Sunday, January 29, 2012

College: The Cost of Boomer Re-Education

When Baby Boomers send their son or daughter off to college this year they might keep this in mind: the person sitting next to them in that lecture hall is more likely now than ever before to be your age, or close to it. If the rates of college borrowing are any indication, forty year olds and older are finding themselves back in school. While attending college has been touted most recently as a way to add ten-years to your life, or at least your mental health, these students are more interested on improving their chances at getting a job. Not a better one; any job.

The stress facing an older worker or recently unemployed person turned student can be monumental. There may be numerous reasons why you didn't complete college in the first place or find yourself with a worthless piece of paper from your previous go-around. None of those matter. You have decided, and the experts suggest that this is correct, that getting more training is better than not.

But college at forty or older comes with its own unique problems. Not the least of which is the worth of the education. College tuitions are increasing as parents of children in the typical age group know all too well. When you make the decision to return to school as an older worker, the cost may be offset by some prior attendance experience or work-life experience.

One of the easiest ways to offset the tuition cost is to challenge the course, suggesting to over 2,900 accredited colleges that you know what that course offers and don't need to take it for the credit. This challenge not only save money but time that could be better spent getting the education sooner to allow you to get back in the hunt for employment.  CLEP, the College Level Exam Program, is the most widely accepted "life experience" challenge exam program and the one every older student should use. The CLEP program features 32 single-subject college exams and five general exams. (For more information about CLEP exams, contact: The College Board, 800-257-9558.)

There are other ways to help in getting your degree quicker and for less cost. Your employer might have in-house programs designed to finance higher and continuing education. If you are not employed, research and study what you know as much as possible before taking these tests.

You have three things that are to your advantage and three things working against your success.

The three things in your favor. First: you probably have the focus to do well. College isn't your first experience with independence. Of course I'm not suggesting that all-students entering or in college aren't focused; they just have a higher degree of potential available distractions to take them off course. Two: you know how much this is really costing. You have a better concept of what these dollars cost against what they can return. Three: Your work ethic comes from actually working and should be transferrable, at least in your head, to a better framework of organization. In other words, you can place the most important tasks first and that ability to prioritize is probably something you didn't even realize you possessed.

The three things working against you. One: Your focus to do well may actually overload your ability to do as well as you would have hoped. Taking on too much will find you in conflict with the rigors of what your daily life has become. This is certainly not insurmountable. Experts agree that you should get as much sleep as possible and find a scheduled time to study and prepare. That advice is given to twenty year olds as well. But it is doubly important for the older student.

Two: You have a much firmer grasp of time and the time you have left to not only pay back the loan but to do so with enough of an income to make it worthwhile. And like younger students, you need to balance the loan to potential income. According to the STudent Loan Network: "By keeping your borrowing to one year's salary, you're effectively dedicating 10% of your future income to repayment, which is a manageable amount of debt. Statistically speaking, graduates who have 10% or less of their income dedicated to debt repayment are able to manage their debts; those who exceed 15% of their income tend to default." And for the older worker, this calculation is incredibly difficult to make. There is no guarantee that you will get adequate compensation when you do get a job upon graduation.

Three: Your work ethic will actually work against you. You may have previously sleep-walked in your previous job, focused on  the daily grind with the least amount of energy. Re-prioritizing your life will come without the usual support groups afforded the younger student, you will need to build a self-centered support and wedge it into your regular routine. College for the older student requires an enormous amount of focus. There are some things that can help you keep the objective in reach and not lose your forward momentum. They include: staying organized, getting more sleep than you afforded yourself when you were working, and studying. The last may take a little re-learning so be sure to give yourself time to learn how to learn again.

If you are still working, don't become complacent. Continue to improve your chances and opportunities even if life has become somewhat complicated. Spending a little at a time is far wiser than borrowing a huge sum to attend college full-time. If you aren't working, keep in mind that even the best degrees don't always end up in the best paying jobs. Get as much counseling as you can before picking a course of study. Some job choices are fleeting or don't return in salary what you expect them to pay.

The popular notion is that we will work longer than our parents, postponing retirement beyond the age of 65. If that's the case, choose a career that gives you longevity in the workforce and not just something that provides a paycheck. And even if all it does is add ten-years to your mental health, it might be worth considering.

Paul Petillo is the Managing Editor of and a fellow Boomer.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Boomer Rollover Conundrum

Boomers will be retiring en masse in the coming years. And with that retirement comes options. For the first time their lives, they will be outside the comfortable boundaries of their employer's retirement plans and on their own. The choices are many and often confusing. That is why I thought it would be informative to discuss over the last couple of days, an option you may have considered.

Today on the Financial Impact Factor Radio with Paul Petillo, Dave Kittredge and Dave Ng we continue the discussion we began yesterday about self-directed IRAs. While having control over your retirement is important, how much risk is too much and who can handle the increased potential of loss or gain.

To listen to yesterday's show, click here.

Here are some outtakes from this conversation:

Yesterday we discussed a different corner of the retirement investment world when we talked about self-directed IRA. I suggested that “If there is one thing we all seem to be seeking and at the same time, remains as elusive it is control. Our investments often seem to want us to master its fate, as if simply involving yourself is enough.” T.S.Eliot seemed to agree although we all know he wasn’t talking about your retirement plans when he wrote: "Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far it is possible to go."

Jim Hitt of to discuss the IRA that you control. There is a lot left to be discussed it seems and little clarification is needed in advance. Jim is a third party administrator or TPA. We have had a few professionals who ply their trade as a go-between, somewhat detached from the other two parties but necessary in the legal and tax compliant execution of a retirement plan. Sometimes we need to be reminded that all retirement investments, 401(k)s, 403(b)s, IRAs in all their incarnations are essentially parts of the tax code. And I’d be willing to wager that when taxes are mentioned, there is a certain fear, perhaps caution that moves to the forefront. Self-directed IRAs are no different.

On numerous occasions, we have, in advance of a guest appearing on the show prepped the listening audience, discussed what we knew about the next day’s topic and did so in almost every instance, without the guest’s knowledge. Today, we’re going to look back.

Most of us have had out retirement plans nestled safely – and I’ll describe what I mean by safely in a moment – inside a 401(k). The way these plans are constructed give us a sense that someone else is watching over us. They choose the investments. They made the match. They suggested that they had a fiduciary responsibility to us. I asked Jim if he had just such a responsibility and he simply replied: no.

So we began the discussion there as I asked Dave and Dave if they would like to tell us what fiduciary responsibility is?

Now we all know that risk is something we need and knowing how much of a risk you can take is key in the way you execute your goals. But this is no easy task when it comes to this type of IRA. "Trust your own instinct, “ as Billy Wilder once said: “Your mistakes might as well be your own, instead of someone else's."

As Baby Boomers begin this massive wave of retirement, many are for the first time going to get their life’s retirement account to control. I was caught by one thing Mr. Hitt suggested as to the people who come to him: they come in good times and bad.

The risk of self-directing your IRA is there. Jim discussed using this money for real estate investment purposes, business opportunities and other investments such as gold, commodities, etc. And it all boils down to coordination.

Listen to Financial Impact Factor Radio with your hosts: Paul Petillo of and Dave Kittredge and Dave Ng of

The show is broadcast daily, online at 6amPST/9amEST.

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

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Retirement for Boomers: The Fitting Room Method

Sometimes, the message for Boomers is mixed in with a variety of other, often unrelated topics. But if you are like me, they exist in a subsurface thought, an attempt by my subconscious to always be searching for some clue, some answer, some key to this puzzle. 

Last night on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Charles Barkley, basketball star turned sportscaster offered his thoughts on retirement. Granted, professional athletes are hardly the poster boys and girls of those seeking to retire. They have made huge sums of money in a relatively short amount of time and retirement usually means a second, perhaps third career managing that money, be it a car dealership or real estate investments or sportscaster.

So they aren't usually who writers such as me profile as "retirees". And he wasn't directly speaking to Boomers. But he did make one comment that was noteworthy: "I was bored out of mind by the third month of retirement". (I'm paraphrasing of course but it was as close to the quote as I intend to get.) We spend so much of our time and mental effort focusing on the goal of retiring at whatever age we pick, that we seldom realize that for many of us, a whole lifetime may await us when we retire.

I know what you are already thinking: yes, you might live for an additional twenty or thirty years after retiring but they are hardly years of increasing quality. And as one well-to-do acquaintance recently suggested: "rich people never retire". So when I suggest that whole lifetime awaits you in retirement, the suggestion either falls on deaf ears or scares you more than you want to admit.

In reality, you will live at least an additional ten years after whatever date you pick to retire. While 75 or 80 doesn't seem to be that old, at least in the conversations I have overheard, it is. You are not the person you once were and the mechanized hum of that inner world of you is not humming along the way it did when you were forty. In fact, when you were forty you barely heard it. At sixty, your insides send you regular messages. At eighty, I imagine its a cacophony of sounds.

So have you asked yourself what retirement will really be like, beyond the dreams you may have harbored for most of your life? Have you equated what your body has told you about those dreams in some sort of altered wish? 

Probably not. What you may have thought would have been the ideal place to retire, the ideal lifestyle to live, may no longer be what you are capable of doing.

So you should try it on for size. First, the dream place. Warm climates attract your tired bones with thoughts of heat and sun and outdoor activities you may have enjoyed for week long vacations while you were working. Resort living is not the same as permanent residency. Many warmer, resort like climates offer an enticing postcard view of how you might end your days. But proximity to good medical care - even if you think you are healthy - should be a consideration.

Hawaii, for example is warm and tropical and part of the US. Medical care there is good. But the cost of living on the islands, and that includes medical, food and utilities, is almost twice the cost of living based on the whole of the contiguous US. Accumulate a month's worth of vacation and spend it in your dream locale before you retire. Many resort locations have rentals that are more residential and less beachfront. Families often seek these places out in the hopes of saving a few bucks. Compared to what it might cost to live there full-time, you will get a fairly accurate picture of the day-today expenses.

I have been an advocate for second careers for as long as I can remember. So try your second career out now. You may like where you live. It is close to friends and family, places you are familiar with and activities you enjoy. So take a month off and stay at home. Mr. Barkley said that by month three he was going crazy. And he had a good sum of money put away to indulge in whatever whim passed his way. You won't have that luxury - you'll be on a fixed income. A month should be enough on the average income to understand what you can do and what you can't afford to do. It will also give you the chance to work at career two.

Which brings me to the last part of my try it on for size. Your income will be fixed. Although in reality, it will be diminishing, which is fixed with minuses. Inflation, taxes and insurance will play a much more major role when it comes to your income. Yes it might be the same amount each month but each passing month will take a little piece of it. Try this concept on for size.

You could do a lot of positive things for yourself in 2012. But pretending to be retired, if only for a month, will give you some clear understanding of what retirement, at least the early years of it, will be like. Doing it while you are working gives you time to alter the course and embrace a new life while still living in your old one.

Paul Petillo is the managing editor of and a fellow Boomer

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Happy New Year's Boomers: Your Retirement Resolutions

To be a Boomer means many things. Even as our bodies age and our eyes lose some of their focus, one thing we can all see clearly, is our retirement. Are we really looking though?

Jimi Hendrix once wrote: "I used to live in a room full of mirrors; all I could see was me. I take my spirit and I crash my mirrors, now the whole world is here for me to see." When it comes to the reflection staring back at us, our retirement, like those images, are a search for imperfection. We don't look at ourselves to admire how good we look; we look for flaws. We don't imagine a future; we see the relics of past decisions.

If you consider yourself a Baby Boomer, the reflection in the mirror is an image that polarizes: we are comfortable in the what the future holds or we are worried. There is good reasons for this feeling of either hope or dispair, with no real middle ground. This group has seen the demise of the defined benefit plan (pensions) and the introduction of the defined contribution plan (401(k)). You have seen the greatest bull market in investing history and witnessed two major crashes that have rattled your confidence in the decade following. You are the first generation to realize that your future is in your hands and you were not ready for the responsibility.

If you are younger than a Boomer, you are the first  generation to have never seen any other opportunity to finance your future than with a 401(k). And you have come to realize that this is not the plan it was intended to be. 401(k) plans were not designed to be the one and only vehicle for retirement. We were sold a notion that this was the end-all-to-be-all plan that would afford us a better retirement than our parents only to find out that it hinged on two extremely volatile concepts: your ability to consistently earn money and your level of contribution. Your 401(k) became your anchor and your wings.

I imagine that many of you will look back on the highlights of 2011 and find yourself in either one or two camps: you were able to hold onto your job, pay your bills and put some money away for retirement or you will be looking back at a year of indecision, regret and the promise to do better in 2012. You may be celebrating simply getting through it or wishing it never happened. To that, I offer some simple resolutions to embrace in 2012.

One: Revisit your idea of retirement. You can promise to save more money for your future, increasing your contribution to your plan or perhaps, in the absence of a plan, begin one of your own using IRAs. But you do this without really looking at that future. Retirement will not be the same of any two of us. For some it will be a life of struggle, an ongoing effort to make ends meet when they may never  met while they were working. For some it will be the realization that the balance between the now and the future relies on a level of personal sacrifice we were smart enough to embrace while we were working. For others, it will simply be a resignation of sorts, a belief that it will never happen.

Retirement is three things: A time when we find new opportunities outside the confines of what we called a career, a place of unimaginable risk and/or a chance to take a breather. It is not a place of no work and all play. It is not a time spent waiting for the end to come. It is not what we imagine because, if we looked closely at that image we see flaws. So we don't look as closely at those who are retired, examine how they live and ask if this is what they had planned. In revisiting the idea of retirement, your concept of that future, consider looking closer. If you don't like what you see, resolve to change it. But don't look away.

Two: Don't reflect on what you've done. You made mistakes; we all have. Some of us took too much risk, some not enough. Some contributed as much to their retirement as their budgets allowed, others did not. Some of us made poor mortgage or credit decisions, others did not. No matter what you did or didn't do, looking back will not improve the look forward.

Looking forward doesn't mean turning your back on on any of those events. It means focusing all of your energy on fixing them. This is a twofold effort, the first being getting the budget you may not have in line with your paycheck and focusing on paying down your mortgage (keep in mind that even if your home is underwater - meaning your mortgage is greater than the value of the house itself - the interest you pay on than loan is eating away at your future invest-able or save-able dollars). Does this mean you should not put money away in a 401(k) plan and redirect every dollar to the day-to-day? Not at all. Keep in mind that a 5% contribution will, in almost every instance, not impact your take home pay.
Three: Don't over think the process. From every corner of the financial world you will hear: rebalance your 401(k). If you chose a minimum of four index funds spread across four sectors, or four ETFs that do the same thing, rebalancing is a waste of time. You diversify so you can capture ups in one market and downside moves in another and your contribution doesn't allow you to buy more when one market moves up and allows you to buy more when it goes down.

We want to think we are in control when in fact, the only thing you actually control is how much money you want to put in. Markets will do what they do best: move. It might be up one day and down the next. It doesn't really matter. What matters is that you do something and in 2012, it should be significantly more than you are doing now.

Four: Stop being selfless. One of the hurdles we are told, for women investors specifically, is their inability to put themselves before their family. This is a cause for concern of course but not  a disaster in the making. Take a good long and hard look at your family and ask yourself: could I spend my retirement years living with any of them? Do they want you to?

Five: Embrace the truth. Now there will be an increased amount of pressure from every financial professional to get advice on your investments. This educational effort will evolve in the next several years from long, drawn out seminars on how your 401(k) works to short, ADD friendly videos that last several minutes and offer key points on what to do. The truth still relies on your ability to put more money away. Five percent will net you 25% of your current take home in retirement. A ten percent contribution over the average working career will pay you about 50% of what you earn today in retirement. Fifteen percent contributed to a 401(k) plan with average (modest) historical returns will allow you to live on 75% of your current income. Can you handle that truth?

Six: Stop worrying about it. According to, you are killing yourself with worry. Michael Thomas writes: "Worrying leads to stress and stress has been linked with a number of health problems. People who suffer from high levels of stress are much more prone to cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal issues, weight problems and there has even been a link made between stress levels and certain cancers." Instead resolve to do more saving than you have ever done, spend less than you did last year and embrace the reality of what fixed income is. Retirement is fixed income. Resolve to live like that now.

Paul Petillo is the Managing Editor of and a fellow Boomer.