There are lots of issues common to folks in their post-college, pre-middle aged years. Here are answers to many questions people in that age range often ask me. I am, of course, happy to provide more specific answers and update the post to reflect concerns left out–just make comments, I’ll be reading them actively.
1) Why Is Advice Different For People In Their 20s and 30s? I am primarily referring to those who are working and not anticipating retiring in the next 30-40 years–that obviously doesn’t apply to everyone in this age range but it is a common occurrence. The length of time that money will be invested impacts substantially how it should be invested. Someone who was 45 and anticipate working until age 72, would probably find this information useful, perhaps even if they planned to retire at age 62.
2) What If I Have Lots of Debt? If you have credit card debt, it multiplies at an astonishing rate. Do whatever you can to eliminate it as soon as possible! If you need to, move in with your parents and get it axed. Don’t eat out again until it’s gone. Do whatever you can to eliminate it immediately. Come up with a strategy to avoid carrying a credit card balance. Many credit cards companies are excellent at tricking you into making “minimum payments”. These payments allow your debt to grow and compound (sometimes at a rate of 30% or more). The bank is getting more than a 30% return and you are paying them for it. From the investors standpoint it’s a “maximum payment” as in maximized their profit. Square things with them immediately. If you have student loans, however, since they tend to charge less interest you don’t have to take as aggressive approaches as with credit card debt. You might be able to invest less as you pay them off but the money you invest will outperform the rate you have to pay for student loans. For many, income-based repayment approaches make the most sense, especially when combined with public student loan forgiveness eligibility or loan forgiveness from their university (especially common for fancy professional grad schools like law school). Student loans are complex and the best approach varies tremendously with characteristics of the loan and the borrower.
3) Do You Have Some Secrets Which Will Enable Me To Amass great Riches? Unfortunately, I don’t. If you eventually want to stop working (retire) then sometime before that point you must start spending less money than you earn (saving). Not saving likely leads to no comfortable retirement. When asked about the most important invention of the 19th century, Einstein is often said to have given it significant thought and then replied with “compound interest.” Insofar as there is a secret to retirement savings it is the power of compounding interest–or in the case of investment, compound return. Let’s say you invested $1 today and received a 10% per year return. That return is somewhat less than the 11.31% average annual return of the US stock market since 1928 (when good data began to become available). After one year that $1 will be worth $1.10. The next year you would have $1.21 (because you received interest on last years interest). After five years the dollar would have turned into $1.61, @10 years–$2.59, @20–$6.73, @30–$17.45, and after 40 years, that original dollar would be worth $45.26. From year 39 to 40 the $1 initial investment yielded $4.12 in annual interest. Now imagine that instead of investing $1 initially, you invested $1,000 and were 25. At age 65 that money would be worth $45,260. Combine that with social security and you can see how retirement could be pretty sweet.
4) But I’ll Be Making More Money When I’m 45. Shouldn’t I Just Put Money Away Then? In our example above you invested $1 at age 25 and ended up with about $45 at age 65. Now, assume you didn’t start investing until age 45. You would have needed to invest $6.43 to have the same $45 at the end. Do you really think you will be making 6.43 times as much money in twenty years? At that point you may have several children, mortgage payments, and many other things about which to worry about and you’ll probably not be making much more than double or triple what you are making now. If you invest 10% of your income every year for retirement starting at age 20 it will be worth a huge amount more than if you invest 30% starting at age 45. Over the course of your life, 10% will be doable. 20% would have you living a rich life in your later years.
5) Where Should I Invest This Money Between Now and When I Retire? Let me take a second and say something very important. Where exactly you invest isn’t nearly important as that you invest. You will make a solid decision of where to put your money and, if you are smart, you will pretty much leave it alone. Dr. Ilia Dichev, of the UMich B-School studied investors and found that the returns of most investors was less than the markets they invested in. The Wilson Quarterly has a great (brief) writeup of that study:
“Buy and hold” is the mantra of many investment gurus. Rather than try to time the market or pick winners and losers, they say, individual investors should put their money into a representative basket of stocks and forget about it. Good advice, says Ilia D. Dichev, an economist at the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business. What a pity it’s too simple for most people to follow. The NASDAQ market, the main crash site of the Internet boom of the 1990s, would have produced handsome returns (9.6 percent annually) for a person who invested in 1973 and did nothing until 2002. But even committed “passive” investors have a hard time sitting tight. People tend to put more money into stocks when the market soars and pull it out when it turns south. Most wind up buying high and selling low. In order to find out how investors actually fared, Dichev adjusted historical market returns to reflect the flows of money in and out of the market. That juicy 9.6 percent return on the NASDAQ? In fact, investors reaped only 4.3 percent on average. Results were better in other markets. A capitalization-weighted basket of stocks on the New York and American stock exchanges held from 1926 to 2002 returned an average of 9.9 percent annually. Investors who tried to outsmart the market saw an 8.6 percent annual increase.
