Sep 18

Have I lost my marbles? I hope not. Let me explain by starting with an analogy.
There’s a difference between treasure and a treasure chest. It’s not just a pedantic picking apart of words. Not understanding the  distinction is costing people a lot of money.

A 401(k) is a retirement account typically sponsored by an employer, although there is also a solo-401(k) option that self employed individuals can take advantage of. Until 2006, the 401(k) was strictly a pretax account, deposits from the employee would be deposited and save the tax at the time, grow tax deferred until retirement and withdrawn at (potentially) a lower tax rate. Employers’ matching deposits are also pretax and taxed on withdrawal. In 2006 the Roth 401(k) was introduced, allowing deposits to be made post tax, with the growth tax free if withdrawn after 59-1/2 or after separation from your employer after age 55.


This is a high level overview but you see what’s missing? The Investment. I’ve only described the nature of the account, not the investments it contains. A 401(k) can have a variety of choices of investments. You may pick from a money market fund, short term bond fund, various stock funds including domestic and international. Some even allow you to shift funds to a broker portal where you can invest as you wish in individual stocks.

The distinction here is that the risk or reward has little to do with the 401(k) per se, and everything to do with how you choose to invest. In fact, you can made the same good or bad decisions in a regular brokerage account as you can in a 401(k).

This is my long-winded way of saying not to let the market volatility scare you out of proper long term retirement investing. I’ve had dialog with people who choose prepaying their 5% mortgage over making a matched 401(k) deposit, and when I point out the instant 100%  gain they can see in their retirement account, I hear they’d prefer the certainty of the 5%/yr interest saved over the risk their retirement account loses half its value as it did in the months leading up to March, 2009. The flaw in their reasoning is twofold. First, as I discussed, they need not be fully invested in stocks. The litmus test for how much of your account you should allocate to stock is to answer the question – If the market fell 50% over the next year, how would you react? If the answer is to sell at the bottom, you are too high in stocks. Second, your investments aren’t made all at once, but over decades. When you are buying into the market with each paycheck, your average cost is the average not last week or year, but the average over the last decade or more. And hopefully your sale price isn’t at the next bottom, but a few percent each year starting decades from now.

written by Joe \\ tags: ,

Sep 02

A guest post today –

Investment dollars have been pouring into rental property over the last few years.

Institutional investors have been big buyers of real estate to rent – finding the yields higher than elsewhere in the market and property prices reasonable following the recent housing crisis. The wide interest has been highlighted (or capped?) with Deutsche Bank and Blackstone’s recent offering of bonds backed with rental property assets.

Individual investors have also been keen to grab to rental property as investments, particularly those confused and frustrated by losses in the stock market. Many use a common justification that goes something like: “I want to invest in something I can touch”.

Case in point: we at Guide Financial recently met Kumar while doing software testing. He is a well-paid IT consultant, but doesn’t hold any money in a retirement account. Instead, he gathered all his money in 2008 and bought a second house, which he now rents out.

He expects that his rental income will provide all the financial security he needs in retirement. His justification – “I can see and understand a house.”

But how does a house as a retirement asset stack up in a careful comparison against more traditional options?

The benefits:

Nice cash flows – Like bonds, or high-dividend stocks, rental properties provide steady cash flows, clearly ideal for people approaching retirement. In recent years, the yields have exceeded those available on other assets, widely above 5% in the US through the beginning of 2013.

Inflation protection – The other great feature of rental property is that it is effectively indexed to inflation. As prices rise in the economy, you can usually pass rent increases on to tenants. This combo of high yields and inflation protection is rare in fixed income securities.

Tax benefits – Landlords can deduct many of their big expenses on properties including mortgage interest, house depreciation and many expenses related to the management of the properties. The value of these benefits can be significant.

The downsides:

Big market risks – Property may be tangible and give people the feeling of security, but this doesn’t mean that it provides returns that are more stable or safer (anyone remember 2007?). When you invest in rental property you are assuming large market risks. The factors that affect property values are complex and unpredictable – just because rental prices have been increasing for the last few years this does not mean they will continue to do so. In fact, many analysts think we may be nearing the peak of a “rental bubble.

No diversification – Just as home prices don’t offer returns that are any safer than most stocks, a house is going to be a huge part of any average person’s total portfolio. For retirement, most financial planners will suggest that you maintain a diverse set of assets, to lower the likelihood of big losses for similar return potential. If you have a house that is 80%+ of your portfolio – your eggs are effectively in one basket. You’ll be taking a lot of risk you aren’t hedged against, for uncertain returns.

Illiquid – If your retirement stocks are falling in value, it’s easy to sell them. But selling your house is a huge headache, takes a lot of time and is very expensive (often up to 5% of the home’s value). Real estate is not liquid and creates additional risks for someone trying to use it as an investment.

