• Following the 4% rule is not enough when accumulating wealth.
  • The recent market decline brought on by the pandemic requires around a third more index fund shares to be sold to maintain spending patterns if you are in retirement and are fully invested at all times.
  • How much money you should keep in cash depends on where you are in the wealth building cycle. How close you are to retirement, or if you are in retirement, determines the appropriate level of cash that should be held.
  • The 4% rule fails too often if not coupled with appropriate cash levels.

 

Rules of thumb are an easy way to quickly see where you stand financially. Once you reach 25X your spending in liquid net worth (the 4% rule presented as a multiple of spending) you are assumed to have enough to retire under the 4% rule, regardless your age.

However, as we are seeing with the current market turmoil, the simple rule of thumb has one fatal flaw. If you reached your 25X goal a few months ago and decided this was the time to step away from traditional labor, you now face a withdrawal rate from your index funds a third higher than expected. This will reduce the account value early in the distribution phase, lowering the total amount you can get from the investment over your lifetime.

Another rule of thumb is to keep 6 months of spending in cash in case you become unemployed. Under a normal job loss or economic decline this would be a reasonable policy to follow. Unemployment insurance can provide additional cushion to the 6-month cash reserve.

Black Swan events (unexpected negative economic events such as the housing crisis or pandemic) throw the whole rule of thumb out the window. Black Swan events do not happen often, but they do occur every decade or so. Looking back at U.S. history, it seems something always happens every decade to knock the markets lower and slow economic activity. The 2010s are the only decade to avoid that fate and 2020 seems to be making up for the oversight.

Black Swan events are impossible to plan for, but you can manage your investments with the understanding something unknown will shake the market’s confidence every so often.  You can prepare contingencies to deal with unexpected market breaks, or take your chances and hope you get lucky… this time.

 

Determining Your Proper Cash Level

One of the hottest topics of discussion in consulting sessions with clients involves how much liquid net worth be held in cash. Emails and even social media requests from followers press on how much cash is the right amount of cash to keep on hand as a percent of investable money.

The 4% rule doesn’t consider a cash position. It just assumes you take 4% every year from your portfolio to live. If the market declines, the 4% rule says you either need to cut back on spending or risk running out of money before death. Cutting spending enough isn’t always possible. And when markets are down many goods and services become cheaper so you should be stocking up at these times.  The 6-months cash rule also falls short in many cases. A down market can last for years and selling at a low to fund living expenses is a painful exercise.

Where you are on your journey to retirement determines the amount of cash you keep on hand. Many times readers of this blog, and those who follow me on social media, think I am timing the market when I carry a substantial cash position. But that isn’t true. I have no desire, nor skill, at timing the market and do not waste any time trying to do so. I do, however, increase my cash position when the sun is shining and decrease my cash position when it rains. This isn’t a timing issue. As I near retirement and have substantial financial resources, I have no desire to maximize my returns. I already made it. No room for heroes anymore.

You are probably at a different part of the wealth creation cycle. Maybe you are older and well into retirement, collecting a pension and Social Security. Or just starting out.

The advice I give clients is based on their specific facts and circumstances. I will give you the same advice here based on where you are on your journey to retirement, early or otherwise. I will finish with my advice to clients already in retirement. You can use these guidelines to prepare for your retirement. Knowing the appropriate way to invest at each stage of the wealth creation cycle is helpful; looking to the next step in advance can be very motivating, knowing you will have plenty of financial resources once you do retire.

Before we start I need to define some terminology. When I say cash I mean money market accounts, bank deposits and CDs. Everything else is invested, meaning broad-based index funds, most notably Vanguard’s S&P 500 Index Fund (VFINX or VOO for the ETF) or the Vanguard Total Stock Market Fund (VTSAX). 

 

Starting Out: When you start out you have the fewest resources. Time is your best friend, however. The sooner you get money invested the sooner it can start growing. And time invested determines your level of wealth. Cash reduces the level of wealth years down the road, but keeps an unexpected expense from turning into a disaster that sends you back to square one. It is a delicate balancing act between investments and cash.

The problem with too low a level of cash is twofold. First, any minor emergency (flat tire, furnace repair, medical bill) and your financial plan is in crisis. Second, job loss or disability can destroy all the work done to-date.

Starting out is the riskiest place financially. By default you will be closer to the red line; income and savings are generally lowest when you are young and starting out. Six months of spending in cash is probably impossible. And if your employer matches contributions to your retirement account you need to find a way to contribute at least to the matching level.

