I believe in a mindful approach to life. I practice yoga. I meditate. And I try to make choices that are good for my mind, my body, and my spirit. So last Tuesday, as I found myself worrying about the election, I decided to avoid the hours (and hours) of news coverage and simply wait until morning to hear the final results. As I worked away on my computer (with the Wi-Fi off!), I could hear small tidbits of the reports from the living room where Rhoda was watching the news. The little I did catch sounded a whole lot different from what I expected, but I shut it out, went to bed at 10:00 as usual, and slept knowing that I’d cast my vote and that the final outcome was out of my hands.
On Wednesday morning, I rose quickly out of bed, and it hit me like a lightning bolt. Not the news of the election, but a severe case of an old, unwelcome visitor—vertigo was back. And it was bad. The room spun…and spun…until I was able to sit down before I fell down. Then the nausea hit me. I had tried to mentally prepare myself for the election outcome, but this physical ailment wasn’t on my list of things to deal with last week!
I am all too familiar with the terrible dizziness and queasiness of vertigo. Six years ago, a “T-bone” car accident caused floating particles in my inner ear to break loose, which is a very common cause of the vertigo condition I experienced after the wreck. But this time there was no determinable cause except for one: age. All I wanted was for the spinning to stop as soon as possible—and to stay away as long as possible! But every time I turned my head suddenly, stood up after a yoga pose, or simply got out of bed, the spinning was back in force. I dreaded every move because it seemed everything I did triggered an episode.
I’m not the only one feeling a bit traumatized after election night. My ailment was physical, but for many, the results of the election are causing people to take actions they know will only trigger another episode of upset. Just as my head is spinning, I see so many people exerting their precious energy on election results they can’t change. And the onslaught of news, emails, and social media are only feeding the flames of stress and alarm. It seems we all need a cure to get through it all, and I don’t believe focusing on the negative is the answer.
For my type of vertigo, there is a cure called the Epley maneuver. Performed by an audiologist, it’s a process that restores the floating particles in the inner ear to where they belong. Once the particles aren’t bouncing around in your ear canal and stimulating your nervous system, the sensation goes away. I was finally able to have this done yesterday, and after 20 minutes I was back on my feet again. No more balance issues. No more vertigo. As long as I sleep on my back for a few nights and don’t move my head quickly, I’m back on track. The confusion, disorientation, and dread are now history, but for the past week, getting my balance back was front and center in my life.
If the election results have you feeling off balance and worried about the future, now may be the time to find an Epley maneuver of your own. You might start by filtering out the noise from social media, the news (Why do we watch that stuff nightly before going to bed anyway?), and even the dinner table. With Thanksgiving coming up, you might start with a family rule about the table conversation—no politics or discussion on the election or the outcome. Consider replacing the politics discussion with each person around the table sharing a blessing. I am thrilled to hear Nina, my 7-year old granddaughter, share that she’s thankful for her family—especially at Thanksgiving.
For me, starting each day with yoga, meditation, and time with Rhoda helps me stay mentally and physically balanced. I wrote about my experience with yoga and the importance of focusing on controlling what you can in my blog Remember to Breathe. At the time, I was referring to investing, but I think the same guidance applies now. Shifting the focus to positive, healthy things and controlling what we can is a great way to find balance—no matter what challenges we face day to day.
In my experience, there are two huge challenges when it comes to estate planning. First, no one (and I mean no one!) wants to talk about and tackle the “details” surrounding illness and death. And, because death and estate planning are so taboo, many people act on assumptions that are based on limited knowledge and little or no professional guidance.
Alice and Cliff had been together for over a decade, but they’d never married. Already in their late 60s when they met, Cliff had already been retired for years. So even after they moved in together, they decided to keep their estates separate as an inheritance for their respective children. Alice was still in shock and barely functioning when she called to tell me Cliff had died after a short and intense battle with cancer. Cliff’s diagnosis had been completely unexpected, and his intense treatment of surgery, chemo, and radiation had been their only focus from the moment they received the test results until the day he died just three months later. In the whirlwind, there had simply been no time or energy to think about the details of estate and financial planning. Now that Cliff was gone, Alice needed my help to get her financial future in order—and to get “unstuck” so she could focus on her future.
I knew the first thing we needed to do was to identify Cliff’s assets, and then determine how each asset was owned and the named beneficiary for each. Alice knew where Cliff’s records were kept, but that was about it. They had always filed separate taxes, and all of their investments—including their individual IRAs, 401(ks), and brokerage accounts—were kept separately. To make matters more difficult, they had never discussed finances at this level with each other (or with me), so there were a lot of questions on the table. Was the house owned in his name only, or in joint tenancy with Alice? Who were the beneficiaries for his life insurance policy and his 401(k), IRA, and brokerage accounts? And what about Cliff’s savings and checking accounts? Did Alice even have access? Were those funds hers to use as she needed?
We started with the pieces of the puzzle that were most important to Alice’s well being: her home and her immediate cash flow. The house was originally Cliff’s, and Alice didn’t know if she was on the title or not. Unfortunately, the deed was kept in his safety deposit box. Had they been married, Alice would have had immediate, unrestricted access to the box. But because they were unmarried and he had never authorized her as a joint renter or given her access to the box, we had to take another route. By looking at the property tax bill, we were able to determine that Alice was on the title as a joint tenant with right of survivorship. This meant that the house could be easily transferred into her name by taking Cliff’s death certificate to the clerk and recorder’s office and filling out a form. One down, many to go.
Luckily, accessing their joint bank account proved just as fruitful. When I looked at the bank statement, I was relieved to see the letters “JTWROS” after their names. Alice had joint tenancy with rights of survivorship to these accounts as well. All she had to do was present the death certificate to the bank and the accounts could be transferred into her name. Within days, Alice had full access to the accounts that were used to pay the bills, including the monies from their pensions and social security benefits.
This was great news, but not everything was quite so simple. If Alice and Cliff had met with me beforehand, I would have advised them to make some important changes to Cliff’s “plan”:
While I understood their desire to maintain separate estates, marrying would have given Alice spousal benefits from Social Security totaling about $1,000/month more than she was receiving from her own Social Security income. Plus, it would have been easy to retain all of the benefits of separate estates by classifying each asset appropriately.
A portion of Cliff’s remaining assets went to his children, one of whom is in jail and has a serious drug problem. With the right planning, Cliff could have put certain contingencies on his son’s access to the money to protect the assets.
Simply naming Alice as a joint renter on the safe deposit box would have given her immediate access to important documents such as a copy of his Will, his life insurance policy, and the deed on the house. This would have made the weeks following his death much less stressful for Alice as she struggled to figure out where she stood financially.
If Cliff had been unable to make his own medical decisions, without a Healthcare Power of Attorney, Alice would have had no rights. Having a POA gives the person you designate the power to make medical decisions on your behalf. (For more on this, read my last blog Life happens! What’s your long-term game plan for handling the inevitable?)
I’m happy to report that, despite some planning shortfalls, Alice is in fine shape financially. We learned that Alice was the beneficiary on Cliff’s IRA, and that the balance of that account had been pumped up by the rollover of his 401(k) just months before he got sick. We set up a new Inherited IRA for Alice using the funds, and although it requires minimum withdrawals, at least she did not have to pay taxes on the IRA all at once. Plus, she has the freedom to take out what she needs, when she needs it, paying out taxes only at the time of withdrawal.
Regardless of your age, health, marital status, or level of assets, take steps now to protect the financial security of your loved ones. Talk to your loved ones about your wishes before you get sick, and take the necessary steps to put those wishes into action. Provide access to your estate planning documents and review them with your spouse or partner. Get a Healthcare POA. Review the beneficiaries named to each of your accounts. And once you’ve discussed your plans, meet with a competent advisor to ensure you’re making the best possible decisions. Taking the right steps today can have a significant impact on the financial security of the people you love most—more than you’ll ever know once you’re gone.
