Don’t Make these Financial Mistakes

The world is going through a very difficult phase. Everywhere we are hearing that we need to get adjusted to the ‘new normal’. Nothing is normal as it used to be. Children are not able to go to schools.   Most people are working from home.  Healthcare professionals are working day and night for the recovery of people who get COVID-19.  In this situation, it’s quite natural that the economic situation is not good. Many people have lost jobs or are facing pay cuts and experts are predicting that an economic recession will set in.  We don’t have any control over this situation. But, what we can do is safeguard our finances, as much as we can, and avoid financial mistakes during this COVID-19 financial emergency.

Here are a few financial mistakes you should avoid.

Satisfying Wants to Avoid Boredom

Have you been browsing online shopping websites and ordering items? Is it because you need them or just to avoid boredom?

When the lockdown started, people were stockpiling grocery items. Now focus has shifted to buying items like clothes, books, entertainment things, and so on. So, in both situations, people are overspending.

But, now is not the time to do so. Rather, you should try to save as much as you can. We will discuss how to save more later in this article.

If you are getting bored at home, nurture a hobby (hopefully an inexpensive one). Do something which you’ve always wanted but didn’t get time to do so. If you wish, you can also do some online jobs as per your liking.

Following the Same Budget

Are you following your budget? You might say that you’re following it and saving. Good! But it’s a mistake. You’ll ask why? Because it’s necessary to re-assess your budget in light of the current situation and make modifications if required. If you’ve done that, well done!

If you still have income, it is time to save as much as possible. Doing so, you can be prepared for any future rainy days. If you save more, you won’t have to worry as much about losing your job. You know that you’ll be able to sustain yourself for a few months.

You can practice frugal budgeting to save more. Frugal budgeting doesn’t mean you’ll have to compromise with eating healthy or compromise with your life; it means to cut unnecessary expenses and increase your savings.

Overspending that Doesn’t Fit in your Budget

It is better to avoid buying big-ticket items during this time. Try to delay satisfying your wants for the time being.

To illustrate the previous point, let me highlight a survey conducted in January 2020 in Nebraska by First National Bank of Omaha.  It showed that about 50% of people in our country have a pay check to pay check lifestyle. So, it becomes quite tough to meet daily necessities when they face job loss, which has happened during this pandemic.

Therefore, you should try to have a good cash reserve. To do so, you need to save more and keep the amount in a high-yield savings account.

Check out how these ways to save more that you might be overlooking:

  • Stop eating out and have nutritious homemade food which is healthier too
  • Have a list when you go grocery shopping and don’t buy anything extra
  • Switch to debit cards if that can help you reduce your expenditures
  • Cancel your gym membership and work out in fresh air
  • Check out your magazine subscriptions and cancel if you rarely read them
  • Opt for bundling offers of television and internet
  • Opt for public schooling of kids instead of private schools
  • Start envelope budgeting to save more
  • Set temperature of water heater to 120 degrees to save electricity
  • Clip coupons and use them to save money

Using your Emergency Fund for Daily Necessities

Emergency funds are for rainy days. But, don’t touch it if you can manage without it.

Check how much you have in your emergency fund. Will you be able to sustain for about 6 months without a pay check? If not, try to have that amount in your emergency fund.

Do not touch your fund unless it’s an emergency. And, if you have to use it, try to save the required funds after the situation becomes normal and you start getting your usual pay check.

Every month, try to save a definite amount in your emergency fund. And, the account should be easily accessible so that you can withdraw funds whenever you need it.

Of course, if your emergency savings is the only thing between you and not paying your bills, you can start spending it.

Not using Available HSA funds

Instead of using your emergency fund for medical treatment, use your pre-tax HSA (Health Savings Account) funds. You can use the funds to get treated or tested for Coronavirus if required. You can even use the funds to consult a therapist if you’re anxious or depressed during this pandemic.

Delaying Filing your Taxes if You’re Eligible for a Refund

As per the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act, the federal tax filing deadline has been extended to July 15, 2020, including any estimated tax payments for 2020. But, if you’re eligible for a refund, file your taxes.

