Financial Management and the Holidays: How to Win the Fourth Quarter

You’ve likely worked hard all year long to save and spend responsibly. But with the holidays right around the corner, you may notice that it’s not only the temperatures that are dipping—it’s also your bank account. Chances are, your heating bills aren’t solely to blame for those dwindling dollars. With so many opportunities to get into the spirit and celebrate, it’s not unusual to find oneself indulging—and expending—a bit too much. If that’s the case for you, you’re not alone. According to a recent Gallup poll, 33 percent of Americans expect to spend at least $1,000 on gifts—and those numbers continue to climb, with last year’s holiday spending projections exceeding every year prior. But just because the rest of the country is upping the ante on the most expensive time of the year doesn’t mean you have to.

In fact, to keep your household balance sheet in check, it’s essential to be conscientious about the last—but certainly not least important—quarter. But you don’t have to be a scrooge about it. There are plenty of ways to celebrate and enjoy without going wild. And when all is said and done, your wallet will thank you. Here are a handful of tips to come out of the fourth quarter on top:

  1. Prioritize: What do you find most meaningful about the holidays? Beautiful meals? Time with family and friends? A big-ticket gift that will bring you joy all year round? When you identify what’s important to you, you can allocate your resources accordingly.
  2. Set a budget: Determining how much you can afford to spend is always a good idea, no matter how much cash you’re working with. With a dollar amount in mind, you can avoid excessive purchasing and ultimately sail into January feeling gratified rather than guilty.
  3. Make a list and check it twice: With advertising reaching a fever pitch as the holidays near, it’s a good idea to settle on whom you’ll be buying for and what you plan to get them. Having gifts—and corresponding prices—in mind can help prevent impulse buys and last minute dashes to the store (or a certain buy-with-one-click online retailer).
  4. Treat yourself: Avoid feeling depleted financially or otherwise by doing your best to take care of yourself. Walks around the block, an hour alone with a book, and even a haircut are all free or low-cost ways to keep your sanity during an otherwise stressful time.

With a little bit of planning, you can conquer the holidays and win the fourth quarter, without losing an arm and a leg. For more information on managing your money anytime of year, visit debrabrede.com. 

Retired man doing pro bono work on computer

Pro Bono Work: The “Active” Retirement

What would you like to accomplish in retirement?  It’s a question I always ask my clients. My goal is to help them create a plan that feels both emotionally fulfilling and productive. Retirement offers incredible potential. For many people, it’s the first time in their adult lives when they don’t have a full slate of responsibilities—a desk to report to or kids to shuttle to and from school. And that means they can pursue wilder dreams than they may have had time for previously: building a non-profit to support the cause closest to their heart, traveling to exotic locales, or mastering the art of béchamel in a French culinary program, for example.  

But more often than not, when I ask about what they’d like to accomplish once they clock out for the last time, the response I get isn’t very… ambitious. Instead, most clients respond with, “Absolutely nothing.” They picture themselves spending their days lazing on a beach, putting in long hours on the putting green, or sailing into the sunset—perhaps with a grandchild or two by their side. And I don’t blame them. 

It makes perfect sense to fantasize about endless hours of rest and relaxation when you’re in the thick of your working years. But what most people don’t realize is that just a short time in, all of that R&R becomes a little routine—and that routine quickly turns to boredom. It’s then that a key truth becomes evident: When it comes to retirement, purpose is crucial. 

What does purpose look like? It’s different for everyone. But many find that integrating a little pro bono work into their regularly scheduled retirement programming makes a tremendous difference in their lives. 

With your bills paid and kids out of the house, retirement can be the perfect time to lend the skills you’ve honed over the course of your career to a worthy cause for little to no cost—particularly if you love what you do. 

I’ve watched so many clients find fulfillment through pro bono work. Attorneys who take on cases for people in need. Accountants who offer tax advice to organizations dedicated to the public good. Contractors who collaborate with other members of their community to build houses for the homeless. In the end, they found that it was about more than just doing good. It also gave them an opportunity to connect socially and use their minds and their bodies. It gave them a reason beyond early tee time to get up in the morning. And that is just priceless. 

For more information on how to build a meaningful retirement, check out my book, You’re Retired, Now What?

Retired couple on beach

Retirement: Defining Peace of Mind

Building a retirement plan is not a one-shot deal—at least not in my office. Crafting a plan that fits my clients’ needs takes multiple conversations, careful observation, and a personalized approach. But for that first meeting, I have a primary goal: to understand what peace of mind means to them. 

I don’t use the financial services industry’s generic risk profile questionnaire to do that. Why? Those questionnaires don’t account for the fact that emotions drive decision making. Without that important insight—along with the potential for clients to misunderstand some of the questions—it’s all too easy to end up with an incorrect risk profile, and thus, an inadequate plan. 

Instead, I apply a set of metrics that I have developed over more than three decades in this business and meetings with literally thousands of potential clients. My metrics provide me with everything I must know to do the best possible job for the client, whatever their circumstances may be. They take into account the reality that, while clients’ concerns are often similar, their situations are seldom the same. 

To determine how to establish peace of mind, I start by asking about their biggest fears.  When I know what keeps them up at night—the thought of running out of money, health issues, the cost of fulfilling their bucket list, and more—I can determine how to address it. 

Next, I ask how much retirement savings they would need to feel financially secure. Often, people don’t know. They have a number in their minds, but it’s not based on anything concrete. When we drill down and look at lifestyle, purpose, family obligations—the whole nine yards—that amount may be more or less than what they quoted. But here’s the thing: we actually figure it out

Another crucial question: What amount of income do you need to live comfortably? This can be tricky—we’re not talking about how much they need while they’re still working and contributing to a 401k. We’re talking about how much they need in retirement, when their circumstances may be different. 

Without answers to these questions, I can’t devise a plan—not a good one, at least.

Of course, that doesn’t stop many firms from doing so anyway. Some even use robots. Answer those generic questions, push a couple of buttons, and voila: your retirement plan is done. That may be just the right solution for a fast-food drive-through, but it’s certainly not the way to go for retirement planning—particularly if peace of mind is the goal. And it should be. 

My book, You’re Retired. Now What? provides more insight on creating a retirement plan that prioritizes peace of mind and personal success. You can learn more about it here.

If Money Were No Object, What Would You Do?

You may already be familiar with my retirement questions, the series of inquiries I use to identify my clients’ goals for life beyond work—as well as their hopes, dreams, and fears about it. With these queries, my goal is to custom-tailor a plan that works for them, one that is as emotionally satisfying as it is financially sustainable.

My questions run the gamut from practical to shoot-for-the-moon aspirational, and together, they provide a complete picture of what clients are looking for: a plan that will help them feel productive (a big issue for retirees), satisfied, and set to weather any financial circumstances that arise when they no longer have income from a regular job.

One of my favorite aspirational questions always gets an interesting response: If money were no object, what would you do?

Some people pledge that they’d buy their kids lofts in the most posh part of Manhattan with those imaginary dollars. Others ponder the possibility of fitting into a size two bathing suit, and the plastic surgery procedures necessary to make that happen. Still others wonder dreamily about the logistics of purchasing a 300-acre property upstate, complete with a bed and breakfast and working horse farm.

What’s the point of encouraging all of this wishful thinking? It’s actually two-fold: I get insight into the client’s biggest dreams, while they get a chance to ground themselves after traveling to the far end of their financial fantasies. Often, these questions help guide us toward an achievable goal that is somewhere in the middle, whether that’s contributing a set amount toward a down payment on a home for their children, investing in a little self care, or booking some riding lessons at the local stables.

With the aspirational version of their ideal retirement in mind, we can create powerful plan for long-term fulfillment.

Stock Market Cycles

What are Market Cycles and Why Do They Matter?

Do you like roller coasters? Whether the thought of climbing steep inclines only to plummet to new depths is thrilling or terrifying to you, I can tell you one thing: the average investor certainly doesn’t like those death-defying drops when it comes to the market. Just ask anyone who worked in the markets—or had money in them—during the global financial crisis of 2008, the tech bubble burst of 2000, or the “Black Monday” crash of 1987.

I can still hear those coaster-induced screams, not because the events themselves were particularly devastating—they weren’t (at least not for those of us who stayed in the markets and owned companies that were fundamentally sound)—but because they caused such hysteria. During those years, clients called me panicking on a daily basis. It was hard not to buy into their alarm, but I kept faith that we would ratchet our way back up.

Why? I understood market cycles. What is a market cycle, exactly? A period measured not by dates, but by market conditions. A cycle is considered complete, or “full,” when the market in question has gone from bull—a market in which prices are expected to rise—to bear, when those prices fall due to widespread investor pessimism, and back again to bull.

Although past performance is no guarantee of future results, I believe studying the history of the stock markets’ uptrends and declines can help one to better understand why staying invested for the long term can be beneficial.

Since the inception of the S&P 500 Index back in 1926, the market has gone through cycles, with average bull markets lasting 9.1 years and producing an average cumulative return of 476 percent, and bear markets averaging 1.4 years with loses totaling around 41 percent. [1] Yet with all these expansions and contractions, today we stand with a stock market valuation higher than it was when it started.

We may be on a roller coaster, but that roller coaster is on a mountain. There may be peaks and valleys along the way, but ultimately—at least to date—we’re still heading up.

Of course, successful investing requires an awareness of those peaks and valleys and careful analysis of opportunities. That is exactly what I do—and have done—every day of my working life, since 1985.

 


[1] Source: First Trust Advisors L.P, Morningstar. Returns from 1926-6/29/18. The S&P 500 index is an unmanaged index of 500 stocks used to measure large-cap U.S. stock market performance. Investors cannot invest directly in an index. Index returns do not reflect any fees, expenses, or sales charges. These returns were the result of certain market factors and events, which may not be repeated in the future. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Three Pillars of Strategic Wealth Management

Three Pillars of Strategic Wealth Management

I’ve blogged about fear’s influence on the decisions which individual investors often make, prompting them to sell when an issue is falling or buy when a stock is already near its peak.

It’s easy to say “stay the course” or “the market is just doing what it does.” But fear is not a light switch, something easily turned off. I reassure my clients by sharing with them my approach of strategic wealth management, which rests on three pillars:

  •   Real diversity of investments
  •   A safety net of bonds and cash, and
  •   Buying on weakness and selling on strength.

Like the analogy of the three-legged stool, each of my three pillars is critical to making the plans I enact for protecting and increasing my clients’ wealth “stand up.” I write much more about each in my book, “You’re Retired! Now What?” But here’s an overview:

 

Pillar #1: Real diversity of investments

I often structure portfolios with a combination of large, mid, and small-cap equities for long-term growth; bonds for potential income; and liquid assets—such as money markets, cash, and short-term treasuries—to meet more immediate expenses and income needs. 

Experience has convinced me that these can provide the most diversity when designing portfolios to help protect, grow, and distribute the wealth my clients will count on for retirement, and for the fiscal legacies (estates) they’ll leave behind. 

Equities offer real opportunity for growth. Bonds offer higher yields, but fluctuate in value. Cash, meanwhile, only fluctuates in relative value; its greatest strength is its stability.

 

Pillar #2: A safety net of bonds and cash

The fear I mentioned at the top of this post is real. 

Fanned by talking heads at the height of market corrections, downturns, or outright crashes, such fear has led some of my best clients to pull out of investments which, over the next weeks and months, have exceeded their price prior to that down day.

That’s what fear does—if we allow it to.

Fortunately, the vast majority of my clients understand that a reserve of four to five years in non-equity investments is their safety net. It also allows the final pillar of my approach to strategic wealth management to play its role: building wealth.

 

Pillar #3: Buy on weakness, sell on strength

When you buy a stock near its historic price peak (typically for fear of missing out), you take a big chance: that it will go higher still. Similarly, when a stock you own is falling but its fundamentals are strong, selling is the opposite of what you should do. 

The prudence of buying and selling at the right price and time extends beyond individual equities.

Through my broker/dealer, I offer a discounted class of mutual funds to my clients, at pricing that was once available only to large institutions. These funds are actively managed, and I add a further layer of management by watching the wider trends, and buying and selling the funds themselves based on what I see—and what more than 30 years in this business has taught me.

Strategic wealth management recognizes when an investment is at a place to take profits, and moves them into another that’s poised for growth.

These three pillars make doing so possible.

Case Studies in Portfolio Management

My approach to wealth management rests on something called strategic diversification. I know—we hear “diversify!” all the time. But what does that really mean? In my experience, it means a lot more than what many of my new clients have done up to the point of our first meeting. That matters because, done properly, strategic diversification has the potential to grow wealth not just as retirement nears, but throughout retirement.

The strategy hinges on active management of a portfolio’s investment allocation. If that sounds like a lot of work, it is. But I love doing it; it keeps me at the top of my game, and assures that I’m constantly fine-tuning my approach to helping clients pursue their dreams. At the core of strategic diversification is one question, which I ask of every client: “What can I do to give you confidence?”

Some want an annual phone call assuring them they are on track. Others take it (much) further. One guy said, “If you think I’m spending too much and at risk of running out of money, call me, AND follow up with a letter, in big red type, that says ‘DO NOT SPEND ONE DIME OVER THIS AMOUNT!’” And I’m fine with that. Sometimes the biggest threat to our wealth is us!

I’ve also had clients that I’ve spent a lot of time educating on the markets’ cycles, explaining that big single-day or multi-day losses are nothing to worry about, and the reasons why. I’ve built them a beautifully balanced portfolio, one I was confident would meet their retirement goals—only to have it decimated when they called my office and demanded I sell their holdings. Why? Because the financial news channels were having a doom-and-gloom field day over the latest downturn in the stock market. Which is just silly.

“Invest for the long haul,” like “diversify!,” is a mantra we hear all the time. Strategic diversification makes the daily swings of the market non-issues. It places your capital in positions that enable you to buy on weakness and sell on strength—not only while you’re still earning, but in retirement, too. I can always tell when a client really “gets” this: he no longer calls when one of his holdings drops.

Now understand, there’s nothing wrong with watching the markets, just like there’s nothing wrong with watching a football game. The risk is in reacting to them, and it makes no difference whether the news on Wall Street is “good” or “bad.” Either way, many individual investors tend to sell when their stocks are dropping or buy when they’re on the rise: the opposite, in either case, of what they should do. But strategic diversification—coupled with active portfolio management, enacted by a trusted advisor who works in your best interest—can leverage market cycles to your benefit. It can be a great way to protect and grow wealth.

Financial Planning

Leaving a Legacy: Tax and Estate Planning

There’s an assumption among the general public that, upon attaining a certain level of wealth (don’t ask me for numbers, because no one seems to know), they and their progeny are what is popularly referred to as “set for life.” 

Hogwash. If anything, wealthy people are more susceptible to losing substantial portions of their assets specifically because of their wealth. 

As one accumulates assets over time, the titling (ownership) of those assets is like an insect in amber—locked in, based on the letter of the law. This fact makes comprehensive tax and estate planning by qualified professionals essential for protecting one’s wealth, and for ensuring their ability to leave behind an estate, a legacy for future generations. 

Many married couples have joint accounts with rights of survivorship, set up with capital well below the federal estate tax exemption limit (known as the unified credit). Over time, however, that capital can appreciate sufficiently to exceed the limit. It’s an easy-to-overlook detail, a problem waiting to happen—especially for those trying to self-manage their tax and estate planning. 

In my book, You’re Retired. Now What? I share the story of a man who named his second wife as beneficiary on his IRA, after she promised to name his children (from his his first marriage) as her beneficiaries—the recipients of the remaining funds—upon her demise. But his children would learn the hard way that blood is thicker than water. 

After their dad passed, their stepmom changed the beneficiaries to her relatives, on what was now, by law, her IRA. The people whose futures the man had worked all his life to help secure received none of their father’s IRA funds. Oops.

I’ve seen enough in my 30-plus years in this industry to help clients avoid situations like these. Sadly, they happen all the time, and they don’t have to. In this case, a trust would have been my recommendation, and I’d have referred this man to an estate planning attorney to assure it was set up properly. 

Might it have caused friction between the couple? Indeed it may have. But if he’d explored setting up a trust and the stepmom protested, the man would have learned something important about her “investment” in the relationship. Painful as that might have been for a month or two, it may well have preserved the wealth he’d worked for, and assured that his kids received it.

Because I am no expert on tax or estate planning, I make referrals to specialists in those disciplines all the time, professionals with whom I have worked for years. When their work is done, I have them copy it to me, so both my practice and my client know exactly who owns what, and who we work for: the client himself.

The Emotional Pitfalls When Handling Money | Debra Brede

The Emotional Pitfalls When Handling Money

If you believe the discount brokerage houses—the E*Trades, allys, and Schwabs of the world—self-directed investing is the way to go. Save on fees! Invest for yourself! Blah, blah, blah. (And don’t even get me started on Jim Cramer.) Far be it from me to suggest that anyone not play with their money—provided they can afford to lose it. Few can, but many take the risk nonetheless. And lose.

Back in 1987, the late Martin Zweig appeared on the PBS show Wall $treet Week and told host Louis Rukeyser, “I haven’t been looking for a bear market per se… I’ve been really, in my own mind, looking for a crash, but I didn’t want to talk about it publicly because it’s like shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater.” The following Monday, the market took what remains its largest single-day percentage nosedive of all time: over 22 percent. All because some talking head scared the heck out of people. What was an individual investor, watching TV on a Friday night, after the markets had closed, supposed to do with Zweig’s warning? There was nothing they could do, and here’s what happened: Stocks began to sell off on Sunday night, as markets reopened in Asia, then in Europe. Come Monday on Wall Street, the Dow fell at the open, and continued its plunge throughout the day, with trading volume at unprecedented levels.

Armed only with the old Wall Street adage, “buy low, sell high,” what chance does a self-directed investor have? Even those who hold firm to that advice risk a crash every bit as devastating as that which befell thousands in October 1987. The reason? Trying to time transactions, which that old adage leads countless individuals to attempt. But think about what’s actually required to succeed in that, on a regular basis. You must get your transactions right not once, but twice, on the way in and the way out. And you must do so much more often than not. Good luck—especially once emotions come into play. They inevitably do, because every market brings moments of doom and gloom, and, as Alan Greenspan once said, of “irrational exuberance.” Both play on your emotions and drive bad decisions.

Everybody knows a crash or a correction is coming. But who knows when? We also know it’s possible to time stock purchases and sales perfectly. It’s just not probable. And so, just as the defendant who opts to represent himself has a fool for an attorney, so too the wealthy person, who thinks they can manage that wealth without help, risks it—needlessly.

When A Blue-Chip Stock Suddenly Isn’t

Many self-directed investors like to buy blue-chip issues: high-value stocks that regularly pay dividends, and whose companies are so integral to the global economy that holding them seems as safe as putting money in the bank, with much better returns practically guaranteed.

         Not so fast.

         In 1999, we got a stark reminder of the fallacy of such assumptions. It took down a company whose divisions were so ubiquitous across the American landscape that they conjured a sense of permanence rivaled only by major geographic features. There was the Mississippi River. The Rocky Mountains. The Grand Canyon.

         And there was General Electric.

         For 111 years, GE was one of the several companies whose performance was gauged by the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA). It practically defined the term “blue-chip stock.” Yet in June of 2018, it was removed from the DJIA, and as I write, GE stock sits at less than 25 percent of its August 2000 high. Some are now wondering if the company itself will survive.

         What happened?

         Across those years on the Dow, GE successfully diversified into smaller sub-companies within the (much) larger parent organization. Those multiple business lines touched, quite literally, every sector of the global economy. GE’s wide range of markets was a primary reason it kept its place on the Dow.

         It was also why many saw GE as a no-lose investment. In one company, they reasoned, they could achieve the kind of diversification that assures stability in bad times and growth when times are good. Those who work for a titan of industry like GE, and acquire company stock regularly as part of their 401(k), can be even more susceptible to notions of “their” company’s invincibility.

         And thus the trap is set. I refer, of course, to the all-your-eggs-in-one-basket trap.

         General Electric stock began a steady climb in the mid-90s, topping out in August 2000 at $58.17 a share—a more than threefold increase in just over three and a half years. But what the average self-directed investor did not know was that the majority of GE’s profits were coming from just two of its divisions. It only took the failure of only one, its financial services side, for GE’s share value to plummet.

         Those heavily invested in the company paid dearly. I share the story of one such investor in my book, “You’re Retired. Now What?” It also details the contrarian approach I take to structuring strategic investment portfolios which are truly diversified. It is no easy job, but I do it with one objective in mind: protecting and growing my clients’ wealth.

         You can learn more about the book here.