Work 401k Seminar Prep

As part of my job, I was recently put in charge of hiring new graduates to join our finance department. Once they start, we pair them with a mentor and I stay in touch and offer career advice and guidance as needed.

As part of my ongoing advice and guidance, I’ll be hosting a 401k seminar later this month. This is the first time I’ve done something like this, and I’m honestly pretty excited. I’ve solicited questions from the group and a couple of themes have emerged. As part of my preparation, I wanted to share some of my thoughts on these topics.

To provide some context, the audience is all 20-something recent college graduates working at their first job. We pay them pretty well (mid 50’s), are in a lower cost-of-living area, and provide some amazing benefits. Our company offers an excellent 401k match and relatively short vesting period.

401k Match – this is ‘FREE MONEY’ and there are almost no good excuses for passing this up. As an incentive to get you to contribute to the account, employers will often provide matching contributions. Make sure you’re at least getting your full match.

Vesting Period: The money your employer puts in your 401k might require you stay working there for a period of time. I’ve seen as short as 2 years and as long as 7. If you leave the company before you are fully vested, you may forfeit some of the employer contributions. The money you put into a 401k from your paycheck is always yours and you’ll never have to give it back. 

Q: What is the difference between After/pre-tax contributions and which should be a priority?

A: We have the choice between traditional and Roth 4o1k’s. My general advice to anyone is to focus on Roth contributions. This is especially true for those who are young. The difference between the two is that you end up with lower take-home pay by doing Roth, but you end up with much more in retirement. Here’s a simple example:

Either way, a 6% contribution puts $3k into your 401k. The difference today is that if your contribution is in a Roth, you end up paying slightly more taxes now, but won’t ever have to pay taxes on that money again.

If you invest $3k per year for 30 years and it grows at 8% per year, you end up with $339,000. Not bad for only investing $90,000, right? But you will pay taxes when you withdraw if your contributions are made pre-tax (traditional). All of a sudden that $339,000 is more like $288,000 (15% taxes). It’s even less if you want to take out so much that you get pushed into a higher tax bracket.

On the other hand, if you had been making Roth contributions, that $339k is ALL YOURS. This is why I sometimes say that Traditional 401k/IRA’s include ‘Phantom Money’. Even though you see the balance, it’s not all yours unless it’s Roth.

My preference is to have all of my contributions go into Roth. Since employer contributions can’t go into Roth, I’d prefer to have as much as possible actually be MINE. For those currently doing pre-tax contributions, I’d consider transitioning your contributions over.

Q: Can you talk about 401k early withdrawal penalties and payback options?

A: Honestly, I’d rather not. Long term you’ll always be better off finding ways to avoid taking money out of your 401k before retirement. While you are actively employed, the only way to get money out of your 401k is to take a loan. Loans are paid back via increased payroll deduction. Although it is true that you pay yourself back with interest, the interest rate you pay yourself is generally much lower than the returns you’d be missing out on if the funds had stayed invested.

The big risk of a 401k loan is that if you leave the company, the balance of the loan is due in full within 60-days. Any amount left unpaid is considered an early withdrawal, taxed, and penalized (if you’re younger than 59 1/2).

Several in my audience may be considering going back to school for an MBA in the next few years. To them, I would recommend avoiding student loans but definitely plan ahead and do not rely on 401k funds to pay for the degree. Although there are provisions where Roth contributions can be withdrawn without penalty, I still believe that it should be avoided before retirement.

Q: What’s the right mix of stocks and bonds?

A: This is perhaps the hardest question to answer because there really is no one-size-fits-all answer. The right mix for each person depends on your goals and risk tolerance. You may have heard that in the early stages of your career you should be as aggressive as you can tolerate, but without having gone through a bear market it’s hard to really know your risk tolerance.

There are rules of thumb out there like “120 minus your age is the percentage you should have in stocks and the rest in bonds”. Rather than give that blanket statement, allow me to share how my asset allocation has shifted over the years.

