked financial havoc on thousands of investors. As with the Indominus rex of “Jurassic World” — the product of combining the DNA of multiple creatures into a terrifying monster that would sell more theme park tickets — the financial services industry created these hybrids to benefit themselves through lofty commissions and high fees.

If you own a variable annuity, you’d get better acquainted with what makes this creature tick. Don’t be surprised to learn that annual expenses can be 4% or higher. That means every year a significant portion of your return gets devoured by the ravenous VariableAnnuitus rex. Pay attention to surrender or “exit” penalties that can range from 1%-10% and decrease over a period of years. These charges are designed to hold you captive in the cage with these costly beasts for as long as possible.

Work with a financial or insurance professional to devise a strategy to transfer variable annuity proceeds to less expensive alternatives. To defer taxes, an advisor, if properly licensed, can initiate a process called a 1035 exchange.

Take heart: Not all annuities are prehistoric relics. Deferred-income or single-premium income annuities are becoming more popular as ways to supplement Social Security and generate an income you cannot outlive.

3. Payday and title loans.

These types of loans for quick cash are growing in popularity. Like the velociraptors of “Jurassic World,” they don’t seem too dangerous until the sharp teeth of interest charges and other fees dig deep into your wallet. With interest rates that can easily top 300% APR, rarely are they a smart choice. Several states have passed legislation to help consumers understand how these loans work. Fast-cash lenders cater to people in a liquidity crunch, usually lower-income groups with poor credit opportunities.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is gaining a better understanding of the nature and magnitude of payday, title and other installment-type loans. It’s customary for a borrower to “roll over” these loans and continue to pay fees and interest charges, thus creating a debt trap that’s tough to escape. If you must use these loans out of necessity, realize that the federal government is actively forming a framework to harness these financial beasts and determine how people can seek credit relief in an affordable manner.

lose money fast

4. Emotion-based investing

Our brains are primal. They’re built to keep us alive, not necessarily to maximize our investment returns.

Dalbar recently released its latest “Quantitative Analysis of Investor Behavior” study. This 21-year analysis consistently shows how poorly mutual fund investors have performed compared with market benchmarks. For example, in 2014, the average equity mutual fund investor underperformed the S&P 500 by more than 8.19%. In fact, the return from the broader market was more than double that of the average equity mutual fund investor: 13.69% vs. 5.50%.

One of the more prominent investor pitfalls is called “anchoring.” An anchor can sit heavy on net worth — like a brontosaurus on the chest. Investors who anchor are focused solely on the price they paid for an investment. If the investment turns out to be a loser, anchoring prevents the investor from selling regardless of whether conditions warrant a sale. They strive to “get even.” Anchoring results in opportunity costs or even bigger losses as additional money is put into underperforming investments. To battle this primal enemy, create a buy and sell rule for every investment or work with a professional to guide you.

lizard brain

5. Brick-and-mortar banks

For higher yields, exit the Jurassic period. Virtual banks can link easily to brick-and-mortar options and are FDIC-insured. Even if not for day-to-day banking, online choices are perfect for savings, especially emergency reserves which ideally should hold six to nine months’ worth of household living expenses. NerdWallet offers a comprehensive hub with savings account basics, tips to find higher savings accounts rates and a list of the best online savings accounts.

bad bank

There’s no place in household balance sheets for colossal animals, especially those that have a ravenous appetite for cash. Keep the dinosaurs limited to movie choices, and financial success will be more reality than fantasy.

Jurassic World

This post first appeared on Nasdaq.

Seeds: How A Millennial Farms a Retirement Portfolio.

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A version of this writing appears in MarketWatch.

“You’re a farmer now. Will you be a proficient one?”

“Rich, you do realize I work for a startup tech company in Austin.”

“Yes, as I said. You’re a farmer.

Farmer

What are you planning to grow in your new fields? How will you tend to them? How many can you manage?”

Ely recently earned more seeds than he’s ever held. A six-figure bonus. For this Millennial, a bounty received. Smart enough to seek objective guidance and lay the groundwork for a strategy before the windfall is spread. Not to be cast to the wind. Conditions needed to be perfect for what he was seeking to grow.

“I don’t have fields. I’m from New York City, remember?”

“A seed is an organism. The shell encases life and vigor that will break out and grow strong if tended to as it should be. It works the same for money. Now that you possess financial seeds, you must consider planting them in multiple fields to reap rewards that will sustain you over a lifetime. Picture this…”

Plentiful tracts. Spider webs of rich soil. All different. Tilled with a specific mix of nutrients and attention. Fortified by a plan and philosophy designed to produce opportunities diversified enough to endure changing climates.

Investing for retirement is a robust, varied harvest that may be reaped for decades.

Here’s how an industrious Millennial became a financial farmer.

It starts with a refreshingly different philosophy about life and money. A young farmer’s mindset has the potential to send chills up the spine of every financial services organization that believe stocks are the only crops in town. Wise stewards of money understand that true diversification and investing is more than stocks.

