Many Americans who want a new president have taken to quoting Ronald Reagan when he challenged incumbent Jimmy Carter back in 1980, asking the question: "Are you better off than you were four years ago?"
It seems to be a simple question, one anybody should be able to answer "yes" or "no." Well, after hearing the question for the gazillionth time, I decided to ask it of myself and my wife. And our answer isn't quite so simple:
Yes, we are ...pretty much ...mostly.
At the end of every quarter, I tally our assets and liabilities. I like to know how much money we have, I like to know the exact breakdown of our investments and property, and I like to know our net worth. It's kind of anal, sure, but it's who I am.
Our net worth on September 30, 2012, was roughly 35 percent higher than it was on September 30, 2008. This despite the oodles of bad news that happened in the interim:
- The banking system imploded, the economy tanked, the stock market plummeted and the housing market collapsed.
- Political gridlock led to a downgrade of our national credit rating, and continued infighting threatens to push us off a fiscal cliff.
- My wife has changed jobs and earns 14 percent less now.
- I was laid off in January 2009 and haven't worked full-time since. Though I do some freelance work, I make 85 percent less now than I once did. Given that I never had a six-figure salary, my current income is little more than walking-around money.
- We finished putting our daughter through an expensive private college, and we supported our adult son until he was able to move out and support himself.
- We pay significantly more now for health insurance, media (cell phones, cable, DSL, etc.), car insurance, gasoline and other expenses.
How did my wife and I not just survive our adversity, but substantially increase our net worth?
First, we did what the Simpson-Bowles fiscal reform commission proposed in its deficit-reduction plan: We cut spending (ate fewer meals out; took cheaper, shorter vacations; bought only necessities and shopped hard for them; etc.), and we increased revenues (sought out freelance assignments, got a weekend job, benefited from unemployment insurance during the roughest stretch, etc.). We also continued our long history of avoiding debt.
Next, we moved from Chicago to Charlotte, where the cost of living is considerably less expensive.
Perhaps most importantly, we did not panic during the worst of the recession. When our four largest individual stock holdings -- General Electric (NYSE:GE), 3M (NYSE:MMM), DuPont (NYSE:DD) and Procter & Gamble (NYSE:PG) -- suffered sharp price declines in late 2008 and early 2009, we didn't sell at a huge loss. The same is true for the mutual funds we owned. And we kept saving every cent we could, mostly through my wife's 401(k) plan. When the market inevitably rebounded, our investments recovered, too.
So why am I only "mostly" better off? Because I'm part of the underemployed statistical category, and our family income is now only about 42 percent of what it was four years ago. Could I find a decent full-time job? I don't know -- it depends upon one's definition of "decent." What I do know is that in my profession of 30 years -- journalism -- decent jobs are scarce.
Believe me, I'm not fishing for sympathy. We are savers, we are debt-free, our kids are grown and on their own, we are healthy, and my wife has a stable job with benefits. Thanks to all of that, we consider ourselves fortunate, despite our setbacks.
Still, it's difficult for a guy who had a good job at the end of the third quarter of 2008 to enthusiastically say he is better off as an underemployed guy four years later. So ask me again in mid-January, when I will be able to say, "Yes, we are decidedly better off than we were four years ago."
By then, I will have been every bit as "involuntarily retired" as I was four years earlier. And because the market continued to plunge in the fourth quarter of 2008 and first quarter of 2009, our net worth actually has gone up nearly 50 percent since President Obama took the oath of office. (Whether he or other politicians had anything to do with that is another article for another time.)
Unlike then, when I was newly unemployed and deeply concerned about our financial well-being, I now believe we'll be just fine -- regardless of who wins the presidency and other public offices.
My wife and I fully plan to enjoy a low-stress, financially comfortable existence for the rest of our days on this earth. Dividend Growth Investing will help.
From 3M, with its 2.6 percent yield, to Philip Morris (NYSE:PM) at 3.8 percent to ConocoPhillips (NYSE:COP) at 4.6 percent to National Retail Properties (NYSE:NNN) at 5.2 percent to Linn Energy (NASDAQ:LINE) at 7 percent, we have built a portfolio of 25 companies in a variety of sectors. All distribute cash to shareholders, and most are on David Fish's list of firms that have increased dividends for years -- or even decades.
Lately, we have been stockpiling cash and waiting for opportunities to buy fairly valued (or better yet, undervalued) companies, adding to our collection of reliable, inflation-beating dividend growers. The idea is to have a steady stream of dividends to complement our pensions and Social Security benefits. Meanwhile, we will stay out of debt and will continue to think hard before making major purchases.
Such a strategy should work well no matter who resides in the White House -- and should always let us answer with a resounding "Yes!" whenever we're asked the are-you-better-off question.