Recently mortgage rates dropped to their lowest rates in history. At the moment, rates are sitting at an amazing 3.25% to 3.75% for a 30-year fixed mortgage. For anyone still holding on to high-interest debt—including retirees—this is great news. Surprised to hear the word “retiree” in that statement? You’re not alone. Common wisdom has long held that retirement is not the time to rework debt, but today’s low-interest rates are anything but common, and in some cases they can be the welcome bearer of financial opportunity. That was certainly the case for Martha.
When Martha was widowed 10 years ago, she bought a townhome in a senior-citizen community that was closer to her son and grandkids. Just 58 years old at the time, she was still working and could easily afford her mortgage, car payment, and other expenses on her salary. When we met last week, however, we had some new challenges to tackle. Now 68, Martha was unwittingly thrown into full retirement when she was laid off from her job last year. Without a paycheck, her monthly income has been reduced significantly to $2,850. She’s receiving $1,750 from Social Security, $100 from her pension, and $1,000 after-tax net from an IRA withdrawal, but with a mortgage payment of $750, plus Homeowners Association (HOA) fees of $250 a month and a $175 car payment, her expendable income is very limited, to say the least.
When I first mentioned the idea of refinancing to Martha, she was surprised. “I didn’t think I could qualify now that I’m retired. Is it really possible?” I assured her that as long we could verify her income, refinancing was very possible—even if that income is coming from retirement savings rather than a salary. Working together, we came up with a great plan that puts today’s interest rates to work for Martha’s cash-strapped situation. Here’s how we did it:
The interest rate on Martha’s $100,000 mortgage is currently at 4.375%, and she owes $6,000 on her car. We started by seeking a new mortgage rate of 3.25% to 3.73% to immediately reduce her biggest monthly payment.
Choosing the lowest available rate didn’t make sense since the closing costs were quoted at $3,500, which would take a couple of years to pay back. To combat the challenge, we shopped around and were able to get a $107,000 loan at 3.625%, with low closing costs of only $1,000.
To verify Martha’s income, the lender requested an income verification letter from Guerin Financial stating the likelihood of being able to withdraw $1,000 a month from her IRA for many years to come.
To add to her monthly net income, we used the new mortgage to pay off her car loan. This put an additional $175 a month in Martha’s pocket.
We rolled Martha’s closing costs into the refinanced amount to eliminate out-of-pocket costs associated with the refinance.
By reducing her mortgage interest rate from 4.375% to 3.625% and eliminating her car payment, we were able to reduce her monthly payments by $265 a month, or $3,180 a year.
To sweeten the deal, assuming she closes in August, her first payment won’t be due until October, saving her an additional two months of mortgage payments, totaling $1,500.
The new plan makes it financially possible for Martha to stay in her townhome for much longer, and the cash savings will improve her quality of life.
If you’re in retirement now and paying 4% or more on an existing mortgage, refinancing may be a good option to help lower your monthly payments and eliminate other high-interest debt. Be sure to keep these tips in mind and, of course, work with your financial advisor to be sure refinancing is the right choice for your specific situation:
Keep your eye on interest rate changes to take advantage of the current environment.
Don’t limit yourself to refinancing your mortgage. Including a Home Equity Line of Credit (HELOC), a car loan, or other high-interest debt may save you even more money.
Shop different lenders and compare quotes. Martha’s lender was flexible with how we structured closing costs with the interest rate. A lower rate of 3.5% would have increased her closing cost by $1,000, so we opted for the slightly higher rate.
Be sure you can verify your income. Income verification can be tricky for retirees. Consult your financial advisor to decide whether you can support income requirements and to help with the income verification process.
In my many years as an advisor, I’ve found that the hardest part of my job isn’t managing the numbers or dealing with the ups and downs of the market. What’s far more difficult for me is seeing a client get completely overwhelmed and embarrassed by money problems. Self-judgment. Guilt. Self-criticism. They can all rear their ugly heads. And perhaps the worst part of all is knowing that some folks are too embarrassed to share their money problems—even with their trusted advisor.