Ely and I call it “holistic diversification.”

Stocks are not ignored; however they represent one field among four deserving attention.

According to Investopedia, diversification is “a risk management technique that mixes a wide variety of investments within a portfolio. Diversification strives to smooth out unsystematic (business) risk events in a portfolio so that the positive performance of some investments will neutralize the negative performance of others. Therefore, the benefits of diversification will hold only if the securities in the portfolio are not perfectly correlated.”

The information then goes on to outline how to diversify with stock investments. If diversification is truly risk management and is a technique that “mixes a wide variety of investments within a portfolio,” why is a portfolio defined solely as a mix of “domestic and international securities?” Is this the “wide variety” that controls or contains risk?

I’m sorry, this definition is not accurate. Farmers shake their heads in disbelief.

Over the years, especially since the financial crisis, stocks have become more positively correlated. In other words, in times of crisis, defensive industries like food and beverage and cyclical growth sectors like industrials have moved increasingly in the same direction: Down. The majority of stocks follow the general trend of the market, especially during bear cycles.  So, when diversification among stocks is needed the most, it disappoints the most.

Holistic diversification is grander way to think and invest.

It breaks down mental barriers around money, inspires self-discovery, fosters creativity and generates a thought process where opportunities can seed, plant and prosper in a beautiful lifetime patchwork. Each field requires different levels or types of care.

That’s diversification the way it should be.

Ely (with my encouragement and his self-assessment) re-defined diversification with the wisdom of an investor three times his age (I had him write his philosophy and send to me.)

“I will seed 4 fields with my bonus to increase diversification and wealth: Personal growth (maximize the return on me), my stock and bond portfolio allocation, private investment (perhaps rental real estate or a few startups I’m interested in), and a long-term annuity to help supplement my social security and portfolio income at retirement.”

As you ponder a philosophy that blends life and money in soil where the nutrients are a unique blend of your personal needs and desires, remember to go beyond traditional thinking to cultivate multiple streams of future retirement income.

Cultivate the ROL or “Return-On-Life.” An astute farmer enriches the soil of life by nurturing mental and physical growth. A quarter of Ely’s bonus will seed recreation. A beach vacation, a personal trainer, wine flights, fine dining and a creative writing class.

Return-On-Life isn’t a mathematical calculation. The farmer’s formula is personal. Results are calculated by the health of the bounty from all the fields.  A guilt-free plan that blossoms or hones a marketable skill, creates an experience, relieves stress. It’s the spending which provides the farmer a clearer head, endurance and energy to work the other fields to yield maximum output.

healthy male

Add nutrients to a stock allocation but set realistic expectations. Traditional asset allocation plans deserve attention however farmers have been advised by financial media and popular publications that stocks, bonds, hedge funds and other liquid investments make up the centerpiece of the farm. I was able to help Ely question this guidance: Help him broaden his perspective about planting landscapes and think smaller about the future riches sowed from this area. I needed to set expectations. A likely scenario over the next decade is the returns from this field may reap less return, perhaps close to zero.

Using a formula from money manager Dr. John Hussman of the Hussman Funds to mathematically determine what stock market returns may look like over the next decade, the following result is calculated.

Assume GDP averages a consistent, recession-free 4% annualized growth rate, the current market cap/GDP remains at 1.25 and the current S&P 500 dividend yield of approximately 2% doesn’t change for ten years, forward stock market returns do not appear to aid a formidable bumper crop:

                                                  (1.04)*(.8/1.25)^(1/10)-1+.02 = 1.5%

Assumptions are just that: Obviously, change is the only realistic constant. These long-term estimates are based on decade-long rolling periods therefore they are highly inconsistent when it comes to short-term market cycles. Regardless, it allows a farmer to plan and diversify accordingly. The potential of this field is consistently on the radar as resources are directed most often to this space through regular contributions to a retirement plan and a taxable brokerage account.

Plant seeds in unfamiliar terrain with the richest soil for growth. The diversified farmer understands that investing in non-publicly traded ventures is risky, requires patience, yet can reap great personal and financial rewards if the landscape is properly understood and receives the correct balance of nutrients, attention and ongoing provision of resources. Tilling a private field takes passion and focus above and beyond what’s required to sustain consistent pastures. It’s a direction that requires guts to pursue. After all, that part of the farm can go busy, is fragile. A young farmer with vision handles the responsibilities with alacrity and maturity.

Ely set seeds aside for rental real estate to generate passive income and will diversify his farm more effectively than publicly-traded real estate investment trusts that correlate higher small company stocks. He’s also seeking to purchase units of a limited partnership in a wine-tasting venue opening in downtown Austin, Texas.

I’ve experienced a willingness by pre-retirees and recent retirees to invest 5-15% of their net worth in private ventures and small business franchise opportunities as a way to diversify from traditional stock and bond portfolios. It’s a growing trend as investors know they’re not getting the full story on how diversification works. They’re “reading around” Wall Street. Flanking the field, venturing out to undiscovered, fertile ground.  I greatly encourage them to take the chance as long as a team we understand the impact of a formidable loss on their retirement strategy.

