Too Complex For Their Own Good?

This week on my Forbes post, “Don’t Outsmart Yourself Financially,” I took issue with an article written by Nobel-winning economist, Paul Krugman, for his rationalizing of the enormous debt load of our country.  But while economists have and will wax eloquent on the past, present and future utilizing brilliant theories well beyond the bounds of common sense (and often practical application), we have no such allowance in the realm of personal finance.  Indeed, YOU SHOULD NEVER PURSUE A STRATEGY YOU CAN’T UNDERSTAND.

Here are a collection of financial strategies that sound impressive but may be too complex for their own good:

  • Equity Indexed Annuities—EIAs are actually fixed annuities, but if you ask one of their passionate purveyors[i] how they manage to offer market upside with none of the downside, I hope you’ve set aside some time because you’re in for a very long conversation…if the agent even knows enough about their inner workings to  educate you.  In short, insurance companies buy bonds with your investment and use the interest payments to purchase stock options to materialize the upside of the stock market.  They hedge their bets—I mean, positions—by handcuffing you with some of the biggest (7%, 9%, even 12% and higher) and longest (10, 15 or even 20 years) surrender charges in the business.  Like too many financial products, these instruments are sold, not bought, and I don’t recommend tying up your money in one of these financial experiments.
  • Life Insurance As Primary Retirement Vehicle—There’s a wow-inducing sales system (called the LEAP system) that was built for life insurance agents seeking to increase their sales in one of the best-paying commission products on the market, permanent life insurance (whole life, variable life and universal life).   After an hour of mind-numbing chart-flipping, you’ll be ready to divert your 401k savings into a brand new life insurance policy![ii]  But unless you make over $250,000 per year or have millions in net worth, you simply don’t need to worry yourself with the variables in permanent life insurance.
  • “Option Arm” Mortgages—The landscape of mortgage products has dwindled significantly from the pre-crash days when you could literally pick the payment on your mortgage in the now infamous option arm mortgages.  A mortgage broker in Pennsylvania at one point pitched me on a joint collaboration in which I would lend financial credence to his recommendations for clients to take on these crazy mortgages and they would, in turn, invest all the extra money they didn’t have to pay towards their mortgage in accounts I would manage.  I laughed at first, thinking he was kidding.  Then I realized he wasn’t.  Especially with rates as low as they are today, there are very few reasons to take on any mortgage other than a fixed mortgage, but there is NEVER a reason to take on a mortgage that increases your debt instead of paying it off.
  • Exchange Traded Funds—This one may surprise you, and I should be quick to point out that ETFs can be very wisely and properly utilized in a diversified investment strategy.  But you’d better fully understand what you’re buying.  Much like a mutual fund, an exchange traded fund is a single investment representing a basket of securities.  For example, you can purchase an ETF that will track the S&P 500 index or commodities like gold or oil.  But the question remains, what exactly is inside of the ETF?  Sometimes it is actual investments, (like stocks in gold mining companies, for instance) but often the underlying properties in an ETF are derivatives—options or futures—and subject to market forces beyond the commodity or index itself.  If you don’t understand how the investment is built, you may be in for a surprise when you see how it actually reacts to market stimuli.

There are many other examples out there, and I’d love to hear what you’ve run into in your financial journey.  Please share your good or bad experience, or ask any questions, in the comments section!


[i] Why so passionate, you ask?  These products have some of the biggest commissions in the business.  Up to and over 12%!

[ii] I worked with one agent in a prior professional life who regularly pitched a “Roth Look-A-Like,” an alternate retirement savings vehicle designed to give you all the tax advantage of a Roth IRA, and more…except that it was nothing more than a whole life insurance policy.  I saw one unfortunate 20-something guy who wasn’t even married and had no dependents buy a look-a-like when his money would’ve been better served in a true Roth.

10 Ways Budgeting Saved My Marriage

Eleven years ago, my wife and I sat across the table from an experienced married couple squirming in their seats uncomfortably as though they feared we were about to deliver some terrible news.  But the source of their discomfort was the bomb they were about to drop on us.

