How the U.S. debt downgrade will affect your retirement (and what to do about it).

How the U.S. debt downgrade will affect your retirement (and what to do about it).

As I’m sure you’ve heard by now, S&P downgraded U.S. debt one notch last Friday from AAA to AA+.  Aside from the short-term angst in the markets, how will the downgrade affect those of us planning and saving for retirement?  Here are three likely consequences from the downgrade as well as steps you can take to minimize the impact on your plans.  Note: Just a friendly reminder—nothing on this site should be considered investment advice for your specific situation.

Expect increased volatility—This is the first time in history that our country’s debt has been downgraded from AAA.  Expect continued volatility in both the stock and bond markets as traders and investors digest the news and react accordingly.

To protect your assets and maximize your returns over time you should meet with a trusted adviser to make sure that your asset allocation is appropriate based on your risk tolerance, goals, and time frame.

Also, for those at or near retirement, increased volatility means increased sequence risk.  What is sequence risk?  Stock and bond returns aren’t linear, and sequence risk is simply the risk that you will receive lower (or negative) investment returns in the early years once you start drawing money for retirement.  Early negative returns greatly increase your odds of running out of money.

One way to minimize sequence risk is to have a year or two of withdrawals sitting in cash.  If you retire just prior to a bull market, you can pull income from your growing investments.  If you retire on the cusp of a bear market, you can take withdrawals from your cash.  That way you won’t be forced to sell investments in a down market in order to fund retirement.

Expect higher interest rates—In an ironic twist of fate, the world responded to the downgrade of U.S. bonds by buying—you guessed it—U.S. bonds.  That’s because (ratings be damned) the U.S. bond market is still the most liquid, transparent bond market in the world and investors still flock to it in times of trial.

All of that buying pushed prices higher which sent interest rates lower.  Don’t expect that to last, however.  Just as a person with a low FICO score can expect to pay higher interest rates to borrow money, the U.S. Government can expect to pay higher rates if bond investors perceive it to be a greater credit risk.

That’s bad news if you’re a borrower (think higher mortgage rates), but good news if you’re a lender (think higher dividends on your bond portfolio).  Interest rates are at generational lows.  Consider the downgrade the canary in the coal mine that they’re eventually going higher.  To minimize risk and increase cash flow in retirement, set a goal to retire debt free.

Expect higher taxes—If rates go up, then the U.S. will be spending more of your tax dollars on interest payments.  That’s an expense that they can little afford.  In fiscal 2010, the U.S. government spent $3.456 trillion, but only had $2.162 trillion in tax receipts.  That’s a deficit of $1.294 trillion.  Similar deficits are projected for years to come.

To get its fiscal house in order, the government has two primary tools: cut spending and raise taxes.  We all saw what a difficult time Congress had making even modest spending cuts during the debt ceiling debate.  Even if they could agree on cuts that eliminated 100 percent of discretionary spending (i.e. non-military and non-entitlement), the budget would still be deep in the red.  What does that mean?  At some point down the road we can expect higher taxes.

How can you prepare for that?  As you work on your retirement budget, assume that things like income and capital gains taxes will be higher than they are now and save enough to cover the added expense.  Also, different states have different tax burdens.  Some states tax Social Security and pension benefits while others do not.  Sales and property taxes also differ greatly from state-to-state.  As you consider where to retire, don’t forget to consider how your income, property, and purchases will be taxed during retirement.  Finally, if you have some time to go before retiring, consider putting as much as possible into your Roth IRA and Roth 401(k).  Distributions from those accounts during retirement are free from federal tax.

With so much uncertainty, it’s easy to get discouraged.  A quick review of history, however, shows that we have always had times of volatility and uncertainty.  The key is to manage through them by recognizing the challenges you face and doing everything you can to meet them head on.  Do that and when times get better (which they inevitably will) you will be well positioned to benefit.

Thanks for reading.  Touch base if I can ever help.


Sometimes the best plan is not having a plan

Sometimes the best plan is not having a plan

One of my clients called me out of the blue the other day and asked me to change her address from Omaha to a condo in Florida.  A few days earlier she had abruptly quit her job, put her house on the market, and was getting on a plane two days hence and heading to the Sunshine State.

My first response was “That’s awesome!”  I was really excited for her.  A small part of me wanted to pack my bags and do something similar.  And then the “planner” in me kicked in.  “We should review your distribution allocation.  Are you going to get a job while you’re there?  Are you going to buy a house?  What do you plan on doing with your time?”  Her response?  “I’ll figure it out when I get there.  It was time for a change.”