6) So, Nu? Where should I Invest My Money? A lot of folks like to pay other people a lot of money to financial firms (often via mutual funds fees) to manage their money. This is usually a bad idea. Most financial “experts” aren’t better than the market and the mutual funds they work for often charge you a lot of money for their advice. The Motley Fool has an excellent piece on why Index Funds are better than anything else. Here are two excerpts:
There’s a reason that all these magazines don’t tell you how simple mutual fund investing really is. Scientific marketing surveys and focus group testing have determined that magazines with covers that read “Index Funds: Still The Best Choice!!!” every single month really wouldn’t sell as well as magazines that promise “Our BRAND NEW 10 Best Mutual Funds To Buy RIGHT NOW!” Sad, but true.
Basically, it will cost you anywhere from 1-2% to have an actively managed mutual fund. Sometimes even more when sneaky fees are introduced. Vanguard’s total US market index fund [Vanguard: VTSAX, ETF: VTI] is an example of a diverse, low-cost option. It has typically outperformed 90%+ of other investments over time and costs only 0.04%. If you want to live a very simple investment life, have a long time horizon, and don’t worry too much about short-term fluctuations, many passive investing enthusiasts suggest this as a good choice for your one mutual fund.
7) The Simple One Index Fund Approach Looks Good but What is the Next Step? Dave Swenson, the guy who used to manage money for Yale, is generally regarded as a financial super-genius. Here is a post on a great financial blog discussing his recommendation. It is very close to what a smart 20/30-something investor might do. A younger investor who is okay with more volatility might tweak it to this (certainly most people would be best off with something else, this is just an example!, anyone seeking support with asset allocation should contact a fee-only, fiduciary, perhaps a registered investment advisor):
- Domestic Equity (42.5 percent): Refers to stocks in U.S.-based companies listed on U.S. exchanges. [Vanguard: VTSMX, ETF: VTI]
- Emerging Market Equity (12.5 percent): Refers to stocks from emerging markets around the world, such as Brazil, Russia, India and China. [Vanguard: VEIEX, ETF: VWO]
- Foreign Developed Equity (20 percent): Refers to stocks listed on major foreign markets in developed countries, such as the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Japan. [Vanguard: VGTSX, ETF: VEU]
- Real Estate Investment Trusts (25 percent): Refers to stocks of companies that invest directly in real estate through ownership of property. [Vanguard: VGSIX, ETF: VNQ]
The above version removes Bonds and TIPS and concentrated on equities. Over several decades stocks have always outperformed bonds. If you are nearing retirement or about to buy a house then most want more stability and are willing to sacrifice some upside in order to achieve it. If you want to maximize money in the future then you need to accept more volatility. Retirement investments for young folks should be somewhat volatile in the short run to make them richer in the long run. The reason that the adapted Swenson approach has a few more funds than the one fund solution is to diversify more broadly to make it less volatile. This will cover you much better if foreign companies come to reign supreme in the next few decades. Also, this version of the portfolio uses Vanguard funds as an example. Many other firms have a wide range of low fee index funds. For instance, one could also construct a nearly identical portfolio using Fidelity funds. Or iShares. Or Schwab. Or many, many others. My point wasn’t to suggest a financial firm so much as give a sample portfolio to consider. I would never write a blog post suggesting how an individual person should invest–providing responsible investment advice requires knowing that person’s situation in depth.
8 ) But I want to buy a house? Generally speaking, real estate doesn’t do as well as the market. Here is an excerpt from a Forbes piece on the subject:
Where’s a better place to put your money: the stock market or real estate? These days the accepted wisdom (at least at cocktail parties) says to pick real estate. But is the accepted wisdom right? It is–in the short term. U.S. real estate sale prices increased more than 56% from the beginning of 1999 to the end of 2004, as tracked by the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight, part of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The S&P 500 index dipped nearly 6% during that same period. But if you take a longer view–say 25 years–you’ll find that the S&P 500 has actually stomped the real estate market, from Boston to Detroit to Dallas. From the start of 1980 to the end of 2004, home sale prices increased 247%. A pretty sweet deal, it would seem. Over the same period, however, the S&P 500 shot up more than 1,000%.