Tax advantages complicated and not the biggest – While significant, the tax advantages from rental property investments are typically going to be less than those offered by retirement accounts like 401ks and IRAs. They also require a lot of complex accounting that will create substantial extra work for you. If you are saving for retirement, you’re probably better off minimizing taxes through investing in a 401k or IRA than putting money in rental property.

Managing property is a headache – You probably don’t want a full-time job in retirement, but managing a property can come close to taking a similar amount of time. You’ll have to deal with deadbeat tenants, frustrating repairs and time-consuming renter search processes.

The verdict:

A few years ago, the economic environment may have offered conditions that made rental property an attractive choice for investment. Now, rental yields are coming down while housing prices and mortgage rates rise. If you don’t have a large portfolio that makes owning a home a potential small piece in a broad mix of other assets, then it may be good to sit out the rental income property craze and focus on building other more traditional assets for retirement.

Interested in learning more? Look for more personal finance insights at and follow us on Twitter @guidefinancial

Scott Burns, CFA covers personal finance for issues for Guide Financial, a San Francisco-based startup offering unbiased, comprehensive and affordable financial guidance to the millions of Americans who don’t have access to high-quality advice.

written by Joe \\ tags: ,

May 16

If you read enough different Personal Finance blogs, you find that there are a number of popular recurring themes. Ways to save on various purchases, how to plan for retirement, etc. The one that’s been haunting me lately is, as the title today says, saving vs paying off debt. There are some obvious choices to be made, such as paying down an 18% credit card or putting that money in the bank to earn .01% interest. (Uh, if it wasn’t obvious, pay the damned card!)

But, then there’s the grey area where the debate really has no conclusion, no right or wrong, just what’s right for you. First, a disclaimer. In the PF blogging community, it’s ok to disagree. Disagreeing isn’t a personal attack in this case, it’s just a different take on an issue. That said, It was two months ago that I read Are 401(k) and 529 Plans a Good Idea When You’re In Debt? I was part of the 78 comments that quickly went up after Joan Otto (Man Vs. Debt community manager) wrote this article in which she described how she’d prefer to go at her debt 100%, even to the point of sharing that she was sorry she or hubby even had their 401(k)s to begin with. She explained that they had a combined $44,000 in their retirement accounts averaging 8% return, but $59,000 in debt costing 14%. Ouch. I understand that’s an issue. The real issue that Joan shared was that their 401(k)s had no match. Game over. Really. Joan’s plan to pay off her debt with a vengeance was exactly the right thing to do.


What drew me in to the discussion was where Joan remarked that even if there were a match, she’d pass on it, and take The David‘s advice. If your employer is going to match the first few percent of your income dollar for dollar, my opinion is to take this free money. The match is usually up to the first 4-6% of income, which should leave enough funds so the debt repayment plan doesn’t suffer too much. Joan mentioned paying $2500 per month (wow!) toward the principal on her debt. That’s $30,000 per year. I don’t know their income, but even if we are looking at $100,000, I’d suggest steering the $6000 toward the match if there were one to be had. But that’s all hypothetical.  Let’s move on to a real situation.

My ‘friend’ (ok, it’s a close relative. Let’s stick with friend for this delightful anecdote) mentioned that she’d qualify for a refinance of her mortgage once her credit cards were paid off. $10,000 at 18%, so the $400/month she was paying toward the cards would take nearly 32 months to pay off. She told me that she stopped depositing to her 401(k) and I thought about Joan’s story. My friend’s company  had a match, 4%. This was $3000 left on the table. I looked at the numbers, and made an offer. I wrote her a check to pay off the cards, and she’d putting in $250/mo to the 401(k). Since it comes off the top, it’s $188 less in her take home pay. This leaves $212 to pay toward the $10,000. At the end of 32 months, she’ll still owe me $3,680, but her 401(k) will have $16,000 that wasn’t there before. Yes, the $16,000 is pretax, but she’s over 55, so if she changed jobs she can take it out with no penalty, just tax. At 25%, she’d still clear $12,000. I’m not forecasting any gain, in fact, she’s probably wise to keep this money in the short term bond fund for now, to know that it’s safe. And the refinance – once the cards show as paid on her credit report, the refi should save her another $200 per month.

There’s something admirable about killing the debt, I get that. I get that debt feels like a weight you just want to get rid of. But after nearly 30 years of matched 401(k) deposits, I see the power of compound growth on top of matching deposits. I see that I could have taken $200K over the years and paid off my mortgage by now, or I can have that $200K in debt and far more than twice that sitting in a retirement account. It’s tough to stay the course, especially when you look at how the S&P has crashed twice in the last 15 years. For most 401(k) accounts, I’d say to deposit to the match and that’s it, but walking away from that free money is a mistake, in my opinion. Keep in mind, most 401(k)s offer a low risk investment choice. Even though I might not choose it myself, it’s a good alternative to using the excuse of a ‘risky market’ to avoid saving altogether.

