Objective information about financial planning, investments, and retirement plans

Social Security-The End of the File and Suspend Couples Strategy

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The big news in the world of retirement planning is end of a lucrative couples Social Security claiming strategy, file and suspend with a restricted application. The ability take advantage of this lucrative option comes to an end as of April 30, 2016 thanks to the passage of the Bipartisan Budget Bill of 2015.

Social Security-The End of the File and Suspend Couples Strategy

What is the file and suspend strategy?

Under this strategy spouse A upon reaching their full retirement age (FRA) would file for their benefit and then suspend it. They would accrue delayed credits at 8% per year out to age 70 (or sooner) at which time they would resume taking their benefit.

Once spouse B reached their FRA they would then file a restricted application for benefits in order to receive a spousal benefit based upon spouse A’s earnings record. Their own benefit would continue to accrue out until age 70 at which time they would switch to their own benefit if it was higher than the spousal benefit or continue to take the spousal benefit if it was larger.

In many cases this might add an additional $60,000 in benefits to the couple over the four years between spouse B’s FRA and age 70.

There are numerous reasons to do this and it has become a popular couples claiming strategy in recent years.

This option ends as of April 30, 2016.

Who can still take advantage? 

Couples who have executed this strategy are fine and there will be no changes. Couples who are eligible to execute this strategy prior to April 30, 2016 will still be able to.

What are the implications? 

Couples who might have factored this into their retirement strategy will need to rethink their plans and their Social Security claiming strategy.

Those who advise clients nearing retirement and those who provide Social Security tools to the financial advisors will need to rethink their advice and redo some of these tools. Websites offering Social Security calculators will need to redo them as well.

If this change impacts your situation I’d urge you to consult with a knowledgeable financial advisor.

There is much more detail on this change and much has been much written on this topic by a lot of folks whose opinions and knowledge I respect. Below are some excellent articles to check out to learn more about this.

8 Questions About Social Security Claiming Strategies by Mark Miller

The Death of File & Suspend and Restricted Application by Jim Blankenship

Congress kills Social Security claiming loopholes by Alice Munnell

Social Security changes will hit couples, divorced women hard by Robert Powell

Navigating The Effective Date Deadlines For The New File-And-Suspend And Restricted Application Rules by Michael Kitces 

Congress Eliminates Two Popular (and Profitable) Social Security Claiming Strategies by Tim Mauer 

New Social Security Rules: What You Need to Know by Mike Piper 

Check out these two books on Amazon by Jim Blankenship and Mike Piper which have both been updated to reflect the new rules (note these are affiliate links and I earn a small fee if you purchase at no extra cost to you)

In addition here are two pieces on the topic that I recently wrote for Investopedia:

Social Security File and Suspend to End: How to Adjust

Social Security File and Suspend Claiming Strategy is Ending: Now What?

The Bottom Line 

The popular couples Social Security claiming strategy, file and suspend with a restricted application is coming to an end as of April 30, 2016. This is a game-changer for a lot of couples. This may be the time to seek out a knowledgeable financial advisor to advise you. Also stay tuned as there will undoubtedly be much more written on this topic moving forward.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email.

Discover the Secret to Living Tax-Free in Retirement

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On those rare occasions that I develop writer’s block in terms of what to write about here the financial services industry seems to bail me out. Case in point the invitation to a “Private Taxation Workshop” (versus just a plain old seminar) I recently received in the mail. The title of the seminar on the invitation was title I used for this article.

Think about the words “secret to living tax-free in retirement” and while doing so make sure you know where your wallet is.

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Look I’m not saying the accounting firm who is conducting the session in conjunction with a financial services firm is anything but above-board but when I hear words like living tax-free in retirement my first thought is that there will be someone telling you that purchasing the cash value life insurance policy or annuity product being peddled is the answer to your retirement anxiety.