As per IRS, the average refund is about $2,908 this year. It can help you to cover your living expenses or even make debt payments during this pandemic.

Not Paying the Entire Amount on your Credit Cards

It is a mistake to make only the minimum payments on your credit cards. If you do so, you’ll have to pay the interest on the outstanding balance every month. Therefore, it is always better to pay the entire balance on your cards every billing cycle if you possibly can. So, before swiping your cards, check out whether or not you’ll be able to make the entire payment in the billing cycle.

Also, use your reward points if you’re ordering things online; otherwise, your reward points may expire.

If required and if the creditors agree, you can take out a balance transfer card and transfer your existing balance to the new card. Usually, a balance transfer card comes with an introductory period of zero or low-interest rate. So, repay the transferred balance within that period.

However, after making the payment, do not cancel your existing cards especially if they have a long credit history.  If you cancel cards, the credit limit and the history of credit will reduce thereby affecting your credit score negatively.

Getting Panicked and Selling Stocks

Selling stocks after a stock market decline is one of the major financial mistakes that often people commit. They sell stocks when the market is down. But, have faith. The market will surely recover. Do not touch your investment portfolio at this time. The market recovered even after the economic crisis of 2009. However, it may take a bit more time. So, do not sell stocks right at this moment.

Another thing that the financial advisers always tell not to do is check your portfolio every day. It will make you stressed. Instead, if you have an additional amount after meeting your necessities, you can invest it in stocks as the prices are low.

Withdrawing from Retirement Accounts without Considering the Cons

The CARES Act has made it quite easy to withdraw funds from your retirement accounts, such as IRAs (Individual Retirement Account) and 401(k)s.

Here are a few advantages of withdrawing funds:

  • You can borrow up to $100,000 from your 401(k) plan.
  • You can withdraw $100,000 from any qualified retirement plan without having to pay an early withdrawal penalty.
  • You have 3 years to repay the amount without paying any income tax on the withdrawn amount.

The main advantage of starting to save early in such retirement accounts is to take advantage of compound interest. However, if you withdraw, you’ll lose the benefit to some extent. So, weigh the pros and cons before opting for this.

Not Reviewing your Financial Condition with your Financial Advisor

It is not a good idea to skip reviewing your financial situation with your financial advisor. It is rather more important at this time to have a clear view of your financial situation.

Discuss with your financial advisor how you need to maintain your investment portfolio and what moves you need to take. Talk about your financial goals and how you’ll implement them.

Taking on Debts without Thinking about How to Manage

Mortgage rates are comparatively low. You may feel the urge to take out a loan to meet your daily necessities if you’re facing financial problems. However, it is better not to take out additional debts that you can’t handle.

However, if you’re already having difficulty managing your existing debts, you can consolidate your debt. You don’t have to meet with a debt consolidator in person. You can just call a good consolidation company and seek help.

Sitting in Front of a Screen

At last, I would like to mention that it is quite important to stay physically and mentally healthy during this time. So, do not be stressed. Restrict your screen timing and have some me-time. Do something which you like. Nurture a hobby. Use this opportunity to spend time with kids and family members.

Enjoy quality time and take help from your family members to manage finances efficiently. Not committing these mistakes can help you have a better financial future.

About Good Nelly

Good Nelly is a financial writer who lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She has started her financial journey long back. Good Nelly has been associated with Debt Consolidation Care for a long time. Through her writings, she has helped people overcome their debt problems and has solved personal finance related queries. She has also written for some other websites and blogs. You can follow her Twitter profile.

A Man is Not a (Sound Financial) Plan

A man is not a plan

“A Man is Not a Plan!” It sounds like a very dated statement, but a guide on a recent trip I took told me about a conversation he had with one of his nieces about her finances.  They were talking about how she could improve her financial situation by building a sound financial plan. As they were talking, one of them came up with the slogan, “A Man is Not a Plan.” He suggested I use it as the title for one of my posts. So, here it is!

In this post, I will talk about the key components of a sound financial plan. A financial plan provides the structure to help you organize your financial information and decisions. I’ll provide brief explanations of the things to consider about each component, what you need to do and, for most of them, links to posts I’ve written that provide much more detail. I’ll also provide insights on how to know when you need help and who to contact.