Grow a pension and supplement Social Security. Safe is a field. It produces the steady, ongoing sustenance a farmer can never outlive. It’s the poster child of proper diversification. An annuity that will provide reliable income to bolster Social Security. The use of insurance to transfer risk in case something goes wrong that sets our farmer back financially in the future, is a smart addition of acreage to the farm. Nothing fancy. Nothing variable: A simple deferred-income option or a single-premium immediate annuity where the farmer knows exactly the bounty to be received on a periodic basis as part of long-term retirement income planning. There’s nothing variable here. No storm fronts that can create loss and vulnerable conditions. Ely believed that this field balanced and fit perfectly into the farm he’s working.

“So you see Ely, you’re a financial farmer. You’re working at a startup in Austin. For the seeds.”

I met with silence at the other end of the phone. Ten seconds max. Felt like 60.

“You know Richard, I understand now. I’m seeking to maximize the fruit of my labor and enrich the other non-financial riches that will blossom.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself. Well done, farmer Ely.

farmed field

Well done.

8 Ways To Go “Money Active” With Your Kids.

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Children are naturally curious. 

2014-08-27 05.18.47

How do you spark an interest in money?

As a child, I was an observer. My mother didn’t have money and my dad always lived for the moment. He died with nothing.

Today, with your children bombarded with messages you need to attempt to “sneak” money lessons in whenever possible.

Success comes from changing up old beliefs about how you think you should go “money-active” with the kids, creative thinking, remaining interactive.

Praying helps.

Random Thoughts:

Be an Example – Here’s an easy one because you don’t need to say a word – your actions are enough.

You children are monitoring your feelings about finances. What is your outward expression towards debt, savings and general household financial management, especially when communicating with the family?

If your relationship with money is positive or one of control and discipline, your children will learn from the example. If your relationship with money is negative, stressful, extravagant or reckless, the kids will pick up on that, too. Smart money beliefs and actions can lead to smart money imprints by the younger generations around you.

Anytime is the Right Time – One simple question framed in a positive tone may provide the right spark to get a money conversation underway. I call it “financial curiosity.” And you can be financially curious with your child anywhere – at the mall, at the supermarket, in his or her room.  If your teen makes a purchase, inquire about it with sincere interest. Out of non-threatening curiosity I ask my daughter for her reasons behind purchases and services she uses. She never feels like I’m prying (at least I don’t think so).

What compelled your child to buy a particular item? What does it do? What other choices are available? Is this item something the family may find useful? How does it work? Will this make their lives better, easier, more fun? How so? Was it a challenge to save up? You’ll gain information about the motives behind purchases and discussions regarding other money matters will blossom.

Get Them Involved – Talking about money is fine, however, it doesn’t compare to having your kids experience money management firsthand – something I call “money active.” Have the kids be responsible for specific money projects, let them fully experience the rewards and feel the sense of accomplishment when the plan is executed.

For example, provide children an opportunity to budget a family vacation or weekend getaway and then all enjoy the fruits of the labor. Partner with them to set savings goals for future purchases, especially the bigger-ticket items. Assist your teens with the research, or offer to match a percentage of the purchase price as a reward for good money habits.

Are the products or services the kids are using viable investment prospects? Now open the door to the investing conversation. And what better way to ignite the money flame — a possible investment into a company that manufactures a product or provides a service the children are passionate about.

 It’s OK to Seek Help – So you’re still having difficulty getting the conversation going? Let someone else help you get the fire started. Seek assistance from an objective person who would be willing to provide money lessons to the kids; perhaps someone in the family, or a friend successful with money management, would be excited to share an experience. Don’t be reluctant to seek assistance and allow someone else to tee up your involvement. I’ve witnessed grandparents do a great job at getting through to the grandkids with stories and financial lessons.

Make Money Real Life – Be candid. Your kids like to know you’re human, and occasionally make financial mistakes. They also want to understand what you did to correct a money mishap. You may need to be a bit creative; children are accustomed to movies loaded with action and special effects.

Take time to compose a compelling story about how you faced a financial obstacle head on and came out a winner. Or if the story doesn’t end well, explain specifically what you learned.

Kids are very comfortable with technology so become “money active,” and take advantage of online money-management tools to help kids achieve financial success. For example, at www.moneyasyougrow.org  there are activities that guide you to help the children work through money milestones grouped by age, beginning at 3-5 year-olds.

Begin a Money Mindset. Out of each dollar of allowance, figure out how much goes to savings, to charity and to spending. You need to help children establish guidelines early on. There are several products that make this division of money fun. Like the Money Box available from www.Moonjar.com. Also, there is an item called Money Conversations To Go which can jumpstart fun family discussions about money.

