Archives for April 25, 2016

Secret Shame: Will We Ever Talk Openly About Money?

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

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We may not like to talk about our own money, but we sure like to read about other people’s money. The May 2016 cover story for The Atlantic magazine is The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans by Neal Gabler:

The Fed asked respondents how they would pay for a $400 emergency. The answer: 47 percent of respondents said that either they would cover the expense by borrowing or selling something, or they would not be able to come up with the $400 at all. Four hundred dollars! Who knew?

Well, I knew. I knew because I am in that 47 percent.

The essay has definitely hit a nerve, with over 3,000 comments, a handful of formal reader letters, and several financial experts all weighing in with their responses.

As someone who used to openly share his net worth, I have to give Mr. Gabler credit for candidly sharing about his financial “impotence”. Most people would rather undergo a root canal than share intimate details about their financial insecurities.

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I also recommending reading this Esquire piece: 4 Men with 4 Very Different Incomes Open Up About the Lives They Can Afford – From a father on the poverty line to a CEO millionaire. It is interesting to note that despite the disparity in both their current and desired future incomes, all four men are both mostly happy and plan on working into their 60s or longer.

You can see why people choose silence, as it is an exquisite sort of pain to have strangers publicly break down all of your mistakes and diagnose your underlying personal failings. But I think more discussion is exactly what we need, not less. Hopefully despite the judgment, Mr. Gabler will eventually be better off for it. We need to talk it out, share both our struggles and solutions, and face up to the problems instead of just hiding it and hoping it magically goes away.

Let’s put away the snarky internet comments and try a civil discussion with empathy and detail. I’d like that a lot more than reading another article about disappearing pensions or debt statistics.

Higher Savings Rate vs. Higher Risk Portfolio

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

An article on the Vanguard Advisors Blog discussed the trade-offs involved in adjusting an investor’s savings rate and the risk level of their portfolio – Investor success: Measured in dollars, not (per)cents.

A portfolio’s value can grow through both capital contributions and return on capital, but only capital contributions can grow wealth reliably. Saving is our contribution to our own investment success and, importantly, unlike the investment returns we seek, its benefits are both more certain and within our control.

The chart below shows projected outcomes based on savings rate (4% or 6%) and portfolio risk level (conservative, moderate, or aggressive). You can see visually that the combination of 6% savings rate and moderate risk (50% stocks/50% bonds) has both a higher average outcome and fewer poor outcomes than the combination of 4% savings rate and aggressive risk (80% stocks/20% bonds)

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Part of this should be expected – you’re saving 50% more in dollars when going from a 4% to 6% savings rate. But on an absolute level, perhaps that amount of dollars is something you can swing.

Vanguard did a similar study called Penny saved, Penny earned back in 2011 that compared three levers: savings rate, portfolio asset allocation, and also starting to save earlier. Take the following baseline scenario:

  • Investor begins working at 25, but starts saving at age 35.
  • 12% savings rate
  • Moderate asset allocation (50% stocks and 50% bonds)
  • Salary starts at $30,000 but increases with age

Now, here are three ways in which a worker could increase their final savings balance at retirement (age 65).

  • Option #1. Invest more aggressively with an asset allocation of 80% stocks and 20% bonds, while keeping your 12% savings rate and starting age of 35.
  • Option #2. Raise your savings rate to 15%, while keeping your starting age of 35 and 50/50 asset allocation.
  • Option #3. Start saving at age 25 instead of 35. while keeping your 12% savings rate and and 50/50 asset allocation.

Which single option do you think has the most impact? The results are based the median balance found after running Monte Carlo computer simulations based on 10,000 possible future scenarios for each option.

Scenario Median Balance at age 65 % Increase vs. Baseline
Baseline $474,461
Option #1
(Aggressive asset allocation)
$577,133 22%
Option #2
(Raise savings rate)
$593,077 25%
Option #3
(Start saving earlier)
$718,437 51%

 

Between the three “levers” you could pull, starting to save earlier wins by a significant margin, which is an important truth but minus a time machine today is the earliest we can start saving more. After that, a higher savings rate is a more reliable path to improving your odds for success. Investing with significantly more risk performs somewhat similarly on a median basis, but actual results will vary the most widely.

I suppose my version of this is that an investor should keep working hard to maximize their savings rate, but only work hard to find a “good” asset allocation once and then let it be. My definition of “good” asset allocation is one that considers your financial needs, your knowledge, and as a result is something that you can keep forever. Don’t look for the “perfect” asset allocation, as these can only be known after the fact and are constantly changing. Too often, they are based on data mining and recent performance. Look at any asset allocation with growing popularity, and the asset classes that make it hot have probably done well in the past decade. You can quote “long-term” numbers from long periods like 1970 to 2015, but these numbers are still strongly influenced by recent past performance.

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