Posted in Investing, Personal finance, Savings

The 4-Q way of protecting your finances from coronavirus driven volatility

One of the questions all investors consider is how to spread their investments. This is super essential in a volatile economic environment that we are now being forced by coronavirus.

Coronavirus is already sending stock markets across the world in a downward spiral, companies may find it difficult to service debt and hence affect bonds, and interest rates going downwards put cash and money market funds into useless investments.

How do we then allocate our funds and make sure we are not into an all-or-none, boom-or-bust kind of situation?

There are essentially 4 kinds of investments that a simple investor like us will hold over time.

  1. Cash and cash equivalents – CDs, money market, timed deposits etc.
  2. Debt – Fixed duration and fixed income products like bonds bought and held till maturity.
  3. Market Linked – Index Funds, Mutual Funds, ETF, direct stocks, REITs.
  4. Real Estate – Properties (homes and rentals), Private REITs.

The 4 Quadrant approach

The below table shows how these investments fit each quadrant of a time horizon vs. liquidity.

Financial PlanningLiquidNot Liquid
Short TermQ1 – Cash and Cash EquivalentsQ2 – Debt (Bonds till maturity, other lending investments)
Long TermQ3 – Market linked (funds and stocks)Q4 – Real Estate

For example, cash and debt instruments are typically short term reserves. While cash in savings account is highly liquid, bonds typically have a fixed maturity duration unless they can be traded in the secondary market.

On the contrary, stocks and funds may be liquid but typically yield best results only over the long term, due to short term market volatility. Real Estate is both long term and highly illiquid since it may take months and years before a property investment can yield profit or get sold.

If we allocate our resources with the 4-Quadrant principles in mind, then the short term market volatility or conditions will not bother us much. Each of the Quadrants will have enough invested/saved to go through the current phase.

For example, if I need immediate cash or want to maintain an emergency fund, Q1 is the place. There is no need to panic sell Q2, Q3 or Q4 investments.

Similarly for a medium term (2-4 years), the required funds can be maintained in fixed duration bond products (Q2) matching the maturity to a goal horizon.

At last, stocks and real estate are for the long term (> 10 years) and should be left to grow on their own. We can keep adding to them in a well defined proportion. But we do not need to panic sell them if the Q1 and Q2 are in place.

Simplest Asset Allocation

Another advantage of this approach is automatic asset allocation. Sometimes without realizing we may be overweight in one Quadrant. For example, some people may be just lazy to invest and keep their money lying in savings accounts, hence Q1 heavy.

While others may be so overweight in Stocks and Real Estate that in case of an emergency or reaction to market movements, they may sell or trade unnecessarily and hastily. Worst is premature withdrawal from retirement funds and paying penalty and taxes.

A balanced allocation to each Quadrant based on goals is the right approach.

For example, lets say I have $200,000 net worth. I can allocate the following after estimating my monthly expenses ($3000) and near term goals (Education, buying a house etc.).

Q1 – 6 * $3000 = $18,000 in money market fundQ2 – $40,000 for a new house in 2 years – Treasury Bond Fund
Q3 – $42,000 in 401-k and Roth IRAQ4 – $100,000 in present home equity

Lets analyze few scenarios here. 

  1. I suddenly lose my job – Assuming it will take 4-6 months to get a new job, I can withdraw from Q1 my monthly expenses and tide over this crisis. 
  2. I need to save for a new house in 2 years – I keep saving every month in Q2 and buy investments maturing in about 2 years.
  3. Whether the above events happen or not, the Q3 keeps growing as the funds remain invested in the market. In fact, as long as there is no crisis, I can keep making dollar cost averaged investments every single month into 401-k and Roth IRA accounts. 
  4. Q4 is even longer term and can be one’s own personal residence and additional rental properties. If Q1 and Q2 are in place, there should not be any hurry or knee-jerk reaction to sell or lose these valuable assets.  

The actual amounts or assets can vary depending on a person’s goals and needs. 

Overall this framework will also avoid a person to go into debt unnecessarily. Similarly paying off debt or mortgage can be considered money invested in Q2 and Q4 respectively. 

Conclusion

The 4-Q is thus a simple financial planning framework. Sticking to this 4-Q framework and directing one’s monthly investments to the relevant quarter helps build wealth in the long run, as well as take care of short term obligations. 

silhouette photo of person leaning on arch pillar
Photo by Suliman Sallehi on Pexels.com

 

Posted in Personal finance

The Power of Financial Scribble

A picture is worth a thousand lines of a spreadsheet.

Managing your personal finances can be scary at times when you visit a financial coach or financial planner.

Any good financial planner worth your money will present data in a nice spreadsheet or make you fill a template form which has 30-40 questions about your current situation and your goals.