My Asset Allocation History

When I started my first 401k, I loaded up on stocks and maybe only 5% in bonds. This was back in 2006 and the market was hitting new record highs, sound familiar? A few short years later, I had built up around $25k with more of a 70/30 stock bond split. And then the financial crisis hit. My portfolio was basically cut in half in what seemed like a matter of days. This was a huge gut check for me and caused me to rethink my asset allocation. Thankfully, I didn’t get out of the market like many clients I was advising at the time wanted to.

I kept a 70/30 mix for years and was a believer of the age-based asset allocation model. When friends or family members were just starting out, I would recommend using Fidelity Freedom Funds or Vanguard Target Retirement Funds that automatically rebalance as you get closer to your target retirement date, eventually landing in a 20/80 stock/bond mix. There is nothing wrong with this approach, and for many people, it may still be a great one.

My Current Allocation Strategy

Where I differ now from the mainstream age-based strategy is that I am planning on retiring much earlier than traditional retirement age. Also, I believe that we in the DIY$ household have proven to not act irrationally during bear markets. During down markets, we don’t sell and continue to dollar-cost-average into our investments. This tells me that we can handle having a larger allocation to stocks. Our current asset allocation is over 90% stocks, and we plan to keep it that way until and during retirement.

I am subscribed to the strategy outlined in Simple Wealth, Inevitable Wealth. Simply stated, this strategy is to only invest in stock mutual funds, and during retirement to keep a cash reserve equivalent to 2 years expenses. During retirement, we will replenish cash from investments except during significant down markets. During those times, we’ll draw down cash to allow the market to recover and build the cash account back up after the investments recover.

This strategy may not work for everyone, but this is why personal finance is so personal. You need to find what works for you, develop a plan, and stick to it. That’s the important part though, having a plan vs. not having a plan. I’m sure we’ll have plenty more to talk about, but these are the thoughts I’ve collected thus far.

9 Things We’ve Done to Save Money (Some crazier than others)

We’ve done some crazy things in our day to save money. Some were done out of necessity at a specific time and others have become ingrained into our lifestyle. It’s easy for me to downplay those that are a part of our firmly established routine and to think of them as nothing special. Yet, as I interact with and see the behaviors my neighbors, co-workers, or family members I am reminded that some of the things we do aren’t ‘normal’.

These habits have helped us grow our net worth. An even greater benefit is that they have greatly contributed toward our overall sense of contentment. Some of these we don’t do anymore, but some we do. So in no particular order, here are 9 things we do (or have done) to save or spend less money.

Garage Sales

We recently hit up a nearby garage sale where there had to have been $10,000 worth of kids clothes. Everything was a high-end brand name and a lot of things had never been worn. By garage sale standards, the prices were a little high, but for $50 we got what would have cost >$250 in stores and everything is basically brand new. If only my feet were a little smaller, I could have got some handmade Italian leather shoes for just a few dollars. Our entire neighborhood isn’t so flashy, but having neighbors with expensive clothes and flashy cars is a natural byproduct of living in a neighborhood like the one we do. Their waste is our gain.

On the other side, we try to be really selective about what we bring into our home and to shy away from short lived “trendy” items as to not be having the need to have garage sales of our own.

Get Multiple Quotes

In our house, we do a lot of home improvement projects. Lately, it seems that we’re about 50/50 in terms of doing the work ourselves or hiring it out. (Rules of thumb: We always hire out drywall – it sucks. We never hire out painting – it’s easy to do ourselves and my wife can spend the time to get it to her exacting standards. She’s not been impressed with many “professionals” work).

Sadly, there are some real boneheads out there amongst residential subcontractors. Take, for example, the guy we had come to our last house for a drywall estimate. We were finishing our basement and had done all the work ourselves up to the point of drywall. He walked around the basement, saw what needed to be done, leaned back with his thumbs in his belt loops, and after taking a deep breath pronounced “Yup, I’ll get ‘er done for $3,500”. No measurements were made, nothing was written down, just 3-minute walk through and a 30-second mental estimate. The contractor who got that job actually did some math and did it for just under $2,400. Always get multiple quotes.