You see, we were not yet married, but engaged, and the couple across the table was our mentor couple in our pre-marital class.  Upon review of our personality profiles and piles of personal baggage, they felt it their duty to discourage us from further pursuing the sacred vows of matrimony.  They’d never seen a hopeful couple more innately disparate, more inevitably destined for failure. 

We are indeed vastly different, but one thing my wife, Andrea, and I share in common is a penchant for resisting authority.  So with the blessing and support of family and friends, I’m thrilled to report we’ll be celebrating our eleventh anniversary this April with our two wonderful boys, Kieran and Connor, ages six and eight.

We have never forgotten, however, the well-intended admonishment of our mentor couple; indeed, we see much of life from vastly different perspectives, foremost among them our view of things financial.  And apparently, we’re not alone. Over 50% of marriages end in divorce.  Over 50% of those splits cite financial disputes as the primary reason for the break-up.

100% of marriages deal with money as a daily necessity.


This thought occurred several times when preparing my recent posts on budgeting on Forbes.com (How To Spend $1 Million At Starbucks) and TimMaurer.com (A Burdensome Yoke…Or A Path To Peace?).  It struck me that budgeting ranked right up there with prayer and counseling as a precious few factors that have helped keep us together.  Here are the top 10 ways budgeting has saved, and continues to save, our marriage:

10)  Budgeting forces us to collaborate.  It seems that as parents of young children, the level of commitments between work, school, church, sports and the arts leaves us functioning more as independent business partners than spouses.  We’re almost always in short supply of adult conversation and genuine collaboration, and (strange as it may seem) budgeting gives us the context for both.

9)     It offers healthy accountability.  Ronald Reagan famously said, “Trust, but verify,” and while 100% verification of trust in our marriage would be stifling, we’ve found periodic accountability to be a healthy way to build faith and trust in each other.  Our joint budgeting effort means all of our expenditures are accessible to the other.  Scrutinizing every penny spent would be unfair (a-hem, note to self), but knowing everything is visible is likely to encourage us each to spend more responsibly.

8)     It humbles us.  I’ve not found a more helpful tool in the pursuit of a successful marriage than humility, and since the use of money is so pervasive in our lives, small mistakes are the norm, not the exception.  Rarely a weekly cycle goes by in which we don’t each humbly acknowledge that we erred in some capacity, humbly submitting our mistake to the other.  And of course, a good budget is designed to withstand these small mistakes.

7)     It provides an opportunity for reconciliation.  The prevalence of small errors in our budgeting, however, provides fertile ground for a destructive tendency: that we’d develop a scorecard, real or implied, and shame the more regular offender (because there normally is one in most households).  So for us it’s very important that a humility ground-rule is established: Any time an offending spouse submits in humility to an irreversible mistake, forgiveness and reconciliation is the only way forward.

6)     It gives us reason to celebrate.  For each mistake, there are several successes in each budget cycle.  The long-term success of our marriage is often built on a series of small victories, and we should never withhold an affirmation for completing a project under budget or enjoying the security of a buffer when an emergency arises.

5)     It cuts down on surprises.  So many aspects of our life are subject to variability and volatility.  We can’t necessarily reduce the number of those surprises, but we can certainly reduce their negative impact by being financial prepared for them.  Financial strain, and especially shock, pushes many marriages to (and over) the brink.

4)     It makes us better parents.  All of us parents could probably agree that it’s possible to spend too little OR too much on our children, right?  We’re responsible to determine what the right levels of spending are for our children, and budgeting allows us to deliberately set aside appropriate levels of funding for education, clothing, sports, music and fun.

3)     It shows our dependence on each other.  Andrea and I do think very differently, and this inevitably leads to divisive thoughts like these: “You know, I think I could do this better on my own!”  But this decries the very essence of marriage as an institution in which each partner’s primary objective is to serve the other.  The process of budgeting puts our (literal and emotional) dependence on each other on full display.  That makes us vulnerable, but it’s good.

