Ready for a brain teaser? Robert Laura is a prolific writer on retirement readiness and the professionals who help people with it. In the following article, he uses a teaser to illustrate how simple mistakes made by everyday people can lead to wrong conclusions about retirement. Then, he turns the tables on advisors themselves, pointing out the ultimate trick most professionals would miss. See how you do: https://www.fa-mag.com/news/the-ultimate-brain-teaser-for-retirement-55906.html?section=47&page=2
As one example of a common retirement readiness mistake, Laura says, “People assume that retirement is nothing but a big plus sign. That more freedom, time and leisure will suit them well and result in the life they have always dreamed of. But the reality is that problems, stress and boredom can multiply if people don’t have some structure, goals, direction and purpose for this phase of life.”
Making the assumption that “retirement is nothing but a big plus sign” is equivalent to missing a key part of the brain teaser equation (such as seeing a multiplication sign as a plus sign.) Oops!
Unfortunately, the equation – both in retirement and the brain teaser – have several key parts which are easily missed, and can lead to bad outcomes.
The Professionals’ Common Mistake
The actual answer can be solved in at most a couple of seconds, but the teaser lures the more detail-oriented, analytical, and math-obsessed person into a rabbit hole of complexity. Because we get so jazzed about solving complex problems, we miss the simple answer. (He got me on that one.)
Professionals can be this way. There are some retirement questions that don’t need statistical simulations, multi-year tax spreadsheets, or portfolio performance matrices.
The quotation, “Everything should be made as simple as can be, but not simpler,” is attributed to a paraphrase of a speech given by Albert Einstein. Making the complex simple is hard work. How many hours did it take Einstein to come up with the simple equation E=mc²?
Keeping It Simple
Hans Hofmann said, “The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” In the world of retirement finance, whether online, in media, or even in textbooks, there’s a whole lot of unnecessary. Most people turn to professionals to help them eliminate it, not add to it.
Brain Teaser Lessons
Several lessons emerge from the brain teaser that we can all keep in mind when planning for retirement: – Remember to focus on the big picture; i.e. what “retirement” means. – Given that answer, you can focus only on the details that truly matter. – Always look for a simpler, more understandable way to answer the question. – Once solved, use the answers to help discern what’s important and what’s not.
Retirement Readiness Resources
For a short online course teaching what’s necessary and what’s not for retirement readiness, see our Simple Finance Retirement Readiness page here: https://bit.ly/3p3BkXE
For more tips on the psychology of money, subscribe to the award-winning monthly e-letter, “The View From the Porch,” at https://bit.ly/3t2uwfn.
How is saving for retirement affected in each age decade? Shortly after the 2008 financial crisis, I saved a Money magazine article on the topic of 401K investing, curious to see if I would change their advice two to three years later. Now it’s over 10 years later, and most of that advice is still relevant. Following is a synopsis. For the 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s, not much has changed. But for the 60s, note how the article leaned toward armageddon, contingency planning, and worst case scenarios. There was nothing in the article about staying the course. It’s interesting to reflect back on the mood at that time.
[The following are both direct quotes and paraphrasing of the main ideas of the article. The sources listed are attributable to Money magazine.]
Saving In Your 20s
In your 20s, the challenge is that retirement isn’t even on your radar. Debt is accumulating instead, and most 20-somethings, understandably, are focused on the goal of getting out of debt first. According to the Project on Student Debt, “More than six in ten (62%) college seniors who graduated from public and private nonprofit colleges in 2019 had student loan debt and they owed an average of $28,950.” (www.ticas.org, January 20, 2021).
Nevertheless, it’s important for 20-somethings to pay off high-interest debt like credit cards and start funding a 401(K).
Nearly half of all twenty-somethings with a 401(k) plan turn down the company match by not contributing the full qualifying amount – essentially free, tax-deferred money.
What can a 20-something do? Money magazine suggests small steps like start brown-bagging lunch. For someone making $30,000 a year, setting aside $35 a week is all it takes to sock away 6% of salary.
An additional pitfall at this stage is job-hopping. When switching employers, many are tempted to pull out their 401(k) savings. But, while $5,000 may not seem like a whole lot of money, if invested, that amount will be substantial by the time you retire.
People who begin saving for retirement in their 20s, however small, have far more choices in their 40s.
Saving In Your 30s
By this decade, just being enrolled in the retirement plan isn’t enough. How the money is invested begins to take on more importance. According to a survey by investment advisor Financial Engines, 40% of all 401(k) participants make investing mistakes that impede their portfolios’ growth. The two most common mistakes are: 1) investing too conservatively in money market funds, therefore not beating inflation; and 2) investing too narrowly in a single stock (typically, the employer’s).
To catch up, learn to diversify according to “asset allocation.” Embrace both stocks and bonds. Combining the two will bring a cushion against market drops.
If your 401(k) has a Roth feature, and you believe your income tax bracket (the percentage of your income that actually goes toward taxes) will be higher in retirement, use that feature to invest after-tax dollars now for tax-free withdrawals later.
Once you have your portfolio fine-tuned, revisit it on a regular basis but no more frequently than quarterly to “rebalance” to your original mix. If you start managing your investments early, you can reap rewards down the line.
If some of this feels foreign to you, you might want to take our online course, “Simple Finance: Retirement Readiness” to learn about the investment types, account types, and how they work together before and during retirement. Link here: https://bit.ly/3p3BkXE
Saving In Your 40s
For forty-somethings, too many claims on the paycheck becomes a common problem. Even though you are entering your peak earning years, major expenses like college tuition loom. When the AARP recently asked workers why they didn’t save more for retirement, 33% of 45-to-49 year olds said they were saving for a child’s education instead.
Only 10% of 401(k) participants in their 40s are saving the full amount allowed under the pretax IRS or plan ceiling, and that’s the highest proportion of all age groups. Now is the time to max out your contributions to $19,500.
What about the kids? As Fidelity’s Mike Doshier says, “You can get student loans, you can get car loans, but you can’t get retirement loans.” Don’t dip into your 401(k) for tuition expenses. Save as much as you can, ideally, 10% of your income.
Saving In Your 50s
When the stock market falls at this age, your nest egg begins to look cracked. The market will probably rebound before you retire, but how do you make sure you’re protected against another downturn?
Seemingly seasoned investors still make rookie mistakes. Given the option, 40% of 401(k) participants in their 50s keep more than 20% of their savings in unrestricted company stock, a perilously risky proposition, no matter how healthy your employer is, especially for those nearing retirement.
50-somethings are allowed to make catchup contributions. You can put an additional $6,500 in your 401(k) every year. Fewer than 20% of eligible participants take advantage of that option, according to Vanguard.
In case the stock market takes a dive just in the year you want to retire, that is the time to create a cash cushion by shifting 5% to 10% of your balance into short-term bonds or cash, generally two years ahead of time. In the decade before retirement, it’s more important than ever to make sure you’re controlling for risk and positioning your portfolio to ride out rough patches.
Saving In Your 60s
In a down market, the dilemma facing the ready-to-retire set is: retire later or retire on less? When savings shrink drastically late in the game, prepare to adjust your expectations and your game plan.
After the 2008 market meltdown, which took over two years to recover, more than half of workers over 60 said they would probably postpone retirement, according to an AARP survey. 68% of fifty-somethings and 70% of forty-somethings said they were likely to work longer than they had planned before.
If you like your work and can stay on the job, a few extra years can vastly improve your long-term financial prospects. You can cover expenses, add to savings, and give your portfolio time to rebound. However, for some grandparents, the pandemic has made clear how little the bucket-list trips matter compared to simply spending time with family. If your work isn’t bringing you joy, and you realize it’s possible you can lead a fulfilling life with less, you may be glad you retired sooner.
Yet, remember life expectancies are lengthening. Money market returns won’t help the money last into our 80s and 90s. Although once-in-a-lifetime market plunges are difficult to stomach, some percentage in a diversified stock portfolio is likely necessary to maintain your lifestyle for decades to come.
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