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.
“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.
To optimize something is to “make it as perfect, effective
or functional as possible.” That’s a
good goal for retirement. After all, you
only have one shot at it, so make it the best it can be. Here’s how to optimize your life for
Control your time. Think of life as a pie chart that is divided into time you control and time controlled by others. The goal is to gradually shrink the piece of the pie that is controlled by others. The smaller that piece becomes, the more “retired” you are. The more time you control, the more you can focus on the things you want to do rather than the things you have to do. How do you control more of your time? The primary way is to be financially independent, so make sure your finances are on track.
Optimize your location. The American Enterprise Institute recently published a study on how location affects happiness. They concluded that people who live closer to the things they want to do are happier, more involved, more satisfied with life and less likely to be lonely. Kind of a no brainer, right? If you love to ski, live close to the mountains. If you want to spend time with your kids, live in the same city. And the study found that proximity works for small things too. If you live near a multitude of amenities—the coffee shop, gym, community center, restaurants—you’ll likely get out more, feel less isolated and be happier.
Hack your health. A hack is a trick or method that increases efficiency. I have a friend who recently started a physical therapy practice that focuses on prevention rather than recovery. I think the idea is a brilliant hack. Similar to the dentist, you go in twice a year for evaluation and a checkup. He takes some baseline measurements and looks for problems. Then he asks what types of things you like to do (e.g. hike, ski, golf, garden, run, tennis, etc.) and gives you exercises that will allow you to do those things for as long as possible. I like to hike, so we’re working on leg strength, balance, joints and endurance. The idea is to keep me healthy and active doing the things I want to do for as long as possible. How about you? What types of things do you want to be able to continue doing as you age? Schedule some time with a local physical therapist and ask them to help you optimize your health for the lifestyle that you want to live.
Be specific. At the risk of sounding obvious, you have a much greater chance of accomplishing a goal if you know exactly what it is you want to do. If you want your retirement to run smoothly, make specific plans.
Take some at bats. One of the biggest mistakes I see some people make is that they constantly defer their dreams. The best advice I can give you today is to start taking some at bats. Right now. Even if you’re not retired. Especially if you’re not retired. The worst that can happen is that things don’t work out and you get rolled a little bit, so you dust yourself off and try something different. Ironically, that’s also one of the best things that can happen, because that failure is feedback. It turns out we’re pretty terrible at knowing what’s going to make us happy. The more stuff you try, even if you don’t end up liking it, the better idea you’ll have of what’s important to you, who’s important to you, what you like, what you dislike, what makes you happy and what you’re passionate about. That makes you more self-aware so you can design an optimized life that takes you where you want to go.
Be a system thinker. Retirement has a ton of moving parts that need to work together to produce the results that you want. Those parts include things like money, relationships, pursuits, Social Security, Medicare, healthcare, distribution planning, tax planning, housing and insurance to name a few. Those parts work together in a complex system. If the parts work, the system works. If one or more parts isn’t functioning properly, the system breaks down. To optimize your life for retirement, make sure that each part of that system is working as it should. Some parts you’ll be able to handle on your own. For other parts, you’ll likely need to enlist the help of people like your accountant, financial adviser or doctor.
Simplify. As you take more control of your time and plan your transition into retirement, make a “Stop Doing” list. Certain things will no longer be relevant to your new plans. Go through all your activities, obligations and commitments and decide what needs to go. Once finished, your schedule will be much less cluttered and you will be able to use your time more efficiently. Do the same thing with the physical clutter in your life.
Retirement is not a one size fits all proposition. By focusing on the items mentioned above and
tailoring them to your unique situation, you can optimize your life for the
retirement that you want.
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.
The markets had a great first half of the year. Stocks were up. Bonds were up. Both U.S. and International markets were up. Everything seemed to be working. Unfortunately, the second half has had a rockier start. And given the headlines (e.g. trade war, weakening international economies, excess debt loads, inverted yield curve, etc.), that volatility could continue for a while. Given that, I thought it would be a good time to scroll through the archives at Intentional Retirement and review a few past articles on how to deal with volatility, keep your emotions in check and make sure your retirement plans stay on track. Even though they were written during past periods of volatility, the lessons are just as relevant today.
Hi everyone. Sorry it’s been kind of quiet around here. I’ve been in summer mode and haven’t done much writing. I just got back from a hike with my daughter through the High Divide – Seven Lakes Trail in Olympic National Park (see above pic) and the hike got me thinking about some of the research I’ve read on surviving in the wilderness.
A common thread running through most survival stories is the
idea of decision drift. Most times you
don’t just make one terrible decision that puts you into a “Do or Die”
scenario. Rather, you make a series of
small decisions that get you further and further from where you need to be
until you come to the sudden realization that you are lost or in trouble. The sense of panic that accompanies that
realization often causes people to make more irrational decisions that get them
deeper into trouble.
Decision Drift and Retirement
Decision drift isn’t exclusive to back country hiking. It can affect you on your path to retirement as well. Most of us do a pretty good job avoiding those colossally bad decisions that can derail our life. We’re less good at those myriad small decisions that seem unimportant at the time but, when taken cumulatively, can derail our life or get us far from where we want to be. Those decisions can greatly affect our relationships, health, financial well-being and opportunities and we often make them without a lot of intention because:
- We think they’re unimportant
- We feel pressured or tempted
- We’re temporarily willing to compromise
- We’re unclear on what we want
- We haven’t considered the consequences
- We failed to decide so someone else is deciding for us
All of those little decisions/indecisions can quietly lead you away from the life you want to live. You wake up one day and realize you’re lost. You ask yourself: “Where am I? How did I get here? Whose life am I living anyway?” Avoid that sinking feeling by recognizing that those little decisions are big. Pay attention to them and course correct as needed. Never forget that most decisions – big or small – are directional. They lead you toward certain things/people/experiences/opportunities and away from others. Don’t take them lightly. Be intentional with your decisions so they take you where you want to go.