Last month, I had what seemed like an easy phone call with Jane. Her husband Gary is hoping to retire in the next few years, and she wanted to review their finances to see where they stood. The couple moved to Arizona two years ago after Jane received an early retirement package. With her husband’s $65K annual salary, her pension, and other investment income, their income is $90K a year. They owe $150K on their home, including a $110K mortgage and a $40K HELOC at 5.5% and 6% respectively. After running some ballpark numbers, I told Jane it looked like Gary could retire in about three years when he turned 65. According to my calculations, with Medicare reducing their health insurance costs and their combined pensions and IRA-401(k) withdrawals, they should be able to live quite comfortably.
The next day I received this email from Jane.
I was too embarrassed to tell you this yesterday, George, but our finances aren’t quite as simple as it seems. In fact, I expect Gary’s retirement will have to wait indefinitely as we’ve gotten ourselves into some pretty hot water financially. Our income simply isn’t enough to cover anything but our basic expenses, so we’ve used credit cards to cover ourselves. I’m mortified to tell you that we’ve racked up more than $30,000 in high-interest debt that is costing us more than $700 a month in payments. With that on top of our mortgage and home equity loan payments, etc., you can see why retirement is out of the question, at least for quite some time. We’re in a terrible mess. It’s so bad that we can’t even afford the $14,000 needed to repair our air conditioning—a tough situation in the Arizona heat. It hit 113 degrees here yesterday, but without the funds, I’m afraid we’ll just have to “tough it out.”
Though I doubt you can help at this point, I would appreciate your input. I'd prefer to communicate via email. I couldn't listen to your kind voice, all I would hear is disappointment and pity. Just sending this email has me in tears.
It was heartbreaking to read her note. Clearly, Jane was terribly embarrassed about her situation—reacting as if she’d done something wrong or had gotten herself into this bad situation. While I was able to see the numbers as a financial puzzle to be solved, Jane viewed the situation as an insurmountable personal failure. The good news: I already had some very realistic solutions forming in my head. Of course, I had two distinct advantages that Jane didn’t. First, as an advisor, I’m experienced to see the forest—not just the trees. Second (and perhaps most importantly), since it’s not my own money we’re looking at, my perspective isn’t clouded by emotion and self-judgment, so I can be objective.
I immediately reached out to Jane (via email, of course!) to let her know that what she was facing was actually a small problem that she only perceived to be unsolvable. In fact, she had assets available that could be quickly and easily leveraged to address her needs. She called that afternoon, and together we kicked into gear. Here’s a high-level view of how we’ll turn down the heat:
On my recommendation, Jane immediately withdrew an additional $2,500 from the existing HELOC at the local bank. We added that amount to another $2,500 on her credit card to make the required $5K deposit on the much-needed AC repair to get it ordered. We then withdrew $14,3000 from her ROTH to cover the remaining cost of the air conditioner to get them out of the heat—literally—within the week. Whew!
We placed the remaining funds from the ROTH withdrawal into Jane and Gary’s checking account as an emergency fund to keep them from resorting to credit cards for future car repairs, home repairs, and other unbudgeted expenses.
To reduce their mortgage payments, we’re refinancing both the primary mortgage (5.5%) and the HELOC (6%) to an amortized 30-year fixed rate at 3.75%. This will reduce their payment from $1200 to less than $800 a month.
The next item on the agenda is to tackle their high-interest credit card debt, using a one-time withdrawal from Jane’s $800K IRA to pay it off. With the increase in expendable monthly income, they should be able to pay off the remaining of $11K in credit card debt by early 2017. If they’re short, we’ll make another withdrawal from the IRA next year. And they’ll keep $5,000 to $7,000 in the bank for emergencies so they don’t keep dipping into the credit card “well” to cover surprise expenses.
