Top Ten Posts in Our First Year

Financial IQ by Susie Q celebrated its first birthday last week. In the first year, we published 52 posts on our site, two of which were guest posts from other authors, and published two posts on other blogs. In case you haven’t had time to keep up with reading the posts as they are published, we provide you with a list of our ten posts with the highest page views. (We note that there were two periods during which our site wasn’t “talking” to Google Analytics, so there might be a few posts that should have made the top ten, but didn’t.)

#1 Advice We Gave our Kids

This post had almost 1,000 page views in large part because it is the only post we’ve had featured on Money Mix. It provides a list of 7 themes about money that my kids heard frequently as they were growing up or as they were starting to make their own financial decisions. In addition, I added two other pieces of advice I wished I had given them.

#2 Should Chris Pre-Pay His Mortgage

This post was one of my favorite ones to write! Chris @MoneyStir published a post given a lot of detail about his financial situation. He asked others whether their opinion on whether he should pre-pay his mortgage. In my response, I showed Chris that, given his particular circumstances, he would be substantially better off after he fully re-paid his mortgage a large percentage of the time if he invested his extra cash instead of using it to pre-pay his mortgage. One of the broader takeaways from this post is the importance of isolating a single decision and not confusing your thinking by combining separate decisions into one process.

#3 Introduction to Budgeting

Introduction to Budgeting was our very first post. I’m not sure how high on the list it would have been had we published it later, as many of our friends viewed the post just to see what we were doing. I still think budgeting, whether done in great detail or at a high level, is a critical component of financial literacy, so hope that it is valuable to our regular followers and not just our curious friends.

#4 What to Do Once You have Savings

This post is the first in a series of three posts intended to provide a framework and guidance once you have some savings. The series talks about how much to put in emergency savings, how to save for big-ticket items, savings for retirement and deciding whether to pre-pay your student loans. For each type of savings, it provides suggestions for appropriate asset choices.

#5 Getting Started with Budgeting

This post is the first in a series of nine posts on how to create a detailed budget. The process starts with tracking your expenses to see how you are spending your money.  Subsequent posts talk about setting financial goals and figuring out how you want to spend your money.  The series finishes with monitoring your expenses to see how you are doing relative to your budget. This post includes a spreadsheet that allows you to track your expenses.

#6 New vs Used Cars

This post totals up all of the costs of owning a car to help you understand how much better off you might be by buying a used car rather than a new car.  For some cars, it is much less expensive to buy used, whereas for other cars it doesn’t cost much more to buy new especially if you plan to own it for a long time.

#7 Traditional vs Roth Retirement Plans

This post provides lots of information about Traditional and Roth IRAs and 401(k)s. It also explains in what situations a Roth is better than a Traditional plan and vice versa, including some examples. The biggest determinant of that decision is your expectations about your marginal tax rate at the time you save relative to your marginal tax rate at the time you make withdrawals. The post provides lots of information on taxes, too, to help you make that decision.

#8 New Cars: Cash, Lease or Borrow?

This post explains the costs related to buying a new car with cash, leasing a new car and borrowing to pay for a new car. It provides a detailed illustration for three different models.  The best choice among those three options depends on your ability to pay cash, how many miles you plan to drive, and the terms of each individual offer. For some cars and situations, leasing is less expensive than borrowing whereas, for others, borrowing is better. It also provides a spreadsheet that allows you to compare your offers.

#9 Car Insurance

I was surprised that this post made the top 10.  I spent my entire career in the insurance business so probably have forgotten how complicated car insurance is! This post describes all of the important terms and coverages you’ll find in a car insurance policy. It also provides some insights on how to decide what coverages, deductibles and limits to select.

#10 Health Insurance

On the other hand, it didn’t surprise me at all that this post made the top 10. In fact, I would have expected it to rate higher than it did. As with #9, this post explains all of the terms included in health insurance policies. Its companion post explains how to select the health insurance plan that best meets your needs and your budget.  That post includes a spreadsheet that follows along with the calculations. I recently had to select an individual health insurance plan as my COBRA benefits expired.  I used exactly the process described in this post to make my decision!

Retirement Savings: How Much Do You Need

Retirement Savings

Retiring is one of the riskiest financial decisions you will make. On the day you retire, you can calculate your net worth. You won’t know, however, how much retirement savings you need because you don’t know:

  • how much you will actually spend on day-to-day expenses
  • how much those expenses will be impacted by inflation
  • whether you’ll have significant medical or other expenses
  • how long you will live or
  • what returns you will earn on your investments.

I retired a little over a year ago and realized that, even though I have a lot of money saved, it wasn’t enough to give me confidence we wouldn’t run out.  I took on a large consulting project to help cover our expenses for the next year or two. Researching this post, though, added even more confidence as we have more than enough to meet some of the simple rules of thumb.   We will see what happens.

In this post, I’ll provide some insights about how to think about a target you might want to set for your retirement savings.  As a follow up, I’ll talk about how much you need to save to meet your retirement savings goal in this post.

4% Rule and Multiply by 25 Rule

As I checked to see what others were saying on this topic, I found a very common theme for determining how much you need to save for retirement.  In some places, it was called the 4% Rule and, in others, the Multiply by 25 Rule.  Being the math geek that I am, my first thought was that 4% = 1/25 so they are the same thing!  It turns out that, in the nitty gritty details, the Multiply by 25 Rule is intended to tell you how much you need to have available on the day you retire while the 4% Rule guides you in how much you can spend in your first year of retirement.  Nonetheless, as explained below, they both result in the same amount needed in savings on your retirement date.

4% Rule for Retirement Spending

The 4% rule is intended to tell you how much you can spend from your retirement savings each year.  Let’s say you have $1,000,000 in invested assets when you retire.  It says you can spend 4% of that amount or $40,000 (including all of your expenses and taxes) in your first year of retirement.  In each subsequent year of your retirement, you can spend $40,000 increased for the cumulative impact of inflation since you retired.   The 4% Rule assumes that you are invested 50% in stocks and 50% in bonds.

4% Rule Illustration

The graph below shows the amount you can spend each year (blue bars which use the left axis scale) and the amount you’ll have remaining at each age (red line which uses the right axis scale) if you retire at 65, inflation is 3% per year, bonds earn 2.5% and stocks earn 7% annually. These assumptions are similar to long-term average assumptions that are common these days.

As you can see, in this scenario, the amount you can spend increases from $40,000 when you are 65 to almost $100,000 a year when you are 95 solely due to inflation. In the first few years, your spending is less than your investment returns, so your savings increases.  After you turn 72, your savings exceeds your investment returns so your savings starts to decrease.

4% Rule Background

The 4% rule was developed by William Bengen and is presented in detail in a 1994 study published in the Journal of Financial Planning.  (If you like numbers and graphs, check out this paper. It is a surprisingly easy read.)

Using historical data from 1926 to 1991, Bengen found that there were no 50-year periods in which a retiree would run out of money if his or her initial withdrawal rate was 3.5% or lower.  With a 4% initial withdrawal rate, the shortest time period in which the savings ran out was 33 years.  In only 10% of the scenarios did the money last for less than 40 years.

If you turn this rule around and know how much you want to spend in your first year of retirement, say $60,000, you can calculate the amount you need to have saved by dividing that amount by 4% (=0.04).  In this example, you need $1,500,000 (=$60,000/0.04) in savings on the day you retire using this rule.

Multiply by 25 Rule for Retirement Savings

The Multiply by 25 Rule says that the amount you need in retirement savings is 25 times the amount you want to spend in the first year of retirement.  Using the example above in which you want to spend $60,000 in your first year of retirement, you would calculate that you need $1,500,000 (=25 x $60,000) in savings.  As I said, the math is the same for determining how much you need to save because multiplying by 25 is the same as dividing by 0.04.  It is just that the rules are stated from different perspectives (how much you can spend given the amount saved as opposed to how much you need to save giving how much you want to spend).

When do you need more or less?

As indicated, those rules make assumptions that might not be right for you. There are a number of personal factors that impact how much you need in retirement savings.

Your Risk Tolerance

The 4% Rule assumes that you invest half in bonds and half in stocks. Some people are willing to take more risk by investing more heavily in stocks. Other people can’t tolerate the ups and downs of the stock market, so invest more heavily in bonds. As shown in this chart below, taken from my post on diversification and investing, the higher percentage of stocks in your portfolio, the higher your average return (the blue lines) but the more likely you are to lose some of your principal (the portion of the whiskers that fall below 0).


If you plan to put more than 50% of your retirement assets in stocks, you can withdraw a bit more than 4% each year. Turning that around, it means you need a bit less than 25 times your estimated expenses in your first year of retirement. The table below was copied with permission from a March 19, 2019 article from Schwab found at this link.  It shows how your time horizon (see below) and investment risk impact the 4% Rule.

Life Expectancy and Retirement Age

The analysis underlying the 4% Rule focuses on a retirement period of 30 years.  If you retire in your mid-60s, it would imply that you would most likely have enough money to last through your mid-90s.  If you are in poor health or have a family history of dying early, you could consider spending a bit more than 4% (that is, multiply by less than 25 to determine how much you need to save).

On the other hand, if you plan to retire at 45 and want to have enough money to last until you are 95, you’ll need to save more.  The Schwab table above shows planning horizons up to 30 years.  Based on the numbers in the table, it looks like you could subtract about 0.1 percentage points from the numbers in the 30-year row for each year your planning horizon extends beyond 30 years to estimate how much you need to save.

For example, if you want to be highly confident (90% sure in this case) you will have enough money to last for 50 years, you would be looking at 20 years beyond the 30-year horizon.  Multiplying 20 years by 0.1 percentage point is 2.0%.  According to the table, you can spend 4.2% of your savings in the first year with a Moderately Conservative portfolio and 90% (highly) confident that you won’t run out of money in 30 years.  My approximation would subtract 2.0% from 4.2% to estimate that you could spend about 2.2% of your savings in the first year if you wanted to be 90% confident you won’t run out of money in 50 years.  You could then divide your estimated first year expenses by 2.2% or multiply by 45 to estimate how much you need to save.

Other Sources of Income

Some people’s employers provide defined benefit retirement plans.  These plans generally pay a flat amount every month starting at normal retirement age (as defined by the employer) until death.  In the US, people who have worked or whose spouses have worked are eligible for Social Security benefits, as discussed in this post.  Many other countries have similar programs.

When you are estimating how much you need to save for retirement, you can consider these sources of income.  If all of your other sources of income increase with inflation, it is a fairly straightforward adjustment.  You just need to subtract the income from these other sources from your first-year-of-retirement expenses before applying the 4% Rule (as adjusted for other considerations).

For example, if you plan to spend $100,000 a year in retirement and have $40,000 of Social Security and defined benefit plan benefits,  you would subtract $40,000 from $100,000 to get $60,000.  Using the Multiply by 25 Rule, you would multiply $60,000 by 25 to get $$1.5 million instead of multiplying the full $100,000 by 25 which would indicate you need $2.5 million in savings.  In this example, you need $1 million less in savings because you have other sources of income.

Unfortunately, most defined benefit plan benefits do not increase with inflation.  The math for adjusting the Multiply by 25 Rule is fairly complicated.  I’ve developed a simple approximation that you can use that will get you close to the correct percentage.  To approximate the adjustment to the amount you Multiply by 25, divide your defined benefit plan income by 2 before subtracting it from your first-year expenses.

You Want to Leave Your Assets to your Beneficiaries

I remember being a teenager and having my father explain to me how much I needed to save for retirement.  The approach he proposed was that you could spend 2% of your assets which is equivalent to a Multiply by 50 Rule.  (No wonder I was nervous about my finances when I retired!)  His logic was as follows:

  • Invest in the stock market and get a 10% return.  (He did this analysis a long time ago, when stock market average returns, inflation and taxes were all considered to be a bit higher than they are today, but not by so much as to make the logic faulty.)
  • You will pay taxes of 40% of your returns, which makes your after-tax return 6%.
  • Inflation will be 4% per year.  Because he wanted his investment income in every year to cover his expenses without dipping into the principal, he had to re-invest 4 percentage points of his investment return so he would have 4% more investment income in each subsequent year.
  • Subtracting the 4% reinvestment from the 6% after-tax return leaves an amount equal to 2% of his investments that he could spend each year (excluding taxes because he separately considered them).

So, if you are like my father, you will want to save closer to 50 times your first-year retirement expenses, rather than 25 times.  It is important to remember that my father’s Multiply by 50 rule applies to your expenses excluding income taxes and the Multiply by 25 Rule applies to your expenses including income taxes, so they aren’t quite directly comparable.

Liquidity of your Assets

As indicated above, the 4% Rule assumes your assets are invested 50% in stocks and 50% in bonds. You may have other assets that contribute to your net worth, such as equity in your home, your personal property, a family farm and rental property, among others. These other assets are all consider illiquid – that is, you can’t convert them to cash easily. Further, some of them are assets that you never want to have to convert to cash to cover expenses, such as your home and personal property.

As you project how much you will have in retirement savings, you’ll want to exclude any equity in your house as it isn’t available to invest.  A portion of it may be available at some point if you plan to downsize, but you’ll want to be cautious about including it in your savings plan.  Other of these assets, such as rental property, could be liquidated to cover retirement expenses.  In your planning, though, you’ll need to make sure you consider the selling costs (e.g., real estate agent’s commission) and taxes you need to pay on capital gains and that they may not generate a return as high as underlies the 4% Rule.

Irregular Large Expenses

The analysis that supports the 4% Rule assumes that you have the same expenses every year and that they change due only to inflation. That’s not how life works! You may want to be like me and want to take an expensive vacation every three or four years in retirement, you’ll likely have to replace your car at least once in retirement or you could have major home repairs if you own your home.  In addition, end-of-life medical bills can be very expensive.

As you are determining your first-year retirement expenses, you’ll want to include amounts for any such expenses in your budget at their average annual cost.  For example, let’s say I want to take a vacation (in addition to my already budgeted travel expenses) every five years that has a total cost of $10,000.  I need to add $2,000 (= $10,000 per vacation divided by one vacation every 5 years) to my regular annual expenses for these big vacations.  Similarly, if I plan to buy a $25,000 car every 15 years, I need to add $1,667 (= $25,000/15) to my annual expenses.  In both cases, you would add these amounts to your budgeted expenses before you divided by 4%.

How to Set Your Personal Target

So, what can you do to estimate your personal retirement savings target? Follow the following steps.

Make a Budget for Today if You Don’t Already Have One

It is hard to estimate your expenses in retirement, but it is very helpful to understand what you are spending today.  If you don’t have a budget or haven’t tracked your expenses to see where your money is going, I suggest starting there.  Here is a link to a post I wrote with a spreadsheet to help you monitor your expenses.

Estimate Your Expenses in Your First Year of Retirement

Next, look at your current budget and/or spending and estimate how it would change if you were retired today.  On what types of things might you want to spend money in the future that you don’t spend now?  Might you want to buy special gifts for your grandchildren that are more extravagant than what you spend for your children’s gifts now?  Also think about expenses you have now that you won’t have in the future, such as commute expenses and possibly a separate wardrobe for work.

Be sure to think about Social Security (or equivalent) and income taxes. In addition to Federal income taxes, you may pay state or provincial and possibly local income taxes.  If you plan to live somewhere else in retirement, it might have a higher or lower tax rate.  In the US, Social Security taxes are 6.2% (12.4% I you are self-employed) of your wages up to the limit ($128,400 in 2019).  As you adjust your budget, you can eliminate Social Security taxes and will want to think about whether your state or provincial and local tax rate will be substantially different from their current rates.

Some people say that your expenses will decrease by 20% when you retire.  In my very short retirement, I find I’m spending more than I expected as I have more time to do things and many of them cost money.  This post from Financial Samurai provide some insights as to how retirement might impact your expenses.

Increase Your Retirement Expenses for Special Purchases

Do you want to travel? How often do you think you’ll need to buy replacement cars and how much do you think you’d spend if you bought one today? What other expenses might you have that aren’t in your budget? For each of these expenses, divide the amount by the time between them to estimate an average annual cost, as I illustrated earlier in this post.

Adjust Your Budget for Inflation

All of the amounts you’ve estimated so far are in today’s dollars.  That is, they reflect the current prices of every item.  You’ll want to increase these amounts for inflation between now and the time you retire.  Over long periods of time, annual inflation has averaged 3% to 3.5% though it has been a bit lower recently.  To adjust your budget for inflation, you’ll want to multiply it by 1.03n, where n is the number of years until you retire.  Don’t like exponents?  The table below provides approximate multipliers by number of years until you plan to retire.

Years 5 10 15 20 25 30 35 40 45
Factor 1.15 1.35 1.55 1.80 2.10 2.45 2.80 3.25 3.80

Subtract Other Sources of Income

If you think you’ll have a defined pension plan benefit or will receive social insurance (Social Security) benefit, you can subtract those amounts from your inflation-adjusted budget.  My post on Social Security provides insights on how to estimate your benefits for my US readers.

Figure Out your Risk Tolerance and Length of Retirement

If you want to be almost 100% confident you will have enough money to last for your full retirement, regardless of how long it is, and leave most or all of your principal to your heirs, multiply the difference between your inflated budget (excluding income taxes) and other sources of income by 50 to derive your retirement savings target.

If you plan to be retired for only 10 years, you can multiply by a number as low as 10, according to the chart from Schwab. Where between those two numbers you choose is up to you. The longer you expect to be retired, the more conservative your investments and the more confident you want to be that you won’t run out of money, the higher your multiplier.

 

 

What is Diversification and How Does it Work?

One of the key concepts used by many successful investors is diversification.  In this post, I’ll define diversification and explain how it works conceptually.  I explain different ways you can diversify your investments and provide illustrations of its benefits in this post.

What is Diversification?

Diversification is the reduction of risk (defined in my post a couple of weeks ago) through investing in a larger number of financial instruments.  It is based on the concept of the Law of Large Numbers in statistics. That “Law” says that the more times you observe the outcome of a random process, the closer the results are likely to exhibit their true properties.  For example, if you flip a fair coin twice, there are four sets of possible results:

 

First flip Second flip
Heads Heads
Heads Tails
Tails Heads
Tails Tails

 

The true probability of getting heads is 50%.  In two rows (i.e., two possible results), there is one heads and one tails.  These two results correspond to the true probability of a 50% chance of getting heads.  The other two possible results show that heads appears either 0% or 100% of the time.  If you repeatedly flip the coin 100 times, you will see heads between 40% and 60% of the time in 96% of the sets of 100 flips.  Increasing the number of flips to 1,000 times per set, you will see heads between 46.8% and 53.2% of the time in 96% of the sets.  Because the range from 40% to 60% with 100 flips is wider than the range of 46.8% to 53.2% with 1,000 flips, you can see that the range around the 50% true probability gets smaller as the number of flips increases.  This narrowing of the range is the result of the Law of Large Numbers.

Following this example, the observed result from only one flip of the coin would not be diversified. That is, our estimate of the possible results from a coin flip would be dependent on only one observation – equivalent to having all of our eggs in one basket.  By flipping the coin many times, we are adding diversification to our observations and narrowing the difference between the observed percentage of times we see heads as compared to the true probability (50%).   Next week, I’ll apply this concept to investing where, instead of narrowing the range around the true probability, we will narrow the volatility of our portfolio by investing in more than one financial instrument.

What is Correlation?

As discussed below, the diversification benefit depends on how much correlation there is between the random variables (or financial instruments). Before I get to that, I’ll give you an introduction to correlation.

Correlation is a measure of the extent to which two variables move proportionally in the same direction. In the coin toss example above, each flip was independent of every other flip.

0% Correlation

When variables are independent, we say they are uncorrelated or have 0% correlation. The graph below shows two variables that have 0% correlation.

In this graph, there is no pattern that relates the value on the x-axis (the horizontal one) with the value on the y-axis (the vertical one) that holds true across all the points.

100% Correlation

If two random variables always move proportionally and in the same direction, they are said to have +100% correlation.  For example, two variables that are 100% correlated are the amount of interest you will earn in a savings account and the account balance.  If they move proportionally but in the opposite direction, they have -100% correlation.  Two variables that have -100% correlation are how much you spend at the mall and how much money you have left for savings or other purchases.

The two charts below show variables that have 100% and -100% correlation.

In these graphs, the points fall on a line because the y values are all proportional to the x values. With 100% correlation, the line goes up, whereas the line goes down with -100% correlation.  In the 100% correlation graph, the x and y values are equal; in the -100% graph, the y values equal one minus the x values. 100% correlation exists with any constant proportion.  For example, if all of the y values were all one half or twice the x values, there would still be 100% correlation.

50% Correlation

The graphs below give you a sense for what 50% and -50% correlation look like.

The points in these graphs don’t align as clearly as the points in the 100% and -100% graphs, but aren’t as randomly scattered as in the 0% graph.  In the 50% correlation graph, the points generally fall in an upward band with no points in the lower right and upper left corners.  Similarly, in the -50% correlation graph, the pattern of the points is generally downward, with no points in the upper right or lower left corners.

How Correlation Impacts Diversification

The amount of correlation between two random variables determines the amount of diversification benefit.  The table below shows 20 possible outcomes of a random variable.  All outcomes are equally likely.

