MARK RIEPE: I’m pretty sure that many of you are asking why we’re doing an episode about New Year’s resolutions in late February.
There are two reasons. First, the making of resolutions is popular. About 40% of Americans set resolutions each new year.
Second, I’m pretty sure many, if not most, of you who made resolutions have already broken them. But don’t take my word for it.
Recent research suggests that more than half of all resolutions fail. In one study, psychologist Richard Wiseman found that just 12 percent of his participants achieved their resolutions.And according to the time management firm FranklinCovey, one-third of resolutions fail before the end of January.
But all is not lost. In this episode, we’re going to do three things.
First, we’re going to give you good reasons not to give up and wait until next year—because there are plenty of other milestones when you can decide to start fresh, and the sooner the better.
Second, we’ll give you some ideas as to what should be on your list of financial resolutions.
Finally, we’ll give you some tips that will increase your odds of keeping your resolutions.
I’m Mark Riepe and this is Financial Decoder—an original podcast from Charles Schwab.
It’s a show about financial decision making and the cognitive and emotional biases that can cloud our judgment.
It makes sense that people want to mark the changing of a year by reflecting on the past and looking toward a better future. That’s a good instinct, and setting goals at New Year’s is a fun tradition. But behavioral science tells us that there are plenty of other dates that can do the trick just as well.
The host of the Choiceology podcast, Katy Milkman, and her colleagues documented what they call the “fresh-start effect.” This is the tendency for people to get motivated to change their life after temporal landmarks like New Year’s Day or anniversaries or even the changing of a season.
That motivation and the optimism that fuels it can create a feeling of separation from failure that is vital in helping people achieve their goals.
In other words, we create an “old me” and a “new me” where the dividing line is a particular date.
This is important right now because, as I’m recording this, New Year’s Day 2021 is about 11 months away. There’s no reason to waste that time.
This is especially true with resolutions that pertain to your financial life, because time is money.
So if you’re looking for a fresh start, you can carefully choose a date and commit to leaving the old you behind.
Pick a birthday, an anniversary, the summer solstice. The date doesn’t really matter as long as you find it meaningful and you’re willing to commit to it.
Whether you’ve gotten completely off track with your resolutions, or didn’t make any to begin with, it’s never too late for a fresh start.
To help you out, we’ve got four resolutions to share.
Resolution #1: Create a budget.
One way of looking at your financial life is to boil it all down to cash flowing in and cash flowing out. Saving and investing during your working years, if you stick with it, should lead to a rising net worth over time, enabling you to achieve your most important life goals.
Creating your own budget and net worth statement can help you build your roadmap and stay on track.
At a minimum, be sure to have a high-level budget with three things: how much you take in after taxes, how much you’ll spend, and how much you’ll save.
Of course, it’s one thing to document a budget—and quite another to stick to it. Saving is easier when you “pay yourself first,” and one suggestion is to change the way you think about saving money.
Try automating the process completely. Have the amount you can save for retirement automatically deducted from your pay—and set up automatic transfers to your savings account or into a retirement account like a 401(k).
Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz is president of the Charles Schwab Foundation, and we spoke recently about how she implemented the “pay yourself first” philosophy with her own family, as well as the right amount to save for retirement.
CARRIE SCHWAB-POMERANTZ: With each of my kids when they graduated from college and then they went out on their own, I had them create a budget, a monthly budget, and you know, against their monthly income. And before they even got into anything else, even the essentials, we put a 10% line item for saving for retirement. So if, you know, they were earning $50,000, we would take $5,000 and put it against their retirement and then everything else would fall from there. Then they can understand, “How much of a … how much rent can I afford?” You know, or “What neighborhood can I afford?” Or “Should I live at home longer?” Or “Should I get more roommates?” You know, so the budget falls from there.
MARK: One of the nice things about a budget is it forces you to confront the tradeoffs, because there’s only so much money to go around. As you were just saying there, if you’re paying your retirement savings first, if that’s the top priority, you know, what is the right amount?
CARRIE: So we know, and Mark, of course, you know this better than any of us, the power of compound growth and starting to save early for your long-term goals. And so the rule of thumb is if you start in your twenties saving and investing for retirement, you could put away 10%, or 15% would even be better, for the rest of your life, and you should have a relatively comfortable retirement. However, for those who procrastinate and wait until their thirties, they’re going to have to save 20%. And if they wait until their forties, they’re going to have to save 30%. So you can see the longer that you wait, the harder it’s going to be to save. And in particular, as you get older, your expenses get more complicated—you probably get married, you have kids, you have more responsibilities. So it’s really critical for us to get young people to start saving 10% for the rest of their lives, and they should be very comfortable later on.
