MONEY retirement planning

The Right Way to Tap Income in Retirement

Ken and Jeanne Musolf
Peter Bohler Jeanne Musolf would like to join husband Ken in retirement in three to six years.

A couple working on their retirement plan needs help making the transition from saving to taking income. Here are three key steps to follow.

Over the past four decades, Ken Musolf, 63, has carefully plotted out an investment strategy for him and his wife, Jeanne, 59. His financial acumen has helped the couple accumulate $1.1 million in retirement funds.

Though Ken retired in 2012 after 35 years as a construction electrician, he and Jeanne have yet to tap that nest egg. He gets three pensions and Social Security, totaling $48,840 a year; and until December, she had been earning $100,000 as a department manager at a hospital. But they’ll need to start drawing down soon: Jeanne is scaling back her hours and job duties in January and plans to retire in three to six years.

Ken admits to being at a loss on this next phase: How do they transition from saving to taking income? With a portfolio across seven accounts that’s 66% stocks, 30% bonds, and 4% in cash, he says, “our quandary is that we have a basketful of investments and want to consolidate them in a sensible allocation that allows for growth and safety.”

Their only debt is a $43,000 home-equity loan and a $26,000 car loan. So the Musolfs have been living very comfortably on $8,500 a month, leaving them room to make extra debt payments, give $600 a month to charity, and splurge on their three grandkids. And Jeanne has been saving 20% of her pay in her 403(b). As she starts her new job, her salary will drop to $65,000.

The Musolfs can absorb that pay reduction and avoid dipping into their retirement funds by cutting back on overpayments on their mortgage and car loan, says Kay Allen of Aspen Wealth Management in Colleyville, Texas. The bigger challenge will be managing Jeanne’s retirement—when to quit and when to take Social Security—to minimize the impact on their portfolio. Depending on their choices, the couple could need to withdraw from $35,000 to $80,000 a year, Allen says. “The Musolfs are doing well,” she notes, “but it’s critical that they handle this transition carefully.”

The Advice

Reallocate to reduce risk: Ken can better manage their seven retirement accounts by consolidating them into four: one rollover IRA for each, Jeanne’s 403(b), and an IRA Jeanne inherited from her mother.

Next they should shift their allocation from a 66% stocks, 34% fixed-income mix to a 60%/40% mix. “This will enable them to better withstand market volatility,” says Allen. “At 60/40, they would have suffered a 22% loss during the Great Recession, requiring a 28% gain to catch up. With their current allocation, they’d have lost 30%, requiring a 43% gain. That is not something you want to experience in retirement!”

The mix she suggests (see illustration below) introduces shorter-term bonds for 12% of the portfolio via Vanguard Short Term Bond Index and 2% emerging-markets stock through Vanguard Emerging Market Index ­ for diversification. Allen also suggests always keeping a year’s living expenses in cash and four years’ in bonds to cushion against market turmoil.

150121_MAK_Musolf_ShieldAssets
Money

Tally up expenses: To determine an income strategy, the Musolfs needed to figure out their retirement budget. If she retires before Medicare kicks in at 65, Jeanne will have to pay for health insurance ($1,000 a month). Allen also wants the Musolfs to get long-term-care insurance ($500 a month), plus a Medigap policy for Ken once he turns 65 ($175 a month). Since the Musolfs want to travel more, Allen helped them come up with an annual vacation budget of $15,000. All told, the couple will have $146,000 in yearly inflation-adjusted expenses if Jeanne retires at 62, or $127,000 if she waits till 65.

Strategize withdrawals and Social Security together: Normally, retirees are advised to draw down at a rate of no more than 4% the first year, adjusting only for inflation annually, for the best chances of portfolio longevity. But if Jeanne retires at 62 and doesn’t take Social Security right away, the couple will need to replace $85,000 in income, for a whopping 7.6% withdrawal.

So if Jeanne does want to retire on the early end, Allen suggests she take a check from the government immediately. The couple would then initially have to draw 5.5% to get the $61,000 they’d need. But that’s okay, says Allen—three years later Jeanne qualifies for Medicare and won’t need health insurance, so their withdrawal rate will fall to 3.4%.

This way their money should last at least to their life expectancies, with some left for heirs. “Jeanne is con­cerned about retiring—she wants to know if she really can do it,” says Allen. “If they follow these steps, the answer will definitely be yes.”

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Read next: Why You Should Think Twice Before Choosing a Roth IRA or Roth 401(k)

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MONEY retirement planning

How to Keep Risk From Draining Your Retirement Savings

Maurice Greer
Peter Bohler—Peter Bohler Maurice Greer wants to be on the final sprint to retirement.

