What’s Up (or down) with Commodities?

While stocks have been front-and-center lately given sharp price swings, fewer media outlets are focusing on commodities despite the critical role they play in global markets. They too have experienced wild price swings, although mostly to the downside. Year-to-date, the widely held S&P GSCI (Goldman Sachs Commodity Index) has fallen 20% and declined 41% over the last twelve months. What’s driving these big declines and why do they matter to your portfolio?

Commodities are defined as a raw material or primary agricultural product that can be bought and sold. This includes everything from aluminum to zinc, but also oil, natural gas, coffee, beef, and corn, among others. A key differentiator between commodities and other assets are that commodities are valuable only as an input of the production process. They’re not a store of value or wealth, like a stock, bond, or work of art. Because of their utilitarian purpose (with a few exceptions like gold), commodity prices are closely linked to global supply and demand. Simply put, when demand is strong for a commodity and supply is tight, prices go up. Likewise, when demand is falling and/or supply is abundant, commodity prices tend to fall. This causes prices to be very cyclical and closely tied to the health of the overall economy. In an increasingly globalized world, that means all economies affect commodity prices to varying degrees.

While stocks have surged over the past six years, commodities have languished. The widely-held commodity index, the S&P GSCI, has fallen 35% from 2009 to 2014 while the S&P 500 Index rose 131%. As U.S. stocks benefited from improving economic growth at home, commodities never saw a similar bounce-back given their exposure to the broader global backdrop. Lackluster global demand and excess supply of many commodities weighed on commodity prices. The supply/demand imbalance has worsened recently as China, the world’s largest consumer of commodities, has seen economic conditions deteriorate and is curbing its appetite for input products. Likewise, it continues to produce too much supply and is dumping some commodities, like steel, onto global markets, further pressuring prices. It’s a vicious cycle, one that usually reverses when excess supply is finally worked-off and most investors have given up on the asset class.

As an investor, where does this leave you? Should you include commodities in your portfolio? Is now a good time to buy? According to Dr. Rouwenhorst, a leading expert on commodities, research suggests that commodities do outpace inflation over the long-term. And he’s looked at data going back to the 1800’s. At the same time, commodity prices tend to have low correlations with other asset classes like stocks and bonds; meaning that when stocks go down, commodities tend to go up. Thus, adding commodities to a portfolio can help improve your overall volatility and gives you a good chance of out-pacing inflation.   But…we’ve also learned that during massive global crises, like the one in 2008, commodities tend to move in lock-step with other asset classes. People panic and tend to sell everything. We’ve also seen substantial price declines in most commodities over the last six years, and if you’ve owned these assets you know your portfolio has suffered as a result. What to do?

During most periods, a small position in a diversified basket of commodities such as the S&P GSCI or the Dow Jones Commodity Index can help insulate investors from wild swings in traditional asset classes like stocks and bonds. And commodities can experience periods of strong price appreciation. However, it’s difficult to identify those periods and at the same time, avoid sharp declines like we’ve seen in recent years. If you have a long enough time horizon, of twenty years or more, a small allocation to commodities can make sense, but another option is to own high-quality stocks that derive their revenue from commodities. While these companies are also subject to the cyclical nature of commodities, they often have diversified revenue streams and strong balance sheets that can help provide some insulation during cyclical downturns.

Overall, commodities are important to understand in order to gauge the health of the global economy. Although they tend to be a volatile asset class, owning a small amount can provide diversification benefits in your portfolio. Another and perhaps less volatile option is to own high-quality blue chip companies that deal in commodities and have the resources to weather cyclical downturns. This approach also provides the diversification benefits associated with commodities but often with smaller price swings then owning a basket of commodities directly.

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The “What” of Retirement Planning

Most working-age Americans focus on the “how” of retiring: how to maintain a decent standard of living today while saving enough money for retirement tomorrow, or how to play catch-up and cover their retirement savings shortfall. Sadly, another group of Americans wonder “if” they’ll be able to retire at all. The sobering statistics tell a bleak tale. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, the average 50-year old has just $42,797 in retirement savings while 38% of Americans have no savings at all. This is scary stuff considering that average medical costs alone for an individual over 65 years old are north of $100,000. Clearly we’re not as prepared for retirement as we could be. Despite lots of media doom-and-gloom about the pending retirement crisis, it hasn’t improved retirement savings trends. Thus, I’d like to propose a new approach, one that focuses on the “what” of retirement planning instead of the “how.”