2)     It preserves a healthy level of independence.  The income production in most households is almost never perfectly equitable.  Andrea sacrificed a successful career in the financial industry when she chose to stay home with our young children.  This has been an incredible blessing in our family, but it’s also a breeding ground for insecurity and manipulation as I might have a tendency to overestimate my contribution to the family’s finances and underestimate Andrea’s.  It is imperative, then, that part of our budget is the preservation of a certain amount of financial independence for each spouse.  To offset this income inequity, we’ve established “His and Hers” accounts with unilateral privileges.  Many shun budgeting as too restrictive, but properly implemented, it actually gives us room to breathe financially, and we all need room to breathe.

1)     It preserves date night!  One of the interactions I’ve enjoyed most throughout my career was with a client who is a generation or two my senior.  He and his wife have five kids(!) and appear to be more in love today than they’ve ever been.  So at the close of one meeting, I got up the nerve to ask this gentleman what his secret to marriage and parenting was.  His answer?  They never fail to set aside time—and money—for each other as a couple.  He made a convincing case that we are better parents when we deliberately setting aside time to be together, away from the kids, and not just for date nights, but also long-weekends and even week-long vacations to remind ourselves that before we were parents we were lovers.  This proved especially difficult for Andrea and me because by the time we got to the end of most months, we’d already spent our discretionary cash on the rest of life and felt like we were taking funding away from other things to line-up a babysitter and enjoy a night or weekend out.  So now, much as we have preserved His and Hers accounts, we also have an Ours account.

Budgeting is not the slightest bit romantic, but it has the ability to promote and preserve the romance in our marriages and keep us on the right side of that daunting 50% divorce statistic.  There are as many good ways to manage this process as there are couples, and I’d love to hear some of the ways budgeting has helped preserve YOUR marriage also, so please share your story in the comments section!

It’s About You, Not Me

I announced a few weeks ago that my second book, a co-authored project with best-selling author, Jim Stovall, would be coming out shortly.  Upon release of that news and the book’s title—The Ultimate Financial Plan—a few of my closest friends gave me some good-natured ribbing for a title that could be presumed a dubious self-proclamation of preeminence.  So although I know they were only kidding, I’d like to use this as an opportunity to explain the origin and meaning of the title and make an exciting announcement about TimMaurer.com blog posts in the month of September.

Jim Stovall and I believe with every fiber of our beings that contained in this book is, indeed, the ultimate financial plan.  However, it’s not about us.  We don’t claim to be the brightest financial minds in the universe.  We don’t purport this book to be the number one source of all facts and numbers pertaining to the discipline of personal finance (thank goodness, because it would be too long and boring).  Nor do we allege it to contain the most cutting edge thinking that will revolutionize the business or practice of financial planning — with an advisor or on your own.

Personal finance is more personal than it is finance.

The reason we believe this to be the ultimate offering in its genre is quite the opposite.  It’s not so much about us, but more about YOU.  This book is strenuously focused on you, your values and your plans for the present and future.  We may appear to represent a financial industry, which, even after a timeless humbling through the financial crisis, still seems to muster a condescending tone.  Even some of my favorite personal finance gurus are famous for calling out the stupidity of their followers.  But we’re not.  We’re not talking down to you from the pulpit, but instead across the table.  We’re not sharing insight about concepts we’ve ginned up to sell a book.  We’re sharing personal narratives and experiences we’ve gained from employing these concepts—both in our own lives and in the lives of those we advise and influence.

Let’s also not forget this book is another in a series of books Jim has written that began with The Ultimate Gift.  Selling more than four million copies and seeing it turned into a movie starring James Garner, Brian Dennehy and Abigail Breslin was affirmation enough that the heart of Jim’s novel, a story about a wayward young man learning to earn his inheritance, impacted people deeply.   It was followed by The Ultimate Life (also soon to be released as a movie).  Frankly, when I approached Jim about co-authoring a book that would allow the timeless wisdom of The Ultimate Gift to be translated through a personal finance guidebook, he hesitated, having maintained a personal policy of not co-authoring.  But then Jim realized this could be his contribution to a world ever increasingly in need of applicable wisdom facing the big climb out of the financial crisis crater.

Simply put, we believe personal finance is more personal than it is finance, so our stories and advice and practical applications are skewed heavily in that direction.

