MONEY College

How to Balance Saving for Retirement With Saving for Your Kids’ College Education

Parents often find themselves between a rock and a hard place when it comes to doing what's best for themselves and their children. One financial adviser offers a formula to make it easier.

It’s a uniquely Gen X personal finance dilemma: Should those of us with young children be socking away our savings in 401(k)s and IRAs to make up for Social Security’s predicted shortfall, or in 529s to meet our children’s inevitably gigantic college tuition bills? Ideally, of course, we’d contribute to both—but that would require considerable discretionary income. If you have to chose one over the other, which should you pick?

There are two distinct schools of thought on the answer. The first advocates saving for retirement over college because it’s more important to ensure your own financial health. This is sort of an extension of the put-on-your-own-oxygen-mask-first maxim, and it certainly makes some sense: Your kids can always borrow for college, but you can’t really borrow for retirement, with the exception of a reverse home mortgage, which most advisers think is a terrible idea.

The flip side of this, however, is that while you can choose when to retire and delay it if necessary, you can’t really delay when your kid goes to college. Moreover, the cost of tuition has been rising at a much faster rate than inflation, another argument for making college savings a priority. Finally, many parents don’t want to saddle their young with an enormous amount of debt when they graduate.

According to a recent survey by Sallie Mae and Ipsos, out-of-pocket parental contributions for college, whether from current income or savings, increased in 2014, while borrowing by students and parents actually dropped to the lowest level in five years, perhaps the result of an improved economy and a bull market for stocks. But clearly, parents often find themselves between a rock and a hard place when it comes to doing what’s best for themselves and their children: While 21% of families did not rely on any financial aid or borrowing at all, 7% percent withdrew money from retirement accounts.

If you’re struggling with this decision, one approach that may help is to let time guide your choices, since starting early can make such a huge difference thanks to the power of compound interest. Ideally, this would mean participating in a 401(k) starting at age 25 and contributing anywhere from 10% to 15%, as is currently recommended. Do that for a decade, and even if your income is quite low, the early saving will put you way ahead of the game and give you more leeway for the next phase, which commences when you have children (or, for the sake of my model, when you’re 35).

As soon as your first child is born, open a 529 or similar college savings account. Put in as much money as possible, reducing your retirement contributions if you have to in order to again take advantage of the early start. Meanwhile, your retirement account can continue to grow on its own from reinvested dividends and, hopefully, positive returns. Throw anything you can into the 529s—from the smallest birthday check from grandma to your annual bonus—in the first five or so years of a child’s life, because pretty soon you will have to switch back to saving for retirement again.

By the time you’re 45, you will have two decades of saving and investing under your belt and two portfolios as a result, either of which you can continue to fund depending on its size and your cost calculations for both retirement and college. You probably also now have a substantially larger income and hopefully might be able to contribute to both simultanously moving forward, or make catch-up payments with one or the other if you see major shortfalls. At this point, however, retirement should once again be the central focus for the next decade—until your child heads off to college and you have start writing checks for living expenses, dorm fees, and textbooks. Don’t worry, you still have another 10 to 15 years to earn more money for retirement, although those contributions will have less long-term impact due to the shorter time horizon.

Of course, this strategy doesn’t guarantee that your kids won’t have to apply for scholarships or take out loans, or that you won’t have to put off retiring until 75. But at least you will know that you did everything in your power to try to plan in advance.

Konigsberg is the author of The Truth About Grief, a contributor to the anthology Money Changes Everything, and a director at Arden Asset Management. The views expressed are solely her own.

 

 

 

 

 

MONEY stock investing

New Study Identifies the Most Underappreciated Investment Skill

The magic ingredient turns out to be…wait for it…patience.

Several years ago, two Yale business school professors gave the personal finance industry a jolt by devising a formula for determining how active so-called actively managed mutual funds really were. What they discovered was that the portfolios of many mutual funds were so similar to their benchmarks that they might as well be considered closet index funds—in which case investors were paying higher fees for no good reason. These closet index funds tended to underperform their benchmarks, but funds with the least overlap with their benchmarks—those with the highest Active Share as defined as the proportion of holdings that is different than their benchmarks—on average outperformed their benchmarks net of fees, according to their analysis.

Now one of the inventors of Active Share has identified another very important trait of successful mutual fund managers: patience. In a recent paper, Martijn Cremers, now of University of Notre Dame, and Ankur Pareek of Rutgers, analyzed a large sample of actively-managed all-equity U.S. retail mutual funds over a 19-year period (1995-2013) and found that only those with both high active share and patient investment strategies, where managers hold stocks longer instead of trading frequently, tended to outperform by an average of 2.3 percentage points a year, even after management costs were taken out.

Historically investors have been able to partially measure a fund manager’s patience with the self-reported Fund Turnover Ratio, which is the ratio of all sales to buys in the calendar year over the number of fund shares outstanding. The lower the ratio, the less turnover in the portfolio, but the measure is still limited to a year. Now Cremers and Pareek have introduced a different measure, called Fund Duration, which measures the length of time the fund has held $1 of equities in the portfolio over the last five years in order to identify the most “patient capital.”

How patient is patient? The median holding duration in their sample of funds was 14 months, but those funds in the top 20% for Fund Duration generally held stocks for more than 24 months. Interestingly, Cremers and Pareek have found that fund duration on average has been steadily increasing since 2001, and turnover ratios have correspondingly declined.

The authors are careful to point out that simply holding stocks for a long period of time is not associated with greater investment skill. Rather, active share matters most among funds with long durations, while among funds with short durations the difference in the performance between closet index funds and high active share funds is statistically insignificant. (They also analyzed institutional investors and hedge funds and found slightly different results.)

Some examples of mutual funds with both high active share and high fund duration as of 2013 included Baron Growth Fund, Royce Premier Fund, and Franklin Small Cap Value Fund. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you should rush out to invest in these funds today. But Cremers and Pareek’s findings do suggest that investors interested in active management should both make sure that a fund’s portfolio is truly distinct from its benchmark AND that the manager has a longer-term buy-and-hold strategy.

If that approach sounds Warren Buffett-like, indeed the researchers do attribute the outperformance of the most patient and active mutual fund managers to their (Buffett-like) focus on stocks that a) other investors shun, b) are safe (i.e. have a low beta,) c) are value-oriented (high book-to-market ratio), d) have growing profit margins; and tendency to stick with those stocks over relatively long periods.

As for Warren Buffett himself, when Cremers and Pareek analyzed Berkshire Hathaway, they found that the Active Share of its public equity portfolio fell from around 80% in 2007 to 70% at the end of the sample in 2012. And while Berkshire Hathaway remains a relatively patient investor, the holding duration has shortened from over 4 years in 2002 to a bit over 3 years. Then again, Berkshire Hathaway isn’t an equities-only mutual fund. But it’s interesting to think that some mutual fund managers may be able to out-Buffett Buffett himself when it comes to public stocks.

Konigsberg is the author of The Truth About Grief, a contributor to the anthology Money Changes Everything, and a director at Arden Asset Management. The views expressed are solely her own.

MONEY Kids and Money

All I Want for Christmas: Frugal Kids

Aesop Fables' The ant and the grasshopper.
Aesop Fables' The ant and the grasshopper. Designed and drawn on the wood by Charles H. Bennett, etc. Originally published/produced in W. Kent & Co.: London, 1857. British Library Board—Robana/Art Resource, NY

How to use the season's gift-giving frenzy to teach the difference between what we want and what we need.

A fable that’s frequently invoked when it comes to personal finance is Aesop’s “The Ant and the Grasshopper,” in which the ant busily spends his summer storing up supplies for the winter while the grasshopper frolics the warm days away, blissfully ignoring that times of need are around the corner. When the cold days arrive, the ant is warm and well-supplied while the grasshopper is ill-prepared and starving.

The analogy to retirement saving is clear. At a recent conference sponsored by Defined Contribution Institutional Investment Association (DCIIA,) Michael Finke of Texas Tech University pointed out that retirees with the highest wealth spend the lowest percentage of their income in retirement, suggesting that it was their innate ant-like frugality that in part helped them create such a large nest egg — not just their good fortune or career success. “The ants build up a habit of thrift, and when they reach retirement, they maintain their lifestyle of thrift,” Finke said. “It’s hard to turn an ant into a grasshopper, but you can turn a grasshopper into an ant.”

