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A 28 Mile Day Hike with Finance Nerds

In what is going down as the weirdest and best experience of the year for me, I recently completed a 28-mile day hike with 60 other finance professionals to remember the soldiers who had fallen in battle.

Among those who I hiked with was a journalist from the New York Times who covered the event.  He does a great job describing the event and the asset management firm, Alpha Architect, that helped to organize our squad of 60.

Also in our squad was Patrick O’Shaughnessy, a prominent blogger and podcaster.  His recap sums up my own experience and is well worth the read.

What started off as small talk about our own profession and thoughts about asset allocation, slowly moved to more personal and deeper conversations.  With hours and hours of time on the trail, many conversations got deep.  And as Patrick mentioned in his blog post, he had deeper conversations with practical strangers than with people he has known for years.  I felt the same way and am glad I was not the only one who had that experience.

Never in my life would I have imagined doing such an event with so many strangers.  And now, I can’t wait to be part of it again next year.

Top Money Mistakes People Make in Their 30s

I see lists like this all the time and for the most part I cringe at what I read.  The lists over simplify the issues or miss the boat entirely.  But this one is different.  It actually covers most of the items that I see with clients.  With each of the eleven money mistakes, I can think of one client that had made that mistake.

If I were writing this article, I would include a few other top mistakes.  For starters, I would include mistakes around homeownership and when is the right time to buy a bigger house.  That’s a common question or issue I run across.  I’d also suggest that people in their 30’s have an emergency fund set aside in cash.  Finally, I’d strongly encourage people in their 30’s to eliminate any credit card debt.

How to Plan When You Don’t Know Your Goals

Defining one’s goals isn’t easy for some people. Trying to envision what your life will look like at some point in the future can be difficult.  There are so many emotional and financial variables and so many unknowns in life that it can leave you feeling stuck or in a holding pattern until you find clarity.  We know that because it is a relatively common issue that we run into with our clients and an issue we try to help resolve for them. Retirements, illness, or the death of a family member can be very disruptive.

We help clients find clarity by trying to quantify the financial impacts of their situation and model other scenarios they are considering.

To illustrate what we do, let’s consider a typical client situation.  A couple with two college-age children have come to us looking for guidance in planning for their future.  They have very good incomes and a vacation property, but there expenses are high and they have not saved as much as they should have in the past.

Here is our process to help get this client out of their holding pattern:

  1.  We model their current financial situation and extrapolate those results out through their retirement.  Every conceivable financial variable is used to model the current situation: income expenses, accounts, assets, social security, etc.  The result is some perspective on the likelihood of maintaining the current lifestyle assuming nothing changes.  The model is summarized in a simple graphic, an example of which is below.
  2. The graphic above is presented to the client. The big circled number at the top provides a probability of success for the client to reach their financial goals.  The calculation uses Monte Carlo Simulations to imagine sequence of returns risk.  Basically, the model runs 1000 simulations to imagine how rates of returns affect a client reaching his goals.  What happens if there is a big recession early in retirement?  What happens if there is a big recession later in retirement?  What happens if the markets are flat for several years?  These are all scenarios that are modeled and considered and shows that of the 1000 simulations, 77%  result in their goals being met:
  3. In the first example above, it shows that their annual savings of $27,500 is used to successfully fund college education for two children as evident by the two green bars.  But it comes at an expense -their retirement is not fully funded as seen by the yellow bar.  This is where the conversation begins.
  4. We can begin to model changes on the fly to see how certain changes will affect their future in retirement.  In this example, the client has been wondering if they should sell their vacation property and use the savings for retirement.  We can quickly quantify the long term impact of that decision:
  5. Then we can see how that change will affect the probability of success.  We can see below that by making this one change, we have increased the probability of success from 77% to 93%.
  6. Sometimes, this gives the client enough clarity to make a decision and move on.  But that’s not always the case.  After the client has thought about making a major decision (such as selling a vacation home), they may come back saying they can not actually sell their vacation property and need to consider other options.  Below is a comparison of their current situation compared to a scenario in which they delay retirement for two more years.  The result is almost the same as if they sold the vacation property.

After this exercise, the client has two viable options to consider to get them on track for retirement.  By seeing certain scenarios modeled, it can make possible decision more real to them and hopefully more achievable.  The illustration we provide help them make better decisions.

There are lots of emotional decisions that revolve around major life decisions, like retiring, changing jobs/careers, and moving.  We believe that by addressing the financial impacts of these decisions, we can affect the emotional considerations that may be holding our clients back.  Our goal is to provide that nudge to get them moving in the right direction and to keep them from making mistakes.

If you feel like you are stuck or need help laying a clear path forward, please reach out to us:


Critiquing a Financial Plan

The following article examines five young people and their financial plan (more like their lack of planning).  They are then offered some preliminary advice about how to improve their situation.  Unfortunately, in every case I found the advice to be overly simplified.  Here’s the article

And here are some overarching strategies that apply to all the case studies:

1)      Emergency fund.  Start here first and make it a priority to build an emergency fund that can cover non-discretionary expenses for 3-6 months.

2)      Save more.  If you can’t save more now, earmark any future raise toward saving.  When asked about a rule of thumb for how much to save, I’ll often respond with “Save as much as you can”.  Young people and millennials are unlikely to have pensions and with the questionable future of Social Security, the burden to save is placed on their shoulders much more than previous generations.

3)      Automate.  Make sure any savings are set to occur automatically.  The mental anguish of writing a check every month or year to a retirement account can be surprisingly difficult.  Many times it is our own biases that create obstacles to reaching our own goal and simple processes like automating our savings can have a huge impact.

4)      Disability.  Life insurance is commonly discussed when a couple has children.  But disability insurance is rarely brought up.  What’s odd is that people are more likely to file a claim for disability insurance than life insurance.  And it doesn’t apply just to physical injuries, either.  We’ve had several clients and prospects tell us about their long term disability that affects their ability to do a desk job as a result of a bad car crash.


Five Creative Uses for a 529 Plan

What should you do if you have extra money in a 529 College Savings Plan? Perhaps it’s left over funds used to pay for a child’s education or perhaps the child has opted not to go to college.

The common options are to change the beneficiary (to a different child or relative). But that may not be practical. Below are a few interesting ideas I’ve stumbled across over the years:

Outward Bound (Website)– This outdoor educational institution teaches people of all ages about wilderness expeditions and training. Many of their courses accept payment from 529 plans. (Details)

Study Abroad – There are examples of some people taking an educational trip abroad through a university. If set up correctly, funds from 529 can be used. (Details)

The Culinary Institute of America (Website) – One of the most respected cooking institutes in the world allows most of their college course programs to be paid for using money from a 529 plan.

Pursue a hobby – An example in this article references an individual who started a small maple-syrup farm. He wanted to learn a lot more about the science behind what he was doing and ended up taking horticulture classes at his local community college. (Details)

Go to graduate school – Maybe the children are done with undergrad. In that case, maybe they will eventually go for a master’s degree. The 529 can be used for that too.

How To Retire in 4 Years

The story about a couple’s desire to retire in 4 year is compelling.

They have applied many of the important financial planning concepts:

1) The plan to live a very modest lifestyle in retirement – They plan to need 30,000 a year in retirement.
2) They have cut and reduced many of their expenses. They realized how freeing it is to not have a large mortgage.
3) They plan to work part time. Retirement is being redefined. Working part-time, doing a fun job, is becoming common.
4) They have a plan. While I have not checked their math, it’s appears they have thought through many of the common issues retirees face.
5) They are diversified. Between side jobs, investments, and real estate they will have multiple sources of income available for them.