If you are at day 1 you want to take a page from Dave Ramsey’s book (and workbook). His Baby Step #1 is to get $1,000 into a bank account for emergencies. It’s a good plan I agree with. If you have an employer retirement plan with matching, try to invest at least to the matching level as well. A good way to start is by adding $50 every paycheck or per month to your emergency fund until it reaches $1,000. When an unexpected bill shows up you have the funds to deal with the issue. Then start adding $50 or so each pay period to restore the emergency fund to at least $1,000.

The balancing act would be reasonable if all you had to worry about is building a reserve while you are earning starting wages. Add to that the expenses of starting out (furniture, transportation, home furnishings), a mortgage or rent and it can quickly become overwhelming. 

There is one advantage you have when starting out; you are young. With youth comes resilience. Starting a family, paying down a mortgage, building a retirement fund while working many hours to achieve these goals takes the vigor of youth. It can also wear you down.

Regardless your level of energy, financial problems can wear you out. That is why even a modest emergency fund, Dave Ramsey style, can be such a powerful tool to keep you on track. The real risk is job loss, medical issues and disability before you build your finances to a level where you can withstand larger financial assaults.

That leads us to the next level.

 

Building Wealth: You will spend more time at this level than the starting out phase. A $1,000 emergency fund really isn’t enough, especially as you grow older and medical bills have a greater chance of messing up your plans. Job loss is a strong possibility at least once in your working career. The 6-months of living expenses rule now comes into play. The truth is, 6 months still isn’t adequate. An extended economic decline can put you into a bad position where you are tempted to add more debt or tap into a retirement fund to pay for day-to-day expenses.

In the wealth building phase you want to secure your finances to withstand as much as possible. Many people don’t keep an official emergency fund once they build a modest net worth. (This accountant never had any funds earmarked for unexpected expenses.) However, that doesn’t mean you don’t have a tidy stash of money tucked away to get you through an income drought.

These are the priorities in the wealth building phase:

  • Pay down and eliminate debt
  • Build a cash reserve for surprise expenses and to tide you through a reduction in income
  • Grow your retirement savings
  • Invest outside your retirement account (non-qualified accounts)

There is no fast way to accomplish these goals, but there is an easy way. Consistency wins the race. Paying a bit extra each mortgage payment will eliminate the mortgage years early; every paycheck should add to your retirement fund in good or bad stock markets automatically; merge your emergency fund into your other non-qualified investments and make investments automatic.

I use Vanguard. You can use Vanguard or any similar investment house. Retirement and non-qualified investments will grow as the years peal away. The tax advantages of retirement plans are the best deal in America for the middle class. Adding to your retirement funds with each paycheck is about the easiest and most painless way to dollar-cost-average there is.

Once you fill your retirement account it is time to build some non-retirement funds. Non-qualified investments can be an appropriate surrogate for an emergency fund. A modest $1,000 worked when you were starting out. As you build your wealth $1,000 is inadequate; you are no longer interested in borrowing money to buy a car or anything else for that matter. You need larger sums of liquid money to replace a car or repair a roof. Investing in a broad-based index fund is the perfect way to grow your non-qualified monies. 

This is where common sense comes in. As you grow your non-qualified account some money will be held in a money-market fund or bank deposit. When a planned, budgeted or surprise bill shows up you will have the resources to pay the expense immediately. To reach this financial position you need to add consistently, just like with your retirement account. You can make the investment automatic in your non-qualified account, the same as with your retirement account. Set up automatic investing with monthly contributions. Part of each payment should go into the index fund and some into the cash portion of the account. When the stock market is acting like the world is about to end again, put most of the new money into the index fund. If you are uncomfortable with the high level of the stock market, put most (not all) of the new money into the cash account. It isn’t a crime to have a lot of cash! Sleeping well is better.

If the economy sours you can always move cash into the index fund. Once you determine your income is not at risk and will remain steady or climb, you can lower the cash position. This is more art than science. There is no exact level of cash you must have. Rather, if you feel uncomfortable, there is nothing wrong with sitting on the sidelines. In fact, the more wealth you have the less likely you want to be 100% in equities all the time. Cash is always nice because it gives you the opportunity to invest when the right investment comes along. It is hard to buy a cheap income property if you can swing the purchase. And cash is always available for spending needs without worry about selling in a bear market.

My point is that you decide what is best for you. Almost everyone should have at least some portion of their portfolio in equities in the wealth building phase. The first goal should be to increase your liquid funds to around 6 months of expenses. This should provide an adequate cushion if things go south. Then get serious about growing investment accounts.

