How To “Lie” With Personal Finance

“Lies, damned lies and statistics” (Mark Twain)

“Do not trust any statistic you did not fake yourself” (Winston Churchill)

There is a classic book called “How to lie with Statistics” that I read many, many years ago (actually decades ago!) as a college student. If you’re ever looking for an inexpensive but fun and impactful present for a young student/graduate with the hidden agenda of getting that person interested in math and statistics, this is the one! The book taught me to take with a grain of salt pretty much anything and everything number-related. Anywhere! Whether it’s in the news or in the Personal Finance blogging world and even (particularly?!) in academia. I’m not sure if I was already a severely suspicious (paranoid?) person before reading this or the book turned me into the person I’m today. So, inspired by that book, I thought it would be a nice idea to write a blog post about the different ways numbers are misrepresented in the FIRE/Personal Finance arena. And just to be sure, this post is not to be understood as a manual for fudging numbers, but – in the spirit of the “How to Lie With Statistics” classic – serves as a manual on how to spot the personal finance “lies” out there!

And there’s a lot of material! Probably enough for at least one more followup post, so for today’s post, I look at just four different way of how quantitative financial issues are frequently fudged in the personal finance world. And a side note about the slightly attention-grabbing title I used here: Well, I put the word “Lie” in quotation marks to show to the faint-hearted that this is a bit tongue-in-cheek. I could have written, “fudge the numbers” or “Enron-accounting” or “How we delude ourselves in personal finance,” or something like that. Also, Hanlon’s Razor (“don’t attribute to malice what can be explained by incompetence”) comes to mind here, but I’m not sure if those faint-hearted folks feel that incompetence is a significantly more benign explanation than malice.

So, let’s look at some of my favorite examples of how people lie to themselves (and others) in the realm of personal finance…

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Where are they now? A Case Study Update with “Captain Ron”

From 2017 until early 2018 I ran a series of ten case studies for readers who volunteered to open their books and serve a real-world safe withdrawal rate guineapigs. The second case study in July 2017 was for Captain Ron (not his real name) who was planning to FIRE and enjoy early retirement with his wife on a sailboat! That title picture you see up there, that’s their actual boat! Sounds like a great adventure, not just the financial aspects but also the lifestyle changes are daunting! So, how did that all go? Captain Ron just sent me an update on how life has been, so Ron, please take over the wheel…

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We retired in September 2017 as planned and are really enjoying life. Financially things are great and we have adjusted to the sailing life, but that first year of cruising was a surprisingly difficult transition. More on that later.

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The Yield Illusion (or Delusion?): Another Follow-Up! (SWR Series Part 31)

Welcome to the follow-up to the follow-up post on the “Yield Illusion.” Again, here’s the context: a few weeks ago, I wrote a post (SWR Series Part 29) on why I don’t believe that chasing higher yields is necessarily a good hedge against Sequence of Return Risk. A very well-received post! It was picked up by CanIRetireYet.com as one of their Best of the Web in February, it was featured on RockstarFinance on Monday, and we had a great discussion in the comments section. So I wrote a follow-up post on Monday (SWR Part 30) and since that post was running way too long already, here’s some more material that got cut; some more thoughts on my asset class outlook, international vs. U.S. stocks, dividend vs. value stocks, and more. So let’s get rolling…

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The Yield Illusion Follow-Up (SWR Series Part 30)

Welcome to a new installment of the Safe Withdrawal Series! The last post on the Yield Illusion (Part 29) was definitely a discussion starter! 140 comments and counting! Just as a quick recap, fellow bloggers at Millenial Revolution claim that the solution to Sequence Risk is to simply invest in a portfolio with a high dividend yield. Use the dividend income to pay for your retirement budget, sit back and relax until the market recovers (it always does, right?!) and, boo-yah, we’ve solved the whole Sequence Risk issue! Right? Wrong! As I showed in my last post, it’s not that simple. The Yield Shield would have been an unmitigated failure if applied during and after the 2008/9 Great Recession. So, not only did the Yield Shield not solve Sequence Risk. The Yield Shield made it worse! And, as promised, here’s a followup post to deal with some of the open issues, including:

  • A more detailed look at the reasons for the Yield Shield Failure over the past 10 years (attribution analysis).
  • Past performance is no guarantee for future returns. How confident am I that the Yield Shield will fail again in the future?
  • Dividend Yield vs. Value
  • Are non-US investors doomed? Probably not!

So, let’s look at the details:

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The Yield Illusion: How Can a High-Dividend Portfolio Exacerbate Sequence Risk? (SWR Series Part 29)

Welcome, everyone, to another installment of the Safe Withdrawal Rate Series! See here for Part 1, but make sure you also check out Part 26: Ten things the “Makers” of the 4% Rule don’t want you to know for a more high-level, less technical intro to my views on Safe Withdrawal Strategies! Today’s topic is something that has come up frequently in reader inquiries, whether through email or in the blog post comments. Let me paraphrase what people normally write:

“Here’s how I can guarantee my withdrawal strategy won’t fail: I simply hold a portfolio with a high enough yield! Now the regular cash flow covers my expenses. Or at least enough of my expenses that I never have to worry much about Sequence Risk, i.e., liquidating principal at depressed prices.”

I’ve seen several of those in the last few weeks and it’s a nice “excuse” to write a blog post about this very important topic. So, what do you think I normally reply? Want to take a guess? It’s one of the two below:

A: Oh, my God, you got me there. This is indeed the solution to once and for all, totally and completely eliminate Sequence Risk! I will immediately take down my Safe Withdrawal series and live happily ever after.

B: Your suggestion sounds really good in theory but there are serious flaws with this method in practice. It will likely be no solution to Sequence Risk. And in the worst case, your “solution” may even exacerbate Sequence Risk!

Anyone? Of course, it’s option B. It sounds like a great idea in theory but it has very serious flaws once you look at the numbers in detail. Let’s take a look…

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Did Suze Orman just pour cold water on the FIRE movement?

Unless your internet was out or you’ve been living under a rock for a few weeks you must have heard about the earthquake created by the Suze Orman interview on Paula Pant’s Afford Anything podcast. Lots of people have weighed in already. I participated in a few discussions here and there on Twitter and on other blogs but I also have a few things to say that can’t be distilled into a short tweet or blog comment. So here’s a short blog post with my thoughts.

Well, you can’t blame her for beating around the bush; Suze started the podcast proclaiming that she hates the FIRE movement. And the reaction in our community was swift. And brutal! Suze Orman was called a buffoon and worse names. She just doesn’t get what we are all about in the FIRE movement! OK, let’s congratulate ourselves on what the royal smackdown we gave the Matriarch of Money… Are we done patting ourselves on the back? Great, so let’s face reality again. Sorry to tell you all, but we merely convinced the folks who need no more convincing, i.e., other members in the FIRE community. And I have the concern that, wait for it…

…to a neutral observer, Suze Orman won the argument!

That’s because she got the headlines in the popular media after the interview; Business InsiderMarket Watch and Time/Money Magazine. Watch the YahooFinance video of Suze and the journalists making fun of us!

Business Insider headline
Headline from Business Insider, 10/8/2018.

The average reader/viewer who’s never heard about the FIRE movement walks away with the impression that the great money expert Suze Orman just schooled a bunch of uneducated financial clowns. Sadly, people might get the false impression that early retirement requires such an insurmountable large pile of cash that it’s not even worth trying to pursue FIRE. I’m not saying that this is true because nothing could be farther from the truth but it might be the perception to a lot of people unfamiliar with FIRE. To me, it sounded like Suze wanted to ruffle some feathers and that’s why she approached Paula and volunteered to go on the podcast! Did she use us to get herself into the spotlight and sell her strange “work until you’re 70” narrative again?

So, we got a lot of work ahead of us dealing with the Suzes of the world! Notice I’m using the plural here. Most of us are probably not famous enough to talk to Suze in person. But we are still going to encounter a lot Suze lookalikes in our lives; relatives, friends, neighbors, colleagues etc. who have an equally unrealistic and bombastic “you need at least a gazillion dollars to retire early” mentality. Here are a few suggestions on how to discuss FIRE when encountering a skeptic like Suze…

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An Updated Google Sheet DIY Withdrawal Rate Toolbox (SWR Series Part 28)

Since I first published Part 7 of the SWR Series with the accompanying Google Sheet in early 2017, I’ve made several changes and enhancements. Sometimes without much explanation or documentation. So, it would be nice to do a quick update and itemize the changes since then. Whether this is the first time using the toolbox or you check it out again after more than a year, I hope you all find the new features useful… Continue reading “An Updated Google Sheet DIY Withdrawal Rate Toolbox (SWR Series Part 28)”

Why is Retirement Harder than Saving for Retirement? (SWR Series Part 27)

Welcome back! It’s time to add another piece to the Safe Withdrawal Rate Series (see here for Part 1). After churning out over 20 parts in this series so far I wanted to sit back and reflect on some of the things I’ve learned from my research. And something occurred to me: Withdrawal strategies in retirement aren’t easy! Contrast that with Mr. Money Mustache’s Shockingly Simple Math of Early Retirement post and Jim Collins’ Equity Series that was rewritten into a book The Simple Path to Wealth. Very influential posts and they are among my favorites, too!  So, naturally, I agree 100% that saving for retirement is relatively simple!

SWR-Part27-Table02
Saving for Early/traditional retirement: three simple ingredients!

Disclaimer: Saving for retirement with a savings rate of 50% or more as is common in the FIRE crowd requires a great deal of discipline. Especially over a 10+ year time span. It’s not easy! Only the math behind it is simple! It’s a bit like dieting; conceptually very simple – healthy diet plus exercise – but it’s not that easy to implement and stick to the plan!

Then, shouldn’t retirement be just as simple? Why am I making everything so complicated? I’m approaching 30 parts in this series, many of them with heavy-duty math and simulations and still a few topics on my to-do list! Am I making everything more complicated than necessary? Am I just trying to show off my math skills? Of course not! Just because saving for retirement is relatively simple it doesn’t mean we can just extrapolate that simplicity to the withdrawals during retirement. And that’s what today’s post is about: I like to go through some of the fundamental factors that make withdrawing money more complicated than saving for retirement. Think of this as an introduction to the SWR Series that I would have written back then if I had known what I know now! 🙂 Ironically, some of the issues that make saving for retirement so simple are the very reason that withdrawing during retirement is more challenging! So, let’s take a closer look…

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Ten things the “Makers” of the 4% Rule don’t want you to know (SWR Series Part 26)

For today’s post, I thought it was time to add another installment to the Safe Withdrawal Rate Series. 25 posts already! What have I learned after so many posts? Well, I started out as a skeptic about the so-called “4% Rule” and I thought it might be the time to poke a little bit of fun at the “makers of the 4% Rule.” Just to be clear, this post and the title are a bit tongue-in-cheek. Obviously, the “makers” of the 4% Rule, the academics, financial planners and bloggers that have popularized the rule aren’t part of any conspiracy to keep us in the dark. Sometimes I have the feeling they are still in the dark themselves! So here are my top ten things the Makers of the 4% Rule don’t want you to know… Continue reading “Ten things the “Makers” of the 4% Rule don’t want you to know (SWR Series Part 26)”

The Ultimate Guide to Safe Withdrawal Rates – Part 25: More Flexibility Myths

Welcome to the newest installment of the Safe Withdrawal Series! Part 25 already, who would have thought that we make it this far?! But there’s just so much to write on this topic! Last time, in Part 24, I ran out of space and had to defer a few more flexibility myths to today’s post. And I promised to look into a few reader suggestions. So let’s do that today pick up where we left off last time…
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