Good Advice vs. Feel-Good Advice

Surfing around in the personal finance blogging and podcast world, there is no shortage of advice. Mostly good advice and some not so good advice. Oftentimes, advice that may be appropriate for some or even most investors would be completely inappropriate for others due to different risk aversion attitudes, investment horizons, and so on.

Occasionally, however, I come across examples of truly and irredeemably bad advice. Recommendations that are suboptimal under any and all circumstances I can think of, irrespective of the preferences and parameters of the individual. What’s worse, the financial experts spreading this nonsense do so not because of ignorance or incompetence. Rather, they are fully aware of the suboptimality and against better knowledge spread something that’s less than ideal. And the rationale? It may not be good advice but it’s feel-good advice. Let’s take a look at the two examples of feel-good advice I recently came across:

  1. The debt snowball: While paying down multiple credit cards, start with a card that has the lowest balance, even if that’s not the highest interest debt. Achieving a “win” of paying off one debt in full is more important than paying down all debts as fast as possible.
  2. Keeping an emergency fund in a money market account while still having credit card debt: Apparently, cash sitting around in a money-market account, earnings essentially zero interest is more important than tackling high-interest credit card debt.

In both cases, the rationale is that it makes you feel good. The “easy win” of completely paying down one debt or the sense of accomplishment of a having a $1,000 cash cushion certainly feels good.  Of course, those two measures probably make you feel better than the status quo, i.e., not tackling your debt at all or not having any savings at all. But wouldn’t the average person feel even better if they knew a faster way to get out of debt? Does anyone else find this troublesome? Do the financial gurus view their readers and listeners as a bunch of feeble financial fruitcakes? Is this some sort of personal finance edition of “You Can’t Handle The Truth” with Jack Nicholson / Colonel Jessup?Read More »

The Ultimate Guide to Safe Withdrawal Rates – Part 16: Early Retirement in a Low-Return World (and why we don’t worry about Jack Bogle’s return prediction)

A while ago I read that Jack Bogle predicts that equities will return only 4% over the next decade. And that already includes dividends and it’s nominal, not real! People call me pessimistic with my equity return assumption for stocks, but good old Jack takes it down another notch. Here’s the quote, reproduced on CNBC:

“Just for mathematical reasons, the dividend yield is 2 percent, a little under 2 percent in fact, and the long-term dividend yield on stocks is pretty close to 4 … the earnings growth on stocks has been a little over 5, that’s going to be a very tough target in the future so let’s call it 4 … 4 and 2 percent give you a 6 percent investment return, but then you have to take … the valuations in the market. …You take that 6 percent return and maybe knock it off a couple of points perhaps for a lower valuation, slightly lower valuation over a decade and you’re talking about a 4 percent nominal return on stocks. And that’s low, lower than history. History is around 6 and a half.”

Wow! That’s a bummer: 4% nominal means about 2% real with a generally agreed upon 2% annual inflation rate. Or another way to look at this return prediction: If we assume that equities pay around 2% in dividend yield, then the equity price index will go up by only the rate of inflation. For ten years!

Everyone in the FIRE community should take notice. If you’re still in the accumulation phase you’ll likely need longer to reach FIRE. If you’re already retired and apply the good old 4% Rule then a Bogle-style scenario will likely put some strain on your portfolio. So, in today’s post let’s look at what the Bogle scenario means for Safe Withdrawal Rates in Early Retirement.

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The Other Student Loan Crisis: Half of Parent Cosigners Facing a Shaky Retirement

[It’s a pleasure to introduce Laur (Lauren) Davidson today. Laur is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in English and Communications. She wants to build a portfolio as a freelance writer and agreed to write a guest post for us – perfect timing because the ERN family is on vacation this week! The post is on a very timely topic: student loans and how they threaten even the parents’ finances if they cosigned their kids’ private student loans. Take it over from here, Laur!]

Half of Parent Cosigners Facing a Shaky Retirement

By Laur Davidson, a soon-to-be graduated freelance writer for hire

The sheer magnitude of the mountainous $1.4 trillion of debt weighing down 44 million Americans is rightfully grabbing headlines as a looming financial crisis. The devastating economic and social impact of student loan debt on borrowers, their families, the communities in which they live and the nation is well documented. Less known, but no less devastating is the impact student loan debt is having on well-intentioned parents who are suffering financially for having helped their students by cosigning their private educational loans. With the number of students unable to repay their private loans increasing each year, more and more parents are having to rethink their retirement plans.

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The Ultimate Guide to Safe Withdrawal Rates – Part 15: More Thoughts on Sequence of Return Risk

Welcome back to our Safe Withdrawal Rate Series! Last week’s post on Sequence of Return Risk (SRR) got too long and I had to defer some more fun facts to this week’s post. Again, to set the stage, I can’t stress enough how important Sequence of Return Risk is for retirement savers. In fact, after doing all this research on safe withdrawal rates (start series here, and also check out our SSRN research paper) if someone asked me for the top three reasons a retirement withdrawal strategy fails I’d go with:

  1. Sequence of Return Risk,
  2. Sequence of Return Risk,
  3. and let’s not forget that pesky Sequence of Return Risk!

Huh? Isn’t that lame? Surely, low average returns throughout retirement ought to be included in that list, right? Or even top that list, right? That’s what I thought, too. Until I looked at the data! Let’s get rolling and look at some more SRR fun facts.Read More »

The Ultimate Guide to Safe Withdrawal Rates – Part 14: Sequence of Return Risk

This is a long overdue post considering how much we’ve written about safe withdrawal rates already. Sequence of Return Risk, sometimes also called Sequence Risk, is the scourge of early retirement. Or any retirement for that matter. So, here we go, finally, we have a designated post on this topic for our Safe Withdrawal Rate series (check here to go to the first post and also make sure you download Big Ern’s SSRN working paper on the topic).

Besides, in case you haven’t heard it, yours truly, Big Ern, was asked by Jonathan and Brad at ChooseFI to be an occasional contributor to their awesome Financial Independence podcast. Specifically, I’ll be the in-house expert on everything related to safe withdrawal rates. And that’s alongside an A-plus-rated team of experts: real estate guru Coach Carson, tax expert The Wealthy Accountant, and business guru Alan Donegan from PopUp Business School! How awesome is that? Because Sequence of Return Risk is something we’ll cover in the podcast soon as part of a crowdsourced case study, I thought it would be a good time to have a go-to reference post on the topic here on our blog. So, once again, make sure you head over to the ChooseFI podcast:

-> ChooseFI Podcast <-

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How to invest a windfall: Lump Sum or Dollar Cost Averaging?

This issue is as old as personal finance itself: What should an investor do with a large windfall, say, a bonus, gift, inheritance, etc.? Invest it all at once as one big lump sum or should we “ease into the market” and invest the cash in multiple installments? The latter is called Dollar Cost Averaging (DCA). This is a popular topic in the personal finance world and many of you might have read about it. JL Collins had a blog post on why he doesn’t like DCA and Vanguard has a nice study with extensive simulations showing that, on average, the lump sum investment pretty handily beats DCA. The intuition for that result is pretty straightforward: equities go up on average, so if you sit on your hands and voluntarily delay your investments you will have lower returns on average.

End of story! End of story? Not so fast! Even if you’re familiar with the subject already, please keep reading because we’ll have a new spin on this old topic. Spoiler alert: we propose a way dollar cost averaging will reduce risk and have the same average return as the lump-sum investment!Read More »

The scariest week for the stock market is also scary profitable!

Every six to seven weeks, we go through a tense week in the stock market. A bunch of very smart central bankers meet in Washington D.C. to decide on the path of U.S. monetary policy. Just like this week! U.S. monetary policy is determined by an elite group of Federal Reserve officials; the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC). It has 8 scheduled meetings per year and the schedule is pre-announced for everyone to see. And the meetings are scary for the stock market. If by scary you mean scary profitable!Read More »

Have bonds lost their diversification potential?

If you are a regular reader of this blog you’ll notice that we don’t like bonds very much:

Add to that our series on safe withdrawal rates where we found that over a long retirement horizon bonds become much less attractive. In the Trinity Study with retirement horizons of 15-30 years, you can get away with a bond share as high as 50%. But over long horizons of 40-60 years in the FIRE community, the low expected returns of bonds can jeopardize the sustainability of the portfolio as we showed in part 2 of our series.

Has anything changed since last year? Are we now a bit more optimistic about bonds? After all, yields have risen. The 10-Year Treasury yield reached 2.6% earlier this year but has since fallen again to about 2.2-2.3% just last week.

Let’s look at the numbers in more detail

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Five Unfortunate Facts about Student Debt in America

Our first guest post on the ERN blog! Ever! Let me introduce Drew Cloud who runs the fascinating blog Not too long ago, I remember U.S. student loans surpassing one trillion dollars (a one with 12 zeros!) for the first time. Now we’re at $1.4t and the amount just keeps growing. Make sure you check out Drew’s blog, too, especially the treasure trove of data on the topic. Take over, Drew!


A quick online search of student loan debt in America reveals the astonishing truth about the widespread, increasing expense of attending a college or university. Currently, more than 44 million borrowers have amassed over $1.4 trillion of student loan debt, and each year, the total continues to climb. While taking out student loans is now firmly embedded in the college experience for the majority of students, the picture remains bleak for borrowers. Here are five unfortunate facts about student loan debt in America to prove that point.

Student Loans Owned and Securitized, Outstanding. Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

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