To top this off the seminar is being held at a park district facility, not at a restaurant. In other words they aren’t even providing dinner. Those of you who are regular readers of The Chicago Financial Planner know that I do not hold the sponsors of these sessions in high regard. (Please read Investing Seminars – Should You Attend? and Should You Accept That Estate Planning Seminar Invitation? )

How to legally be in the 0% tax-bracket for any income level

This is one of the bullet points listed under the items they will be discussing at the session. Come on, really? If it were that easy wouldn’t everyone be doing it?

Again I’m guessing that there is some sort of life insurance or annuity product that will be promoted. Note nothing will be sold at the session (it says so right on the invitation) but you can be sure that if you schedule a follow-up session the hard-sell with be there right after the hand-shake. In fact you can count on being given the hard-sell to schedule a follow-up session.

The most overlooked strategy for creating tax-free income from your taxable investments

Another bullet point on topics that will be covered. This sounds great! Wow!

OK back to reality. Remember the adage if it sounds too good to be true it probably is? Well this sounds like it fits.

Again I have no idea what they will be saying but if this was some super-secret sophisticated tax strategy would they be sharing it with a group of non-screened attendees in a park district building for free?

The Bottom Line

I am not saying anyone is doing anything fraudulent, illegal or untoward. What I am saying is that this appears to be nothing but a thinly veiled sales pitch by an accounting firm and a financial services firm to pique your interest and to ultimately sell you some sort of life insurance policy, annuity or some other financial product with hefty commissions attached. I’m guessing the accounting firm has some arrangement to realize a portion of the product sales arising from session attendees.

I’m not against learning and improving your financial knowledge. In fact that’s why I started this blog and why I write for Investopedia, Go Banking Rates and elsewhere. If you go to one of these seminars go with a very skeptical attitude, listen hard and be non-committal about your interest when they urge you to schedule a follow-up meeting. Go home afterwards and at least research the ideas they are touting and the firms involved. Be a smart consumer of financial products and advice. That is the best way to protect yourself from financial fraud and from buying expensive financial products that serve someone else’s needs better than they serve yours.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Please check out our resources page as well.

Six Reasons Small Businesses Should Offer a 401(k) Plan

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The statistics on the number of American workers not covered by a workplace retirement plan like a 401(k) are sobering. According to a 2011 survey just over half of all American workers had access to a workplace retirement plan.

Sadly all too often the reason that smaller companies don’t offer a 401(k) plan are that they can be expensive and there are a vast number of government rules and regulations that must be followed. Small business owners have all that they can handle in running and growing their companies.

Here are six reasons that a small business should consider offering a 401(k) plan for their employees.

The owner’s retirement needs

 Small business owners work hard to manage and grow their companies. Unlike with a larger organization there generally are not armies of employees to handle administrative tasks like human resources or accounting. The owner is often the face of the business and intimately involved in sales and various business processes. It is not uncommon for small business owners to put in many long hours and take very little time off.

Too often the hope is that the value of the business will serve as their retirement plan. Maybe this will happen; they will find a willing buyer who will pay a premium price for the company. Or maybe it won’t happen at least not quite that way.

A 401(k) plan allows the business owner to contribute up to $18,000 or $24,000 (if 50 or over) of their compensation for 2015. In addition they can make a profit sharing contribution as well. This can bring the total combined employee deferral and employer contribution for the owner to a maximum of $53,000 or $59,000 if they are 50 or over. This can go a long way towards helping the business owner fund a comfortable retirement for themselves.

Business contributions and tax dedications

Any employer matching contributions will be tax-deductible as will any costs incurred by the employer in connection with offering the plan.

In order to alleviate any restrictions on the amount the business owner and top executives can contribute for themselves the company may decide on a safe harbor plan that entails a minimum matching level or a minimum level of contributions to the accounts of all employees whether they contribute to the plan or not. The safe harbor contributions are immediately vested for the employees. In exchange the owner will not be limited as to the amount of their contributions based on the results of the required non-discrimination testing. Certainly not all small businesses will be able to afford the safe harbor contributions but for those that can this is a great solution for the owners and the employees.

Doing the right thing for employees

There many articles written and studies done that point to a retirement savings crises in this country. Part of the problem as mentioned above is the lack of availability of a workplace retirement plan for a number of U.S. workers.

Offering your employees a low cost 401(k) plan is a great way to help them save for their retirement and frankly it’s the right thing to do for employees. They work hard and contribute to the success of the business, they should have the opportunity to save for their own retirement and build a measure of financial security for themselves and their families.

Attract and retain top talent

With the economy having largely recovered from the financial crises unemployment is low and many companies are having a hard time finding the workers they need in some cases. Top talent expects to be well-compensated and a quality 401(k) plan is a part of a top-notch compensation package. While likely not the main driver of determining whether a top prospective employee accepts your job offer, a really lousy 401(k) plan (or no plan) might be the “tie-breaker.”

Likewise if a valued employee is being courted by a competitor and that competitor has a robust benefits package that includes a much better 401(k) plan that might be the difference between retaining that key employee and losing them. 

Financial wellness can help the bottom line

Employees who are worried about retirement or other financial issues may be less productive at work. Stressed out employees might also drive up the company’s healthcare costs.

According to a survey by benefits consultant AON Hewitt about 90% of the country’s 250 largest employers also recognize the impact of financial stress on their workforce and will be looking to expand or start financial wellness programs.

Small businesses may not have the resources of these large companies but offering a solid, low cost 401(k) plan is a positive step for their employees on the road towards financial wellness. 

Technology has expanded plan options

Just a few years ago smaller plans and start-ups had very few alternatives and most of those alternatives were high cost plans with questionable investment choices. Insurance company group annuities were also a common option in this market, again generally an expensive, unattractive option.

There are a number of low-cost 401(k) options for small businesses today that thanks in large part to technological advances can offer a complete package including administration, education and low-cost investing options at a reasonable price. Some of these providers serve as plan fiduciaries taking that responsibility off of the shoulders of the business owner.

Frankly cost and the rules connected with running a plan can make it a hassle where these issues and the costs outweigh the good of offering the plan in the minds of many small business owners. The new generation of user-friendly low cost options for small businesses remove this hurdle.

The Bottom Line 

Traditionally the 401(k) options for small businesses have been limited to high cost options with less than desirable investment options. Today with the advances in technology there are a number of low cost, low-hassle options for small companies to consider. Offering a 401(k) plan is a win-win for small businesses in that the owners win and so do their employees.

This post was sponsored (meaning that I was compensated) by San Francisco based ForUsAll an innovative provider of low cost turnkey 401(k) solutions for small businesses. They had no editorial input on anything above. 

I discovered ForUsAll in a finance blogging group that I am part of and was very impressed with what they can offer a small business looking for a turn-key 401(k) solution. They take all of the administrative and compliance burdens off the shoulders of the plan sponsor through their status as a 3(16) fiduciary. Via their menu of low-cost Vanguard funds and their technology they offer a complete 401(k) solution that includes guidance for employees.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner

Should You Wait Until Age 70 to Collect Social Security?

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This post was written by financial planner Daniel Zajac. 

The decision to start or delay Social Security is a big one, one that may materially impact retirement success or failure. Because it is so important to retirement success, it bothers me when I hear soon-to-be retirees say they are going to take Social Security benefits early.  It also bothers me when they take Social Security benefits at full retirement age without considering the alternatives.

Perplexed? Stay with me.

I know what you’re thinking: “Why wouldn’t a financial advisor be okay with someone taking Social Security benefits at full retirement age?”

It’s not that I’m never okay with starting Social Security early or at full retirement age, I’d just want to make sure they take their benefits for the right reasons and do the right research into all the available options.  When it comes to Social Security benefits, there’s a lot of money to be left on the table if you don’t know what you’re doing (or if you decide to collect at any age, “just because”).

Plan A: Wait Until Age 70 to Collect Social Security Benefits

The Social Security Administration explains that full retirement age “is the age at which a person may first become entitled to full or unreduced retirement benefits.”

(Specifically, your full retirement age depends on your birth year. Someone born in 1940 has a full retirement age of 65 and 6 months. Someone born in 1960 has a full retirement age of 67. Waiting until age 70 to collect Social Security benefits shouldn’t feel like that long of a wait.)

Unfortunately, a little digging is required to realize that even if you take full benefits at your full retirement age, you won’t get the maximum Social Security available per month.  The maximum benefit is reached at age 70.

So why wait until age 70 if you can start earlier in the first place?  You’ll get an 8% increase in your benefits per year.  For example, let’s assume your full retirement age is 66 and you are to receive $2,000 per month.  If you wait until age 67 to collect (1 year), you will receive $2,160 per month, 8% more.

Now, when is the last time you heard of an 8% rate of return? That’s difficult to find. Better yet, it’s government backed. If you think you’re going to live a long time and you don’t need the money right now, “Plan A” may be the right plan for you.

But the 8% isn’t the only reason:

  • Get paid a higher amount for life. Generally speaking, people are living longer.  The longer people live, the more years they spend in retirement and the greater the chance of running out of money.  Optimizing Social Security to produce the highest monthly income could be a prudent, cost of living adjusted hedge against living too long.
  • You can take a spousal benefit. Spouses have more options for collecting Social Security.  If you are married, you can optimize your total income from Social Security by strategically taking a restricted spousal benefit and waiting until age 70 to collect your own benefit.

If you can afford it, waiting until you reach age 70 may be your best option to receive Social Security benefits – your benefits will max out at that age.

Plan B: Take Social Security Benefits at Your Full Retirement Age

Many people go with “Plan B.” They choose to because they don’t want to wait any longer.  They have paid into the system for many years and want to start collecting what is due to them.  However, by starting at full retirement age, they’re losing out on all the benefits I mentioned above. Even still, there are reasons to take Social Security benefits at your full retirement age.

If you’re at full retirement age, are strapped for cash, don’t have any other potential income sources, and are unhealthy, it may be reasonable to start your benefits.

However, before you start collecting at your full retirement age, I advise you to consider the alternatives.  Consider funding your retirement expenses through your savings while deferring Social Security.  Or, if you’re able, work a few years longer.  Retirement doesn’t have to occur at a certain age. Many choose to work well beyond their full retirement age. There may be many potential benefits that come with work, including continued socialization and better health – in some occupations.

For those who plan to work and collect Social Security, your full retirement age is the age at which you can collect your benefit and not receive a reduction for earned income.  Prior to your full retirement age, you may receive a reduction in your benefit if you collect Social Security and work (you can make up to $15,720 per year in 2015 prior to your full retirement age and not receive a reduction of income).

Before you apply for benefits, use the Social Security Retirement Estimator to get a feel for how much you’ll receive.

Plan C: Take Social Security Benefits Before Your Full Retirement Age

When you take Social Security benefits before your full retirement age, your monthly benefit will be reduced. For example, if your full retirement age is 66 – at which you’d receive $1,000 per month – and you choose to start receiving benefits at age 62, your monthly benefit will be reduced by 25% to $750 per month.

That’s quite a drop in benefits. I love Social Security, but I wouldn’t choose this plan without good reason.

Are there times when it would be reasonable to go with this plan? Of course. For example, you might be working in a job that is physically demanding and bad for your health. In this case, it might be more reasonable to quit your job and take Social Security benefits than to suffer a possible heart attack from overexertion.

Which Plan is Right for You?

This is by no means a complete list of the available options to you as a retiree.  It is, however, a quick review of several advantages and disadvantages of oft chosen plans.  As you progress through your 60s, it will become more clear which plan is right for you. However, the ultimate clarity can be derived via a detailed analysis of your total financial plan including other income, assets, and taxes.

Consider seeking the help of a financial advisor if you’re having trouble sorting through your options. Make sure your family is on board with your decisions. Seek wise counsel before you decide to retire. With a little help from those around you, you can find the confidence you need to make the right decision.

None of the information in this document should be considered as tax advice.  You should consult your tax advisor for information concerning your individual situation.

Daniel Zajac, CFP®, AIF®, CLU®, is a Partner and Financial Advisor with Simone Zajac Wealth Management Group based in the Philadelphia, PA area. As a 33-year-old veteran of the financial planning industry, Daniel loves to share his financial expertise with the masses at FinanceandFlipFlops.com. There, he explores the ins and outs of topics such as life insurance, investing, retirement planning, and much more.

Advisory services offered through Capital Analysts or Lincoln Investment, Registered Investment Advisors.  Securities offered through Lincoln Investment, Broker Dealer, Member FINRA/SIPC   www.lincolninvestment.com

Simone Zajac Wealth Management Group, and the above firms are independent, non-affiliated entities.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner.

American’s Attitudes About Their Money

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Americans have varying attitudes about their money. The infographic below sheds light on our attitutudes about our finances across various demographic lines including age and income level.

Please take a look and see how your attitudes about your finances compare.

It’s never too late to get started on your financial plan.  Its never to late to move forward and to take the actions needed to get your financial situation on track whether you need to prepare for retirement or beef up your emergency fund.

Please contact me with any questions you may have or with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner.

personal finance
Source: Masters-in-Accounting.org

 

Reader Question: Do I Really Need a Financial Advisor?

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This question came from a reader who is around 60, works for a major corporation and has retirement assets in neighborhood of $1 million.  He indicated he is looking to either retire or be able to retire in the near future.  His question was in response to my recent request for story ideas and I appreciate this suggestion.  I will address this question largely from the perspective of this person’s situation as this is the type of client I am quite familiar with.

Do I really need a financial advisor? 

Do I really need a financial advisor? The only answer of course is that it depends.  There are many factors to consider.  Let’s take a look at a few of them.

How comfortable are you managing your own investments and financial planning issues? 

This is one of the main factors to consider.  The reader raised the point that the typical fees for ongoing advice on a portfolio of his size would likely be $8,000-$10,000 per year and wondered if the fee is worth it.

Certainly there is the issue of managing his portfolio.  It sounds like he has a significant 401(k) plan balance.  This will involve a decision whether to leave that money at his soon to be former employer or roll it to an IRA.  Beyond this decision is the issue of managing his investments on an ongoing basis.  And taking it a step further the fee level mentioned previously should include ongoing comprehensive financial planning advice not just investment advice.

Since it is likely that his 401(k) contains company stock (based upon who he works for) he has the option of electing the Net Unrealized Appreciation (NUA) treatment of this stock as opposed to rolling the dollars over to an IRA. This is a tactic that can save a lot in taxes but is a bit complex.

Can you be objective in making financial decisions? 

The value of having someone look at your finances with a detached third-party perspective is valuable.  During the 2008-09 stock market down turn did you panic and sell some or all of your stock holdings at or near the bottom of the market?  Perhaps a financial advisor could have talked you off of the ledge.

I’ve seen many investors who could not take a loss on an investment and move on.  They want to at least break-even.  Sometimes taking a loss and redeploying that money elsewhere is the better decision for your portfolio.

Can you sell your winners when needed and rebalance your portfolio back to your target allocation when needed?

Do you enjoy managing your own investments and finances?

This is important.  If don’t enjoy doing this yourself will you spend the time needed not only to monitor your investments but also to stay current with the knowledge needed to do this effectively?

In the case of this reader I suggested he consider whether this is something that he wanted to be doing in retirement.

What happens if you die or become incapacitated?

This is an issue for anyone.  Often in this age bracket a client who is married may have a spouse who is not comfortable managing the family finances.  If the client who is interested and capable in this area dies or becomes incapacitated who will help the spouse who is now thrust into this unwanted role?

Not an all or nothing decision

Certainly if you are comfortable (and capable) of being your own financial advisor at retirement or any stage of life you should do it.  This is not an irreversible decision nor is there anything that says you can’t get help as needed.

For example you might hire a financial planner to help you do a financial plan and an overall review of your situation.  You might then do most of the day to day work and engage their services for a periodic review.  There are also financial planners who work on an hourly as needed basis for specific issues.

Whatever decision that you do make, try to be as objective as possible.  Have you done a good job with this in the past?  Will the benefits of the advice outweigh the fees involved?  Are you capable of doing this? 

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Please check out our resources page as well.  

7 Tips to Become a 401(k) Millionaire

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According to Fidelity, the average balance of 401(k) plan participants grew to a record high of $91,300 at the end of 2014.  This data is from plans using the Fidelity platform.

According to Fidelity about 72,000 participants had a balance of $1 million which is about double the number at the end of 2012 and about 5 times the number at the end of 2008.  What their secret?  Here are 7 tips to become a 401(k) millionaire or to at least maximize the value of your 401(k) account.

Be consistent and persistent 

Investing in your 401(k) plan is more of a marathon than a sprint.  Maintain and increase your salary deferrals in good markets and bad.

Contribute enough 

In an ideal world every 401(k) investor would max out their annual salary deferrals to their plan which are currently $18,000 and $24,000 for those who are 50 or over.  If you are just turning 50 this year or if you are older be sure to take advantage of the $6,000 catch-up contribution that is available to you.  Even if you plan limits the amount that you can contribute because of testing or other issues this catch-up amount is not impacted.  It is also not automatic so be sure to let your plan administrator know that you want to contribute at that level. 

According to the Fidelity study the average contribution rate for those with a $1 million balance was 16 percent, while the average contribution across all 401(k) investors they surveyed was about 8 percent.  The 16 percent contribution rate translated to a bit over $21,000 for the millionaire group.

As I’ve said in past 401(k) posts on this site, it is important to contribute as much as you can.  If you can only afford to defer 3 percent this year, that’s a start.  Next year try to hit 4 percent or more.  As a general rule it is a good goal to contribute at least enough to earn the full matching if your employer offers one.

Take appropriate risks 

As with any sort of investment account be sure that you are investing in accordance with your financial plan, your age and your risk tolerance.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen lists of plan participants and see participants in their 20s with all or a large percentage of their account in the plan’s money market or stable value option.

Your account can’t grow if you don’t take some risk.  

Don’t assume Target Date Funds are the answer 

Target Date Funds are big business for the mutual fund companies offering them.  They also represent a “safe harbor” from liability for your employer.  I’m not saying they are a bad option but I’m also not saying they are the best option for you.

I like TDFs for younger investors say those in their 20s who may not have other investments outside of the plan.  The TDF offers an instant diversified portfolio for them.

Once you’ve been working for a while you should have some outside investments.  By the time you are say in your 40s you should consider a more tailored portfolio that fits you overall situation.

Additionally Target Date Funds all have a glide path into retirement.  They are all a bit different, you need to understand if the glide path offered by the TDF family in your plan is right for you. 

Invest during a long bull market 

This is a bit sarcastic but the bull market for stocks that started in March of 2009 is in part why we’ve seen a surge in 401(k) millionaires and in 401(k) balances in general.  The equity allocations of 401(k) portfolios have driven the values higher.

The flip side are those who swore off stocks at the depths of the 2008-2009 market downturn have missed one of the better opportunities in history to increase their 401(k) balance and their overall retirement nest egg.

Don’t fumble the ball before crossing the goal line 

We’ve all seen those “hotdogs” running for a sure touchdown only to spike the ball in celebration before crossing the goal line.

The 401(k) equivalent of this is to just let your account run in a bull market like this one and not rebalance it back to your target allocation.  If your target is 60 percent in stocks and it’s grown to 80 percent in equities due to the run up of the past few years you might well be a 401(k) millionaire.

It is just as likely that you may become a former 401(k) millionaire if you don’t rebalance.  The stock market has a funny way of punishing investors who are too aggressive or who don’t manage their investments.

Pay attention to those old 401(k) accounts 

Whether becoming a 401(k) millionaire in your current 401(k) account or combined across several accounts the points mentioned above still apply.  In addition it is important to be proactive with your 401(k) account when you leave a job.  Whether you roll the account over to an IRA, leave it in the old plan or roll it to a new employer’s plan if allowed do something, make a decision.  Leaving an old 401(k) account unattended is wasting this money and can be a huge detriment to your retirement savings efforts.

The Bottom Line 

Whether or not you actually amass $1 million in your 401(k) or not the goal is to maximize the amount accumulated there for retirement.  The steps outlined above can help you to do this.  Are you ready to start down the path of becoming a 401(k) millionaire?

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Please check out our resources page as well.

Robo Advisors – A Brave New World?

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The piece below is written by Doug Dahmer and originally appeared under the title “Robo-Advisors” – rise of the machines on Jon Chevreau’s site Financial Independence Hub.  Jon is at the forefront of a movement he calls “Findependence.”  This is essentially looking at becoming financially independent so that you can pursue the lifestyle of your choosing.   Jon is a Canadian author and journalist, check out his book Findependence Day.  Jon has contributed several prior posts here as well. 

I know Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, I read Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and I love the Terminator movies (I’ll be back!).

From all this I know three things: Robots are very smart. Robots always start off to help you. Robots have a tendency to turn on you.

One of the newest crazes and buzzwords in personal finance is: “Robo-Adviser.” If you’re not familiar with the term, it refers to investment management by algorithm in the absence of human input.

With a “Robo” you are asked to complete an on-line risk assessment questionnaire. Your responses determines the prescribed portfolio of ETFs (Exchange-Traded Funds) with a built-in asset allocation best suited to your needs. Once a year the portfolio is rebalanced to this prescribed asset allocation recipe. 

Dynamics change as shift from Saving to Spending

The “Robo” approach relies heavily upon a basic “buy/hold/rebalance” investment strategy. This passive strategy can work to your advantage during your accumulation years. These are the years when time is your friend, and dollar cost averaging through market cycles offers the opportunity to give your returns a boost.

However, as we get older and begin to prepare for and transition into our spending years, things change. Unfortunately, too few people realize that the investment strategies that served us well during our savings years turn on their head and work to our disadvantage as the flow of funds reverses and savings turns to spending. 

Dollar Cost Ravaging

Suddenly time changes from friend to foe where “dollar cost averaging” turns to “dollar cost ravaging” or what we call, the Mathematics of Catastrophe. (More about which in our next Hub blog). During the second half of your life the simplistic money management approach followed by “Robo- Advisers” can start to look like a “deed of the devil.”

Another concern is that “Robos” are unable to deal with the reality of expense variability. If you believe that in retirement, a fixed, annual withdrawal rate from a diversified portfolio will address your income needs I can with confidence suggest you are at best short-changing yourself and at worst setting yourself up for a cataclysmic financial failure.

I have been in this business a long time and know beyond a shadow of a doubt that a properly constructed life plan is very important in the second half of your life. It is only when you know what you want to do, when you want to do it and what it will cost to do it, that you can start to build the financial framework to make it happen.

Only through your life plan are you able to anticipate years of surplus and years of deficits and take the steps to bend them to your benefit. You need to bring together cash flow optimization, tax management and pension style investment management to make it happen and in the process add hundreds of thousands of dollars to your lifetime assets and cash flow. 

Robos ill equipped to link life to investment plan

Linking your life plan to your investment plan is the secret to success, but “robo investing” is not equipped to handle the nuances of that linkage. A Retirement Income Specialist knows that the type of money management you need is much more complex where the cash-flow demands outlined in your life plan need are linked to your investment plan. Tax planning, income optimization and risk mitigation means it is dangerous to leave your investment management running on auto-pilot.

Isaac Asimov’s first law of robotics holds that: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

“Robo-adviser” firms would do well to review this law. When it comes to investors heading into the second half of their lives, “Robo Advisers” may well be about to break it. 

Doug Dahmer, CFP, is founder and CEO of Emeritus Retirement Income Specialists. With offices in Toronto and Burlington, Emeritus’ C3 process is one of the industry’s most comprehensive retirement planning processes. 

Online financial advisors or Robo Advisors are popping up all over the place and if you believe the financial press they are the future of financial advice.  In part I believe they are or will at least shape the future of financial advice.  I weighed in on this topic recently via  Is An Online Financial Advisor Right For You? for Investopedia.

Please feel free to contact me with your questions.  

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