Have Children Handle Coins  – It’s a great way to get very young children comfortable with money – When my daughter Haley was 3 I had her handle nickels, dimes and quarters, they were shiny and fascinated her. From an early age I would have her place the coins in a bank and shake up that bank from time to time and it would sound like a rattle of sorts. Placing the coins in the bank was a sense of accomplishment for her and it started her on the road to fiscal success – Now, at age 16, she’s become a first-rate saver!

How About a Funky Money Diary? Purchase a three-subject notebook to help the younger kids keep track of the money they want to spend, share & save. Decorate with stickers related to money or cutouts of items the kids want to purchase in the future.  Interactive fun!

The most memorable interactions with children about money are ones you may overlook.

You’ll find discussing money at different times, in various places.

Out of nowhere.

It’ll become so routine, you’ll be smitten with delight.

Then you can focus on the tough discussions.

Like sex.

I’m still not ready.

kid shock

4 Sweet Money Lessons – Straight From The Toaster.

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As featured at http://www.nerdwallet.com. 

Pop Tarts almost killed me.

pop tart gun

The foundation of Mom’s parenting philosophy was the use of food to pacify me. Pop Tarts, either hot from the toaster or “raw,” as I called them, straight out of the box, were my favorite. My reward for good behavior was delectable, grape and occasionally iced.

Three boxes a week for seven years. Do the math. No wonder I have a permanent roll of fat around my belly.

The iconic Kellogg’s toaster happiness is turning 51 with no signs that its 32-year streak of increasing annual sales is in danger. And my ability to discover money messages in unusual places continues as well.

Money lessons arise like the fruity-sweet smoke of a hot toaster with a pastry left in just a little too long.

Here are four random thoughts that will help you add a healthy balance (pun intended) to your financial health.

1. Finances don’t need to be so serious all the time

It’s OK when money is sweet and replete with empty calories — in moderation. For example, I buy a scratch-off lottery ticket on occasion just for fun. The odds of winning are not a factor in my decision. The thrill and anticipation of the remote chance of winning is worth $2. The ROF (return on fantasy) is a bargain. Pop Tarts and other sweet foods were considered a staple in my childhood household. That’s not a good idea. It’s OK to splurge; I encourage it as long as spending limits are established and monitored.

2. Patience has rewards

Did you know Kellogg’s was sued for damages after a Pop Tart caught fire in a toaster? Boxes now carry a warning about fire risk in a toaster. Those things can get hot. As a kid, most of the time I wouldn’t wait and forged right ahead — I’d take a piping-hot mouthful of fruit filling without worrying about the repercussions.

The length of time people hold onto stocks has been falling rapidly since the 1960s and now stands at roughly six months. Investing, especially in stocks, is a long-term discipline. If your holding period is three years or less, then you’re not investing, you’re gambling. Prepare to be burned. Work with a professional to understand your underlying motivations for investing and try to match your life goals or benchmarks with the appropriate financial vehicles. You’re more apt to enjoy the cool sweetness of being a successful — or at least a levelheaded — steward of money.

3. Variety isn’t diversification

Pop Tarts come in 25 flavors. Over the years, Kellogg’s has experimented with different shapes, offbeat themes (like Ice-Cream Shoppe flavors), even a Pop Tart variety that was split down the middle with two separate flavors in one pastry. Most of those variations lasted only a couple of years. The original flavors like grape, strawberry and brown sugar-cinnamon have endured.

The financial services industry is, for the most part, a “popped-up” marketing machine, full of air and seeking to create products that promise diversification but often fail to do so. Costly hedge funds, and inverse products that promise protection in down markets, are not necessary to achieve diversification or enhanced returns. If you’re seeking true diversification from stocks, consider guaranteed investments like U.S. Treasury securities and cash, which are part of a lean and levelheaded diversified portfolio.

4. Icing is fun, but it’s not everything

The first frosted Pop Tarts debuted in 1967 when Kellogg’s discovered that icing could withstand the heat of a toaster. The foundational concept of this legendary confection remains basic: sweet filling surrounded by a plain, pre-baked, flaky pastry crust. Yet the simple brilliance of a Pop Tart has endured for decades.

When managing finances, the least complicated rules are still worth following. Saving at least 10% of your income annually, monitoring spending, keeping credit card and other unsecured debt levels to a minimum, establishing an emergency cash reserve and investing to reach longer-term goals — these never go out of style or lose appeal.

Sure, it’s fine to add a sweet kick to money basics. For example, taking calculated risks like investing a portion of your assets in emerging-markets stocks and bonds, placing money in sectors or asset classes that have recently underperformed, and investing in learning new skills to increase your value in the workplace can top your basics off nicely.

As with Pop Tarts or any sweet treats, moderation is important. It’s the same with your money behavior. You shouldn’t pursue either extreme deprivation or all-out splurging.

Wealth is built in moderation.

I blacked out from eating three boxes of Pop Tarts during a 1970s Saturday morning cartoon block. I’m not proud of that experience, but I am wiser for it.

groovy ghoulies

Just like the advertising campaign claims they’re “crazy good,” so can you be by following the lessons straight from a beloved toaster pastry.

