Tag Archives: 401(k)

PBS Frontline: The Retirement Gamble

frontline

I finally had a chance last night to watch the excellent PBS Frontline documentary on the American retirement “crisis”. If you have a spare hour, it’d be worth your time to watch the whole thing. (Here’s the transcript if you want to take a quick skim.)

The piece covers a lot of ground, but the two biggest points were that the burden of retirement planning has been plopped into the unprepared public’s lap in the form of 401(k) plans and that the 401(k) bucket of cash has been too tempting for plan managers, who have been grabbing the money for themselves in the form of fees.

In fact, the most powerful punch of the show is when it’s illustrated that the fees actually eat up as much as two-thirds of the gains over your working career. Fortunately, they also point to a solution: low cost index funds. Interestingly, it’s the exact same strategy espoused by none other than Mr. Money Mustache. They even interviewed MMM’s hero, Vanguard’s John Bogle! That was pretty cool to see and it was great to get reinforcement of my preexisting opinion about 401(k)’s and financial advisers.

Of course the program had to include some “real people” to add some emotional weight to the story. This is where the piece was at its weakest. One gaping hole was that they didn’t talk about these people’s spending rates and didn’t even mention whether they still carried a mortgage or not. For example, one woman said she had $500,000 in retirement funds at age 48, but somehow can’t imagine being able to retire until she’s in her mid-70s! Another fellow was shown at what looks like a waterfront home, talking about how he has to work part-time in his senior years. I actually liked him because he said he’d downsize into a tent if he had to. I think that’s the attitude that got him his waterfront house.

The reporter, the always intrepid Martin Smith, uses his own retirement as an example, noting that he dipped into his nest egg multiple times over the years. The financial adviser tells him he has to work full-time until age 70 and “from age 70 to 75, I have you working part-time.” The reporter notes that his savings went to his kids’ education, a divorce and “the crash of 2008.”

The real tear-jerking segment featured Debbie Skoczynski:

I freaked out when I took the money out of my 401(k). It was hard. I mean, it’s— you know, you never— every day on the news, I’d listen to it and I’d be, like, “Oh, God, it’s really bad. Will I be able to keep my house? Will—” you know, “I— what if my car breaks down? I can’t afford a car payment.” It just can’t be this hard to make— it can’t. You know, you hear these big companies with these people taking these huge bonuses. You’re thinking, “Well, what happened to the average Joe?” They just don’t care. They made their money already.

Now, I feel bad for Debbie, but you can see her one-dimensional thinking here. She asks “What if my car breaks down” and answers that with “I can’t afford a car payment.” I don’t want to pick on her, after all she’s having a rough time, but I was thinking, “Um, you can’t think of ANY other solutions to that potential problem?” Like maybe “car repair”? Or “cheaper car”. Or “the bus”? To me, she really represents how Americans have been trained to deal with life: just throw money at the problem and if I don’t have any money, that’s OK because I’ll have money later.” Had she not been too far stretched with (apparently) a large house payment and other expenses, she could have easily weathered the storm without tapping her retirement money.

The remainder of the show was mainly the strongly worded accusations and squirming insiders that make Frontline such a fun show to watch.

Unfortunately the show didn’t once talk about buying too much house, how to get rid of your mortgage, mindless spending, how much one needs to retire, or whether people should pay for their kids’ education.

If the show had a fatal flaw, it was that it uses a “Retirement Plan Consultant” to endorse the proposition that Baby Boomers don’t have enough to retire but then calls such advisers out at the end of the piece for giving bad advice and scooping up all the money in fees.

In fact, the financial planner at the beginning even pulls out the old “$1.5 million” trope again, saying one needs 10-20 times your yearly income to retire. Um, why? Not explained. Just gulped down by the reporter as if it were just handed down on a stone tablet.

I advocate trying to “pretire” as soon as possible, which means generating enough money through passive means to support yourself indefinitely. If you reach that stage before traditional “retirement”, then you should be able to get a nice raise when you retire. If we accept that as the goal, then your yearly salary becomes completely irrelevant to how much you need to have in your nest egg when you retire. There is NOTHING about how much you make today that helps you determine what you need to retire. The only thing that matters is how much money you need each month and how you’re generating that money.