After filling out the form or trying to decipher the complicated spreadsheet and charts, you wonder if you have made any progress in your financial planning. The concept of simplicity gets ignored in the data and jargon.

Personal financial planning has to start with your goals, what you have today and where you want to reach. It is not about numbers on a spreadsheet, but more about what is your current life situation and where you want to go in next 3, 5, 7 or 10 years.

How do your write your goals in a spreadsheet or a predefined questionnaire? The answer is you simply can’t. These tools are built for data collection and analysis and not for top down planning.

The solution lies in a much traditional tool, pen and paper – even better pencil, eraser and paper. I find it extremely refreshing to write or draw my goals, current situation and how I want to go where I want to go.

It is what I call the Financial Planning Scribble.

Financial scribble

It is a lot of fun and creativity as you design your own symbols to represent personal finance as possessions,liabilities, plans and road map.

Lets say you are assessing your Net worth (your assets – your liabilities). Your assets may contain real estate, cash, stocks, bonds, gold. Now think of a symbol for each along with a space to write the present value of the asset.

For example, for each real estate you can draw a house (remember the 3-D cube with triangle for the roof) and write the value in between the figure. Similarly use an envelope symbol for your cash (even though it is not hard cash but balance in your checking account). Your vacation fund can be a picture of your favorite spot (beach or mountain) and so on…

Go creative with your assets… you have built them with sweat, sacrifice and planning. They deserve to be given a life and make you happy about them.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

The second part of Net worth are the liabilities, or in other words, what you owe. You should not feel good about these unless you have a plan for strategic leverage, like building your rental real estate portfolio with debt or student loan to finance a good education.

Your liabilities can be depicted as something that may scare you and force you to act to reduce them. Again go creative here as per the kind of debt. High interest credit card debt is a demon with blood in its mouth, as that is what it is doing to your life and finances.

Photo by Ian Panelo on Pexels.com

The idea is to depict your personal situation today as accurately and vividly as possible. This is not always apparent in a numerical spreadsheet. The demons should scare you and the vacation fund or investments should make savings feel worthwhile.

The difference between the two (assets and liabilities) is your Net worth. See if the residual picture (your bright side covering the dark) is positive or not. You can find a symbol for the net worth, positive or negative.

Photo by Bekka Mongeau on Pexels.com

Once you get to the habit of scribbling and sketching, you will find it so useful and refreshing that you can extend it to beyond Net worth.

Your investments and asset allocation can also be depicted through sketches and you can even draw your plan and ongoing monthly investments.

Conclusion

The idea of financial scribble is not to get too complicated and lose interest in tracking finances. Finance can be fun once you depict it in your own way, not in a financial planner’s jargon and spreadsheets.

Financial scribble helped me internalize my personal situation and plans, in a clear and concise way that anytime I can draw it on a piece of paper and use it to make bigger decisions. A very rough scribble (you can be definitely be more artistic) from one of my recent planning sessions is shown below.

Posted in Budgeting, Investing, Personal finance, Savings

Who moved my cheese? How to deal with changes in financial plans

The title is taken from a famous book as below. Even though it is meant to be a management philosophy, it applies to the subject of personal finance as well. 

Financial Planning does not work? 

There is a proverb in the military – Plans are good till the first bullet is fired.

Some of us who are obsessed about managing or advising on personal finance can go really overboard with planning. Have you heard about those retirement numbers, college planning or even financial freedom number?

While long term planning is good, problem with personal finance is that it is a not a standalone aspect of your life. It impacts and gets impacted by life events – birth/death/marriage/divorce in the family, choice of career or college, changing goals and circumstances and finally your own priorities may change.

How my circumstances kept throwing my plan astray

Lets take an example in my case, as I transitioned from India to US.

Till 2005, I did not know a zilch about managing finances. In fact I was pretty bad at it, just enjoying my life and like many, used to blow up my entire paycheck in frivolous expenses, needless shopping and eating out. So in a nutshell there was no plan.

Then in 2005, I decided I can at least start investing some money out of my paycheck. Good plan but was it anything long term? No it was too flaky as I jumped from one hot fund (mutual fund) to another. This was the time when the Mutual Fund and Private Insurance industry was taking off in India in a big way. I also lost money investing in an insurance plan (actually a bad plan) that was masquerading as investment.

Beware of ripoffs

Eventually as I got better with finances, I actually created a long term plan complete with everything – retirement fund, children’s education fund, vacation fund and corresponding projections several years into the future. I built separate portfolios for each, and tracked them to utmost precision even calculating year after year growth.

However God had other plans for the family. In a series of unfavorable health and personal issues, we decided to move out of India at least for a few years and relocated to US.

This obviously altered my earlier plans completely, since my place of work and source of income changed. The retirement numbers started to look different, the college education fund seemed minuscule when compared to US college costs and all the plans are to be redone again.

Well what do I plan for now? I don’t even know whether I am going to move back to India again in few years or not.

In a global economy mobility is a part of life and no one stays in the same place or country throughout their working life. Moreover as you move, international taxation is another beast which can alter your long term investments (like tax sheltered) into immediately taxable entities. 

Plan to adapt, not adapt to a rigid plan

So finally you have to take into account an ever changing plan, moving from Plan A to Plan B and keep adjusting according to your circumstances.

When I read about estimating expenses at retirement, I wonder how can someone calculate that? Following factors and more can make it completely non-deterministic.

  1. Where will I retire? Different cities and countries have vastly different living and medical costs.
  2. Will it be only me and my wife? What if the children stay with us?
  3. What do I want to do in retirement? Will I work or travel more?
  4. What health condition will I be in?
  5. What other obligations (including social and family) will I have then?

So projecting your expenses at retirement based on today’s lifestyle is like predicting the weather 20 years from now, based on 20 years of past data.

Same goes for College funding. Even if you are saving in 529 or other accounts, do you have a goal or a number in mind? How do you arrive at a number for college costs, when the costs are going up every year? Isn’t that also as variable as retirement? The following factors come to my mind immediately.

  1. Do you know what career will your 5 year old choose when he/she turns 16-18?
  2. Do you know which college will she go to? Ivy Leagues, State or Community colleges? Are the costs not vastly different?
  3. Are you even going to stay in the same state or country when the time comes for college?

In today’s volatile world, planning too far away (more than 3-5 years) is futile.

Planning based on solid principles, not circumstances

The best way to plan your finances is to look at your current goals, aspirations and develop good money habits.

Below steps will help you be in control and act nimbly to adapt to changing situations.

  1. Live below your means – no matter which country or which circumstance you are in, you can always strive for this and become better. Living below your means is common sense, yet so uncommon. 
  2. Budget – Goal based budgeting – This is very important as it ensures you have control over the cash inflows and outflows. Again something which does not change with your place of work or future plans.
  3. Invest with simplicityFind investments that are easy to understand. Index funds, mutual funds, Real estate, CDs and savings accounts.
  4. Keep some portion of portfolio liquid – Sometimes this can be called an Emergency Fund or Contingency Fund. No matter what you call it, it is useful. When I moved from India, I kept a portion of my India portfolio into Fixed Deposits (similar to CDs here in US) and then built up an emergency fund in US too. This gives me option in both places if I decide to just leave work for some time or get laid off. 
  5. Remain consumer debt free – This is also related to freedom. Except for one mortgage in US, I am completely debt-free otherwise or rather bad-debt-free. Being debt free coupled with a portion of portfolio in cash, gives you plentiful of options to enjoy life at your own terms. 
  6. Keep investing for long term – Unless your investments are in countries with troublesome political climate, long term investments (a part of the portfolio) can be left to grow with time. Long term investments work on the principle – its not market timing, but time in the market that will reward your investments. 

To plan and execute above steps in the most efficient way, read the following posts.

Five components of a personal finance system

The SAFE plan – Simple, Automated, Flexible and Efficient

Finally do plan but let life change it

Money decisions should not dictate all your life’s decisions. Money is only a tool to live a good life.

Let your financial plan adapt to your own goals and aspirations, rather than rigidly follow personal finance gurus and templates. 

If someone screams in YouTube to pay off mortgage, it does not mean you have to follow as your plans may be completely different. Similarly you may not fall for all those high reward promising credit cards if you are not going to use those benefits.

A chess player does not know what the board will look like after the next few moves. 

person playing chess
Photo by JESHOOTS.com on Pexels.com

Posted in Budgeting, Investing, Personal finance, Savings, Spending

The SAFE plan – Simple, Automated, Flexible and Efficient

Safety in financial world is an oft-repeated word, and is mentioned in contrast to risk and growth.

We talk a lot about risk-return trade-off, safety of invested principal in long term and short term investments.

There is another way of looking at Financial Safety. The SAFE plan described below is a way of setting up financial life that is SAFE by design, not in the traditional sense of Safety vs. Risk but automatic habits that ensure you don’t stray from common sense.

Common Sense and Simplicity in Financial Plan is hard to achieve. True it is counter intuitive, but most people land into financial trouble due to complicated behavior – be it spending recklessly, chasing high unrealistic returns or simply throwing caution to the wind.

The SAFE Plan

Let me first present the 7 steps to SAFE plan.