5 Ways To Master A “Super Saver” Mentality.

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“I can never retire.”

never retire

At the wake for a client’s son, in the lobby of a plush funeral parlor, a woman I was introduced to seconds earlier looked at me and confessed four impactful words. I wasn’t aware of her personal situation however I felt the weight of her conviction.

I asked: “So, how will you make the best of the situation?”

I hear this sentiment so often, it no longer surprises me. No matter where I go. As soon as people discover I’m a financial adviser, they’re compelled to vent or share concerns, which I value. I’m honored how others find it easy to confess their fears to me. Unfortunately, I rarely listen to good stories especially when it comes to the harsh reality of present-day finances.

Saving money whether it’s for a long-term benchmark like retirement or having enough cash for future emergencies is an overwhelming task for households and this condition has improved marginally since the financial crisis ended over six years ago.

According to a June 2013 study by Bankrate.com, 76% of American families live paycheck-to-paycheck.

Is that a surprising fact?

Consider your own experience. When was your last pay raise?

no rise office

Wage growth has failed to keep up with inflation and productivity for years. During the heat of the great recession in 2009, you most likely endured a cut in pay from which you never fully recovered.

On top of that, you’re probably juggling multiple responsibilities outside your original job description. To say the least, attempting to bolster savings is an ongoing challenge post financial crisis.

To develop a super-saver mindset you need to first accept the new reality and make peace with the present economic environment. Steady wage growth and job security are becoming as rare as pensions. The below-average economic conditions are more permanent than “experts” are willing to admit.

Before a change in behavior can occur, an attitude adjustment is required as saving is first and foremost, a mental exercise. For example, a super-saver feels empowered after all monthly expenses are paid, and a surplus exists in his or her checking account.

Instead of experiencing a “spending high,” super savers are happier and feel empowered when their household cash inflow exceeds expense outflow on a consistent basis.

You can feel this way, too.

I’ve witnessed hardcore spenders transform into passionate savers by thinking differently and keeping an open mind to the following…

Random Thoughts:

Embrace a simple, honest saving philosophy.

Start with tough questions and honest answers to uncover truth about your past and current saving behavior.

You can go through the grind of daily life and still not fully comprehend your motivations behind anything, including money. Ostensibly, it comes down to an inner peace over your current situation, an objective review of resources (financial and otherwise), identification of those factors that prevent you from saving more and then creating a plan to improve at a pace that agrees with who you are. A strategy that fits your life and attitude.

The questions you ask yourself should be simple and thought-provoking.

Why aren’t you saving enough? Perhaps you just don’t find joy in saving because you don’t see a purpose or a clear direction for the action. Long-term change begins with a vision for every dollar you set aside. Whether it’s for a daughter’s wedding or a child’s education, saving money is a mental re-adjustment based on a strong desire to meet a personal financial benchmarks.

What’s the end game? It’s not saving forever with no end in sight, right? Perceive saving as a way to move closer to accomplishing a milestone, something that will bring you and others happiness or relieve financial stress in case of emergencies. A reason, a goal, a purpose for the dollars. Eventually savings are to be spent or invested.

Recently, I read a story in a financial newspaper about a retired janitor who lived like a pauper yet it was discovered upon his death, that he possessed millions. What’s the joy in that? Did this gentleman have an end game? I couldn’t determine from the article whether this hoarding of wealth was a good or bad thing. I believe it’s unhealthy.

Living frugally and dying wealthy doesn’t seem to be a thought-out process or at the least an enjoyable one. The messages drummed in your head from financial services are designed to stress you out; they’re based on generating fear and doubt.  And fear is a horrible reason to save, joy isn’t.

dead money

Form an honest and simple philosophy that outlines specific reasons why you need to save or increase savings. Approach it positively, three sentences max to describe your current perspective, why you’re willing to improve (focus on the benefits, the end game) then allow your mind to think freely about how you will fulfill your goals. Don’t listen to others who believe they found a better system. Find your own groove and work it on a regular basis.

Much of what you heard about saving money is false and will lead you down a path of disappointment.

The “gurus” who tell you that paying off your mortgage early is a good idea didn’t generate wealth by saving (or paying off a mortgage early). They made it by investing in their businesses and taking formidable risks to create multiple, lucrative income streams.

So before you buy in understand the personal agenda behind the messages. “Worn” personal finance advice like cutting out a favorite coffee drink and saving $3 bucks sounds terrific in theory but in the long run, means little to your bottom line. The needle won’t budge. And you’ll feel deprived to boot.

Financial media laments pervasively how you aren’t saving enough. From my experience, this message is not helpful; it fosters a defeatist attitude. People become frustrated, some decide to throw in the towel. They figure the situation is overwhelming and hopeless.

Don’t listen! Well, it’s ok to listen but don’t beat yourself up.

