The Investment Risk-Return Correlation

Q: Pam asks, “After my portfolio value dropped by 40%, I panicked and pulled out of the stock market. I have $150,000 sitting in my savings account, earning squat. I know I should put it back to work, but with the state of our economy, I don’t know what to do with it. Any thoughts?”

A: If you’re terrified of the volatile economic climate today and would be an insomniac if you were invested in the market, perhaps it’s best to keep it parked until you are emotionally and behaviorally ready to stomach the ride and stick to a strategy. Preserve your capital while you take some time to reassess your goals and risk tolerance, determine an appropriate (perhaps more conservative) asset allocation, and explore various investment strategies to find a good fit for your goals and personality.

First, let’s address the risk-return correlation. In subsequent posts, I’ll tackle the other pieces.

Generally speaking, the goal of an investor is to be compensated for the amount of risk they take. Better yet, the investor seeks out the best risk-adjusted return — I’ll discuss this piece later.

If you are willing to accept high volatility (investment risk) for a high potential return, consider investing in a diversified portfolio of:

  • aggressive growth funds
  • small cap stocks and funds
  • micro-cap stocks and funds
  • foreign company stocks
  • international funds
  • sector funds
  • precious metal funds
  • emerging market funds

If you are willing to accept moderate volatility (investment risk) for a moderate potential return, consider investing in a diversified portfolio of:

  • large cap stocks and funds
  • S&P 500 and Wilshire 5000 index funds
  • convertible bonds
  • high-yield (junk) bond funds

If you are willing to accept low volatility (investment risk) for a low potential return, consider investing in a diversified portfolio of:

  • high quality short and intermediate term municipal and corporate bonds and bond funds
  • US savings bonds
  • Treasury bills and notes
  • fixed annuities
  • money market mutual funds

If you are willing to accept very low volatility (investment risk) for a very low potential return, consider investing in a diversified portfolio of:

  • CD’s (Certificates of Deposit)
  • money market deposit accounts
  • interest-earning checking accounts
  • savings accounts

The Story of Goldilocks and the Three Retirement Contributions

Goldilocks and the Three Bears

By Jen Smith, The Millionaire Mommy Next Door

Once upon a time, Goldilocks went for a walk.  Pretty soon, she came upon her bank.  She asked the bank teller for her retirement account balance and when she was shown the number, she wept.

Goldilocks returned home to assess her budget and see where she could come up with some extra money to make regular IRA contributions. She thought about quitting her latte habit. $3 saved per day could grow to $177,706 in thirty years.

“This idea is too soft!” she exclaimed.

So she returned to her budget and considered cutting her housing and utility expenses in half by downsizing to a much smaller home. $1200 saved per month could compound into $2,389,653 in thirty years.

“This idea is too hard,” she said.

So she returned to her budget and took aim on her transportation costs. If she sold her car and used her city’s excellent public transportation system instead, she could save $780 per month. In thirty years, her retirement fund could blossom into $1,553,275.

“Ahhh, this idea is just right,” she said happily. Goldilocks sold her car, walked back to her bank, and made a contribution to her retirement account.

Thirty years later, Goldilocks retired, and lived happily ever after.


For illustration purposes, results were calculated at 10.00% ROI compounded annually. The actual rate of return is largely dependent on the type of investments you choose. Over the most recent 30 year span, from January 1, 1980 to December 31, 2009, the compound annual growth rate (annualized return) for the S&P 500, including reinvestment of dividends, was 11.29% (source). Total savings are calculated in actual dollars (not inflation-adjusted). A common measure of inflation in the U.S. is the Consumer Price Index (CPI), which has a long-term average of 3.1% annually (from 1925 through 2008).

You Don’t Need A Broker: 9 Keys to Investing Successfully On Your Own

I’m sure there are investment brokers worth their high commissions and fees, but I haven’t experienced one. I burned through five brokers before realizing that no one cares as much about my money and my future as I do. Brokers are salespeople. Naturally, they care more about their bottom line than mine.

Most people I coach don’t realize that they’ve been paying a 5-6% sales commission every time they buy new mutual fund shares because the commission is built into the price, making it difficult for the investor to “see” it. And paying a sales commission has nothing to do with the performance of a fund; you aren’t buying a better fund simply by virtue of paying more for it.