The average of these observation is 55 and the standard deviation is 27.  This standard deviation is measures the volatility with no diversification and will be used as a benchmark when this variable is combined with other variables.

+100% Correlation

If I have two random variables with the same properties and they are 100% correlation, the outcomes would be:

Remember that 100% correlation means that the variables move proportionally in the same direction.  If I take the average of the outcomes for Variable 1 and Variable 2 for each observation, I would get results that are the same as the original variable.  As a result, the process defined by the average of Variable 1 and Variable 2 is the same as the original variable’s process.  There is no reduction in the standard deviation (our measure of risk), so there is no diversification when variables have +100% correlation.

-100% Correlation

If I have a third random variable with the same properties but the correlation with Variable 1 is -100%, the outcomes and averages by observation would be:

The average of the averages is 0 and so is the standard deviation!  By taking two variables that have ‑100% correlation, all volatility has been eliminated.

0% Correlation

If I have a fourth random variable with the same properties but it is uncorrelated with Variable 1, the outcomes and averages by observation would be:

The average of the averages is 54 and the standard deviation is 17.  By taking two variables that are uncorrelated, the standard deviation has been reduced from 27 to 17.

Other Correlations

The standard deviation of the average of the two variables increases as the correlation increases.  When the variables have between -100% and 0% correlation, the standard deviation will be between 0 and 17. If the correlation is between 0% and +100%, the standard deviation will be between 17 and 27.  This relationship isn’t quite linear, but is close.  The graph below shows how the standard deviation changes with correlation using random variables with these characteristics.

Key Take-Aways

Here are the key take-aways from this post.

  • Correlation measures the extent to which two random processes move proportionally and in the same direction. Positive values of correlation indicate that the processes move in the same direction; negative values, the opposite direction.
  • The lower the correlation between two variables, the greater the reduction in volatility and risk. At 100% correlation, there is no reduction in risk.  At -100% correlation, all risk is eliminated.
  • Diversification is the reduction in volatility and risk generated by combining two or more variables that have less than 100% correlation.

Retirement Savings/Saving for Large Purchases

In my previous post, I presented the first part of a case study that introduced Mary and her questions about what to do with her savings. In this post, I will continue the case study focusing on retirement savings and saving for large purchases. 

Case Study

To help set the stage, I created a fictitious person, Mary, whose finances I use for illustration.

  • Mary is single with no dependents.
  • She lives alone in an apartment she rents.
  • She makes $62,000 per year.
  • Mary has $25,000 in a savings account at her bank and $10,000 in her Roth 401(k).
  • Her annual budget shows:
    • Basic living expenses of $40,000
    • $5,000 for fun and discretionary items
    • $10,000 for social security, Federal and state income taxes
    • $4,000 for 401(k) contributions
    • $3,000 for non-retirement savings
  • Mary has $15,000 in student loans which have a 5% interest rate.
  • She owns her seven-year-old car outright. She plans to replace her car with a used vehicle in three years and would like to have $10,000 in cash to pay for it.
  • She has no plans to buy a house in the near future.
Mary's-Savings-Infographic

Her questions are:

  • Should I start investing the $25,000 in my savings account?
  • Should I have a separate account to save the $10,000 for the car?  
  • What choices do I have for my first investments for any money I don’t set aside for my car?
  • Should I pay off some or all of the principal on my student loans?

I talked about a framework for thinking about her savings and setting aside money for expenses she doesn’t pay monthly and emergency savings here.  In this post, I’ll focus on the rest of her savings.  I answer her questions about student loans here

Designated Savings

Designated savings is the portion of your investable asset portfolio that you set aside for a specific purchase, such as a car or home. Mary would like to buy a car for $10,000 in three years.  She needs to designate a portion of her savings for her car.

As part of her savings framework, Mary

  • Will set aside $13,000 for emergency savings.
  • Has $12,000 in her savings account after setting aside the $13,000 for emergency savings.
  • Included $3,000 a year for non-retirement savings in her budget, some of which she can use for her car.

Mary has decided she will use $5,500 as the start of her designated savings to replace her car. After reading this post, she has decided to pay cash for a car, rather than borrow or lease,  She will add half of her $3,000 of non-retirement savings each year to bring the total available balance to $10,000 in three years.  If Mary’s car becomes unrepairable sooner, she can use some of the money in her emergency savings, but will want to replenish that account as soon as she can.

Considerations for Investment Choices

When I’m saving money for a large purchase, such as a car or a down payment on a house, I’m willing to invest in something less liquid than a savings account or a money market account. That is, I don’t have to be able to access the money on a moment’s notice.  

I do, however, want a similar level of security.  It is very important to me that the market value of my investment not go down as I don’t want to risk my principal.  Because I tend to have time frames that are less than one year for these types of purchases, I tend to put my designated savings in certificates of deposit. 

Certificates of Deposit and Treasury Bills

In Mary’s case, she has three years.  She might consider longer-term certificates of deposit (CDs) or short-term government bonds. (Click here to learn more about bonds.) A CD is a savings certificate, usually issued by a commercial bank, with a stated maturity and a fixed interest rate.  

A treasury note is a form of a bond issued by the US government with a fixed interest rate and a maturity of one to 10 years.  A treasury bill is the same as a treasury note, except the maturity is less than one year.  When the government issues notes, bills and bonds (which have maturities of more than 10 years), it is borrowing money from the person or entity that buys them.  The table below shows the current interest rates on CDs and treasury bills and notes with different maturities.

Maturity CD[1] Treasury[2]
1-3 Months 2.32% 2.3%
4-6 Months 2.42% 2.5%
7-9 Months 2.56% N/A
10-18 Months 2.8% 2.7%
1.5–2.5 Years 3.4% 2.8%
3 Years N/A 2.85%
5 Years N/A 2.9%

When thinking about whether to buy CDs or Treasury bonds, Mary will want to consider not only the differences in returns, but also the differences in risk.  

Risks of Owning a Bond

Bonds have two key inherent risks – default risk and market risk

  • Default risk is the chance that the issuer will default on its obligations (i.e., not pay you some or all of your interest or principal).  Treasury notes, bills and bond issued by the US are considered some of the safest bonds from a default perspective.  I’m not aware that the US government (or Canadian government for that matter) has ever not paid the interest or repaid the principal on any of its debt. 
  • Market risk emanates from changes in interest rates that cause changes in the market values of bonds.  As interest rates go up, the market values of bonds go down.  All bonds come with a maturity date that is almost always stated in the name of the bond.[3]   If you buy a bonddon’t sell it until it matures and the issuer doesn’t default, you will get the face amount (i.e., the principal) of the bond no matter how interest rates change.  Thus, if you hold a bond to maturity, you eliminate the market risk

In summary, using certificates of deposit or Treasuries held to maturity can increase your investment return relative to a savings account without significantly increasing the risk that you’ll lose the money you’ve saved.  

Mary’s Decision

Because she can buy them easily at her bank or brokerage firm and they are currently yielding more the Treasuries with the same maturity, Mary has decided to buy 2.5-year CDs, earning 3.4%, with the $5,500 she has set aside to buy her car.

Long-term Savings – What to Buy

Mary has $6,500 in her savings account that isn’t needed for her emergency savings or her replacement car. She wants to start investing it or use it to pay down some of her student loans.  I’ll talk about her student loans next week.

Mary doesn’t want to spend a lot of time doing research, so is not going to invest in individual securities.[4]  Instead, she is looking at mutual funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs).  A benefit of these funds over individual securities is that they own positions in a lot of companies so it is easier for Mary to diversify[5]her portfolio than if she bought positions in individual companies.

Mutual Fund and ETF Considerations

Briefly, here are some of the features to consider in selecting a mutual fund or an ETF.  I note that you may not have answers to a lot of these questions, but they should help you get started in your thinking[6].

  • The types of positions it holds and whether they are consistent with your investment objectives. Is the fund concentrated in a few industries or is the fund intended to produce the same returns as the overall market (such as the S&P 500 or Dow Jones Industrial Average)?  Does it invest in larger or smaller companies?  Does the fund focus on growth or dividend-yielding positions?  Is it an index fund or actively-traded?
  • The expense load.  All mutual fund and ETF managers take a portion of the money in their funds to cover their expenses.  The managers make their money from these fees.  Funds are required to report their expenses, as these reduce your overall return on investment.  There are two types of expense load – front-end loads and annual expenses.  If you buy a fund with a front-end load, it will reduce your investment by the percentage corresponding to the front-end load when you buy it.  Almost all funds have annual expenses which reduce the value of your holdings every year.  Although funds with lower expense loads generally have better performance than those with higher loads, there may be some funds that outperform even after consideration of a higher expense load.
  • Historical performance.  Although historical performance is never a predictor of future performance, a fund that has a good track record might be preferred to one that has a poor track record or is new.  As you review returns, look not only at average returns but also volatility (such as the standard deviation).  A fund with higher volatility should have a higher return.

Mutual Funds and ETFs – How to Buy

You can buy mutual funds directly from the fund management company.  You can also buy mutual funds and ETFs through a brokerage company.  If you buy them through a brokerage company, you will pay a small transaction fee but it is often easier to buy and sell the funds, if needed.  Holding these assets in a brokerage account also lets you see more of your investments in one place.

Mary’s Decision

Mary decides to invest in an S&P 500 index fund (a form of exchanged-traded fund that is intended to track S&P 500 returns fairly closely).  Since 1950, the total return on the S&P 500 corresponds to 8.9% compounded annually.  It is important to understand that the returns are very volatile from month-to-month and even year-to-year, so she might not earn as much as 8.9% return over any specific time period.[7]

Retirement Savings – What Type of Account?

As Mary thinks about her long-term savings, she not only wants to decide how to invest it, but also in what type of account to put it – a tax-sheltered retirement savings account or a taxable account she can access at any time[8].  In addition, she needs to think about how much she needs in total to retire and how much she will need to set aside each year.

Retirement Account Contribution Limits

In the US for 2018, she is allowed to contribute $18,500 ($24,500 after age 50) to a 401(k) plus $5,500 ($6,500 after age 50) to an Individual Retirement Account.  

In Canada, the 2018 maximum contribution to group and individual Registered Retirement Savings Plans (RRSPs) combined is the lesser of 18% of earned income or $26,230.  The 2018 maximum contribution to group and individual Tax-Free Savings Accounts (TFSAs) is $5,500.  If you didn’t make contributions up to the limit last year, you can carry over the unused portion to increase your maximum contribution for this year.

In Canada, there are no penalties for early withdrawal from a RRSP or TFSA as long as the withdrawal is not made in the year you make the contribution, so it is easy to take advantage of the tax savings.  If you make the withdrawal from an RRSP, you need to pay taxes on the withdrawal.  In the US, there is a 10% penalty for withdrawing money from a 401(k) or IRA before the year in which you turn 59.5. As such, the choice of putting your money in a 401(k) or IRA needs to consider the likelihood that you’ll want to spend your long-term savings before then.