Saving money is personal. Meet with an objective financial adviser and don’t give much relevance to broad-based messages you hear about saving; it’s not one size fits all. Create a personalized savings plan with the end result in mind and be flexible in your approach.  Appreciate the opportunity to improve at your own pace, to reach the destination for each path you create. Just the fact you’re saving money is important. The action itself is the greatest hurdle. Strive to save an additional 1% each year; it can make a difference. If not for your bank account, for your confidence.

Compound interest is a cool story, but that’s about it.

Albert Einstein is credited with saying “compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world.”  Well, that’s not the entire quote. Here’s the rest: “He who understands it, earns it; he who doesn’t pays it.”

I’m not going to argue the brilliance of Einstein although I think when it comes down to today’s interest-rate environment he would be quite skeptical (and he was known for his skepticism) of the real-world application of this “wonder.”

First, Mr. Einstein must have been considering an interest rate with enough “fire power” to make a dent in your account balance. Over the last six years, short-term interest rates have remained at close to zero, long term rates are deep below historical averages and are expected to remain that way for some time. Certainly compounding can occur as long as the rate of reinvestment is greater than zero, but there’s nothing magical about the “snowballing” effect of compounding in today’s environment.

Also, compounding is most effective when there’s little chance of principal loss. It’s a linear wealth-building perspective that no longer has the same effectiveness considering two devastating stock market collapses which have inflicted long-term damage on household wealth. What good is compounding when the foundation of what I invested in is crumbling?

Perhaps you should focus on the “he who understands it, earns it; he who doesn’t pays it.”

I asked a super saver what that means to him. This gentleman interpreted it as the joy of being a lender and the toil of being a borrower. True power to a super saver ironically comes from living simply, avoiding credit card debt, searching out deals on the big stuff like automobiles and appliances.

Super-savers don’t focus much on compound interest any longer. As a matter of fact they believe it’s more a story than reality. They are passionate about fine-tuning what they can control and that primarily has to do with outflow or expenses.

This group ambitiously sets rules:

“I never purchase new autos.”

“My mortgage will never exceed twice my gross salary.”

“I never carry a credit card balance.”

“I’ll never purchase the newest and most expensive electronics.”

I know people who earn $40,000 a year save and invest 40% of their income. Then I’m acquainted with those who make $100,000 and can’t save a penny. Pick your road.

Making tough lifestyle decisions aren’t easy but doable.

I believe the eighth wonder of the world is human resolve in the face of the new economic reality. Not compound interest.

Sorry, Einstein.

einstein half the crap

Place greater emphasis on ROY (Return-On-You).

The greatest return on investment is when you allocate financial resources to increase the value of your human capital. In other words, developing your skill set is an investment that has the best potential to generate savings and wealth. Your house isn’t your biggest investment (as you’ve been told). It’s your greatest liability.

Many workers were required to re-invent themselves during or after the financial crisis. Their jobs were gone. In some cases, the industries that employed them for years were history, too. If you still need to work then you must consider directing as much as your resources as possible to multiply the ROY.

Take a realistic self-assessment of your skills, sharpen those that fit into the new economy or gain new ones to boost inflow (income). If you must stop saving to do it, do it. The increase in your income over ten to thirty years is real compounding.

People are finally beginning to understand that their current job is a dead end for wage increases or promotions. Finally, the status quo isn’t good enough, and that’s a great motivator to a ROY.

Increase inflow, decrease outflow.

Let’s take an example – You earn $50,000 a year. You save 4% annually, that’s $2,000.  If you achieve a 3% return on that money annually after 20 years that comes to $54,607.91. It’s admirable; some goals can be met along the way. However, if you’re looking to retire at the end of 20 years, big changes are necessary.

Super savers embrace the math and take on big lifestyle shifts to increase cash inflow. They’re willing to take on new skills, consider bold career moves, postpone retirement, and downsize to save additional income for investment and add time to work their plan. Everything is open for discussion.

The results have been overwhelmingly positive. Super savers maintain tremendous resolve to stay in control of their household balance sheets. Emotionally this group seems less stressed removed from the chains of debt. They tell me they have achieved control over their finances.

You can’t put a price on that.

To embrace a super-saver mentality peel away habits and lessons you believed were correct and take on a different set of rules; a new, perhaps slightly unorthodox mindset.

Super savers definitely walk in tune with a different drummer.

And they’re happier for it.

no stress beyond

 

Retirement Lessons: Rolled From A Rock.

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A version of this post appeared on MarketWatch.

“How much does your money weigh?”

If people want to engage me and discuss retirement planning, the request I have is for them to take time and think back to their first memories around money. I want them to re-engage with how their views formed in the past, shape their present actions and motivations.

We undertake journeys together – back to the genesis of financial and investment philosophies.

I maintain a passion for client stories. Money plays a significant role in each; it’s a larger-than-life character in the human chapters of life.

Many of the conversations are emotional fire starters; over time, the discussions, although relevant, share commonalities. There are the ones you never forget, too.

I had someone share how adult money attitudes were shaped by spending much of his childhood summers exploring a neighborhood historic cemetery.