Sound Financial Plan

A sound financial plan includes the following sections:

    • A list of your financial goals – In this section, you’ll want to identify your three to five most important financial goals.
    • A list of your current assets and liabilities (debts)
    • Your budget
    • Your savings and investment strategies to help you attain your goals, including
      • Short-term savings
      • Designated savings
      • Retirement savings
    • Desired use of debt, including re-payment of current debt
    • Your giving goals
    • Risk management strategy, i.e., types and amounts of insurance to buy
    • Understanding of your income tax situation
    • What you want to have happen to you and your assets when you become incapacitated or die and related documents

     

  • You will likely be most successful if you create a formal document with all of these components of a sound financial plan. You’ll want to review and update your financial plan at least every few years, but certainly any time you have a significant change in your finances (e.g., a significant change in wages) or are considering a significant financial decision (e.g., buying a house, getting married or having children). Of course, a less formal format is much better than no plan at all, so you should tailor your efforts to what will best help you attain your financial goals.

    Budget

    A budget itemizes all of your sources of income and all of your expenses, including money you set aside for different types of savings. It provides the framework for all of your financial decisions. Do you need to change the balance between income and expenses to meet your goals? Can you make a big expenditure? How and what types of insurance can you afford? How much debt can you afford to re-pay?

    I think that a budget is the most important component of a sound financial plan and should be the first step you take. Everyone should have a good understanding of the amounts of their income and expenses to inform the rest of their financial decisions.  While some people will benefit from going through the full process of creating a budget and monitoring it, others can be a bit less detailed.

    In the text section of your financial plan, you’ll want to include a list of your financial goals as they relate to your budget and how you plan to implement them. You can include your actual budget in your financial plan itself or as a separate attachment.

    Savings

    I generally think of savings in three categories (four if you include setting aside money for your kids): emergency savings, designated savings and retirement savings. You will want to address each of these types of savings in your financial plan. The information you’ll want to include for each type of savings is:

    • How much you currently have saved.
    • The target amounts you’d like to have saved.
    • Your plan for meeting your targets.
    • For what you’ll use it.
    • How fast you’ll replenish it if you use it.
    • How much you need to include in your budget to meet your targets.
    • Your investing strategy.
    • A list of all financial accounts with location of securely stored access information.

    Emergency Savings

    Emergency savings is money you set aside for unexpected events. These events can include increased expenses such as the need to travel to visit an ailing relative or attend a funeral or a major repair to your residence. They also include unexpected decreases in income, such as the reduced hours, leaves of absence or lay-offs related to the coronavirus.

    The general rule of thumb is that a target amount for emergency savings is three to six months of expenses. I suggest keeping one month of expenses readily available in a checking or savings account that you can access immediately and the rest is an account you can access in a day or two, such as a money market account.

    Designated Savings

    Designated savings is money you set aside for planned large expenses or bills you don’t pay every month. Examples might include your car insurance if you pay it annually or semi-annually or money you save for a replacement for your car you are going to buy in a few years.

    To estimate how much you need to set aside for your designated savings each month, you’ll want to look at all costs that you don’t pay every month and figure out how often you pay them. You’ll want to set aside enough money each month to cover those bills when they come due. For example, if your car insurance bill is $1,200 every six months, you’ll want to put $200 in your designated savings in each month in which your insurance bill isn’t paid. You’ll then take $1,000 our of your designated savings and add $200 in each month it is due to pay the bill.

    Retirement Savings

    Saving for retirement is one of the largest expenses you’ll have during your working lifetime. There are many aspects of saving for retirement:

    • Understanding how much you will receive in retirement from government programs, such as Social Security in the US or the Canadian Pension Plan in Canada.
    • Setting your retirement savings goal.
    • Estimating how much you need to save each year to meet your retirement savings goal.
    • Deciding what are the best types of accounts in which to put your retirement savings – taxable, Roth (TFSA in Canada) or Traditional (RRSP in Canada).
    • Determining in what assets (bonds, stocks, mutual funds or ETFs, for example) to invest your retirement savings in light of your risk tolerance and diversification needs and how those choices affect your investment returns.