Thrift Stores

To this day, we have spent very little on brand-new clothes for our four children. We only really buy clothes for our oldest son and daughter and the other kids get hand-me-downs. Most of the clothes we buy for them come from consignment stores or thrift stores.

(Side note – in our town we actually only have donation centers for Goodwill. We have to go to the next town over to be able to buy stuff from Goodwill. Our town is definitely the demographic of Goodwill donors, not shoppers).

Nowadays it seems that most families don’t have more than two children, so there are often plenty of perfectly good clothes that kids outgrow where there isn’t a sibling to hand them down to. Most of what we buy at thrift/consignment stores is for the kids, but one of my favorite ties is a Brooks Brothers tie I got for $1 at Goodwill.

Packing Lunch

When we were getting out of debt and paying our way through graduate school, I think I probably went several years without going out to eat for lunch at work. Not only that, but the lunches I did eat were pretty pathetic. I think I’ve eaten enough Michelina’s frozen lunches for a lifetime. We’ve also packed meals for road trips and flights to avoid the need to purchase food on the go.

Even now that I’m no longer paying for grad school I continue to pack my lunch, but now I eat a lot healthier. I do eat out at work on occasion now, but when I do I try to make it a networking lunch and use it as an opportunity to maintain relationships with people I don’t work with every day. Making this sacrifice early in my career had a compounding effect on our net worth and ability to save, but now has become a money saving habit.

Carpooling

When we were both working, my wife and I carpooled to work for over two years. We had sold our second vehicle and worked close enough to each other that we didn’t have to get a second vehicle or pay >$1,000/yr for a parking pass at her job.

Currently, I have a couple of co-workers who live nearby and have carpooled with them, but it’s not a regular occurrence and it’s more a convenience thing than a cost savings thing when it does happen.

Takeout vs. Dining In

For years, we almost never ate out to ensure having enough money to pay for grad school. Now, we still don’t eat out much, but it’s because we have four kids and taking them all to a restaurant just sounds like it’s own special form of hell. But we still want to eat good food without making it ourselves every once in a while. Our latest tradition is that I will pick up take-out on my way home each Friday.

This isn’t really an area of saving money, but I have learned that at most restaurants the folks that handle take out orders get paid a little bit more to compensate for not getting tips. Knowing that, I have no problem skipping the tip on a takeout order. Boom – 15% savings. My kids are picky eaters too. Unless we’re going to a pizza place, any restaurant food we buy for them is a waste of money.

Avoid Tolls

There are certain cities where toll roads are just a part of life. Just driving into Manhattan or crossing the Golden Gate Bridge will cost you a decent chunk of change. This can come as a surprise to folks visiting from smaller parts of the country where all roads and bridges are free, but to locals it’s just part of living in a big city.

One city that I’ve found particularly egregious for tolls is Orlando. The worst is the one toll booth that you HAVE to go through to get in/out of the airport. Or do you? On your favorite navigation app, you can simply turn on the ‘Avoid tolls’ option and find ways around those pesky tolls. Note that this isn’t always recommended since your time is worth something too. One time we were driving from Orlando to South Florida and decided we wanted to save the ~$12 toll and avoid the Turnpike. We made it, but it probably tacked on 90 minutes to our trip. Next time we’ll just pay the toll.

The Orlando airport toll takes just a couple of minutes to avoid and doing so gives me a sense of accomplishment, even though it only saves $0.50. Note that this isn’t always recommended since your time is worth something too. One time we were driving from Orlando to South Florida and decided we wanted to save the ~$12 toll and avoid the Turnpike. We made it, but it probably tacked on 90 minutes to our trip. Next time we’ll just pay the toll.

Learn to Sew

This is an area where all the credit goes to my wife. I’m not talking about making your own clothes. I know people who do that, but the cost/benefit doesn’t make sense for us. For me, I regularly will need buttons reattached, hems to be redone, or even holes patched in my pants. My wife has taught herself how to sew and now I don’t need to go anywhere to get clothes repaired.