So, when I encountered a retiree who learned about handling finances from a rock, well, I anxiously listened.

He said – “everything I learned financially for me began with a rock.”

rock

You see, this 69 year-old gentleman is the seventh and youngest child of a large family from Oklahoma. At 10, he discovered quiet and space and off a rural route. A wooded, gravelly patch cordoned off less than a mile from the homestead.

A perfect (and creative) location to secure his valuables from prying siblings. Over time it became a sanctuary from the vestiges of conflicts that erupt among large families.

From pre-teen to teen, an elaborate system was devised. A natural roadmap outlined on a napkin and changed often to throw off those who may become a bit curious. It was a plan which marked how valuables including baseball trading cards, cash and coins would be secured underneath a labyrinth of various-sized rocks. On a regular schedule, the hiding rocks were changed up, covered or replaced by holes under several dead trees. On numerous occasions, items were lost. Eaten.

Dug up and carried off by small animals.

He employed cigar boxes, plastic sandwich bags with yellow paper covered wire to secure them, empty Wonder Bread wrappers printed with the memorable red, yellow and blue balloons.

I couldn’t imagine what was learned from all this effort. Well, I had ideas, however, I never heard of anything like this before in over two decades helping others make financial decisions.

As we met a few times, I began to understand how weathered rocks forged this man’s money behavior. How he rolled along through retirement remembering back so many years. The cold weather, the dirty hands, the lost treasures formed invaluable habits.

So, what were the lessons learned?

Random Thoughts:

Dig deep into your financial foundation on a regular basis. Lift the rock, move earth, start digging. Get dirty, expose what’s been hidden. Before financial planning, it’s time to expose the deepest fears about retirement.  If frozen by fear, your outlook will suffer; you won’t take actions (even small ones) to get you to retirement; you’ll feel hopeless.

The mind has a tendency to head straight for worst-case scenarios which most of the time, are far from reality. I find when people begin exposing what makes them anxious about retirement and progressively talk openly with those they trust, practical habits are started and forged. Stress is reduced. Make a list of what you fear the most about saving for and living in retirement. Move one rock at a time. Work with a financial professional to create a goals-based, fear-minimizing game plan.

Focus on what weighs heavy on your retirement budget. For the majority of people I counsel, fixed expenses are like boulders which press hard on their abilities to enjoy retirement. I’m not going to make it sound easy to lighten up. It isn’t. It takes some tough decisions. It could mean selling a family homestead to downsize, taking inventory of material possessions to gift, sell or donate.

My greatest friend, mentor and best-selling author James Altucher and his wife Claudia recently dug through and discarded almost every physical item they own – family photos, furniture, clothing. Rows of green plastic garbage bags out to the curb for trash pickup (I saw the photos). Ok, I’m not advising to go to this extreme: I was shocked myself. However, the lesson here is to devise a strategy that works for you to minimize overhead expenses; a liquidation and downsizing mindset is empowering. It allows you to take great control over cash flow, relieves the pressure of big fixed costs throughout retirement.

Move mental rocks and check on things. Let’s face it: Many people think of their company retirement plans as dark, mysterious holes. They may salary defer the maximum contribution yet still have little knowledge about available investment choices, how money is currently allocated or they fail to rebalance holdings on a scheduled basis. In other words, to be an active saver is admirable however, once earnings are syphoned into retirement plans, many of us grow passive about digging into them and shifting the location of financial treasure. The money is buried so deep under the rock, it’s forgotten. It might as well be lost.

A company retirement account is most likely your greatest liquid asset, so it makes sense to check on its progress. Make a point to dig under the surface at least annually. Compare your current allocations to choices provided by your employer and examine how investments are divided. Sell down what’s done the best and reallocate proceeds into underperforming asset classes.

For example, in 2014 U.S. or domestic-based large-company stocks and bonds were outperformers. The majority of financial “pundits” were touting how in 2015, domestic-based stocks would continue a winning run. So far, it’s apparent that international stocks are improving due to favorable valuations and aggressive action by the European Central Bank to purchase bonds, much like our Federal Reserve has done in the past.

Get your hands dirty and expose yourself to uncomfortable conditions. I partner with several retirees who refuse to undertake actions that temporarily feel unpleasant. For a few, avoiding proper estate planning (who really wants to deal with their own mortality?), failing to embrace healthy lifestyle choices like annual health physicals, and transferring potential devastating financial risks though the use of insurance, has led to family stress and negative outcomes for retirement portfolios.

A roadmap based on maintenance of health, proper estate planning and use of insurance where it’s needed, can make a tremendous positive impact on the quality of retirement.

Through the years, this gentleman who learned so much from rocks and dirt as a child, started to understand how keeping the location of his buried treasure so secret, was not such a terrific idea. He began to comprehend how secrecy may lead to great loss. He has a trusted partner, his wife, who keeps him accountable for fitness goals, regular meetings with his financial advisor (me), his board-certified estate planner and a physician for annual head-to-toe checkups.

