PARENTS: Don’t Sacrifice Yourselves On The Altar Of Your Children’s Education

Parents have sacrificed their financial futures on the altar of their children’s education. Fueled by easy federal money and self-interested colleges, the result is a student loan crisis that appears already to be eclipsing the catastrophic proportions of mortgage indebtedness leading up to the financial collapse of 2008.

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Please allow me to disclaim a few things:  

  • I’m not anti-education. In fact, I valued my college education so much that I went back to teach at my alma mater, Towson University, for seven years.
  • I believe that a college education is a) inherently valuable, b) an enhancer of career prospects and c) fertile ground for unforgettable life experiences beyond the classroom.  
  • I’m a parent. I’ve encouraged my two sons, 13 and 11, to strive for a college education, and I’ve also offered to share in the financial burden.
  • I’m not a prognosticator. Therefore, I’m not predicting an imminent crisis akin to the Great Recession, led by student loan defaults. Crystal balls don’t work, and anyone who claims to have one is selling something.

I’m also not a conspiracy theorist, but the facts, according to a new Wall Street Journal article, are indisputable:

  • Overall student debt—with over 42 million loans outstanding—is north of $1.3 trillion.
  • Roughly 40% of borrowers had credit scores below the subprime threshold of 620. Subprime mortgages peaked at nearly 20% of mortgage originations in 2006.
  • The vast majority of the loans were originated by the federal government and cannot be eliminated, even in bankruptcy.
  • As of September 2015, 11% of borrowers had gone at least a year without making a payment on a Parent Plus loan. That exceeds the default rate on U.S. mortgages at the peak of the housing crisis.
  • A new generation of retirees is now having to reduce their tax refunds and Social Security benefits in order to pay delinquent loans.

Parent Plus loans, by the way, are those that parents take out to cover tuition and living expenses typically after kids have maxed out their student debt allowance, ensuring that both the apple and the tree are sufficiently indebted.  

Interestingly enough, all the way back in 2011, the Obama administration placed tighter restrictions on Parent Plus loans due to concern that unqualified borrowers were loading up on unsecured debt. But schools put up a fight (successfully), suggesting that such limits impaired students’ ability to get an education.

And this is where we get a glimpse of the fundamental problem: Education has been deemed invaluable—at any price.

Yes, college can be very expensive. The cost of college education has risen well above inflation for decades, resulting in apparent absurdity. (Really, you’re telling me that the collective benefits of any college experience are worth $65,000—per year? Really?)

BUT, college doesn’t have to be outrageously expensive.

A student who commutes to a community college for two years and then transfers to State U for the final two years can get an undergraduate degree from a reputable university for the same cost as a single semester on campus at an elite private school.

With $1.3 trillion in school loan debt, a lot of water has already flowed under the collegiate bridge, but I’ll speak to those parents and students who’ve yet to burden themselves:

To parents:  

Sacrificing yourself financially for the sake of writing your children a blank check for education isn’t generous—it’s actually selfish. It would be much less expensive for a young adult to pay off a reasonable college loan than to bail out his or her parents who’ve run out of money in retirement and have health care bills piling up.  

As they instruct on the airplane, you have to take care of yourself before you can take care of those who depend on you. Your long-term financial security (including your retirement) is a priority over your children’s education—for both of your sakes. And there are few opportunities more ripe for teaching our children financial and life wisdom than the discussions regarding college.  

(If you’re looking for some guidance, here’s my “Non-Conformist’s 4-Step Education Savings Plan.”)

To students:

Please don’t take advantage of your parents. They love you, and they desperately want to see you succeed in life. But if you let them take on loans so you can party your way to a diploma, it could literally ruin them financially.

And if you’re like many who are navigating this decision on your own, please realize that the mystique of the college experience loses its luster very quickly if you’re buried in student loan debt. College truly is a value proposition, so try to restrict your total student loan debt to no more than you expect to make in your first year’s salary.  

Then you’ll be able to enjoy employing your education without being stalked by its cost.

The Antidote for Stock Market Hysteria

Just for fun, Google the words “market pullback.” There are over 2.2 million results–most of them market predictions–and the first page of results is dominated by calls for an imminent market reversal that the simple desk calendar has already proven false. 

However, despite their worthlessness, market predictions remain as predictable as market opens and closes. (And I predict no end in sight.)

But why?

First, there’s a clear profit motive. Apparent urgency leads to activity, and activity is still how most of the financial services industry makes its money.  