No matter how wise or successful you may be in other areas of your life, financial planning can feel like a dark, murky, mysterious world—and it can throw things out of perspective. To get through a trying financial situation, rest assured that no matter what your challenges, “toughing it out” may not be the only answer. Talk to a trusted financial advisor, get the guidance you need, and take control of your finances. It’s the best way to get out of the heat and stop sweating.
Feeling overwhelmed by a money challenge? Let’s schedule a time to chat and to get you on a better path forward.
It was 2008 in early October, and Rhoda and I were enjoying our last couple days of basking in the beauty of Yellowstone National Park—one of our cherished times away from the office. But suddenly everything changed, and our peaceful retreat was turned upside down. My phone rang, and when I answered I was surprised by the panicked voice of my newest client: “Get me out of this market George! You have to do something!” I had no idea what had happened. I told her I’d do some research and call her back right away.
Of course, if you’ve ever visited the Yellowstone Lodge (or any lodge in a large nature area), you know my first challenge. The Lodge has intermittent Internet on a good day, and this was anything but that. Just before the market closed that afternoon, the Treasury Department announced they were going to let Lehman Brothers “fail”. There would be no bailout. In its last 30 minutes of the day, the market dropped over 150 points. The media started shouting about the panic that would likely hit on Monday since Lehman Brothers wasn’t alone—many banks had problem balance sheets that were just as bad. This was unprecedented in my lifetime, and I knew then we were in for something steeper than even the tallest peak at Yellowstone.
There was little I could do except return to Denver to be here for my clients who were terrified of what this meant to their life savings and struggling hard to figure out what it meant to them and how to move forward. In less than 8 hours I was at my desk working to find a strategy—any strategy—that might be beneficial if and when the predicted panic hit. The one thing I was sure of is that I needed to persuade my clients not to sell. It would be like grabbing for a falling knife.
The Great Recession had its beginning on that day I flew back from Yellowstone. I couldn’t fathom then that the downdraft would last until the spring of 2009. Nor could I have predicted that that after hitting bottom at 6443 in March that year that the Dow would double in less than three years. The prognosticators kept predicting lower and lower stock averages even when the Dow was at 6443. Some panicked—and lost. Those who kept cool heads analyzed the big picture, determined the context and consequence of what was happening, and made careful choices based on the facts. They were the clear winners in the end.
What happened in those years is a constant reminder to me of how to approach current events—especially those that paint a potentially ominous picture for the stock market. Will China’s economic slowdown throw the US into recession? Are slowing new job numbers powerful enough to throw us off track? Can consumers keep up their spending growth? They’re all questions to consider, and in each case we need to take the time to make careful, thoughtful decisions and not fall into the reactionary mindset that the media loves to perpetuate. (For more on that timeless topic, re-read my blog Headlines sell—but don’t let them mislead you!)
The market is having some expected jitters after last week’s Bureau of Labor Statistics report that only 32,000 new jobs were created in May—nowhere near the expected 150,000 jobs. It’s good to note that the Bureau states that number is within 115,000 jobs of possible error. Here’s a great article in the Wall Street Journal on the huge margin of error—and frequent revisions—of payroll and other data. Even so, the important facts to keep in mind are these:
- Job growth inevitably varies significantly from month to month, especially in a recovering economy such as this one.
- In May, despite relatively meager job growth, unemployment decreased by 0.3% to 4.7%. That’s 484,000 fewer unemployed.
- Wage growth is on the rise at more than +2.5%.
- Job growth is “stronger for longer” in this recovery due to the depth of the last recession.
- Job growth will decline as the unemployment rate sinks further and employers struggle to find enough skilled workers to fill available positions.
Putting these numbers in context is an important piece of the puzzle as well. Some parts of the country, including Colorado Springs and Denver, are reporting a shortage of skilled labor in construction—a challenge that is holding back major construction projects. Health care, technology, and accounting are just a few examples of fields that have a bright future for jobs. At the same time, non-skilled workers are hurting, and pending minimum wage increases in many states and cities have employers on a mission to automate hourly-wage jobs.