Returns: Taxable Account vs. Roth IRA/TFSA

Mary has decided she won’t need the money for a long time.  She will decide how much to put in her retirement account and taxable accounts after she looks at her student loans.  Mary’s savings is considered after-tax money.  As such, she can put it in a Roth IRA or TFSA.  She will not pay taxes on the money when she withdraws it.  If she didn’t put the money in a Roth IRA or TFSA, she would have to pay income taxes on the investment returns.[9]  If she puts it in a Traditional IRA or RRSP, the amount of her contribution will reduce her taxable income but she will pay taxes on the money when she withdraws it. This graph compares how Mary’s money will grow[10]over the next 30 years if she invests it in a Roth IRA or TFSA as compared to a taxable account.  

Savings comparison, Roth vs Taxable savings

As you can see, $4,000 grows to just over $30,000 over 30 years in a taxable account and just over $50,000 in a Roth account assuming a constant 8.9% return and a 20% tax rate.

Key Points

The key takeaways from this case study are:

  • You may need to save for large purchases over several years.  The amount you need to set aside today as designated savings for those purchases depends on how much they will cost, when you need to buy them and how much of your future budget you can add to those savings.
  • Certificates of deposit are very low-risk investment instruments that can be used for designated savings.  
  • Treasuries with maturity dates that line up with your target purchase date can also be used for designated savings.  By holding bonds to maturity, you eliminate the market risk.
  • Mutual funds and ETFs require less research and more diversification than owning individual companies (unless you own positions in a very large number of companies).  These instruments are an easy way to get started with investing.

Your Next Steps

This post talks about Mary’s situation.  Here are some questions you can be asking yourself and things you can do to apply these concepts to your situation.

  1. Identify the large purchases you want to make.  These purchases can include a car, an extravagant vacation or a house, among other things.  For each purchase, estimate when you will want to spend the money and how much they will cost. 
  2. Determine how much of your savings you can set aside for these large purchases.  Look at your budget to make sure you can set aside enough money to cover the rest of the cost.  If you can’t, you’ll need to either make changes to your aspirations or your budget.  In my budgeting series starting in a few weeks, I’ll dedicate an entire post to what to do when your expenses are more than your income.  
  3. Decide whether to start a relationship with a brokerage firm.  Last week, I provided a list of questions to help you get started if you do.
  4. Look into options for your designated savings.
    • What are the returns offered by your bank or, if you have one, brokerage firm, on certificates of deposit with terms corresponding to when you need your designated savings? 
    • How do Treasury returns compare to certificates of deposit?
  5. Decide how much of your long-term savings you want to put into retirement accounts and how much will be left for other savings.  I put as much as I could into retirement accounts, but always made sure I had enough other savings for large purchases that I hadn’t identified in enough detail to include in designated savings.  If you want to retire before the year you turn 59.5, you’ll also want to keep enough long-term savings out of your retirement accounts to cover all of your expenses until that year. 
  6. Decide whether you want to start investing your long-term savings in mutual or exchange traded funds or in individual stocks.  If mutual or exchange traded funds, take a look at the list of questions above.

[1]https://www.schwab.com/public/schwab/investing/accounts_products/investment/bonds/certificates_of_deposit, November 17, 2018.

[2]www.treasury.gov, November 17, 2018.

[3]Some bonds have features that allow the issuer to re-pay the principal before the maturity date.  For this discussion, we will focus on bonds that do not give the issuer that option.  These bonds are referred to as “non-callable.”  Bonds that can be re-paid before the maturity date are referred to as callable bonds.

[4]For those of you interested in investing in individual equities, a guest blogger, Riley of Young and The Invested (www.youngandtheinvested.com), will write about how to get started with looking at individual companies right after the first of the year.

[5]Portfolio diversification is an important concept in investing.  I’ll have a few posts on this topic in the coming months.

[6]If you are interested in more information on selecting mutual funds, I found a nice article at https://www.kiplinger.com/article/investing/T041-C007-S001-my-9-rules-for-picking-mutual-funds.html

[7]This volatility is often referred to as the risk of a financial instrument and is another important concept in investing. Look for insights into the trade-off between risk and reward coming soon.

[8]I’ll cover retirement savings more in a future post.

[9]Income taxes on investments are somewhat complicated.  For the illustrations here, I’ll assume that Mary’s combined Federal and state tax rate applicable to investment returns is 20% and that all returns are taxable in the year she earns them.  There are some types of assets for which that isn’t the case, but identifying them is beyond the scope of this post.

[10]For illustration, this graph shows a constant 8.9% return.  Over long periods of time, the S&P 500 has returned very roughly 8.9% per year on average.  The returns vary widely from year-to-year, but for making long-term comparisons a constant annual return is informative even though it isn’t accurate. 

Investment Options in Retirement Savings Plans

All investment decisions are a trade-off between risk and reward. In this post, I’ll focus on how risk and reward affect your decision among the investment options in your employer-sponsored retirement plans.

If you look at returns over very long periods of time, well diversified, riskier investments tend to produce higher returns with lower risk. For most of these investments, “a very long period of time” is somewhere between 10 and 30 years. That doesn’t mean that the riskiest investments will always outperform the less risky investments in every 10 or 20 year period, but, if you look at enough of them, they generally will on average.

