“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.
We just wrapped up Labor Day Weekend here in the U.S. That is the unofficial end of summer and it
means we only have four months to go before we finish up this year and start a
new decade. That’s plenty of time to get
a few things done and finish the year strong.
Think about any financial, investing, lifestyle, relationship, health or retirement goals you had for 2019. How have you done so far? How can you make the most out of the next four months? Focus in on one or two areas where you’d like to make progress before year-end and get to work. Maybe that’s making a written retirement plan, increasing your savings rate or making a plan to finally get debt free. Maybe that’s repairing a relationship, starting a new workout program or learning a new skill. Maybe you’ve reached your health deductible for the year and it’s a good time to schedule that procedure. Or maybe it’s time to plan that trip (always a good idea). Think about how good it would feel to finish the year with a few major items checked off your To-Do list. Think about how much progress you could make in 2020 if you ended 2019 with solid momentum.
Part of my job here is to help people avoid
complacency. To push you to have a tough
conversation with yourself about what you really want out of life and to
encourage you to take those plans really seriously. Consider yourself pushed. Touch base if there’s anything I can do to
help. And props for everything you’re
doing so far. The fact that you’re
following along at this site tells me that you’re no slouch. Saving for retirement and being intentional
with life are not easy tasks. Most
people don’t do it. You’re in that small
minority of people who are laying the foundation for their future through
discipline, hard work and good stewardship.
Well done! Keep up the good
work. Finish the year strong.
I’ve seen some disturbing data points recently:
- 78 percent of American workers report living paycheck to paycheck. This became very visible during the recent government shutdown.
- 40 percent of Americans said they couldn’t cover a $400 unexpected expense without going into debt. That number jumps to 60 percent for a $1,000 expense.
- A record 7 million Americans are 3 months delinquent on their car loans.
- In 2018, student loan debt hit $1.46 trillion and $166 billion of that is seriously delinquent. Both record highs.
- People in their 60s with student loans owe an average of $33,800 in student debt. They owe $86 billion total which is a 161% increase since 2010.
- People over 60 owed $615 billion in credit cards, auto loans, personal loans and student loans as of 2017. That’s an 84% increase since 2010 and the biggest increase of any age group.
- The percentage of bankruptcy filers older than 65 is higher than it’s ever been.
Whatever the reasons, we’re spending too much, saving too little and living on the bleeding edge of financial insecurity. Sure, everyone on Facebook looks like they’re #LivingTheirBestLife, but peer behind the curtains and there’s trouble. To make matters worse, all of this is happening at a point in time when the economy is in relatively good shape, unemployment is at multidecade lows and the stock market is near all-time highs. What happens if/when we have another recession?
I’m going to spend the next several posts discussing these worrisome trends and talking about how you can overhaul your expenses, save more and improve your retirement security. Today, however, I’m just giving you a friendly reminder. The general idea behind retirement is to reach a point of financial independence where work is optional. If you’re not on track for financial independence, you’re doing it wrong. Stay tuned over the next few weeks and I’ll give you some practical ideas on how to get there.
Hardly a week goes by that I’m not asked the question: “Should I pay off my mortgage before I retire?” The answer, of course, depends. On math. On your situation. On your personal preferences. Let’s look through some of the key variables to consider and then I’ll tell you what I’m doing with my house (spoiler alert: I’m a big proponent of retiring debt free) and give you some tips on how to retire your mortgage early, should you choose to do so.
Variables to consider
Interest rate. What is the interest rate on your mortgage? If you buy a $250,000 home and have a 30-year mortgage at a rate of 4%, you’ll pay $179,674 in interest over the life of that loan. That same loan at 6% would cost $289,595 in interest, about $110,000 more. The higher your interest rate, all else being equal, the more incentive there is to pay it off sooner.
Other debt. Mortgage rates are typically lower than rates on other forms of debt like credit cards or car loans. If you look strictly at the math, it makes sense to pay off your higher interest rate loans first. If you carry a credit card balance or car debt, focus on those first. Once those are gone, you can target your mortgage.