The program does a great job of exposing many problems, particularly that the general public is completely clueless about this stuff and that they’re being robbed via fees. Sadly the reporter himself is in this category. His ending has him exploring online calculators(!) and finally comes to the conclusion “I will keep working.” Hopefully they’ll go deeper next time and explore the real math of retirement and pretirement: bringing in more than you spend.

Reader story: A neglected pretirement

Fantastic retirement savings, virtually no pretirement savings

Prison.   Photo by  jmrodri 

Prison.Photo by  jmrodri 

I received a request from a man named Jim recently to take a look at his financial situation. We had a brief exchange on another personal finance blog and I offered to share some deeper thoughts here. Here is Jim’s story: 

He and his wife are both in their mid-50s and are beginning to see retirement creeping up quickly on them. It’s probably fair to say Jim already has one foot out the door from his job, but his wife is afraid of “not even being close to being able to retire.” At this point, they’re still planning to work about 10 more years, but I get the feeling they’d both rather not if they could find a way to avoid it.

Let’s take a look at the numbers:

They have a joint $675,000 in 401(k) accounts and have just started IRAs. They owe around $115,000 on a $408,000 home and are planning to have that paid off in three more years. They refinanced last year into a 15-year loan at 3.25%. This very generous couple has been living a comfortable, American lifestyle and showering their family with a great deal of support. I’ll spare you all the details, but among the list, they paid for their own schooling, and paid for two kids to attend school with no debt. They paid cash for a daughter’s expensive wedding and pilot training for a son as well as a study/travel abroad program. Jim also mentions a sports car “driven only for fun in the summer” and a motorcycle. Additionally they are committed to helping their son through law school, at least the first year at $1,000/month so he can utilize scholarships (it’s a requirement that he not work the first year).

Monthly expenses look something like this:

  • Mortgage payment: $1,300
  • Groceries: $600
  • Charity: $600
  • Cars/gas: $500 (Jim mentions a “long commute”)
  • Car insurance: $170
  • Utilities: $250
  • Water: $100
  • HOA: $60
  • Cable: $80
  • Internet: $40
  • Miscellaneous: $160
  • Total monthly expenses: $3,900

On top of that, Jim and his wife have begun paying extra on their mortgage to pay it off in the three years mentioned above so they’ve actually been paying $4,000/month on the mortgage. Jim didn’t mention any credit card or other debt, so it sounds like they’ve been responsible with their money management.

On the income side, they make decent money, bringing in a joint $6,600 per month. When they take Social Security at age 65, they expect that to bring in about $50,000/year.

So can Jim and his wife pretire yet?

I really appreciate Jim sharing his story because it illustrates the exact reason I felt the need to start writing this blog. The financial services industry does a great job (in some ways) of gearing people up for a traditional retirement. But the concept of PREtirement is completely ignored. Many folks don’t even understand there IS such an era to life until they’re in it, often unfortunately due to an unexpected job loss. Jim and his wife, fortunately, are still employed and have done a great job saving for their retirement. So let’s take a look at their situation and see if we can get them into a comfortable pretirement as soon as possible. And IF they choose to keep working to build an even cushier retirement, they’ll be doing it by CHOICE, not because some expert tells them they have to save up some arbitrary amount of money.

First of all, it’s important to understand what pretirement is and is not. On the simplest level, pretirement is building up an investment fund that is large enough to pay for your monthly expenses. Now when most people hear that, they look at their monthly expenses multiply by 12 and then 20, realize it’s hopeless and then buy a new car to make themselves feel better. But in fact, it’s much easier to reach this level by controlling expenses than by building up the fund (although you do have to do both).

Let’s, then, take a look at Jim’s expenses.

Right now expenses are $3,900 a month. With $1,300 of that going to mortgage, they are at a very tolerable $2,600 with $600 of that going to “charity”. That brings the core bills excluding mortgage to about $2,000 per month, which I think is about the maximum one should have. Car/gas expenses are super high at $500/month, which as he mentions is due to “long commutes” — plus that figure doesn’t even include the sports car and motorcycle. It’s a little unclear if the $500 is for two or for three people, but really it doesn’t matter because Jim shouldn’t be buying gas for his adult child anyway.