An overly aggressive investing strategy threatened to derail Maurice Greer's retirement plans. Here's how he can get back on track without blowing his timeline.

Maurice Greer, 53, was a late starter in saving for retirement.

After a decade in the Air Force and eight years in retail—during which he’d saved $10,000 in a 401(k) but spent it when a sports injury threw him out of work—he de­cided in 2000 to start taking classes toward a certification in information technology. “I didn’t like the idea of getting old and having no money, so I had to catch up,” he says.

At age 40, newly minted with the tech credential, he moved to the Washington, D.C., area for an entry-level IT job with a Pentagon contractor. Thirteen years and five government jobs later, he earns $103,000 a year helping run the FBI’s computer systems. Along the way, he’s piled up $261,000 for retirement and $43,000 in the bank.

His aggressive investing style (80% in stocks) and savings plan (20% of pay) have brought him far. Now he wants to up the ante.

Greer, who has the government’s second-highest security clearance, has grown weary of the demands of the job, not to mention the polygraph tests and intrusive security checks the FBI requires. “My work is very stressful,” he says. “Life is short, and I want to enjoy it.” To travel more and pursue his photography passion, Greer wants to retire in seven to 10 years—the sooner the better.

In hopes of growing his money faster and making his dream a reality, Greer is considering buying individual stocks, perhaps big brand names like Coke and McDonald’s.

Investment adviser Riyad M. Said of TA Capital Management in Washington, D.C., doesn’t think that’s wise. With such a short time horizon, Greer should dial back (rather than crank up) the risk in his portfolio, Said says. “If he were 20 years from retirement, I’d say fine, stay aggressive,” he notes. “But when you’re seven to 10 years away, there’s a big risk that your portfolio could take a huge hit right when you want to take money out.”

The Advice

Reduce risk: Said suggests Greer turn down his equity exposure to 60% of his portfolio, with 40% in domestic and 20% in international funds. A quarter of Greer’s portfolio should go into fixed income, with 15% in U.S. bonds through MetWest Total Return and 10% international through SPDR Barclays International Treasury Bond ETF . Another 10% should go into alternatives—Said suggests Baron Real ­Estate Fund and ­Alerian MLP —and 5% in cash.

150121_MAK_PedalBack
Money

Aim for a target: Greer’s ex­penses are modest: With a mortgage payment of $900 on his condo and no other debt, he spends only about $2,700 a month. At that rate, he’ll need $800,000 to retire in seven years or $730,000 to retire in 10, assuming that he takes Social Security at 63. To reach these goals, he will need to save $44,000 or $24,000 per year, respectively, based on a 6% to 6.5% average return.

Invest tax-efficiently: A disciplined saver, Greer sets aside $20,000 a year in his 401(k)—on which he gets a $2,000 match—and $10,000 a year in a savings account.

Rather than sock away so much in the bank, he should take full ­advantage of 401(k) catch-up provisions for those aged 50-plus to contribute a total of $24,000 a year to that account. Then he should put the remaining $6,000 in a new brokerage account invested in an index fund or ETF of dividend-paying stocks (the tax consequences will be modest, and he can reinvest the dividends). One option: PowerShares S&P 500 Low Volatility ETF . These steps will let him save enough to retire in 10 years and get him started toward an earlier quit date.

Greer currently overpays $425 a month on his mortgage; if he stops doing that, he can free up $5,100 more a year. Additionally, he will earn his bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity soon, which would qualify him for positions that could increase his salary by 30%. Making a job change and putting all his extra earnings in the dividend fund should allow him to save enough to retire in seven years—though a new position could be more stressful than his current one. “If that would increase my chances of retiring early,” Greer says, “the trade­off would be well worth it.”

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MONEY retirement planning

Money Makeover: Freelancers With a Toddler, No Plan, and No Cash to Spare

The Larsons
Peter Bohler With 30-plus years to retirement, David and Ashlene Larson can afford to take more investing risk.

Managing new businesses and a new baby left one young couple with little to save for retirement. Here's the advice they need to get their finances on track for the future.

David and Ashlene Larson know how important it is to save for retirement. The problem is they don’t have much cash to spare, as they are new parents—daughter Rosalie is 18 months—who are both starting new businesses. David, 33, took his sideline ­video-production company full-time in June, and Ashlene, 32, left her job at a PR firm in July to freelance.