When I Take More Risk

Very briefly, three characteristics I use to help decide whether I want to lean towards a more or less risky investment are:

    • With only a small amount to invest, I will tend to be purchase less risky investments than if I have a larger amount because I have less of a cushion and I want to protect it.
    • When I know I will need the money very soon, I invest in less risky investments (or possibly keep it in a savings or checking account). With longer time periods, riskier investments have more time to recover if they have a large decline. If I need the money soon, I might not have enough money for my purchase if the values declined.
    • If I have almost as much money as I need for a purchase that isn’t going to be made for a while (for example when I had enough money saved for my children’s college education), I will purchase less risky investments as I don’t need a high rate of return to meet my objectives and also want to protect my savings.

     

  • If you aren’t comfortable with the concept of risk, I suggest looking at my post on that topic.

    Common Choices

    Commonly available investment options in employer-sponsored retirement plans are listed below. I have put them in an order that roughly corresponds to increasing risk.

    • Money market funds – Money market funds invest in what are considered short-term, liquid (easily sold) securities. They are similar to, but slightly riskier than, interest-bearing savings accounts.
    • Stable value funds – A stable value fund usually buys and sells highly-rated corporate or government bonds with short to intermediate times to maturity. The return on a stable value fund is the sum of the changes in the market value plus the coupon payments on the bonds held by the fund.   Because stable value funds tend to buy bonds with shorter times to maturity than typical bond mutual funds, they often have lower returns and be less risky.
    • Bond Mutual Funds – Bond mutual funds buy and sell bonds. The return on a bond mutual fund is the sum of the changes in the market value plus the coupon payments. Although they don’t track exactly, the market values of bonds tend to go down when interest rates go up and vice versa.
    • Large Cap Equity Mutual Funds – These funds buy and sell stocks in large companies, often defined as those with more than $10 billion of market capitalization (the total market value of all the stock it has issued).
    • Small Cap Equity Mutual Funds – These funds buy and sell stocks in smaller companies.
    • Foreign Equity Mutual Funds – These funds buy and sell stocks in foreign companies. Every foreign equity fund is allowed to define the countries in which it invests.   You’ll want to look to see in what countries your fund options invest to evaluate their level of risk.
    • Emerging Market Equity Mutual Funds – These funds buy and sell stocks in companies in countries that are considering emerging markets. Morocco, the Philippines, Brazil and South Africa are examples of currently emerging markets.
    • Retirement Date Funds – These fund managers buys bond mutual funds and equity mutual funds.  Each fund has a range of retirement dates associated with it.  The fund manager selects the allocation between bond funds and stock funds based on its evaluation of the amount of mix you should take given the length of time to retirement.  The key advantage of a retirement date fund is that you don’t have to make any decisions – the fund manager does it all.  The disadvantages of retirement date funds include the fact that they ignore your personal risk tolerance, they don’t consider other assets you may own outside the retirement date fund and some of them have fairly high fees, since the retirement date fund manager receives a fee on top of the fees charged by the mutual funds selected by the fund manager.

    Other Choices

    Some employers offer index funds which are variations on equity mutual funds. An index fund’s performance tracks as closely as possible to a major stock market index. The Dow Jones Industrial Average, the Standard & Poors (S&P) 500 or the Russell 2000 are examples of indices. The first two indices have risk and return characteristics somewhat similar to large cap equity mutual funds. The Russell 200 is more closely aligned with a medium or small cap equity mutual fund.

    Increasingly, employers are offering Target Retirement Date Funds as an option. The fund manager not only selects the individual securities that will be owned by the fund, but also chooses the mix between equities and bonds.   In theory, the number of years until the target retirement dates for that fund determines the mix of investments. For example, a fund with a target retirement date range of 2021 through 2025 might be invested more heavily in bonds than a fund with a target retirement date range of 2051 through 2055. People who are close to retirement are often more interested in protecting their investments (i.e., want less risk). On the other hand, people who don’t plan to retire for many years are often more willing to take on additional risk in exchange for higher returns. You can accomplish the same mix yourself using bond funds and equity funds, but some people prefer to let the fund manager make that decision.

    Some employers allow or require you to invest in company stock in their defined contribution plans. Many of these employers consider an investment in the company’s stock as an indication of loyalty. I view it as a very risky investment option. I discuss the benefits of diversification in this post. If your investment portfolio is diversified, it means that a decline in value of any one security will not adversely impact the total value of your portfolio too severely. If you purchase your employer’s stock, you are investing in a single company rather than investing in the larger number of companies owned by a mutual fund. In a really severe situation, you could lose your job and the stock value could drop significantly, leaving you with much smaller savings and no salary. As such, you take on much less risk if you select a mutual fund than company stock.

    How I Decided

    As I made my 401(k) investment selections, I thought about what other investments I had, if any, and used the 401(k) choices to fill in the gaps. That is, I used my 401(k) investment selections to increase my diversification. When I was young, I selected two or three funds that had US exposure to each of small and large cap equities. As I had more money both in and out of my 401(k), I still selected two or three funds, but invested in at least one fund with foreign or emerging market exposure to further diversify my holdings.

    Fine Print

    As a reminder, I am not qualified to give investment advice for your individual situation. Nonetheless, I can provide insights about the types of investment options I’ve seen in employer-sponsored retirement plans. I’ll describe the characteristics of most of these investment vehicles in more detail in later posts, but want to touch on them now as many of you will be making employee benefit elections before then.