It blows me away that I meet people who won’t even attempt to repair clothes. It’s just seen as easier to replace something that only needs a simple fix. We draw the line at socks. If my socks get holes, they go in the trash.

Wal-Mart Parking Lots vs. Hotels

Here’s one that I haven’t seen anyone talk about before. Now, it’s been a few years since I’ve done this, but I’ve taken a few cross country road trips with only me in the car. When I’m by myself, I hate spending ANY money on hotels. All I really just need a place to lie my head down for a couple of hours before getting back on the road. Enter the Wal-Mart parking lot.

Did you know that most Wal-Mart parking lots allow for overnight RV and Semi-Truck parking? Regular cars are allowed too. It isn’t often the best nights sleep as the semi trucks leave their engines running and the flood lights stay on all night, but it’s completely free. I’d compare it to sleeping on a plane, which I’ve done more times than I can remember. My favorite part is that I can walk in at any time of the night if I need to brush my teeth or use the bathroom. In the morning, I grab a donut, a banana, and am back on the road before the crowd.

I’ve even met some cool people doing this. The most memorable time was driving through South Dakota and sleeping at the Wal-Mart closest to Mount Rushmore. This was near the time of the huge Harley Davidson rally in Sturgis and there was a caravan of RV’s and motorcycles that had formed a circle in the parking lot and they were up all night having a good time.

Note: this would never fly if I was with my wife and kids. I’m not sure I’d suggest my kids do it either, but I’d probably do it again.

 

There are a lot of other things we do that didn’t make this list. At the end of the day, I think it all comes down to being deliberate in your spending. You’ll be served well if you find ways to do things yourself rather than automatically hiring someone.

May 2017 Net Worth Update

I just got back from a work trip, but wanted to make sure I kept up with my tradition of monthly net worth updates. Our May 2017 Net Worth increased by $6,470 to $664.267. 

May 2017 Net Worth Summary

Cash

Our cash balance went down slightly this month. We had to spend >$300 pumping out our septic tank and also spent most of the month on a low carb diet, which increased out grocery bill a bit more than normal. In May, we also paid for the materials to install a fence in the backyard. Now that school is out in our area, we’ve been wanting to allow the kids to play outside with less supervision and this will allow that. In the not-too-distant future, we may also be tearing down our deck and pouring a concrete pad in its place. None of these projects really will make a significant dent in our cash, but they will slow our growth and delay our acceleration of mortgage reduction. I expect our cash will stay around these levels for the next couple of months.

In May, we also paid for the materials to install a fence in the backyard. Now that school is out in our area, we’ve been wanting to allow the kids to play outside with less supervision and this will allow that. In the not-too-distant future, we may also be tearing down our deck and pouring a concrete pad in its place. None of these projects really will make a significant dent in our cash, but they will slow our growth and delay significant mortgage reduction. I expect our cash will stay around these levels for the next couple of months.

Because our accounts were hacked, my direct deposit was rejected on 5/31. Our old account numbers have all been closed and I missed the deadline by one day to have payroll make my deposit go to the new account. I’ve been out of the office but am told that there is a check on my desk for when I get back. These numbers assume that my paycheck had already been deposited. I feel blessed that missing a paycheck by a couple of days doesn’t really impact our lives like it would for many Americans.

Investments

The S&P 500 earned 1.16% in May and our investments continue to be primarily tied to that index. We had a little scare with some fraudulent activity in our accounts. Someone sold all our index ETFs and bought another stock. Everything is now resolved as if it never happened.

Most of our index funds are invested in ETFs. Whereas mutual funds can only be bought or sold at the end of the day, ETFs trade throughout the day like stocks. I like the flexibility of ETFs, but in reality, I don’t place many trades. I am considering changing to traditional index mutual funds ever since we were hacked. So far I haven’t made any changes but am open to suggestions.

Cars

Our cars continue to depreciate slowly but really nothing too exciting is going on in our garage. The only thing I really did this month was to change the oil and get a new antenna.

House

Similar to previous months we paid extra on our mortgage this month, decreasing our mortgage debt by about $1,100. The house value according to Zillow came down slightly, but overall our home equity increased. I’m excited to start paying A LOT more extra principal payments. Before we can do that, we first need to increase our cash and finish some home improvement projects.

529 College Savings

Our automatic investment to this account was missed this month because our accounts were compromised. I’ve since corrected this, but that explains why the account didn’t grow by as much as it has in previous months.

Summary

May was another pretty good month for us and June is already off to a great start. We are still on target to hit our 2017 Net Worth goal. I continue to be blown away at how quickly things have accumulated.

A Big Risk to Early Retirement – Inflation Risk

Lest you read my last post and think that I completely ignore the very real inflation risk in retirement, allow me to walk you through my thought process of how I account for it.

I already mentioned that when I project out our portfolio growth I’m assuming a non-inflation adjusted rate of return of 8%. If inflation were to average 2%, then my real return would actually be just 6%. I could just assume a lower rate of return, but I prefer to make some more granular assumptions about inflation.

It All Starts with Budgeting

Each year, I pull our full years’ expenses by category and make some minor adjustments to come up with a representative retirement budget.

First, I eliminate principal and interest payments on our house. Our mortgage will be paid off well in advance of retirement, so this won’t be needed. Next, I reduce our income taxes to account for lower income in retirement. I also reduce our charitable giving amount to account for us not having an income to tithe from, but not to zero since we will still want to be generous in retirement. Lastly, I eliminate any retirement account contributions since I won’t be eligible to contribute.

Not all of our expenses will be lower in retirement. I adjust our healthcare and travel expenses by assuming they will each be double current levels. Everything else stays the same. After all of these adjustments, I’m left with a budget that is roughly half of our household expenses. That sounds really low, but the majority of our current expenses are paying down the house, income taxes, and charitable giving so it is not unrealistic. In some categories like groceries, it may even be high given that we currently cover food for a family of six and will someday be empty nesters.

Inflation Assumptions

With this representative budget, I then apply inflation assumptions. The key difference here is that I use different inflation assumptions for different categories. Historical inflation has been 3-4% and I assume for most categories an inflation rate of 3%. The average for my lifespan hasn’t exceeded 3%, but it’s a real risk that it could be much higher. For me, medical expenses are the big wildcard. Not only do I assume they will be double my current level of spending, I also assume an inflation rate of 7% on medical expenses. If I were budgeting to be paying for higher education costs in retirement (I’m not), I would use a 7% inflation assumption for those costs as well.

Using this representative budget and specific inflation rates, I then inflate our expenses by the number of years between now and retirement to get an inflation adjusted retirement budget. Each year of retirement, I assume that expenses will continue to increase at the rates outlined above.

Inflation Impact on Retirement Income

One very interesting thing to consider is how inflation can eat away at your portfolio. For simple numbers, let’s assume you retire and have $1M worth of investments to live off of. It’s an oversimplification, but let’s also assume a steady 8% return, 3.5% inflation, and first-year expenses of $60,000. Since $60,000 is 6% of $1,000,000 and you’re earning 8%, then you can live off the earnings forever, right? Wrong.

You see, what happens is that even though you are consistently earning 8%, the growth of your earnings is lower than that because you aren’t reinvesting all of those earnings. Because your expenses are growing at 3.5%, and your income isn’t growing as quickly, your expenses will actually be greater than your income after just 15 years. After that, you begin whittling away your principal until year 33 when you run out of money entirely.

In this way, inflation is one of the biggest risks to early retirement. Everyone is impacted by inflation. The longer your retirement, the more time inflation has to grow and exceed your investment income.

Below I’ve outlined what hypothetical portfolio values would be with the assumptions outlined earlier.

How to protect against inflation?

There are a few things I am doing to protect our retirement dreams from inflation. The first is to have an initial withdrawal rate much lower than 6%. In your working years, you want to have as big a gap as possible between income and expenses. In retirement, you want to have a gap between expected investment income and expenses. Whether you plan to spend most of your money in your lifetime or leave an inheritance, inflation can derail either of those plans.

