Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Putting Your Money on a Treadmill

Baby Boomers may be acquainted with stress test and treadmills. But the importance of testing your retirement plan under certain types of stress is just as important as trying to figure out how well your heart is pumping.

The term stress test brings the fear of the unknown to otherwise stable events in our lives. The term became part of the vernacular of the financial system when the Secretary Treasurer  Andrew Geithner began asking how well the banking system would hold up under certain conditions. He knew that there were problems in how well a bank would withstand a crisis but until they tested for it, few people knew it as much more than a gimmick. Turns out, the nineteen banks that were tested, eleven failed.

Now stress testing adds its own stress. In part because we are all optimists at heart, seeing the future as brighter than it is and always believing that somehow we will survive whatever life throws our way. Even the off-handed question: "what's the worse that could happen?" never really attempts to answer the query, simply make you consider that something wrong might occur. And when it does occur, we simply suggest that we didn't see it coming.

In the world of personal finance, asking what's the worst that could happen is not the same as asking: "will I be able to afford this?" or "have I saved enough for retirement?" The worse-that-can-happen actually imagines the worst. It doesn't make plans for the worst based on optimistic scenarios. It plans for the downside and readjusts the outlook from just-in-case to what-now?

We're not conditioned to think like that. So I thought I'd give you some scenarios you think so brightly about and throw a little water on them. First: your budget. You lie about this too often. You project into the future (I'll be receiving a bonus or a raise next month) and spend money as if you had it. Otherwise you would even pull your credit card from your wallet. it is borrowed money that projects your optimistic ability to pay the money back at the end of the month. There are few of us out there who prudently deduct this cash from your available cash balances; but their number is small.

To stress test your budget you will need to know exactly how much meeting the so-called ends actually is. Not adding in the incidental items that can be canceled in the event of an extreme financial emergency (cable, internet, cell phones all of which are still luxuries even though we identify them as necessities), how much is your survival costs: housing, food, fuel, utilities?

A stress test would ask if you have accumulated enough in reserve to pay those basic necessities in the event of an emergency. How long could you pay for these necessary items based on what you have in your emergency accounts? My guess is not long. But once you identify this problem, you have to solve it - which is why many of us fail to do this sort of test. It adds stress. To realign this budget problem you can do three basic things: put $25 a way each week for emergencies (a cookie jar is just fine and you'd probably be surprised at how much loose change you can accumulate over time), stop spending someone else's money (try to get through a month, perhaps two without using a credit card - yes you will have to think more about each purchase) and debate the worth of every purchase (remember, just because something is on sale or looks inexpensive doesn't make it something you need.)

Another optimistic project that needs to be stress tested is your retirement. I suggest based on what I know and what I research, that most of us are not in a good position to retire anytime soon. But even these folks who acknowledge their financial shortfall are still looking at the big picture through rose colored glasses. We project investment earnings (without any real basis for these conclusions). We often think our portfolios will return 5-7% even as we switch from aggressive investments in our youth to conservative investments as we near retirement, which even a math challenged person will see as a falsehood. You can't protect money and still earn better than historic returns.

We base inflation numbers on what we know. We think of taxes based on what we currently pay. And we calculate our withdrawal based on what we think we'd like to live on. These aren't stress tests; they're optimistic projections. Stress tests give us a worse case scenario. You can also do three things here as well: contribute more, use both a before tax and after tax retirement plan (such as a 401(k) and a Roth IRA) and lastly, imagine life on half the income you currently earn.

Paul Petillo is the managing editor of Target2025.com and BlueCollarDollar.com and a fellow boomer.

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