roll your own target date fund, part 1: introductions

If there’s any place where the investment world falls into the “one-size-fits-all” trap, it’s in target date funds. Don’t get me wrong — they’re a good place to start — but the chances of any given target date fund being just right for you for your entire life are slim to none. Case in point: the uproar in 2009, when funds targeted for people retiring that year took a beating, dropping up to 41% in value! But here’s the kicker — I’m not saying that the funds were poorly designed. I’m saying that they weren’t right for the people who were yelling about them, who didn’t fully understand what they were getting into. I would love it if there were an investment out there that magically tailored itself properly to the person who bought it; until that day, I highly recommend you roll your own “target date fund”. Don’t worry — it’s not nearly as complex as it sounds!

A quick primer on target date funds

A little review: target-date funds are mutual funds that are designed to achieve a certain goal, generally either retirement or college matriculation in a certain year. They do this by gradually changing their asset allocation from very aggressive (risky but long-term rewarding stuff, like international stocks)  at the beginning to conservative (stable but less long-term rewarding stuff, like short-term bonds) as the target date approaches. The idea is that you get the benefit of higher expected returns when you can afford to take the risk — and stability when you can’t.

This gradual shifting of allocations is called a “glide path”, and every fund company uses a different one. For some examples, check out this wiki page from our good friends the Bogleheads. It all looks very scientific, but truthfully, there’s a lot of guesswork involved — especially since the fund has no idea what you need. What if you plan on delaying social security claims, and thus having completely different income needs your first few years of retirement? What if you’re keen on leaving a legacy, and have more than enough money to handle market fluctuations? What if (as happened to a lot of folks in 2009) a drop of more than 10% in your retirement funds would cause you to panic, sell everything, and put it in cash, where it would subsequently get mauled by inflation? Each of those situations calls for a radically different allocation, but the target date retirement fund doesn’t know that, and if you don’t know that it doesn’t know, you may end up blindsided.

Building the glider: the basics

So, if a target-date fund could leave you high and dry, how do you go about building a replacement yourself? First off, don’t worry about creating a “glide path” that makes assumptions about what things are going to be like 20 years from now — the only thing you know for sure is that they’re going to be different. Glide paths are for institutions that don’t know your personal situation! Rather, you’re going to focus on the allocation that makes sense now, and you’re going to revisit this once a year. Once you’ve gone through the exercise once, it’s a breeze to revisit — just make sure you’ve got a calendar entry or reminder set up, or you may find yourself losing half your portfolio the year before you’re set to retire!

Really, it’s just a three-step process:

1) Determine your asset allocation: what percentage of your portfolio are you going to allocate to stocks v. bonds? International v. domestic? Small-cap v. large-cap? A lot of research has been done on this, but until (or unless) you dive in deep, there are some basic rules that will get you 90% of the way there.

2) Determine your asset location: how much of your portfolio is in a tax-advantaged account? Roth v. Traditional? Again, some basic rules will help you out.

3) Determine the funds you will use to implement your allocation. If all of your retirement is in a 401(k), this choice is often more or less made for you. If you have an IRA, then you’ve got a double-edged sword: you generally have access to better (cheaper/more transparent) funds, but the choices can be overwhelming.

And yes, once you’ve been at the investing game for a while, you’re liable to collect quite a handful of accounts — 401(k), Traditional IRA, Roth IRA, brokerage account, etc. etc…and one of each of those for your spouse, as well! This is where a rudimentary knowledge of spreadsheets — or a friendly expert who can set it up for you — comes in handy!

That’s it! Don’t worry, I won’t leave you hanging; the next few posts will go into detail on steps one and two. Stay tuned!

the key to joy in eating, finances, and everywhere

fork and spoon

food and money — two great tastes that taste great together!

Got your attention? Well, I won’t be coy: the key is mindfulness. Surprised? Looking at some of my previous posts on systems, you might think the opposite; isn’t the point of systems to enable you to just breeze through life without really paying attention, and yet still have things turn out okay?

Well…no. In fact, “hell no”.

For instance, take a look at this article on mindfulness in eating from Mind Over Fatter. In it, the author begins with the assumption that mindfulness in eating is important, and then poses the oh-so-practical question: how do we achieve that? Her answer is to give us ideas for implementing a system for improving that mindfulness! Rather than a machine that does your work for you, the system becomes a set of triggers whose sole purpose is to restore you to mindfulness.

It’s like having a series of alarm clocks. The practice of “chewing your food twenty-five times” (as she is reminded by a regular iPhone notification), using the action of stabbing your food with a fork to remind you to wait until you finish what you’re chewing, and other “scripts” are constantly waking you up to the world around you (and in your mouth). They keep you from “falling asleep”, sleepwalking your way through your meal without really paying attention to what you’re eating.

A lot of life is like that, isn’t it? It seems that it’s all too easy to fall asleep, acting automatically on our fears, our greed, our “lizard brain”, rather than waking up to the  world around us. We eat without tasting; we watch TV without engaging; we go to our jobs without being present to the joy of doing good work. We read blog posts without looking to apply their insights to our lives. (Yeah — did that one wake you up? Good.)

And of course, we spend without being mindful.

Really, that’s what budgeting is all about, and if you’ve been paying attention to previous posts, you probably saw that coming. And if you’ve heard it before, then listen, because it’s important and worth hearing again. It’s not about going on some sort of money diet, though it can feel like that it times; it’s not about getting out of debt, though it’s a good way to get there; it’s not about preserving marital peace, though that can be a happy side effect. No, it’s primarily about mindfulness: deciding what your values are, what you want to spend your money on, and then staying awake enough to follow through with that decision, even when the siren song of advertising or peer pressure or habit tries to lull you to sleep. This is vital, because the consequences of falling asleep at the financial wheel are disastrous — just ask the guy with tens of thousands of dollars of credit card debt, and no idea how it happened.

And that’s where the systems I’ve been talking about come in. The Monthly Money Check-In, where you go over your bills and your cash flow, keeps you mindful of where your money is going. Similarly, the Monthly Money Date, where you get together with your partner to go over the household budget and talk about money matters in general, helps keep the both of you mindful not only of yourselves, but of each other. The overnight investment test keeps you mindful of why you bought your investments. You get the idea: each of these systems isn’t putting your life on autopilot, but rather getting it back under your control.

Is it hard? Sure, at first — but so is waking up, and if you’re going to live, why not live awake?

how to prioritize your savings when you’re fresh out of college (and later)

Now the real education begins.You’ve got a shiny diploma, thousands of dollars in student loan debt, and a dozen friends and relatives who each have their own idea about where your money should go. Buy a house! Pay off that student loan! Save for an emergency fund! Invest in your 401(k)! And, somehow, have money left over for, you know, food and stuff!

Fear not: I’ve got a system that can help.

Start off by putting a minimal amount towards every savings goal you have. You heard me: all of them. And when I say “minimal”, I mean it — even if it’s only 0.5% of your  paycheck into your 401(k), the minimum payment on your credit cards, and $20/month for your emergency savings fund, put something away towards each of your goals. The idea here is that you start saving right now, thus taking advantage of the mysterious force of compound interest that makes for interesting graphs like this (from this post). (And yes, compound interest has the same effect whether you’re talking about debt or saving.)

Of course, even compound interest isn’t magic enough to fund your retirement on 0.5% of your paycheck. Which is why the next steps are critical:

Every six months, increase the amount you’re putting away by a set amount. It doesn’t have to be a lot, but by periodically increasing the amount  you put away, you can slowly ramp up to your goal in small, painless increments. The money that would normally go to “lifestyle inflation” will instead go quietly, steadily towards your savings goals.

For instance, you might add 0.5% to the amount of your paycheck going towards your 401(k) every six months. In ten years, you’ll be putting an extra 10% away towards retirement, something a lot of people in their 50’s can’t say!

Meanwhile, choose your Most Important Goal and focus on that. All your savings goals are getting some attention; pick the most important one and give it some extra love. Allocate more of your budget to it; put a high percentage of all “found money” there (the rest you can spend on whatever you want, as an incentive to “find” more); in general, make it a high priority. Once that goal is taken care of, move on to another, and so on. This way, while you’re slowly building momentum on your other goals, you’re always focusing on the most important one. A suggested priority list for a new grad:

  1. One-month buffer
  2. High-interest debt, in order of size (snowball) or interest rate, whichever motivates you more
  3. Emergency fund (3-6 months’ basic living expenses or more, depending on your situation)
  4. Mid-sized savings goals, like your next car or the down payment on a house
  5. Low-interest debt
  6. Retirement

By the time you’ve worked your way down to “low-interest debt”, you should be in really good shape. Will it take a while? You bet. That’s the beauty of long-term goals, though — you have a long time to get them right!

how (and how not) to invest in commodities

hint -- don't own commodities directly. Photo by OmirOnia, via stock.xchng.So you’re bound and determined to add commodities to your portfolio, and for all the right reasons. Great! There are a few ways to do it…though I would only strongly recommend one.

Buy the commodities themselves. Stocks and bonds are quite liquid, since they’re essentially notes saying “you own X” or “we owe you X”. Commodities, much less so. Sure, you can buy gold coins, but to buy enough that they’re a substantial part of your portfolio — not to mention diversifying into other commodities such as timber — would get prohibitive very, very quickly.

Buy GLD. Purchasing a share of the SPDR Gold Trust ETF (“GLD”) entitles you to ownership of a piece of the gold held by the trust in reserve. You could even redeem a “basket” (100,000 shares) for the equivalent in gold, if you so desired. This is much more liquid than buying gold bars themselves, but in buying gold you’re holding a concentrated position in one particular commodity — one which has historically shown itself to be among the most volatile!

Buy precious metals equities. That is, buy stock in mining companies. This isn’t a terrible idea, as precious metals equities tend to be relatively uncorrelated to other equities and positively correlated with inflation, both of which are good for hedging, and you can buy a low-cost, diversified bucket of them via Vanguard’s VGPMX fund. However, like GLD, VGPMX is highly volatile, and its returns have not had nearly the sharp upward trend that GLD has had over the past decade.

Buy a collateralized commodity futures (CCF) fund. This sounds a little complicated, and it is — a little. A CCF doesn’t buy commodities, but rather it buys futures — contracts to buy commodities at a future date at a certain price. Moreover, the cost of buying the contract is a small fraction of the cost of the commodities themselves; the rest of the collateral can be invested in a high-quality investment like treasury bills or TIPS, which earns interest during the time of the contract. (Of course, the fund never actually buys the commodity, but rather keeps rolling the futures forward indefinitely.) What this means is that by investing in a fund like PIMCO CommodityRealReturn, you can double-hedge against inflation — once by the price of commodities, and again by the TIPS used as collateral. PCRIX is well-diversified and has a not-terrible expense ratio, to boot. You’re still not going to earn much more than inflation in the long run, but a dollop of this in your portfolio can reduce inflation-related volatility without sacrificing too much in the way of returns.

As you’ve guessed, I can really only recommend CCF’s, and even then only if you’re committed to investing in commodities. It may be comforting to invest in something that is “real”, but just because something is tangible doesn’t mean that its value doesn’t fluctuate as much — or even more — than something that is intangible! (And if you want to invest in something that’s exciting…well, I can only hope that you’re limiting your gambling addiction to a small fraction of your portfolio.)

why (and why not) to invest in commodities

A delicious invesment!A couple years ago I wrote a cautionary post in the wake of the run-up on gold over the past decade. Since then, gold has…well, not gone really anywhere, and neither have commodities in general. So I figure now is a good time to talk about investing in commodities, when people aren’t jumping up and down about how they’re going through the roof (or the floor).

Don’t speculate on commodities. Well, I don’t recommend speculating on investments, ever, but it’s especially true for commodities. You think the stock market is a roller-coaster ride? Commodities will make you lose your lunch! Remember back in 2008-2009, when the S&P 500 got cut in half? GSG, an ETF that tracks the S&P Goldman Sachs Commodity Index, plummeted by two-thirds, and it’s hovering at around half of its 2008 high even today. Yes, the runup on gold since 2000 is drool-inducing, but so were internet stocks before 2000 and real estate before 2008. Don’t become yet another cautionary tale.

Don’t look to commodities to boost your returns. “OK, fine — I’m investing in commodities for the long term. They’ll make me rich!” No, they won’t. By definition, commodities are items that can be replaced. Any time any given commodity gets too expensive, corporations start figuring out how to do without it — witness the explosion in hybrid technology when oil prices were shooting up a few years ago, or the move to copper wiring by companies that traditionally use gold. No, over the long term commodities barely keep up with inflation — no surprise, since the price of commodities is pretty much the definition of inflation. (Gold has historically been no exception…which should make current holders of the shiny stuff very cautious when looking at charts like this.)

Don’t invest in commodities as your primary hedge against inflation. Afraid of inflation? Invest in Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities! While they have normal interest just like any other bond, their principal is adjusted for inflation, which makes TIPS a safe, low-volatility way to guard against inflation. (By design, their yield is exactly their inflation-adjusted return!) While commodities track inflation over the long term, they may go for years before reverting to the mean; in mathematical terms, they have a positive but lower correlation with inflation than TIPS.

Do invest in commodities to reduce your overall portfolio volatility. Commodities are very interesting in that they don’t often move in tandem with either stocks or bonds. This means that, with regular rebalancing, a canny investor can take advantage of commodities to smooth out their portfolio, selling commodities when they are high to buy stocks and/or bonds, and vice-versa, with the overall effect of reducing volatility. Now, note that I said “don’t often move in tandem”; in 2008, they crashed along with nearly everything else, so don’t look to commodities to work miracles. That’s the job of short-term treasuries!

So yes, commodities can be a useful part of your portfolio, if bought for the right reasons. Next stop — how (and how not) to invest in them!

theology of abundance

overflowArguably some of the most important work I do with clients is integrating their financial and spiritual lives — e.g., how does what you do with your money reflect your beliefs about The World and your place in it? Sometimes, a client says one thing, but their money says another, and I have to gently point out where the two differ. However, what can be more troublesome is when a client’s finances follow their theology completely…straight down a black hole of credit card debt. This is most often the case with the Theology of Abundance.

The Theology of Abundance is a fairly straightforward aspect of the Christian faith in particular; it says that you shouldn’t hoard your resources out of fear, but that you should give freely as God has given to you. The example of Jesus feeding the five thousand with only a few loaves and fishes is given as a prime example. And it’s a great theology; that kind of faith frees you to let go of your money, which in turn releases your money’s hold on you.

You can probably see where such a theology might lead you into trouble: “I shouldn’t worry about my finances, so budgeting is, in fact, something to be avoided. I give to the church, and my family, and my friends, and those I meet on the street…and occasionally buy myself nice things. God will provide, right?” And then the credit card bills come in, and that’s amended to, “God will provide eventually, right?” Despite faithfully following Jesus’ example with the loaves and fishes, there’s a twinge of guilt, and a nagging feeling: does the Theology of Abundance actually work in the real world? But of course that would question your faith, so you shove that nagging feeling down and continue to (faithfully!) ignore your finances. And the debt piles up, until you barely have the cash flow to pay your normal bills, much less help anyone else out.

So, does this mean that the Theology of Abundance is wrong? As it turns out, no. There’s a crucial point here that people overlook when applying the loaves and fishes to modern-day life: Jesus didn’t ask the disciples to give what they didn’t have. He didn’t say, “go get a loan of a few hundred denarii, and feed these people”; he asked, “What do you have?” And he was able to work a miracle with that. The trouble is that with the advent of credit cards, it is ridiculously easy to spend what we don’t have, and there’s where we get into trouble. If you want Bible quotes, here’s one from Proverbs that Dave Ramsey loves to throw around: “the borrower is slave to the lender.” He’s not wrong, either; how can you live your life faithfully as a servant of God when you’re already a servant of your creditors?

If you truly believe in abundance, then the only reason you should be carrying credit cards is for convenience. If they’re a temptation to live beyond your means, throw them away and start using the envelope method — it’s actually more fun than you might think! Once you start giving out of what you have, and not what your credit card company has — once you allow God to work with your small handful of loaves and fishes — then you’ll start seeing the real miracles happen.


going the distance: the key to long-term financial success

“Financial success doesn’t happen overnight, but is the product of years of work.” That kind of pithy saying is obvious almost to the point of being painful, so why point it out? Well, I wouldn’t bother, except for the fact that most people don’t actually act on it; they don’t seem to know what thinking in the long term actually means. So let’s get into specifics, shall we?

Spending trends are more important than events. Did you spend more than you earned in November? Who cares? What matters is, are you spending more than you earn over time? One month isn’t going to make or break you; what matters is the long-term trend. Does your spending go up faster than your income? When you get a raise, does it immediately go to improving your lifestyle — or do you set aside some of that raise to pay off your debt faster or bump up your monthly 401(k) contribution? Do you have a plan to not only to save a certain amount, but to increase that amount year after year?

This is one of the reasons why a buffer should be your very first savings goal. When you’re no longer swamped with the day-to-day stress of wondering whether you can pay the bills, you can spend more time looking at the trends — both external (like the price of gas) and internal (like how much you decide to put aside each month).

“Always in motion is the future.” Ten years is a long time from now — so why base your plan on a bunch of assumptions about where you’re going to be? Instead, you need to make flexibility a priority, which in turn means building up discretionary income by resisting lifestyle inflation, paying down your debts, and saving up for new purchases, rather than taking on new debt. The more discretionary spending you have available, the better you’ll be able to handle whatever life throws at you.

Your investment plan can’t be based on occasional luck. So you (or your financial planner) predicted the latest crash and pulled all your assets out of stocks just in time, or invested in Apple stock when it was at 200, or made a killing selling covered calls while the market was going nowhere. That’s great, but…that’s not what’s really important. What’s really important is whether you (or they) perform well consistently, year in and year out, for decades. The flip side is also true: don’t be too quick to dump a strategy or planner for underperformance, either. A conservative portfolio looked like foolishness in 1999…and sheer genius in 2001.

See what I mean? The long-term view means ignoring events in isolation, and looking at patterns and systems instead. Not why you spent $300 on electronics last month, but how you’re controlling your spending over the year; not how you’re going to pay your recently-raised rent, but what your plan is for maximizing your discretionary spending; not what the market’s doing this week, but what it’s doing this century.

And if that kind of systematic planning just isn’t your thing, well, that’s what geeks are for.