The other big problem with real estate is that it causes a large portion of your assets to be tied up in a single entity. It is very hard to diversify if 90% of your net worth is in a single property as is often the case with young investors. That said, if you are a brilliant real estate investor you may be able to realize short terms gains enough that your share of a nice home is less than renting used was costing you. In general though, if rent prices are attractive, the financial incentive to buy is not very substantial. However, and it’s a big however, there are many non-financial incentives to buy that are worth considering. Perhaps it will help you to feel invested in your community. You might live in a nicer place, you may like the idea of a 3-dimensional investment, you might have help from family members, or you might want to spend money to make your home more attractive and recoil at the idea of paying for your landlord’s investment to improve. Back to the financial side, one compelling feature related to buying real estate is that if you borrow money to do it (a mortgage) the interest payments on that borrowed money are tax deductible. Meaning that you don’t pay taxes on the portion of your income you use to payoff the interest on your loan. In the early years of a 30-year fixed rather mortgage, for instance, the vast majority of your payment is interest. If you are in a high tax bracket this break is very advantageous. Most young people, however, are not in a high tax bracket and those that are may want to see a tax planner or financial planner to get more personally tailored advice. Also, it’s important to realize that if you currently use the standard deduction, then you only save the difference between the new itemized deduction approach and the standard deduction. For instance, if you filed your taxes alone last year and had $3,000 in deductions, you’d have used the standard deduction which was worth $6,300 off of your taxes. If this year, you started paying a mortgage and had $8,000 in interest payments, your taxes wouldn’t be $8,000 less than last year. The income on which you were taxes would actually be just $4,700 less than last year since you’d have $11,000 in deductions (the $3k in non-mortgage expenses plus the $8k in mortgage interest) but you’d no longer claim the $6,300 from the standard deduction. Though you’d pay a less taxes, it’s important to factor in losing the standard deduction so you don’t overestimate. As always, consult a professional or do careful research about your own tax situation!
9) Okay, back to investing…Should I use a 401k? 403B? IRA? Roth IRA? What are they? 401Ks, Roth IRAs, Traditional IRAs, and 403Bs are four different kinds of tax-advantaged retirement accounts. They have several features in common:
- All were setup by the IRS to help us save for retirement.
- All will lead to us paying less taxes, either now or later.
There are also some major differences.
401K and 403B plans are created by employers for the benefit of employees. 401Ks are generally in private (for-profit) companies and 403Bs are for public and non-profit firms though the lines can be fuzzy at time. These two plans work similarly. You tell your employer to deduct some of your salary and put it in the retirement account. You’ll also tell them how you want it invested. Often your boss will match your contributions up to a certain limit. For most people, most of the time, it’s wise to contribute up to that limit. Basically, you are getting an immediate 100% return on your investment. If your $1 is matched then 40 years later instead of being worth $45, your $1 invested will be worth $90. You don’t want to miss out on that. Both 401Ks and 403Bs must be funded through payroll deductions. You can’t move money from your checking account to that sort of retirement account. Money invested with a 401k/403b is tax deductible now (but not later). If you make $40,000 and you put $5,000 into your 403B you are taxes as though you only made$35,000. The 403B (or 401K) contribution is tax exempt. IRA’s are also tax except but aren’t managed by your employer. By contrast, Roth IRAs are not tax deductible now. In exchange for paying taxes now, you don’t need to pay taxes when your withdraw the money later. If you are in a low tax bracket now and expect to be in a high tax bracket upon retiring, this is often the better choice to prioritize. Of course, you can also do both! Basically, if your boss will match a contribution to a company plan, that is free money, consider taking it. If not you may be better off with an IRA, Roth IRA or both.
10) Okay, So I Want a Roth or Traditional IRA and Like Your Index Fund Idea, How Do I Do It? How Do The Mechanics Work? Just about any firm that manages money for individuals will manage your retirement accounts. You probably want a firm that has lots of good, cheap, index funds (and/or ETFs) and won’t charge you to buy or sell their own firms funds. Vanguard was the original firm to develop low-cost passive investment so many people gravitate towards them. They invented index funds and have a very good selection including the funds I used as an example earlier.* Conclusion:
- There are no tricks or secrets.
- Consider starting to save now and save more than you think.
- Consider investing in index funds.
- Money multiplies at an amazing rate the longer you put it away for. Consider starting right now! Then the money will be invested and reinvested as long as possible.
- If you push hard to invest enough now, you will have a much easier time later in life. It may well be worth the small sacrifice now.
- Would you rather put away $1,000 now out of your income or need to set aside $45,000 out of your income in 40 years?
*These funds are neither guaranteed to do as well as they have historically nor are they guaranteed to outperform most funds, as they have historically. I believe in this approach and use it myself and am reasonably confident in its simplicity but you should make sure you understand enough to think clearly about the question of which sorts of funds are best for you and why.