Recently, one of his grandsons, knowing the well-told story of the rocks, began to do some digging at the same location near the homestead (still in the family). After months of work he unearthed a plastic bag. In it was a 1955 Topps Baseball Box made of tin with 10 trading cards inside including one of legendary player Ernie Banks.

There are lessons right in front of all of us. Some we can trip over (literally).

If we dig deep and often, potential dangers can be uncovered, avoided; treasures can be revealed.

The graveled road of retirement can be a blessing or a curse.

A lesson is to unearth early on what concerns you the most and expose them to bright lights from trusted professionals and loved ones.

Your retirement path will be a challenge, but like a rock, you can weather it and remain structurally intact for decades.

And keep rolling…

rolling rock

 

 

An Extended Warranty: Do You Really Need One?

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As featured in USA Today for NerdWallet. 

It seems you can’t buy anything without escaping that awkward encounter just when you think your transaction is concluded.

“You can buy an extended warranty for an additional ____ dollars. Wouldn’t you like to protect your purchase?”

It feels like a wallet violation.

At least buy me dinner first.

It’s enough to keep me out of brick & mortar stores forever.

cash register

I’m not sure why I consistently feel bad saying no, and I teach financial discipline for a living. I want to feel good about what I spend money on, not guilty. It feels wrong to leave my purchase exposed to who knows what. Most of the time I politely say no and quickly move on.

Extended warranties have become a profit center for businesses, especially retailers. The peace of mind can be costly. For example, on average, an extended warranty can add an additional 10% to 25% to the purchase price of an item. There’s no doubt they’re considered a formidable driver of revenue.

When you think of the most common extended warranty, you may think of those for cars. However, they’re now offered on almost every consumer durable you buy. Recently, a good friend was offered an extended warranty for $14 on a $75 football from a national sporting goods chain. Of course he was wise enough to turn it down.

So, how do you determine when it’s smart to consider an extended warranty?

1. If replacing the item would lead to financial strain, transfer the risk.

Regardless of the cost of the product or service, an extended warranty should be considered if repairs or replacement could drain emergency cash reserves or increase your credit card debt. You don’t need to decide on an extended warranty right away. You’ll have a period of time, usually 30 days from the date of the transaction, to add coverage. Review what is covered under the standard warranty; for example, most services and goods will carry some form of protection or replacement for at least a year. If a major repair or replacement has the potential to place your household balance sheet in jeopardy, then it makes sense to transfer the risk to the manufacturer and pay for protection.

2. The bigger the purchase, the greater the consideration.

Durable goods like refrigerators, televisions, dishwashers, washers and dryers all come with standard warranties. Extended protection may not be required, as these items don’t break down frequently. However, before you say no, it’s best to investigate objective sources for repair histories for brands you’re seeking to purchase. Examine ratings on a website like www.consumerreports.org. Rarely do durables break down during the warranty period, according to Consumer Reports.

3. Forget the warranty; remember your savings account.

Instead of a warranty, consider directing money you would have spent into your emergency savings or money market account. Think of it as a cash bolster to handle repairs. In the case of a $250 warranty, add $21 a month to your budget.

4. Don’t get caught in the moment.

You may think that spending an additional 10% to 25% is no big deal after spending hundreds of dollars on something you want. Your brain will consider the purchase of an extended warranty small when compared to the greater cost of the item. As consumers we have a difficult time maintaining a rational head when it comes to additional expenditures for big purchases. Take time to step back and weigh the pros and cons. Examine the extended coverage as a stand-alone expense and the odds of using it.

5. Buy with your weaknesses in mind.

I purchase extended warranties for all portable electronics including laptops and smartphones if they cover accidental damage. I know my weaknesses; I tend to be clumsy with computers and cellphones. Make sure to examine how many instances are covered (plans will have limits) and the specifics for accident coverage. Understand your faults and use extended warranties when it protects your purchases against them.

6. How much is that item used?

Extended warranties can be useful for durable used items like automobiles and appliances. To cover your automobile, compare the costs of a dealer warranty to an independent organization like www.carchex.com, which offers several tiers of coverage (Titanium being the most inclusive). Home warranties that cover aging heating and air-conditioning systems can be worth the cost. It’s important to understand that standard maintenance is not included nor is full replacement. However, to keep appliances in operation longer and avoid the potential of frequent costly repairs, the expense of an extended warranty should be investigated.

7. Sometimes, extended warranties just don’t make sense.

Like my friend who was offered an extended warranty to protect against a flattened football, there are occasions when you’ll wonder how retailers have the nerve to sell coverage. If the purchase is $100 or less, take the chance with the manufacturer’s warranty and don’t worry about paying for an extended agreement.

In the frenzy of shopping, it’s easy to relent and say yes to aggressive salespeople.

When it comes to extended warranty purchases, don’t rush. Make the decision after reviewing the facts in the comfort of home, not in a pressured situation like checking out at a register with a line of shoppers behind you.

Many believe that extended warranties provide peace of mind.

How much is peace of mind truly costing you?