I pondered that for a second and thought, you know what, that’s fantastic.  Too often we can get so caught up in the planning—the numbers, the strategy, the X’s and O’s—that we forget about just living life and being spontaneous.

Retirement could last 30 years.  Can you really plan for that?  In some ways, yes, but in other ways, no.  Think back to when you were 18.  Did you have a life plan for ages 18 to 48?  You probably had no idea how you were going to make rent that month, let alone what you would be doing a year or two down the road.

But wasn’t that an amazing time?  You took a risks.  Tried new experiences.  Met new people.  Overcame obstacles.  Set goals for yourself.  Rose to the challenge.  Laughed.  Cried.  Lived life.

So a tip of the hat to my client this week for reminding me that sometimes the best plan is having no plan at all.

Are you a system thinker?

Are you a system thinker?

If you look around, almost everything you see—from planets to people—is made to work as part of a system.  Take the human body for example.  It has the skeletal, nervous, circulatory, muscular, and digestive systems, just to name a few.  All of those separate systems are brought together to form the incredibly complex human body.  If your circulatory system quit working or your skeletal system suddenly disappeared, your body couldn’t function.  Each part plays an important role.

What does this have to do with retirement?  Quite a bit actually.  The typical retirement has a lot of moving parts; things like your finances, health, family, and housing to name a few.  Those parts work together in a complex system.   If one of those areas isn’t functioning properly, it creates problems.

If your finances are a mess, will that impact your retirement?  Absolutely.  How about your health?  Yes again.  Ditto for things like your relationships with friends and family. Just like a broken transmission will affect how your car runs, problems with these areas will impact how your retirement runs.  So here’s my point:

If you want your retirement to function properly, you need to be system thinker. 

You need to put effort and thought into every key area of retirement if you want the overall system to function well.  What are some of those key areas?

Money—If I ask you when you want to retire, your answer should be a dollar amount, not a year.  Retirement is about independence, not simply age, and money is critical to independence.  You should know exactly how much you need to save in order to fund the type of retirement you want.  That means creating a detailed retirement budget and knowing how big your nest egg needs to be to spin off the needed cash.  A common rule of thumb is that your savings should be twenty-five times larger than the income you want it to produce.

Pursuits—Money is important, but only as a facilitator.  You need it, but you also need to have plans for it.  I’ve written a lot about this idea in my books and elsewhere on the site, but it bears repeating:  Before you retire, you should have very specific plans for what you want to do.  In the near future I’ll be doing a post on creating the ultimate bucket list.  Stay tuned.  In the meantime, you can read this and this to get some ideas on making the most of your time.

Family and Friends—You need to be on the same page with your spouse before you retire.  Here’s a handy checklist to guide your conversation.  Also, don’t forget your kids.  They’re probably grown and out on their own, but the plans you make will likely impact how often you’re able to see them (and your grandkids).  The same is true of your friends.  Keep that in mind.

Location—Are you planning on moving or staying put during retirement?  That decision will affect almost every area of your life.  Here’s an article with things to keep in mind.

Distribution Strategy—Transitioning from accumulation to distribution can be tricky.  Taking too much, too soon from the wrong account or in the wrong markets could be the difference between retirement bliss and retirement blunder.  For your system to function properly, you need a well thought out, sustainable distribution strategy.

Your health—Since 1950, the average retirement age has decreased by about five years and the average life expectancy has increased by more than a decade.  If you want to take advantage of those extra years, it’s a good idea to take care of yourself.  Nothing spoils your dreams faster than a heart attack.

Insurance—You’ll likely need hundreds of thousands of dollars (in addition to Medicare) to cover your health care costs during retirement.  Make sure you have appropriate health insurance and long-term care insurance in place to help offset those costs.

Social Security—There are no “one-size-fits-all” answers when it comes to understanding Social Security benefits and how best to incorporate them into your overall retirement strategy.  Work closely with your spouse, adviser, and local Social Security office to determine how best to claim your benefits.  You can also pick up a copy of The Bell Lap (where I discuss the topic extensively) or visit the Start Here page where I’ll post ongoing articles about Social Security.

As you can see, all of these areas come together to form a complex system during your retirement years.  Handle each area properly and the system will function well.  Handle them poorly and you can expect problems.

After looking at the list, is there an area you need to focus on?  Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.