How have you handled the debt decision? Are you passing up a match in your retirement account?

written by Joe \\ tags: ,

May 01

Last February, I asked the question – Are you 401(k)o’ed? I was concerned that my readers might not have been aware of the fees they were paying inside their 401(k) retirement accounts. It seems that this topic has hit the mainstream media, and recently, PBS’ Frontline ran their story The Retirement Gamble which you can see on line if you missed it.

The message is simple, over time, fees will destroy your returns. Over a lifetime of investing the difference between a .1% cost and a 2% cost is insane.


Jack Bogle, the father of index investing, is interviewed and discussed these numbers, how the market might grow your $10,000 to over $45,000 over 50 years at 8%, but a 2% per year cost will confiscate nearly 2/3 of your returns. Unfortunately, Jack misspoke when he said, “Get Wall Street out of the equation. Get trading out of the equation. Get management fees out of the equation. You own American business and you hold it forever. That’s what indexing is. Own a fund that owns the entire U.S. stock market, does no trading, and has a cost of 1 percent a year to own. And that is the only way to do it. Then you’re with a creature of the market and not of the casino.” Even 1% isn’t great, you’d still lose 1/3 of your money over the five decades in his example. A tenth of a percent is more like it. Over the years, there’s still a $20,000 loss to fees, but we’re talking 50 years in the example. The quote got it right, but I think Jack meant to say a tenth percent.

It was decades ago that Jack Bogle promoted the concept of indexing and founded Vanguard’s Indexed Mutual Funds long before ETFs were invented. Anyone who has any background in finance and investing would be aware of Bogle, Vanguard, and Bogle’s thesis that managed funds can’t add enough value to exceed their high costs.

Everyone except for Christine Marcks, President, Prudential Retirement who responded with, “Yeah, I haven’t seen any research that substantiates that. I mean, it— I don’t know whether it’s true or not. I honestly have not seen any research that substantiates that.” The interviewer asked if she’d seen the research Vanguard had done on the topic and she replied, “No, I haven’t. I haven’t— I haven’t read everything. But so much of it depends on, you know, what I need is different than what you need and there’s not an asset allocation or a fund strategy that’s right for everybody.”

One last quote from Jason Zweig of the Wall Street Journal, “And one of the ultimate dirty secrets of the fund industry is that a lot of people who run other fund companies own index funds in their— in their own accounts and don’t talk about it, I mean, unless you put a couple beers in them.” I suspected that, myself.

To be fair, not all 401(k) funds have such high expenses, the S&P fund in my own 401(k) is .06%, less than a 3% hit over 50 years. Frontline also missed, or ignored, any discussion of matched funds. My own advice is when your company offers a dollar for dollar match, you should grab it. The decades pass quickly and you’ll look back at a high six figure account and see how nearly half the money came from your employer instead of from your wallet.

Check out the show and let me know, did you feel it was balanced? Was I too tough on Christine Marcks? Have you check the fees inside your own 401(k)?

written by Joe \\ tags: , , ,

Apr 09

The news is out that President Obama is looking to introduce legislation to limit the value of retirement accounts to $3 million. So far, the claim is this targets IRAs, but it’s a simple matter for many of the big account holders to simply transfer from IRA to 401(k), so it would seem logical that once we see the full details, this limit will apply to all retirement accounts.

The news articles are suggesting this limit was a response to the fact that Mitt Romney amassed an incredible $100 million in his IRA. I spent a bit of time before the election writing about Romney and specifically in an article titled Romney’s Enormous IRA Balance – The Smoking Gun I spelled out the issues of how it’s unlikely the account grew to this value naturally.

I’m all in favor of Romney’s IRA getting taken apart, i.e. taxed. A current limit of $3 million will not affect the average Joe, take a look at these numbers. You can click the image to enlarge it).


The data is a bit old, but 2007 ended with the S&P just a bit lower than it is now, so for this discussion the chart is fine. We’re looking at median family net worth. For those in the top 10%, half have below $1.9 million, half higher.  5% of families have a net worth over $1.9 million. It’s not too great a stretch to assume that to specify $3M in one’s IRA or 401(k) is some smaller fraction, likely the 1%ers or even a bit fewer. So why all the fuss?

Very simple, remember the AMT. Specifically, I mean you should remember the origin of the AMT. It was created as part of the Tax Reform Act of 1969 intending to target the 155 high income households that managed to pay zero Federal Tax. By 2008, 4% of filers were subject to AMT with 27% of these households having incomes under $200K. Today, $3M still seems like a large number, but inflation has a way of eating away at the dollar. An inflation calculator showed that in my lifetime (50 years) the dollar has eroded by a factor of 7.5X. In other words, something costing $100 in 1962 would cost $750 today. That $3 million IRA cap will feel like $400,000 50 years from now. I know, we can’t forecast a few years out, 5 decades seems crazy. For me, it’s a ‘horse out of the barn’ event. $3M now, but easily adjusted down at congress’ whim.

written by Joe \\ tags: , , ,