“Bullish predictions encourage investors to pour fresh money into the markets, helping asset management companies to enjoy rising profits,” the New York Times reported, noting that the Wall Street forecaster’s consensus since 2000 has averaged a 9.5% increase each year. They accidentally got it (almost) right in 2016, but in 2008, the consensus prognostication missed the mark by 49 percentage points (an outcome that makes your local weatherman seem like a harbinger of accuracy)!  

But not everyone’s positive either. My colleague and the co-author of the new book “Your Complete Guide To Factor-Based Investing,” Larry Swedroe, analyzed Marc Faber’s perpetually cataclysmic proclamations and rendered the good doctor “without a clue.”  

Top 5 Books To Put The ‘Personal’ Into Your Finances This New Year

Originally in ForbesBecause personal finance is more personal than it is finance, just about every step we take in our personal development aids us in financial planning, and vice versa.

top-5It is in better understanding ourselves that even the most confounding financial decisions are made simple. Therefore, it’s entirely possible for a seemingly non-financial book to have a meaningful impact on your financial life, while the reverse is also true.

Consider, then, this list of my choices for the top five (mostly) recent books that can improve your life, work and financial serenity in 2017:

5) The Whole 30: The Official 30-Day Guide To Total Health And Food Freedom is not your typical diet book. I don’t do those. But I am fascinated by various “life hacks,” small behavioral changes we can make in our diet, exercise and sleep patterns that make life more livable.

American Pension Crisis: How We Got Here

Originally in ForbesMy adopted home of Charleston might have been ranked the “Best City in the World,” but the state of South Carolina is earning a less distinguished label as a harbinger of the country’s worst pension crises. And yes, that’s crises—plural—because U.S. state and local government pensions have “unfunded liabilities” estimated at more than $5 trillion and funding ratios of just 39%.

What does that mean, exactly?

When a company or government pledges to pay its long-term employees a portion of their salary in retirement—a pension—the entity estimates how much it (and its employees) will need to set aside in order to make those payments in the future. An underfunded pension is one that simply doesn’t have sufficient funds to make its promised future payments.

Corporate pensions in the United States are in trouble, with the top 25 underfunded plans in the S&P 500 alone accounting for more than $225 billion in underfunding at the end of 2015. But states and municipalities are in even worse shape. This week, the Charleston-based Post and Courier estimated that South Carolina’s shortfall alone was at $24.1 billion, more than triple the state’s annual budget!

How did we get here?

There are two glaring reasons: poor investment decisions and greedy assumptions.

Why I’m Hoping The Trump Administration Doesn’t Kill The DOL Fiduciary Rule

Originally in ForbesAdvisors to President-elect Donald Trump have been vocal about rescinding the Department of Labor’s new fiduciary rule, introduced earlier this year to protect retirement savers from advice that isn’t fully in their best interests. The rule has already been under fire from the securities industry, and lack of presidential support could spell its ultimate demise.

As someone who has worked on both the fiduciary and non-fiduciary sides of the industry, I think revoking the rule is a bad, even dangerous, move. My rationale for such a position starts with my experience, early in my career, at one of the nation’s largest insurance companies.

“Look, you can set up your business any way you see fit after you’re successful. But right now? With a young family? You need to put yourself and your family first, and that means selling A-share mutual funds,” said my sales manager.

In other words, you must put your interests ahead of your clients’.

Fiduciaries are required to put their clients' interests ahead of their own.

Fiduciaries are required to put their clients’ interests ahead of their own.

As a brand new financial advisor, I was having a heart-to-heart with my supervisor after laying out my plan for creating a fee-based business within the agency, which would have meant recurring revenue for the firm but apparently in much smaller increments than were preferable.

“A-share mutual funds” are a variety with some of the largest up-front commissions—for both the salesperson and the company they represent. Variable annuities were even better, generating more of a “front-end load.” Whole life insurance was the pinnacle of up-front commissions.

In the newbie bullpen, we were encouraged to sell in various and sundry ways. The general agent in charge of the Baltimore metro area—the self-proclaimed “big dog”—was, indeed, a large man. A former starting lineman for a recognizable college football team, I’m quite sure that he routinely watched the classic Alec Baldwin “motivational speech” from Glengarry Glen Ross (turn the speakers down if you’re at work or children are nearby).


I recently discussed this topic on the Nightly Business Report (at the 9:05 mark)


My favorite anecdote from that time, though, was my general agent’s big fish story: “When you get a big fish on the hook, I want you to set a noon lunch meeting at the Oregon Grille.” (The Oregon Grille is an excellent restaurant north of Baltimore in pastoral horse country, where most of us had never dined.) “Go to the restaurant 30 minutes early and introduce yourself to the maître d’. Let him know that you’ll be returning shortly to the restaurant with a guest, and that you’d like to be referred to by name.”