    Debt

    Debt can be used for any number of purchases, ranging from smaller items bought on credit cards to large items purchased with a loan, such as a home. Whether you have debt outstanding today, use credit cards regularly and/or are thinking of making a large purchase using debt, you’ll want to define your goals with respect to the use of debt.

    For example, do you want to never have any debt outstanding (i.e., never buy anything for which you can’t pay cash and pay your credit card bills in full every month)? Are you willing to take out a mortgage as long as you understand the terms and can afford the payments? Do you have a combination of a high enough income and small enough savings that you are willing to use debt to make large purchases other than your home? Do you have debts you want to pay off in a certain period of time?

    As you think about these questions, you’ll want to consider what debt is good for you and what debt might be problematic.  A sound financial plan includes a list of your debts, how much you owe for each one, your target for repaying them, and your strategy for using debt in the future.

    Credit Cards

    Credit cards are the most common form of debt. Your financial plan might include the number of credit cards you want to have and your goals for paying your credit card bills. As part of these goals, you might need to add a goal about spending, such as not buying anything you can’t afford to pay off in a certain period of time.

    Student Loans

    Many people have student loans with outstanding balances. In your financial plan, you’ll want to include your goal for paying off any student loans you have. Do you want to pay them off according to the original schedule? Are you behind on payments and have a goal for getting caught up? Do you want to pay off your student loans early?

    Car Loans

    In a perfect world, your car would last long enough that you could buy its replacement out of your designated savings. However, the world isn’t perfect and you may need to consider whether to take out a loan or lease a car. Your financial plan will include your strategy for ensuring that you always have a vehicle to drive. How often do you want to replace your car? What is your goal with respect to saving for the car, loans or leases? How much will it cost to maintain and repair your car?   Your budget will include the amounts needed to cover the up-front portion of the cost of a replacement car, any loan or lease payments and amounts to put in designated savings for maintenance and repairs.

    Mortgages

    Most homeowners borrow money to help pay for it As part of creating your financial plan, you might include your goal for home ownership. Are you happy as a renter for the foreseeable future or would you like to buy a house?

    If you want to buy a house either for the first time or a replacement for one you own, you then need to figure out how to pay for the house. How much can you save for a down payment? Can you set aside enough in designated savings each month to reach that goal? What is the price of a house that you can afford, after considering property taxes, insurance, repairs and maintenance?

    Once you have a mortgage, you’ll want to select a goal for paying it off. When a mortgage has a low enough interest rate, you might make the payments according to the loan agreement and no more. If it has a higher interest rate or you foresee that your ability to make mortgage payments might change before it is fully re-paid, you might want to make extra payments if you have money in your budget.

    Paying Off Debt

    If you have debt, you’ll want to include your goals and your strategy for paying it off in your financial plan. You’ll first want to figure out how much you can afford each month to use for paying off your debts. You can then compare that amount with the amount needed to meet your goals. If the former is less than the latter, you’ll need to either generate more income, reduce other expenses, put less money in savings or be willing to live with less aggressive goals. These decisions are challenging ones and are a combination of cost/benefit analyses and personal preference.

Giving Goals

Many people want to give to their community either by volunteering their time or donating money.  If you plan to give money or assets, you’ll first want to make sure that you can afford the donations by checking your budget and other financial goals.  It is also important to make sure that your donations are getting used in the way you intended, as not all charities are the same.  A Dime Saved provides many more insights about giving in her Guide to Giving to Charity.

  • Insurance

    Protecting your assets through insurance is an important part of a sound financial plan. The most common types of insurance for individuals cover your vehicles, residence, personal liability, health and life. There are other types of insurance, such as disability, dental, vision, and accidental death & dismemberment, that are most often purchased through your employer but can also be purchased individually.

    As I told my kids, my recommendation is that you buy the highest limits on your insurance that you can afford and don’t buy insurance for things you can afford to lose. For example, if you can afford to pay up to $5,000 every time your home is damaged, you might select a $5,000 deductible on your homeowners policy. Alternately, if you can afford to replace your car if it is destroyed in an accident, you might not buy collision coverage at all. Otherwise, you might set lower deductibles as your goal.

    For each asset in your financial plan, including your life and health which can be considered future sources of income or services, you’ll want to select a strategy for managing the risks of damage to those assets or of liability as a result of having those assets.

    A financial plan includes a list of the types of policies you purchase, the specifics of the coverage provided and insurer, changes you’d like to make to your coverage and your strategy for insurance in the future. You’ll also want to attach copies of either just the declaration pages or your entire policies to your financial plan.

    Car Insurance

    Car insurance can provide coverage for damage to your car, to other vehicles involved in an accident you cause and injuries to anyone involved in an accident. The types of coverages available depend on the jurisdiction in which you live, as some jurisdictions rely on no-fault for determining who has to pay while others rely solely on tort liability.

    Homeowners Insurance

    Homeowners insurance (including renters or condo-owners insurance) provides coverage for damage to your residence (if you own it), damage to your belongings and many injuries to people visiting your residence.

    Umbrella Insurance

    One way to increase the limits of liability on your car and homeowners insurance is an umbrella insurance policy. An umbrella also provides protection against several other sources of personal liability. If you have money in your budget for additional insurance, you might consider purchasing an umbrella policy.

    Health Insurance

    Health insurance is likely to be one of your most expensive purchases, unless your employer pays a significant portion of the cost. Whether you are buying in the open market or through your employer, you are likely to have choices of health insurance plan. Selecting the health insurance plan that best meets your budget and goals can be challenging.

    Life Insurance

    There are many types of life insurance, including term and whole life. Some variations of whole life insurance provide you with options for investing in addition to the death benefit. Once you have compiled the other components of your financial plan, you’ll be better able to assess your need for life insurance. If you have no dependents and no debt, you might not need any. At the other extreme, if you have a lot of debt and one or more dependents, you might want to buy as much coverage as you can afford to ease their financial burden if you die. To learn more specifics about buying life insurance, you might review this post.

    Income Taxes

    Some of your financial decisions will depend on your income tax situation.

    • Do you want your investments to produce a lot of cash income which can increase your current income taxes or focus on appreciation which will usually defer your taxes until a later date?
    • Is a Roth (TFSA) or Traditional (RRSP) plan a better choice for your retirement savings?
    • Are you having too little or too much income taxes withheld from your paycheck?
    • Do you need to pay estimated income taxes?
    • How will buying a house, getting married or having children affect your income taxes?
    • Will moving to another state increase or reduce your income taxes?

     

  • As you consider these and other questions, you’ll want to outline at least a basic understanding of how Federal and local income taxes impact your different sources of income as part of creating a sound financial plan.

    Legal Documents

    Although it is hard to imagine when you are young, at some point in your life you may become incapacitated and will eventually die. There are a number of documents that you can use to ensure that your medical care and assets are managed according to your wishes. You can either include these documents as part of your financial plan or create a list of the documents, the date of the most recent version of each one and where they are located.

    Powers of Attorney

    There are two important types of powers of attorney – medical and financial.

  • A medical power of attorney appoints someone to be responsible for making your medical decisions if you are physically or mentally incapable of doing so. You can supplement a medical power of attorney with a medical directive that is presented to medical personnel before major surgery or by the person appointed to make medical decisions that dictates specifically what is to happen in certain situations.A financial power of attorney appoints someone to be responsible for your finances if you are physically or mentally incapacitated. The financial power of attorney can allow that person to do only a limited number of things, such as pay your bills, or can allow that person to do anything related to your finances.

    Trusts

    There are several forms of trusts that can be used to hold some or all of your assets to make the transition to your beneficiaries easier when you die. Trusts can also be used to hold money for your children either before or after you die. While I am familiar with some types of trusts, I don’t know enough to provide any guidance about them. If you are interested in them, I suggest you research them on line and/or contact a lawyer with expertise in trusts.

    Your Will

    If you die without a will, your state or provincial government will decide how your assets will be divided. In many jurisdictions, your spouse, if you have one, will get some or all of your assets. Your children or parents may also get some of your assets. Most people want more control over the disposition of their assets than is provided by the government.