A very special September

We’re going to commit a cardinal marketing sin and take the focus further off of us just as this week marks our official promotional kick-off of the book’s release.  Over the next four weeks, I’ll be featuring guest posts from four world-class authors and bloggers that have been an inspiration to me and millions of others through their work.  I’m honored and humbled that they’ve each shown a willingness to engage you, personally, on this blog.  You’ll surely not want to miss them:

  • Thursday, September 8th, you’ll enjoy a post from entrepreneur and the best-selling author of Anything You Want, Derek Sivers, explaining why he, after building a company that revolutionized the music sales industry (CD Baby), gave the $22 million proceeds from its sale to charity.  (Yes, you read that correctly.)
  • Thursday, September 15th, I’ll share a post from Chris Guillebeau, a travel and career author and blogger whose every move is followed by over 150,000 online readers.  Chris took the time to entertain and educate us on “The $30 Hotel and the Battleship Slumber Party.”
  • Thursday, September 22nd, our guest post will come from J.D. Roth.  J.D. is a blogging pioneer in the realm of personal finance who started the uber-successful blog, “Get Rich Slowly,” voted as one of Time magazine’s “Best Blogs of 2011.”  J.D. will be sharing his take on the intensely personal elements of personal finance.
  • Finally, on Thursday, September 29, I’m excited to see what Carl Richards has drawn up for us.  Carl is the cutting edge financial planner who has worked his way into the hearts of so many through his Behavior Gap blog featured in the New York Times, employing little more than a sharp wit and a Sharpie pen in his exploration of the relationship between money and values.

I look forward to bringing you these world class writers through TimMaurer.com.

Oh, and by the way…

The Ultimate Financial Plan IS now available for purchase on Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com.  You can also purchase it on your Kindle  and you should see it available on your Nook and in bookstores everywhere within a week.  Thanks for passing the word if you’re so inclined!

Chasing Tomorrow

A couple days ago, I tweeted[i] a question that received some interesting responses:

“Is it possible that financial advisors’ bent towards long-term saving strips clients of joy today?”

The responses I got were vociferous, both in support and opposition of the implied comment in my question.  Interestingly, all of these responses were from financial advisors.  Here was the first grenade lobbed back in my direction:

“It’s just not possible; it’s a fact. We’re in the business of selling deferred gratification.”

That comment came from a good person who is no doubt an excellent financial advisor.[ii]  But, this faulty mindset is, without a doubt, the majority opinion of the estimated 500,000 plus who refer to themselves as some form of financial advisor or professional in the lower 48.  So, financial advisors are in the business of selling deferred gratification, knowingly stripping our clients—YOU—of joy today?  How do you feel about that?  Does that make you want to run out to hire a financial advisor?

This faulty premise leads to a number of mistaken presumptions and results.  First, many financial advisors DO see themselves as the protectors of their clients’ futures, an ostensibly noble mission until we’re reminded most financial advisors also just happen to get paid more when you defer more.  There’s no way around this blatant conflict-of-interest, and any advisor caught obscuring this truth behind a veil of self-righteousness is deluding himself or herself.

There is no question that the job—even the duty—of a financial advisor in almost every case is to encourage clients to consider and establish a reasonable plan for deferring some of today for tomorrow, and to occasionally protest an attempted withdrawal spurred by a temporary urge in spite of better judgment (like the time a 20-something client wanted to take an early withdrawal from his Roth IRA to buy a jet ski).  But I believe financial planning focused too heavily on the future is little better than planning encouraging an “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die” approach.

While I absolutely believe we, as humans, do have a tendency to overvalue that which is seen or imminent over that which is unseen and seemingly distant, there is no denying the “one-in-the-hand-two-in-the-bush” adage either.   We must repel the urge to make a comprehensive financial plan the protector of only the future—stripping funding from today for a tomorrow not promised.  The ideal financial plan (some might say, The Ultimate Financial Plan…ha, ha, ha…that wasn’t planned…) helps manage the short-, mid- and long-term, balancing money and life.