The “what” of retirement planning involves an intentional mental shift, one that approaches the retirement conundrum from a new angle. Instead of focusing on how much more you need to save or how far behind you are versus your peers, try imaging what you want your years in retirement to look like. What new hobbies would you like to explore in retirement? Or what countries do you want to visit? Etc… This approach, coupled with an honest assessment of your current situation, is more likely to help you reach your goals than beating yourself over the head.

Focusing on the problem or what’s missing can increase stress levels and sap your energy – because you need more energy to help manage those higher stress levels. It can also lead to financial paralysis, which only exacerbates the problem and reinforces our old, unhelpful patterns – ensuring we get what we fear the most: not enough retirement savings. In contrast, anchoring your goal to the positive end result – your vision of a relaxing, meaningful retirement – can increase the odds of realizing that reality. Either way, you’ll feel a whole lot better on your journey there.

The point is to look carefully at the way in which you approach your retirement goals, because the methods you use will help determine your success rate. It all starts with taking an honest and sometimes difficult look at your current situation and determining what your goals are. Once you know where you are and where you’d like to be in the future, crafting a plan of action that will reinforce helpful, constructive habits is key. This brings me to one of my favorite quotes from St. Teresa of Avila, “The whole way to heaven is heaven itself.” A lifetime of berating ourselves is unlikely to lead to financial bliss in our twilight years. It will probably just lead to more stress and anxiety. Instead, it seems we’re better off focusing on “heaven” in the here and now. We can do that with a proactive, realistic plan that’s anchored on the positive feelings we’d like to experience in our retirement years. And who knows, we might even start to feel better today.

Carrie A. Tallman, CFA
Director of Research

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Ways to Cut Wedding Costs

I’m getting married this year, and I couldn’t be more excited . . . about getting married, not necessarily about planning the wedding. The process can be stressful and overwhelming – the organization, details, responsibility, and not least of all, cost.

As a financial planner I’ve thought a lot about the cost of this important day. A quick Google search reveals that the average amount of money spent on a wedding in the United States is over $30,000. It’s not like the old days where fathers paid men a dowry to marry their daughters (thankfully). While both of our families are helping us on wedding cost, we still need to pony up quite a bit of cash on our own. I did not want to start off this next phase of my life in debt.

Through my planning I’ve come across a number of ways that people have saved money on their wedding. While I didn’t choose all of these options, I think they’re all worth considering.  If you know someone who’s planning on tying the knot soon, you may want to share these ideas with them: 

  • Cut the guest count.I’ve experienced night sweats on who to invite to my wedding. I wake up thinking: “They invited me;” “She’s my second cousin twice removed;” or “What about my best friend from kindergarten?” A recent survey by theknot.com shows that it costs over $200 per guest at a wedding. That’s right – over $30,000 for just 150 people! Try to limit your guest to friends, immediate family, grandparents, close aunts and uncles, and close cousins. People will understand you can’t invite everyone.
  • DIY.This isn’t for me, but it is for a lot of people. I’m not overly handy or creative, nor do I have the patience for doing anything myself on my big day. However, if you are that type of person, you should do as much as you can on your own. Try printing your own invites and save-the-dates cards. Research sites like Etsy to get ideas. Pick a creative family member to help decorate for your rehearsal dinner; have a girlfriend do your hair. Every little bit that you can do yourself (or others can do) will save hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Maybe a friend’s participation could be given in lieu of a gift.
  • Don’t be so traditional.More of my friends are not getting married on Saturday. In most cases they are moving to Friday and Sunday where wedding vendors and venues don’t charge the same premium as a Saturday wedding. Also, think lunch reception and maybe not a sit-down, four-course evening meal.  Or, you could just do a champagne toast and appetizers and cut out early for the honeymoon 😉.
  • Pick a season and stick with it.Try to purchase decorations, flowers, and food that are in season. If you are trying to get Birds of Paradise or sunflowers in the dead of winter, you will pay for it. You can save a lot by having a Christmas wedding because most venues are already decorated. Another option is to try for a spring wedding when everything outside is blooming. If you are planning your meal options, do a sautéed veggie option with items that are in season.
  • Bundle. Try bundling items to cut down cost. For example, instead of having a cake and party favors, maybe have a candy station for people to grab something on their way out the door. This way, you still have sweets and favors, but you’re cutting the expense down by really having one.  If you have something around the house that you can use as your guest book, do it! I’ve seen people use globes from a bookshelf to sign, as well as old corn hole boards that were painted with the wedding colors.
  • Keep it casual. Buffets may not give the same vibe as a plated meal, but it’s a lot cheaper. If you really don’t want people to wait in line for food, then try doing family style. This is a bit more expensive but doesn’t come with the extra cost of servers.
  • Hire a coordinator.  This goes against the DIY bullet, but you can save money in the long run. Most wedding planners have discounts and perks arranged with partners and vendors… but be wary and do your research before hiring someone to plan for you.
  • Do everything memorable early. Try to get the bouquet toss and cake cutting out of the way early. If you do everything memorable first thing, you can let your photographer and videographer leave early to cut down on their hourly time. Your guests will continue to snap pictures throughout the night.
  • Buy someone else’s wedding. This may sounds crazy, but sadly, many people cancel their wedding every day. Most deposits are already put down and can’t be returned. Decorations have been bought, and gifts have been purchased.  Check out http://www.bridalbrokerage.com/to purchase someone else’s unfulfilled day.

Finally, the number one way to save money… ELOPE! Have a quick wedding, a potluck in the backyard, good conversation and s’mores by the fire, and call it a good day!

Good luck on planning your special day!

Ashley Woodring, CFP®
Financial Advisor

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Shouldering the Burden of Financial Responsibility

“Atlas through hard constraint upholds the wide heaven with unwearying head and arms.” –Hesiod

My Wednesday morning started with five 400-meter runs, uphill, carrying a 35# sandbag. OK, maybe “run” is a bit of an exaggeration – it was more of a trudge, and there might have been some walking in there toward the top. I hated every second of it, but I kept going because, well, that’s just what you do. When I thought about it later, it struck me as an apt metaphor for the way life feels sometimes – an endless uphill struggle with the weight of responsibility resting heavily on your shoulders. This is particularly true for anyone who is the primary provider for their family. As my colleague Carrie pointed out in her recent blog post, more and more women (including me) are finding themselves in this position, whether by choice or necessity. Most of the time I am able to face each day as it comes and maintain an upbeat outlook on life, but sometimes the enormity of this responsibility is paralyzing and my mind races with worries – what if something happens to me? Have I prepared for the worst possible outcome? What more can I do to ensure that the people who depend on me to keep going will be OK if I can’t?

Since everyone loves a list, let’s break this down into 5 areas that you definitely want to address if you are the primary provider for your family:

  1. Life Insurance – This one is pretty obvious, and I hope most people have some amount of life insurance in order to provide for their dependents should the worst come to pass. But do you have enough? Many companies provide life insurance as an employee benefit, but the standard amount will probably not be enough to replace your salary for an extended time. As a starting point, consider your current salary and how old your children are, so you can estimate how much financial support they will need and for how long. Beyond that, you may want to provide your spouse with your lost income until retirement age. Take these factors into consideration when determining the length of the term and amount of coverage you need.
  2. Long Term Disability Insurance – This one is a little less common, but no less important than life insurance. Think of it this way – if you become disabled and cannot perform the job that supports your family, how will you replace your income? What if your disability adds to the household expenses in the form of ongoing medical care? Now you’ve not only lost your earning power, but you’ve also become a liability to the family you once supported. Don’t let that happen.
  3. Estate Planning/Will – Many times younger people who are still in the asset accumulation phase tend to put off drafting a will, despite its importance. It is especially imperative if you have young children, since it allows you to determine who will become their guardian if both you and your spouse are gone. Make sure your beneficiary designations are up-to-date for any IRAs, 401(k) plans, pension plans or life insurance policies. For more complex estate planning strategies you might want a trust – your financial advisor can help you figure out what you need to do to make sure your estate plan is sufficient.
  4. Retirement Savings – If the worst doesn’t happen and you live to a ripe, old age, you need to be sure that you are saving money to provide for your golden years. As the primary earner, the bulk of this responsibility falls to you to contribute to your company’s 401(k) or another retirement plan, but it is equally important to include your spouse in your retirement projections and contribute to a plan for him or her if you can. Again, your advisor can help you figure out how much you need to be putting aside and how to navigate the ever-complicated IRS rules and requirements for retirement savings.
  5. Education Savings – Though not as imperative as the first four points, saving for your children’s education expenses will relieve them of significant financial pressure when they are in school and will help them avoid taking on massive amounts of student loan debt. You can rest easier knowing that if you predecease your spouse and children, you won’t be leaving them with an insurmountable tuition bill. As with retirement plans, there are several investment vehicles available to you for education savings. Work with your advisor to determine the best plan for you and your family.

