Where do you want to semi-retire?

longbranchminto

Photo by Jonathan Chevreau

Once it’s no longer necessary to commute to and from a downtown or suburban corporate job, where in the world do you want to be? I touched on this in a recent MoneySense blog on reverse mortgages. Most full retirees know they want to be close to hospitals, universities and libraries. They don’t need to be as close to the downtown core or even be near major transit systems though that can be a nice extra if they value city culture and/or friends and family still live there.

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Every town needs a library

Throughout my personal Findependence journey this summer I’ve been posting photos of the community I live in: Long Branch, Ontario. It’s closer to downtown Toronto than its trendier neighbour to the west, Port Credit. The beach photo below, for example, I put on social media after biking along the (relatively) new boardwalk at the foot of 41st Street. As I commented at the time, at first glance you may think the photo is of some exotic beach somewhere in the south — it’s hard to believe it’s a mere 15-minute GO train ride from downtown Toronto. When I had one-hour commutes either to Don Mills or Bloor & Sherbourne, it sometimes seemed our home’s location was a bit of an inconvenience. It took a 12-minute car ride (or bus) just to get to the subway, which is why the three members of our family have three cars (though the youngest member is abroad so the car is on blocks).

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Long Branch boardwalk: 15 minutes from downtown Toronto. Photo Jonathan Chevreau

Now that I’m semi-retired (that’s what I’m calling it for the balance of the summer, anyway!), I’ve really come to appreciate the community in which we live. In addition to the beach and bike paths that go from Mississauga to downtown Toronto, there’s a post office (convenient in my line of work), a library (ditto!) and quite recently a Starbucks set up shop: always a good sign for impending gentrification. The photo below of the path by the lake is the indirect route from the Starbucks to my home, during which time I generally carry back a library book or two that was on hold, and listen to podcasts. Not a bad commute!

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The brutal commute: photo J. Chevreau

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Starbucks has landed in Long Branch

Mind you, one couple I know on our street doesn’t like all this change and are preparing to beat a retreat for small-town Ontario. Not us: for now, this place is perfect: it’s a great base for full-time employment or part-time and if and when it comes time to “fully retire,” it has all the necessary amenities, some of which I’ve shown in scattered photos in this blog. If you’re still on the “before” end of Findependence, you might want to think about the place you want to be once you do achieve it. Hopefully this blog gives you a few ideas of what’s important.

I’ve not included photos of medical facilities but clearly that should be a consideration too: there are walk-in clinics and hospitals here. Local universities or colleges are a nice extra too: my parents enjoyed their last years in London, Ontario because they were right next door to the University of Western Ontario and took full advantage of it.

The 7 eternal chestnuts of personal finance

Tasty roasted chestnuts

Here is my latest MoneySense blog, covering the 7 big “eternal” chestnuts of personal finance.

For continuity purposes, I also reproduce it below:

One of the world’s best personal finance writers – Jason Zweig of the Wall Street Journal – has said there are only a handful of real personal finance columns to write. The trick, he said (and I’m paraphrasing from memory), was in being able to “reissue” these columns in a way that the public (or editors) don’t notice. Of course, you could go further and say that the news business in general revolves around a few fairly standard memes: if it bleeds, it leads.

In personal finance, however, we’re not in the business of covering disasters and personal tragedies, unless of course the market does a repeat of what it did in 2008. It’s a sad fact that, as investors in Bernie Madoff’s ponzi scheme found to their regret, that when the market tanks we discover who was swimming naked.

The June issue of MoneySense contained 42 items billed as being the “Best Tips Ever.” That issue was a “keeper” and not just because it was the last one with which I was intimately involved. I’m not going to reprise the tips here but instead have come up with a list of seven “personal finance chestnuts” that I hope may be useful to readers and perhaps other PF journalists.

Chestnut #1: Live below your means

This is the granddaddy chestnut of personal finance. If you keep spending your fool head off, you’ll forever be on a treadmill to oblivion. The only way to become financially independent is to consistently spend less than you earn, year in and year out, decade in and decade out. The difference between what you (and your spouse) earn becomes your capital and it must be invested wisely.

Chestnut #2: Pay yourself first

This is closely related to living below your means. The surplus between a higher income and a lower level of spending needs to be directed to savings and investments. Just like your employer takes your income tax off your paycheque before you even see it, you should set up a pre-authorized chequing (PAC) arrangement with your financial institution (“automatic draft” in the U.S.), so another chunk of your paycheque is siphoned right off the top to savings and investments. Yes, you may feel a bit “broke” after the double whammy of paying tribute to the taxman as well as paying yourself first, but as the years go by and your wealth steadily mounts, you’ll be glad you roasted this particular chestnut.

Chestnut # 3: Get out of debt

Starting with non-tax-deductible consumer debt (aka credit cards), then student loans, and finally any lines of credit and ultimately your mortgage. (see Chestnut #4). No investment pays off as well as eliminating high-interest debt and it’s more tax efficient to boot.

Chestnut #4: Buy a home and pay off the mortgage as soon as possible

I’ll keep saying it: the foundation of financial independence is a paid-for home. If you rent, you’re still paying a mortgage: your landlord’s! In that case, your rent will never stop and will keep getting hiked as inflation rises. When you own your own home and the mortgage is gone, you get to live rent-free and you won’t worry about your rent going ever higher in old age. Plus you don’t have to pay capital gains taxes on the sale of your principal residence. (See #7 below). But do accrue for property taxes, maintenance and (for condo owners) maintenance fees.

Chestnut #5: Be an owner, not a loaner

This means owning stocks (or equity mutual funds or ETFs), instead of interest-bearing vehicles like cash or bonds. You’ll never get rich loaning money out, which is what you do when you buy a GIC (or CD in the US) from a bank. If you want to grow your capital and keep up with inflation, you need to own stocks. Better yet, dividends are taxed less than interest and capital gains taxes can be deferred as long as you don’t crystallize profits. You will want some cash or bonds in an emergency fund and as a prudent part of your portfolio once you’re near retirement age.

Chestnut #6: If your employer offers you free money, take it.

Duh! This means you should join the company pension plan, especially if they “match” whatever you put in. And if they give you a discount on the company stock, take them up on that offer too. You wouldn’t say no to a bonus or a raise, would you? Then why wouldn’t you grab the rest of the freebies when they’re on offer?

Chestnut #7: If the government offers you free money, take that too!

This is along the same lines, except of course the government seldom really gives you money, unless you’re among society’s most disadvantaged. For we more affluent folk, there’s no escaping taxes (or death) but you CAN minimize the outflow to the taxman’s grasping hands by taking advantage of whatever few tax breaks he permits. No capital gains on a principal residence is a huge tax break. Apart from that, this means maxing out your RRSP (or your IRA in the U.S.) And don’t forget the Tax-Free Savings Account (TFSA) (or the Roth in the US), which is the mirror image. In the former, you get a tax deduction upfront on contributions; for the latter, you get no upfront deduction but never have to pay tax on investment income generated, even when you withdraw it in retirement. Not quite free money, since you were taxed upfront on the income needed to generate the capital, but almost!

 

 

The dawn of the “light advice” investing model

You may have heard the phrase “robo-adviser” but as implemented in Canada, the phrase “light advice” may be more appropriate.

Read more here in my column in the Financial Post.

For purposes of continuity and “one-stop-shopping” I’ve included the piece below, and added the minor clarification that Wealth Simple has now received regulatory approval.

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Nauvzer Babul, founder of smartmoneyinvest.ca

The term robo-advisor has come into widespread use in recent months, with a handful of firms starting up in Canada.

The model for this is Palo Alto, Calif.-based WealthFront, founded in 2008. It describes itself as an “automated investment service.” It assembles portfolios of passively managed exchange-traded funds (ETFs), matching client investment objectives and risk tolerance to the ETF selection, with appropriate asset allocation and regular rebalancing.

The fees are low: nothing on accounts below US$10,000 and after that it bills clients monthly at a rate equivalent to 0.25% annually of assets under management (plus the fees of the underlying ETFs, many of which are from Vanguard).

Subscription-based Couch Potato service

One of the first Canadian equivalents is Toronto-based NestWealth.com, launched by Randy Cass starting in Ontario and set to roll out nationally this year. I call this a “subscription-based Couch Potato service.” Cass got the idea from watching his son watch the subscription-based Web TV service, Netflix.

For $80/month (or $40/month for those under 40) customers can “subscribe” to a service that chooses and monitors a portfolio of ETFs — selected from Vanguard Canada and Black Rock Canada’s iShares families. As with similar services, NestWealth will worry about asset allocation and rebalancing.

Wealth Simple now approved

Awaiting regulatory approval — now received — is Michael Katchen’s WealthSimple, a “light advice” model that takes a more traditional approach of levying an annual asset-based fee of 0.5%, which will be above and beyond the underlying fees of the ETFs themselves. Fees taper down with higher amounts of wealth.

SmartMoneyInvest.ca about to launch

Also about to launch is another Toronto-based firm called Smart Money Capital Management, which will operate on the web as www.smartmoneyinvest.ca. Founder and managing director Nauvzer Babul told me in an interview that “no one in this space calls themselves robo advisors. The term was coined in the United States, where everything is very automated. My goal is to be between that and where we are in the Canadian investing space, where there is advice and a person to meet with. Clients can speak with live people who try to understand their risk tolerance and understanding, then develop a portfolio around that. There’s definitely human interaction.”

At least in the Canadian model, “light advice” seems a better description than “robo-advisor.” In any case, fees will be higher than what do-it-yourself (DIY) investors would pay buying their own ETFs at discount brokerages (perhaps aided by some fee-for-service advice from a human financial planner). On the other hand, fees of these automated or semi-automated portfolio management systems should come in well below “wrap” programs offered by major Canadian financial institutions and certainly below the Management Expense Ratios (MERs) of most actively managed retail mutual funds sold in Canada.

In other words, a DIY investor might pay just the MERs of the underlying ETFs, meaning somewhere between about 0.10% and 0.55%, depending on the products chosen. Wraps and DSC mutual funds typically come in between 2.5% and 3% or a tad above that. So you can figure a typical robo-advisor or light advice service should come in somewhere between 1% and 1.5%, including the MERs of the underlying ETFs.

In the case of Babul’s firm, the annual asset-based fee charged is 0.45%, on top of the underlying ETFs, so the total portfolios should come in around or slightly below 1%, all in.

Retail investors take on too much risk picking stocks

What kind of value can investors derive from such a service? Babul provides an interesting response, drawing on his 13 years of investment banking experience at BMO Capital Markets, which he left three years ago. In managing its derivatives business, Babul developed an intimate understanding of risk management. He noticed that retail investors tend to take on more risk than institutional investors. “I believe individuals picking individual stocks are taking on too much risk. Many institutional investors are more index-based than stock-pickers because they don’t want to be exposed to undue systematic risk.”

Babul’s goal is to invest clients in diversified global portfolios of ETFs. “We’re not trying to beat the market, but just create a diversified portfolio that adequately manages their risk tolerance.”

I ask whether there was a time when Babul ever believed in market timing and stock-picking.

“Yes.”

“What changed?”

“I saw my portfolio’s performance.”

 

Get ready for the Shift

theshiftA big aspect of planning for retirement is health and longevity. Earlier this summer, I devoted a blog to Mark Venning of ChangeRangers.com. Venning helps clients prepare for two things: making the shift from employment to entrepreneurship, and also to help prepare for a future of extended longevity and life expectancy. That’s “why the word ‘Retirement’ doesn’t work for me. It’s about longevity planning,” he told me, “My core message is plan for your longevity, not for retirement.”

One of several book recommendations from Venning to his students is a book by Lynda Gratton called The Shift: The future of work is already here.  It’s not brand new: my copy was published by Harper Collins in 2011. But it’s still relevant, especially to the generation of baby boomers, myself and Venning included, who are grappling with the issues of retirement planning.

Gratton, who is a business school professor, identifies five forces that are shaping the world of work, plus three “shifts.” They’re all worth summarizing here.

The 5 forces shaping our future

1.) Technology

2.) Globalization

3.) Demography and Longevity

4.) Society

5.) Energy Resources

The 3 shifts

1.) From shallow generalist to serial master

2.) From isolated competitor to innovative connector

3.) From voracious consumer to impassioned producer

For baby boomers and others who are nearing retirement, or moving into semi-retirement or self-employment, almost all of these forces and shifts need to be taken into consideration. In earlier blogs like this one — Never Work Again —  we looked at the revolution in Internet marketing, which is based on both the Technology force and Globalization. When you can run a web-based business from anywhere in the world merely with a laptop computer and a smartphone, you know you’re embracing these forces.

Gratton’s points on demography and longevity seem particularly apt: this was the topic that most fascinated the team of researchers she tapped into for the book. “We quickly understood that technology is changing everything and will continue to do so, and that natural resources are depleted and carbon footprints must be reduced,” she writes. But demography and longevity “is intimately about us, our friends and our children … It’s about how many people are working, and for how long.”

The dark side: some boomers will grow old poor

In 2010, when Gratton was writing the book, there were four distinct generations in the workforce: the Boomers’  parents, the Boomers, Gen X (born between 1969 and 1979) and Gen Y (1980 to 1995). And coming up is Gen Z, born after 1995.  Gen Y will be ascendent in the workplace by 2025 but increasing longevity means the Boomers and Gen X will still be hanging around, wanting to work and contribute in some capacity well into their 60s, if not beyond. Gratton also warns that “some baby boomers will grow old poor,” particularly if they don’t respond to the gift of extended longevity by embracing the forces and shifts that are confronting them.

Because of globalization and technology, the privilege of being born in North America may no longer be sufficient advantage for those who don’t embrace The Shift. Books like The Laptop Millionaire describe how those with wealth can take advantage of outsourcing: for example, hiring English-speaking Filipinos as full-time virtual assistants for something like $250 or $300/month. There is a dark side to these shifts: those not equipped to embrace change increasingly will have to compete for jobs or contracts with people half a world away who are technologically sophisticated and willing and able to work for much less than North Americans.

Gratton devotes big chunks of the book to fictional scenarios of the near future of work, some of them pessimistic, some of them optimistic. All in all, it’s well worth reading. It reinforced my own belief that “If you’re not sure whether you should retire or can afford to do so, then just keep working, preferably in a congenial line of work you can continue to practice well into your 70s.”

The compensation of being “sandwiched”

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Helen and Tobe Snowden, circa 1994, with “grandchildren on their knees.”

Here is my latest MoneySense blog on Financial Independence.

For convenience and archival purposes, I’ve entered a version below:

I’ve always had ambivalent feelings about the expression “sandwich generation,” which was in the news again last week when BMO Nesbitt Burns put out its latest “retirement readiness” study.

The headline number was that those caught between child-rearing and eldercare will be short more than half a million dollars for their own retirement. Defining this generation as those between the ages of 45 and 64, it said this cohort believes they need $818,000 on average for retirement but to date most have saved on average just $258,000.

Why my ambivalence? On the plus side, the sandwich generation always makes for good copy. In fact, the never-published fifth issue of the old Wealthy Boomer magazine I used to be associated with featured just such an anguished baby boomer couple on the cover, complete with squalling kids and ailing parents.

‘Twas ever thus? 

On the other hand, I can’t help thinking “Hasn’t EVERY generation” been a sandwich generation? Didn’t the parents of the baby boomers have to raise us and worry also about THEIR aging parents? And didn’t their grandparents go through the same thing, and so on throughout all recorded time?

Ah but the baby boomers are special, aren’t they? Everything we touch becomes a trend and any asset class we embrace soon becomes overheated. Housing in the 1980s. Tech stocks in 2000. Soon perhaps a rush for vacation properties and retirement homes.

I accept the argument that the boomers have been blessed by extended longevity and generally robust health and new medical breakthroughs. Even so, I don’t see why an extra ten years of life expectancy makes the current crop of Sandwichees more special then previous generations. Arguably, the previous generation married earlier than the boomers. I’d even make the case that the boomers generally married and started forming families roughly ten years later than their parents did: say on average at age 29 instead of 19. Let’s also assume that we have ten years more life expectancy. Seems almost a wash, except that we have kids when we’re older. The old folks will pass away at their appointed time, regardless of when we decide to start replacing them with their grandchildren.

In my case, I’m particularly fond of a photograph of my own father taken with our daughter as a youngster. Perhaps Dad was in his mid 80s at the time (he’d be 100 this year had he lived that long) and Daughter was maybe three. In effect, neither of them as photographed there is here any longer. I couldn’t find that photo but the one above shows my late father-in-law and mother-in-law, holding my daughter and one of her two cousins, taken about 20 years ago. Literally, “grandchildren on your knee,” as per the line from the Beatles’ When I’m 64.

The young girls are now young women. The point is that period was a fleeting one and so too was the period of being “sandwiched.”

This phase too will pass

The kids soon grow up and the parents die: all four of our precious elders in our own case. Because we delayed things like so many boomers did, the grandparents weren’t around to see things like college graduation or marriage for their grandchildren. But with their passing comes inheritances (often), which in turn can help pay for the kids’ university educations. The one “problem” (eldercare) eventually resolves itself and helps fix the other sandwich “problem” of the cost of university.

I’ve always loved Emerson’s essay, Compensation. If you’re still a boomer sandwiched between the generations, count your blessings and read that essay. Here’s a passage I underlined long ago: “For every thing you have missed, you have gained something else; and for every thing you gain, you lose something.”

The compensations of being sandwiched

To those still sandwiched, I’d say enjoy this brief time where you bridge three generations. Soon it will be gone and you’ll have plenty of time to pad your retirement savings, especially with extended life expectancy. Take it from me: working a few extra years is no tragedy. Emerson might even view it as a blessing.

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