Encouragingly, I believe there is a movement among financial planners awakening to the reality that in order for a plan to be relevant, it must positively impact more of life’s timeline.  In response to my tweet, Nathan Gehring, a Wisconsin cheesehead (and financial planner and blogger), called for balance and Dr. Carolyn McClanahan, a physician-turned-planner in Florida, noted she feels a duty to provide a plan more relevant to today.  Interestingly, Dr. McClanahan and I both share near brushes with death, personally, that likely impact our insistence on this issue.  But it doesn’t take a near-death experience to grasp this important truth.

(By the way, the biggest mistakes planners and clients make regarding deferred gratification are not in our saving and investing patterns, but in our choices of vocation…how we choose to spend the estimated 101,568 working hours in our lifetime.)

In 1902, Alice Morse Earle wrote, “The clock is running. Make the most of today. Time waits for no man. Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That’s why it is called the present.”

How much of life do you spend chasing tomorrow?


[i] Yes, it’s true.  I’ve embraced the social medium that took me the longest time to “figure out” or in which to find any redeeming value.  I’m officially a tweeter…or twit, if you will.  If you’re into that sort of thing, you can follow me via @TimMaurer.  And, if you’re like me, reluctant to see the value in Twitter, in next week’s post I’ll be sharing how Twitter has become my #1 source for financial news—if you can believe that—and why I think it could really benefit you too.

[ii] Please also be mindful, if you’re not a Twitter aficionado, that the medium restricts questions and comments to no more than 140 characters (as my regular readers gasp in amazement that I’m capable of articulating anything in so few letters!).  As a result, tweeters often do take short-cuts to get right to the point, sacrificing context that may help substantiate a point.

Pogo Stick Retirement Planning (for Younger Generations)

Pogo stick
While most of my career has been spent advising the Depression Baby and Baby Boomer generations, I have a real heart for younger generations… which, for those of you who know me personally, should come as no surprise.  After all, I’m a Gen-Xer myself.  I’m married (ten years this April) with two energetic boys, ages 5 and almost 7, so I’m right in the thick of it with many of my peers who have built their careers and financial lives in a decade that has delivered the highest level of stock market and real estate volatility since the Great Depression.  And while the complexity in planning for 30- and 40-somethings is often not as great as those who’ve traveled further down life’s winding path, there is no denying that our planning needs range the broadest spectrum imaginable in personal finance.

Some of these topics, such as retirement, appear almost beyond the grasp of younger generations because the variables are so many and the timeline so long.  Indeed, for those closer to the front-end of our retirement journey, we’re faced with a daunting task indeed.  The retirement planning “three-legged stool”—once consisting of a corporate pension, a Social Security retirement benefit and personal savings (savings, 401ks & IRAs) is now the retirement pogo stick!  It’s on us—you and me—to fund our own retirements.  Further complicating matters, doctors suggest that the quantity of life for Gen X and Yer's may far exceed that of our parents and grandparents.  We’re likely to live a long time, but the quality of life—to the degree that it is improved by cash flow—is in question because of the burden of saving.

Last week, I focused on two retirement planning “silver bullets” for hopeful Boomer retirees (Part I & Part II) who may fear that a decade of economic uncertainty has put their goal for a comfortable retirement out of reach.  Here’s how the two concepts I shared are applied to younger generations:

MOVE: The disparity in cost of living across our great country is so vast that it’s almost unfathomable.  I encouraged those on the home stretch of retirement that one could take a failing financial scenario in Parkton, MD—a typical northeast suburban environment—and transplant it in Knoxville, TN, where the same exact home equity and retirement savings would allow them to live happily ever after… financially speaking.  The advantage YOU have is that you can make a decision NOW to take advantage of this geographic arbitrage in advance.  You can CHOOSE to live in a higher cost-of-living area now while keeping an eye on another area to which you might like to transition later in life to give your plan for financial independence a turbo boost.  (Check out the cost-of-living in your area and dream about others with this tool: www.bestplaces.net.) 