MARK: After you’ve created a working budget, try to project the cost of essential big-ticket items. If you have a big expense in the near term, like college tuition or a roof repair, increase your savings and dedicate it to that short-term goal. If that big-ticket item is truly essential, you should employ some mental accounting and wall that money off and treat it as already spent.
Carrie shared with me a great strategy for saving for those bigger one-off expenses and some real-world examples of how it can help.
CARRIE: So it gets back to reviewing and adjusting your budget throughout time, because again, our expenses change, our goals change. I, for example, happened to have my very first wedding this summer. I’m the mother of the groom … we’re parents of the groom. So we’re definitely contributing. Fortunately, we’re not the ones totally footing the bill, but still, you know, in today’s world, everybody pitches in. And 25 years ago, that was certainly not in my budget. It was not something I was planning for. So you know, the bottom line is things do change in your life. So it’s very important to have a certain amount of cash set aside and liquid assets of some sort, again, money market funds or a savings account, and then invest for those goals that are going to be longer than five years.
MARK: The last point I want to make about budgeting is that things never exactly go to plan, and so a rigid adherence to a budget may not make sense because all sorts of unanticipated expenses can pop up.
But there’s a fix for this as Carrie explains:
CARRIE: The bottom line is we all have to expect the unexpected, right, and budget for the unexpected. And so critical to that is creating what we call an emergency fund. An emergency fund should consist of three … at least three to six months of living expenses set aside in a liquid account such as a savings account or a money market fund, which you can easily access. And that’s a rule of thumb, the three to six months. But if you have maybe a more complex family situation, you may want to save even more than three to six months because, again, if you do have a family, you have other expenses you might not think about, such as an old car or even a veterinarian bill can cost you a lot of money, or school expenses and field trips.
Resolution # 2: Manage your debt.
Debt is neither inherently good nor bad—it’s simply a tool. For most people, some level of debt is a practical necessity, especially to purchase an expensive long-term asset like a home.
However, problems arise when debt becomes the master and is controlling you rather than the other way around.
Here’s how to stay in charge.
Keep your total debt load manageable. Don’t confuse what you can borrow with what you should borrow. Keep the monthly costs of owning a home (for example, principal, interest, taxes, and insurance) below 28% of your pre-tax income and your total monthly debt payments (including credit cards, auto loans, and mortgage payments) below 36% of your pre-tax income.
Eliminate high-cost, non-tax-deductible consumer debt. Try to pay off credit card debt and avoid borrowing to buy depreciating assets, such as cars. The cost of consumer debt adds up quickly if you carry a balance.
Consider consolidating your debt in a low-rate home equity loan or line of credit (also known as a HELOC)—but have a plan to pay it off and build that into your budget.
Match repayment terms of your home mortgage to your time horizon. If you’re likely to move within five to seven years, consider a shorter-maturity loan or an adjustable-rate mortgage, depending on current mortgage rates and options.
However, don’t consider this if you think you may live in your home for longer, or may not be able to manage mortgage payment resets if interest rates or your plans change.
Also don’t borrow money under the assumption that your home will automatically increase in value. Historically, long-term home appreciation has significantly lagged the total return of a diversified stock portfolio.
Resolution 3 is “Optimize your portfolio.”
We’ll talk more about this in a minute, but the first step is to create a targeted asset allocation that’s diversified (in other words how you are dividing your investments across big categories like stocks, bonds, and cash).
Make sure that your asset allocation is connected to your specific goals, time horizon, and risk tolerance because that will help you stay disciplined when the markets are volatile.
Resolution #4: Prepare for the unexpected.
Risk is a part of life, particularly in investments and finance. In fact, some of the earliest financial contracts were created for the purpose of helping people manage financial risks.
That makes sense because your financial life can be upended by all kinds of surprises—an illness, job loss, disability, death, natural disasters, or lawsuits.
If you don’t have one already, make a resolution to review your insurance coverage and needs. A health insurance policy, either through your employer, Medicare, or the exchange marketplace, should be at the top of the list.
If you’re in good health and don’t visit the doctor often, consider a high-deductible policy to insure against the possibility of a severe illness or unexpected health-care event.
There are many other types of insurance you may need. For example, check your homeowners and auto insurance policies to make sure your coverage and deductibles are still right for you.
A personal liability “umbrella” policy is a cost-effective way to increase your liability coverage by $1 million or more, in case you’re at fault in an accident or someone is injured on your property.
If you’re considering a long-term care policy, look for a policy that provides the right type of care and is guaranteed renewable with locked-in premium rates.
Long-term care typically is most cost-effective starting at about age 50 and becomes more expensive or difficult to find, generally, after age 70. You can get independent sources of information from your state insurance commissioner.
Create a disaster plan for your safety and peace of mind. Review your homeowner’s or renter’s policy to see what’s covered and what’s not. Keep an updated inventory of valuable household items and possessions along with any professional appraisals and estimates of replacement values in a safe place away from your home.
All of these resolutions are just suggestions. Remember, you don’t have to do everything at once. There’s a lot you can do to improve your financial health, one step at a time.
Next, we’re going to dig into the details of how you can optimize your portfolio and prepare for the unexpected by talking to an expert.
I’m joined now by Rob Williams. He’s a colleague of mine at the Schwab Center for Financial Research, and he’s the vice president of financial planning and retirement income. He was a guest back on Season 1 where we talked about Social Security. It’s good to have you back, Rob.
ROB WILLIAMS: Hi, Mark, it’s great to be here.
MARK: Rob, you’ve written about people making financially oriented New Year’s resolutions before, and in one of your pieces your advice is to optimize your portfolio. What do you mean by that?
ROB: Well, it’s fine to say “optimize your portfolio.” But before your get to your portfolio, it’s really important to think first about what your goals are and what you want your investment results to be. We all want to beat the market, but research shows that timing of markets is very difficult, and the most important thing to do first is to create a plan, the right mix of investments that you can stick with in a disciplined way, in all kinds of markets; then follow it and adjust as needed.
MARK: So in the past you’ve talked about things like having a targeted asset allocation as something that’s going to help determine what your mix should be. How do you go about settling in on what that is? What kind of factors should you be thinking about when creating the right mix?
ROB: Well, each type of investment you can think of sort of as a tool, say, in stocks, bonds, cash, and each have different characteristics and different types of risk. So a targeted asset allocation is the right mix of those investments for you, and it’s important to think about a variety of factors. We often talk about your risk tolerance, or how much tolerance do you have for the market going up and down. But that’s only one factor. It’s important also think about your time horizon. So if you have, let’s say, a short-term goal to invest for a down payment on a house, you might invest differently. The age of your spouse, the timing of your needs, all of those are factors that you should be thinking about to determine, you know, how the investments you’re making aligns with your goals.
MARK: We talk a lot about diversification. Why is that so important, and where does that factor into this portfolio construction or portfolio optimization process?
ROB: Well, there’s a couple of ways to think about diversification. And the portfolio, and one way to think about it is, like a car, it needs tuning. Are you tuned for speed or are you tuned for stability? You know, and that’s driven, in part, based on the mix of stocks, bonds, and cash that you choose. Another form of diversification is when you choose those asset classes to invest across a number of different securities, so not just one bond or one stock where you swing for the fences, but to diversify and to buy multiple securities, multiple investments. And unless you have a lot of money, that can be very difficult to do on your own, and even if you do, it can make sense to use mutual funds. Exchange-traded funds, called ETFs, are a great way to own a diversified basket of securities in just about any asset class.
MARK: Yeah, I think that’s right. If you were to buy individual stocks and individual bonds, you have to have a lot of money to create a portfolio that’s truly diversified, and that’s where mutual funds and ETFs come into play. You can get hundreds, if not thousands, of securities pretty quickly for a relatively small investment, right?
ROB: That’s right. I mean, that’s very important. How you invest and making sure you’re diversified once you have that targeted asset allocation. How you get access to the market matters, too, and mutual funds and exchange traded funds are a great way to do that in a diversified way.
MARK: Often, we’ll talk about the investment portfolio as if it’s a single thing, but for most people, their portfolio is, in fact, spread out across multiple accounts, and those accounts have different tax treatments. So what’s the best way to handle that when you’re optimizing your portfolio?
ROB: Well, that’s an important fact to know. The different account choice, an IRA, a traditional brokerage account, that’s an important tool to think about. And generally, it makes sense to place relatively tax-efficient investments, which can include ETFs, exchange trade funds we just mentioned, and municipal bonds, which can be tax-advantaged, and put those in taxable accounts. And then put relatively tax-inefficient investments, like mutual funds that trade actively and may generate a higher tax bill, real estate investment trusts (called REITs), higher-yielding bonds and other things, in tax-advantaged accounts. And the tax-advantaged accounts, it’s important to know, those include your retirement accounts, such as a traditional or Roth IRA account, so an individual retirement account. And if you do, if you are a person that trades frequently, it can make sense to do that in tax-advantaged brokerage accounts to help reduce your tax bill.
MARK: You mentioned a couple of different terms there, tax-efficient, tax-inefficient. Could you decode that a little bit? What do those terms mean?
ROB: Well, tax-efficient means investments that generate less tax either from the interest earned, which can be taxable income to you, or from capital gains, which are often generated if you trade often. So if you sell a stock, you may have a capital gain and have to pay for that during the year as part of your tax bill. And obviously, tax-inefficient investments do the opposite. And actively trading for some investors is an approach, one approach, that can result in more of your return lost to taxes.
MARK: So you’ve got your portfolio set up, but presumably it requires some maintenance along the way. So how is that done?
ROB: Well, don’t look at your portfolio every day, that’s one rule of thumb. Evaluate your portfolio’s performance at least twice a year, though, and use the right benchmarks. That means don’t look at the markets and say, “Well, the stock market is up and down each day.” Have a benchmark that matches your mix of investments and that’s aligned with your goals. Remember, though, the long-term progress that you have to make toward your goals is more important than short-term portfolio performance.
Now, one key fact is you may have investment goals that are in the shorter term, and as you approach a savings goal, such as, say, the beginning of a child’s education, or you’re about to retire, it’s important to begin to reduce your investment risk, if it’s appropriate. So you don’t have to sell volatile investments like stocks when you need them.
MARK: So if I were to sum up the whole “optimize your portfolio” resolution, it really comes down to get a strategic asset allocation or long-term asset allocation in place that’s tied to your goals, make sure that you’ve constructed the portfolio in a tax-smart way, and then monitor their portfolio but don’t necessarily react to every wiggle in the market. Does that about sum it up?
ROB: Yeah, that’s right, I think. And a good resolution is don’t change your investment strategy, you know, due to emotion or at the moment. Now, but you do change it as, say, you get closer to your goals. We don’t have infinite investment time horizons. I mean, hopefully, we save and we get to retirement, and as you get closer, New Year’s or any time of year can be a good time to think about making sure you’ve got the right mix for your time horizon for each investment goal, as well.
MARK: Yeah, make sure your portfolio matches your situation.
MARK: Another resolution that you’re fond of is preparing for the unexpected, or prepare for the unexpected. So talk to me a little bit about that.
ROB: Well, risk is a part of life, particularly investments and finance, and your portfolio may be diversified, but sound financial planning and managing your financial life involves other risks, as well. Your financial life can be upended by all kinds of surprises—an illness, job loss, disability, death, natural disaster, and the list goes on. If you don’t have enough assets to self-insure against major risks, which means, well, if you have an accident, can you pay for it out of your portfolio? It makes sense to have insurance to cover those needs. And we all have insurance for certain things. Insurance helps protect against unforeseen events that may not happen often, but are very expensive to manage on your own when they do.
MARK: We both have families, so medical insurance is kind of a no-brainer for us. What are the key considerations when going out and choosing a medical insurance policy?
ROB: Well, health insurance is obviously required now, and selecting a health insurance policy that matches your needs in all the areas that you can choose, like coverage, deductibles, co-payments, choice of medical providers, is very important. A good rule of thumb is if you’re in good health and don’t visit the doctor often, think about a high-deductible policy to insure against the possibility of a serious illness or unexpected health-care event. One thing that can be helpful is if you have access to a health savings account, use it or learn more about it. It can be a really helpful way to manage and save to pay for healthcare costs today, but also in the future.
MARK: Life insurance, that’s a hedge against another big risk. Who should have life insurance?
ROB: Well, the general rule of thumb is to purchase life insurance if you have dependents or other obligations like a mortgage that needs to be paid if you did pass away. One way of doing this is to take advantage of group term insurance, which is often offered by an employer. Many employers often offer a relatively low-cost term insurance policy. They don’t generally require a medical check, they can be cost-effective to provide what we call income replacement for dependents if you pass away. But if you have minor children or you have large liabilities like a large mortgage that will continue after your death, and you can’t pay for those out of your savings, you don’t have a lot of wealth, you may need to think about additional life insurance. And unless you have a permanent life insurance need, which means something that you want to have that goes past your death after your dependents are supporting themselves, or have special circumstances, consider starting with a low-cost term life policy before a whole life policy.
MARK: Rob, for most people, their ability to earn a living, that’s their most valuable asset. How do you protect that?