The primary other strategy is to remain invested in stocks. Over time, stocks are the only asset class that has consistently outperformed inflation. While earnings growth may not exceed inflation, left untouched a diversified stock portfolio would not lose purchasing power over time.

There are many ways to account for inflation in retirement planning, but this simple method works for me for now. It is absolutely something you don’t want to ignore, but I don’t lose sleep over it either. What are your inflation assumptions?

Assumptions for Early Retirement

I recently was talking to a friend who disagreed with my retirement planning assumption that our investments would average an 8% return. I had felt that my assumption was conservative given that I am close to 100% invested in equities. He felt that 4-5% was a better long-term assumption. Dave Ramsey assumes 12%. Who is right?

At the end the day, who really knows? We’re doing our best to save and invest a good chunk of our income and staying invested in the asset class with the best track record and best potential growth. But the conversation did get me thinking so I did some additional research.

Over at Moneychimp.com, there is a great resource that shows annual returns on the S&P 500 going back to 1871. You can look at any date range and see returns adjusted for inflation. This is great data for us because the majority of our portfolio is in index funds that track the S&P500. Their biggest takeaway is that:

“Over the very long run, the stock market has had an inflation-adjusted annualized return rate of between six and seven percent.”

When I assume 8% return, I’m assuming that to be before inflation. Is that what my friend meant? I don’t think so, but I’ll have to follow up. My impression was that he was just particularly pessimistic.

I was curious though, so I did some digging into the data set and found some things worth sharing (all numbers not adjusted for inflation).

S&P 500 Historical Returns

  • The best 1-year return for the S&P 500 was 56.8% (1933)
  • The worst 1-year return was -44.2% (1931)
  • Average annual returns from 1871-2016 were 10.7%

As you would expect, the longer you invest the more likely that you wouldn’t have lost any money.

  • The best 5-year annual return was 29.8% (1924-1928)
  • The worse 5-year annual return was -6.9% (1928-1932)
  • The average 5-year return was 10.7%/yr

It took going out to a 10-year time frame before there were no periods where you would have lost money. Investing in the worst 9-year period of 2000-2008, you would have averaged -1.7% per year.

  • The best 10-year annual return was 21.6% (1949-1958)
  • The worst 10-year annual return was 0.6% (1999-2008)
  • The average 10-year return has been 10.8%/yr

Our Retirement Plan Assumptions

The length of time I’m really interested in is even longer than 10 years. My goal is to have my working years last around 25 years and then to be retired for 40+ years. I’m about 10 years in with another 15 to go.

  • The average 25-year period has been an 11.1% return
  • The best 25-year period was 18.2% (1975-1999)
  • The worst 25-year period was 5.8% (1872-1896) 

We first started saving for retirement in 2006 and average market returns from 2007-2016 have been 8.8%. Our returns have been slightly higher than this, but aren’t as clean to track since we have been continuously investing new money for the past 11 years.

All this to say, we’re assuming 8% returns over the next 15 years and based on what we’ve seen so far and what has happened long before we started investing, we remain comfortable with that assumption.

I should have even more years in retirement than in my career, but my plan assumes a low withdrawal rate, under 4%. In retirement, we won’t be relying on sustained market returns to provide for our lifestyle but will remain invested primarily in equities similar to the strategy outlined in Simple Wealth, Inevitable Wealth.

I’m currently reading Nassim Taleb’s book Antifragile and he makes the very valid point that until the worst of anything happened, it wasn’t actually the worst. Said another way, just because a mountain is the tallest you’ve seen doesn’t mean it’s the tallest in the world. I know that future returns could be worse (or better) than we’ve ever seen before, but planning on an early retirement allows me to have sufficient margin in my plan to compensate for unexpected downturns.

See below for some more info on different investment horizons high, low, and average annual returns for a specific number of years.

What rate of return do you use for your retirement planning assumptions?