  • A will is the legal document that allows you to make those specifications. Your will can also identify who will become legally responsible for your minor children or any adult children who are unable to take care of themselves. That responsibility can be split between responsibility for raising your children and responsibility for overseeing any money you leave either to their guardian(s) or for them.

    How to Know When You Need Help

    As you can see, there are a lot of components to a sound financial plan and many of them are interrelated. There are many resources available to help you develop and refine your plan. Many of those resources are free, such as the links to the articles I’ve published on relevant topics. There are also many other sources of information, including personal stories, on line.

    You can also get more personalized assistance. There are many types of financial advisors, a topic I’ll cover in a post soon. Many financial advisors provide a broad array of services, while others specialize in one or two aspects of your financial plan.

    Sources of Advice

    The table below lists the types of obstacles you might be facing and the types of advisors that might be able to help.

    ObstaclePossible Advisors
    I can’t figure out how to make a budget or how to set aside money for emergency or designated savings.Bookkeeper, accountant, financial planner
    I can’t make my budget balance.Bookkeeper, accountant, financial planner
    I have more debt that I can re-pay.Financial planner, debt counselor, debt consolidator
    I don’t know what insurance I should buy.Financial planner, insurance agent or, for employer-sponsored health insurance, your employer’s human resource department
    I’m not sure I’m saving enough for retirement.Financial planner
    I have questions about how to invest my savings, including whether I am diversified or need to re-balance my portfolio.Financial planner or stock broker
    I don’t understand how income taxes work.Accountant
    I need help with a Trust, Power of Attorney or Will.Wills & estates lawyer

    Clearly, a financial planner can help with many of these questions, but sometimes you’ll need an advisor with more in depth expertise on one aspect of your financial plan.

The Canada Pension Plan And Your Retirement

Canadian-Pension-Plans

Note from Susie Q:  When I published my post on Social Security, I promised my Canadian readers a similar post about the Canada Pension Plan.  It took a while, but here it is!  Graeme Hughes, the Money Geek, was kind enough to write it for me.

Graeme Hughes is an accredited Financial Planner with 23 years of experience in the financial services industry. During the course of his career he completed hundreds of financial plans and recommended and sold hundreds of millions of dollars of investment products. He believes that financial independence is a goal anyone can aspire to, and is passionate about helping others to live life on their own terms.

The Canada Pension Plan (CPP) is a foundational part of all Canadians’ retirement plans, as it represents, for many, the single largest government benefit they will receive during retirement. Over the years, opinions on the plan have varied widely, with many suggesting that younger Canadians shouldn’t count on receiving CPP benefits in retirement.

As it stands today, is this a realistic opinion, or is the reality something different? How does the CPP work, and can it be relied upon to deliver a meaningful amount of pension income to future retirees?

How The Canada Pension Plan Differs From Old Age Security

There are two core retirement benefits that the vast majority of Canadians are eligible to receive: the Canada Pension Plan and the Old Age Security (OAS) benefit.

OAS is a benefit that is funded from tax revenue. Both eligibility and the benefit amount paid are based on the number of years an individual has been resident in Canada prior to his or her 65th birthday. Benefits may be reduced for high-income seniors.

The CPP, on the other hand, is a true contributory pension plan. This means that benefits are available only to those who have contributed, and the amount you receive is directly linked to the amount paid into the plan over your working life. CPP contributions are held separate and apart from other government revenue, and CPP benefits are not income-tested.

A Brief History of The Canada Pension Plan

The CPP has had more than 50 years of success in providing pension benefits to Canadian seniors. But a lot has changed along the way:

  • The CPP started in 1966 as a pay-as-you-go plan. In short, it was expected that contributions from workers each year would fully cover the benefits paid to retirees in the same year. The contribution rate for the first couple of decades was just 3.6% of a worker’s pay, which is a very modest amount, indeed.
  • In the mid-1980’s, it started to become clear to the federal government that this model would not be sustainable in the face of a large wave of baby boomers that would be retiring in future years, so changes had to be made. These involved increases to the contribution amounts, reductions in some benefits, as well as changes to the management of the plan itself.
  • These changes culminated in 1997 with the formation of the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPPIB), an entity at arm’s-length from the government that would be entirely responsible for investing CPP assets and funding the distribution of CPP benefits going forward. This effectively removed the government from the management of the pension plan, and the new board was given one overriding mandate above all – to maximize the returns on invested assets while managing risk.
  • As of September 30, 2019, the CPPIB had $409.5 billion in assets under management.

Is the Canada Pension Plan Sustainable?

Many pension plans, both public and private, have been struggling with sustainability over the last many years given demographic changes (the retiring boomers) combined with very low yields on fixed-income investments which often form the backbone of pension assets.

Fortunately, the CPPIB has an oversight regime that continues to account for such changes. Canada’s Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions appoints a Chief Actuary, who has as one of their responsibilities a review of the sustainability of the CPP. This review is conducted every three years.

The last reported review, in 2016, concluded that the CPP would be able to fully meet its commitments for at least the next 75 years (the length of time covered in the review), as long as a target rate of return of 4% in excess of inflation was maintained.

In the CPPIB’s 2019 annual report, it was able to boast an average annual return over the preceding 10 years of 11.1% (net nominal). Portfolio investments include public equities, private equity, real assets and fixed-income instruments. The portfolio has widespread geographic diversification, with only 15.5% of assets invested in Canada.

The chart below, from the 2019 annual report, highlights the sustainability of the plan as reflected in the historical and forecast growth in assets:

Clearly, the CPP is in great shape to serve the needs of Canada’s current and future retirees. Even if this should change at some point in the future, the Chief Actuary has the authority to adjust contribution rates to maintain sustainability, should that be necessary at a later point in time.

How Are CPP Contributions Calculated?

CPP contributions are based on an individual’s income, and split equally between employer and employee. Contributions are calculated on the amount of annual income earned that is between $3,500 (the lower cutoff) and $57,400 (the 2019 upper cutoff). Up until 2019, the contribution rate on these amounts had been 9.9%, but a new CPP enhancement that started in 2019 raised that to 10.2%.

As an example, an individual who earned $50,000 in 2019 would have a total CPP contribution of $4,743.00 ($50,000 – $3,500 = $46,500 x 10.2%). Half this amount would be paid by the employee and half by their employer. Of course, self-employed individuals are responsible for the full amount.

It’s important to note that, while the lower cutoff amount is fixed, the upper cutoff is adjusted each January to reflect changes in average Canadian wages. Remember too, that the contribution rate of 9.9% had been in place until last year, with the CPP “enhancement” starting in 2019. The impact of the enhancement will be looked at later in this article.

What Benefits Can I Expect from the CPP?

The “base” calculation for CPP benefits assumes an individual applies for benefits at the normal retirement age of 65. In 2019, the maximum benefit for new retirees under this base scenario is a CPP payment of $1,154.58 per month. All CPP benefits are adjusted each January to account for changes in the Consumer Price Index.

However, most Canadians do not receive that maximum benefit. The amount you actually receive is based on the contributions made to the plan from the age of 18 until the date you apply for CPP benefits. If your total contributions during those years averaged, say, 70% of the maximum contributions permitted, your CPP benefit at age 65 would be approximately 70% of the maximum amount payable.

In short, the higher your working wage, the more you will have paid into the plan, and the more you will receive in benefits, up to the applicable maximums.

There are also a variety of adjustments made to the calculation of your CPP entitlement. For instance, you are allowed to drop your 8 lowest-earning years from the calculation. There are also adjustments for years spent rearing children under the age of 7, for periods of disability and for other circumstances. For these reasons, calculating your potential future benefit at any point in time is virtually impossible to do on your own. Fortunately, the good folks at Service Canada are happy to do the work for you, and an estimate of your individual benefit can be obtained by phone, or online through your My Service Canada Account.

As of October 2019, the average CPP benefit Canadians were receiving amounted to just $672.87, or about 58% of the maximum.

Lastly, CPP benefits paid are fully taxable as regular income.

When Should I Apply for the Pension?

