5 ways to simplify your finances

For many Merriman clients, getting investments right is only part of achieving their financial goals. I am often asked what else people can do to help improve their financial outlook, and I always answer that being financially disciplined is just as important as investing wisely.

Here are five things I think everyone should do to simplify their financial situation and become more disciplined with their finances:

  1. Consolidate your accounts. If you have an inactive 401(k) with an old employer, transfer it into an IRA. Often, 401(k)s have limited investment options, and you can take advantage of diversification and management benefits by moving your old 401(k) into an IRA account held elsewhere.  Likewise, if you have several IRAs in your name, consider consolidating them into one. There is no real benefit to maintaining multiple accounts, and it can be a headache to manage them all.
  2. Get a handle on what you are spending. There are dozens of apps and websites that can simplify the process of tracking expenses. Mint.com is a great example – it is free and anyone can use it. If you own an Apple device, go the App Store and search for “budget.” Find the app with the highest ratings and download it. Knowing how much money you spend and what you are spending it on is important, both before and after retirement.  You cannot, for instance, know how much you are going to need in retirement unless you know how much you typically spend.
  3. Put your savings on auto-pilot. If your employer matches contributions to your 401(k), you should contribute at least enough to max out that matching and take advantage of that “free money.” If you can afford more, all the better. Don’t forget that saving is not limited to company-sponsored retirement accounts. Saving toward your emergency fund in a bank account or your child’s education in a 529 college savings plan is just as important.  As with your 401(k), you can set these types of accounts up for automatic contributions. Ideally, you would work with a Certified Financial Planner™ to figure out the exact percentage you need to contribute based upon your specific set of circumstances.
  4. Limit the number of credit cards you own.  The more cards you own, the more complicated it becomes to manage them. If you have several cards with outstanding balances, consider transferring balances to consolidate your credit card debt at a lower interest rate and save yourself a substantial amount in interest payments.
  5. Use an auto-pay service to manage and pay your bills. I have a Schwab checking account that allows me to pay thousands of vendors directly from my account. It also alerts me when I have a bill due. If you do not bank with Schwab, don’t worry – most banks now offer a similar service. Ask your local branch for help in getting this set up.

Some of these steps may sound daunting, but are actually quite easy to complete. I know you’ll be glad you did it. Ultimately, these steps will allow you more time to focus on the things that matter most to you.

Dangerous words: “It’s different this time.”

During periods of significant volatility in the capital markets, investors can lose patience and/or perspective and draw the conclusion that long term risk/return dynamics no longer apply because somehow “it’s different this time.”

I’ve been in this business for over 25 years, and time and again I have seen investors come to this conclusion, making big portfolio shifts because of it, only to regret these decisions later.

I vividly recall conversations with folks in the 1980s who insisted that Asian stock funds should constitute the bulk of one’s portfolio since America was in decline and Asia was rising. In the1990s, it often was very difficult to have meaningful conversations about asset allocation and thorough diversification when so many genuinely felt that all they needed was a few technology stocks or technology stock funds. In 2008 and early 2009, few had the stomach to trim their nicely performing government bond funds and add to their stock funds during the worst stock market environment since 1932.

In each of these examples, the phrase ‘it’s different this time’ crept into many conversations. Obviously, none of the above decisions worked out well.

At Merriman, we’ve always maintained the portion of clients’ accounts invested in stocks at 50% US and 50% foreign. This has served our clients well for many years. We invest this way because the US represents less than 50% of the world stock market capitalization, and because maintaining this kind of allocation can serve to increase returns while lowering overall portfolio risk.

Lately, foreign stocks have been significantly underperforming US stocks, and this has been causing some people to ask if maintaining our desired 50/50 US/foreign split still makes sense. And once again, we are starting to hear the ‘it’s different this time’ comment again. It is human nature to think this way, but history would suggest that one should not make a big shift in allocation because of it, other than some routine portfolio rebalancing.

Keep this in mind: While it’s always a different set of circumstances driving the capital markets, rarely is it wise to conclude that a paradigm shift is at hand and make major portfolio shifts in response. As legendary investor Sir John Templeton used to say, “The four most dangerous words in investing are ‘it’s different this time.’”

It’s not what you know, it’s what you do

Behavioral finance is a fascinating field to me. It’s the study of how our emotions and judgment can affect decision making with regard to investments. In the time I have spent advising people on their investments, I have witnessed the power fear and greed can have over logic and reason. The good news is that the more we understand where our intuitions and biases come from the better chance we have at making good investment decisions.