Now before I continue,  I need to deliver a firm spanking to Jim for being so indulgent with his kids. Paying for college? That’s something we can debate and I even debate with myself from time-to-time. But paying for a kid’s extravagant wedding? Work/study abroad? These are adults! You have GOT to be kidding me! My eyes aren’t that good, is that Bill Gates over there? What’s more, that a kid would WANT a fancy wedding shows that there is a long pattern of receiving hand-outs and that the child has developed a consumerist value system. I’m sure Jim’s daughter is a lovely person, and this may not apply to her, but I bet even Jim would agree that the overlap of kids who get their parents to pay for their weddings and the kids who later beg to be bailed out of their credit card debt is enormous. Perhaps the only thing dumber than a parent paying for a fancy wedding is a kid putting that same wedding on a credit card. Couples should be investing in their marriage, not their wedding! (Like these guys.) My wife and I spent just a few hundred dollars on our wedding (eloped to Vegas) and spent barely $60 each on rings. Is something wrong with us? Well, I’m 45 and work just four hours a week and my wife will be done working when she reaches her 40s as well. So who is crazier?

While I’m ranting, can we talk about long commutes? Many of us have done it (including me), but it’s time we Americans stop putting up with this daily torture. That starts with facing down this lie about the “American Dream.” The American Dream is to own a home? Please. Stop. Owning a home is great in many ways, but let’s stop pretending it’s what life is about. The American Dream should be about freedom to do what you want to do. Just because you fell in love with a lovely house in a “nice” neighborhood is no reason to throw away a decade of your life. What’s more we tend to ignore the costs of these homes, whether it be lawn equipment, time, repairs, remodels, commuting costs and time away from our families. It’s even sadder watching empty-nesters try to keep up the large house in which they raised their kids only to have those same kids dump it for cash right after the estate sale. But that’s a rant for another day.

OK, now that we have Jim begging for mercy, let’s build him back up with some good news!

On the mortgage, he’s on the right track. Although it’s too bad he chose a 15-year loan instead of a 10-year. The payment difference would only be around $300 or so and would have greatly increased the pay-down time. He could even afford to do a five-year loan in his situation! But that doesn’t matter that much because he can keep going with his current loan.

When it comes to a traditional REtirement, Jim and his wife are basically done. With only moderate growth, they should have close to $1 million in retirement funds available in 10 more years when they are 65. That million bucks should generate enough to cover their basic monthly bills even without counting their social security income, which they could actually live on by itself. Despite what professional investment advisers would say, they ALREADY have plenty of money for retirement.

Our challenge is to bridge the gap from now until age 65. The upcoming years are the classic “pretirement” phase that almost NO ONE talks about. I do find my GenX peers a lot more focused on it than my Boomer elders, but still in general, it’s just not an accepted “phase” of life. Anyhoo…

Jim, here is how you and your wife can reach the freedom of pretirement as soon as possible. Hang on, we’re going to thread the needle here…