Each year, I’d compare my broker-managed portfolio’s performance with the stock market indexes (Wilshire 5000, S&P 500, Dow Jones Industrial Average, NASDAQ, MSCI EAFE, etc.). I found that despite paying a decent sum to brokers for their expertise, my portfolio usually under-performed the standard index benchmarks. In 1999, I decide that it was worth my time and energy to learn how to manage my own investment portfolio. My efforts have paid off very handsomely. Here’s a down-n-dirty summary of what I’ve learned:

1. Start Today

Start as early as possible to take advantage of the astounding power of compounding growth. By reinvesting the gains you receive from the money you invest, you can double your money in less than eight years assuming a 10% average annual return. Take a look at the following example, then try this calculator to see how much postponing your savings plan could cost you.

Start Now:
Save $10,000 per year for 30 years
@ 10% annual rate of return
= $1,809,434 ending balance

Start Later
Postpone saving for 10 years, then save $10,000 per year for 20 years
@ 10% annual rate of return
= $630,025 ending balance

Cost of waiting = $1,179,409

2. Put Your Investment Contributions on Auto-Pilot

Instruct your bank to automatically transfer at least 10-20% of your gross income to your investment account each month. If you don’t think you can afford to do this then you can’t afford your lifestyle! Get creative, cut expenses elsewhere, and start paying yourself first.

3. Maximize Retirement Account Contributions

How taxes are applied to an investment can make a big difference in the long run. There are tax advantages to retirement accounts which is why (in most cases) you should maximize your contributions to these accounts first, then add to your taxable accounts. Additionally, some employers match your contributions — which equals free money. This calculator compares a normal taxable investment to two common tax advantaged situations: 1) an investment where taxes are deferred until withdrawals are made, and 2) an investment where taxes are paid on money that goes into the account but all withdrawals are tax free.

4. Be Mindful of Fees and Do It Yourself

Invest $10,000 each year and use a broker to place your order and you might pay $575 per year in sales commissions. Alternatively, learn to place investment orders yourself and your commission savings, compounding 10% annually, would be an extra $104,042 in your pocket in 30 years. Invest in a low-cost equity portfolio using no-load mutual funds, Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) and index funds. Even a small difference in the fees you pay on your investments add up over time. Use this calculator to see how different fees can impact your investment returns.

5. Diversify and Build a Balanced Portfolio

Speculative investments are like eggs: when they fall, they make a mess. Don’t place your bet on a single stock or sector. Spread your risk into a variety of market caps and styles as well as domestic, foreign and emerging markets. Proper diversification helps your portfolio weather any ups and downs the market can take. Asset allocation accounts for 94% of the variation in portfolio returns, while market timing and stock picks account for only 6% (Gary Brinson, Randolph Hood and Gilbert Beebower). Review and rebalance your portfolio annually to maintain your desired allocation percentages. The Asset Allocator calculator is designed to help you create a balanced portfolio of investments. Your age, ability to tolerate risk, and several other factors are used to calculate a desirable mix of stocks, bonds and cash.

6. Don’t Invest Money You Can’t Afford To Lose

Rises and falls in the stock market are normal and frequent. Don’t invest your emergency fund into the stock market because you don’t know when you’ll need to use it. Money you may need within the next few years doesn’t belong in the stock market either. Investing for portfolio growth is your long-term goal.

7. Cover Your Ass

Protect your growing wealth with adequate insurance. The number one cause of bankruptcy is major medical expenses. In addition to medical insurance, consider coverage for disability, life (consider a term policy rather than whole life), auto, homeowner/renter, business, and personal liability. Buy policies with the highest deductible you could afford to cover from your emergency fund — and invest what you save from the reduced rates.

8. Understand Your Assets and Liabilities

Most people consider the home they live in as an asset but the truth is, it’s a liability. And if you are counting on future home appreciation, it’s speculation. Stop thinking of your home as a savings account. Don’t believe the sales-pressure hype that homeownership is your best investment: you’re spending money on a property that isn’t producing income. If you insist on owning real estate as a part of your investment portfolio, buy an investment property that produces a positive monthly cash flow.

If you’re finding it difficult to squeeze your budget for investment contributions, downsize to a smaller home. Invest any remaining home equity, plus your new-found monthly savings, into your long-term-growth portfolio.

9. Don’t Invest Until You Understand

Question every piece of advice you are given through the filter of “what’s in it for them?” Unfortunately, there is no shortage of people who are skilled at separating you from your hard-earned money. It pays to be suspicious. If you aren’t committed to learning how to self-manage your investments, consider hiring a FEE-ONLY financial adviser (rather than a commissioned-sales broker) to assist you.

What I’ve offered today is a summary. I’ve shared my opinions and experiences. But don’t just take my word; ask questions and read investing books and web sites. Learn about different investing strategies and styles, assess your own personal risk tolerance, make a plan, then stick to it. Use your head — not your emotions — to guide your decisions. Practice investing first, using virtual online applications (not real money), as you wean off of your high-commission broker.


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Do you know how many dollars your spare room is costing you?

Do you have a guest room but few friends? (sorry.) A formal dining room that looks pretty because it rarely sees a crumb? A formal living room that only gets walked through on the way to your home’s hub: the kitchen and family room? Spare rooms… you dust them, vacuum them, furnish them, paint them, fuss over them… but rarely do you LIVE in them.

How many dollars does a spare room cost?

I pondered this question during our walk to our neighborhood park today. Our condo is surrounded by large suburban homes. Each home statistically has an average of 2.5 people living in it. I suppose the poor little 0.5 member is missing a few body parts. Probably from all that excess dusting. I digress. I look at these gigantic homes and wonder how many of their rooms get LIVED in on a daily basis versus how many sit pretty all day long but never see any true love.

So being the environmentally sensitive money gal that I am, I crunched some numbers today to see if I might encourage a few folks to join me in downsizing to a just-the-right-size home.

For those of you that don’t enjoy numbers as much as I do, I’ll get to the punchline pronto:

In my neighborhood, a typical 12′ x 12′ spare room (guest room, formal dining room, whatever) could cost about $350,000 EACH over the course of a 30 year mortgage!

Mommy’s Million Dollar Recipe: Dusty Room Dump-lings

Downsize your home by 432 square feet (three 12’x12′ rooms)
Which will reduce your monthly housing expenses by $530 a month
And invest your monthly savings into a diversified investment portfolio
Yield: Over one million dollars ($1,000,000) in 30 years!

For my fellow number nerds, here’s the assumptions I used for my calculations:

12′ x 12′ = 144 square foot spare room
Typical cost of housing per square foot (in my location) = $150
= $21,600 cost per spare room
@ 5.5% mortgage interest rate for 30 year fixed
= $122.64 month / room in principal and interest cost
+ $18 / month / room in property taxes (1% of value annually)
+ $9 / month / room in homeowner’s insurance (0.5% of value annually)
+ $27 / month / room in allowance for periodic maintenance, repairs, remodeling (1.5% of value annually)
= $176.64 / month / room…
…NOT including extra utility expense or furnishings
+ lost opportunity cost of $176.64 savings invested at 10% long-term compounding average annual return for 30 years (mortgage term)
= $348,692 TOTAL PER SPARE ROOM (x 3 rooms = $1,046,076)

So what do you think? Is this million dollar recipe worth dumping a spare room or three?

Why I’m Waiting Until After 2012 To Buy A Home

The real estate and mortgage industries are trying hard to convince us that NOW is a good time to buy a home. They use low mortgage interest rates and the soon to expire First-time Homebuyer Tax Credit program (which I qualify for since I’ve purposely been a renter for the last 6 years) as their rationale.

Don’t expect unbiased advice from salespeople! What most won’t fess up to is that if I (or you) buy a home now, we’ll likely be throwing our precious money away because home prices are still under great pressure. I’ll wait until the knife stops falling, thank you very much.

We are done with subprime resets but… pay attention… there is a second wave of mortgage resets to endure. What is a mortgage reset? It’s when the homeowner, who bought a house with a low “teaser rate” and planned to refinance when the house price went up, gets a new payment that is far higher (not always, but usually). Many homeowners can’t afford these resets, especially with unemployment and underemployment rates at these levels. Lenders are cautious and tightening their underwriting guidelines so refinancing may not even be possible for many borrowers.

The first wave of resets was subprime. The subprime wave is over. Whew! That hurt! But Alt-A and Option ARM resets aren’t over and combined, they represent a much larger category of mortgages than subprime. Most of these mortgages are already underwater: the home has negative equity; the home is worth less than the mortgage owed. The combination of resets plus the underwater status will likely add fuel to defaults and foreclosures, putting yet more downward pressure on home prices.

Some argue that the problem with adjustable rate mortgages resetting to higher payments isn’t as important now because many of those loans defaulted early. Even so, we still face the major problem of shadow inventory: distressed mortgages facing foreclosure and bank-repossessed properties that have not yet reached the market. At the current rate of sales, it could take almost 9 YEARS to sell off all the foreclosed homes in banks’ possession, plus all the homes likely to end up there over the next couple years (according to LPS Applied Analytics).

Another knife that has the potential of slashing home prices further is the increasing prevalence of walkaways (strategic defaults): the decision by the borrower to stop making payments on a mortgage despite having the financial ability to make the payments. Walkaways happen after a substantial drop in the house’s price. The borrower is underwater so she decides to free herself from the burden of mortgage debt. Once free of the mortgage, she is free to use her income for other expenditures. The borrower, after deciding to not make payments any more, can live free of the costs of mortgage payments until the lender forecloses — which may take the lender from several months to years!

A study in September 2009 from the credit reporting agency Experian and consulting outfit Oliver Wyman estimated that close to a fifth of troubled mortgages in the U.S. involved borrowers who were strategically defaulting. While I haven’t looked for a more recent statistic, I can only guess that this number will climb as more homeowners get mad at Wall Street and as walkaways become less morally and ethically charged.

I’ve been told by countless Realtors that I should buy a home NOW because having been a renter for the past 6 years, I qualify for the First-Time Homebuyer’s Tax Credit. But what do you think will happen to house prices once the tax credit incentive expires? I’d say houses will not sell as well as they have lately (with the credit artificially propping the market up) which will increase the supply of homes on the market… and push down on prices.

I’ve also been told by Realtors that I should buy a home NOW because mortgage interest rates are so low. But I don’t worry about rates because I have the cash to purchase our next home outright if the interest rates move up. Even if I did need a loan it wouldn’t change my mind because as Patrick Killelea astutely points out,

It is far better to pay a low price with a high interest rate than a high price with a low interest rate, even if the mortgage payment is the same either way.

  • Your property taxes will be lower with a low purchase price.
  • A low price gives you the ability to pay it all off instead of being a debt-slave for the rest of your life.
  • As interest rates fall from high to low, house prices increase.
  • Paying a high price now may trap you “under water”, meaning you’ll have a mortgage larger than the value of the house. Then you will not be able to refinance because there you’ll have no equity, and will not be able to sell without a loss. Even if you get a long-term fixed rate mortgage, when rates inevitably go up the value of your property will go down. Paying a low price minimizes your damage.

Additionally, if interest rates rise, the number of borrowers who can qualify for a higher mortgage payment will drop. Less qualified buyers in the market means… you got it… more downward pressure on home prices.

In summary, I see no rational or compelling reason to buy a home right now. 2012 or after? We’ll see!

Note: This post was featured in the most creative Carnival of Personal Finance I’ve ever read — check it out! The Origin of the Piggy Bank by Well-Heeled Blog

Don’t miss anything: Subscribe to receive free email or RSS notifications whenever I publish a new blog post. No spam, no risk, and it is easy to unsubscribe should you ever change your mind. Follow me on Twitter (@MillionMommyND) where I share interesting articles, opinions, quotes, tips and other bite-sized tidbits relevant to success, happiness and financial freedom.

Save Money and Our Earth

My family’s values-driven lifestyle of voluntary simplicity is great for our wallet and the environment. Some of our frugal choices make a really BIG impact, like how my husband and I have shared one vehicle since getting married 23 years ago. Carpooling cuts down on carbon emissions and as I calculated for you in a previous post, sharing one car instead of owning two can make anyone a millionaire in 29 years.

The little choices we make count, too. Frugality is the art of resourcefulness. Wear it out, use it up, repurpose it! Take the life of one of my t-shirts for example:

  1. I get a free t-shirt as a promotional giveaway.
  2. While the t-shirt is new, bright and crisp, I wear it.
  3. As the t-shirt fades from frequent washings, I wear it in the garden or to the dog park.
  4. Laundered a few more months and it gets super-comfy-soft. Now it becomes my cozy sleep shirt.
  5. Once my spouse gets over the thrill of my thread-bare-wee-bit-see-through sleep shirt and then starts poking fun at it, I cut it into squares and my free t-shirt becomes lint-free cleaning rags.

Today is Earth Day. What are you doing EVERY day, both big and small, to help our Earth and your wallet?

Pay Mortgage Early? Financial Freedom Definition? How To Land A Job? It’s Q and A Time!

Wow. Thanks for all the curious/concerned emails lately asking, Where are you? All okay? It feels awesome to be missed :>) I’m fine; just took a blogging break. Actually, I’ve been writing a quite a bit lately, just not here… forums, media inquiry replies and interviews, a book proposal and outline, coaching followups, storybooks with my kiddo… Frankly, my backside couldn’t bear another minute sitting in front of the keyboard! It hasn’t been all writing though — I’ve been having tons of fun too: several house guests, Chinese New Year parties, homeschooling with my voracious little learner, raising and training ten baby parakeets (my hubby calls it our 4-H-in-the-condo project). But I have missed my blogging friends! So without further ado, I will pull some interesting questions from my inbox and respond to them here. Identifying details have been changed or removed. Feel free to add your suggestions in the comments as I’m sure these folks would appreciate alternate viewpoints.

Q: Carolyn asks, “For the past two years I have enjoyed your emails. My savings has grown from an average $1,500 to $35,000. I have committed to saving a set amount but also some unexpected money has come my way which I have saved all of it. I think changing your mindset along with action and education has contributed to my money growth. My next step is to pay my mortgage off early. Any suggestions?”

A: Awesome progress, Carolyn. Congratulations! While I don’t know all of the pertinent details about your financial situation, I feel compelled to share this: In my opinion, paying a mortgage off early is one of the very last steps most should take in their financial life. Why? Because there are many other money matters that take a higher priority. As a general rule of thumb, here’s the order of financial steps I typically recommend:

First: Pay off “toxic debt”: start with credit cards and loans that charge the highest interest rates (because you’ll save money), and those with account balances that hover closest to maximum credit limits (because it’ll improve your credit score). Raise quick cash immediately by selling stuff you no longer need, want or use.

Second: After you’ve paid off all debt balances with interest rates over 8-10%, start saving at least 15% of every dollar earned to build an emergency fund equal to 6-12 months of take-home income.

Third: Once your emergency fund is complete, start investing AT LEAST 10% of your monthly gross income in a diversified portfolio of no-load mutual funds, ETF’s, stocks, bonds. Start with your tax-advantaged retirement account(s).

Fourth: Get cracking on any remaining lower-interest rate (below 8-10%) debt balances.

Finally: Paying off the mortgage would be the last financial task on my list, especially if the mortgage rate is reasonable. Better yet, if I had a home with a mortgage and I was seriously in debt, I’d sell my home to pay off my debt with the equity. Besides, renting is often cheaper than buying!

Q: These days, simply being a (one) millionaire is not enough to be financially free, depending on ones age. Unless universal healthcare is achieved and unless I learn to cut back on expenditures, I think I would need 2.5 million to be financially free. At least. I don’t see that happening unless 1) we inherit a bunch of money or 2) my husband works another 15 years (minimum) AND the stock market behaves. He has a good job, we have a nice, recently remodeled home plus a small vacation cabin, and we have an emergency cash stash. I don’t want to have to buy a new car for a few years because we pay cash for cars and I don’t want to see the emergency fund take a nosedive. Good thing I love my 10 yr. old minivan! Anyway, how much do you think it takes to be financially free? ~K

A: You’re concerned about how many digits sit in front of your six $0’s and how the stock market behaves. Your husband is employed, you have two homes, a car and an emergency fund in place. In many people’s eyes, you already have financial freedom!

There is no one-fits-all magic financial freedom number. To some $50,000 sounds like a dream come true and to others 50 million wouldn’t be enough. To lots of people I’ve come across, simply breaking free from their paycheck to paycheck existence, or the shackles of debt repayment, or sleeping well at night because they have an emergency fund and a contingency plan in place is enough to make them feel financially free. Personal finance is called personal because it is so, well, personal.

Traditionally, many define financial freedom as having enough passive income that you no longer need to work; your passive income covers your living expenses. Funny thing with this definition is that there are so many variables contained within: What do you consider passive? Is it investing in CD’s, stocks, or a business? How about getting paid for “work” that you love so much that you would do it even if you didn’t get paid? What are your living expenses? Can they be reduced substantially? Can some be eliminated entirely? What if you sold your home(s), invested the equity, and moved to Mexico or Thailand or somewhere else where living expenses are dramatically less than in the US? Again, so much of this is personally defined.

My husband and I consider ourselves financially free because our family hasn’t set an alarm clock in years. Whether it be work, parenting or play, we wake with the sun, eager to spend each new day doing whatever we choose. This definition affords us the flexibility we value, therefore, regardless of the exact numbers on our net worth statement, we have “enough”.

Q: CarA writes, “I love your entire story! You’ve made some great moves throughout your life. I’m curious, how hard (or was it all hard) to talk your husband into selling your home? Did he just have complete faith in you? Or was it a joint effort? Just curious because you said so many around you were skeptical of selling your home to rent.”

A: Ha! It was INCREDIBLY difficult for my husband to jump on board with my plan. I’d crunch the numbers, craft reams of brilliant spreadsheets and grinning from ear to ear, I’d enthusiastically share my financial freedom plan. He’d remark (skeptically), “If it’s really that easy, why isn’t EVERYONE doing it, Jen?” I think the biggest obstacle for him was getting over what everyone else would think about our choice to rent. We sold when the market was hot and everyone thought real estate was THE best place to invest. Remember the days when the mantra was “real estate prices may flatten but they never go down”? Our friends and family questioned my logic. Fortunately I’m not easily deterred and my husband trusts me. But it took a lot of effort on my part to show him the numbers in such a way that he got it, too. And he had to get over his concern about what others thought about it. I gave him the time and space to deal with those issues and I reminded him that renting didn’t need to be a permanent choice.

Today he recommends renting to all his friends. I think he loves looking so smart for getting out before the market crashed :>)

Q: I follow your blog and love all the insight you share with us. Lately, there has been a lot of talk about inflation and hyperinflation heading our way in 2010. Can you offer us some insight, tips to prepare for this? Angeli

A: I wrote about this topic in June 2009 here: Hyperinflation or Prolonged Deflation? Coping and Investing Strategies For Either Scenario. The market is being so manipulated that it’s anyone’s guess what will happen, but I still think that inflation is a ways off; deflation is our first concern. Also, check my Resources page for links to web sites that focus on the economy. I follow many of these debates and only one thing is clear to me — no one really knows how to get us out of this mess. My primary goal at this point is my personal capital preservation.

Q: This spring, I will be a new college graduate. Like thousands of others, I’ll be facing a brutal job market. Any tips? Lisa

A: Get your foot in the door, Lisa. Work to get noticed rather than to get paid. Ideally you do this while pursuing your degree — if not, start now:

  • Shadow those who are doing what you want to do so that you see first hand what is involved in your chosen field.
  • Hook up with a mentor who can show you the ropes and introduce you to others who can hook you up with a job.
  • Get noticed by those in your field: volunteer
  • Negotiate an unpaid apprenticeship: offer your services in exchange for hands-on learning experiences. This is how I learned how to train dogs, teach classes, and became a professional dog training instructor and business owner.
  • Get creative: find a problem, see it as an opportunity, and present the solution. Create your own job or business!
  • Take the time to brainstorm, journal, and bounce ideas off of supportive “can-do” people.
  • Take an honest look at your lifestyle and eliminate or cut back on anything that is superfluous. Create some financial breathing room.

Readers, I welcome your viewpoints and advice in the comments. Please send me your questions, too, and I’ll respond to more. Thanks!