Several readers have asked why I use CDs in so many examples. With good reason, they wondered if I was suggesting buying CDs, which made them question my wisdom and sanity. If anyone thinks that's what I'm recommending, I must have been remiss in conveying my message.
On that note, I'd like to make one thing clear: I am absolutely opposed to buying any CD denominated in US dollars. (And since we're clearing things up, I should also mention again that I am wholly opposed to TIPS.)
When I use CDs in examples, I am usually referring to a lost time when they paid around 6% - a time when retirees could sail along on CDs and top-rated bonds without much worry.
Since the first TARP bill passed in 2008, we're hard pressed to find a CD paying more than about 1.2%, which is 0.5% below the government-reported inflation rate. It's also 6.8% below the Money Forever Reader Poll Inflation Rate.
Declining interest rates have hit retirees' investment income hard; for many folks it's dropped 50-80% from just a few years ago. So why would anyone want to make a long-term investment that is not keeping up with inflation and likely won't catch up anytime soon? I certainly wouldn't, and I strongly urge all readers to find other places to put their hard-earned money.
Here is the bottom line: Before the 2008 crash, retirees could earn a decent yield on relatively safe investments. For many, this investment income was three to five times more than their Social Security checks, which allowed for a comfortable retirement low on financial stress. Now those same secure investments might bring in income equal to about half of your Social Security check.
Before my wife Jo and I were married, we made one of our wisest investments: pre-marriage counseling. We had both been married before, and we wanted to make sure this marriage would be our last. One of our counseling assignments was to write down what we each wanted to be doing in 10 and 20 years. Our counselor also asked us to describe what "enjoying our golden years" meant to us. We took our assignments seriously, and as luck would have it, our dreams meshed quite well. We still consider ourselves truly blessed 25 years later.
Some of the things we wanted were no-brainers. We wanted good health and enough money to not have to worry about it. While jetting around the world would be nice, our needs for happiness were much simpler. She grew up on a farm and my dad delivered mail; cool stuff is a bonus but not mandatory. We also wanted companionship to enjoy many things together and freedom to enjoy a few things apart. You get the point; we wanted the same things most ordinary people want. Nevertheless, having enough money to not have to worry about it turned into a trickier challenge than we'd expected.
I retired at age 62. For the first six years, it was a dream. We lived in a motor home for a year and traveled extensively, nary a care in the world. Quite frankly, Jo and I were having a blast! That changed overnight, when the banks called in our high-yield, secure CDs.
As I received more and more questions from readers about why I write about CDs so often, the more I realized what they had represented to us: freedom. Today we have enough money, but most of our capital is in riskier investments than FDIC-insured CDs. What investment could be more worry-free than a government-insured CD paying three times the rate of inflation?
Moreover, it wasn't just the yield that made us comfortable; safety was also key. If our government collapsed it was all over anyway, at least that was our thinking. The only folks I know who still have that same level of emotional comfort are retired federal employees.
I can report that I now sleep much better than I did in 2008. However, it is still a far cry from our carefree joyride when I first retired. I know Jo and I are not alone.
The Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) does an annual survey on retirement confidence. Its 2012 survey reports that in 2005, 40% of retirees felt "very comfortable" that they had enough money to live on throughout their retirement years. Forty percent reported they were "somewhat comfortable." In 2012 those numbers changed to 21% and 42% respectively. Also, in 2005, 7% reported they were "not at all" comfortable; that figure jumped to 19% in 2012.
Here are some other interesting tidbits from that report:
- Americans' retirement confidence has plateaued at the lowest levels seen over the last two decades.
- The percentage of workers expecting to retire before age 65 has decreased from 50% in 1991 to 24% in 2012.
- Twenty-five percent of those currently working say the age at which they expected to retire changed in the last year.
- In 1991, 11% of workers said they expected to retire after age 65, and by 2012 that grew to 37%.
Baby boomers are now retiring at a rate of 10,000 per day and will continue to do so for the next 19 years. For decades, through economic ups and downs, they formed their retirement expectations. Now, in a few short years those expectations have been drastically altered.Back to the Future
Thanks to the reader feedback I mentioned earlier, I have come to another conclusion: baby boomers on either side of the retirement cusp understand the problem, but they don't all know what to do about it.
Retirees have to make a detour; a bridge is out, and it won't be repaired anytime soon. I can talk about 6% CDs all day long, but the truth is they no longer exist. How can we achieve our retirement dreams in the current environment?
Our retirement goals have not changed. We still want enough money to not have to worry about it. How we go about getting there, however, has been changed dramatically. So let's focus on the task at hand.
Personally, I advocate a three-pronged approach. First, we have little choice but to put a whole lot more of our nest egg at risk. We need to beat our current, high rate of inflation and earn enough to adequately supplement our Social Security checks.
This means continuing to learn about and monitor our investments much more than we had to in the past. We have to diversify our investments to minimize the overall risk to our portfolios, and look into alternative investments and strategies. An uneducated or passive investor is setting himself and his family up for disaster.
Second - and this is the part no one likes - we have to modify our lifestyles. That means different things for different people, but no matter how much money you have, we all have to live within our means. That's just good, old-fashioned common sense.
I've noticed that folks who accept the reality of our economic problems have an easier time making adjustments. They made sensible cutbacks early on and are damn happy they did. On the other hand, our friends who thought we were in an 18-month recession are hitting some real rough patches.
Third and finally, we need to redefine "don't have to worry about it" to fit today. When Jo and I were traveling the country in our motorhome, Internet connections were spottier than they are today. We would check into a campground and ask if they had an Internet hookup. If they did, we would check our email and update our brokerage account. If not, no big deal; hopefully we would find one at the next campground. That was the epitome of not worrying about it.
Not worrying looks a lot different today. We know and understand where our money is invested, and we continue to learn every day. While I would use the word "comfortable" to describe our situation, it's still a far cry from our carefree, passive attitude of yesteryear. That was a dream... and a whole lot of fun while it lasted.