The Larsons have more stable income than many self-employed workers, with $9,000 coming in monthly from two regular clients and twice that in a good month. But after payments for a mortgage, day care, car lease, and $25,000 in student loans—and after plowing some profits back into David’s growing business—they can put only $200 a month in Ashlene’s Roth IRA and $100 in a 529 savings plan for Rosalie’s college. Total savings rate: 3%. “It’s nerve-racking,” David says.

Meanwhile, they don’t know what to do with the $27,500 they’ve saved for retirement. Nor do they have any idea how to deploy the pile of savings bonds—worth $42,000 and earning 1.49%—that David’s grandparents gave him as a kid. “Our investments are all over the place,” says Ashlene.

Matt Morehead of Greenspring Wealth Management in Towson, Md., says that the Larsons’ overall allocation for retirement—73% stocks, 27% fixed income—is a tad conservative for their ages. But worse, Ashlene inadvertently has $15,000 in an old 401(k) invested in a 2025 target-date fund that will move to 50% bonds in 10 years, hampering its growth potential. Another concern: They have no cash in the bank. “The Larsons are stuck in the ‘foundation phase’ because they have debt and not enough emer­gency funds,” says Morehead. “They need to take care of those issues before sinking money into retirement.”

The Advice

Build in a shock absorber: Since they’re both self-employed, the Larsons should keep a reserve fund of at least nine months of expenses to prevent them from having to tap retirement funds if business slows, says Morehead. With basic costs of $6,000 a month, that’s $54,000.

David’s savings bonds are a good headstart, since these can be redeemed anytime without penalty—though taxes will drop their value to about $39,000. To make up the difference, the Larsons should redirect their $300 monthly retirement and college savings to a savings account. Plus, 40% of any monthly earnings over their base pay of $9,000 should go to the cash stash (another 35% to student loans, 25% to taxes).

Consolidate with the right target-date fund: David should open a Roth IRA for himself at a low-cost brokerage; Ashlene should move her accounts there too. Morehead suggests they go all in on Vanguard’s Target Retirement 2045 Fund time-stock symbol=VTIVX]. This bumps their stock stake to about 89% and gives them broad market exposure. Plus, the fund automatically rebalances until reaching a 50%/50% mix in 30 years. “This is a great way to invest for a young couple who don’t have time to monitor their portfolio,” Morehead says.

Beef up retirement savings: When their reserves are established, that 40% of additional income can go to their IRAs. Once they max out these regularly (each can put in $5,500 in 2015) or exceed the income limits ($193,000 modified AGI for couples filing jointly), Ashlene can open a SEP-IRA and David can start a 401(k). Only when they’re saving 15% of pay should they return to funding Rosalie’s 529. “You can always borrow for college,” says Morehead. “But you can’t borrow for retirement.”

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MONEY retirement planning

Money Makeover: Married 20-Somethings With $135,000 in Debt—And Roommates

The Liebhards
Julian Dufort

A young couple gets some advice on how to save for the future even while saddled with loads of student debt.

Samantha and Travis Liebhard, both 24, met as college freshmen, married right after graduating in 2012, and quickly moved to Minneapolis so that Travis could start his graduate pharmacy program at the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities.

They face intimidating debts: Travis has racked up $135,000 in student loans and expects to incur another $60,000 before graduation. Barely making ends meet this year, the couple came up with an idea: Why not cut their $1,500 monthly rent in half by giving up their big two-bedroom apartment and finding room­mates to share a similarly priced four-bedroom unit?

So in September, two of Travis’s classmates moved in with the Liebhards. Now Samantha’s $40,000 salary in her public relations job and Travis’s $8,000 pay from a part-time hospital job seem like enough to get by on. Samantha complains about dishes in the sink and clothes left on the floor, but the four roommates get along well. “It’s helping me prepare to have children one day,” she jokes.

Retirement seems far away, given the Liebhards’ more urgent financial concerns, starting with the student debt. The couple also want to have kids and buy a house, but Travis won’t be making a full pharmacist’s salary of about $120,000 for another four years; after his expected graduation in 2016 comes a two-year residency, paying about $40,000 annually.

The Liebhards don’t know whether to save for re­tirement now or just focus on their debt. So far the couple have only $2,000 in the bank and $3,200 in retirement accounts. Samantha wants to get serious about saving for retirement, but Travis isn’t sure: “It’s hard for me to even think about retirement until we can real­ly do something about it.”

Helping the Liebhards navigate their options is Sophia Bera of Gen Y Planning in Minneapolis. The key to success, she says, is to have a reasonable spending plan and take incremental steps.