The greater your wealth the better able you are to weather a storm. As your non-qualified account grows, the 6 months of living expenses in cash are supplemented by dividends if the need become great enough. Dividends and capital gains should be reinvested into your index funds. However, rather than selling an investment when the market is down, consider diverting dividends and capital gains distributions into your cash account when the cash account begins to deplete. This will provide added cushion while you decide the best financial move if a recession hits the family income stream.

 

Nearing, Entering and in Retirement: The last phase of your financial life is when you approach, enter and are in retirement. The following advice works regardless the age you retire. Early retirement still requires a proper financial plan. My clients pay me a lot of money to tell them what you are about to read.

The 6-month rule is nowhere near acceptable once you enter retirement. Side hustle income, pension and Social Security keep cash flowing into the budget, but your maximum earning years are now part of history. And besides, even if you can go back to work, is that really the goal here? The goal now is to structure your finances to keep your financial life simple with as low a level of risk as possible.

There might be times when you still add to investments once you enter retirement. We will assume retirement is a consumption of wealth phase. This doesn’t mean your accounts lose value! Your level of consumption can, and ideally should, be lower than the rate of the investment growth. 

Outside cash, investments will fluctuate in value. Only the fluctuating investments provide a potential acceptable return. Cash provides a low, or even no, return and is earmarked for expenditures in the relatively near future. Selling index funds at or near market highs and consuming cash when index funds are not at a high is an easier strategy than you might think. 

Market timing is a sucker’s game. Dollar-cost-averaging when you were growing your wealth was not a market-timing call. The opposite behavior when consuming your wealth is also not market timing.

The stock market is always climbing with short down periods lasting from a few months, to a few years, to rarely a decade or longer. Selling at a market high does not mean the market will not be higher in the future. What I am saying is that selling at or near a current market high is easy to do. Look at the index level. Is it at or near a high? Then it is an appropriate time to sell if it meets the criteria discussed below.

Your cash position in retirement needs to be at least two years of spending! Preferably 3-4 years of spending. With 4 years of spending in your cash account you have plenty of money available to live without consideration for the economy or stock market levels. If the market declines, use the cash account to fund spending. If the market is at or near a high you can sell enough to cover your needs on a monthly or some other schedule. You can rebuild the cash position when the market returns to new highs if the cash account becomes depleted.

When the stock market has one of those wonderful moments where it predicts yet another zombie apocalypse, you have several options. Rather than reinvesting dividends and capital gains distributions, you can divert those to your cash account instead. This effectively stretches your cash account to cover more than 4 years of market decline. Only as a last resort would you be forced to sell below a market high and/or cut back on spending.

The stock market rarely goes down and stays down for more than 4 years. Anything is possible. With dividends mixed in, your cash position can extend to 6-7 years or more, depending on the amount of your investments in index funds. Virtually all situations become background noise then as you enjoy your retirement.

 

As you can see, a simple rule that works for everyone does not exist. When you are starting out it is unlikely you have the resources to have even 6 months of liquid cash available to cover a job loss or serious expense. The goal is to move from that risky early position to a more stable and secure level. Eventually you will reach that 6-months cushion. But then you need to keep pushing because your needs will change as you approach retirement. 

The more wealth you accumulate, the more comfortable you become with cash earning a meager return. Many people lose interest in remaining 100% invested all the time once they enter the 7-digit net worth arena. As the 7 figures keep climbing, cash looks better and better. Of course, virtually everyone should have some invested in an equity index fund at all ages. What I want to impress upon you is that in the early days of your wealth accumulation journey you will be nearly 100% invested all the time with a modest sum available for an emergency. As you approach and enter retirement it is not uncommon to have 20% of more of your investable funds in cash. Find your comfort level and enjoy the well-deserved retirement you worked so hard to attain.

 


 

 

More Wealth Building Resources

Personal Capital is an incredible tool to manage all your investments in one place. You can watch your net worth grow as you reach toward financial independence and beyond. Did I mention Personal Capital is free?

Side Hustle Selling tradelines yields a high return compared to time invested, as much as $1,000 per hour. The tradeline company I use is Tradeline Supply Company. Let Darren know you are from The Wealthy Accountant. Call 888-844-8910, email Darren@TradelineSupply.com or read my review.

Medi-Share is a low cost way to manage health care costs. As health insurance premiums continue to sky rocket, there is an alternative preserving the wealth of families all over America. Here is my review of Medi-Share and additional resources to bring health care under control in your household.

QuickBooks is a daily part of life in my office. Managing a business requires accurate books without wasting time. QuickBooks is an excellent tool for managing your business, rental properties, side hustle and personal finances.

cost segregation study can reduce taxes $100,000 for income property owners. Here is my review of how cost segregation studies work and how to get one yourself.

Worthy Financial offers a flat 5% on their investment. You can read my review here. 

How do you tell if the stock market is too high? When do you sell? Or buy for that matter? Read this article to learn the right time to sell a stock. #wealthyaccountant #stocks #stockmarket #investing #investingtips #bonds #moneymarket Investing for beginners. Investing for wealth in your 20s or 30s. In or near retirement.The stock market is in nose bleed territory and doesn’t seem to want to stop climbing. Economic risks are everywhere. Debt levels are high, interest rates are climbing, a trade war is breaking out and the market valuations are at near record high levels.  In times like these investors get scared. The bull market is long in the tooth and “due” for a serious correction. But then again, using a gambling term might not be the best choice when investing your money.

It is rare when a client doesn’t ask me where to invest their excess funds. Virtually every client wants to pull money from the market but doesn’t know where to put the proceeds. Lump-sum payments and accumulated cash in money market accounts cause concern when the stock market would have been a much better choice.

At these level we might ask, How much higher can this go? How much longer before disaster strikes? And then the market indexes keep marching higher.

Retirement makes it even worse. If your nest egg is enough for a comfortable retirement, but lacks excess, the market climb causes concerns. Nobody ever lost money taking a profit, goes the old Wall Street adage. But is it a smart idea to sell when the market is high considering it is almost always considered high? And if selling is the right choice, where do you put the money? We will explore those important questions today, before catastrophe strikes.

Are You High

There is an advantage to age. Once you’ve lived through a few market cycles you begin to realize the best choice is to stay calm. Newscasts will tell you the sky is falling. It isn’t.

In the 1970s and 80s Joseph E. Granville was the guy to listen to on stock investing. When Granville spoke the market moved. He had a system for timing the stock market and a knack for promotion. (He had books to sell.) The Pinterest placard in this post of his 1976 book is from my personal library. (I’ve been reading investing books for a very long time.)

Robert R. Prechter Jr. is another guru from a past age (my age). Prechter published The Elliott Wave Theorist in the 1980s.

When is the best time to sell the stock market? Selling an investment is just as important as how you buy the investment. And where do you put the money once you sell? #wealthyaccountant #investing #indexfunds #retirement #selling #money #cash

The only way to time the stock market. Don’t.

Both Granville and Prechter were market timers; something we know is a bad idea when it comes to investing in the market. Warren Buffett doesn’t write books; he writes annual reports for his company. People write books about Warren Buffett. This opposed to market timers who write books on their system and sell it to the masses. See the difference. One makes money and people write about them. The others make their money selling you books on how they think you should invest. Think about that for a moment.

I bring up Granville and Prechter for a reason. These and others called for a serious market declines in the 80s. I remember watching the Nightly Business Report where a guest expressed with great confidence the Dow Jones Industrial Average would soon test the 1932 lows from the Great Depression because the Elliot Wave theory predicted it. People actually paid for that kind of advice!

When the Dow was under 1,000 it was overpriced. It was overpriced in 1932 then is bounced off the low 40s. (The DJIA closed at 41.22 on July 8, 1932; its all-time low.) You see, when the Dow was that low people had real reasons to believe the world was ending, at least economically. Even with the Industrials at 40 and change the market was high because these companies were losing money. Things were bad, really bad. And getting worse.

Then the Dow reached 10,000 and it was really high, overpriced and ready for a decline. Well, before the world actually ended the Dow notched 20,000. Of course it was painfully obvious the market had to decline. Just look at the political climate. How can it possible go higher?

Unfortunately we will have to wait for the permanent decline in the market. Yesterday (September 19, 2018) the Dow closed at 26,405.76. And you guessed it. Clients still want to know if they should sell their index funds and move to cash.

I provided plenty of links above to helpful sites on the issues I discussed. I didn’t link to Amazon for any of Granville’s or Prechter’s work. Granville actually published another book in 2010. I didn’t know that until I researched this article. It sounds like more market timing advice to me. And that is why I didn’t link to their work. I think it is terrible advice.

Perspective

Let’s bring the current stock market into perspective. At the last cycle market high the DJIA was around 13,930 at the end of October, 2007. If you had the worst of all luck and invested a massive windfall (the lottery sent you a gazillion dollar check) at the exact peak you would be up just shy of 90%! (89.55% for home-gamers.) Index funds make it easy to match the market. An all-market or S&P 500 index fund would have yielded slightly different results, but still good gains all the same.

When is the best time to buy a stock or index fund? Should you buy or sell at these levels? Inside are clear answers to investing your money in your 20s, 30s or any age. Beginners and experienced investors face the same question on when to sell and what to do with the proceeds. #wealthyaccountant #beginners #investing #tips #ideas #help #money #cash

Should you buy the stock market at these levels?

The lesson is learned. Even if today is the absolute worst day to invest, a decade down the road you still have pretty good odds it will still be a good call.

I’m not calling for the market to climb high, by the way. I might be crazy, but I ain’t dumb. I have no clue where the market is headed. Looks high to me and always does. So I bite my lip and keep invested, laughing all the way to the, ah, index fund.

The long game is always higher. Jim Collins has written extensively on the stock market and why it always goes up. Notice I didn’t say the market never goes down! The market does decline from time to time, but always climbs higher after the temporary pullbacks. The only time this will not happen is if civilization fails. If that is the case you have bigger problems than a stock market decline.

Liquid Funds

The information above doesn’t mean everyone should be fully invested! Those in or near retirement may need a few years of liquid cash in money market or bank accounts regardless the level of the stock market. Businesses also need working capital that is liquid. Money that has a five-year or longer horizon probably deserves to be in equities.

I intentionally left bonds off the list. Bond yields are low. Serious losses occur with long-dated bonds as interest rates climb. If rates stay low you still only get a meager return. I see no reason to consider bonds, except for pension funds, banks and insurance companies.

Alternatives to Index Funds

The S&P 500 and DJIA are up over 300% from the lows a decade ago. It is understandable some people have the jitters. Panic selling is the worst of all choices. If a market decline causes you to lose sleep it might be time to take a few chips off the table.

If you receive a bonus or other windfall it still makes sense to drop the lump-sum into a broad-based index fund and live with the results. The evidence is clear this is the correct choice. You might be unlucky and pick the worst day of the decade. Odds are you will not. But if you do you still have an excellent chance to enjoy nice returns in a relatively short period of time.

If your temperament doesn’t handle the market well at these levels there are options. First, pay off debt. You can’t lose retiring liabilities. The car and credit cards must be paid in full. The mortgage is always a tough call. (Stay tuned for an upcoming post on paying off a low interest rate mortgage versus keeping the mortgage and investing the funds for a higher return.) I feel paying off the mortgage makes sense for most people. “Safe” investments don’t pay as much which makes them less safe than perceived.

Once all debt is eliminated you still need to invest liquid funds. There are few good choices at this time. Capital One 360 and Discover Savings offer competitive interest rates, but they are still low comparatively. Vanguard’s money market fund is another alternative worth considering.

The Best Investment

I know how hard it is, kind readers, but a broad-based index fund is the best choice for money with an investment horizon of 5 years or longer. The market is high. It’s always high. The best time to invest has always been now.

Granville and Prechter convinced a generation they could time the market. Nobody does it consistently. The surest path to financial success is to tie yourself to the economic engine of virtually the entire economy. As the economy grows, so do you.

The best and only advice is to stay fully invested all the time without leverage (using borrowed money to buy the investment). The exception is working capital for businesses and liquid funds for household expenses of a few years, a bit more if retired or nearing retirement.

Close your eyes if it helps. Bear markets tend to end quickly.

 

 

 

More Wealth Building Resources

Personal Capital is an incredible tool to manage all your investments in one place. You can watch your net worth grow as you reach toward financial independence and beyond. Did I mention Personal Capital is free?

Side Hustle Selling tradelines yields a high return compared to time invested, as much as $1,000 per hour. The tradeline company I use is Tradeline Supply Company. Let Darren know you are from The Wealthy Accountant. Call 888-844-8910, email Darren@TradelineSupply.com or read my review.

Medi-Share is a low cost way to manage health care costs. As health insurance premiums continue to sky rocket, there is an alternative preserving the wealth of families all over America. Here is my review of Medi-Share and additional resources to bring health care under control in your household.

QuickBooks is a daily part of life in my office. Managing a business requires accurate books without wasting time. QuickBooks is an excellent tool for managing your business, rental properties, side hustle and personal finances.

A cost segregation study can save $100,000 for income property owners. Here is my review of how cost segregations studies work and how to get one yourself.

Worthy Financial offers a flat 5% on their investment. You can read my review here.