ROB: Well, that’s very true. When you’re working, that is your most valuable asset and you have to take advantage of it. And life insurance is important, but protecting your earning power if you have a long-term disability is also very important. The odds of becoming disabled are far greater than the odds of dying young. In fact, if you want some stats, according to the Social Security Administration, a person who turned 20 years old in 2019 has a 19% chance of becoming disabled before their normal retirement age, which is age 67, and only a 3% chance of dying before retirement age. If you can’t get adequate short- and long-term coverage through work, consider looking for an individual policy, as well.
MARK: As we age, we tend to accumulate a lot of stuff, and some of that stuff is actually valuable and can be expensive to replace. How do you protect that?
ROB: Well, protect physical assets with property and casualty insurance. That’s, I think, fairly obvious, and to check your homeowners and auto insurance policies to make sure your coverage and deductibles are still right for you. That can be a good New Year’s resolution or something to do any time of year, as well.
MARK: Rob, let’s assume for the moment that some sort of a disaster strikes your residence. What can people do now to make sure that process goes easier?
ROB: Well, natural disasters seems to be kind of one of the big concerns of the day, and rightfully so in some places. I live in Colorado, and maybe this wasn’t a natural disaster, but recently I had hail damage to my house, which, thankfully, was insured. And you may live in another area of the country with other risks. So it’s important to review your homeowner’s or renter’s policy, if you’re a renter, to see what’s covered and what’s not. Talk to your agent about flood or health-care insurance, in particular, because these are often not included in most homeowners’ policies. And once you review your policies, it’s important to know what you have in your home, as well, because that’s covered on most insurance policies, as well. So have an inventory of your valuable household items. You could have a video or write it in a list, along with any professional appraisals and estimates of the replacement value, and put those in a safe place in your home so you have them when you need them.
MARK: So when you think about “protecting against the unexpected,” that’s the resolution here: protect against bad health outcomes, protect against your life, protect against your earning power, and protect against something happening to your stuff. Is that pretty much what it comes down to?
ROB: It’s pretty much what it is. It sounds like a lot of negative protective things, but these things, if you follow through, really can add peace of mind, and they’re worth doing. I find it’s helpful to start in pieces, start with your portfolio and your investments and then look at your insurance and risks, and make sure you’re covered. And then, last, of course, the inventories and the things that we all like to do the least, which is to have copies of birth certificates, passports, wills, trust documents, the whole list, have these in a small and secure place, an evacuation box, someplace like that, where you can grab them in a hurry, and, by all means, make sure your trusted loved ones know where this file is, as well, in case they need it.
MARK: Rob, this has been great. Lots of helpful practical information. Thanks for stopping by.
ROB: Thanks, Mark. Great to be here.
MARK: It’s easy to make resolutions, but it’s much harder to keep them. One of the reasons for this is that we tend to rely on willpower too much.
I think of willpower as a conscious decision to do something I don’t really want to do right now. We then compound the problem by setting up obstacles to doing the right thing.
Social psychologist Wendy Wood discussed this on the “Creatures of Habit” episode of the Choiceology podcast. She mentioned a study that showed people who live five miles from their gym are likely to go once a month, but people who live three and a half miles from their gym are likely to go five times a month.
We might think the people who are more motivated or who have more willpower would end up going to the gym more often, but the truth is that reducing the proximity to the gym reduces the size of the obstacles around that decision.
Here are some tips to lower the obstacles and help you stay on track.
- Be realistic. Resolving to cut your spending in half or to triple your savings rate is probably just setting you up for failure.
- Be specific with your actions and why you’re doing them. Fuzzy goals like “get my financial affairs in order” may sound nice, but they’re hard to track. Lots of financial resolutions can be a bit arcane and don’t inspire action. Fix this by listing your goal and why it’s important for you do it.
- Be focused. No one is handing out a prize for creating the longest list of financial resolutions. You may really want to eliminate your credit card debt and save enough for that trip to Hawaii and reduce your grocery budget by 10% by shopping smarter. But too many goals at one time can sap your ability and motivation to stick to a small number of truly achievable goals.
- Celebrate successes. A nice pat on the back goes a long way to maintaining motivation.
Thanks for listening.
If you’d like to learn more about getting your financial affairs in order and how to get a financial plan, go to schwab.com/PortfoliosPremium.
If you want more of Carrie’s advice about a variety of financial topics, check out schwab.com/AskCarrie.
And you can always call Schwab at 877-279-4476. That number is 877-279-4476. It can help you get advice about your particular financial situation.
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For important disclosures, see the show notes and schwab.com/FinancialDecoder.