  1. Invest in pre-tax accounts like 401k and HSA.
  2. Set up a direct deposit of the remaining taxable income to a checking account.
  3. Set up credit card payment to be auto paid from the checking account on the 30th of every month.
  4. Set up an auto-invest plan where 10-20% of the taxable income is diverted to a brokerage account or another IRA account (like Roth IRA). 
  5. Spend your monthly expenses on the credit card. Keep an eye on the credit card balance with the money left over in the checking account.
  6. Save the left over surplus, if any. 
  7. Continue and repeat next month … 

Simplicity

The above steps are nothing new. They have been suggested by numerous financial coaches and gurus. However the importance of the SAFE plan is how the steps are stitched together and flows through a seamless automation.

Since we have established the Simplicity of the SAFE plan, lets look at the Automation part and how to set this up. 

Automation

  1. You just need to figure out the % you want to put in 401k or HSA, and inform your payroll department. This can be decided based on the following factors.
    • Your cash flow needs after this deduction.
    • How much to invest to capture any employer provided matching contribution.
    • Max limits of the 401k or HSA.
  2. Direct deposit of the taxable amount to checking account.
    • This is handled by your payroll department automatically.
  3. Setup credit card auto-pay from your bank account for the 30th of every month.
    • This one if not done, can prove to be dangerous as missed payments are very costly.
    • The trigger will also help you pay-off something even if you have amassed a debt.
    • You can configure to pay off the entire balance, minimum payment or a fixed amount.
  4. Setup auto invest for 10-20% of the taxable income. The exact % can vary as it will depend on your household expenses.
    • Even if your budget does not allow this today, find at least a small amount ($50-$100) to divert automatically to an investment account.
    • This will build the habit and set you up for regular investment.
    • The amount can be increased over time as the budget frees up extra cash.
  5. Live within your means. This is again a cliche, but very difficult to be consistent month after month. You can manage it with some automation and discipline though.
    • setup a notification when your credit card balance crosses 90% of your projected expense for the month (or simply the money left in the checking account).
    • Put a Level 5 tornado/hurricane warning when it is crossing over the money left over in your checking account.
    • Typically the projected expenses can be simply set to the money left over in your checking account. You cannot spend more than that without incurring consumer debt or dipping into other savings/investments.
  6. Save the surplus – If you have surplus at the end of the month (that is, Credit card balance < Money in checking account) you can save it for future goals, short term and mid term.
    • I wish banks provided this facility, but it can be set up to transfer a fixed amount once you have an idea of your monthly expenses.
    • Some apps like Acorns or Digit automate this although in more complicated way. 
    • Do not leave the money in the checking account otherwise next month it will create an illusion that you can spend more.
  7. Let the automation run month after month. 

Flexibility

Once setup correctly, the basic version of the SAFE plan is low maintenance and enables an almost debt free living. 

Of course, we have not taken into account mortgage payments, prior debt pay down, saving for education – but these can also be fit into the plan. In the step where you are investing 10-20%, you will break that into smaller chunks of various debt pay down and remaining amount can be invested for various goals.

Thus the plan is also extremely flexible to adapt to individual situations. 

Efficiency

The last part of the SAFE plan is that it is efficient in managing money. 

The following good principles are built-in into the plan. 

  • Pay Yourself First – Pre and Post Tax investments are deducted in the beginning.
  • Low maintenance – no coupon cutting, daily budgeting etc. 
  • Keeps you debt free – just keep tab that your credit card balance is below money left over in checking account. 
  • Encourages more savings at the end of the month – creates a healthy race to increase it, by reducing your spending. 

The efficiency is evident if you do this for even one year. You will see the difference in your credit score, savings balance, net worth and above all, peace of mind. 

Conclusion

This plan has been working for me for a long time. The simplicity and automation helped me manage it seamlessly without getting distracted from my main job – which is not finance. 

And the in-built savings and investment discipline in the plan has helped me invest and accumulate cash for emergencies, short term purchases or just a cash cushion. 

Here is my version of the 7 steps of the SAFE plan (the % are approximate and rounded)

  1. Invest some in the Roth-401k and H.S.A. 
  2. Direct deposit first paycheck. (50% of monthly)
  3. Use the credit card from same account. Set up auto-pay on 30th of every month. 
  4. Investments/Pay downs
    • 10% to mortgage account
    • 10% to savings for property taxes, insurance and maintenance
    • 20% invest in mutual funds via brokerage account
    • 10% to a 529 Plan 
  5. Next paycheck direct deposit on 15th of month. (50% balance monthly paycheck)
    • Living expenses capped to 40-45% of monthly total. 
    • Pay off credit card balance within this limit – I make sure it is $0 as it enters following month. 
    • Sometimes it is hard to stick to the limit, then I have the cash cushion (from previous months’ savings, step 6) to dip into. 
  6. 5-10% savings for vacation/travel, fun, cash – diverted to a high-yield online savings account. 
  7. Keep track every Saturday morning using Y.N.A.B. 

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