  • Tell your son you’ll help with support for school for year 1, but after that he’s on his own. If he has to take on debt, he has to take on debt. But, oh no, school loans suck!
    Here’s the deal: Aside from the emotional desire to ensure a debt-free law school graduate, it’s really quite mathematical. You have limited years to save up for retirement, he has many more years to pay back debt. And don’t kid yourself that there is no debt involved when you pay to support him. Unless you’re debt-free, you’re effectively borrowing to pay for his education anyway. Basically you’re using your home loan to support him instead of paying off your mortgage and building your own pretirement fund. In addition, I think he’ll learn more about money, pretirement and what it’s like to be carrying debt in his 50s from how you handle this situation more than anything he’ll learn in school. (By the way, if he has scholarships, the loan he’d get for living costs would be quite small. I’d reconsider your approach there. He can take 10 years to pay back his loan, but you are going to try to pay off your house much more quickly making your cashflow that much tighter.)
  • Let’s talk about your expenses. Overall, you live a relatively frugal lifestyle, which is great. There are a few areas you should think about cutting back because there is some low-hanging fruit there.
    Your food budget is EXTREMELY high. You should be able to easily trim $200 off that to bring it down to $400. I suspect that number includes some restaurant spending and probably some waste. Time to bring that under control. Say goodbye to Whole Foods!
    Your internet and cable total to $120/month. For high-speed internet plus TV I pay just over $60 for full HD, so I think you’re getting ripped off there. As a former Dish Network customer, I suspect you may have a satellite system. That needs to be canceled To-Day.
    I’m not seeing a cell phone cost line, but I assume you have one. If you’re a normal American, you can probably save on that, too. And it’s time to get rid of the landline. That’s just a needless expense that you’re wasting money keeping. If you want to keep your phone number, you can convert it to Google Voice and have that number ring through to your cell phone. That’s what I did and it works awesome!
    It’s nice you donate to charity, but it’s also not appropriate when you’re trying to hit aggressive goals. I don’t know what kind of cars you drive, but I suspect they’re perhaps not the most economical. If you’re driving an SUV to work every day, you should be hanging your head in shame as you head over to Craigslist to put that beast up for sale NOW. But since you didn’t mention this, we’ll just assume there is moderate room for improvement and drop this to $400/month. It’s hard for me to imagine anyone paying more than $100 per driver just for the honor of getting to work every day. While you’re on Craigslist, you’re going to put two more ads up: one for your sports car and one for your motorcycle. Keeping a depreciating asset sitting there not earning you money is painful to see in your situation. I don’t know what those are worth, but I’ll just throw in a round $15,000 coming your way once you dispose of those toys.
  • It’s also painful to see you have an HOA. For what? The joy of living “there”? Frustrating! But since I’m sure have deep roots there now, I’ll give you a pass and we’ll leave that in place. (Although see below for more fun!)
  • So with barely even touching your extravagant lifestyle, we’ve dropped your monthly pretirement number from $2,000 to $1,600 a month.
  • Next, just to undertake a little financial discipline, you should immediately open a home equity line of credit on your house, if you don’t already have one. Don’t freak out, you’re going to keep this balance at ZERO at all times. You can get as large of a credit as you want, but no less than $24,000 (one year of your current core expense amount.) This HELOC is your new emergency fund! Now you don’t need to keep cash sitting around in your savings accounts earning nothing. Not having loads of cash sitting in the bank might help you learn to say no to your kids, too!
  • For everyone reading this, it doesn’t typically help you to pay extra principle on your mortgage. I mean it does but it doesn’t. Let me explain. It does help you in two ways.
    One it lowers your principle so you owe less and your payoff target does come closer. You could even consider those payments as “earning” the amount of interest on your loan — in your case 3.5%.
    The other way it helps you is by putting your money somewhere you can’t get to it.
    On the other side of the same coin is your money is somewhere you can’t get to it. And even as you pay the mortgage company gobs of money, your PAYMENT doesn’t budge at all. So in general I suggest considering investing those funds elsewhere instead, but keeping them semi-liquid for eventual loan payoff. For Jim, though, it may make sense to go ahead and throw this money at the principle as we’ll see.
  • Now that we’ve lowered your expenses down to a more sane $1,600/month, you have $5,000 remaining, not including your mortgage. With mortgage, you’re left with around $3,700 each month. Here’s how you’re going to get rid of your mortgage in two years, not three! ALL of your $3,700/month will go toward your mortgage fund. That, plus your motorcycle and sports car money should be enough to get that monkey off your back. ($3,700 * 12 * 2 + $15,000) If you’ll check your handy amortization table, I think you’ll see that just about gets you there*. (For other folks interested in paying off a mortgage quickly, see my post on How to get rid of your mortgage.)
  • That was two painful years, but are we at pretirement yet? Unfortunately, not yet. Now that you have paid off his mortgage, it’s time to build up a pretirement fund. The good news is that without a mortgage, you can now save around $5,000/month. That $60,000/year should build up quickly. The bad news is it’ll STILL take about five or six more years to reach a break-even point. That’s frustrating, but we can’t argue with the math. You’ll need nearly $400,000 invested in order to cover monthly expenses and by the time you get there, you’ll basically have just retired. Hey, worse things have happened! Nothing to cry about!
  • But what if there was another option? If we say you’re about 55 today, you would need to do some careful planning, but you could simply work for the two years to pay off the mortgage (until you’re 57). Then work three more years to age 60. If you save aggressively during those last three years, you should have somewhere in the neighborhood of $190,000 saved. Now that you’re 60, you could simply live off the principle, giving you way more than you’d need every month. Then, at age 65, you can dive in and tap your social security and other retirement funds. You could even consider taking retirement at 59 1/2, but you probably know that already.
  • You could also consider semi-pretirement. That would mean working part-time to make ends meet and to have a little extra spending money. Since you are so close to obliterating your mortgage, I’d recommend you stick it out until that’s paid off. Then, if you desire, you could quit your jobs and find something part-time closer to home. You’d only need $1,600/month coming in, which would be a trivial amount to make for two people. Without your expensive commuting costs, you would need even less each month as well!
  • Let’s assume for a moment that you guys hate your jobs as much as I hated my last job. Can you do anything sooner than the two years it’ll take to pay off the house? It’s time to talk downsizing. Because you have good equity in your home, that is a source of funds you can tap. Also, by downsizing you may be able to lower your living costs as well, including commuting costs, utilities, your ridiculous HOA and, of course, your mortgage payment. Of course this depends on where you want to live and how much room you really need. But if you could sell your house for the Zillow price of $408,000, you should be able to net somewhere around $260,000 in cash. That may not sound like much, but remember, now you don’t need to pay your mortgage for two more years. We’ll assume you can buy a comfortable, well-built small home for $200,000. This isn’t possible where I live nor is it possible in many areas of the country. But, remember, they can move anywhere they want! Once that house is purchased, they’ll again open a big HELOC and not use it. Now with no mortgage, no commuting costs and much smaller living costs, I believe you can get your monthly bills under $1,000/month, maybe a little higher with homeowner’s insurance and taxes. You could certainly save up the $250,000 it would take to generate that expense or you could simply work part-time to make up the difference. I used to joke that if I ever got into a cashflow crunch, I could always water the plants at Home Depot and be happier than I was at my soul-sucking job. And I could!