WORK: The second silver bullet for near retirees is to transition from a higher-paying job that feels like a grind to a job that they love for less pay, fully recognizing that both medically and financially speaking, we’re really all better off working indefinitely.  The bad news for Baby Boomersis that many grew up with a more utopian view of retirement… that they’d work for “X” number of years and then cast off the chains of employment to spend their latter years in the lap of leisure, if not luxury.  We, however, should simply never buy this lie propagated by the behemoth financial industry, preferring to dangle the carrot of unencumbered bliss on our horizon so that we’d stay on the hamster wheel of hording in the accounts they manage for fees and commissions.  We should EXPECT that we’ll be working indefinitely, and, facing that reality, we should work tirelessly to seek and find that career that doesn’t feel like work.  We can be financially independent as early as our 30s, not because we’ve saved a few million bucks by then (although that wouldn’t hurt), but because we’re working because we WANT to, not because we HAVE to.

What younger generations have lost is the hope that we’ll be able to rely on someone or something else to take care of us financially in our later phases of life.  What we have gained is the freedom and flexibility to pursue a life that is uniquely ours.  Enjoy every minute of it!

 

Retirement Planning Silver Bullets, Part Deux

4609495055_4bf73981e6 In Part One of this two part blog series, we discussed the amazing leverage that can be gained, even in the case of an apparently floundering retirement scenario, when moving from a higher cost-of-living area to one that is lower.  But I fully recognize that while many will see this as an exciting retirement adventure, some would view it as a life-ending transition due to their attachment to their current geography, especially if they’re near family.  You do still have another option, and much as silver bullet #1 was summed up in one word—MOVE—so too is #2—WORK.

It’s not what you think.  If you’re one of the many who’ve dutifully labored for a lifetime, largely motivated by the vision of a day at some point in the future when you’d be able to dance your way out of your office, never to return, I’m not intending to obliterate that daydream.  In fact, the only way this second silver bullet will work is if you’re able to find—or create—a vocation that gives you as much or more joy than being fully retired.  And this isn’t just advice coming from your financial planner, but also your doctor, as Anne Tergesen discovered in her 2005 BusinessWeek cover story entitled, “Live Long and Prosper. Seriously.”  She quotes Dr. Jochanan Stessman, head of the geriatric and rehabilitation department of Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center as saying, “There’s a strong argument for continuing to work throughout life.”  

This doesn’t mean you have to work full-time; nor does it mean that you should be doing work that drains you.  This is your license to create your dream job and begin to plan a phase of life we’ll call pseudo-retirement.  You’re working enough to keep your mind and body functioning at high levels with enough income to reduce your need to tap your nest egg.  Let’s look at this in the context of our hypothetical retiree from Bullets, Part One:

  • Age of couple:                  62
  • Assets
    • Home:                    $500,000o
    • Nest Egg:               $800,000
  • Liabilities
    • Mortgage:              $200,000
  • Income need:                    $100,000
  • Income
    • Social Security:    $18,000
    • Nest Egg @ 4%:     $32,000o
    • Total:                      $50,000

This couple is currently making $175,000 of income, but they’re burned out and want to retire ASAP.  Unfortunately, if they take their early Social Security Benefit at their current ages and rely on their nest egg to fund the remainder of their $100,000 income need, they’ll be pulling 10.3% out of their nest egg—an unsustainable withdrawal amount that could sink their retirement ship before it even sets sail.  Here’s the recommended course of action:

  1. At Age 62…
  • Begin a plan the dream job, while adding $50,000 of their $75,000 of excess income to their nest egg
  • Pay down mortgage with $15,000/year of excess annual incomec. Ensure that nest egg is invested with capital preservation as the primary objective—assume 5% rate of return

        2.  At age 66…

  •  Transition to dream job, accepting lower pay—$100,000—for full-time jobs they fully enjoy
  • Stop saving for retirement, but allow Social Security to continue to grow
  • Mortgage has been paid down to $94,093. Cease extra principal payments
  • Allow the nest egg—now $1,187,911—to grow, conservatively invested to earn 5% per year

         3.  At age 70…

  •  Scale back to part-time work at dream job
  • Mortgage balance now $31,062
  • Take Social Security benefit = $30,927; income $50,000 (Total = $80,927)
  • Nest egg = $1,436,620; Addt’l income need = $19,073 or 1.3%