Studies continue to find that investors earn lower returns than the funds in which they invested. Dalbar, a market research firm, issued their 2011 report showing investors achieved a mere 41.9% of the S&P 500‘s performance over the twenty years ending December 31, 2010. In other words, investors managed to leave a staggering 58.1% on the table. What could possibly explain missing out on these returns? It is largely due to investor behavior.

The goal of investing is to buy low and sell high – that’s a given – but our emotions, intuitions, and bias frequently work against us. Most investors did not begin buying technology related stocks in the early 90’s when prices were still reasonable; the vast majority bought in the late 90’s at astronomical prices, just before the “tech bubble” burst. Similarly, it was incredibly difficult to keep many investors positive about the prospects of the future during the first quarter of 2009 – the market bottomed on March 20, 2009 from the “housing bubble”- just before the markets began a climb to double in less than 2 years.

I recently read a wonderful new book written by Larry Swedroe & RC Balban, called “Investment Mistakes Even Smart Investors Make, And How To Avoid Them,” and I think it’s worth adding to your reading list.

I won’t re-write their book for you here, but Swedroe and Balban have done a great job of compiling a list of the most common mistakes and what you can do to avoid making them. This book will help you better understand why our investment strategies work, even though they can sometimes seem counterintuitive.

If you are not a client of ours and are considering hiring an advisor, this book may help you understand the mistakes a disciplined investment strategy can help you avoid.

By studying history and behavior, we can learn to avoid the same mistakes in the future. We can also understand why the disciplined investment decisions are sometimes the most uncomfortable. If we do our job well, you’ll be encouraged to stand by them anyway, knowing that discipline will pay off in the long-run.

Are you saving enough in your 401(k) to retire comfortably?

I am asked this question often, which is good because if someone is not saving enough we can make adjustments and get them on the right track. The people I worry about are the ones who don’t ask this question, either of me or of themselves. Maybe they are afraid of what the answer might be or they figure their employer or the custodian of the plan is looking out for them. Well, typically they aren’t.

In 2006, the Pension Protection Act went in to place. This was a nice step towards increased retirement savings, even for the most complacent of employees. This Act allows employers to automatically enroll their employees in the company 401(k) plan. Everyone has the ability to opt out, but they have to request it. Due to human nature, we tend to follow the path of least resistance, so the results were a huge increase in 401(k) plan participation. According to a recent study done by Aon Hewitt Associates, the participation rate in company 401(k) plans is now at 85% compared with 67% for companies who do not have an automatic enrollment program.

So if you are automatically enrolled in to your company’s 401(k) plan, will you have enough money to retire? The answer is: Not likely. You will need to dig a bit deeper in to your personal situation.

The Pension Protection Act I mentioned also allows companies to set an initial default contribution amount. So a company could automatically enroll an employee in their 401(k) plan, designating for example, 3% of that person’s salary for deposit in to the 401(k) plan. This has turned out to be good and bad. The good news is that the complacent employee is participating in the 401(k) plan and automatically contributing 3% of their salary, unless they make the effort to opt out. The bad news is that 3% savings per year of your salary is not likely going to get you through retirement, unless you are expecting to really reduce your standard of living.

Let’s assume our complacent employee is named Larry. Larry makes $50,000 a year and is 35 years old. He plans to retire at age 65. If Larry adds 3% per year to his 401(k) plan (because he just can’t be bothered to opt out or add more), he will have added $45,000 over 30 years (this is before any investment gain).

If Larry made no investment selections for his 401(k) plan (which we know he probably wouldn’t, as he is Lazy Larry), then he would have automatically been invested in the money market. This would amount to about $45,000 in today’s dollars of spending money when he turns 65. Even with some Social Security, that isn’t going to last Larry long. (more…)

A little perspective

In managing investments, making decisions based on feelings of excessive optimism or excessive pessimism rarely ends well. Maintaining a balanced perspective in an ever-changing and often chaotic world is a difficult yet critically important part of achieving long-term investing success.

To be sure, the news lately has been enough to scare many people into believing that things are shaping up for another 2008 debacle. Seemingly at every turn we hear of the debt crisis in the Eurozone, the possibility that the United States might not meet its deadline to raise the debt ceiling and the ramifications that may have, China potentially slowing down, and the U.S. housing and unemployment figures remaining at disappointing levels. And this is just to name a few!

While the United States and the rest of the world are facing many significant obstacles, and while nobody knows for sure how future events will unfold, I offer the following examples of recent positive, noteworthy items that went largely ignored:

  • Japanese auto manufacturers and parts suppliers resumed shipments after being forced to essentially shut down because of last winter’s earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear incident.
  • Foreign and domestic auto manufacturers established new plants and/or increased hiring in the United States, and sales increased meaningfully. (more…)