Although the “base” calculation for CPP benefits assumes retirement at age 65, in reality, you have the option of applying for benefits anytime between the ages of 60 and 70. However, the amount of benefit you receive will be adjusted accordingly:

  • If you decide to take your pension early, your pension will be reduced by 0.6% for every month prior to your 65th birthday that benefits begin. So, if you decide to start payments as early as possible, on your 60th birthday, you will receive a 36% total reduction in your entitlement (0.6% x 60 months).
  • Conversely, if you decide to delay the start of benefits, you will receive an extra 0.7% for every month after your 65th birthday that you delay taking benefits. So, delaying benefits all the way to your 70th birthday increases your monthly amount by 42% (0.7% x 60 months).

The chart below outlines the change in monthly benefit given the age at which benefits commence, assuming an individual was eligible for $1,000 per month at age 65:

As seen above, the difference between taking your Canada Pension at age 70 versus age 60 is significant. You’ll receive over double the monthly amount. But the decision as to when to apply depends on a number of factors.

A big factor is, of course, your views on life expectancy. If you enter your early 60’s in poor health, or with a family history of shorter life expectancy, you may want to take the CPP as soon as you are eligible. If the opposite is true, you may want to wait until age 70 to ensure you receive the maximum amount of this inflation-adjusted and government-guaranteed benefit, to protect against the risk of running short of savings and income later in life.

Of course, the amount and structure of your own savings, the amount and source of other retirement income, along with your actual date of retirement, will all weigh on your decision. If in doubt, consult a qualified financial planner to assess the merits of different options.

2019 Changes – The Canada Pension Plan Enhancement

Up until 2019, the CPP was designed to replace about ¼ of a person’s average employment earnings once they retire. The current government has decided that should be enhanced such that the CPP will eventually cover about ⅓ of pre-retirement earnings.

To accomplish this, and to ensure that the newly enhanced benefits are self-funding, the CPP enhancement is being operated almost like an add-on benefit to the existing CPP.  CPP contributions for employers and employees are being increased above the previous 9.9% rate, over time, as follows:

In addition to the increased premiums noted above, the maximum annual earnings for CPP contributions will have an additional, “second ceiling” amount that will allow higher-income earners to contribute proportionately more to the CPP, starting in 2024.

The extent to which this CPP enhancement will increase your retirement benefits is dependent entirely on how much you individually contribute to the enhanced portion prior to retirement, both as regards the increased premium amount, as well as within the elevated earnings cap. However, those who end up contributing to the enhanced amount for a full 40 years could see their CPP benefits increase up to 50%.

Of course, if you are retiring in the next few years, you won’t have enough credit toward the enhanced amounts to make much of a difference to your benefits. These changes are really designed to have the most impact on younger workers who are in the earlier stages of their careers. Given the added complexity this new benefit adds to benefit calculations, it makes more sense than ever to keep track of your entitlement by obtaining occasional estimates from Service Canada.

More information on the CPP enhancement can be found here.

CPP And Your Financial Planning

In this article we have looked exclusively at the CPP as it pertains to retirement benefits. In addition, there are survivor, disability, and other benefits to consider as part of a well-rounded approach to managing personal finances. More comprehensive information on the Canada Pension Plan can be found on the pension benefits section of the Government of Canada’s website.

Remember that a good retirement plan is holistic and accounts for all sources of income, whether from government pension and benefits, employer-sponsored plans, personal savings or business ventures. Ideally, the information above will help with your planning and give you confidence that the CPP will indeed be there for you, regardless of your retirement date.

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 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.  Similarly, Canadians are eligible for Canadian Pension Plan benefits. 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.

Years51015202530354045
Factor1.151.351.551.802.102.452.803.253.80

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 flipSecond flip
HeadsHeads
HeadsTails
TailsHeads
TailsTails

 

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.

MaturityCD[1]Treasury[2]
1-3 Months2.32%2.3%
4-6 Months2.42%2.5%
7-9 Months2.56%N/A
10-18 Months2.8%2.7%
1.5–2.5 Years3.4%2.8%
3 YearsN/A2.85%
5 YearsN/A2.9%

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.