         4.  At age 72…

  •  Mortgage paid off, reducing income need by $19,000/year
  • Social Security benefit = $32,176 (2% inflation/ year)
  • Nest egg = $1,583,873 (4% = $63,354)
  • Income need = $81,000
  • Current income (SS + 4% nest egg) = $95,530 ($14,530 surplus to be re-invested)

The purpose of retirement is not necessarily to NOT work, but to work because you want to, not because you have to.  For Baby Boomers fearful that their dreams for a fulfilling retirement have been dashed by the market and faulty assumptions, these two Retirement Planning Silver Bullets can be made to work… but it requires YOU to take this analysis from the hypothetical realm to reality.  This analysis has been largely focused on those either in retirement or headed in that direction within the next 10 years.  My next post will show younger generations how to apply these concepts to create a fulfillment plan that begins today!

Retirement Planning Silver Bullets, Part I (of 2)

Moving truck A recent Wall Street Journal article by Karen Damato entitled, “Retiring in 10 years? Uh-Oh,” addressed a justified fear striking the hearts of millions of prospective retirees: that they won’t be able to afford to retire.  The article is well founded and focuses largely on the investment aspects of retirement planning—the schizophrenic battle in retirement nest eggs to seek growth to make up for past losses while attempting to adequately ensure capital preservation.  The focus of this first of two posts is to provide you with one of the most powerful things you can do, OUTSIDE of your investment portfolio, to improve your retirement plan: MOVE.

If you are already retired or planning to be so within the next 10 years, as the WSJ article clearly articulates, you cannot solely rely on compounded portfolio growth to save you.  Additionally, you may find yourself on the wrong end of the real estate bubble with substantially diminished equity in your home and more debt than can be floated without a salary (and a dwindling desire to perpetuate that salary).  What’s left? MOVE, to a lower cost of living area.

This maneuver is especially compelling when contrasting the highest cost of living areas with the lowest.  According to www.bestplaces.net, an online resource estimating the cost of living in areas across the country, the median home price in Chevy Chase Village, a DC suburb in Maryland, is $1,022,570 and the cost of living is 166% higher than the U.S. average!  Whereas, the median home price in the Great Recession bludgeoned, Detroit, is $65,440, with a cost of living 23.30% lower than the U.S. average.

But if that comparison appears all too convenient and unrealistic, consider this contrast: Baltimore suburb, Parkton, MD, boasts a median home price of $444,350 and a cost of living 54% higher than the U.S. average.  Meanwhile, Knoxville, TN, the engaging home of the University of Tennessee, has a median home price of $125,930 and a cost of living 15% lower than the national average… and it doesn’t snow as much.

Let’s picture a prospective couple in Parkton, trying to figure out their plan for retirement:

In Parkton

  • Home now worth $500,000o
  • $200,000 — mortgage (from college costs and home improvements when house was worth $600,000 and rising)
  • Need $100,000 of income to cover annual expenses
    • Mortgage principal and interest payment ($200k loan @ 5% for 15years) = $19k per year
    • Income need less mortgage = $81,000o
  • Took pension lump-sum offer, invested in 401k, total retirement assets of $800,000o
  • Social Security plus 4% withdrawal from retirement accounts = $50,000 (50% of estimated need)

In Knoxville

  • Comparable home purchased for $200,000—mortgage free
  • $100,000 additional net proceeds from home sale added to retirement nest egg, now $900,000
  • According to cost of living ratio, $45,360 income in Knoxville would feel like $81,000 in Parkton
  • Social Security plus 4% withdrawal from retirement accounts = $54,000 (119% of estimated need)

If you find yourself in a retirement planning pickle, I’m not suggesting you read this and put a for sale sign in your yard.  COST of living should not be confused with QUALITY of living, and if your geography and proximity to friends and family is where you derive the most joy, it’s not my suggestion that you have a financial duty to uproot.  But, if you’ve reached a retirement plan dead-end and find yourself without options and a yearning for a refreshing change of pace, there is no question that transplanting your financial life to a lower cost of living area can transform a bleak retirement plan into one that is quite comfortable.

Part Two (of two) of Retirement Planning Silver Bullets will be released on Friday, December 10th.