What The Stock Market Wants This Election, And What You Should Do In Your Portfolio

Originally in ForbesWe’ll know soon enough who America chooses as its next president, but the market has already voted.

Who does the stock market “want” to win?

Hillary Clinton. This isn’t a partisan statement, but simply a statement of fact. election-2016There may be several indicators to which we could point, but the glaring one is this: When the FBI announced last Friday that a new slew of emails had been discovered that could impact its investigation and shed further negative light on Clinton’s handling of classified emails, the market sold off. Period.

But why? Is the market more Democrat than Republican?
No. In fact, you may recall the George Bush/Al Gore recount in 2000, when the market seemed to cheer in Bush’s favor. But what the market really doesn’t like is unpredictability, and it has asserted its opinion that Donald Trump is a more unpredictable candidate than Clinton.

You Won’t Get Fooled Again: Understanding the Availability Heuristic in Investing

Originally in ForbesYou’re no fool. But let’s imagine for a second that a major public figure said something—something false—over and over (and over) again. Regardless of its questionable veracity, is there a chance you’d be more likely to believe the proclamation simply because you’ve heard it often and recently?

Like it or not, the answer is an emphatic “Yes.”

You and I are more likely to believe something is true when it’s readily available—that is, when we’ve heard it frequently and, especially, when we’ve heard it lately. This phenomenon is dubbed the “availability heuristic,” and even though it was discovered and named (by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman) more than 40 years ago, it likely hasn’t caught on in the broader public awareness because its title includes the word “heuristic.”
Nonetheless, the availability heuristic’s power to persuade is not lost on marketers, salespeople, lobbyists and politicians. They use it on us all the time. But let’s explore the errant biases in investing, in particular, that while readily available often lead to sub-optimal outcomes.

Active vs. Passive

The debate rages (and no doubt will continue to do so) over whether active stock pickers are able to beat their respective benchmark indices. The implications seem simple: If fee-charging money managers aren’t persistently outperforming their benchmarks, we likely should not be paying them for underperformance, right?

What A 12-Year-Old Ukulele Player Teaches Us About Authenticity In Our Work

I don’t watch reality television contests, because as a rule, the best participants rarely participate and when they do, they almost never win. Whether the over-commercialized, profit-over-art system is to blame—or the television audience, or both—I’d rather not suffer the invariable disappointment of an unjust outcome. But quite randomly, a 12-year-old ukulele player named Grace VanderWaal, inspired me to break my own boycott.

On our way to another channel, my family stumbled on America’s Got Talent a few months ago just in time to see one of my favorite instruments—the ukulele—adorning the neck of a diminutive blond girl. “Wait a second,” I said.

She’s clearly overwhelmed just to be there. “It’s crazy,” she says, as her voice cracks in response to the judges’ welcome.

How Fantasy Ruins Football (and Investing)

Originally in ForbesIt’s that time of year again, where the heat of summer recedes, sweatshirts make a comeback and businesses lose billions in flagging productivity due to fantasy football. But it’s not just businesses losing out—fans and players come up short as well.

How, after all, can I truly dedicate myself to rooting fully for my beloved Baltimore Ravens if I took Le’Veon Bell—who, for those not acquainted with the best rivalry in football, plays running back for the Steelers—second in the fantasy draft? It can’t be done. It’s just wrong.

I’m kidding, right?

Partly. But there are more serious personal and financial implications to embracing fantasy (sports or otherwise). The danger in fantasy is its distance from reality. It’s “betting on a future that is not likely to happen,” according to Psychology Today.

Our fantasies tend to sensationalize what we’d prefer to imagine while ignoring what we’d prefer to not. Then, when our actual spouse, child, parent, friend or co-worker falls short of the impossibly high bar we’ve set for them, we—and often, they—are crushed.

“Emotional suffering is created in the moment we don’t accept what is,” says Eckhart Tolle, who, perhaps unintentionally, delivers a potent dose of truth that especially informs us in our personal dealings with money.

Here are a handful of financial fantasies, followed by their unvarnished truths:

Don’t Let Wall Street Fool You Into Taking Too Much Risk

Originally in ForbesCompetition for your dollars creates an inertia that always seems to lead Wall Street down the path of unhelpfully increasing the risk in your portfolio. The recent Wall Street Journal headline, “Bond Funds Turn Up Risk,” illustrates an especially alarming trend. Specifically, of increasing the risk in the part of your portfolio that should be reducing overall risk—bonds.

Bonds are supposed to be boring. The primary role they serve in our portfolios is not necessarily to make money, but to dampen the volatility that is an inevitable byproduct of the real moneymakers—stocks.