Shouldering the burden of financial responsibility can make you feel like Atlas, but it needn’t crush you. With a little planning and preparation, you can weather the uphills, savor the downhills, put down the sandbag every once in a while and live fully in the present.

Sarah DerGarabedian, CFA Financial Advisor

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Living Healthier – Better for your Wallet, Not Just your Waistline.

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A couple of years ago I made a significant lifestyle change. After gaining post-college weight, I realized that the carefree metabolism of a 20-year old went out the window at 21. I made the decision to stop eating unhealthy food and develop a workout regimen that I could stick to. At first I worried that I couldn’t afford to live “healthy.” I believe that this is a normal and reasonable reaction. $120 for a gym membership? WHAT! $10 for organic breakfast? HUH? Thankfully, what I realized was that I was incorrect to think that “healthy lifestyles” and “expensive lifestyles” were synonymous. I actually saved money! Here are just a few ways that you can get healthy, save a dollar or two, slim down and be happier.

  1. Get rid of your expensive bad habits:
  • Do you pay $10 a day for a double pump, venti, skinny, salted caramel mocha frappuccino? Stop it! First, whoever told you that this was “skinny” was lying to you. Second, these things add up. What bad habits do you have? Is it the lunch time soda? The mid-afternoon candy bar from the vending machine? The two packs of cigarettes a day? Once you write down your vices, tabulate them to see how much those bad habits cost over a week, a month, a year, a lifetime.
  • Example: A pack of cigarettes in North Carolina costs $4.45. You could spend more than $49,662 on smoking a pack a day for 30 years. According to the American Cancer Society, each pack of cigarettes on average will cost you $35.00 in health care costs. That’s $383,250 in health care costs due to smoking for 30 years. Is it worth it?
Vice Per day Per 30 Years 30 Yr Health Cost Total 30 Yr Cost
Cigarettes $4.45 $49,662 $383,250 $432,912

 

  1. Reduce your medical bill:
  • It’s impossible to ignore the fact that eating healthy and exercising can reduce visits to the doctor. There are a plethora of studies out there that prove a healthier diet can reduce your risk of heart disease, lower your cholesterol, reduce stress on joints from excess weight, etc. To give you a personal example, I have always had trouble with stress management. I’m a worrier (#shegetsitfromhermama). Since I was a child I have racked up numerous medical bills related to anxiety, including medications, sleep studies and doctor visits. Had I known much earlier that by slapping on a pair of running shoes and going for a jog, I could eliminate a lot of my stress, I would have saved myself and my parents a lot of money. Running is a much more affordable way to blow off steam than medication. With my routine, I was able to ditch the expensive medications and doctors’ visits.
  1. Waste not:
  • I’m marrying a Dutchman soon… literally. One thing I learned from him and his Dutch family is to waste nothing and use everything. When I first started dating Chris I couldn’t understand how he would eat 2-3 times more food than I did and spend 2-3 times less money than I did. The answer simply was he didn’t waste anything. Now, this was a bit harder for me to do. Chris could sit down and eat hummus with a spoon, but if I didn’t have crackers to eat the hummus I’d let it sit there, go bad, and then I’d throw it out. So how did I fix this little problem and save hundreds of dollars doing it? Planning! How did I shed some pounds? Planning! Sit down at the beginning of the week and plan out all your meals. When you plan ahead of time you’re more likely to make healthier choices. You also are less likely to go out and eat when you have already planned, purchased and prepped your healthy food choices. Once you realize the savings potential you start using the “waste not” mentality in other facets of your life.
  • Tip: when planning your meals ahead of time, leave yourself a day to go out and splurge. Without the occasional “cheat” you may go crazy and give up.
  1. Cut on transportation cost:
  • Now this isn’t possible for everyone, but for a lot of people you can quickly save some money, cut cost and your waistline by switching up your transportation methods. Bike and walk to work. Is there a train nearby? Then walk to the train rather than driving to your office. If you are eating out for lunch, pick a restaurant that you don’t have to drive to. A lot of people say that the time spent walking is a great way to meditate, and reflect on their day. This can offer a peace of mind that can’t be achieved with the stresses of the road.
  1. Create healthy family outings:
  • Skip the $30 movie, popcorn, and 2 hours of inactivity and do something active with your family. Spend $15 on a soccer ball and go to the park on Sunday afternoon. Take the dog on a hike or a walk. This brings up another point… working out and being active is always more rewarding and sustainable when you have a support group or community of people that you workout with. If healthy outings cannot be accomplished with busy family members, then join a running club, a biking group or a community gym.

I could write an entire blog series on ways to be healthier and save money… but the key is to start small! Pick an area that needs improvement in your life and manage it. Use the momentum of a small change to snowball into an entire lifestyle change. Fatten up that wallet by trimming up the love handles!

Ashley Woodring, CFP®

Financial Advisor

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Social Security: The Spousal Benefit

If you are nearing the age of Social Security benefits, you are probably thinking about how you can maximize your benefit. If you are married, it becomes more complicated because one person’s benefit may affect his or her spouse’s benefit. File and suspend is an optional method that may help you maximize your spousal benefit.

File and suspend is a benefit allowed to those who qualify for Social Security who are full retirement age (FRA). FRA is a technical term determined by the year you were born. For example, if you were born between 1943 and 1954, your FRA is age 66.

Taking Social Security Based on Your Spouse’s Record

If you are married you have the option to take your Social Security benefit, or half of your spouse’s benefit, whichever is higher (there are some technicalities here that we won’t get into for the sake of brevity). If your Social Security benefit is less than what your spousal benefit would be, it would be more advantageous to apply for a spousal benefit. In order to take your spousal benefit, your spouse has to have filed for Social Security. If your spouse is not ready to take Social Security, the file and suspend strategy is the only way to accomplish this. Only one member of a couple can file and suspend so that the spouse can collect spousal benefits.

Why Your Spouse May Not Want to Take Social Security Right Away

If a person chooses not to take Social Security once he or she reaches FRA, those benefits will continue to increase by 8% per year until age 70 (for those born after 1943). This is called delaying retirement credits. Many people choose to delay retirement credits so they will have a larger Social Security payment later, or because they are still working and don’t have a need for the current cash flow.

Your Spouse Must File and Suspend in Order for You to Take a Spousal Benefit

The file and suspend benefit allows your spouse to delay his or her retirement credits, so that his/her Social Security benefit can continue to grow, but at the same time allows you to collect a spousal benefit on your spouse’s record. You cannot take a spousal benefit until your spouse has filed for Social Security (or filed and suspended).

Alternative Options

There are several ways to maximize your spousal benefit. If your spouse is not FRA but you would like to begin receiving benefits, you can take Social Security on your own record. Later when your spouse files for Social Security at his/her FRA, you can switch to take a spousal benefit if it is higher.

Another option is to delay your own credits while you take a spousal benefit. If you have reached FRA, you may take a spousal benefit while you allow your own retirement credits to be delayed so that they continue to grow. At age 70 you may then switch to take benefits based on your own record if they are higher.

A note regarding Medicare: Medicare is not subject to these various timing schemes. Medicare benefits begin at age 65, regardless of your FRA. You should apply three months before reaching age 65.

Consult a Professional

We recommend that you discuss your personal situation with your financial advisor to determine the best option for you. Also, the Social Security Administration is available to help you determine how you may maximize your family’s benefit. There are many details to consider when planning for Social Security benefits and they are certainly not all presented here – so be sure to consult a professional when making decisions.

Harli L. Palme, CFA, CFP®

Partner

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Why Not Use Margin?

Recent data indicate that margin debt has increased significantly over the past 12 years, although it is currently below the peak levels seen in 2000 and early 2014.

Margin is a feature that you can add to a taxable (non-IRA) brokerage account that enables you to borrow money against the value of your investments in the account. Initial margin, or the amount that you can borrow, is generally 50% of the value of the account. On a $100,000 account, you could borrow up to $50,000. The money can be used to buy more investments, or it can be taken out of the account and used for some other purpose.

Say you have an account that contains $100,000 in stocks. You write a check for $50,000 to purchase a new car. You still have stocks worth $100,000 in the account, but you owe the brokerage firm $50,000. Your net equity in the account is $50,000 (the $100,000 market value of your investments minus the $50,000 you owe).

Maintenance margin is the level of net equity which must be maintained in the account. If the equity in the account falls below this level, usually 30% of the account value, then a deposit must be made to the account or investments will be sold to reduce the margin loan balance.

Say the stock market experiences a correction and falls 15%. Your $100,000 in stocks are now worth $85,000. However, you still owe $50,000 to the broker. Your equity in the account is $35,000, or 41%. If the stock market continues to decline and your equity falls below 30%, some or all of your investments will be liquidated by the broker to reduce your margin loan. This is not good timing because you are being forced to sell stocks when they are down.

There are several other disadvantages to borrowing on margin that investors should be aware of. Interest rates are high; particularly when you consider that the lender is fully secured. Currently, the interest rates at major custodians are in the 5.5%-8% range, depending on the amount borrowed. Also, the interest rates are floating, so there is no protection against rising rates. Tax deductibility of margin interest is complex and more restrictive than other interest deductions such as on your home mortgage.

Using margin always increases your portfolio risk, particularly if you use the proceeds to buy more stock. Let’s go back to the previous example of the $100,000 account, but this time you take a $50,000 margin loan and use it to increase your stock holdings. You now have $150,000 in stock and owe the broker $50,000. Your net equity is $100,000. Say the stock market falls 20%; your stocks are now worth $120,000. You still owe $50,000 to the broker, and you’ve lost 20% of 150,000 instead of 20% of 100,000. In other words you have a $30,000 loss instead of a $20,000 loss. You’ve lost 30% of your initial $100,000 on a 20% market decline. Your loss was 1.5 times that of the overall market, plus you paid interest on the margin loan. Not a good outcome.

There are some situations where margin can be appropriate, say for short- term needs where the amount borrowed is a small percentage of the account value. We generally advise against using margin on a longer term basis.

Bill Hansen, CFA

Managing Partner

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2014 IRA Contribution Rules

The deadline to make IRA contributions for tax year 2014 is April, 15 2015.  The maximum contribution is $5,500 of earned income or $6,500 for those 50 and over.   These amounts will stay the same in 2015.

There are income limits which determine whether you can deduct your Traditional IRA contribution or if you qualify to make a Roth contribution.  The following table gives the phase-out range for the most common circumstances.

Do you qualify to deduct your   Traditional IRA contribution?

If   your income is less than the beginning of the phase-out range, you qualify.  If your income is over the phase-out range, you do not.  If your income falls inside the range, you partially qualify.

Modified   Adjusted Gross   Income  Phase-Out   Range
Single,   participates in an employer-sponsored retirement plan: $61,000-$71,000
Married (filing jointly), participates in an employer-sponsored retirement plan: $98,000-$118,000
Married (filing jointly), your spouse participates in an employer-sponsored retirement plan, but you do not: $183,000-$193,000

Do you qualify to contribute   to a Roth IRA?

Single: $116,000-$131,000
Married, filing jointly: $183,000-$193,000

If your filing status differs from those listed above, please contact your advisor and he or she can help you determine whether you qualify.

Harli Palme, CFA, CFP®
Partner

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Top 10 rules to a frugal life:

Those that know me well can vouch for the fact that I am a frugal person.  I feel that there is much that is virtuous about living a frugal life.  Learning about delayed gratification and the important limits to set upon our role in a consumption based economy is a great path to happiness and peace.  The famous economist and philosopher John Stuart Mill once said, “I have learned to seek my happiness by limiting my desires, rather than attempting to satisfy them.”  This simple phrase rings true to me.  This is especially evident as you stand witness to the constant bombardment of consumerism in our media and markets.  Take stock of what you have and the blessings of life and you might not fall prey to the treadmill of consumption that will always be tempting you.

Top 10 rules to a frugal life:

  1. Budget – know where your money goes.
  2. Be guarded against lifestyle inflation; try to keep income growing faster than expense growth.
  3. Don’t be wasteful. Consider gently used items when buying cars, and other depreciating assets.
  4. Find discounts whenever possible.
  5. Trips and vacations are about experiences, not necessarily lavish accommodations.
  6. Frugal people rarely eat out, preferring to prepare their own food.  I find it better and healthier, not to mention less costly.
  7. While there are many worthwhile private schools, there is a great value to be found in many of our public schools as well. Consider whether public schools, for both young children and college, may be right for your family.
  8. Frugal people care less about fads and trends; keeping up does not matter to them.
  9. Know the value of a dollar, if there is a lower interest rate find it.
  10. Don’t be cheap, stay generous.  It is ok to part with money to help others.

Richard Manske, CFP®                                                                                                                                      Managing Partner

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What is an Index (and why should you care)?

Recently I was on vacation with a friend, and while enjoying the sunshine she received a CNN alert…

Breaking News: Dow Jones Industrial Average soars to an all time high.

She then asked me what the Dow Jones was exactly … “Should I know what this means?” My response was, “it’s a stock market index, of course.” Seeing the perplexed look on her face, I realized that she had no idea what I was talking about. After having this conversation, I wanted to share with you what I shared with my friend.

  1. What is a market index? – A stock market index is simply a measurement of the value of the market or a section of the market. Let’s break it down into a simple example. Assume ABC index is made up of 6 companies. At the end of trading on Monday the index is at 5,000 points. On Tuesday, three of the companies go up in value, two of the companies go down and the sixth company stays the same. The total value of the stocks change by 3% on Tuesday, so now the index is at 5,150 points. This tells you that this section of the market went up in value from Monday to Tuesday.
  2. Why are market indexes important? Choosing appropriate investments is only the beginning. One of the biggest challenges of an investor is to determine how well your portfolio is performing. Are you lagging behind the market or beating it? You can only know the answer to these questions if you have something to compare your investments to. Indexes allow you to measure the performances of your investments against an appropriate benchmark.
  3. How do you choose the right benchmark? In general, when you are tracking the performance of an investment, you look at a benchmark that is most similar to your investment. For example: If your portfolio is all U.S. large cap stocks you would likely use the S&P 500 as your benchmark. If your portfolio is all fixed income then you would most likely benchmark against the Barclays Aggregate Bond index. If your portfolio is a combination of both large-cap stock and fixed income you would want to use a blended benchmark of the two indexes.
  4. All of this is for naught if you don’t know what indexes track which stocks. Here are some of the most common market indexes and the companies they are comprised of.
  • Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) – This is one of the most popular measures of the market. A.K.A. “The Dow” or “Dow 30” is a price-weighted measure of 30 US blue-chip companies. The index covers all industries with the exception of transportation and utilities, which are covered by other Dow Jones indexes.
  • S&P 500 Index – This index is based on 500 U.S. large cap companies that have common stock listed on the NYSE or NASDAQ. These companies are representative of the industries in the U.S. economy.
  • Russell 2000 – This index tracks 2,000 small-company stocks. It serves as benchmark for the small-cap component of the overall market.
  • Dow Jones Wilshire 5000 – This index covers over 5,000 US companies listed on major stock exchanges. This includes US companies of all sizes across all industries.
  • Barclays Capital Aggregate Bond Index – This is a broad-based benchmark that measures the investment grade, US dollar-denominated fixed-rate taxable bond market.
  • MSCI EAFE Index – This index is designed to measure the equity market performance of developed markets outside of the U.S. and Canada. EAFE is an acronym that stands for Europe, Australasia and Far East. (Check out Sarah DerGarabedian’s blog post from last week to read why it’s important to have an international allocation – http://wp.me/plOKq-oE)  
  1. It’s important to remember when comparing your investment returns to compare your results to the long-term market, not just the past year. Typically analysts look at 3, 5 and 10 year returns. Short-term results can often be misleading due to short-term volatility. A quick Google search should provide you with the long-term returns of any of the major indexes.

After explaining all of this information to my friend, I think she had a better grasp on market indexes and hopefully this information is helpful to you too. One realization that came from our conversation is that sometimes financial advisors (nerds) forget that things that seem so common to us aren’t as familiar to those not in the industry. We never want a client to leave a meeting or conversation feeling confused or uncertain. If you have questions, please ask! We may just write a blog post about it.

Ashley Woodring, CFP®

Financial Advisor

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