Boosting RRSP limits: two views

Up, up and away for RRSP limits? Photo J. Chevreau

As I noted Thursday in this blog and elsewhere, I’ve always believed Canadians should have higher RRSP contribution limits and/or the equivalent space in registered pension plans.

It seems the C.D. Howe Institute agrees, based on this paper released Thursday, and which has already created a fair bit of publicity. I’ve received some email on this site (via jonathan@findependenceday.com) to the effect that “only the rich” benefit from more RRSP room and that, in any case, low-income earners are better off with TFSAs.

I’ll quote from some of the skeptics below, but first let me reiterate the point that Ottawa will eventually get any tax revenue it may lose by raising RRSP limits now. As any retiree with a substantial RRIF knows, forced annual RRIF withdrawals will be fully taxable and may even result in the clawback of OAS or other benefits. That’s why some question my statement that higher-income earners should welcome more RRSP room.

Two pluses, one minus

I know those with big RRSPs will eventually pay the piper but remember two things. One, several years or decades of deferred and compounded growth on investments is worth a lot. Second, most of us can expect to be in a lower tax bracket in retirement than when we were working. If you can defer tax while you’re in a 46% tax bracket and pay it many years later when you have no other income and are in a 23% tax bracket, that to me is a fair trade.

A 72-year old reader with the first name James makes the following counterpoints:

… when the other shoe drops and you are withdrawing money, here are the nasty realities:
1. You may be paying higher tax rates than when you put it in! This is true in my case and you do not have to have amassed a huge fortune for that to occur.
2. The whole nasty business of clawback, which has huge potential marginal tax rates.
3. The fact that the government controls the rate at which you reacquire your own money – regardless of your needs and limitations.

Any reform of RRSPs therefore should not only deal with maximum deposit limits but should remove any restriction on the amount and the timing of withdrawals. If I want to leave it in there until I die I should be able to and it can then by taxed in my estate (as a lump sum, which the government would love!) or passed on to one more generation – the spouse.

In the absence of hard numbers on this situation, I tried very hard to come up with my own scenarios using a sophisticated hand-held financial computer, and concluded it was better to collapse my entire RRSP before my 72nd birthday, but I may be on shaky ground without stronger financial planning tools than I had access to.

What if we didn’t tax CPP and OAS benefits?

Another reader, James from British Columbia, makes a suggestion that has occurred to me in the past. Instead of introducing an expanded CPP that will antagonize employers by in effect hiking their payroll costs, why not just make CPP and OAS income go further in old age by not taxing the income?

There could be a means test to apply some tax rate for high income earners, as there is now on OAS, but people who earn under $75,000 per year, for example, would pay no taxes on CPP and OAS benefits.

That simple, stroke-of-the-pen policy change by Ottawa would boost retirees incomes by at least 15% on those sources and not cost a single job. Nor would it require any provincial consensus.

 It would cost Ottawa tax revenue, so of  course it’s a nonstarter, but it’s not difficult to eliminate the job-killer argument if the federal government really has the will to help low-income retirees.

 

 

The case for boosting RRSP limits

My take on a C.D. Howe brief issued Thursday on the case for raising RRSP contribution limits can be found in my Financial Post column today here. Also note the many comments that follow the piece, some reflective of the emails I will highlight in Friday’s blog. You can find the full e-brief here.

And in case it’s not clear in the column, I absolutely think this is a good idea: always have. It’s true those with lower incomes may not need RRSPs. TFSAs may be a better solution for them, especially if they want to avoid clawbacks of OAS or GIS in old age. But the vast majority in the middle class who lack employer pension plans (especially the lucrative DB plans) could benefit from higher limits. If, as is likely, they will retire in a lower tax bracket than they were in their high-earning years, then an RRSP is almost a necessity. And as I point out in the piece, since only a minority of Canadians are in a position to max out their RRSPs, it shouldn’t cost Ottawa all that much because of more upfront tax deductions. And unlike the TFSA, which will reap no bonanza for federal coffers on withdrawals, RRIF income will eventually bring in lots of tax revenue for the government once we retire.

Seems like a win-win to me. Stay tuned for more reader feedback tomorrow.

 

Why is CPP betting on the “crock” that is active management?