Now let’s talk about health care for a moment. It’s probably the biggest wild card hanging out there to worry about. First, let’s talk about health. People who spend $600/month on groceries, $500/month commuting and $80/month on cable TV are, almost by definition, not healthy. This could have a direct impact on your health care costs over the next decade. Again, by moving to a more walkable and bikeable community, by not sitting on your butt either in front of the TV or in a car every day will have a lasting impact on your health and your happiness. Secondly, I haven’t listed health-care costs in the above because there is such a wide variance in the potential costs. How I wish this country would pull its head out of its collective ass and implement a sane Canadian-style health care system. It is truly the ONLY thing that makes a lick of sense.

But that doesn’t mean there are no options. If you choose to work part-time, finding a gig that covers health insurance is definitely an option. Thanks to Obamacare, you WILL actually be able to buy coverage, that is something that was not a guarantee even a couple years ago. You are VERY lucky that this legislation was passed before you needed it. The bad news is that health insurance companies are still evil, blood sucking scumbags that exploit the desperate for profit. It’s time to start looking around for an affordable plan with a high deductible (you have that HELOC if you really need it, remember?) I have heard of plans for folks your age that were a ridiculous $1,000/month and I’ve heard of some that are $300/month. A lot depends on where you live and your health, etc., so shop around. This could be a reason to choose another state over another where you live today. Shop around. What you find may help you determine what is possible.

So let’s summarize!

Jim and his wife did a great job of saving for retirement but basically didn’t save at all for Pretirement — outside of paying down their house. This leaves them potentially commuting to jobs they’d rather not be going to for 10 MORE YEARS — and that’s after an already long career. This happened because they forked over a ton of money to their kids, have lived an expensive, if typical, lifestyle and, frankly, never planned seriously for this era of their lives.

With some relatively minor lifestyle adjustments and learning to say no to their adult children, or more significant lifestyle adjustments if they want to speed things along, they can leave their jobs and gain a great deal of freedom quite quickly! EVEN IF they decide to keep working out of fear or simply a desire to live a decadent retirement, I would STILL recommend reaching pretirement stage (investments cover expenses) as soon as possible. You’ll won’t need to take as much bullshit at work, you’ll be safe in case of a major life event (such as a job loss) and you’ll live every day in the sweet, sweet mindset of complete freedom that comes with PRETIREMENT!

 

*There will be some looseness in these numbers due to taxes, insurance, inflation and various surprises and unknowns that may occur along the way. It’s the concept that’s important, not the exact numbers.

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