All of this is important information, but economic growth is still driven primarily by consumer spending—and spending requires discretionary income that results from an increase in total income. Looking at changes in average or median income is fine, but ultimately it’s the change in discretionary income that matters most to the economy.
No matter how the market reacts to the job numbers—or changes in interest rates, or China’s economy, or the upcoming election—keeping these individual factors in perspective is key. To keep a cool head, look at the big picture, analyze new information with care, and keep your eye on the big picture. Speaking from experience, it’s the easiest (and often the most lucrative) way to take on even the tallest mountains.
A few weeks ago I received this email from Suzanne:
Hi George. I read your blogs every week. Don’t you think the government manipulates the data to make it look good for them?
It’s an interesting question, and one I think about a lot. That said, I don’t believe the government is the culprit. While I don’t doubt they might choose to manipulate the data if they could, the good thing about data is that it’s objective, not subjective. But how that data is reported matters, and in the past few decades we’ve seen a major shift in both what the media reports and how they report it. Here’s an example:
In April, the US economy added 160,000 jobs, and the unemployment rate held steady at 5%. What’s the bumper-sticker headline? “US employment slows as only 160,000 jobs added in April.” But when you dig into the facts (which I consider to be part of my job), the slowdown isn’t much of news item. Why? Because the economy is finally approaching “full employment.” This means that nearly everyone who is willing to work and looking for a job has one. The unemployment rate is near an 8-year low, so it’s not expected to dip much further from its current level. And since the pool of unemployed workers is shrinking, job gains are also expected to slow down. But, of course, none of these important facts make a slick headline.
And sometimes the media simply distorts the meaning of the facts.
A headline in TheWall Street Journal last week read Balance Due: Credit-Card Debt Nears $1 Trillion as Banks Push Plastic. What an interesting take on some basic data. The following chart illustrates the increase in household liabilities that is covered in the article, but from my perspective the data tells a different story: one of healthy growth in consumer spending and a reasonable expansion of consumer debt as we emerge from the depths of the Great Recession.
Despite the Journal’s headline, debt in and of itself isn’t a bad thing. Even more, the increase in debt is more likely the result of historically low interest rates and increased consumer confidence than of banks “pushing” anything. In the face of the increase, the important question to ask is whether consumers have the ability to pay off new debt. The answer: they can and they are. Wages are up overall. Not average or median wages (which is what the media talks about) but total income, which supports this higher level of spending. That’s why consumer debt increasing is not a real problem—despite the implication by the media.
Then there’s this headline: America’s Retail Stores Continue to Fail. But this next chart shows the real story: an increase in Internet sales and a decrease in department store sales.
The truth is that every dollar we spend online has legs, distributing its way into the economy just as much as department store sales did back in the “old days.” Where we shop is changing. My parents bought most of what we needed at Sears and the A&P store. Today, the go-to standard is Amazon.com. Patterns change, and with that change there are winners and losers. Yes, it may be tough for our minds to adjust to the shift, but the bottom line is that the media often doesn’t tell the whole story.
If I had it my way, the headlines would always be rewritten to tell the truth instead of grab reader attention. Instead of using “Balance Due: Credit-Card Debt nears $1 Trillion as Banks Push Plastic” to not-so-subtly accuse those greedy bankers of twisting the consumers’ arms, I’d edit the headline to “Consumer spending is back to healthy pre-recession levels.” Their headline draws the emotion, but mine is just as accurate.Instead of writing that “The sum, close to the all-time peak of $1.02 Trillion…could signal an easing of frugal habits ingrained by the recession,” I’d rewrite it to say, “The sum tells us something great: consumers are finally comfortable spending again after the deepest recession of our times.”
Media bias is nothing new (remember my blog Headlines sell, but don’t let them mislead you! from way back in 2014?), but it seems to get worse every day. That’s why it’s so important to look closely at the data, consider the source, and come to your own conclusions. You may even try rewriting a headline or two to help uncover the real news rather than just reading the “story.”