Photo by Joe Plocki.  Used under Creative Commons License.

How to maximize your time in retirement.

How to maximize your time in retirement.

Time is money, as the old saying goes.  If true, you may never be so wealthy (in time at least) as you are during retirement.  Gone are the days of having to trade your most precious commodity for whatever the market would bear.  More than ever, you are free to spend your days doing as you please.  As part of the new “moneyed” elite, however, you will want to spend your time wisely.  Otherwise you might find that another old saying applies: Easy come, easy go.  What are the best ways to maximize your new time windfall?

Shake up your routine

Retirement is a major transition.  That transition can be difficult and you’ll have a certain amount of inertia to overcome as you attempt to move from your normal daily routine into your new plans for retirement.  To help jump start the process, it’s helpful to have big, new plans—like moving, traveling, or volunteering—that will force you to steer off the well-worn path you’ve become accustomed to and proactively pursue your new goals.  If you don’t have specific new plans, it’s easy to fall into a routine that doesn’t look much different from your working years, save for sleeping in a little bit and having more time to run errands.

More than ever, retirement is a time to throw caution to the wind.  As Mark Twain said, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.  So throw off the bowlines.  Sail away from the safe harbor.  Catch the trade winds in your sails.  Explore.  Dream.  Discover.”


If you’re going to shake up your routine and head off in a new direction, there will be certain activities and commitments that are no longer relevant to your plans.  Just as it’s important to make a “To-do” list to keep track of things you need to get done, it’s important to make a “Stop doing” list as you transition into retirement in order to free more of your time to focus on new pursuits.  Prior to retiring, make a detailed list of all of your commitments and responsibilities.  Go through each one and decide which you plan on continuing into retirement and which need to be stopped or handed off to someone else.  Once finished, your schedule will be much less cluttered and you will be able to use your time more efficiently.

In addition to simplifying your schedule, simplify your investment accounts.  The average person changes jobs several times over the years.  That could mean multiple retirement plans at former employers as well as a number of IRAs and other investment accounts.  This account proliferation makes monitoring your investments more time consuming and drawing income from them during retirement much more complicated.  If you have multiple 401(k)s, roll them into an IRA.  If you have multiple IRAs, consolidate them into one. Doing so will help to reduce fees, simplify your distribution strategy, make your investments easier to monitor, and free up more of your time to focus on other priorities.

Focus on milestones, not maintenance

No matter how effective you are at streamlining your schedule, you will still have a good many maintenance type activities that pop up on your calendar every day or every week; things like sleeping, eating, paying bills, going to the doctor, getting groceries, mowing the yard, and cleaning the house.  While important, these things don’t really add much significance to your life.

To find meaning, you will want to focus on milestones.  Those are the things that, when done, give you a sense of purpose and accomplishment.  Milestones tend to fall in areas like family, relationships, education, adventure, community, hobbies, travel, and health.  When reflecting on your life, the milestones will be the things that stick out.  They will be the things that you are most proud of.  The maintenance will just fade into the background.  Because of that, do everything you can to condense, consolidate, minimize, or (if financially able) outsource the maintenance so you can be free to spend more of each day focusing on milestones.

As you can see, by effectively managing your time in retirement you can make the most out of what will surely be one of the most fulfilling and rewarding periods of your life.

I originally published this article at

10 questions to ask your spouse before you retire.

10 questions to ask your spouse before you retire.

Your retirement planning should not be done in a vacuum.  If you are married, you should definitely include your spouse in the process.  You would be surprised at the number of couples who are blindsided by differences over retirement dreams, plans, and expectations.  It is no wonder that the rate of divorce among couples fifty-five and older is greater than the general population.  Below are ten questions to ask your spouse to make sure you are on the same page and to bring your plans into better focus.

1)    Where do you want to live? One of the most basic questions you will need to answer is where you want to live.  Do you want to stay put or move to another house, state, or country?  As you ponder this question, think about the types of things you plan on doing during retirement, your financial circumstances, state tax rates, climate, available medical facilities, and desired proximity to family and friends.  Moving is a big decision with lots of moving parts.  The more you have discussed your options the better off you’ll be.

2)    What do you want to do? Think about what your ideal day in retirement will look like.  List out your top three priorities and ask your spouse to do the same.  If your top priority is lounging at the beach and your spouse’s is snow skiing, you’ve got some work to do.  Ideally, if you have some time to go before retirement, you should spend your vacation time doing some of the things that each of you are dreaming about.  Have fun, but use those trips to plan, discuss, test, evaluate, and yes, maybe even compromise.

3)    Who do you want to do it with? Too often we take family and friends for granted.  If you’ve lived in the same town for thirty years and all your kids and grandkids are within driving distance, pulling up stakes and moving to Tahiti can be a bit of a shock.  It takes time to settle into a new place and cultivate meaningful friendships.  Consider your answer to question one above.  If you plan on moving, have you already begun to visit that place and get plugged into the community?  Do you know other people who are planning on making the same move?  How often will family be able to visit?  Thinking through this issue and handling the move properly can help avoid any potential loneliness or regret.

4)    How much will it cost? As you can probably tell by now, your answer to any one of these questions is heavily dependent on your answers to the others.  This is certainly true with question four.  Too often people make the mistake of retiring based on their birthday instead of their bank account.  Think through your answers to the above questions and begin crafting a retirement budget.  How much money you will need in retirement is a function of what you plan on doing and where you plan on doing it.  Make sure that the plans you are making with your spouse are compatible with your financial resources.  If not, what does that mean?  Do you need to change your plans?  Work longer?  Have a phased retirement?

5)    Where will the money come from? Your retirement income will likely come from several different sources, such as personal savings, Social Security, and possibly a pension.  How you tap those accounts and when you claim benefits like Social Security can greatly impact how long your money lasts and what benefits your spouse may be entitled to if you die.  It’s usually a good idea to meet with a professional adviser to make sure your distribution plan is sustainable and you are maximizing other income and benefits.

6)    Assuming the money is there, when do you want to retire? Some people can’t wait to leave their working years behind.  Others derive a lot of meaning and satisfaction from work and plan on continuing at it as long as they are physically and mentally able.  If you tend more towards the former and your spouse the latter (or vice versa), you can see how conflict could arise.  This is especially true if the job in question and the ultimate retirement destination are time zones apart.

7)    How healthy are you? It will come as no surprise that health care and long-term care are major expenses and considerations during retirement.  Talk with your spouse about how healthy and physically fit each of you are and how that will impact where you can live or what you can do.  Discuss family history and life expectancy and how that might impact not only retirement plans, but also decisions like life insurance and Social Security benefits.  This isn’t necessarily a fun topic to discuss, but it is important.

8)    What concerns or fears do you have about retirement? Retirement is a major transition, and many of us aren’t wired to handle change well.  Are there worries about money, moving, leaving a meaningful job, being further away from family, or other transitional issues?  Discussing each of your fears and concerns and taking steps to alleviate them can go a long way toward easing the move into retirement.

9)    Is there anything you absolutely want to do before you die? The regrets of our youth are typically based on things we’ve done while regrets later in life revolve around things we’ve failed to do.  Is there anything that either you or your spouse wants to do, see, or accomplish before you die?  Make a list and be as intentional as possible, so you can both spend your remaining years in pursuits that bring meaning and satisfaction.

10) Are your answers to the above questions compatible? How did you do?  Did both you and your spouse have similar answers to the above questions or were there major differences?  If it’s the latter, what can you do to reconcile your planning?  The sooner you iron out differences the sooner you will be able to put your plan in place and move into one of the most meaningful and rewarding periods of life.

For a handy PDF of this document, visit the Toolkit page.
How do you define retirement?

How do you define retirement?

Ask a thousand different people what retirement is to them and you will get a thousand different answers.  Many associate retirement with a particular age (sixty-five) or work status (not working).  Many define it with certain activities (travel).  In reality, all those things can be used to describe certain individual’s retirements, but they don’t define retirement.

Retirement is about control

I define retirement with one word: control.  Think about it.  When people talk about retirement, what do they usually say?  “When I retire, I’m going to…”  Retirement is a transition from doing what you have to do to doing what you want to do.  Age and work status really have nothing to do with it.  There are plenty of people who make it big early in life and decide to quit working.  Likewise, there are people in their seventies and eighties who are still mentally sharp and derive a great deal of meaning and pleasure from their jobs.  In this scenario, the person working is just as retired as the person not working.  Work is optional.  It is a personal preference.  It has little or nothing to do with an arbitrary date set by a government social insurance program.

Retirement, therefore, is all about control.  Don’t think of life as a timeline where youth equals zero to twenty, working years equal twenty to sixty-five, and retirement equals sixty-five plus.  Instead, 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 becomes, the closer you are to retirement.