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Posts Tagged ‘Great Recession’

For most families, paying for college for their kids rivals buying a home as the largest investment that they will ever make.

College is viewed – and rightfully so – as a key to a better future.  Even as the cost of college continues to escalate at a pace almost double the inflation rate (nearly 5% per year compared to the historic average of nearly 3% for CPI), there is still a high and growing demand for higher education services.  The proportion of high school graduates who enroll in a degree program within one year of graduating from high school has grown from 49% in 1976 to 66% in 2006-07 according to the College Boards “Trends in College Pricing 2008” report.

Going to College:  Still Worth It

Generally, it is still worth the investment.  According to the US Census Bureau, those with a college degree on average will earn a median income of nearly twice that of someone with a high school degree. And other research indicates that those with a college degree historically have lower and shorter periods of unemployment.  (This may not seem like it as we go through the ongoing impact of the Great Recession but there is data supporting this).

Colleges know this and as a result price their “product” according to this demand for more educational services. One result is that without consumer pressure the colleges are pricing their “product” at whatever the market will bear.  And that price tag continues to go up. At last count, a four-year degree at a public university was around $16,000 per year for all tuition and fees. For private schools this number falls into the $34,000+ per year category.

To pay for this some parents will do almost anything and make almost any sacrifice sometimes to the detriment of their own financial health. So how do we balance the long-term investment in our children with the long-term investment in our own retirement?

Do you want to pay less for your student’s college education? Do you want to find a better way to balance paying for college without sacrificing your retirement nest egg? Be an informed consumer. Wrong, outdated or misguided information about paying for college or qualifying for financial aid just compound the problem for many families.

Too often families are under the mistaken belief that there is nothing that they can do but suck it up and write the check.  Or there is the dream of the big money athletic scholarship.  Or they mistakenly think that there is no financial aid.

All of these beliefs are dangerous to your family’s financial health. The key is having the right information and help to navigate through the minefield that is college funding and financial aid.

Myths about Financial Aid

1. Not Enough Financial Aid is Available.

During the 2009-2010 academic year, students received about $168 billion in financial aid.  This included the entire spectrum of aid such as grants, scholarships, Work Study, low-interest and government-subsidized loans. The largest proportion of this aid is in the form of loans.  Despite the budget woes in Washington, there is still money available for college through these programs.

2. Only students with good grades get financial aid.

Not true.  Colleges are seeking diversity among their classes.  Admissions officers are looking to have students from every socio-economic demographic represented.  And every student has some special skill to add to the mix. The key here is to match up the right student with the right school.  Is it better to be a big fish in a little pond or a small fish in a big pond?  Someone who is a “B” student but with a particular aptitude in a subject might have better odds of getting into a smaller school and be offered aid than the valedictorian competing with every other valedictorian applying to Harvard.

3. You have to be a minority to get financial aid.

Again, this is false.  Financial aid comes in many forms.  Loans are awarded based on the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) which is influenced by family size, parental income, and number of kids attending college at the same time. Loans are need-based and are color-blind.

4. I won’t need government help.  I’ll get scholarship money.

While you may have a talented student who excels in a particular sport, extracurricular activity or is gifted academically, hope is not a plan.  Consider the fact that National Merit Scholarships are very prestigious but can be  double-edged sword.  A student may receive the scholarship but receive no other aid from the school leaving the parent or student to foot the entire remaining bill.

Remember that College Planning is NOT just saving FOR college. It is not just saving in a 529 Plan.  College Planning is tailored to an individual family’s needs and is focused on SAVING ON the cost of college by using all the strategy tools in the financial aid tool box:  savings, investments, taxes and EFC reporting.

5. I make too much money to qualify for any aid or be able to do anything to lower the cost.

False.  This is the biggest myth of all and the most dangerous.  While a family with significant income may not be eligible for needs-based aid, there are dozens of strategies available that may lower the cost of college.  And even with a short amount of time until school, there are ways to lower the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) before filing a financial aid form.

  • Knowing how and where to hold your assets may help you qualify for more aid.  Hint:  Retirement accounts are a great way to kill two birds with one stone.
  • Checking your ego at the door when completing the FAFSA can help qualify you for more aid.  Be careful how you report the value of home or business equity or your stock portfolio.  Most people overestimate because they don’t know this one tip.

6. I have a child entering college next year and it’s too late to do anything.

Absolute nonsense.  I can literally rattle off at least 12 cost-saving tips including transfer credits, AP testing and proper use of home equity.  There are another dozen ways to lower your EFC and 10 different ways to save in the most tax-efficient way.

For one early retiree I showed him one strategy that netted him more than $9,000 in free, no-strings aid from Babson College for his college freshman son.  For another, I showed him tax strategies that will save him the cost of one year of tuition at Colby College for his soon-to-be freshman.

BOTTOM LINE: The Less You Know, the More You Pay.  The More You Think You Know, the More You Pay. The More You Know, the Less You Really Pay.

Pay Less for College with a Personal College Plan

Saving ON College Starts Here

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Investing Mistake #1: Treating Investments Like a Part-Time Job and Not a Business.

“When a man tells you that he got rich through hard work, ask him: Whose?” Don Marquis

While you may be investing for a child’s education, a vacation home or retirement, the common ingredient for success really is the process, approach and mindset you bring to making investing a success.  Take it seriously and you get serious results.  If you are fearful, your results will reflect it.  If you are a daredevil, your results may reflect that, too.

All your personal goals are important, aren’t they? You’ve worked hard for your money, didn’t you?  So why not find a better way to make your money work smart for you?

Why Mindset Can Really Harm You

Too often, investors simply think that what and how they save won’t really matter.  They don’t have enough money to make it worth it and they don’t have the time to really focus on the whole investing game. I know, life gets in the way when you’re doing other things and making other plans.

Thinking of this made me remember visiting an underground cave with my friends John and Lisa on a trip through the Blue Mountains. We entered the caves on a tour and saw all these fantastic, awe-inspiring formations created by the centuries of slow drips of water and mineral from the cave ceilings.  The stalactites and stalagmites formed bridges and statues of animals and even formations reminiscent of the craftsmanship used to build the cathedrals of Medieval Europe.  Small, incremental and consistent efforts produced such grand results.  If it can happen in nature, why not for something like a college savings account?

Too often, investors simply throw up their hands and take the easy road.  They do nothing, make no changes and for fear of making a mistake or because they don’t know who to trust, they avoid working with a professional.

They may hear the media report that a monkey throwing darts at a list of mutual funds or stocks may have beaten a professional money manager. Another favorite topic in the financial press is how most money managers do not bear their index.  But on the other hand, other stories will focus on the fantastic results of quick trigger investment schemes of the day-trader variety.

Let’s face it:  How well your investments perform from day to day will not likely make a big difference in your lifestyle now.  But how well you plan and invest may determine if, how and when you can retire, build a legacy to pass on and do all the things that are on your personal “bucket list.”

Two Categories of Investors

So investors will fall into two categories:  Those who focus exclusively on performance and those who focus on process.

Most investors, despite repeated warnings in small print at the end of the ads,  will focus on past performance as reported by the popular press and websites.  So despite the daily constraints on time because of family and work, these same folks will pick up an occasional financial newspaper or magazine or troll some financial websites and pick up a few ideas. They’ll see a Top 10 list of investments from last quarter or last year and then buy them because they performed well over some arbitrary time frame.

The Part-Time Investor in Action

Those who are more well-to-do or successful or affluent are either too busy making money to focus their time on investing or they believe that they have the skills to handle things on their own because they are successful in their careers.

I’m reminded of a woman I met on several occasions to discuss a way to bring some order to her investments.  She was a single mom raising a teen and worked in a fast-paced, deadline sensitive business.  Whenever we spoke, we were regularly interrupted by ringing phones and a buzzing pager.  Although she barely had time for lunch, much less research basic investment concepts, she ultimately decided that she would go it alone and master an online trading strategy to buy and sell stocks and options.

If you’re a successful surgeon or restaurateur or engineer or banker, do you really think that the same skill set that got you to the top of your profession, will also mean you can invest the time needed to properly manage and protect your wealth – not just your investments, but the whole set of tax, asset protection, retirement strategy planning, credit and cash management concepts?

Highly successful people may have achieved enviable incomes but can tend to be haphazard or casual about investing and integrating a financial plan.  Often, they may think that their incomes are secure, their career path certain, and they have skill and time to handle things on their own.

In reality, most may not really know what it takes to get to their goal.  For a 49-year old executive with a good $400,000 annual income and a $1 million investment portfolio trying to target for a retirement lifestyle at age 65 without much down scaling, he has to grow his nest egg to $6 million within a mere decade and a half.

And there is the equally disturbing statistic that the Great Recession has been hard on white collar professionals.  Those with college and advanced degrees make up more than 20% of the unemployed and long-term unemployed.

Be the CEO of Your Own Investment Company

Investing at any level and especially at this level requires a business mindset. The same sort of principles that apply to business success apply to your own investing. And just like any other CEO, you need to make sure that your assets are managed in a systematic, disciplined and prudent manner.

  • Business Plan: You need a business plan for your investments that covers the short and long term.  This means having a clear road map for your goals with appropriate benchmarks tied to achieving them. Instead of using the arbitrary indexes quoted by the media, you need to have a personal benchmark so you’re more likely to stay on target.
  • SMART GOALS: You need clear goals: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-Specific
  • Commit to a Realistic Strategy: You need a clear strategy for meeting those goals – a 20% annual return might sound nice but is it realistic given historical norms and your own experience and peace of mind
  • Don’t take it personally: As in business, don’t take the ups and downs in the market personally and don’t be afraid to review
  • Surround yourself with a professional team: If you’re serious about investing for success, then take the time to assemble a proper team of professionals who can help and who you can trust.  No business succeeds long term without a good team.

Don’t be too focused on your career to ignore this.  You can’t afford to treat your family’s future security as a part-time job or hobby.

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The entrepreneur was being interviewed after a long life.  He had made it through the Great Depression and was looking back.  As he warmly reflected, he straightened up and with a twinkle in his eye told the world the secret of his success.

“It was really quite simple.  I bought an apple for five cents, spent the evening polishing it, and sold it the next day for 10 cents. With this I bought two apples, spend the evening polishing them and sold them for 20 cents. And so it went until I had amassed $1.60.

It was then my wife’s father died and left us $1 million.”

Sudden wealth is certainly one way to make it.  And the lottery is another.

But in reality most of us will need to rely on the principles of growing your wealth slowly.

It may not be sexy and exciting to talk about but over time there are certain principles that will work:

  • Living beneath your means
  • Consistently saving
  • Responsibly using credit
  • Protecting your assets, life and income with appropriate insurance
  • Investing in a broad, diversified mix of assets

Of course there are lots of specifics that need to be tailored for each individual and to reflect what’s going on in the world around us.  From year to year specific investments may need to be changed just as you might change the drapes or the color of your house. But the overall process of building and preserving wealth depends on the foundation you build. And like your house, you want that foundation to be solid.

Over the next several posts I’ll continue to explore the most common mistakes that investors make and how you can avoid them.

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It is said that when the British surrendered to the Colonial Army at Yorktown the band played a tune titled “The World Turned Upside Down.”  True or not, it is a fitting sound track to a seemingly improbable situation: The defeat of a well-trained army and navy of the most powerful empire in the world by an under-funded, out-numbered and ill-equipped army of colonials. It was as if the Sun, Earth and stars had become unhitched leaving navigators without their usual bearings.

In much the same way, the Great Recession has shattered our views on what is ‘safe’ and what it means to be ‘conservative’ or ‘aggressive.’  Looking to preserve capital and produce income?  Invest in government bonds and maybe real estate.  Young and looking to score big on the potential upside of stocks? Go for small company stocks or overseas because if there’s a bust you’ll have time to recover. At least that was the conventional thinking. Everything that was traditionally considered to be ‘safe’ and dull turned out to be dangerous and ‘risky.’

There’s nothing scarier than conventional thinking in a changing market.  And what has evolved after the near melt down of the US financial system – indeed the global financial system – in the Fall of 2008 is certainly a changed market.

Household names including the bluest of the Blue Chips have entered and come out of bankruptcy.  The foundation for wealth for most people – real estate – has crumbled and is a long way from recovery to previous levels. Government debt of developed countries considered at one time to be nearly risk-less have been to the precipice as Greece neared default and threatened the entire Euro zone. Now, it’s not even beyond the pale to consider a future downgrade of the credit rating of the US Government.

Having an understanding of risk is important not just for investors but for the advisers trying to guide them.  In the past, an adviser (or your company’s 401k web site) would have you fill out a questionnaire.  Those eight to 12 questions would identify the type of investor you were and lead to an asset allocation reasonably appropriate for an investor’s Risk Profile, Time Horizon and Goals. This was sometimes considered a “set and forget” type of thing.

But commonsense and our experience tell us that things change.  Take the weather:  Some days it’s sunny and other times it’s rainy or cold.  What you wear on one day or even part of a day may not be right when the weather changes.  That’s just like investing.  A risk profile and asset allocation determined at one point might not be right for another.

So risk profiles are not static things either.  Invariably, they change based on how we feel. Hey, we’re only human. You need to reconsider your risk appetite regularly and now is a good time.  And it should be more than a few multiple choice questions.

After the run-ups in the markets in the late 90’s, people would tend to see things going up perpetually and say they would be more comfortable with risk.  On the other hand, after the two major meltdowns this past decade, the pendulum has swung the other way. Too far, in fact.

Faced with our own emotions and the vagaries of a global economic system, one might consider it to be less risky to sit on the sidelines.  Or maybe it’s safe to put all your chips on what you know – like your company stock.  Or just cash it all out and leave it parked in a money market or bank.

At first glance these strategies may be considered low risk but in reality – even the reality of today’s changed world – they are not.  Your company stock?  Consider Enron or Lucent and ask their employees how their retirement accounts held up.  Cash?  At the minuscule rates banks are offering, you’re already behind the eight ball with taxes and inflation.

There’s more to risk than the volatile nature of an asset’s price. And what should matter most is not which assets are owned but how well they perform on the upside and downside.

If you’re hungry, your goal is to not be hungry.  You say you like to eat steak and always eat steak.  Well, that’s great but the risk of heart disease may catch up to you.  So what you ate before may not be right for you now. Maybe it’s time to substitute more fish and add more vegetables.

That’s the essence of remodeling your portfolio now.  Government bonds still have a place in your portfolio – just like that steak – but it’s time to scale back on the developed nations of Europe with their risks of default and the US where another bubble is brewing and add those from emerging markets. If you own gold or want to buy it because it’s a “safe haven” for inflationary times and you don’t want to miss the boat, consider other more usable commodities like potash.  (As the world adds nearly 75 million people a year, there’s a growing demand for cultivating food for them and potash is a staple needed for fertilizers).  After seeing a huge multi-national like BP get hammered for its lackadaisical approach to employee and environmental safety, it may be time to add more small companies to the mix which have less bureaucracy and may be faster to respond to opportunities and troubles.

The risky stuff may actually be more safe than the traditional stuff.

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Just when you thought it was safe to get back into the investing waters, talk of deflation has creeped back into conversation.

Why does it matter? Well, how you position your portfolio to deal with these two scenarios will make a big difference to your personal bottom line.

With inflation, your money is worth less the longer you hold onto it. So you’re more likely to spend in the now because prices may be moving up.

With deflation, your money may buy more later the longer you hold onto it as prices continue to drop. (Not good for a seller but a better deal for a buyer – just ask someone trying to sell a house in Florida these days).

Since consumers respond differently to these two opposing forces, the ultimate direction of them can have a decidedly different impact on how the recovery progresses because of the way consumers react and business respond to their actions. Ultimately, this will impact how to position an investment portfolio accordingly.

The Right Hook
During a fight a boxer may expect to be hit from both the right and left. It’s just not known when and with how much force. But a good boxer, like a Boy Scout, knows to be prepared.

First the economy has been peppered with jabs from the right that could result in higher inflation: expanding money supply, ballooning government deficits, higher commodity prices, weak currency value.

Given the huge inherited, current and projected government deficits here and abroad, the conventional thought has been that all of this government stimulus will ultimately result in “crowding out” private investment and raise the ugly head of higher inflation down the road. The prospect of higher taxes to pay for these past deficits also lends support to these thoughts.

Recent run-ups in certain commodity prices like oil and energy products have resulted in a rise in consumer prices in January bolstering fears of inflation.

The Left Hook

Now comes the left hook – the deflationary threat: asset prices continuing to fall, increasing slack in industrial capacity, and continuing pressure keeping a lid on labor expenses because of high unemployment.

Credit is still tight with bank lending down. While dollars have been pumped into the economy through the TARP program, it’s mostly sitting in bank vaults. Money that isn’t circulating isn’t a cause of inflation.

Recent economic reports have indicated that core consumer prices actually are flat, well below the 10-year average of 2.2%.

Despite some recent reports, housing prices and rents are down and still expected to fall in key markets, dampening the immediate threat of inflation.

Defensive Portfolios: Lessons from Spencer

The best and strongest home depends on your environment and the threats faced.

Each evening before putting our infant son, Spencer, to bed, we read a story. The favorite for now is


    The Three Little Pigs
(undoubtedly because of Spencer’s dad’s animation).

We all know the story: Three pigs, three houses built from different materials, one pig survives because of his well-built brick house.

The same can be said for portfolios. Heck, a house of sticks can provide some shelter in some circumstances but what happens if a big bad wolf shows up?

Since we don’t know which type of bad wolf will be showing up at the door (inflation or deflation), it makes sense to be positioned to survive either threat.

The elements of a portfolio will likely be the same regardless of an investor’s mind-set. The differences will be in the proportion of the components used.

Inflation Protection Portfolio
To protect this type of portfolio consider elements more likely to retain value even as inflation increases. Example: Commodity funds or ETFs; inflation-linked fixed income funds that include TIPS and/or floating rate notes; Real Estate Investment Trusts or REIT funds (10%); Cash to take advantage of higher short-term interest rates.

Deflation Protection Portfolio
The majority of this type of portfolio is positioned in long-term Treasurys followed by cash and municipal bonds. As consumer prices and interest rates fall, the fixed income stream from the bonds would be worth more.

To protect against surprise inflation, a smaller proportion would be set aside into TIPS, commodities and higher-quality/large cap US stocks.

Little Pig, Little Pig, Let Me In
Not sure where the market will go? Not sure which threat to expect? Learn from the third little pig: Build the strongest house possible.

If there is inflation, the economy will be expanding. As such equities will be the place to be. So consider an allocation of 20% to 25% in the US and a like amount in foreign equities. A portion of these equities should include high-quality firms that are dividend-paying. Commodities and cash will likely benefit from inflation so a 10% allocation to each is prudent. The fixed income component can include some exposure to TIPS (5%) as well as intermediate high-quality bonds (20% – 30%).

To hedge against the risk of deflation, a portfolio with exposure to municipal bonds (5%) and long-term Treasurys (5% – 10%). And some of the equity portfolio should include exposure to consumer staples that tend to do well in such an environment.

To provide some added diversification consider adding positions in companies that focus on infrastructure and firms that can maintain pricing power like utilities, pipeline operators and the like.

Taking these steps should allow an investor to sleep better at night. At least it works for Spencer.

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