Investment alternatives. Your house is an investment. Whether you use available cash to pay it off will partly depend on the other investment opportunities you have for that available cash. If your mortgage is 4%, but you have another investment opportunity that yields 8%, it might make sense to hold off on the house and invest the cash at the higher rate. Just keep in mind that paying off your house offers a guaranteed return (the interest disappears), while alternative investments likely do not.
Income sources in retirement. Think about your income sources in retirement. Social Security. Pension. Income from your investments. Add that up and then compare it to your retirement budget. Is there enough there to easily service your mortgage without limiting your other plans for retirement? If so, carrying a mortgage in retirement might not be a burden. If not, it might make sense to pay it off early.
Nest egg. Are you on track with your retirement savings? Are you maxing out your 401k and IRA contributions each year? If not, focus on those things first and then, if you still have some extra cash, consider paying down your house second.
Peace of mind. The decision to pay off your house isn’t entirely numbers based. I’ve had plenty of clients who could justify carrying a mortgage, but they paid it off anyway because they wanted the peace of mind of being debt free. I’ve never had a single client tell me that they regret the decision to pay off their house.
How long will you live there? Do you plan on downsizing to a different house or moving somewhere else in retirement? If you only plan on being in your current house for a few more years, it might not make sense to pay it off. If you plan on being there for a while, however, owning it outright would probably be best.
Tax considerations: Many people argue against paying off your house because of the “tax benefit.” Recent changes to the standard deduction make this argument less compelling, but even before then, I think this argument didn’t hold water. Consider a person in the 20% tax bracket who paid $10,000 in interest and got a $2,000 deduction. They paid $10,000 to get $2,000. Better to pay it off, spend a little more on taxes and save the $10,000 in interest.
What I’m doing and why.
As you’ve probably guessed (both from this article and others I’ve written on debt), I’m paying my house off early. I thought through the math, but to be honest, that was secondary. The three primary drivers of my decision are:
- Peace of mind: I sleep better when I’m debt free.
- Security: Debt adds risk and reduces cash flow. Both are bad for retirees.
- Priorities: According to the Employee Benefits Research Institute, the average retiree spends 40-45% of their budget on housing. I have other plans for that money! (For more, read The benefits of an extravagantly modest lifestyle)
A few tips to pay it off early.
Below are a few strategies I use:
- Set a goal and re-run the amortization schedule: If you have 7 years until retirement and want to have the house paid off by then, re-run your loan amortization for 7 years and figure out how much extra you need to pay each month to reach your goal.
- Make it automatic: Once you know how much you need to pay each month, make it automatic. Saving in your 401k is easy because it automatically comes out of your paycheck. Set up your extra principal payments to do the same thing.
- Refinance: Rates are still historically low. If you haven’t refinanced in a while, call your bank to see if it would make sense. Just don’t refinance into another 30-year loan. Keep the payback period as short as possible so more of your payments go to principal.
- Stop escrowing: This is more of a mental trick. When I started paying off my house early, I got discouraged each month at how much of my payments went to taxes, insurance and interest. So I called the bank and asked them to stop escrowing. Yes, I still need to pay my taxes and insurance, but now those bills come separately. Most of my payments go to principal and I’m forced to save extra to cover the taxes and insurance.
- For more ideas, read How (and why) to retire debt free and Your biggest retirement expense (and how to get rid of it).
In life, we often have the option to do things the easy way or the hard way. We can choose between the wide and narrow roads. Paradoxically, choosing the easy way out often leads to a hard life while choosing the hard way often leads to an easy life.
Narrow, difficult decisions that require discipline and sacrifice usually pay off by leading us into a place where the road is wide and our options are plentiful. On the other hand, taking the wide, easy path often ends up funneling you down a narrower and narrower chute until all good options are gone and all that is left are painful consequences. In short:
Easy choices, hard life. Hard choices, easy life.
Nowhere is this more true than with our finances. We all stand at a fork in the road when making decisions on things like debt, saving, investing and giving. Path A is wide and well worn. Reach for that credit card. Try to keep up with the Joneses. Feed those desires. The other path, as Robert Frost might say, seems a bit grassy and in wont of wear. Live within your means. Give generously. Save for the future. Steward those resources wisely.
Perhaps not surprisingly, my advice on finances (and pretty much everything else) encourages you to take the road less traveled. Sure, doing so will be difficult and take discipline, but it will ultimately lead you to a place of peace, security and comfort.
Every year the flu kills about 36,000 people in the United States. Those who die typically have an immune system that is already compromised in some way, such as by age or illness. In other words, it’s not necessarily the strength of the flu that is so dangerous, but the weakness of some immune systems.
In the same way that the flu virus can disproportionately affect those with weakened immune systems, a financial virus can disproportionately affect those with compromised financial health. The virus could be something as simple as an unexpected car repair or something a bit more serious like a market crash, job loss, divorce, disability, illness or unexpected death. How well you’re able to respond to those things depends on how financially healthy you are and how well you’ve immunized yourself against those threats.
Some people are fragile and at risk. Others are financially resilient. The closer you get to retirement, the more resilient you want to be so that something unexpected doesn’t derail decades of planning. Below are five things that, financially speaking, will either make you weak or strong, depending on how you handle them.
How much you owe. There are many tell-tale signs of a person who is financially fragile and having too much debt is often the most obvious. When you take on debt, you are bringing future consumption to the present. That gives creditors a legal claim on your future earnings, which reduces your cash flow, increases the risk that you will run out of money and limits what you can afford to do. Get rid of your debt, however, and not only will you be more financially resilient, but you can also retire sooner. Unfortunately, years of low interest rates have encouraged exactly the opposite behavior. What’s a good level of debt for a retiree? Shoot for zero.
How much you spend. If you live at or above your means, you are financially fragile. That’s true whether you make $50,000 per year of $500,000. Here’s the good news. Most of the people reading this likely have the ability to live significantly below their means. What if you spent 10% to 50% less than you made every year? Would that give you a certain resilience? You wouldn’t be worried about an unexpected car repair, I can tell you that much. So take a stand against lifestyle inflation. Just because you will earn more money this year than you did last year doesn’t mean you have to spend it. Set a lifestyle cap and save the rest.
How much you’ve saved. If you spend less than you make, you’re able to save. That savings not only protects you in the short term (i.e. emergency fund), but it allows you the financial freedom to live the life you want to live in the long run (i.e. retirement). In other words, savings is the secret sauce in both security and independence. How much should you have saved by now? This article will give you a rough idea.
How well you’ve planned. Most people don’t have a plan for retirement. They don’t know what they want to do, how much it will cost or whether or not they are on track to save enough to pay for it. Not surprisingly, that creates a great deal of anxiety, uncertainty and—you guessed it—financial frailty. If you are among the 88% of people who don’t have a written plan, your retirement will probably fall far short of what it could be.
A plan can also help inoculate you against bad decisions. Sometimes a financial virus takes the form of fear and uncertainty. When we’re scared, we tend to make unwise and irrational decisions. To navigate those waters, it’s good to have a North Star. The wind can blow and the seas can rage, but when you look up, it will be there. A detailed retirement plan can act as that North Star. If you have a long-term plan—you know where you are, where you want to be and how you’re going to get there—you can inoculate yourself against short-term fear and uncertainty. When you have context and you understand the big picture, you’re less likely to be blown off course or panic and make a mistake. For help with creating a plan, check out my Ideal Retirement Design Guide or touch base with me if you want some one-on-one help.
How well you’ve prepared for the unexpected. What if something happened to you or your spouse? Would that derail your finances? Are your legal and financial affairs in order? Life is unexpected. The more “What if?” planning you do, the more resilient you will be in the face of tragedy. Here are two articles and a guide that can help:
That’s five ways to boost your immunity, harden your defenses and make yourself more financially resilient. But they only work if you take action. Modern medicine has given us many miracle vaccines, but they only work if you take them. So too, financial vaccines are either contagion or cure, depending on what you do with them.