Coffee heat rising

The Queen Is in Her Counting House…

So now that the Dow is closing on 11,000 again, I spent part of yesterday evening counting up my shekels.

Some time back, I figured the crash of the Bush economy (oh, how i luv bugging my rightie friends with that one! 😉 ) had drained my retirement savings of about $180,000.

Things are looking somewhat better today. Thanks to ten nontaxable grand available from a whole life policy, I contrived to set things up so I could pay my share of the downtown house’s mortgage without drawing down from the big, professionally managed IRA. Landing a temporary loan modification helped, too: the reduction in monthly payments will draw out the number of months the $10,000 lasts.

Despite partially drawing down the cash in that policy, total retirement savings are now down “only” $95,400 from the all-time high in October 2007.

We know, of course, that stocks were hugely overvalued in October of 2007. And some say they’re overvalued now. Seeking a more realistic measure, I compared total savings today with the figure that appeared in January 2001, when I first started tracking the various accounts in Excel. In that scenario, over 9.4 years my savings have grown by $18,211.

Looks like a pretty poor return on investment, eh?

However, it must be remembered that I used some of my savings to pay off the loan on my house. I also used about 30 grand to copurchase the downtown house with my son. So, it could be said that some of the funds were simply reinvested elsewhere

That notwithstanding, there’s no question the crash did some serious damage. If we look at the amount that was in savings in December 2006, before the run-up had built any momentum, we see that today’s bottom line is down $55,716 off what might be regarded as a reasonable figure.

Well, it’s better than a $180,000 loss, anyway. Just depends on how you look at it, eh?

Checking net worth: Respectable, though down about $400,000 from the 2007 estimate. Net worth sustained a huge loss when the mortgage on the downtown house went upside-down. Equity in that property is now negative…to the tune of about –$60,000. However, my own house, the one that’s paid for, retained its value and may even have crept up a little. So, even though M’hijito and I took a bath in real estate, it could have been worse. A lot worse.

My net worth is still significantly stronger than most Americans’. A calculator at CNN Money suggests the median net worth for Americans my age is $232,000; mine is about three times that. For 65-year-olds in my post-canning income bracket, median net worth is $34,375; mine is about twenty times that. For those in my pre-canning income bracket, median net worth would be $301,475; mine is 2.2 times that.

Despite the fact that I moved a fair amount of cash from equities into real estate, I’m still none too thrilled at the piddling $18,000 ten-year growth in liquid holdings.

But on reflection, my sense is that a free-and-clear house may be more valuable than smoke-and-mirrors money in stocks and bonds. While the sale price of a house may rise and fall, the value of a roof over your head is pretty immutable. It’s hard to evict a person from a house that has no mortgage.

To rent my house would cost between $800 and $1,200 a month. At 4.8 percent, principal and interest for a traditional 20 percent-down mortgage on this house would cost about $995. So I figure owning the house outright represents a return on investment of about $1,000 a month. Though that’s only a 5% annual return on the house’s present sale value, the fact is that if I had to pay $1,000 a month out of my much-reduced “retirement” income, I could not afford to stay in my home! And since my home is nothing very extravagant, that would mean that when I was laid off I would have had to move into some pretty downscale digs.

Another benefit to owning the house: when I shuffle off this mortal coil, the house will pass directly to my son, giving him a pleasant place to live with very little overhead. He then can rent the downtown house for the amount of the mortgage (or, if things are better, sell it) and end up with a solid basis to build his own retirement savings.

Both of these advantages, IMHO, are huge.

How are things in your money bin? Are you seeing any improvement?

Financial Freedom: Building the bankroll, part 2

We’ve seen that a key part to underwriting Bumhood is living below your means and using the resulting extra cash from income to build savings.

The corollary to this important principle is that your money needs to work for you. That means it has to earn money instead of you having to go to work to earn a paycheck.

How to make this happen? Invest. Your strategy should not be excessively conservative, because truly safe, FDIC-insured instruments such as high-interest savings accounts and CDs don’t return enough to keep up with inflation. Although clearly some cash should reside in your bank or credit union, where it will be insulated from a major market crash such as the one we recently saw, to grow your money you have to take some risk. This means investing something in the stock market or (yes!) in real estate.

Investment plans that work to support bumhood are long-haul arrangements.* Savings should be invested for the long term in reasonably stable instruments such as fairly staid mutual funds and left there, even when the market slides. Low-overhead mutual funds are an excellent choice, because the various costs involved in maintaining them do not bite significantly into your gains. Vanguard and Fidelity funds lead the pack here.

Some mutual funds buy stocks; others buy bonds; still others are balanced funds with a variety of investments. Read the prospectus for each fund that interests you, and be sure your choices don’t duplicate each other. Most advisers suggest that equities investments be allocated about 60 percent to stocks and about 40 percent to bonds, because as a general rule when stock values fall bond values rise. (This is a huge oversimplification, as I’m sure we’ll hear from readers. Study up on investment products. Several “For Dummies” books on the subject have good to excellent reviews, and regular reading of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times business section can be instructive.)

Stocks and bonds are not the only places to grow savings. Some people have done well investing in rental real estate. This also is a long-term hold: expect to keep the property for 10 to 20 years before it turns a profit. As we’ve seen, for investors real estate presents no less risk than the stock market, and so you  need to be prepared to watch values go up and down. A quick perusal of Amazon’s offerings on real estate investment will clue you to the amount of snake oil out there: be extremely careful, and do not operate without a trusted adviser who can prove his (or her) expertise. As with the stock market, it’s important to do your homework and know what you’re doing before investing. If real estate interests you but the prospect of dealing with renters does not, consider a real estate investment trust (REIT) or an REIT mutual fund. Sometimes limited partnerships invest in commercial real estate, although this tool is probably not for everyone.

Because money sitting in the bank does nothing for you—it just sits there—it’s crucial to put your savings to work by investing in a diversified set of financial instruments, ranging from the relatively safe (CDs, the money market) to relatively risky. The degree of risk depends on your age (i.e., how many years you have left to make up any losses) and your personality. To make money work for you, you’ll need to take some risk with some part of your savings. But as you draw closer to your projected escape from the day job, it makes sense to pull back from riskier investments and shift funds to more conservative tools.

One way or another, at any age your savings should be working for you, and some part of it should be in stocks or instruments that earn similar returns. Over the years, my savings have returned about 8 to 9 percent, on average. Of course, that faltered when the Bush economy crashed. While the artificially pumped-up economy was hot, some months I would earn $8,000 on a $250,000 investment. Although all that went away when the market collapsed, returns are now back up in the 8 percent range.

Thus if I draw down the widely recommended 4 percent—more than I need to live on, as a matter of fact—savings will continue to grow even without my adding any  new cash.

And voilà! Full-blown financial freedom: Return on passive investments that meets or exceeds the amount you need to support yourself. The less you spend on your lifestyle, the more you can save, the more you can invest, and the sooner you can get off the day-job treadmill. Living below your means, faithful, regular saving, and wise investments can spring you free sooner than you think.

The Financial Freedom Series

• An Overview
• Education
• Work
• Debt
• The Health Insurance Hurdle
• Own Your Roof
• Bankrolling Bumhood, Part 1

____________________________________

* I am not an investment adviser! I am just a writer sitting in front of a computer. No part of this information should be taken as investment advice. For advice on financial planning, consult a tax professional and a certified financial planner. Always read all prospectuses and related information before investing in any stock, bond, or mutual fund.

Hold the dish detergent, please

Here’s a little discovery: liquid laundry detergent works as well as (maybe better than) dish detergent, and it costs less. Possibly it can be made to cost a lot less.

In the past when I’ve burned food on a pan and not wanted to scrub it clean right after dinner, I’ve carted the dirty pan out to the utility sink, squirted a little laundry detergent in it, added water, and left it to soak. The laundry detergent seems to work a lot better than dish detergent to soak off stuck food.

I don’t like perfumes and dyes either in the kitchen or the laundry (but I draw the line at paying extra for so-called “natural” products because of the high scam potential), and so I buy Kirkland’s Ultra liquid laundry detergent and clear Ivory dish detergent. I transfer the Ivory into a vinegar cruet, partly because it gets the advertising off my kitchen counter (which is not Proctor and Gamble’s billboard!) and partly because you only need a tiny fraction of the detergent dispensed from a squirt bottle—a hard-sided container with a dripper top is a lot more economical.

Last week I was running low on dish detergent and on cash. Having made up my mind to stick to as many no-purchase days as possible, I decided that if I ran out, I’d substitute a little laundry detergent. That led me to wonder whether using laundry detergent would be more or less costly, per squirt, than Ivory dish detergent.

Wonder no more! The results from today’s Costco/Safeway run are in.

The Safeway brand of clear, relatively unadulterated laundry detergent is 7.99 cents an ounce; at Safeway, Planet eco-friendly detergent will cost you 19.98 cents an ounce. Kirkland’s clear, relatively unstinky liquid laundry detergent and its “green” variant are both the same: 7.64 cents an ounce.

Ivory was selling for 9.96 cents an ounce at Safeway.

You probably could get Ivory cheaper somewhere else, and if you don’t mind blue, green, or orange dye in your cleaning products, you’d no doubt pay less to wash your dishes.

The difference between the Ivory and the Kirkland detergent is 2.32 cents an ounce, not an inconsiderable amount—especially if you wash all your dishes by hand.

Now, laundry detergent is highly concentrated. If you wanted to use it at the kitchen sink, you could dilute it with water—probably by a fair amount!—and still have an effective dish detergent. And that would represent a real savings.

Why there is no cross-over point

For most of us, the goal in building wealth is to reach the “crossover point,” where passive income from investments equals the amount you need to live on. The sooner the better: early crossover point = early retirement.

It’s times like these, though, that give me pause about that idea. To retire with little risk of a gigantic cut in living standards, you would need to have so much money invested that, unless you’re an entrepreneurial wizard, it would take an entire lifetime to accumulate it. Most of us will never manage to do so. The amount needed to support you reliably through an extended retirement would have to far exceed the actual crossover point.

Why? Two reasons:

  1. Inflation
  2. The vagaries of the stock market

Either of these can destroy the purchasing power of your investments; since high inflation and unstable market conditions often occur together, you can expect that sometime during your retirement, you’ll watch both of them sit down side by side to the dinner table that is your life savings.

That’s the case right now. At the end of March, my total investments came to about $583,000. Today, with the belated 403b statements from TIAA-CREF and Fidelity finally in hand, the total comes to $551,700, a loss of $31,300. Meanwhile, costs for food and gasoline are pushing my daily expenses past my budget.

What Dependence on Passive Income Would Mean to Me

If I tried to live on 4% of savings (the amount recommended as a safe drawdown) plus Social Security, I would experience a 35% pay cut. Not that it would matter, because I couldn’t live on 4% of what I have in savings anyway. Four percent of $583,000, the pre-stock fall amount, is a grand $23,320. Add my projected Social Security payments of $16,608 to that, and you get a munificent income of $39,928: a $22,072 cut in pay at retirement.

I can’t live on that. I’m barely living on what I earn.

In fact, as we speak my week-to-week budget is again in the red and about to go deeper therein: this afternoon the pool repair guy will clip me for $105, leaving me $4 in the hole against a budget supposed to last until the sixth. Today is the first. Thursday I have to go to the doctor; that will be a $20 copay, putting me $24 in the hole. If I have to buy prescription meds, add another $20 to that: $44 in the red. That means that even if I buy no food, no dog food, no gasoline, no toiletries, no cleaning goods-if I buy absolutely nothing-I will start next week $44 short. And this month I’ve had no extraordinary expenses, unless you call this afternoon’s overdue routine pool maintenance extraordinary.

I can’t let the pool ride until next week, because the pump and filter have slowed to the point where they’re not driving the system efficiently enough to keep the pool clean in an Arizona summer’s extreme weather conditions. Letting your pool go green is a violation of the law; the county flies over the city in helicopters, checking pools from the air. The fine for neglecting the pool would demolish my budget permanently.

The costs of gasoline and food are now so high that my budget will not cover all my routine needs. That’s while I’m earning $22,000 more than I will see during retirement, when about two-thirds of my income will be based on an optimistic projection of investment income.

These needs will never change: I always will have to eat, I always will have to maintain the dwelling I occupy, I always will have to transport myself around the city to purchase necessities.

You might say I simply haven’t reached my crossover point. I would reply that for most people, there is no crossover point.

What This Means for All of Us

The longer you work, the more you appear to earn: inflation alone pushes your salary higher through cost of living increases, and if you have a decent employer, you get occasional merit increases. But the more you earn, the more it takes to live. Even though my salary is high in absolute terms (the median income for a four-person family), the truth is that relative to the cost of living, it is the same or even lower than it was a year ago. So, probably, is yours.

Lower, indeed: since May 2007, when I started the weekly budget plan, I was consistently in the black until the March/April 2008 cycle. Every budget cycle ended in the black overall…until inflation ticked up and income stayed static. Since April, I’ve been in the red almost every week. Because state employees received neither COLAs nor merit increases this year, costs have risen but my income has stayed static. Remember, if you retire when you reach the crossover point, income always stays static.

Let’s imagine, for example, if I were retired and would never see another merit pay increase; if the only increase I would see would be an occasional cost of living increase in Social Security, not necessarily granted every year; if every time the stock market dropped, I saw a cut in pay. Add to that the ever-increasing cost of Medicare.

If I work until I’m 66 and we grant that I need about as much as I’m earning now to stay where I’m living and not be forced to move someplace cheaper, then the crossover point that would allow me to remain in my paid-off home would require income-generating savings of $1,134,800, and that amount would have to increase annually to keep up with inflation! In other words, the recommended 4% drawdown from life savings of over a million dollars combined with Social Security would not suffice to provide a person with enough income to live in my current modest (some would say “ascetic”), debt-free style.

Thus I would argue that unless you are part of a married couple, both of you are earning in the six figures, and you live frugally, stay out of debt, and save exuberantly, you are unlikely ever to see a real crossover point at which your passive income will cover your expenses for the rest of your life. This applies to most people who think of themselves as members of the middle class: teachers, midlevel administrators, shopkeepers, sales staff, police officers, fire fighters, most people in the trades, most government employees, just about anyone who inhabits a cube…virtually all of us.

What Can Be Done

If you are a young person, get out of debt, stay out of debt, and save every penny you can. Max out your employment-related savings plan, fully fund a Roth IRA every year, and put everything else you can into non-tax-deferred savings.

Angle to get yourself into a decently paid job that’s not too obnoxious, so that you can contemplate working until death do you part from your employer without wincing at the very thought of it.

Why not simply plan to work until you drop dead and just spend everything you earn? Because few of us will stay healthy long enough to work until we die. Because we live in a culture that abhors age and discriminates against the elderly, and so few of us are likely to be able to hold a decent job until we die. Even though you probably will need to work well into old age, you had better have enough savings to live on between the time you can no longer land and hold a job and the time you shuffle off this mortal coil.

If you are my age (born during the Cretaceous Period): do not even think about retiring unless you have well over a million dollars per person to generate passive income.

I’m now planning to work until I’m 70 and to bank after-tax Social Security income starting at 66 1/2, when I’m eligible for the full amount. If I can hold my job that long, I can maintain my lifestyle for a while longer. If I die before then, at least I won’t have had to choose between going hungry or moving to cheaper housing in a ghetto for the elderly. If I live that long, the number of years remaining to me will be few enough that a larger draw-down probably won’t consume my entire savings before I die-and maybe I can even stay in my home.

2 Comments left on iWeb site:

frugalscholar

The crossover point from YMYL is based on absolute certainty of income: the book recommended Treasury Bonds, which at the time paid a guaranteed 8-10%.Those days are long gone.

YMYL also said not to be afraid of inflation: I am tracking this right now.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008 – 10:31 A

vh

IMHO not to fear inflation is to wear blinders.

My father thought he had plenty to carry him and my mother through a long and comfortable retirement. Then came the 1970s and double-digit inflation. His formerly generous savings, which indeed were invested conservatively, bought him a poverty-level lifestyle.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008 – 12:51 P

Throwing money in the trash

Nope. That is not a metaphor.

Yesterday I was at a certain dear person’s home, where I spotted a shiny new penny on the floor. When I picked it up and handed it to him, he carried it over to the kitchen trash can and threw it out.

Eeek!

I’ve heard that some people think pennies are so worthless they’re litter, but never watched anyone actually do that. When I remarked on this, he said the copper in the coin is worth more than the coin itself. I suggested he drop them in a can and take them to the bank now and again to be converted into paper money.

“Do you do that?” he asked.

“Sure. One time I took my change to the bank and got ten bucks back.”

“How long did it take to accumulate that much?”

Ahem! “Well, quite a while.”

Point made, in his book.

But well, no. I don’t think so. In what way is letting a container of loose change collect dust eliciting any effort? It just sits there, not asking you to do any work while it quietly accumulates cash. In a way, it’s (chortle!) passive income!

I have two containers. One holds pennies and dimes and one holds nickels, quarters, and the occasional piece of paper money that comes my way. Because I no longer carry cash (I use a credit card to make all transactions electronic), I no longer accumulate much loose change. But back in the day when I did use analog money, I would keep the amount of change I had to haul around to a minimum by depositing all but a few pieces in the change collection a couple times a week. Then every few months, while I was sitting in front of the television in the evening I would organize them into those paper rolls you get for free at the bank or credit union. At my convenience, I would carry them to the bank to convert to paper money or simply deposit them in savings.
A penny saved is a penny earned!