May 09, 2014

Start Strong, Finish Stronger

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Many retirees (or soon-to-be retirees) have a retirement plan based on what is called a “three-legged stool.” They have their pensions (leg 1), their Social Security (leg 2), and their investment assets (leg 3). They worked hard, they went through a lot, and I don’t begrudge them a bit.

If you’re like me and in the early stages of your working marathon that some people like to call a career, it is easy to get caught up in things such as fancy dinners, “flashy” clothes, and expensive gadgets. It’s a lot more fun to think about surround-sound systems, exotic vacations, and big houses than to think about retirement planning. The problem is, I believe our future well-being depends on just that. I believe the three-legged stool is headed to a museum, and younger people, like me, need a new blueprint. I don’t know many people early in their career who are working toward vested pensions, and I’m not willing to make a big bet on Social Security income as we currently know it still being here 20 or 30 years from now. So, if you ask me, the three-legged stool is looking more like a peg leg for us younger folks. Unless you’re willing to walk the plank (yes, that was a pirate pun), it’s important to realize that the ability to retire in the future is probably going to come down to leg 3: investment assets.
If it’s going to come down to investments, you’re going to need to get it right. You need to read the fable of “The Tortoise and the Hare” and take “slow and steady” to heart. You need to invest in an appropriate, long-term strategy. You need to make significant progress towards retirement during the first and second decades of your income-earning life, so you can have a decent chance of having significant assets during the last and second-to-last decades of your life.
  • Slow and Steady - Saving $100 a month in your bank account, raising your contributions to your employer’s 401(k) or retirement plan by 1%, and opening a Traditional or Roth IRA account that you’re not sure you can fully contribute to can feel almost silly. It seems like a drop in a bucket, and it is, but it’s a drop in your bucket. It’s the first steps on your journey of a thousand conference calls, staff meetings, and expense reports. The hardest part about beginning a savings plan, implementing a family budget, or taking on a debt reduction plan is starting it! Brief sprints of financial progress and long periods or “naps” where you live at your means (or beyond you means) will make you resemble the hare, and you may not win your race. To be honest, you might not even be able to finish! Dedicated, repetitive steps of saving 10% from every paycheck, increasing your retirement plan contributions every time you get a raise, making those annual IRA contributions, and making 13 payments instead of 12 on your mortgage are how you and the tortoise win the race. I think Aesop may have been a financial planner in his free time…
  • Invest Appropriately - I keep reading articles about how the market downturn in 2008 and 2009 has really spooked people in their 20s and 30s (millenials). For example, a recent study by UBS found that on average, millenials have half of their assets in cash and less than one third of their portfolios in stocks. I get it, I really do. Our grandparents’ home values went down like lead balloons, our parents’ investment accounts went down like an ACME anvil on Wile E. Coyote, and we couldn’t get jobs even though we went to college and did everything that was asked of us, but we cannot live in fear. My short-term market crystal ball is still in the shop, but I can tell you that plopping all of your assets under your mattress, in a bank account, in a bunch of bonds, or in an annuity with a minimal, yet allegedly “guaranteed,” return is not going to get it done. Young workers need to make diversified, tax-sensitive, and fee-conscious investments, but they also need to act their age! Long-term, 50% cash, 33% bonds, and 17% somewhere else is for grandpa and grandma - not for working millennials who have a longer time frame for their assets to significantly appreciate.
  • Make Progress Early - I cannot emphasize how much higher the odds are that you will be in a good financial position if you start planning for retirement now as opposed to six months before you want to retire. Little things like building up an adequate emergency fund so you don’t have to raid your portfolio and sell when markets are down, making the contributions needed to your employer’s retirement plan to get their maximum match, and paying extra towards long-term debts may not seem like much now, but there will be a day when you look back, and you will smile. I wrote about the unbelievable power of compounding earlier this year, but it is worth restating that a dollar saved in your 50s is not the same as a dollar saved in your 30s! Progress towards your retirement goals at any point is great, but the sooner you can start packing away funds towards your future needs, the greater the chance that you will have meaningful compounding in your favor. If you start strong, you’ll have a much greater chance of finishing stronger.
The How to Retire Early Series will continue on next week by considering real estate and the pivotal role it can play in retirement planning. I hope you’ll check it out.

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