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AndrewCoyne.com

There’s a must-read on the front page of Thursday’s National Post by Andrew Coyne that you can find here. The piece highlights a new Fraser Institute study about the increasingly bloated costs of investments run by the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPPIB). While Coyne is primarily a political writer and this piece is in part a political one, Coyne has always been a shrewd observer of the investing scene. Over the years, he’s occasionally weighed in on the relative merits of low-cost “passive” index-based investing and higher-cost “actively managed” investing epitomized by retail mutual funds, wrap accounts and (in the case of CPP), actively managed pension mandates.

Coyne doesn’t pull his punches. Near the end of the piece he writes:

It is simply a reflection of what is by now also widely recognized, among those without a vested interest in denying it. Active management is a crock. To consistently beat the market within a given asset class, a fund manager must be consistently smart and well-informed, he must be consistently smarter and better-informed than all the other smart and well-informed managers out there, all of whom are trying to do the same. That’s vanishingly unlikely.

CPP is playing the Loser’s Game

Clearly, Coyne is well aware of the arguments of major financial writers like John Bogle, Larry Swedroe, Mark Hebner, Dan Solin and many more. In particular, Charles Ellis’s Winning the Loser’s Game. (Click on the highlights for other representative books written by those authors. There also others by Canadians like Mark Noble, Howard Atkinson, Keith Matthews, Ted Cadsby and no doubt a few others I’ve neglected to mention.)

So, despite the overwhelming academic evidence that active management is — to use Coyne’s delightfully derogatory term — a “crock,” why then is the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPPIB) taking a flyer on Canadians’ collective retirement funds? It’s about money alright, but not so much about our retirement money than the compensation sought by CPPIB senior managers.

CPPIB salaries depend on willful ignorance

As Coyne points out, compensation for CPP senior managers has leapt from $1.56 million in 2007 to $3.3 million in 2014. Despite this, he adds, this “extraordinary executive bounty” has “hardly” been associated with a comparable increase in the fund.  This seems to demonstrate the wisdom of the old saying attributed to Upton Sinclair that “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Kudos to Andrew Coyne for putting the spotlight on this issue so central to the future retirement health of average Canadians. And it’s not just about CPP. When the federal government’s Pooled Registered Pension Plans (PRPPs) were announced, I commented at the time that they should be primarily invested in passively managed ETFs from firms like Vanguard Canada, which had just arrived on our shores, or the low-cost “core” portfolios of BlackRock Canada’s iShares family of ETFs.

PRPPs also headed for the Loser’s Game

But the actively managed investment industry whose collective salaries depend on not “getting” indexing have mounted a formidable campaign to get a piece of the action of PRPPs, to the point I’m not optimistic we’ll see much takeup from the thousands of smaller employers that currently offer no pension plan at all to their workers.

The labour movement can talk all it wants to about the alternative of a “Big” CPP, but if it entails the kind of active management that Coyne describes, it’s hard to advocate allowing the CPPIB to play the “loser’s game” with even more of our money.

 

 

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!

 

 

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”

sandwiched

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.

5 myths of Findependence

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The end of another tough “Findependent” day in Long Branch

Now that a few months have passed since my “Findependence Day” arrived in May, I’ve gotten more clarity about some misconceptions some may have about this concept. I may even have harboured some of these myself at one point in my full-time career. Here are five myths I’ve become aware of: this is not necessarily a definitive list and may be revisited in the future.

Myth 1 After you’re findependent, you’ll play golf all day, or bridge, or read, or travel.

I doubt this will happen for many unless you really burned out in your career. Depending on the degree of your findependence (see my recent MoneySense blog on this) and how much work you wish to do, you’ll soon settle into a routine. Most of your tasks may be self imposed, but impose them you will! Between 2004 and 2011 or so, while still working full time at the Financial Post, I devoted many nights and weekends playing to online bridge. Oddly, now that I have more time, I no longer play online bridge,  although I do make a point of religiously reading Paul Thurston’s bridge column every day on the “Diversions” page of the National Post. Even with no time lost in a downtown office and getting to and from it, I still don’t have time for online bridge. I may resume once I’m “fully retired” later in my 60s but I can’t seem to find the time for it in semi-retirement!

Myth 2: There’s no distinction between weeks and weekends.

For me, at least, the week and weekend routine still operates at most levels. If you’re familiar with my concept of the 4-hour day (normally practiced from Monday to Friday), then on weekends I do not feel obligated to put in either a four-hour or even just one two-hour stint on money-making or creative activities. Of course, you could redirect at least two hours per weekend from money making to creative fun long term projects you’ve always wanted to accomplish. Because at the end of the weekend, once the workweek resumes for everyone else, longer term projects tend to get crowded out by more imminent matters and deadlines. That said, it’s also true that – at least if you work from home – you tend to attend to some errands like shopping in the workweek lunch hour, if only as a break and a way to get out of the house. So instead of a large weekend grocery shop, I tend to run two or three times a week on specific shopping missions, but add in a few items I know we’ll need soon. The grocery bills tend to be lower on any given shop but of course you’ll have plenty more of them.

Myth 3: Findependence is an all-or-nothing proposition involving a certain “Big Number.”

Ah, big numbers. Lee Eisenberg wrote a bestseller on that called The Number. If your initial Number was $X million or $Y100 thousand, you may find you continue to push even once it’s achieved. It may become 2X or 3Y. The moment you can declare findependence may be a moving target, depending on financial markets, employers, health and many other considerations. You need to be flexible.

Myth 4:  The government won’t be there for me (or employer pensions).

I think whether in Canada or the US that the boomer generation can count on the promised social programs and probably the same will hold for succeeding generations. Benefits may not be as generous, may not be inflation hedged, may become means-tested and so on. And yes, these days, it’s hard to count on any one employer pension plan, be it Defined Benefit or newer hybrids that expose workers to some market risk. The whole point of findependence is to establish multiple income streams, which may include part-time earned income or consulting work. That’s a major point Wes Moss makes in his excellent book: You Can Retire Sooner Than You Think.

Government pensions is one basket and an employer pension is a second one but you know what they say about putting all your eggs into any one of them. If I were counting 100% on Social Security or OAS/CPP in Canada then I’d be apprehensive about this. And Moss finds the unhappiest retirees are those who can count on only a single source of income.

But as a single potential flow of income that might account for 20 to 60% of the total, the more you have alternatives, the better. RRSPs/IRAs and other savings are one other vehicle, as are taxable accounts and TFSAs/Roth IRAs. But there are also book or music royalties, real estate investment properties, part-time work and finally the subject we wrote about here last week: Internet marketing and entrepreneurship. The Internet has so much potential for creating multiple streams of findependence income that I almost envy the young people now who would far rather become laptop millionaires than salaried employees.

Myth 5: The act of declaring Findependence is irrevocable.

If you’ve left a job or sold a business, you may think the act of declaring your Findependence is irrevocable. It’s not. The truth is you can rejoin the workforce if you wish, though most of the “findependent” people I know who got there before me show not the slightest inclination for returning to another stint on the 9-to-5 treadmill. Lately, I’ve been listening to a Valdy song, Coming Home, which contains the lyric, “I’m going back to places that I couldn’t wait to leave.” When the odd notion comes into my head that it might be fun being full time again in magazines or newspapers, that lyric can’t help but run through my mental iPod.

So those are 5 myths. I’ll revisit this list periodically and probably add to them. Reader input always welcome. Email me at jonathan@findependenceday

 

The Thousand-Bucks-a-Month rule for retirement

Here’s my latest Financial Independence blog from MoneySense.

mosscoverFor this blog, I’ve added the cover shot of the book from which it’s drawn. For convenience, I’ve included the original blog text here:

Here’s an interesting rule of thumb that most retirees and would-be retirees would do well to adopt. Developed by US financial planner Wes Moss, it’s called the 1,000-Bucks-a-Month Rule. It means that for every thousand dollars in monthly income you want in retirement, you need to have saved $240,000.

So if you want $2,000 a month from your investment portfolio, this rule suggests you’d need to amass $480,000, which just happens to be close to the minimum amount ($500,000) that “happy retirees” in the United States tend to have saved up. Note this rule is to generate investment income that is above and beyond pension income, government pensions like Social Security (in the US) or the combination in Canada of CPP/OAS (Canada Pension Plan/Old Age Security).

This guideline suggests that if you want $4,000 a month from investment income, in addition to the usual alternative sources of income, then you need to have saved almost a million in liquid investments: $240,000 times four is $960,000. If you wanted $10,000 a month, then you’d need $2.4 million, etc. It also assumes you’re at least 60 years old, although it will be a useful benchmark even for those younger than 60 and who aspire to an early retirement.

Close connection to Bengen’s 4% safe withdrawal guideline

Moss uses this handy guideline in his practice (a George-based investment firm called Capital Investment Advisor, of which he is chief investment strategist) as well as on his popular financial radio show, Money Matters. It’s also his number one tip in his recently published book. This is one I think most MoneySense readers would be interested in: You Can Retire Sooner Than You Think: The Money Secrets of the Happiest Retirees, Wes Moss, McGraw Hill, 2014.

So how does Moss arrive at this rule? It’s based on a 5% annual withdrawal rate, which means that $240,000 in investments would spin off $12,000 a year in some combination of interest, dividends and other income (which Moss calls distributions). Divide the $12,000 by the 12 months of the year and there’s your desired thousand bucks a month of income.

But 5%? Who can get 5% these days from bank deposits or even stocks? This is where it gets interesting. Note first that 5% is close to the 4% safe withdrawal rule made famous by financial planner William Bengen. He found retirees could withdraw 4% a year from a balanced portfolio and not run out of money for at least 30 years. (he includes an inflation adjustment but we’ll ignore that here). Moss is a big fan of income investing so right off the bat you can get close to 5% in certain high-yielding dividend stocks (telecom or utility stocks for example, or REITs.) You’ll get perhaps 2 or 3% from fixed income, depending how much risk you want to take but what about the rest? How does Moss stretch Bengen’s 4% to 5% in this low-yielding world?

The rest comes from growth or capital gains, which year by year will fluctuate or even be negative, but over the long haul can be another 1 to 3% on top of the more assured yield from income investing. At worst, it may involve cutting slowly into capital but as long as your income investments are generating by themselves 3 or 4%, Moss assesses that such a nest egg would easily outlast the average 30-year retirement time frame.

There’s plenty of other stuff in the book but I’ll close with just two more points. Like myself, Moss believes retirees should have completely paid off their home mortgage. And he’s not a big fan of annuities.

Never work again?

neverworkagainIn researching the post-Findependence lifestyle, I’ve come across a lot of books that invoke the phrase  “Never Work Again” in the title, or variants that suggest much the same thing. There is, for example, a free e-book with that precise title (shown on the left) but you soon discover that these kinds of books equate the word “Work” with the corporate 9 to 5 routine.

Most of them, like the Tim Ferriss book we looked at earlier this summer, involve leveraging the Internet to create a mobile lifestyle that can earn money anywhere in the world. Other examples are The Laptop Millionaire and Click Millionaires. In the case of Erland Bakke, author of the book shown at the top, if you follow your passion and the money eventually follows, this is no longer defined as “work,” even though for all intents and purposes it is.

These books propose business ownership and the pursuit of multiple clients and at some point leverage their personal time to either employ one or more assistants, or to outsource various pieces of “work” that one either lacks the skills for (like web-site development) or lacks the inclination to focus on.

Better to sell products than time

laptopmillionaireThe fundamental decision is whether to continue to sell one’s time – this is what salaried employees do, as do “one-man band” freelancers – or to pursue the sale of products. The latter route, whether of tangible products or web-based information products, contains the seeds of potentially greater wealth, but of course requires a lot of upfront-time, energy and often capital in order to establish the infrastructure that will later deliver a sort of “freedom.”

I’d still call this work, even if it’s the supposedly glamorous field of “internet marketing.” Certainly, the covers of these books and e-books suggest the hybrid nature of this lifestyle. Typical are the two covers I’ve used to illustrate this blog:  you see someone lounging on a beach somewhere – we’ve probably run versions of this idyllic scene in various “Retirement” covers in MoneySense – but instead of the lounger languidly sipping a pina colada and reading a trashy paperback, we see instead a laptop computer perched on their stomach. They are in fact “working,” however idyllic the environment, not unlike the photo I ran of myself “lazing” in the back yard in this blog earlier in the summer.

Working and Living become intertwined

Far from “stop working, start living,” (to borrow from the title of Dianne Nahirny’s book on early retirement), the philosophy of these books is to combine living with working, taking advantage of the global infrastructure of the World Wide Web to engage in money-making activities anywhere in the world.

Personally, I envisage such activity as a supplement to the traditional sources of “retirement” income we write about regularly in MoneySense. My faith in the stock market was shaken sufficiently by the events of 2008 that I’d be reluctant to count exclusively on dividend income, however diversified the portfolio. And we all know that the phenomenon of “financial repression” practiced by the world’s central banks has conspired to keep interest rates low for the foreseeable future, which makes counting on highly taxed interest income from fixed-income investments equally dodgy. If I were a real estate tycoon, which I am not, I’d want to add rental income. As I am not, I envisage some combination of selling my editorial services and creating new web-based products. These blogs will continue to report on this adventure as time goes on.

 

 

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