While on vacation recently in the Abaco Islands, on the outer rim of the Bahamas, I found myself on an important mission: taking the golf cart to the local market to restock our dwindling supply of the necessary ingredients for piña coladas.
I was stopped in my tracks en route by a welcome sign announcing a new resident’s beachside home. It read: “Someday Came.”
The obvious implication is that these folks decided to act on their “Yeah, I’m gonna do that someday” daydreams.
But it raises many questions, right?
Who are these people? What’s their story, financial and otherwise? Did they hammer this sign into the sand after scrimping and saving, finally realizing their retirement dream following a lifetime of toil? Or are they the professionally mobile couple with young kids you see on HGTV’s “Caribbean Life,” who decided they’d just had enough of the rat race?
I’m glad I don’t have the answers, because the big question for the rest of us is worthy of consideration:
How do we define our “someday”? How do you define yours?
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.
I think we’ve been looking at Social Security retirement benefits all wrong. In the long-running debate about when to take Social Security — as early as age 62 or as late as age 70 — the focus has been on timing your claim to get the most money, in total, out of the social safety net.
This is a circular argument that will never be fully decided until the Social Security recipient in question dies. So let’s shift the focus from the question “How do we get the most out of Social Security?” to “How do we get Social Security when we need it most?”
Simply put, you’re more likely to run out of money at the end of retirement than at the beginning.
There is no shortage of receptacles clamoring for your money each day. No matter how much money you have or make, it could never keep up with all the seemingly urgent invitations to part with it.
Separating true financial priorities from flash impulses is an increasing challenge, even when you’re trying to do the right thing with your moola — like saving for the future, insuring against catastrophic risks and otherwise improving your financial standing. And while every individual and household is in some way unique, the following list of financial priorities for your next available dollar is a reliable guide for most.
Once you’ve spent the money necessary to cover your fixed and variable living expenses (and yes, I realize that’s no easy task for many) consider spending your additional dollars in this order:
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: