TIME Business

Planning for Unretirement and Why It Pays Dividends to Work Longer

It pays to invest in your human capital, maintaining your skills and adding to your education

Several years ago I picked up a book published in 1920 by Simon Wilson Straus, president of the American Society for Thrift. His description of the popular image of thrift in History of the Thrift Movement in America still rings true nearly a century later. “Penny-counting, cheese-paring, money-hoarding practices were looked upon by the public as the ideals sought by those who tried to encourage thrift,” wrote Straus. “The man who practiced this virtue, it was felt, was he who hoarded his earnings to such an extent that he thrust aside every other consideration in order to keep from spending his pennies, his dimes, and his dollars.” Who wants to live a “cheese-paring” life? Sounds bad, doesn’t it?

But an emphasis on thrift doesn’t mean living cheaply– far from it. Thrift or frugality is really shorthand for an approach grounded in matching our money with our values. Straus defines thrift this way: “It is the thrift that recognizes that the finer things of life must be encouraged,” he writes. “The skilled workman, the artist, the musician, the landscape gardener, the designer of beautiful furniture, the members of the professions — all those, in fact, who, through the devotion of their abilities, contribute to the real betterment of mankind, must be given support through our judicious expenditures.”

Here’s how David Starr Jordan, founding president of Stanford University, defined thrift at the 1915 International Congress for Thrift in San Francisco. He told the assembled audience that thrift “does not involve stinginess, which is an abuse of thrift, nor does it require that each item of savings should be financial investments; the money that is spent on the education of one’s self or of one’s family, in travel, in music, in art, or in helpfulness to others, if it brings real returns in personal development or in a better understanding of the world we live in, is in accordance with the spirit of thrift.”

Who didn’t have a moment during the Great Recession of looking around their home or apartment, opening closets and drawers, gazing into garages and storage bins, and wondered, “Why did I buy that? Is this how I want to live? I’m paying off credit card debt for that?” The modern Mad Men have done a bang-up job equating the good life with owning lots of stuff paid for on an installment plan. Didn’t we always know this wasn’t quite right? By thinking through “What really matters to me?” the unretired movement will come up with far more sensible answers to the question “How much is enough?” than the financial services industry. Harry West, the former CEO of Continuum and current senior partner at Prophet, hit on the thrift mindset. In our conversation he remarked on the flexibility that comes with minimal expenses and debts. “When you talk to boomers, what you find is that freedom is really, really important. And you think about that because they grew up in the ’60s or were born in the ’60s, which was a time of freedom,” says West. “Freedom is a low overhead.” That expression should be a mantra for young and old workers alike.

The frugal mindset is spreading, thanks to growing awareness of sustainability. The term sustainability has many shades of meaning, but several themes have emerged in recent years. An awareness of global warming. The desire to cut down on waste. Concerns over the health of the environment. Worries about the vibrancy of local communities. My favorite definition of sustainability comes from the late actor and non-profit entrepreneur Paul Newman: “We are such spendthrifts with our lives,” said Newman. “The trick of living is to slip on and off the planet with the least fuss you can muster. I’m not running for sainthood. I just happen to think that in life we need to be a little like the farmer, who puts back into the soil what he takes out.” Sustainability has gone mainstream and, for growing numbers of people, being frugal is green and being green is frugal.

There is nothing cheap or penny pinching behind the pursuit of judicious expenditures, thrift and sustainability. Instead, thrift is a mindset for trying to match your spending with your values. “In some ways, that what’s financial independence is. You don’t have to answer to anyone because you have enough,” says certified financial planner Ross Levin. “When I am working with clients as they get older or near the end of life, they talk about the things they wish they had done. They talk about their regrets, and the regrets always focus on experiences. It’s always something like, ‘I wish I had done more with the kids when they were younger.’ It’s never ‘I wish I had bought a Mercedes.'”

The urban scholar Richard Florida, in his book The Great Reset, looked at potential economic changes in the U.S. following the Great Recession. His bottom line forecast could have been addressed to aging workers. “The promise of the current Reset is the opportunity for a life made better not by ownership of real estate, appliances, cars, and all manner of material goods, but by greater flexibility and lower levels of debt, more time with family and friends, greater promise of personal development, and access to more and better experiences.”

Unretirement will change not only how an aging population thinks about old age but also how it plans the elder years. Over the past three decades the baby boom generation has been taught to equate planning for retirement with savvy investing. In essence, the retirement planning mantra has been stocks for the long haul, asset allocation and picking mutual funds. But for the typical Main Street boomer the equation has always been wrong and, deep down, we’ve always known we couldn’t rely on Wall Street’s lush return promises. The core of unretirement planning is jobs, and the new unretirement planning mantra is encore careers, networking, and delay filing for Social Security. “You should be looking for the kind of jobs you could do that are challenging and interesting and offer an acceptable income,” says Arthur Koff, the septuarian founder of Retired Brains. “The time to do it is while you’re working.”

Next Chapter in Kansas City, Kansas is housed in a small brick building reminiscent of a bank in a section of town that houses the courts. Karen Hostetler is director of Next Chapter. She turned 65 in 2013. Next Chapter is a small grassroots organization with a mission of helping older workers in transition toward unretirement. I met with Next Chapter activists Pat Brune, Cris Siebenlist and Hostetler in a conference room in the fall of 2013. It was a lively conversation and at one point planning for unretirement came up.

Siebenlist: “Frankly, not everyone will figure it out. They’ll do a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Other people will float around for awhile and say, Is this all there is?”

Hostetler: “You need to plan. It takes commitment to figure it out.”

Brune: “If I could change my transition to what I did, it would have been to be more intentional. I said yes to what came along.”

Hostetler: “Don’t jump into the first thing that comes along.”

Bruning: “I only see my intentions looking back. It’s only later that I see how the dots are connected.”

The work longer message means it pays to invest in your human capital, maintaining your skills and adding to your education. Maybe you’d like to stay at your current company, but put in fewer hours or shift over to a different division. If you want to move on, know your employer is likely to hand you a pink slip soon, or want to start your own business invest in researching your options, from hiring a career coach to investigating temp agencies to picking up a book like Marci Alboher’s The Encore Career Handbook: How To Make a Living and a Difference in the Second Half of Life.

Most importantly, invest in your networks of family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances. Scholars have documented that about half or more of all jobs come through informal channels–connections to friends, families and colleagues. You may also want to create new connections to ease the transition into the next stage of life.

Take this example from Ralph Warner, the founder of Nolo.com, the self-help legal guide business, and author of Get a Life: You Don’t Need A Million to Retire Well. Let’s say it’s a dream of yours to work on environmental causes in retirement, says Warner. The pressures of daily life stop you from getting engaged, however. You’ll get to it, tomorrow. Now you’re 65 or 70 years old. You head toward an environmental organization you admire and say, “Here I am. How can I help you? The answer is going to be probably not much,” says Warner. Maybe help out with the phones or mailings. “Now, take that same person who in their 40s or 50s gets involved with several local environmental groups and at age 70 is a respected senior person. They’re valued and they’re needed. They earned it.”

They’ve just won the aging boomer trifecta: an income, a community and a mission.

Don’t get me wrong: Saving is important. Max out your 401(k) and IRA. Create a well-diversified, low-fee retirement savings portfolio. Savings is your margin of safety because life has a way of upending well-thought-out plans. An unexpectedly ill parent. A divorced child moving back home with the kids. For Robert Lawrence, it was a detached retina.

Lawrence was a teacher at Jefferson Community and Technical College (now Kentucky Community and Technical College) in Louisville. He taught there for about 20 years, commuting up to 10 weeks every year to visit his partner in New York City. Lawrence planned on retiring at age 66. Just after his 64th birthday, he stopped by a colleague’s office for a brief “hello” and ended up listening to a long, detailed explanation why his colleague planned working until age 70. The conversation convinced Lawrence to hold off retirement for another six years.

That is, until two months later. His retina detached and several surgical repairs didn’t hold. He retired at age 65 in 2005, sold his home, downsized and moved into his partner’s condo in Jackson Heights, Queens. His partner, age 75, is a consulting engineer, often putting in 40 hour workweeks. “If it had not been for health reasons I certainly would have been working,” says Lawrence.

A surgeon in New York fixed his retina. Lawrence now volunteers at a hospice in Manhattan, visits with grieving caregivers after the death of a loved one, and helps out at his local church. With a comfortable pension and some savings he chose flexibility over pay. The reason: Lawrence and his partner are railroad “rare mileage” collectors. “We’re railroad fanatics,” he says. They ride the rails throughout the U.S., often seeking out obscure lines to collect their miles. “The only reason I did not seek out teaching in New York is my partner didn’t want me to because of these trips,” adds Lawrence. “He’s in command of his own time as a consultant. If you’re teaching, you’re not.”

When it comes to retirement planning, the goal should be to put your savings on auto-pilot as much as possible. Instead, spend your time creating opportunities for an income and meaning later in life. The return on the unretirement investment will dwarf anything you’ll get from picking a good mutual fund.

Chris Farrell is a contributing economics editor for Bloomberg Businessweek and senior economics contributor for public radio’s Marketplace Money, Marketplace, and Marketplace Morning Report. Excerpted from Unretirement, copyright 2014 by Chris Farrell. Reprinted by permission of Bloomsbury.

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.

MONEY Banks

Bank of America Is Paying Up for the Mortgage Mess, But Who Will Get the Money?

Affordable housing construction
Kiet Thai—Getty Images

The banks has agreed to provide billions of dollars in "consumer relief." Here's what that actually means.

Last week, Bank of America agreed to pay almost $17 billion dollars in a settlement with the Justice Department. The settlement is about what Bank of America (and Merrill Lynch and Countrywide, which BoA later acquired) disclosed to investors about mortgage-backed securities, not about how it treated homeowners. Nonetheless, a large portion of the settlement—$7 billion—will be used for consumer relief.

So who will actually see some of that money? Bank of America can pay off its new obligation in four ways:

Reducing the principal or modifying payments on some mortgages. Mortgage modification isn’t anything new—the government has had programs to encourage banks to do this for years, though they’ve been criticized as too little or too late. However, compared to past settlements, the BoA deal does break some ground by targeting the relief. For the first time, 50% of principal reductions will go to borrowers in the areas hardest hit by the housing crisis. The Office of Housing and Urban Development has published an interactive map of these areas here. The settlement also gives the bank incentives to prioritize FHA and VA loans.

Bank of America’s agreement with the government also provides more substantial aid than previous settlements in certain cases. For example, BoA is required to provide $2.15 billion in principal forgiveness, which consists of lowering underwater mortgages to 75% of the property’s long term value, and reducing the mortgage’s interest rate to 2%.

“Those borrowers who do get assistance through the settlement are getting pretty substantial assistance,” says Paul Leonard, founder of the Center for Responsible Lending.

In addition to principal reduction, BoA will receive credit toward the settlement amount by forgiving mortgage payments, allowing for delayed payments, or extinguishing some second liens and other debts.

Who actually gets this help, though, is up to BoA. “Bank of America still gets to make all the final calls,” Leonard explains. “Even if I’m a borrower in default in a hardest hit area, who would seem like natural candidate for assistance, there is no entitlement to me.” As for the timetable, the bank has until 2018 to provide this aid, although the agreement includes incentive to finish early. BoA suggests anyone in serious hardship call 877-488-7814 to see if they qualify for an existing program.

More low and moderate income lending. For low-income Americans, first time homebuyers, or those who lost their home in a short sale or foreclosure, it can be extremely difficult to get a loan—even with a good credit. This settlement offers BoA credit for giving mortgages to these groups, or those in hardest hit areas, as long as they have respectable FICO score.

Building affordable rental housing. It’s also hard to find cheap rental housing, and financing for such development is scarce. As part of BoA’s agreement with the Justice Department, the bank will provide $100 million in financing for construction, rehabilitation or preservation of affordable rental multi-family housing. Half of these units must be built in Critical Family Need Housing developments.

Getting rid of blight and preventing future foreclosures. One side effect of the housing crisis was the large number of abandoned or foreclosed homes plaguing neighborhoods across the nation. BoA will earn credit for demolishing abandoned homes, donating properties to land banks, non-profits, or local governments, and providing funds for legal aid organizations and housing counseling agencies. The bank will also receive credit for forgiving the principal of loans where foreclosure isn’t being pursued.

Housing advocates say they’ll be keeping an eye on how quickly BoA and other banks that have agreed to consumer relief act on these programs. One worry is that by going slowly they could end up paying off the settlements with modifications and lending they would have done anyway. “If the promised relief arrives, as written, then it will bring a measure of relief that is badly needed by a lot of communities out there,” acknowledges Kevin Whelan, national campaign director of Home Defenders League. “But compared to the damage these institutions caused, it’s not really a large amount of money.”

Related:
What Bank of America Did to Warrant a $17 Billion Penalty
How to Get a Mortgage When Your Credit is Bad
Behind on Your Mortgage? You May Be Eligible for Some Help

MONEY Saving

This App May Let You Retire on Your Spare Change

Acorn App
Acorn

The new Acorns app rounds up card purchases and invests the difference for growth, with no minimums and low fees.

Americans spend $11 trillion a year while saving very little. So it makes sense to link the two, as a number of financial companies have tried to do over the past decade. The latest is the startup Acorns, which hopes to hook millennials on the merits of mobile micro investing over many decades.

Through the Acorns app, released for iPhone this week, you sock away “spare change” every time you use your linked credit or debit card. The app rounds up purchases to the nearest dollar, takes the difference from your checking account, and plunks it in a solid, no-frills investment portfolio. So when you spend, say, $1.29 for a song on iTunes, the app reads that as $2 and pushes 71¢ into your Acorns account. With a swipe, you can also contribute small or large sums separate from any spending.

The Acorns portfolio is purposely simple: Your money gets spread among six basic index funds. The weighting in each fund depends on your risk profile, which you can dial up or down on your iPhone. More aggressive settings put more money in stocks. But you always have some money in each fund, remaining diversified among large and small company stocks, emerging markets, real estate, government and corporate bonds. The app will be available for Android in a few weeks and through a website in a few months.

Why Millennials Are the Target

Micro investing via a mobile device clearly targets millennials, who show great interest in saving but have been largely ignored by financial advisers and large banks. Young people may not have enough assets to meet the minimum requirements of big financial houses like Fidelity, Vanguard, and Schwab. With Acorns, there are no minimums. There are also none of the commissions that can render investing in small doses prohibitively expensive. “We want small investors who can grow with us over time,” says Acorns co-founder Jeff Cruttenden.

This approach places Acorns in the middle a rash of low-fee, online financial firms geared at young adults—including Square, Betterment, Robinhood, and Wealthfront. Such firms hope to capitalize on young adults’ penchant for tech solutions and lingering mistrust of large financial institutions. Cruttenden says a third of Acorns users are under age 22. They like to save in dribs and drabs—and manage everything from a mobile device.

Acorns charges a flat $1 monthly fee and between 0.25% and 0.5% of assets each year. The typical mutual fund has fees of 1% or more. Yet many index fund fees run lower. The Vanguard S&P 500 ETF, which invests in large company stocks, charges just 0.05%. If you have a few thousand dollars to open an account, and the discipline to invest a set amount each month, you might do better there. But remember that is just one fund. With Acorns you get diversification across six asset classes—along with the rounding up feature, which seems to have appeal.

Acorns has been testing the app all summer and says the average account holder contributes $7 a day through lump sums and a total of 500,000 round ups. Cruttenden says he is a typical user and through rounding up his card purchases has added $521.63 to his account over three months.

A New Twist on an Old Concept

Mortgage experts tout rounding up as a way to pay off your mortgage quicker. On a $200,000 loan at 4.5% for 30 years your payment would be $1,013.38. Rounding up to the nearest $100, or to $1,100, would cut your payoff time by 52 months and save you $26,821.20 in interest. Rounding up your card purchases works much the same way—only you are accumulating savings, not cutting your interest expense.

Bank of America offers a Keep the Change program, which rounds up debit-card purchases to the nearest buck and then pushes the difference into a savings account. Upromise offers credit card holders rewards that help pay for college. But Acorns’ approach is different: the money goes into an actual investment account with solid long-term growth potential.

One possible drawback is that this is a taxable account, which means you fund the Acorns account with after-tax money. Young adults starting a career with a company that offers a tax-deferred 401(k) plan with a match would be better served putting money in that account, if they must choose. But if you are like millions of people who throw spare change in a drawer anyway, Acorns is a way to do it electronically and let those nickels, dimes, and pennies go to work for you in a more meaningful way.

Read more on getting a jump on saving and investing:

 

MONEY Kids and Money

The Best Thing You Can Do Now for Your Kid’s Financial Future

CAN'T BUY ME LOVE, from left: Patrick Dempsey, Amanda Peterson, 1987.
Your teens summer earnings can't buy love, but they can buy a bit of retirement security. Buena Vista Pictures—Courtesy Everett Collection

Open a Roth IRA for your child's summer earnings, and talk her through the decisions on how to invest that money, suggests financial planner Kevin McKinley.

In my last column, I extolled the virtues of opening—and perhaps even contributing to—a Roth IRA for a working teenager. In short, a little bit of money saved now can make a big difference over a long time, and give your child a nice cushion upon which to build a solid nest egg.

Besides underscoring the importance of saving for retirement early and regularly, opening a Roth IRA can help your child become a savvy investor (a skill many people learn the hard way).

Here’s how:

Make the Initial Contribution

Your child needs to earn money if he or you are going to contribute to an IRA on his behalf. For the 2014 tax year, the limit for a Roth IRA contribution for those under age 50 is the lesser of the worker’s earnings, or $5,500.

The deadline for making the contribution is April 15, 2015. But you can start sooner, even if your teen hasn’t yet earned the money on which you will be basing the IRA contribution. (If the kid doesn’t earn enough to justify your contributions, you can withdraw the excess with relatively little in the way of paperwork or penalties.)

For a minor child, you will have to open a “custodial” Roth IRA on her behalf, using her Social Security number. Not every brokerage or mutual fund company that will open a Roth IRA for an adult will do so for a minor, but many of the larger ones will, including Vanguard, Schwab, and TD Ameritrade.

As the custodian, you make the decisions on investment choices—as well as decisions on if, why, and when the money might be withdrawn—until she reaches “adulthood,” defined by age (usually between 18 and 21, depending on your state of residence). Once she ages out, the account will then need to be re-registered in her name.

Depending on which provider you choose, you may be able to make systematic, automated contributions to the IRA (for example, $200 per month) from a checking or savings account. To encourage your teen to participate, you might offer to match every dollar he puts in.

Have the “Risk vs. Reward” Talk

How an adult should invest an IRA depends upon the person’s goals and risk tolerance—the same is true for a teen. You can help set those parameters by pointing out to your child that, since he’s unlikely to retire until his 60s this is likely to be a decades-long investment, and enduring short-term downturns is the price for enjoying higher potential long-term gains.

You might also show him the difference between depositing $1,000 now and earning, say, 3% annually vs. 7% annually over the next 50 years—that is, a balance of $4,400 vs. a balance of $29,600. Ask your child: Which would you rather?

No doubt, your kid will choose the bigger number.

But you also want this to be a lesson in the risks involved in investing. You might talk about what a severe one-year decline of 40% or more might do to his investment and explain that bigger drops are more likely in investments that have the potential for bigger growth. Now how do you feel about that 7%?

Some teenagers will be perfectly fine accepting the risk. Others may be more skittish.

You also might explain that there are options that will not decline in value at all—such as CDs and money market accounts. But should he choose those safer options, he’ll be trading off high reward for that benefit of low risk. In fact, while his money will grow, it will likely not keep up with the rate at which prices grow (“inflation,” in adult terms). So his money will actually be worth less by the time he’s ready to retire.

Some risk, therefore, will likely be necessary in order to grow his money in a meaningful way.

Choose Investments Together

Assuming he can tolerate some fluctuation, a stock-based mutual fund is probably the most appropriate and profitable strategy—especially since a fund can theoretically offer him a ownership in hundreds of different securities even though he may only be investing a few thousand dollars. You might explain that this diversification protects against some of the risks of decline since some stocks will rise when others fall.

A particularly-suitable option might be a “target date” or “life cycle” fund. These offerings are geared toward a specific year in the future—for instance, one near the time at which your child might retire.

Target date funds are usually a portfolio comprised of several different funds. The portfolio allocation starts out fairly aggressive, with a majority of the money invested in stock-based funds, and much smaller portion in bond funds or money market accounts.

As time goes by—and your child’s prospective retirement draws nearer—the allocation of the overall fund gradually becomes more conservative.

The value of the account can still rise and fall in the years nearing retirement, but with likely less volatility than what could be experienced in the early years.

One low-cost example of this type of investment is the Vanguard Retirement 2060 Fund (VTTSX).

Of course, if you choose a brokerage account for your child’s Roth IRA, you have the option of purchasing shares in a company that might be of particular interest to your kid. Choosing a company that is familiar to your child may not only inspire her to watch the stock and learn more about it, but eventually profit from the money she is spending on “her” company’s products.

If you’re going to go this route, you should include a discussion on the increased volatility (for better or worse) of owning one or two stocks, rather than the diversification offered by the aforementioned mutual fund.

Kevin McKinley is a financial planner and owner of McKinley Money LLC, a registered investment advisor in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. He’s also the author of Make Your Kid a Millionaire. His column appears weekly.

Read more from Kevin McKinley:

 

MONEY alternative assets

How to Play Banker to Your Peers

IOU note
Getty Images

Lending Club's IPO filing puts peer-to-peer lending in the spotlight. If you're thinking about opening your wallet, here's what you need to know.

UPDATED—2:01 P.M.

Your bank makes money off borrowers. Now you have the opportunity to do the same. One of today’s hottest investments, peer-to-peer lending, involves making loans to strangers over the Internet and counting on them to pay you back with interest. The concept may be a bit wacky, but the returns reported by sites specializing in this transaction—from 7% to 14%—are nothing to scoff at.

Investors aren’t laughing either. Lending Club, one of the leading peer-to-peer lending companies, filed to go public on Wednesday. The New York Times reports the company is seeking $500 million as a preliminary fundraising target and may choose to increase that figure.

Such lofty ambitions should be no surprise, considering that the two biggest P2P sites are growing like gangbusters. With Wall Street firms and pension funds pouring in money as well, Lending Club issued more than $2 billion of loans in 2013, and nearly tripled its business over the prior year. In July, Prosper originated $153.8 million in loans, representing a year-over-year increase of over 400%. The company recently passed $1 billion in total lending. “A few years ago I would have laughed at the idea that these sites would revolutionize banking,” says Curtis Arnold, co-author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Person to Person Lending. “They haven’t yet, but I’m not laughing anymore.”

Here’s what to know before opening your wallet.

How P2P Works

To start investing, you simply transfer money to an account on one of the sites, then pick loans to fund. When Prosper launched in 2006, borrowers were urged to write in personal stories. Nowadays the process is more formal: Lenders mainly use matching tools to select loans—either one by one or in a bundle—based on criteria like credit rating or desired return. (Most borrowers are looking to refi credit-card debt anyway.) Loans are in three- and five-year terms. And the sites both use a default investment of $25, though you can opt to fund more of any given loan. Pricing is based on risk, so loans to borrowers with the worst credit offer the best interest rates.

Once a loan is fully funded, you’ll get monthly payments in your account—principal plus interest, less a 1% fee. Keep in mind that interest is taxable at your income tax rate, though you can opt to direct the money to an IRA to defer taxes.

A few hurdles: First, not every state permits individuals to lend. Lending Club is open to lenders in 26 states; Prosper is in 30 states plus D.C. Even if you are able to participate, you might have trouble finding loans because of the recent influx of institutional investors. “Depending on how much you’re looking to invest and how specific you are about the characteristics, it can take up to a few weeks to deploy money in my experience,” says Marc Prosser, publisher of LearnBonds.com and a Lending Club investor.

What Risks You Face

For the average-risk loan on Lending Club, returns in late 2013 averaged 8% to 9%, with a default rate of 2% to 4% since 2009. By contrast, junk bonds, which have had similar default rates, are yielding 5.7%. But P2P default rates apply only to the past few years, when the economy has been on an upswing; should it falter, the percentage of defaults could rise dramatically. In 2009, for example, Prosper’s default rate hit almost 30% (though its rate is now similar to Lending Club’s). Moreover, adds Colorado Springs financial planner Allan Roth, “a peer loan is unsecured. If it defaults, your money is gone.”

How to Do It Right

Spread your bets. Lending Club and Prosper both urge investors to diversify as much as possible.

Stick to higher quality. Should the economy turn, the lowest-grade loans will likely see the largest spike in defaults, so it’s better to stay in the middle to upper range—lower A to C on the sites’ rating scales. (The highest A loans often don’t pay much more than safer options.)

Stay small. Until P2P lending is more time-tested, says Roth, it’s best to limit your investment to less than 5% of your total portfolio. “Don’t bank the future of your family on this,” he adds.

MONEY Investing

You Told Us: What You Would Do First with an Extra $1,000

Stack of money
iStock

MONEY asked you how you'd deploy a $1,000 windfall. Your answers made us laugh, made us cry, and made us proud.

Related: 35 Smart Things to Do With $1,000

Related: 24 Things to Do with $10,000

Related: 13 Things to Do with $100,000

Tell Us: What Would You Do With $1,000?

MONEY Investing

13 Things to Do with $100,000 Now

domino stacks of $10,000 bills
Ralf Hettler—Getty Images

Oh, if only six figures landed in your lap tomorrow. Hey, you never know. In case it does—or in case you're lucky enough to have 100 grand put away already—you'll want to have these smart moves in your back pocket.

1. Say “yes” to a master
Unless you live in one of the few areas where the real estate market hasn’t come to life, the decision of whether to move or improve is likely tipped in favor of remodeling, says Omaha appraiser John Bredemeyer. A new bedroom, bath, and walk-in closet may cost you $40,000 to $100,000. But it’s unlikely you’d find a bigger move-in-ready abode with every­thing you want for only that much more, especially after the 6% you’d pay a Realtor to sell your current home.

2. Burn the mortgage
If you’re within 10 years of retiring, paying off your house can be a wise move, says T. Rowe Price financial planner Stuart Ritter. You’ll save a lot of interest—$24,000, if you have a $100,000 mortgage with 10 years left at 4.5%. Eliminating the monthly payment reduces the income you’ll need in retirement. And as long as you’re not robbing a retirement account, erasing a 4.5% debt offers a better return than CDs or high-quality bonds, says Ritter.

3-5. Buy a business in a box
One hundred grand won’t get you a McDonald’s (for that you’ll need 10 or 15 friends to match your investment)—but there are a number of other good franchises you can buy around that price, says Eric Stites, CEO of Franchise Business Review. Here are three that get top raves in his company’s survey of owners:

  1. Qualicare Family Homecare (a homecare services firm)
  2. Window Genie (a window and gutter cleaning service)
  3. Our Town America (a direct mail marketing service)

6. Tack another degree on the wall
On average, someone with a bachelor’s degree earns $2.3 million over a lifetime, vs. $2.7 million for a master’s and $3.6 million for a professional degree. The payoff varies by field: In biology a master’s earns you 100% more, vs. 23% in art. So before applying, find out how much more you could earn a year, research tuition, and determine how long it’ll take you to recoup the investment.

7. Make sure you won’t be broke in retirement
More than half of Americans worry about running out of money in retirement, Bank of America Merrill Edge found. Allay your fears with a deferred-income annuity: You pay a lump sum to an insurance company in exchange for guaranteed monthly payments starting late into retirement. Because some buyers will die before payments start, you get more income than with an immediate annuity, which starts paying right away. A 65-year-old woman who puts $100,000 into an annuity that kicks in at age 85 will get $3,500 a month, vs. $600 for one that starts this year. In the future you could see deferred annuities as an investment option in your retirement plan; the Treasury Department just approved them for 401(k)s.

8. Get a power car that runs on 240v
For just over $100,000 (after a $7,500 tax rebate), you can be the proud owner of an all-electric Tesla Model S P85, with air suspension, tech, and performance extras. Yes, that’s a pretty penny. But you’ll help the planet, eliminate some $4,000 a year in gas bills—and get a ride that gets raves. “The thing has fantastic performance,” says Bill Visnic of Edmunds.com. It goes from 0 to 60 in 4.2 seconds and drives 265 miles on a charge, which requires only a 240-volt outlet.

9-12. Put hotel bills in your past
Think you missed the window on a vacation-home deal? True, the median price has jumped 39% since 2011, according to the National Association of Realtors. “But while you can’t buy just anything, anywhere, for 100 grand anymore, there are still decent deals out there in appealing ­places,” says Michael Corbett of Trulia.com. Here are four markets where the price of a two-bedroom condo goes for around that amount:

  • Sunset Beach, N.C./$96,000
  • Fort Lauderdale/$116,000
  • Colorado Springs/$117,000
  • Reno/$117,000

13. Tone up your core
The average American saving in a 401(k) has nearly $100,000 put away ($88,600, to be exact, according to Fidelity). With this core money, you’re likely to do better with index funds vs. active funds, says Colorado Springs financial planner Allan Roth. “The stock market is 90% professionally advised or managed, and outside Lake Wobegon, 90% can’t be better than average.” His three-fund portfolio: Vanguard’s Total Stock Market Index, Total International Stock Index, and Total Bond Market.

Related: 35 Smart Things to Do With $1,000

Related: 24 Things to Do with $10,000

Tell Us: What Would You Do With $1,000?

MONEY Economy

Is Inflation Really Dead?

201409_TBQ_1
Joe Pugliese

We put the question to Pimco Chief Economist Paul McCulley, who explains why you don't have to worry about rising prices—and why Forrest Gump was a great economist.

Paul McCulley, 57, retired from Pimco in 2010 but returned as chief economist in May. Pimco runs almost $2 trillion, including Pimco Total Return, the world’s largest bond mutual fund. McCulley coined the term “shadow banks” in 2007 to explain how Wall Street could trigger a financial panic.

MONEY assistant managing editor Pat Regnier spoke to McCulley in late July; this edited interview appeared in the September 2014 issue of the magazine.

Q: Is inflation really dead?

A: Inflation, which is below 2% per year, may very well move above 2%. In fact, that is very much the Federal Reserve’s objective. So it will move up, but only from below 2% to just above 2%. But in terms of whether we will have an inflationary problem, I don’t think we have much to worry about. Back in my youth, in the days of Paul Volcker at the Fed in the early 1980s, inflation was considered the No. 1 problem. Now I’m not even sure it’s on the top 10 list, but it for darned sure ain’t No. 1.

Q: What’s holding inflation down?

A: First, we’ve had very low inflation for a long time, and there’s inertia to inflation. The best indicator of where inflation will be next year is to start from where it is this year. We won the war against inflation. It’s that simple.

Second, we still have slack in our economy, in both labor markets as well as in product markets. Companies have very little pricing power—as an aside, the Internet is a reinforcing factor because consumers can find the price of everything. And we have too many people unemployed or underemployed for workers to be running around demanding raises.

Finally, the Fed has credibility, so expectations of inflation are low. Unmoored expectations could foster higher inflation, as companies try to anticipate higher costs. Fed credibility is a bulwark against that. Unlike 30 years ago, the Fed has had demonstrable success in keeping prices stable by showing it is willing to raise short-term rates to slow growth and inflation.

Q: What about quantitative easing, in which the Fed buys bonds with money it creates? Doesn’t that create inflationary pressure?

A: I’ve been hearing that song for the last five years. And inflation has yet to show up on the dance floor. People say, “The Fed’s been printing money. It’s got to someday show up in higher inflation.” My answer, borrowing from the famous economist Forrest Gump, is that money is as money does. And it ain’t doin’ much.

Q: You mean money isn’t getting out of banks into the broader economy to drive up prices?

A: Yeah. I mean the Fed has created a lot of money, but it’s done so when the private sector is in deleveraging mode, meaning people are trying to get out of debt. There has been low demand for credit, so the inflationary effect of money creation has been very feeble.

Q: You’ve said that a low-inflation world also means low yields and low fixed-income returns. Why?

A: People my age—I’m 57—remember the days of double-digit interest rates and double-digit inflation. But as the Fed’s fought and won its multidecade war against inflation, interest rates have come down. And it has been a glorious ride for bond investors from a total-return perspective because when interest rates fall, bond prices go up, so you earn more than the stated interest rate.

But now inflation is actually below where the Fed says it should be. So there’s nowhere lower that we want to go on inflation to pull interest rates down further. Now what you see is what you get, which is low stated nominal yields. In fact, rates will drift up in the years ahead, which is actually negative for the prices of bonds.

Q: What does this mean for how I should be positioning myself as a bond investor?

A: First and foremost is to set realistic expectations that low single digits is all you’re going to get from your bond allocation.

New normal

Q: Is there anything I can do to get better yields?

A: For bond investors, what makes sense right now is to be in what Pimco Total Return Fund manager Bill Gross calls “safe spread” investments. These are shorter-duration bonds—meaning they are less sensitive to interest rate changes—that also pay out higher yields than Treasuries do. These could be corporate bonds or mortgage-related debt. They can also be global bonds.

Q: Pimco says investors should also hold some TIPS, or Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities. Why would I own an inflation-protected bond in a low-inflation world?

A: It’s a diversification bet in some respects. But also, the Fed’s objective is 2% inflation, higher than it is now. What’s more likely? That the Fed misses the mark by letting inflation fall to 1%, or by letting inflation hit 3%? I think 3% to 4% is more likely. TIPS protect you against the risk of 3% to 4% inflation. The Fed has made clear that if it’s going to make a mistake, it wants to tilt to the high side, not the low.

Q: Why wouldn’t the Fed just aim for the lowest possible inflation rate?

A: When the next recession hits, do you want a starting point of inflation in the 1% zone? No. A recession pulls down inflation, and then you are in the zero-inflation or deflation zone.

Q: And deflation is bad because … ?

A: Because then people with debt face a higher real burden of paying it off.

Q: How much time does Pimco spend guessing what the Fed will decide? Pimco Total Return lagged in 2013 when the Fed signaled an earlier-than-expected end to quantitative easing.

A: You’ve asked me a difficult question because I wasn’t here. But I was here for the entire first decade of the 2000s, and I know a lot about the firm. I can tell you the firm spends a huge amount of time and, more important, intellectual energy in macroeconomic analysis, including trying to reverse-engineer what the Fed’s game plan is. Fed anticipation is a key to what Pimco does. You don’t always get it right, but not for a lack of effort.

Q: You argued the 2008 crisis was the result of good times making investors complacent. With Fed chair Janet Yellen talking about high prices for things like biotech stocks, is complacency a danger again?

A: I don’t worry too much about irrational exuberance in things like biotech. It doesn’t involve the irrational creation of credit, as the property bubble did. Think of the Internet and tech bubble back in 1999. It created a nasty spell, but it didn’t lead to five years in purgatory for the economy either.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser