As an educator in the arena of personal finance, I generally avoid matters of public policy or politics because they tend to devolve into dogma and division, all too often leaving wisdom and understanding behind. But occasionally, an issue arises of such importance that I feel an obligation to advocate on behalf of those who don’t have a voice. The issue of the day revolves around a single word: “fiduciary.”
At stake is a Department of Labor ruling set to take effect this coming April that would require any financial advisor, stock broker or insurance agent directing a client’s retirement account to act in the best interest of that client. In other words, the rule would require such advisors to act as a fiduciary. The incoming Trump administration has hit the pause button on that rule, a move that many feel is merely a precursor to the rule’s demise.
Why? Because a vocal constituency of the new administration has lobbied for it—hard. They stand to lose billions—with a “b”—so they’re protecting their profitable turf with every means necessary, even twisted logic.
The good news is that informed investors need not rely on any legislation to ensure they are receiving a fiduciary level of service. Follow these three steps to receive the level of service you deserve:
The Trump administration’s move to delay implementation of the Department of Labor’s fiduciary rule has inspired me to delay implementation of my commitment to remain silent on matters of public policy and politics. It’s that important.
It seems pretty obvious that those in the financial establishment who oppose the rule do so primarily out of self-interest. After all, it’s estimated that they will lose billions in profits if the final rule goes into effect. I get it.
But I was fascinated recently when a member of the media wondered aloud if my advocacy for a wider fiduciary standard was also simply an outgrowth of my own bias.
Indeed, who’s to say I’m not just grinding my own axe on this issue? Maybe I’m in favor of all financial advisors being held to a fiduciary standard because I’m a fiduciary financial advisor and part of a national community of financial advisors that supports the fiduciary standard.
That would be a convenient rebuttal from the anti-fiduciary community, but here’s the (huge) problem with that rationale:
Much—too much—has been said and written about the relative superiority of Roth IRAs versus Traditional IRAs. The debate over which is better too often involves the technical numerical merits. In truth, the Roth wins in almost every situation because of its massive behavioral advantage: a dollar in a Roth IRA is (almost) always worth more than a dollar in a Traditional IRA. This is true regardless of one’s age, but the Roth IRA is even more advantageous for Millennials.
I must first disclaim that you can disregard any discussion of Roth or Traditional IRA if you’re not taking full advantage of a corporate match in your employer’s 401(k)—free money is still better than tax-free money. But after you’ve “maxed out” the match in your corporate retirement account, here are the top three reasons Millennials should consider putting their next dollar of savings in a Roth IRA:
1) Life is liquid, but most retirement savings isn’t.
Yes, of course, in a perfect, linear world, every dollar we put in a retirement account would forevermore remain earmarked for our financial futures. But hyperbolic discounting—and the penalties and tax punishments associated with early withdrawal from most retirement savings vehicles—can scare us away from saving today for the distant future. The further the future, the more we fear.
The Roth IRA, however, allows you to remove whatever contributions you’ve made—your principal—without any taxes or penalties at any time for any reason. Therefore, even though I’d prefer you to generally employ a set-it-and-forget-it rule with your Roth and not touch it, if the privilege of liquidity in a Roth helps you save for retirement, I’m all for it.
American retirees are screwed. The 401(k) experiment has failed. Social Security’s going bust. Savers haven’t saved nearly enough and don’t have the means to improve the situation.
However hyperbolic, this is the message that has been sent and, for many, is indeed the way it feels. But how do the facts feel?
- Many companies have abdicated the role they once played in helping support employees’ retirements through defined benefit pension plans by promoting and then under-supporting defined contribution plans, like the 401(k).
- Most pensions that remain — even those run by states and municipalities — are “upside down,” lacking sufficient funds to pay what they’ve promised. The entity conceived to insure underfunded pension plans is also underfunded.
- Some large financial firms have filled many of the 401(k) plans they manage with overpriced, underperforming funds, and offered little in the form of substantive education for the masses now left to their own devices.
- After a six-year effort to ensure that financial advisors who manage retirement assets would be required to act in the best interests of their clients, there’s a corporate and political movement afoot for firms to reclaim potential lost profits if they were forced to do right by their clients.
- Even some of the individuals who initially conceived the 401(k) concept and lobbied for it have recanted their support, regretting it ever started.
Social Security Facts:
- The program intended only to be a safety net has become the primary financial resource in retirement for too many.
- The surplus funds received when the huge baby boomer generation paid in — which are now being used to help replace the inherent shortfall of smaller generations — are projected to run out in 2034, thereby reducing the system’s ability to pay benefits by 25 percent.
There — how does that feel, now?
My 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.
Do you have a generally positive or negative impression of the word “retirement”?
I ask because it dovetails nicely with a series of questions (inspired by Rick Kahler) that I use to begin most speaking engagements. These questions are designed to incite self-awareness, offering us clues about how our life experiences have shaped the (often unarticulated but powerful) beliefs that unavoidably influence the decisions we make with and for money.
Regardless of an audience’s homogeneity, their responses are consistently inconsistent. I have, however, seen some generational persistency on the topic of retirement. For example, on average, baby boomers have a generally positive view of retirement—no doubt shaped in part by the incessant financial services commercials that promise a utopian post-career existence with beaches, sailboats, golf and an unlimited supply of vintage Pinot Noir.
On the other hand, the finance and accounting students that I had the privilege of teaching at Towson University—almost all members of the Millennial generation—had a generally negative view of the notion of retirement. This is for two prominent reasons:
- They pictured hot, humid, early buffet dinners in rural Florida.
- They don’t think that the American dream of retirement is available to them.
“Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” So reads a Solomonic proverb penned in the 10th century B.C. Consider with me, however, a contemporary application of this ancient wisdom, especially in the realm of personal finance.
“We’ve got to apologize, Tim,” said a financial planning client with whom I had a great relationship.
“Whatever for?” I asked.
“You know that new Lexus? The one that backs itself into a parallel parking spot?”
“Yes, I’ve seen the commercials.”
“We bought one,” the client said, with his head bowed in apparent shame.
I’d never communicated that these folks—or anyone, for that matter, who has sufficient means—shouldn’t use said means to purchase a vehicle of their choosing. But the general impression the public has toward financial advisors and educators seems to be that we all think the best use of money is in storing it up and avoiding its deployment. Defer, defer, defer.
Unfortunately, personal finance has been reduced to a short list of “Dos” and a long (long) list of “Don’ts” typically based on someone else’s priorities in life, not yours.
But personal finance is actually more personal than it is finance.
Learn More and Get Your Copy of Simple Money
That’s why what works great for someone else may not work as well for you. Money management is complex because we are complex. Therefore, it is in better understanding ourselves—our history with money and what we value most—that we are able to bring clarity to even the most confounding decisions in money and life. As an advisor, speaker and author, I’ve made a career out of demystifying complex financial concepts into understandable, doable actions. In this practical book, I’ll show you how to
- find contentment by redefining “wealth”
- establish your priorities, articulate your goals, and find your calling
- design a personal budgeting system you can (almost) enjoy
- create a simple, world-class investment portfolio that has beaten the pros
- manage risk—with and without insurance
- ditch the traditional concept of retirement and plan for financial independence
- cheat death and build a legacy
- and more
Learn More About The Author
The problem with so much personal finance advice is that it’s unnecessarily complicated, often with the goal of selling you things you don’t need. Tim Maurer never plays that game. His straightforward, candid and yes — simple — prescriptions are always right on target. Jean Chatzky
financial editor of NBC's 'Today Show'
Here’s what others are saying about Simple Money:
“Reading this book is like having your own personal financial advisor.”—Kimberly Palmer, senior money editor at US News & World Report; author of The Economy of You
“You can’t manage your money without thinking about your life—and the system that Tim proposes can make a radical difference in both.”—Chris Guillebeau, New York Times bestselling author of The $100 Startup and The Happiness of Pursuit
“Maurer teaches us how to literally redefine wealth in a way that will both honor your life values and priorities while simultaneously reducing your stress.”—Manisha Thakor, CFA, director of wealth strategies for women for the BAM Alliance; writer for The Wall Street Journal
“Amen! Amen! Amen! Simplicity is a gift . . . and this book offers it by the truckload!”—Carl Richards, New York Times columnist; author of The One-Page Financial Plan
Read more praise for ‘Simple Money’
The investing world is a better place, thanks to the advent of well-funded online investment advisory services.
Collectively dubbed “robo-advisors,” companies such as Betterment, Personal Capital and Wealthfront have managed in just a few years to do what the financial industry has failed to accomplish during a couple of centuries: provide quality investment guidance at a cost accessible to most demographics. It is a long time coming.
Adam Nash, Wealthfront’s chief executive, however, isn’t fond of the robo-advisor label.
Historically, retirement planning has been likened to a three-legged stool — consisting of a corporate pension, Social Security and personal savings. Baby boomers saw the pension fade from existence, leaving them to balance on retirement planning stilts. For younger generations, however, the retirement situation can seem even worse. Sometimes, it feels like it’s all on us. We’re left with only a retirement planning pogo stick.
Further complicating matters, doctors suggest that the length of life Generations X, Y and Millennials can expect may exceed that of our parents and grandparents. We’re likely to live a long time, but our quality of life — to the degree that it is improved by cash flow — is in question because of the heightened savings burden.
Last week, I shared two “silver bullets” — MOVE and WORK— for hopeful boomer retirees who may fear that a 14-year stretch of economic uncertainty has put their goal for a comfortable retirement out of reach. Here’s how these two concepts can be applied to younger generations: