The pretirement or FIRE community seems to be mostly a do-it-yourself culture, regarding personal finance. I enjoy sharing notes and learning from the avid posters on Early-Retirement.org and the Bogleheads Forum. Many of those folks are highly knowledgeable and skilled investors who know what they are doing. These smart people know that, despite the Hollywood trope of the successful stock trader as a hyperactive workaholic, usually the best way to make money in the markets is to do…absolutely nothing. Multiple studies show that investors do better when they create long-term plans, set an intelligent highly diversified asset allocation, then leave it all alone to compound.
If you are a person who knows a lot about investing in stocks and bonds in all of their flavors and yet can set your asset allocation and then not touch it for one or two decades, then hats off to you. That is not me, however. The more I learn about the markets, the more I am tempted to fiddle with my asset allocation in an attempt to optimize my portfolio based on the latest book I’ve read or piece of knowledge I think I’ve learned, which is exactly how mistakes are made and sub-par investing results earned.
I don’t want to make mistakes, which is one of the main reasons we’ve chosen to use a financial advisor to manage our assets. However, we haven’t chosen just any advisor on the street, because the investing world is full of bad advice. I’ll probably write multiple posts about my strong belief in The Vanguard Group, which is a coop owned by its mutual fund shareholders, rather than owned by some rich family or a financial conglomerate that is primarily responsible to Wall Street. No, Vanguard is responsible to my wife and me. That makes it unique. Thanks to its shareholder-focused model, it has also become the largest mutual fund company in the world. I am in no way paid to say any of these favorable comments about Vanguard but, they are different. If you don’t already know about Vanguard, do yourself a favor and study them.
Vanguard owns a planning subsidiary, called Vanguard Advisors, Inc. It exists solely to help Vanguard clients, like my wife and me. Vanguard’s Personal Advisor Services (PAS) program runs the gamut from simply consulting with clients to create investment plans that clients implement themselves to completely managing a person’s portfolio with an assigned Vanguard Personal Advisor. This is the route we have taken in pretirement and we are happy we did. Here are some key reasons why:
- My investor psychology is simply different during this new Spending Phase. When my wife and I were just working and saving, investing was pretty easy. We each contributed automatically at our work places in funds that had really high allocations to stocks and then we basically did nothing but watch the balances grow. My wife and I are now tiptoeing into the Spending Phase and it feels completely different to actually need to consume some of the milk our herd of mutual fund cows produces. Earlier in this phase, I found myself checking balances constantly instead of annually, worrying more about daily swings in the market and, worst of all, making some modest changes in our portfolio due to my emotional reactions to global events, like elections or my perception of where the economy lies in the business cycle. That’s certifiably dumb. Even though I made no huge mistakes, I know I shouldn’t fiddle. I found that I was becoming an active investor, convincing myself that I was smart enough to time the markets here and there. Turning over our assets to an objective manager, who is in regular consultation with us, made the fiddling stop, which is to say my potential for making mistakes was removed. Our portfolio is a globally diversified, low cost stew of about 55% stock index funds and 45% bond index funds.
- Vanguard is smarter than me. Vanguard spends millions and millions of dollars to provide its clients the optimal investing experience with regard to asset allocation, tax-efficiency, fees, projecting how much we can spend sustainably from our portfolio, and a myriad of other factors. I could spend all of my free time becoming expert in those and many other disciplines, as many people on the above-mentioned forums seem to enjoy doing, yet I still wouldn’t be nearly as smart about any aspect of investing as Vanguard’s people and software. I’m at least smart and humble enough to know that.
- Rebalancing is assured. Rebalancing is not difficult to do. I could, and did, rebalance our asset allocation before we hired our Vanguard advisor to do it for us. We have all recently been living through one of the longest bull markets in history, when investing mistakes have actually been difficult to make. But here’s the thing I have significant self-doubt about: When our stock funds inevitably tank again when the business cycle changes, and when the economic news is terrible, with people losing their jobs, businesses imploding and our portfolio shrinking, will I be able to do the annual rebalance? Meanwhile, as stocks are in retreat, our bond funds will likely remain content as a patch of flowers finally enjoying their day in the sun, maybe falling a little at first as panicked investors sell everything and move to cash, but then perhaps growing as the Fed cuts interest rates to stimulate lending to spur the ailing economy. In that emotional environment, will I have the guts to do what I need to do, which is sell my bonds to buy more stocks? Maybe. I’ve invested right through sharp bear markets before and didn’t flinch that much. However, we now have a lot invested and, as I said, we’re depending on it more. I know myself well enough to question whether I would do what needs to be done when the tide next turns. My Vanguard advisor, however, won’t hesitate to aim right for the jugular of those big fat happy bonds and trade them for scary, depressed stocks, right on schedule. That certainty is worth paying him for.
- My wife is more included than ever before. “I trust you to manage our money” was the blessing and curse of my days taking the lead financially while we built our nest egg. She has saved up about a third of what we have, so it never felt quite right to me to make our financial decisions all on my own. Now we have a friendly, patient and neutral third party in our discussions, whom she and I both respond well to, married couple that we are in all of the usual complications. It feels really good to be on the same page with her, finally.
- Help if something bad happens. I also really like knowing that, if I am somehow incapacitated, Vanguard PAS will be calling her at least quarterly, as usual, to make sure the money she depends on is there for her. Vice versa, too.
- We will know, with high confidence, exactly how much we can spend safely. Vanguard Advisors has spent a lot of money to create its Dynamic Spending Model. It is very powerful and very cool. Using Monte Carlo analysis of all of the known investing history of every asset class that we own, our advisor will be able to tell us with some 95% confidence how much we can spend, sustainably, through age 100. If things happen, as they do in life, we will adjust the plan, aiming to stay above the 85% confidence threshold. Our plan includes every input we want to add, such as how long we think we want to work full and part-time, how much we think we’ll earn, when we think we’ll buy cars next, some home renovations we want to do, when our mortgage gets paid off and when we think we’ll start taking Social Security. Annually, our advisor will tell us how much we can safely spend for the coming year. That amount will be indexed to inflation but won’t go up more than 5% or down more than 2.5% in any single year, which is totally manageable. Doing what Vanguard’s Dynamic Spending Model tells us to do beats the heck out of arguing on the online DIY forums over whether the vaunted “4% Rule” or some other % is sustainable or not, as seems to be the constant discussion online. I don’t worry about that stuff anymore, which feels great. Bonus News: We get to spend significantly more than 4% with 95% confidence. We will be able to live well in pretirement while sleeping well at night .
- The costs are pretty reasonable. We pay .30% of the assets Vanguard manages for us, plus the normal super-low expense ratio of the underlying Vanguard mutual funds we own, for a total of approximately .4%. Those numbers sound tiny but they have real impact over many years. On the bright side, such management and advice service at most any other firm is going to cost 1 to 2% per year. If planning wisdom says that an investor should aim to spend no more than 4 or 5% of their portfolio each year to sustain it, 1 – 2% is a huge, stupid bite out of one’s pretirement lifestyle to fork over to an advisor. Vanguard’s PAS fees aren’t nothing but, in an investing world that is designed to separate you from your money through fees you don’t understand, Vanguard is on the side of the angels. I’m happy to pay Vanguard’s relatively small fees for all of the service we get.
- I have stopped all fretting and fiddling with my portfolio, providing a lot of new time and mental space for other pursuits, like blogging!