The Advice

Save in moderation: Given how much Travis owes, plus the 6.8% interest rate on most of his loans, repaying debt should indeed be the couple’s top priority, says Bera. So for now Samantha should only bump up her 4% 401(k) contribution to 6%—enough to get her full match. Her 401(k) portfolio—half in a 2020 target-date fund and half in a large-cap U.S. stock fund—is too conservative for her age and not properly diversified, says Bera. Her plan’s 2050 target-date fund, which is 80% in stocks, would be a better choice.

Bank some cash: Because the Liebhards have little saved for emergencies, Bera says they should put Travis’s $800 monthly pay­check­—the amount they are saving in rent—into a savings account; the goal is for that to reach $10,000, or three months of their net pay. Next, they need to budget Samantha’s $2,600 monthly take-home pay. Bera suggests $800 for the fixed costs of rent and phones, and $1,500 to be divided between discretionary spending and monthly essentials such as groceries.

Attack the debt: The $300 left over in Bera’s proposed budget should go toward paying down interest on Travis’s debt, even though he can defer repayment until after his residency; his current loans are accruing interest amounting to about $7,000 annually. Their payments will likely qualify the couple for an annual $2,500 student loan interest tax deduction over the next few years. Once Travis finishes his residency, Bera says, he should be able to pay off his loans in 10 years at the rate of $2,300 a month, while maxing out his 401(k) contributions ($17,500 is the current annual limit).

Though the Liebhards needn’t have roommates for­ever, says Bera, they should hold off on buying a home. “If you have student loans the size of a mortgage, you should avoid taking out a mortgage,” she says. Samantha is not so sure. “We can wait a few years after Travis graduates,” she says, “but once we have a child who’s able to walk, we’d like to have a place bigger than an apartment.”

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MONEY retirement planning

Money Makeover: 30 Years Old, and Already Falling Behind

When she turned 30, Chianti Lomax had an epiphany: Her salary and savings weren't enough to buy a home or start a family. MONEY paired her with a financial expert for help with a plan.

Chianti Lomax grew up poor in Greenville, S.C., raised by a single mother who supported her four children by holding several jobs at once. Inspired by her mom, Lomax worked her way through high school and college; today, the Alexandria, Va., resident makes $83,000 plus bonuses as a management consultant.

But turning 30 last December, Lomax had an epi­phany: Her career and her 401(k)—now worth $35,000 —weren’t enough to achieve her long-term goals: raising a family and buying a house in the rural South.

Her biggest problem, she realized, was her spending. So she downsized from the $1,200-a-month one-bedroom apartment she rented to a $950 studio, canceled her cable, got a free gym membership by teaching a Zumba class, and gave up the 2010 Honda she leased in favor of a 2004 Acura she paid for in cash. With those savings, she doubled her 401(k) contribution to 6% to get her full employer match.

And yet, nearly a year later, Lomax has only $400 in the bank, along with $12,000 in student loans. Having gone as far as she can by herself, Lomax wants advice. As she puts it, “How can I find more ways to save and make my money grow?”

Marcio Silveira of Pavlov Financial Planning in Arlington, Va., says Lomax is doing many things right, including avoiding credit card debt. Spending, however, remains her weakness. Lomax estimates that she spends $500 a month on extras like weekend meals with friends and $5 nonfat caramel macchiatos, but Silveira, studying her cash flow, says it’s probably more like $700. “That money could be put to far better use,” he says.

The Advice

Track the cash: Silveira says Lomax should log her spending with a free online service like Mint (also available as a smartphone app). That will make her more careful about flashing her debit card, he says, and give her the hard data she needs to create a budget. Lomax should cut her discretionary spending, he thinks, by $500 a month. Can a young, single person really socialize on $50 a week? Silveira says yes, given that Lomax cooks for herself most evenings and is busy with volunteer work. Lomax thinks $75 is more doable. “But I’d like to shoot for $50,” she says. “I like challenging myself.”

Setting More Aside infographic
MONEY

Automate savings: Saving money is easier when it’s not in front of you, says Silveira. He advises Lomax to open a Roth IRA and set up an automatic transfer of $200 a month from her checking account, adding in any year-end bonus to reach the current annual Roth contribution limit of $5,500, and putting all the cash into a low-risk short-term Treasury bond fund.

Initially, says Silveira, the Roth will be an emergency fund. Lomax can withdraw contributions tax-free, but will be less tempted to pull money out for everyday expenses than if the money were in a bank account. Once Lomax has $12,000 in the Roth, she should continue saving in a bank account and gradually reallocate the Roth to a stock- heavy retirement mix. Starting the emergency fund in a Roth, says Silveira, has the bonus of getting Lomax in the habit of saving for retirement outside of her 401(k).

Ramp it up: Lomax should increase her 401(k) contribution to 8% immediately and then again to 10% in January—a $140-a-month increase each time. Doing this in two steps, says Silveira, will make the transition easier. Under Silveira’s plan, Lomax will be setting aside 23% of her salary. She won’t be able to save that much upon starting a family or buying a house, he says, but setting aside so much right now will give her retirement savings many years to compound.

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Retirement Makeover: 4 Kids, 2 Jobs, No Time to Plan

MONEY

American Airlines Employees Grounded from Trading 401(k) Funds

Photo: Pat Molnar American Airlines pilot Jim Irvine's aggressive 401(k) trading style cost him access to some of the plan's highest-performing funds.

Jim Irvine had his compass set on an ideal retirement. With two generous pensions and a 401(k) that he maxed out every year, the American Airlines pilot had been on track to retire by 60 and live out his dream of sailing around the world with his family.

Then a fierce squall hit: AA filed for bankruptcy in 2011. Subsequently one of his pensions was frozen, the other paid out. Suddenly Irvine’s retirement dream hinged entirely on his growing his 401(k).

“It’s all up to me to invest well,” says Irvine, now 48.

Not surprisingly, people who fly aluminum canisters at nearly the speed of sound 40,000 feet above the earth tend to be fairly confident. “We’re goal-oriented, take-charge guys,” says Irvine. So rather than buying mutual funds to hold for the long haul, he responded by ramping up his already aggressive trading style in hopes of growing his money faster.

Irvine took most of his cues from a newsletter called EZ Tracker that he had begun subscribing to a few years earlier. The newsletter had reported solid returns, and Irvine loved the convenience. He could easily follow EZ Tracker’s recommendations — making about two dozen trades a year, including a few of his own — and not give up much of the free time between flights that he’d rather spend with his wife, Lisa, and four young kids (ages 4 to 8) in Cleveland.

Related: What’s your money state of mind?

He didn’t pay much attention to his returns as his balance rose, and he had no idea that trading activity was attracting attention of its own. The first indication of this came in 2012, when he got a warning letter from his 401(k) administrator saying his trading activity was “disruptive” to the T. Rowe Price funds in his plan. Undeterred, Irvine continued to buy and sell on EZ Tracker’s advice — until January 2013, when a second letter informed him that he was prohibited from trading into any of the plan’s four T. Rowe funds for a full year. “I couldn’t believe they actually did it,” he says. “It was like one of my kids throwing a tantrum.”

He wasn’t the only one to get such a letter. From 2011 to 2013, some 1,300 AA employees were barred from trading into T. Rowe funds in their 401(k) plans — some for a year, some for life. Vanguard recently acknowledged that it’s had a similar issue with airline workers: For years, the company says, it’s been telling Southwest to inform its staffers that their purchases could be blocked if they trade on the advice of investing newsletters.

A strange set of cases, yes — but you may have more in common with these highflying investors than you think. While only 15% of 401(k) participants in the U.S. initiated a trade in 2012, according to benefits firm Aon Hewitt, nearly a third of MONEY readers polled made more than five trades last year, and 17% made more than 10.

Related: How to get in trouble in your 401(k)

Even if you’re not trading as often as the newsletter subscribers, you’re hardly immune to the pressures that drove them to do so. The percentage of Americans enrolled in traditional pensions is now only 14%, down from 38% in 1979, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute, leaving workers increasingly reliant on 401(k) savings. And most are falling behind, countless studies show.

So is it really all that wrong that these airline workers took their plans off autopilot in hope of getting a boost? The fund companies argue that it is, since the kind of trading they’re doing can hurt long-term investors (that is, most of you reading this). Meanwhile, subscribers contend they should be able to invest any way they please. But they’re missing a more important point: Frequent trading probably won’t give them the lift they’re hoping for. “The terrible irony,” says Frank Murtha, co-founder of MarketPsych, a behavioral-finance consulting firm, “is that by trying so hard to achieve superior returns, you virtually ensure that you will underperform.”

Where the trouble began

The curious tale of AA trading bans starts in 2002 with two men: Mike DiBerardino, then an AA pilot, and Paul Burger, who’d just left his job as COO of an ad agency in Philly. The pals had met while working as securities dealers in the ’70s.

Long after changing careers, DiBerardino often found himself advising his airline colleagues on retirement investing. “I’d show them what I was doing, and they’d say, ‘Send me that!’ ” he recalls. After he mentioned this to Burger, the two hatched a plan for a newsletter aimed at helping AA employees pick funds in their 401(k). Thus was born EZ Tracker.

Today the AA newsletter has more than 3,000 subscribers, and EZ Tracker’s publishers — who both work at it full-time since DiBerardino’s retirement in 2007 — also produce separate editions for employees of Southwest, JetBlue, United, and US Airways, as well as for pilots of UPS. For pilots, a one-year subscription costs $100; for flight attendants, $85.

On the last Sunday of every month, subscribers get an email containing a link to the newsletter. Each issue offers a market overview, news on plan changes, and, of course, investment picks. Readers can model their investments on one of three portfolios — aggressive, moderate, and conservative — each consisting of about six to eight funds from the plan’s offerings (which, in AA’s case, number 30). And every month the newsletter recommends a handful of trades.

While DiBerardino and Burger don’t like the terms “market timing” or “momentum investing,” their advice is essentially that: They suggest buying funds that have performed well over the past 12 months and selling those that are cooling off. To make picks, they look purely at price, rather than the fundamentals of the underlying holdings. They also employ a basic asset-allocation strategy to ensure a diverse mix.

EZ Tracker’s publishers are not registered investment advisers. They also acknowledge that they are not offering anything the airline employees couldn’t find out for themselves. But they say they save workers time by doing the research.

“We’re not gurus,” says Burger. “There is no crystal ball. We don’t know where the market is going, but we can tell you what are the best-performing funds right now.”

Their results, which aren’t audited by any third party, certainly look impressive. Over the past 10 years EZ Tracker reports an annualized return of 10.7% in the AA aggressive portfolio, compared with 7.4% for the S&P 500. The newsletter’s hallmark year — and the year after which subscriptions “took off,” the founders say — was 2008, when the aggressive portfolio fell just 14.6%, vs. the S&P 500’s 37% plunge.

Why airline employees bit

Some time after the debut of EZ Tracker, its publishers noticed the appearance of a competitor called 401k Maximizer, that is today targeted at employees of AA, Southwest, US Airways, and Delta. (The publication’s founder, who’s been reported to be an AA pilot, did not respond to requests for comment.)

Mark Hulbert, who as editor of the Hulbert Financial Digest has studied the investing newsletter industry for three decades, says it’s unusual to see a publication focused on one company’s retirement plan because it limits the audience. Yet the airline industry seems to be able to support not one but two newsletters for active 401(k) traders. How come?

Ego is probably one factor. People in high-achieving fields like aviation often have the kind of type A personality that makes them think they can beat the market by trading, says MarketPsych’s Murtha. He points to a 2011 study by the University of California showing that investors with an inflated sense of their abilities tend to trade more.

Related: How we feel about our finances now

Mike Close, a Southwest pilot from Cape Canaveral, Fla., agrees with Murtha’s assessment of his peers: “We all know how to solve the world’s problems — we know the answer to everything,” jokes Close, who has subscribed to 401k Maximizer for six years and was among those who received a warning from Vanguard. “This makes a pilot a horrible person to take advice from, especially investment advice,” he adds. (Nevertheless, he says, he’s been happy with how he’s done with Maximizer.)

Meanwhile, a culture of trust and conformity may make pilots more inclined than others to put blind faith in advice from a peer, says Andy Simonds, a pilot for a major airline and a writer for Future & Active Pilot Advisors, a career and financial advisory service. Because they must entrust their lives to co-pilots who can be strangers, he says, it follows that they’d trust colleagues with lesser decisions, like investing.

The reasons Brigitte Laurent, 49, an AA flight attendant from Playa del Rey, Calif., started subscribing to EZ Tracker eight years ago could apply to anyone. Until co-workers suggested she try the newsletter, she had her whole nest egg in a single index fund. “But I always felt like I could do better, like I was missing out,” she says. “I feel like I’m more in control now, even though I’m following their advice.” And after the AA bankruptcy froze her pension, cut her pay, and cost her vacation days, the 25-year vet of the airline says she needed that sense of stability more than ever.

Sometimes when feeling out of control, we reach for a narrative that will help us feel like we’re in the driver’s seat, says Dan Ariely, a leading behavioral economist, whose latest book is The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty. “We don’t like randomness,” he adds. “We try to force order on life around us, so we tell ourselves a story.”

The story the newsletters tell is that by trading you can beat the market. Our neurons compound the problem: Studies have shown that the pleasure centers in our brains are activated more when we do something to earn money rather than passively receive it. Add in diminished expectations — such as those following the market plunge, pension cuts, and pay freezes suffered by AA employees — and the temptation to act gets even stronger. “When people expect to achieve a certain level of wealth, they can get emotionally anchored to it,” says Murtha. So when your actual wealth falls below where you think it should be, you can get an itch to do something to rectify the situation.

But with investing, as with flying, our instincts can be wrong, warns William Bernstein, the neurologist-turned-investment-guru who also has a pilot’s license. “When a pilot comes in for a landing while flying slowly and descending rapidly, the instinct is to pull the nose up, but you actually need to point it to the ground to get enough airspeed to fly again,” he says. “Investing is the same way: We instinctively react to danger with fight or flight, which is a useful instinct in nature but all wrong in finance. You shouldn’t sell when the fund goes down; you should hold on and do nothing.”

Why they were banned

Cole Seckman, 58, an AA pilot since 1990 and EZ Tracker subscriber since 2002, was among the first to be barred. Ignoring a warning letter received in fall 2010, Seckman followed EZ Tracker’s advice in June 2011 to sell T. Rowe’s Science & Technology Fund. That September he was blocked from transferring money into T. Rowe funds for a year. “It was the most ridiculous thing that’s happened to me,” he says.

T. Rowe won’t say how many letters were sent, but DiBerardino and Burger believe that everyone who made that particular trade soon after the issue was published got barred. (A mutual fund has no way of knowing which of its investors are newsletter subscribers, of course, but it can see which participants in a 401(k) are making the same trades at the same time.)

The editors were defiant. “Who the hell are they to tell us how to run the portfolio?” says DiBerardino. So a month after the first ban ended, in August 2012, they advised buying T. Rowe’s New Horizons Fund, and three months later advised selling it. Seckman made those moves — and was promptly barred for another year.

Laurent, who was also banned twice, but on a different timetable, asks the question that plagued many of her fellow subscribers: “T. Rowe Price is huge. How can we disrupt the performance of their funds?”

How indeed? In response to MONEY’s inquiry, the company sent a statement: “Collective trading of fund holders acting on the recommendations of others, such as the advice of a newsletter, could cause large cash flows in and out of the T. Rowe Price funds …”

In other words, it’s not the frequency of trades that’s a problem, but that so many people are trading at once.

AA employees have nearly $11 billion in their 401(k)s, and pilots specifically have an average balance of $370,000, according to BrightScope, which ranks retirement plans. So if many of EZ Tracker’s AA subscribers buy one of the T. Rowe funds in the 401(k), the funds’ managers may have to invest in lesser-quality companies or park money in cash. Lots of sell orders, meanwhile, could force managers to unload assets before they reach peak value and drive down the market price of those assets. Buy or sell, managers also incur fees for executing trades. All those moves eat into a fund’s return and hurt investors who stay put.

A similar dynamic is responsible for Vanguard’s frustration with Southwest employees. The company’s pilots can generate up to $45 million in trades in a given fund the week after 401k Maximizer publishes, according to John Nordin of the Southwest pilot union’s 401(k) committee. “Equity funds are long-term investments,” says Michael Buek, a portfolio manager at Vanguard. “If everybody traded like that, our performance would be horrible.”

Regardless of whether a plan has specific rules governing “collective” trading — as T. Rowe now does — a fund company can block purchases at its discretion. By all accounts, though, bans such as those received by the airline employees are very unusual. Most 401(k) plans and funds do have rules to curb market timing. But enforcement actions on those are rare too: Only about 0.25% of Fidelity’s nearly 13 million 401(k) participants received warning letters for too-frequent trading in 2013.

What’s the real damage?

As it turns out, a ban sounds worse than it is: Those who’ve been barred are still allowed to sell holdings in T. Rowe funds, since by law mutual funds are not allowed to stop a sale. They can even buy into the funds through regular pay-check contributions, since those amounts are smaller and predictable. So the only thing barred employees can’t do is transfer an existing balance into the funds. But with 26 other funds to choose from, it’s not as if they’re out of options.

The real harm of frequent 401(k) trading isn’t the trouble you could get into from a fund company, but the fact that you’ll likely end up behind the market, says financial adviser and Pace University professor Lew Altfest. To beat benchmarks, you have to time two trades well — selling high and buying low. And that’s a hard bar to clear. Individuals tend to move at the wrong times. Even pros have terrible timing, evidenced by the fact that 61% of actively managed U.S. stock mutual funds underperformed indexes over the five years ending in 2013, according to Standard & Poor’s.

EZ Tracker — and most investing newsletters for that matter — chases returns, according to Hulbert. But there’s a reason the phrase “Past performance is not indicative of future results” has become a cliché. In looking at investor returns from 1995 to 2010, investment firm Gerstein Fisher found that while stocks that rose in the previous 12 months tended to continue rising in the short term, the shares got bid up so much that investors ended up underperforming by one percentage point a year. Further, an analysis of newsletters from 1986 to 2010 by Hulbert found that they underperformed the S&P 500 by an average 2.6 percentage points. “About 20% of the newsletters I track will beat the market, and 80% will not,” he says.

MONEY asked Altfest to review EZ Tracker’s published results. His finding? “Their record isn’t terrible, but it could be better.”

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The newsletter did well from its inception in 2002 to 2010, thanks largely to smart calls in 2008, and overall the 10-year annualized return for its aggressive portfolio topped the S&P 500’s by 3.3 percentage points. But from 2011 to the present, its cumulative three-year gain was 22%, vs. 50% for the S&P 500. “Thaaat’s the problem with a momentum strategy,” Altfest says. “You can have a favorable effect over short periods, but then there’s a change in the market, people start saying, ‘Get me out!’ and you can get bagged.”

Paul Burger acknowledges that market volatility hurt the newsletter’s returns of late but says, “If you look at the entire period of 12 years, we do outperform the indexes.” True, but as often happens when a money manager gets hot, investors piled in after EZ Tracker’s great 2008. Those subscribers don’t get the benefit of the outperformance.

Altfest also dug into Jim Irvine’s performance: In the five years since he began following the newsletter, his return was 9.1%, about half the 18% gain of the S&P 500. He didn’t follow EZ Tracker’s advice completely — a staunch political conservative who heads a gun-rights group, Irvine made some of his own trades based on his fears of a market downturn after President Obama’s reelection — so the newsletter had a better showing at 13.8%. But even a moderate asset-allocation fund in Irvine’s plan delivered 14.2% and an aggressive fund returned 17.5%. “Jim did entirely too much trading during the past year,” Altfest says. “401(k)s should be operated for long-term appreciation with only occasional judicious changes.”

Where they’ll go from here

Though EZ Tracker continued to recommend T. Rowe funds after the first round of one-year bans, DiBerardino and Burger stopped suggesting the company’s offerings after some subscribers were hit with permanent bans last summer. So now readers who follow the newsletter faithfully will miss out on high-performing funds like T. Rowe’s New Horizons (33.7% return for the 12 months ending in March) and Science & Technology (37% for the same period). “We’re definitely at a disadvantage,” says DiBerardino, who has filed a complaint with the SEC. “But we’ve gained subscribers since this happened because of our long-term record.”

In spite of everything, Laurent (who reports a five-year annualized return of 15.1%) is unwavering in her loyalty to EZ Tracker. Seckman, too, is satisfied with how he’s done (15.3% over the same period). “I’m not trying to beat the market,” he says. “They’ve kept me out of trouble and given me reasonable returns.”

Initially Irvine was also committed to EZ Tracker and had shrugged off the ban — “I’ll just use other funds,” he said in his first interview with MONEY. But he had a different view after hearing Altfest’s feedback. The planner estimated that if Irvine continues to underperform, he’d need to work until 72 to hit his savings goal — an impossibility, since the airline has a mandatory retirement age of 65. Altfest suggested Irvine instead opt for a set-it-and-forget-it portfolio with 20% in cash and fixed income and 80% in equities, heavily weighted toward large-cap (38%) and international (25%) funds. With a reasonable 7% return, Irvine could retire at 64.

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At first taken aback by the critique, Irvine soon saw Altfest had a point. In particular, the planner’s advice to buy three T. Rowe funds (now that his ban is over) made Irvine realize how much lingering anger was hurting him. “I was going to work longer just so I can not invest in their funds?” he says. “That’s cutting off my nose to spite my face.” His new investing plan in place, Irvine has been looking at boats — a 42-foot Jeanneau looks like a beauty — and made a spreadsheet to monitor his progress. “I lost track of the target,” he says. “It’s embarrassing because I’d never do that in an airplane. This has been a good wake-up call to right the ship.”

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