Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Free is Not Free: An Offer of Retirement Advice

Everyone wants a piece of your business. You're a Boomer and you have needs - more like worries that you won't have enough to retire. So offers like the one we are about to explore are going to fly across the radar screen and you may be tempted to bite. After all, these are reputable companies offering what appears to be free retirement planning advice.

Vanguard has begun to offer you the opportunity to speak with a Certified Financial Planner. Based on what they refer to as extensive research supporting the need for contacting a professional, their new service focuses on those who are 55 years old or older. This is a worrisome group of late and the focus of a great deal of media attention. Being close to retirement is troublesome enough; close to retirement and worried that you will live longer than the previous generation (even if those stats rely on some very broad statistical factors) is even worse.

Being 55 years-old - which qualifies you for Boomer status - is close to retirement. But 10 years - by old school standards of retirement at 65 - is still a good amount of time to fix some problems, but not all. Vanguard studies have uncovered research that this group may be too overexposed to bonds (about 11% are totally into this fixed income investment) or too over exposed to equities (14% are 100% invested in stocks via mutual funds). This is not the idea behind asset allocation, a concept that keeps your money in a wide variety of investments in order to avoid sudden downturns that take the whole of your portfolio down in one quick swipe. Too much in stocks, as many investors were in 2008, resulted in a devastating blow to those portfolios. Too much in fixed income, some worry, could bring a similar event to these investors in 2011.

Asset allocation spreads the risk among different mutual funds within the retirement plan. For some, this suggests that you simply buy a target date fund with your retirement age goal and sit back and ride it out. But in many instances, the simplicity of this sort of investment suggests that you are not as focused (read: worried) as Vanguard would like you to be.

Target date funds are not everything they are sold to be. They can be expensive. They can be at the mercy of the basket of funds that make of the fund itself. they have managers who have never done this sort of seasonal readjustment over ten, twenty or thirty years. And not all target date funds do the same thing at the same time.

Vanguard's answer: your own personal financial planner. And Vanguard's solution to get you to use one: tell you its free. Trouble is, nothing is free including the advice, the readjustment to your portfolio or the ability of Vanguard to right decades of wrongs. the questions that this new programs suggests they will answer for you include some of the nagging questions they assume you have been asking yourself:
  • When can I afford to retire?
  • Will I have enough saved by retirement?
  • How much can I spend in retirement?
  • Which investments are best for me?
These are all good questions but basically all the same. A CFP can, according to Vanguard divine an answer following an online questionnaire  that is followed by a 45minute phone call from a CFP where they will examine who and what you are. By the time you finish filling out the form, you will know exactly how much trouble you are in and why. You haven't contributed enough, you havent taken enough risk and you will have to work longer, hope for a robust marketplace and continued low fees and taxes and a hefty dose of good fortune along the way (i.e. good health).

The problem here is that for the vast majority of Vanguard clients, the advice is far from free. In fact, it can be quite expensive in a number of ways. Up front, the cost is free fro those who are considered Flagship or Voyager Select clients. To be considered on of these investors, Vanguard ranks your use of their services in the following way: "Membership is based on total household assets held at Vanguard, with a minimum $500,000 for Vanguard Voyager Select Services®, and $1 million for Vanguard Flagship Services®." And for that you get free advice.

The client with a membership in Vanguard Voyager Services® would need a minimum of $50,000 to qualify for the advice but the cost is $250. If you are like the vast majority of 401(k) investors, both with Vanguard and without, the service will cost you $1,000. And then, the decision is still up to you.

In a recent press release, they described the service and how it could be implimented: "After you review your plan's strategy with the planner, you can implement it on your own, ask us to help you get started, or simply use the plan as a second opinion for your current investment strategy. The ultimate direction—and the investment decisions—are completely up to you." There is no fee schedule should you decide to have them help you.

So here is some basic advice that seems based in common sense but still widely ignored: contribute more. You may have your asset allocation out of whack, you may be invested in target date funds, you may be paying too much in fees for what you have. But the bottom line is you still haven't made the toughest choice of all: allocating more of your paycheck to the problem.

Once you decide to sacrifice on the real life side of the equation, I firmly believe that you will take a more nuanced interest in the retirement side. No one makes sacrifices, particularly the monetary ones that your retirement plan demands without getting involved. The more money you invest; the more you will get involved in those investments.

Paul Petillo is the managing editor of and a fellow Boomer.

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