I was reminded of this recently when my six-year old daughter presented me a three-page-long Christmas list. The items on the list showed the habits of a budding grasshopper: giant teddy bears that had momentarily caught her eye on a recent shopping trip, “newer” versions of some toy that she already had and had long since abandoned. Very few of them were things that she really wanted—she was merely responding to the power of suggestion and, given a blank slate, had dutifully filled it and then some.

Not wanting to send her and her brother down the path of endless grasshopper-like consumption, I offered to instead get them both just one really big thing for Christmas—a trampoline—and nothing else. Even though this purchase would wind up costing me more, I thought it would teach them about trade-offs and spending on something that would hold its value for years. My daughter agreed in theory, but then found herself still wanting a few things from her list—a Christmas dress, the giant teddy bear. And I found myself caught between wanting to fulfill those desires while instilling in them a sense of ant-like restraint. Going through each and every item and debating whether they were really worth it seemed liked a giant buzz-kill on the holiday season.

That’s when a colleague gave me a brilliant suggestion to tell the kids that they can have four things: something they want, something they need, something to wear, and something to read. I was afraid that they might hate the idea, but they both embraced it, in part because it turned list-making into a categorical challenge, a game almost, and it also preserved their freedom to choose. I in turn was pleased because the framework forced them to prioritize desires, forego some things for others, and yes, distinguish wants from needs. (And also accept the fact that clothing and books are legitimate presents.) It wasn’t a completely ant-like solution, but it wasn’t all grasshopper either. I figure I can float the trampoline deal again next year.

Konigsberg is the author of The Truth About Grief, a contributor to the anthology Money Changes Everything, and a director at Arden Asset Management. The views expressed are solely her own.

MONEY retirement income

The Search for Income in Retirement

Why we may be focusing too much on our nest egg and not enough on cash flow.

There are three components to retirement planning: accumulation, investment, and managing for income. And while we are usually more fixated on “the number” on our balance sheet, the bigger challenge is ensuring that a retirement portfolio can generate enough steady money as we live out our days.

In a recent academic panel hosted by the Defined Contribution Institutional Investment Association (DCIIA), professors Michael Finke of Texas Tech and Stephen Zeldes of Columbia University illustrated the challenge of getting into an income mindset by discussing what’s known as the “annuity puzzle.”

If people were to take their 401(k)s and convert them into annuities, they would get a lifetime income stream. And yet very few people actually annuitize, in part because they don’t want to lose control over their hard-earned savings. “Getting people to start thinking about their retirement in an income stream instead of a lump sum is a big problem,” Finke told the audience.

Also at play is the phenomenon of present bias, whereby half a million dollars today sounds a lot better than, say, $2,500 a month for the rest of your life. This is a major knowledge gap that needs to be addressed. A new survey of more than 1,000 Americans aged 60-75 with at least $100,000 conducted for the American College of Financial Services found that of all of the issues of financial literacy, respondents were least informed about how to use annuities as an income strategy. When asked to choose between taking an annuity over a lump sum from a defined benefit plan in order to meet basic living expenses, less than half agreed that the annuity was the better choice.

Granted, annuities are complicated products. In the past, they got a bad rap for not having death benefits and otherwise misleading investors, but the industry has evolved, and there are now so many different options that it would be quite an undertaking to wade through and understand them all. And annuities aren’t the only way to generate income. Another option people might want to consider is a real estate investment that can throw off consistent revenues from rent. The point is to start thinking more not just about accumulating money but about how you can make that money work for you by turning it into an income-producing asset.

In the meantime, academics like Zeldes are working on how to make annuitization more appealing. In a paper published in the Journal of Public Economics in August 2014, Zeldes and colleagues suggest that people are more likely to annuitize if they can do so with only part of their nest egg, and even a partial annuity can be better than no annuity at all. Zeldes also found that people prefer an extra “bonus” payment during one month of the year, which means that they essentially want their annuity to seem less annuity-like. I’m all for product innovation, but in this case I think we’d be better off learning the value of a steady stream—especially over a fake “bonus.”

Konigsberg is the author of The Truth About Grief, a contributor to the anthology Money Changes Everything, and a director at Arden Asset Management. The views expressed are solely her own.

Read more about annuities in the Ultimate Retirement Guide:
What is an immediate annuity?
What is a longevity annuity?
How do I know if buying an annuity is right for me?

MONEY Investing

The Easy Fix for an Incredibly Common and Costly Retirement Mistake

New proof that just showing up is half the investing game.

Writing about retirement inevitably turns you into the bearer of bad news. But last week brought a positive development: The downward trend in the percentage of workers participating in an employment-based retirement plan reversed course in 2013. The number of workers participating is now at the highest level since 2007, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute (ERBI).

Which means, unfortunately, that from a wealth-building perspective, the timing of the nation’s workforce is actually pretty terrible.

The ERBI has only been tracking participation rates since 1987, a relatively short window, but still a bad pattern has clearly emerged: Workers are less likely to participate after the stock market drops, so they lose out when the market recovers.

The participation of wage and salary workers peaked in 2000 at 51.6%, right before a 3-year bear market that saw the compound annual growth rate (the CAGR, which includes dividends) of the S & P 500 declining 9.11% in 2000, 11.98% in 2001, and 22.27% in 2002. In 2003 however, the S & P rebounded up 28.72%, but retirement plan participation rates continued to decline, hitting a low of 45.5% in 2006 before finally beginning to rise.

Then the same thing happened again after the financial crisis. Participation rates had peaked at 47.7% in 2007, before declining in 2008 when the S & P 500 dropped a whopping 37.22%. Even though the market began to bounce back immediately in 2009, participation rates continued to decline down to 44.2% until that trend finally reversed in 2013 according to the EBRI data released last week. With each stock market shock, the participation rate fell but never fully reached its previous high, so that the 2013 rate of 45.8% is still lower than the 46.1% participation rate seen in 1987.

This bears repeating: The participation rate in an employment-based retirement plan in 2013 was lower than it was in 1987. I don’t think I need to tell you what has happened to the S&P 500 from 1987 to 2013.

Now of course one could argue that it’s harder to save for retirement if your salary has been frozen, or your bonus was cut, or especially if you were forced to take a lower-paying job, as many who were able to stay employed throughout the recession experienced. Employers have also been scaling back or eliminating entirely company matches, which further disincentives workers from participating. But waiting until you start making more money to save for retirement is a losing game, especially if you subscribe to the new theory put forth by Thomas Piketty in his much-discussed but I suspect less-widely read book Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

Piketty’s thesis is that the return on capital in the twenty-first century will be significantly higher than the growth rate of the economy and more specifically the growth of wages (4% to 5% for return, barely 1.5% for wage growth.) Furthermore, the return on capital has always been greater than economic (and wage) growth, except for an anomalous period during the second half of the twentieth century when there was an exceptionally high rate of growth worldwide. It is the inequality of capital ownership that drives wealth inequality, a phenomenon that cannot be reversed as long as the rate of return continues to exceed the rate of growth, or as Piketty helpfully provides, R>G. (Full disclosure: I only read the introduction and then used the index to find sections that most interested me.)

If you apply R>G to retirement planning, it follows that it’s more important to be in the market than to wait for a raise or to reach the next step on the career ladder to start participating in a plan. The usual caveats apply: First you must get rid of any high-interest debt and create a three-month cushion for emergencies. But once you’re in a plan, if the economy—and your income along with it—hits some major bumps, it’s even more important to continue to contribute lest you miss out on the upside. Just remember: R>G.

Konigsberg is the author of The Truth About Grief, a contributor to the anthology Money Changes Everything, and a director at Arden Asset Management. The views expressed are solely her own.

More on retirement investing:

Should I invest in bonds or bond mutual funds?

What is the right mix of stocks and bonds for me?

How often should I check my retirement investments?

Read next: Why Americans Can’t Answer the Most Basic Retirement Question

MONEY Investing

Why I Won’t Own Bond Funds in My Retirement Portfolio

Trays of eggs
James Jackson—Alamy

Owning a mix of stocks and bonds is supposed to help protect your portfolio from losses. But bonds aren't the safe asset they once were.

When stocks took a tumble last week, financial pundits were quick to call it a “potent reminder” to investors of the importance of having some bonds in your portfolio for their perceived safety and yield. The classic mix is supposed to contain 60% stocks and 40% bonds, with bonds supposedly cushioning the risk of equities. In the eyes of most investment experts, I would be considered foolish to be 100% in stocks, as I have been ever since I started investing.

But I’m not sure what bonds they’re talking about. Yes, last week the yield on a 10-year U.S. Treasury note surprised everyone by falling sharply to 1.85%, as bond prices soared—when bond prices rise, bond yields fall, and vice versa. Treasury yields edged back up to 2% the next day, as stocks rebounded. Wall Street experts are still trying to determine the reasons behind the 10-year Treasury note’s plunge, which stunned investors and traders.

But that was a one-day event. When you look at the decline in bond yields over the last three decades, I don’t understand how it is mathematically possible for Treasuries—known as the safest bond possible—to protect a stock portfolio against major shocks over the next 20 years.

No question, falling interest rates have been a boon to fixed-income investors over the last three decades. The yield on a 10-year bond has fallen from 14% in 1984 to 8% in 1994 to 4% in 2004 to about 2% today. The decline hasn’t been non-stop—bonds have rallied along the way—but the overall downward trend has most certainly pushed up fixed-income returns. As a result, bond funds have both made money and helped lower risk in a portfolio. This chart created by Vanguard, based on market data between 1926 and 2011, shows the impact of adding bonds to dampen volatility (as measured by standard deviation), while not drastically reducing returns.

Screen Shot 2014-10-20 at 10.04.52 AM

But those conditions, and that steady decline in rates, no longer exist. Today we have an environment where rates have very little room to fall and at some point will go up (we just don’t know when). Once rates finally rise, bond prices will fall, which means investors will lose money. So when someone recommends diversifying one’s portfolio with bonds these days, I wonder: is there some kind of bond that’s immune to interest rate rises that I don’t know about?

Junk, or high-yield, bonds certainly don’t fit the bill as they are also vulnerable to rate hikes. Moreover, there have been warnings that the accumulation of high-risk corporate and emerging markets bonds by mutual fund companies such as Pimco and Franklin Templeton could create a liquidity crisis in the future. Investors have been pouring money into these funds, but shocks could turn into even larger debacles when investors look to liquidate and the large amounts held by fund companies become hard to sell.

Short-duration bond mutual funds might be less affected by rising interest rates. Fidelity has a whole suite of such funds, which the fund group says “can help investors in a low and/or rising rate period.”

There are also mutual funds that “ladder” bonds with staggered durations so that a portion of the portfolio will mature every year. The goal of these laddered bond funds is also to achieve a return with less risk over all interest rate cycles.

The problem for investors saving for retirement is that the returns on such funds are so low that it’s hard to justify allocating anything to them other than savings you will need in three to five years.

I won’t be retiring for another several decades, so at this point, a market crash isn’t really my greatest risk. My greatest risk is not growing my retirement account as much as humanly possible over the next ten to 15 years. To meet that goal, I think I should stick with equities and use any future crashes as buying opportunities. I’m not 100% comfortable with that decision, but I don’t feel I have much choice. I would love to find a bond fund that could be both a safe haven and could provide steady returns, but I just don’t think that exists anymore.

Konigsberg is the author of The Truth About Grief, a contributor to the anthology Money Changes Everything, and a director at Arden Asset Management. The views expressed are solely her own.

More on investing:

Should I invest in bonds or bond mutual funds?

What is the right mix of stocks and bonds for me?

How often should I check my retirement investments?

Read next: Why Americans Can’t Answer the Most Basic Retirement Question

MONEY retirement planning

Why I Want a Real Retirement, And You Should Too

Senior on sailboat
Monika Lewandowska—Getty Images

Working longer may improve your finances. But that doesn't mean it will make you happier.

Looking forward to retirement seems irrational these days. Rising life expectancies and the increasing funding problems for Social Security and private pension plans have led to the recommendation that we defer retirement past the traditional age of 65—perhaps into our 70s and beyond. It’s getting to the point where many in my generation have started to assume that they might never retire at all.

It’s true that delaying retirement into your 70s will likely improve your financial situation. Yet in an age when work has come to permeate most of our waking hours, it seems even more important to delineate at least a decade when you’re still healthy enough to both reap the benefits of that hard work and devote your time to other pursuits. And yet the concept of a real retirement has come to symbolize financial irresponsibility or laziness or both.

This was not always the case. Over the last century, the retirement age has gone through enormous fluctuations, mostly dictated by public and corporate policy, not personal preference. In the period of 1950 to 1955, the median age of retirement was 66.9 for men and 67.7 for women, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But changes in defined benefit plans increasingly encouraged early retirement as a way to cut the work force, and by 1990-1995 the median retirement age had dropped to about 62 for both men and women.

But as defined contribution plans such as 401(k)s have overtaken traditional pension plans, employers no longer have as much sway over the timing of their workers’ retirements. Instead, that decision is more often dictated by savings rates and the financial markets that drive investment performance. Once again employment rates for Americans ages 65 to 69 and 70 to 74 have begun to rise, a trend only accelerated by the Great Recession. As of September, 60% of workers age 65 or older had full-time jobs, up from about 55% in 2007.

Meanwhile, for anyone born after 1960, the “full retirement age” (meaning the age you get full Social Security benefits) is now 67, and there are strong incentives to delay benefits until 70.

The consequences of working longer on our health and well-being are largely unknown, but researchers at the University of Southern California have recently examined data from 12 countries, including the U.S., and their preliminary results are telling. Contrary to conventional wisdom that working longer provides a buffer for mental health, retirement actually reduces depression, their analysis shows. What does increase the probability of depression, and reduces life satisfaction, is not being bored by not working, but health conditions that impact the ability to go about your daily activities. While household wealth, being married and one’s level of education are all positively related to life satisfaction, income alone does not seem to have a significant effect on depression or life satisfaction.

Granted, many of us still won’t have a choice about when we retire. We may not be able to afford to stop working when we want to, or we may get forced into early retirement by the loss of a job. But we may also want to take a look at whether the work-until-you-drop ethos has become more of a cultural commandment then a financial imperative—“I’d get bored if I didn’t work” is the new corollary to the often-uttered “I’m crazy busy.” It’s as if retirement has become so elusive that we’ve decided to tarnish the whole concept. But there is nothing wrong with looking forward to retirement if one has done a decent amount of saving and planning.

I love working, but two decades from now I think I would prefer to downsize rather than stay in the workforce an extra five or 10 years in order to maintain my standard of living in retirement. (From a purely balance sheet perspective, if continuing to work has adverse effects on well-being, then the fiscal savings from delayed retirement may be offset by increased health expenditures.) Medicine may be prolonging our life, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s improved the quality of the later stages of that life. I want to make sure that I have not just the time also but the ability to enjoy more than just a few years when work is no longer the priority.

Konigsberg is the author of The Truth About Grief, a contributor to the anthology Money Changes Everything, and a director at Arden Asset Management. The views expressed are solely her own.

MONEY retirement planning

Why Housing Costs Are the Biggest Threat to Your Retirement

House on top of cash
Caroline Purser—Getty Images

We should be looking at smaller "starter" homes as our "stay put" homes.

If there is one thing we have been trained to fear about retirement, it’s crippling medical bills that threaten to force us out of our homes and decimate our nest eggs. But it turns out that we might be better off worrying about our future housing expenses, as these costs are the single largest category of spending in retirement.

Moreover, the costs of maintaining a home remain stubbornly high as we age, according to a new analysis by the Employee Benefit Research Institute. For those 75 and older, housing expenses accounted for a whopping 43% of spending, even as other expenditures (except for health care) dropped.

Time was that retirees were supposed pay down their mortgages or drastically downsize their homes before retirement. But that behavior has changed, perhaps as a result of the refinancing boom or the housing crash—or both. According to the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, more people are carrying mortgage debt into their retirement years, up from 22% in 2001 to 30% in 2011.

Even as the rate of homeownership has remained stable, the median amount owed on mortgages for people aged 75 and older increased 82% during that same decade, from $43,000 to $79,000. Delinquency in paying mortgages and foreclosures also greatly increased for seniors from 2007 to 2011.

The lesson in all this is that while financing one’s home can be hugely beneficial, mortgages can grow into significant burdens when you’re living on a fixed income. The time to stretch yourself financially on a home is not when you’ve already left the workforce and have no way to make more money.

It’s not just larger mortgages that saddle retirees—it’s everything that comes with homeownership, including property taxes, homeowner’s insurance, home repairs, housecleaning, gardening and yard services. At the same time, transportation, entertainment and travel expenses all tend to decline as a natural course of retirement.

It seems that people have an easier time forgoing vacations and restaurant dining than they do square footage and lawns, which is understandable. The comforts of home can bring great stability during a time of transition. But as we struggle to figure out how much money we will need in retirement, we might need to consider how to defray the expense of these patterns.

For those in mid-career, now is the time to get control of our mortgage costs. As a recent study by Pew Charitable Trusts shows, Gen X has lower wealth than their parents did at their age, in large part because they hold nearly six times more debt, including student loans, unpaid medical bills and credit card balances. And that’s despite having generally higher family incomes than their parents did.

Given these headwinds, we may want to rethink the American way of constantly trading up to larger houses through our 40s and 50s. The more we grow accustomed to more luxurious living, the harder it will be to downsize when it makes sense. Perhaps instead of looking at smaller houses merely as “starter homes,” we should be looking at them as “stay put” homes instead.

Millennials face a different challenge. After taking longer to get started in their careers, they will end up buying houses later in life, which means they risk carrying significant mortgages into retirement. They would benefit from not biting off more than they can chew—putting more cash down than the minimum, not buying more house then they can really afford, and making sure to max out out their 401(k)s or IRAs. Home equity can be an excellent investment, but only if it enhances rather than jeopardizes financial security—now and in the future.

Konigsberg is the author of The Truth About Grief, a contributor to the anthology Money Changes Everything, and a director at Arden Asset Management. The views expressed are solely her own.

MONEY real estate

The High Cost of Failing to Refinance

Many homeowners have missed out on big savings by not refinancing, new research finds. Here's why.

Until recently, I’d never seen a mortgage rate south of 6%. Of course I’d heard that rates had dropped to almost half that, and yet, for a variety of reasons, I did not take advantage of them by refinancing my existing mortgage. Though illogical, my inertia is not uncommon. According to a recent paper by researchers at the University of Chicago and Brigham Young Unversity, the “failure to refinance” strikes approximately 20% of homeowners who could greatly benefit from the lower interest rate environment.

The costs of this failure can be sizeable over time. Say you had a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage of $200,000 at an interest rate of 6.5%. If you refinanced at 4.5 % (approximately the decrease between 2008 and 2010), you would save over $80,000 in interest payments over the life of the loan, even after accounting for refinancing transaction costs. If you had refinanced in late 2012, when rates hit an all-time low of 3.35%, you would save $130,000 over the life of the loan.

Failing to refinance isn’t completely irrational. Refinancing is a difficult transaction requiring extensive paper work, an appraisal and hefty fees. All of which triggers what the researchers call “present bias,” a psychological phenomenon that makes it harder for people to make decisions that may have upfront costs but longer-term benefits.

My own story illustrates the way that present bias impacts behavior. When I bought my current home in 2007, my rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage was 6.625%. As rates began to drop, I was never entirely clear how to calculate at what point refinancing would make sense financially. At the same time, I was receiving mail offers promising to save me money merely by increasing the number of mortgage payments a year. That made me wary of being taken advantage of by lenders looking to make money in transaction costs off of unsuspecting buyers. (This wariness has also always made me distrustful of any loans with “points.”)

By 2011, however, rates had clearly fallen enough to justify a refinance. But by that point I was considering moving, and I didn’t want to go through all the paperwork and hassle if I was going to be selling soon anyway. Then, like many others, I found that my house’s assessed value had fallen sharply from my purchase price. Given the weak real estate market at the time, it made more sense to stay put. Even though I knew that refinancing would still benefit me, the uncertainty about my future brought about by market forces only delayed my decision more.

Finally, in 2013, I refinanced. I wound up borrowing more as part of another financial transaction, but at an interest rate of 3.46%, my monthly payments are almost the same as they were before. I have since heard of wise colleagues who, instead of lowering their monthly payments, refinanced from a 30-year mortgage to a 15-year mortgage and as a result will own their homes outright in half the time while making about the same payments.

Which, if you think about it, means that they overcame “present bias” twice: first in the act of refinancing, and then by forgoing having extra cash on hand to spend now in order to be debt-free in 15 years. At the end of the day, refinancing isn’t just about saving money; it’s about what you do with that money that can make a huge difference to your long-term financial security.

Konigsberg is the author of The Truth About Grief, a contributor to the anthology Money Changes Everything, and a director at Arden Asset Management. The views expressed are solely her own.

MONEY 401(k)s

Why Your 401(k) May Only Return 4%

Faucet dripping coins
peepo—Getty Images

The biggest dilemma in retirement investing may be how hard it will be to grow our savings in the next decade.

There have been a lot of predictions from professionals lately about what kind of returns we can expect on our investments, and it doesn’t look good. In June PIMCO bond guru Bill Gross announced at the Morningstar conference (and subsequently to almost every media outlet in existence) that a close-to-zero interest rate was the “new neutral.” Gross envisions a market where bonds return just 3% to 4% a year on average, while stocks return a modest 4% to 5%.

Gross’s forecast echoes that of a number of other investment experts, including Ray Dalio, the head of Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund, who called this post-Recession era we are in “the boring years,” during which investors are likely to earn returns of just 3% for bonds and 4% for equities.

These low-return predictions are based, in part, on diminished expectations for the U.S. economy, with the IMF recently warning that our GDP growth may get stuck at 2% for the long term unless Washington adopts significant reforms.

A 4% return would be a huge decline from the historical performance of the U.S. stock market, which has earned an average annual 10% over the last 40 years. Many financial planners still use 8% to 10% as the expected return for stocks in 401(k)s and other investment portfolios. All of which presents a real predicament for those of us in the middle of our careers who have been assuming strong growth will carry us over the finish line.

You see, the real benefit of starting to invest early, the reason people in their 20s are exhorted to open retirement accounts, has always been the power of compounding in the last 10 or so years of a 40 year horizon—the hockey stick uptick on a line graph. But in order to experience that exhilarating growth curve, you need to earn an average annual return in the high single digits, not the low single digits. Compounding simply doesn’t have as much power if you start off earning 10% for 20 years and then earn only 4% for the second 20 years.

If these predictions come true—and I hope that they won’t—it will be much more difficult to make money off of money in the future. This will impact just about everybody age 40 or older: current retirees and people living off fixed incomes, those hoping to retire in five to ten years, and those in mid-career who will need to rethink their strategy moving forward.

The only real solution, as far as I can tell, is to save more and spend less. You can try to earn more, but another strange feature of this recovery-that-doesn’t-feel-like-a-recovery is that while unemployment has dropped, wages have remained stagnant. Besides, depending on your tax bracket, you would have to earn a lot more to get to the same amount after taxes that you could put aside by saving.

So while the investment pundits are making their predictions and coining their phrases, allow me to offer my own: we may now be entering the era of the New Frugal. After three decades of a declining personal savings rate, from 10% in the 1970s to 1% in the 2000s, the financial crisis of 2008 brought savings back up above 5% where it continues to hover. My prediction is that if stock market returns become stagnant, we might continue to see a reduction in consumption and an increase in savings.

What this all means for the economy as a whole I will leave to the experts to ponder. All I know is that if I can no longer expect a 10% average annual return on my retirement fund, I’m going to be a heck of a lot more conservative about how much I spend.

Konigsberg is the author of The Truth About Grief, a contributor to the anthology Money Changes Everything, and a director at Arden Asset Management. The views expressed are solely her own.

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