Well, we just past the halfway point of 2020. Five months to go. Time for a mid-year financial checkup. I’m a big proponent of doing an annual review each January, but this year has been a bit…unusual…so I encourage you to look things over now and make sure that your retirement plans are still on track. Here are a few things to focus on as well as a free Financial Checkup Checklist to help.
Investments. If you’ve been afraid to open your statements or log in to your accounts, it’s time. Look at where you are, but more importantly, look at where you’ve been. Markets plunged and then rallied, so you’ll see volatility for sure. But if it’s more than you can stomach (or more than your plan can handle), it’s time to rethink your risk and allocation.
Work. If you lost your job or changed jobs due to the pandemic, you need to re-run your retirement plan and make sure that it still works. A new job means a different income, different benefits and a different 401k. Those are all variables in your plan. If they change, your timeline for retirement might change.
Savings. It’s natural to get defensive in the face of uncertainty. When markets are plunging and the economy looks shaky, it’s easy to quit saving and investing. I see it all the time. It’s one thing if you lost your job or your income shrank considerably. But if you’re still working and you just quit saving out of fear, turn those automatic investments back on.
Budget. Did your spending change during the lockdown? Mine sure did. When you have no idea how bad a downturn will get or how long it will last, it’s natural to reevaluate your spending and reconsider your wants vs. needs. Ultimately, that’s a good thing. Nothing impacts your ability to retire quite as much as your retirement budget. The leaner you can make it, while still doing the things that are important to you, the better off you’ll be. Cut the fat and optimize your spending for the lifestyle you want. Here’s a budget worksheet to help.
Debt. Divide your total debt by your income. That ratio should get smaller over time. According to research by Charles Farrell, your Debt/Income ratio should be around 1.0 by age 45 and zero by age 65. How are you doing? What would your finances look like if you were debt free? How would you feel? What would you do with the extra money? How soon could you retire? Make a list of your debts and put together a plan to pay them off. And if you have a mortgage, consider refinancing while rates are at historic lows.
Insurance. Review all your coverages, but pay particular attention to your life insurance. The pandemic is a good reminder that unexpected things happen. If your family is depending on your income, then you need to have a plan to replace that income if you die. A general rule of thumb is to have 7 to 10 times your annual income in life insurance, but you should meet with a trusted adviser to discuss the specifics of your situation.
Legal affairs. Again, the pandemic is a good reminder that unexpected things happen. Make sure that your will, powers of attorney and estate plan are accurate, up-to-date and reflect your current wishes.
One more thing before I go. Don’t just focus on your finances or legal affairs. One of the most important ingredients to a successful retirement is to decide what you really want out of life and to start taking those things very seriously. COVID-19, while terrible, has likely helped you in that regard by forcing you to reexamine your habits, routines, priorities, purpose, relationships, finances, lifestyle, career and any number of other things. What have you learned about yourself? Don’t just ignore those lessons and slowly ease back into your pre-pandemic rut. Design a lifestyle—home, work, leisure—that reflects your priorities and is faithful to what you want out of life. You still have plenty of time to do that before the end of the year. Redeem 2020 by turning the disasters and difficulties into a better, more secure, more fulfilling life.
My family and I just finished a 4,200-mile, 7 state road trip. A few nights we stayed in hotels. More often we camped. Sometimes camping was a luxury tent with a fireplace and running water (Thanks Under Canvas!). Sometimes camping was our trusty tent deep in the backcountry of a National Park or on the banks of the river we were rafting. This isn’t our usual trip, but after cancelling a trip to Italy in March and after being in lockdown mode for several months, we wanted to get out of the house. And while 2020 is a terrible year in most regards, it seemed well suited for a good, old fashioned road trip. So we plotted our itinerary on Google Maps, made a few bare bones plans, loaded the car and hit the road. Here’s a bit about the trip and what things are like out there right now. Hopefully, you can use it as inspiration for a Kerouac-style adventure of your own.
We’re trying to get our daughter to all 50 states before she graduates from high school, so any trip in the US usually involves trying to check off a new state or two. This time we got 3: North Dakota, Montana and Idaho. On our way north, we visited Badlands National Park in South Dakota as well as Mt. Rushmore where we stayed for a night. We left early the next morning and drove to Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. This is the rugged land where Teddy went to disappear after losing his mom and his wife on Valentine’s Day 1884. The campgrounds are closed due to COVID, so we got a backcountry permit, which is basically just telling them the dates you’ll be there and what trailhead you’re departing from, so they know where to look if you don’t come back. We shouldered our packs, hiked in several miles and then found a good spot a few hundred yards up a hillside and away from the trail. Sunset, moonrise (the picture at the top of this post) and sunrise the following morning were all pretty amazing. We didn’t see any other people, but we had three buffalo visitors while we were watching the sunrise.
After exploring the park a bit the following day, we drove to Whitefish, Montana where we enjoyed the town for a few days and did some hiking in Glacier National Park. From there we drove to Oregon where we met up with friends from Washington, rented two whitewater rafts and started a four-day river rafting trip down the Wallowa and Grande Ronde rivers. The first few hours were a little hairy as we learned to read the river, row the boats and avoid large boulders, but it quickly became second nature. Each day consisted of rafting for about 15 miles and then finding a place on the shore to camp. Like us, our friends enjoy a good meal, so we left the dehydrated meals at home and instead had things like Dutch Oven lasagna, breakfast burritos with all the fixings and fish tacos made with freshly caught trout. We’d talk and play games around the campfire and then get up the next day, load the boats, shove off and do it again. It was a really fun experience. After reaching the pullout, we loaded the cars and drove to a BNB in Joseph, Oregon for some much-needed showers and a few days of hiking and exploring. That’s where we parted ways with our friends and started heading towards home via Hells Canyon and Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho and then Yellowstone National Park and Grand Tetons National Park in Wyoming before eventually making it back to Nebraska.
In case you’re wondering…
Was everything busy? Not terribly so. International travel is shut down, so more people are choosing road trips for sure. But many others are choosing to stay home altogether, so it didn’t seem overly busy, with the exception of a few National Parks that are always busy regardless.
Are the national parks open? Yes and no. Most parks are at least partially open, but many have closed their campgrounds and lodges. Visit www.nps.gov to check on a park your considering. And if you don’t have a National Park Pass, you need one. It’s an incredible deal. $80 per year if you’re under 62 and $80 for life if you’re over 62.
What about gas stations, hotels, restaurants, etc.? All open for the most part, but they may have reduced capacity or certain requirements like wearing a mask.
Did you wear a mask? Yep. Anytime we were using the gas station, checking into a hotel or generally around the public, we wore a mask to try to limit the risk that we’d catch anything or spread it if we’re asymptomatic. Most places have signs requiring it or at least strongly requesting it.
How much can/should you plan? We made reservations for things like our raft rental and some of our lodging. It was pretty bare bones, however. We often made hotel reservations in the car by looking at Google Maps and figuring out how far we’d get that day. We never had a problem finding anything.
Tips for staying safe
Don’t go if you’re sick. Sometimes the symptoms of COVID are mild, sometimes not. We traveled to some pretty secluded places and didn’t want to be stranded far from medical care. If you’re not feeling well, stay home.
Watch for travel restrictions. We traveled through a number of states, so we checked ahead of time to make sure that they didn’t have any travel restrictions. Just google “current state travel restrictions.”
Design the trip with social distancing in mind. We chose to drive our own car rather than fly. We chose camping where we could instead of hotels. We wore masks when we were around people. We met up with friends who we knew have been social distancing for several months. We chose places that were secluded and activities that were solitary. There are plenty of ways to have a great trip and still be a little cautious.
Bring along some PPE. We brought masks, disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer. Again, a bit of caution is a good thing.
Pack snacks and food. We brought snacks for the car and food for when we were camping. We ordered takeout a few times, but only ate in a restaurant once toward the end of the trip. It had a large outdoor seating area and there was only one other patron there. With a little planning, it was easy to avoid large crowds.
If you want to hit the road from the comfort of your own home, here are a few great road trip books that I’ve enjoyed and you might as well. Safe travels!
“It’s an ill wind that doesn’t blow some good.” – Pa Ingalls in Little House on the Prairie
COVID-19 has been a tragedy. There’s no disputing that. Thousands dead. Millions sick. Millions more jobless. It’s hard to overstate the negative impacts of the pandemic. And yet, to paraphrase Pa Ingalls, even terrible situations can produce some good. As difficult as this time has been, I can’t help but think that many of us will look back on it as one of the best things to happen to us. Not in a “I just won the lottery!” sort of way, but in a “Painful, but positive” sort of way. Keep reading to see what I mean and to see how you can make sure that this “ill wind” blows some good for your retirement.
It forces us out of routine. It’s easy to get in a rut. Easy to put life on autopilot and live the same day over and over. Even if we don’t like the rut we’re in, we’ll often stay there because it feels safe. Human nature is such that we will often choose being unhappy over being uncertain. One thing this virus has done in spades is forced us all to live life in a different way. It grabbed the steering wheel and yanked us out of the rut. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s almost certainly a good thing. It gives us a fresh perspective. It helps time pass more slowly (because routine is the enemy of time). It opens us up to new experiences and new ways of thinking about things. It presents new opportunities. Yes, it brings uncertainty, but hiding in all that uncertainty is opportunity. Look for it.
It forces us to reexamine our priorities. Priorities are the things in life that are most important to us. They are the people, activities or things that we really care about and that bring us meaning. When life is going along swimmingly and we’re healthy and have plenty of time and money, we tend to get lazy. We allow things in that clutter or confuse our priorities. When life gets hard, however, and one or more of our priorities are threatened, it refocuses our mind on what’s important. Hard times force us to cut and say “no.” They force us to get back to the basics. That means a life less cluttered with filler and more focused on the things that bring you joy and meaning. That’s a good thing.
It forces us to think differently about debt. When the economy is strong and interest rates are low, it’s tempting to add debt. You almost feel foolish if you don’t. “One percent interest? Why wouldn’t I buy a $60,000 car?” But when hard times hit, servicing that debt becomes difficult if not impossible. Debt increases risk and reduces cash flow. It adds stress. It can derail your plans and dreams. It weakens your financial “immune system.” The pandemic is a good reminder to use debt sparingly.
It shows the fallacy of “appearances.” On a sunny day, a house built on the sand doesn’t look any different than a house built on rock. But when the storms come, the difference is pretty clear. It’s easy to get caught up in appearances. It’s tempting to keep up with the Jones’s. But even in the best of times, that strategy can be stressful and unfulfilling. In bad times it can be catastrophic. Machiavelli once wrote “The great majority of mankind are satisfied with appearances, as though they were realities.” Don’t be one of those people. Build a life that is happy, secure and fulfilling, not one that only looks good on Instagram.
It exposes our weaknesses. Warren Buffett once said “It’s only when the tide goes out that you learn who has been swimming naked.” There’s nothing like a combination global pandemic + financial crisis to help expose your weaknesses. Too much risk in your investments? Too much debt? No rainy day fund? Strained relationship with your spouse? Underlying health issues you’ve been ignoring? Settling for a life that isn’t what you want? If the tide went out and you find yourself a bit overexposed, maybe it’s time to go shopping for a swimsuit.
One of the most important ingredients to a successful retirement is to decide what you really want out of life and to start taking those things very seriously. COVID-19, while terrible, has likely helped you in that regard by forcing you to reexamine your habits, routines, priorities, purpose, relationships, finances, lifestyle and any number of other things. Embrace that process and you’ll likely come out the other side a stronger, more resilient, more self-aware person.
What are some practical ways to apply all this? I’ll put a few ideas below along with links to articles and resources at Intentional Retirement.
Hi everyone. Below is a quick summary of the COVID-19 legislation that affects retirees. Before jumping into that, a quick apology. Sorry I haven’t written much lately. January and February are normally very busy months for me as I meet with clients for annual reviews. Just as that was wrapping up, the world (and markets) went haywire with the pandemic and I’m just now coming up for air.
New Rules That Affect Retirees
The coronavirus stimulus packages contain something for (almost) everyone: businesses, individuals, students and yes, retirees. I won’t bore you with a comprehensive list, but I’ll give you a quick overview of the elements that impact retirees.
Changes to Required Minimum Distribution (RMD) rules: The CARES Act allows you to suspend RMDs for 2020 from 401(k)s, 403(b)s and IRAs. If your IRA took a hit and you don’t need the money, it’s probably a good idea to skip your 2020 RMD. That will hopefully give your account time to recover from the recent downturn. If you have your RMD set to happen automatically each year, you’ll want to call your adviser or IRA custodian to stop it. If you’ve already taken it for the year, there is a provision that allows you to put it back. Certain restrictions apply, so check with your IRA custodian for details. Also keep in mind that Congress made another change to RMDs at the beginning of the year that pushed the required age from 70 ½ to 72.
Penalty waived for early retirement withdrawals: Normally, you have to pay a 10% penalty if you take a distribution from your IRA prior to age 59 ½. That penalty is waived for 2020 on amounts up to $100,000 for anyone affected by COVID-19 (e.g. sickness, job loss, reduced hours, etc.). You’ll still owe taxes on the distribution, but you can spread the taxes out over three years. And if you end up not needing some or all of the money, you can put it back into your IRA within three years and that contribution won’t count toward your annual contribution limit.
Stimulus checks: Even if you’re retired and not working, you may still be eligible for a stimulus check. The CARES act provides one-time payments of $1,200 for individuals and $2,400 for couples. The benefit begins to phase out at adjusted gross income of $75,000 for single filers and $150,000 for those married filing jointly. They phase out completely at $99,000 for singles and $198,000 for married filing jointly. Initially, people were required to file a 2018 or 2019 tax return in order to receive the benefit, but many retirees are not required to file a tax return, so the government now says it will look at SSA-1099 benefit statements. If you are receiving Social Security and are eligible for the benefit, the government will send out your stimulus check automatically in the same manner that you receive your regular benefits (likely via direct deposit).
Expanded loans from qualified plans: If you have a 401(k) or other qualified plan, you can now borrow 100% of your vested account balance, up to a maximum of $100,000. The deadline to initiate the loan is September 23, 2020. If you already have a loan outstanding, you can delay repayments for up to one year.
Delayed tax filing deadline: The due date for filing federal income tax returns (and paying any balance due) has been moved from April 15, 2020 to July 15, 2020. This extension applies automatically to all taxpayers and you don’t need to file any additional forms to qualify. The delay applies to 2019 returns as well as estimated tax payments for Q1 of 2020 that would otherwise have been due on April 15. If you’re still unable to file by July 15, you can file for a normal extension using Form 4868. Keep in mind that the regular rules still apply to that second extension (i.e. it extends the due date of your filing, but not the due date of any taxes due). Not all states extended their filing deadline, so be sure to check your state’s deadline to make sure you file on time.
Delayed mortgage payments: The CARES Act allows certain borrowers to delay their mortgage payments for up to a year. Be careful with this provision, however, because depending on who owns your mortgage (your bank or another servicer), you may be allowed to tack the payments onto the end of the loan or you may be required to pay all of your back payments in a lump sum at the end of the forbearance period. Check with your mortgage provider for details.
Medicare and COVID-19: Under earlier legislation (the Families First Coronavirus Response Act), health plans are required to cover COVID-19 testing at no cost to the patient. If you’re already on Medicare, it provides coverage as well. Medicare will cover COVID-19 testing and also covers hospitalization and treatment. In addition to these benefits, Medicare has expanded its coverage of telehealth benefits. For more information on all these things, visit https://www.medicare.gov/medicare-coronavirus.
These are definitely unprecedented times. Stay safe and touch base if you have any questions or if there’s anything I can do to help you.
Quick thought for today.
If you want to live an intentional life, you should focus primarily on
the present. Let me explain. We all spend part of our days—either mentally
or physically—in the past, present or future.
You’re sitting there right now in the present, but maybe you’re thinking
about something you did this past weekend or dreaming about something you hope
to be doing 5 years from now. Past, present
and future. We all spend our time
inhabiting each of those spaces.
Unfortunately, most of us mess up the proportions. We spend too
much time and energy on the past and the future and not enough on the
present. We look back and worry about the
things we did or didn’t do. We look
forward and dream about the things we hope to eventually do. That only leaves a small amount of our time
where we’re honest to goodness living in and making the most out of the
I’m not saying that you should ignore the past and the
future, but the present should be your priority. Anything else means you’re focusing on things
you can’t change (the past) or things that might not happen (the future). Here are a few suggestions on how to get the
How to use your past:
Don’t obsess over it. Don’t
waste your time thinking about regrets or wishing you had done or said things
differently. Don’t cling to
bitterness. Don’t hold grudges. Instead,
think fondly of the good times and be grateful for the wisdom earned and lessons
learned from the challenging times. Use
it as a foundation to build on. Remember
the people, places and things that made you who you are.
How to prepare for your future: Don’t push everything to the future. Don’t treat it as some magical time where you’ll finally start living. Delayed gratification is great if it’s allowing you to work toward something, but it becomes a problem if it becomes an excuse for life avoidance. Use the runway between the present and the future for planning and preparation. Use it to set the proper direction for your life and to get any necessary prerequisites out of the way. Use it to set goals, dream, plan, save and even to experiment. All of those things will help you hit the ground running and make the most out of your future years.
How to live in the present: Don’t get bogged down in the routine of
life. Don’t focus all your time on the
maintenance of living. Don’t live a life
that is frantic and unintentional. Be
present in your days, with your friends and during experiences like vacations
rather than worrying about how to make it look a certain way on social
media. Decide what you really want out
of life and start doing that. Today. Even if you have to start small, start. Have intentional action in your relationships,
activities, health, hobbies, pursuits and every other area of your life. Be proactive.
Learn. Do. Go. Experiment. Take risks.
In other words, live.
A good balance of past/present/future is something like
10/60/30. If yours looks more like
30/20/50, you’re not really living life.
You’re worrying about the life you’ve already lived and dreaming about a
life you hope to someday live.
At Intentional Retirement, we believe that retirement is an
intentional way of living that prioritizes freedom, fulfillment, purpose and
relationships. It starts today and is an
incremental process of aligning your lifestyle and actions with your highest
priorities. To do that, you need to
focus on the present. Stop fretting over
what is past or dreaming about what is to come.
Today is a new day. Start doing.