All posts by Robb Engen

Beware the Retirement Risk Zone

I often recommend deferring CPP until age 70 to secure more lifetime income in retirement. It’s also possible to defer OAS to age 70 for a smaller, but still meaningful, increase in guaranteed income.

While the goal is to design a more secure retirement, there can be a psychological hurdle for retirees to overcome. That hurdle has to do with withdrawing (often significant) dollars from existing savings to fill the income gap while you wait for your government benefits to kick in.

Indeed, the idea is still to meet your desired spending needs in retirement – a key objective, especially to new retirees.

This leads to what I call the retirement risk zone: The period of time between retirement and the uptake of delayed government benefits. Sometimes there’s even a delay between retirement and the uptake of a defined benefit pension.

Retirement Risk Zone

The challenge for retirees is that even though a retirement plan that has them drawing heavily from existing RRSPs, non-registered savings, and potentially even their TFSAs, works out nicely on paper, it can be extremely difficult to start spending down their assets.

That makes sense, because one of the biggest fears that retirees face is the prospect of outliving their savings. And, even though delaying CPP and OAS helps mitigate that concern, spending down actual dollars in the bank still seems counterintuitive.

Consider an example of a recently divorced woman I’ll call Leslie, who earns a good salary of $120,000 per year and spends modestly at about $62,000 per year after taxes (including her mortgage payments). She wants to retire in nine years, at age 55.

Leslie left a 20-year career in the public sector to work for a financial services company. She chose to stay in her defined benefit pension plan, which will pay her $24,000 per year starting at age 65. The new job has a defined contribution plan to which she contributes 2.5% of her salary and her employer matches that amount.

Leslie then maxes out her personal RRSP and her TFSA. She owns her home and pays an extra $5,000 per month towards her mortgage with the goal of paying it off three years after she retires.

Because of her impressive ability to save, Leslie will be able to reach her goal of retiring at 55. But she’ll then enter the “retirement risk zone” from age 55 to 65, while she waits for her defined benefit pension to kick in, and still be in that zone from 65 to 70 while she waits to apply for her CPP and OAS benefits.

The result is a rapid reduction in her assets and net worth from age 55 to 70:

Retirement risk zone example 55-70

Leslie starts drawing immediately from her RRSP at age 56, at a rate of about 7.5% of the balance. She turns the defined contribution plan into a LIRA and then a LIF, and starts drawing the required minimum amount. Finally, she tops up her spending from the non-registered savings that she built up in her final working years.

When the non-registered savings have been exhausted at age 60, Leslie turns to her TFSA to replace that income. She’ll take that balance down from $216,000 to about $70,000 by age 70. Continue Reading…

Stop checking your portfolio

We’re halfway through 2022 and the year has not been kind to investors, to say the least. Global stock markets are suffering their worst prolonged losses in recent memory. The S&P 500 is down about 18.5%, international stocks are down about 17%, and emerging market stocks are down about 15%. Domestic stocks have fared better, but the broad Canadian market is still down about 4% this year.

Meanwhile, bonds have not been a safe haven as rising interest rates pushed bond prices down. A broad Canadian bond index is down almost 13% this year, while short-term bonds are also down about 5.5%.

What’s an investor to do?

For starters, stop checking your portfolio so often. Investors who focus too much on short-term performance tend to react too negatively to recent losses, at the expense of long-term benefits. This phenomenon is known as myopic loss aversion:

“A large-scale field experiment has shown that individuals who receive information about investment performance too frequently tend to underinvest in riskier assets, losing out on the potential for better long-term gains (Larson et al., 2016).”

Loss aversion is a cognitive bias – the idea that a loss is psychologically more painful than the pleasure of an equivalent gain.

Think of the your portfolio returns over the past three years (2019-2021). It felt good to see your investments increase by double-digits. Here are the returns for Vanguard’s Balanced ETF (VBAL) during that time:

  • 2019 – 14.91%
  • 2020 – 10.24%
  • 2021 – 10.27%

Fast forward to 2022 and VBAL is down 10% on the year. Loss aversion tells us the pain of these losses is felt twice as powerfully as the pleasure of the previous years’ gains.

Myopic loss aversion fails to consider the bigger picture

With myopic loss aversion, we focus too narrowly on specific investments without taking into account the bigger picture. You’ve experienced this if you’ve ever checked your portfolio a short time after a recent purchase and cursed your luck if the investment is down.

Professor John List was a recent guest on the Rational Reminder podcast and he co-authored a paper on myopic loss aversion. The paper found that, “professional traders who receive infrequent price information invest 33% more in risky assets, yielding profits that are 53% higher, compared to traders who receive frequent price information.”

When asked how often investors should check their portfolio, List said, “as rarely as possible”:

“I would say once every three, six months is fine. But the reason why I don’t want you to look at your portfolio is, because when you do and you see losses, even though they’re paper losses. You say, “My gosh, that hurts.” And you’re more likely to move your portfolio out of risky assets and into less risky assets. And as we all know, just look at the data. The data over long periods of time, that’s the equity premium puzzle, is that you get much higher returns, if you’re willing to bear some of that risk. Now, if you look at your account a lot and you have myopic loss of version, you’ll be much less likely to bear that risk. So, you’ll move out and you’ll be in inferior investments.”

This applies to both novice and experience investors. I coach clients regularly on the benefits of sticking to their investment strategy and ignoring short-term market fluctuations. But it’s hard when the daily news headlines are screaming in your face about how bad the market is doing and why it’s only going to get worse.

My worst moment was during the March 2020 crash. I had just quit my job three months before, and my investments were down 34% in a short period of time. It was a rough time when even I was questioning what to do. It didn’t help that I had no RRSP or TFSA contribution room – so I couldn’t even “buy the dip” to make myself feel better.

Related: Exactly How I Invest My Own Money

What did I do? I stopped checking my portfolio. I had no reason to log-in anyway, since I wasn’t making regular contributions. I reminded myself that my investments were long-term in nature, and that markets go up most of the time. Periodic declines are the price of admission for risky assets like stocks. Continue Reading…

How to invest during high inflation

It’s common for investors to be concerned about inflation because it brings to mind the high inflationary period of the 1970s that completely wrecked stock and bond returns. It’s also easy for investors to draw spurious conclusions about government debt and linking that to the hyperinflation that occurred in Zimbabwe or Venezuela. This article aims to set the record straight about inflation and let investors know how to invest during periods of high inflation.

Are we experiencing high Inflation?

Inflation is one of the biggest concerns as we near the end of the global pandemic and economies begin to re-open. Governments around the world spent record amounts to keep their citizens, small businesses, and corporations afloat over the past two years, while a majority of those still employed were able to save money thanks to an economy devoid of travel and entertainment.

The result was a significant uptick in savings rates, with Canada’s household savings rate reaching a high of 28.2% in July 2020.

All this money sloshing around on the sidelines has been and will continue to be deployed into goods and services, creating additional demand for a still strained global supply chain. Consumers are ready to dine out in restaurants, attend concerts, and engage in “revenge travel” to make up for lost time.

When that happens, prices tend to rise. Canada’s consumer price index (CPI) has been rising steadily since March 2021. The 12-month change in the CPI for February 2022 was 5.7% (Stats Can). That’s well above the Bank of Canada’s 2% inflation target, and even above their acceptable range of 1-3%.

Meanwhile, the U.S. inflation rate soared to 7.9% in February 2022. (Trading Economics).

Both the Federal Reserve and the Bank of Canada previously signalled they were willing to let the economy run a little hotter than usual to make sure we achieve so-called full employment. But both central banks are now in tightening mode, raising interest rates by 0.25% in March 2022 to kick-off a series of expected rate hikes for the rest of 2022.

It’s clear that high inflation has arrived and persisted for longer than expected. The question is what should investors do about it (if anything)?

How Investors should position their portfolio to deal with high Inflation

What exactly is an inflation hedge? In an episode of the Rational Reminder podcast, Benjamin Felix said an inflation hedge needs the following three characteristics:

  1. It will correlate positively with inflation, including responding to unexpected inflation.
  2. It won’t be too volatile
  3. It will have a positive real expected return

The problem, Felix said, is that asset doesn’t exist.

Continue Reading…

A sensible RRSP vs. TFSA Comparison

A Sensible RRSP vs. TFSA Comparison

Should you contribute to your RRSP or your TFSA? It’s one of the most frequently asked questions here and on other financial forums, yet the answers couldn’t be more divided. Furthermore, there is a growing sentiment among Canadians that somehow RRSPs are a government scam because you’ll be forced to pay tax on any withdrawals in retirement. That leads many to (sometimes) incorrectly declare that a TFSA is the better savings vehicle for retirement due to the tax-free treatment of withdrawals.

Let’s start by clearing up one important fact in the RRSP vs TFSA debate: The accounts are mirror images of each other. When you put money in an RRSP and invest the tax refund, you’re using pre-tax dollars. The money grows inside a tax sheltered account and then you pay taxes on your withdrawals years later in retirement.

The opposite is true of a TFSA – you contribute with after-tax dollars but won’t have to pay taxes when you take money out. If you’re in the same tax bracket when you withdraw from your RRSP as you were when you made the contributions, the RRSP and TFSA work out to be exactly the same.

RRSP vs TFSA Comparison

Here’s a simple chart that David Chilton used in The Wealthy Barber Returns to help drive this point home:

Pre-tax income $1,000 $1,000
Tax $400 n/a
Net contribution $600 $1,000
Value in 20 years @ 6% growth $1,924 $3,207
Tax upon withdrawal (40%) n/a $1,283
Net withdrawal $1,924 $1,924

Two important caveats to keep in mind:

  1. You need to invest the tax refund in order for RRSPs to work out as designed. Unfortunately, most Canadians spend their refund and so they don’t end up with as much money in their retirement account.
  2. A TFSA is flexible in that you can take out money at any time without penalty. For Canadians who use a TFSA as their primary retirement savings vehicle that means resisting the temptation to raid the account whenever “something” comes up. You should also replace the ‘S’ in TFSA with an ‘I’ and make sure to invest that money for the long-term. Continue Reading…

Your Retirement Readiness checklist

A good portion of my financial planning clients are in what I’d call the retirement readiness zone, meaning they are 1-5 years away from retirement. They want a check-up on their financial situation and answers to big burning questions like, when can I retire, how much money can I spend, how long will my money last, and how to withdraw from my savings and investments to create the retirement income I need.

Here is a checklist of things to consider when you find yourself in the retirement readiness zone:

How much do I spend?

I get that many people are turned off by budgeting and tracking expenses, but it’s important to understand what it costs to live your life.

Instead of relying on rules of thumb, like you’ll spend 70% of your final salary in retirement, I find that most of my clients want to maintain their current standard of living, if not enhance it with additional spending on travel and hobbies.

Determine your true after-tax spending, including items like property taxes and home & auto insurance that will be with you for life. Add in your desired annual spending on travel and hobbies, and build in a buffer for small unplanned expenses such as replacing an appliance or doing modest home improvements or repairs.

This spending amount is what will drive the decisions around how much to withdraw from your investments, when to take CPP & OAS, and how long your money will last at that spending rate.

Plan your one-time expenses

Besides your regular after-tax spending, you should also factor one-time expenses into your plan. In my experience, the majority of these expenses will include vehicle replacement, travel beyond the ordinary (ex. bucket list trip to Europe), home renovations, and monetary gifts to adult children or grandchildren.

It’s not practical to assume your spending will stay static every single year. Build these one-time expenses into your plan over the next 10-20 years so you have a better and more realistic understanding of what you can afford and how to access these funds.

What you’ll find is that instead of static spending of, say, $65,000 per year, you’ll have several years of spending $75,000 to $85,000 (or more) to cover these one-time costs.

Estate planning

Make sure to update your will and estate planning documents, including the beneficiaries on your insurance and investment accounts.

Consider giving with a warm hand (otherwise known as give while you live) to your children or favourite charity. What I mean is rather than leaving hundreds of thousands, or even millions, in your estate at 90 years old, consider making smaller gifts to your beneficiaries throughout your lifetime.

Some examples include a gift towards a downpayment, help funding the grandkids’ RESPs, and footing the bill for a family vacation with adult kids and grandkids.

In case I die file

It’s common for one spouse to take the lead on financial matters for the household. But this can be problematic if something happens to the chief financial officer of the house – if they predecease their spouse or become cognitively impaired and can no longer manage the finances or investments. Continue Reading…